- Our discussion of totipotent, pluripotent, and plenipotent stem cells helped to clarify a complex subject of great importance to many people, such as those who suffer from diseases awaiting therapies capturing the power of these cells. Dr. Maureen Condic, as a pioneer in this field, contributed insights in 2013 by developing the concept of plenipotent cells. See her journal article.
- Our discussion also led to a sense of wonderment about the ability of cells to follow such complex paths of development, starting with the organism created when sperm and egg combine. The product and the process can easily be dismissed as a simple mass of cells, or one can recall Psalm 139:14, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” In this episode, we discussed how it seems viscerally sad that the amazement, which is itself so full of potential, can be lost in everyday discussions of human life.
- Related to this, Dr. Condic pointed out that there is an unfortunate lack of philosophical education among many scientists. Here is a blog post from Scientific American discussing synergies between science and philosophy—synergies which are at the core of this podcast’s mission.
- We discussed the relevance of the philosophical concepts of form and substance. Here’s a web page explaining those concepts.
- This book, written by Dr. Condic and her brother sounds like it is a rare and valuable synthesis of philosophical and biological insights about life: Human Embryos, Human Beings. She noted in our episode that such an extended, on-point synthesis is rare for various reasons, including the need to clarify vocabulary used on both sides of the dialogue, avoiding the risk that we will talk past each other.
- She has written another book, this one examining the biological and philosophical issues around human twinning, Untangling Twinning. It is scheduled for publication in the summer of 2019. For now, a computer search using this title yielded, as one of the first finds, a copy of a news release written by TSSM podcast co-host Bill Schmitt and posted at classicaltheism.com.
In this episode we roll out a new format for Season 2.
We recap Season 1 (April 2018 - March 2019) and the three focus areas of the podcast so far:
- Discussion of the fundamentals of the question whether it's reasonable to believe in both science and the Catholic Christian faith, and some exploration of particular topics, like the role of geology in the interpretation of the book of Genesis.
- Review and comments on the speakers at the Society of Catholic Scientists Conference 2018.
- Interviews with scientists and scholars living out their Christian faith, many of whom are actively trying to spread the truth that the presumed conflict between science and religion is false, born from shoddy understandings, strawman arguments, and reactions against hypocrisy. Three of these people (Patricia Bellm, Chris Baglow, and Jay Martin) do this work at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.
We then go on to discuss our plans for coming episodes, turning to topics of religion, spirituality, and psychology (including topics like child development and addiction) where the intersection of faith and science allows us to build new solutions or give tremendous new life to old solutions to the problems of human life.
0:00 - Three issues: entropy, decoherence, Schrodinger vs. Dirac equations
2:30 - Schrodinger uses a non-relativistic Hamiltonian, with a p^2/2m kinetic energy
3:00 - Dirac equation absorbs special relativity by shifting from scalar to spinor field
4:00 - Quantum field theory as a further extension, accommodating fields that include many particles
5:00 - Field Lagrangian and all the particles and interactions in the Standard Model
6:00 - Even "everyday" gravity is in some sense accommodatable in the theory, just not extreme gravity capable of "separating out the vacuum"
8:00 - Decoherence, not to be confused with the measurement problem
9:00 - Decoherence arising from the interaction of a simple system with other systems
10:00 - Reduced density matrix begins to look classical
11:00 - Zurek and the work on decoherence: states that are "chosen" to survive interaction with the environment
11:30 - Measurement problem not solved by this work
12:30 - Entropy: the proposal that entropy is most fundamentally lack of information
progress from the special case of thermodynamic entropy, to statistical mechanics,
to von Neumann's quantum definition, to Shannon's information theory
21:00 - Craig's career: why is an engineer so interested in the fundamentals of physics?
24:00 - Journey of faith
30:30 - People of Praise in Indianapolis
31:20 - Final thoughts
0:00 - Introduction
1:00 - The power of physicalism/reductionism: a tremendously powerful method
2:00 - Course on physicalism and Catholicism; Sean Carroll's least hysterical "poetic naturalism"
3:00 - The lack of evidence for "emergence" in the sense of "downward causation"
3:30 - Soft and hard emergence
10:15 - Materialism vs. physicalism and reductionism: philosophical materialism
13:00 - Are human beings exhausted by this account of reality?
14:00 - The break with the mechanical universe of 19th century physics underappreciated
15:00 - Laplace's demon
16:30 - Thermodynamics
17:30 - Future not contained in the present
19:00 - Einstein & hidden variables
20:00 - Bell inequality experiments
24:00 - Entanglement
26:00 - Human experience: both, as physical, but also as having choices
27:00 - Quantum physics on many body systems
28:00 - The hard problem of consciousness
29:00 - The explanatory gap
31:00 - The tendency to explain the brain as "just like" some recent piece of technology
33:00 - Complexity of neurons, the continuing relevance of physical laws amid the complexity
35:00 - Continuing relevance of quantum effects at the level of neurotransmitter molecules, etc.
36:00 - Quantum effects in weather and rock mechanics
Themes we'd like to grapple with in the Year of Our Lord, 2019, and beyond:
Last year was largely about the intellectual challenge leveled by many against religion, and we will continue talking about that as the podcast moves forward.
Paul's mission this year to work through Road to Reality
This year we also want to broaden the scope to include places where religion and faith converge, which means we're going to discuss psychology.
Looking forward to the SCS conference topic for this coming year: what it is, and has been, to be human. Neuroscience and what it implies for anthropology, and where it meets Catholic Christian anthropology coming the other way.
What is consciousness, anyway? What parts of the brain seem to be involved, and what do they do?
What is free will, anyway? Where are those breakpoints where the soul would have to affect the body in order for that to even work?
Crisis points in the way people in the post-Christian West approach the world.
Center for Ethics & Culture annual conference in 2018: Wilfred McClay & John Waters
"we care about everything, but without God... we have responsibility for everything, but we know that we are flawed and unable to provide solutions"
Post-Christian in this context includes both people who have explicitly renounced the Christian faith of the West and those who have a Christian identity in their back pocket somewhere but in reality are not relying on Jesus Christ or his teachings to guide their lives in any conscious way.
Christianity is a demanding religion. If you suck away all the grace and help it promises, but leave some of its demands for social justice or purity of intention, you have a recipe for constant internal condemnation.
Wilfred McClay (University of Oklahoma) on “Guilt in the Immanent Frame”, and John Waters on “The Importance of Not Being God: A Higher Power Is Indispensable for Human Beings and Human Societies”
No, not THAT John Waters.
~0:00 Question: advice for students
1:00 Don't be afraid to be a religious scientist
2:00 Particular issues
3:00 Keep awake to the wonder of the world
4:00 Bill: ignorance of the common man about both science and religion
5:00 Modern Physics and Ancient Faith
6:00 Christopher Baglow: science and faith textbook
7:00 Church beginning (at long last?) to address the need to catechize & educate about this
Phone ringing can't be excised without gutting Bill's question!
8:00 Media's portrayal of religion as boring and science as exciting
9:00 Science explores the world as it is, but there must be issues beyond: "why" issues
10:00 Intellectual freedom necessary for science to make any sense
11:00 No reason for Catholics to fear science uncovering fatal problems for faith
12:00 20th century overturn of 19th century mechanistic, unfree universe
13:00 Advent of the big bang theory, verification through microwave radiation
14:00 Bill: "free will on steroids" in uneasy coexistence with materialism
15:00 Barr: inherent conflict there
16:00 Pernicious recurring feature of intellectual history: excuses not to be free
17:00 Bill: does faith make one a better scientist?
18:00 Wonder: "ears to hear and eyes to see"
19:00 Summation: join Society of Catholic Scientists!
20:00 Sign off
0:00 Paul introduces
1:00 Bill: Lemaitre announcement
2:00 Lemaitre: faith & science not opposed
3:00 Barr: Lemaitre announcement
4:00 Ignorance of Lemaitre
5:00 Ignorance of the Christian, Catholic origin of science & famous Catholic scientists
6:00 Barr: late 19th century critical period for the forging of the myth of Church as anti-science
7:00 Science only professionalized in the late 19th century, looking for influence
8:00 More famous Catholic scientists
9:00 Mission of the Society of Catholic Scientists; religious people looking askance at scientists, 10:00 Scientists timid about showing their faith in the presence of a few loud atheists
11:00 Catholic scientists joining SCS & finding others like themselves
12:00 Witness to the world
13:00 Conferences, past and future: next June at Notre Dame
14:00 2017: origin of universe, life; 2018: mind and matter
15:00 2019 conference: what is it (and has it been) to be human; speakers from outside the faith
16:00 Past non-Catholic conference speakers
17:00 Peter Koellner's talk at 2018 conference
18:00 Koellner and Godel's theorem
19:00 Neaderthals, language, reason
20:00 Godel's beliefs about mind and mathematical truths
21:00 Mathematical truth and religious truth
22:00 Depth & sophistication of the law that governs the universe
We pick up from last week's episode with the next speaker. Kara Lamb followed Andrew Sicree; her research is about the atmosphere and climate. She mostly talked about climate, and got a ways into specifics about her research on black carbon soot in the atmosphere. She did stop to draw a parallel between Laudato Si and Pacem in Terris, that in both cases the Popes stopped to address humanity at large and not just the Church.
Juan Martin Maldacena was after her, and was presented the St. Albert Award. You don't schedule Juan Maldacena and not have him talk about his own physics research; he is famous for research on workable forms of string theory in anti-de Sitter space and some results on the shape and nature of black holes. His talk was very technical and rather hard to summarize, but an intriguing aspect of it was the recurring notion that black hole singularities and the original singularity of the Big Bang might have a lot in common.
Sunday morning after Mass Michael Dennin led off with a talk structured around a book called "The Big Picture" by somebody I think I've heard of but don't know why named Sean Carroll. In this book Carroll apparently divides reality into "poetic naturalism", where "poetic" means "stories we tell ourselves about large complicated objects" and "naturalism" means "quantum physics, which is actually reality". Dennin made four points:
- Emergence. Reality does not appear to be just quantum physics (or, I would elaborate, not even just a unified theory that somehow gets gravity and relativity united with quantum physics). There are really new laws that emerge as you go to larger, composite, varied objects...the laws of thermodynamics, entropy in particular, are an example.
- Physical reality. It's a little much to talk about "reality" so cavlierly; it ignores basically metric tons of philosophical questions people have spent centuries debating. Is physical reality basically sense data? Is it the particles we theorize to be out there to explain, ultimately, our sense data in the context of the experiments we do and the natural objects we observe? Isn't there nonphysical reality: mathematics, wavefunctions (they can't be completely physical), conscious reality / qualia? How can we be sure there aren't nonphysical "forces" acting on physical objects? In some way, don't they have to? (mathematics and logic in some way constrain reality, that's a rumination of mine while writing this)
- Free will...the Comptonesque observation that quantum physics leave room for this nonphysical soul or mind to affect the physical body
- MIracles. Dennin actually led off the talk with an exercise, asking us to define miracles, and then he went on a fairly vigorous campaign against the idea that miracles ever incorporate the violation of physical law, or at least that they require it, that that should be in the definition. I noted "Contrasting focus on God's will/purpose..." but I cannot really reconstruct what he seemed to be driving at.
Craig Lent, a professor at Notre Dame, went next and gave an interesting talk that interfaced with others. He actually seemed to conflict with Barr in that he commented early on that the "state vector," which had be be the wavefunction since it had the same Greek letter psi for its symbol, contained all the information possible to have about a system and not just one observer's (the concept Barr used). He also addresses the measurement problem, but my note broke off mid-sentence. He went on to summarize the content of Scarani's talk, that Bell inequality experiments all show that the universe is not deterministic. He then addresses the claim that while atom-scale particles show quantum indeterminism, larger stuff does not, and nerves are enough larger that the human brain must be deterministic. That's probably not true; even 10,000 atomic mass unit molecules like neural transmitters show quantum behavior in experiments. We are left again with the Arthur Compton point that while obviously physics constrains us, our brains are not deterministic machines; if our souls are not affecting them, then at the very least some of their functionality is random.
The final talk was by (Padre) Javier Sanchez-Canizares on "Mind, Decoherence, and the Copenhagen Interpretation." This again comments on many of the topics in previous talks. Unfortunately the talk seemed to paw about problems already discussed without coming to any new realizations. I cannot tell from my notes whether I learned anything about decoherence, which I was really hoping to do; I think I had to look it up afterward, and even then the answers I've found so far are not satisfying. He asked the "Wigner's friend" question that Barr mentioned about the "cut" between the observer and the system in a quantum physics observation. He also made some intriguing comments on the nature of classical physics: if quantum physics is reality, why is it so hard to get rid of classical physics terminology? We still describe things that way. A recent physicist, Zurek, comments that classical physics entities somehow embody a "survival of the fittest" (the sort of comment I start questioning for influence of the divine name of evolution). Heisenberg apparently said that classical physics terms are just unavoidably part of how humans interact with the world.
Dr. Scarani opened the talk by noting a paper he placed on arxiv.org about Aquinas and the sense that the universe would not be perfect without randomness.
He moved on to discuss randomness in two senses: Process Randomness, which implies that there is an observer unable to predict the output of the process; and Product Randomness, the lack of structure of a product, which turns out to equate with the need for a very long algorithm to replicate the product. Products are tested for randomness by a battery of statistical tests. He gave an equation embodying a mathematical definition of [product] randomness. Not being an information theorist, I had not seen it before.
He went on to note the difference between the randomness of classical physics, which is always about a lack of complete information about a system. If one had that information, the system under the classical assumption would be perfectly defined, and as we have noted a number of times, Einstein among others desperately wanted to get back to that deterministic paradigm. "The Old One doesn't throw dice."
The core of the talk was what Scarani called a "high school level" presentation of Bell's theorem. I would like to meet the high school student who could follow it at the speed at which he gave the talk, but probably could have unpacked it given a couple of hours to do so even at that age. Bell's theorem is one of those cunning little mathematical gems that seems to prove the unprovable, namely, to make a prediction about something going on in a process one by definition cannot see into. Bell sets up a statistic that, if there are hidden rules governing physics below the scale at which the uncertainty principle lets us see, must nevertheless in real experiments end up being less than 2. Since the 1980s a series of ever more careful experiments have been done, and the answers in the papers Scarani reviewed had answers between 2.4 and 2.7; the answer is never below 2. According to Bell's theorem, this means that there is a really random process going on down there, and not just random products.
At the end, as we discuss in the audio, Scarani ran down the list of remaining possibilities for understanding the quantum foundations of the universe:
- There is real randomness.
- "Superdeterminism." This depends on breaking an assumption of the Bell theorem, which is that the quantum process is being fed input that itself is not really random from the perspective of that process, which would seem to imply some sort of physics puppet master controlling the experimenter.
- The many worlds hypothesis, again something we have mentioned a number of times. I am still not buying that stock.
- The only allowable sort of hidden variables (the name Bohm is attached to the most commonly discussed of these) would require particles communicating with each other at infinite speed, "deliberately" trying to wreck the experiment, and with the interaction hidden in a way workers in the field have called "conspiratorially hidden." I.e., we would be living in a universe run by a sort of Cartesian evil deity.
On that theme, note that I blundered off into talking in a sort of Cartesian dualist fashion about the relationship between soul and body there after the 14 or 15 minute mark.
In today's episode we discuss Stephen Barr's talk at the SCS conference on June 9. His topic was the observer question in quantum mechanics. The observer problem is closely tied to the issue of probability and wavefunctions. We spend quite a while discussing what this problem is and how the question arises in the context of experiments like the famous two-slit experiment. The example of "Schrodinger's Cat" is an attempt to make this problem more understandable to the non-quantum mechanic. The cat is in some uncertain state, neither alive nor dead, until the observer opens the box and "collapses the wavefunction" to either a live cat or a dead one. In a two-slit experiment, a particle exists in some distribution of possible positions until an observer collapses the wavefunction and "forces" it to one tight range of locations (and for that matter momenta...).
This is very weird. Barr cited a long list of quantum theorists (von Neumann, London, Bauer, Wigner, Peierls, and others) who considered the problem and whether mind as such is crucial to whatever it is that does the measuring and observing to collapse quantum systems. Wavefunctions, with their consequent probability distributions, evolve according to Schrodinger's [or Dirac's?...a question I've had in the back of my mind many times...] equation with no internal mechanism to cause this collapse. Clearly two very unlike things interact to form quantum mechanics as we know it, as von Neumann stated explicitly (calling the observer / collapse phenomenon "process 1" and the wavefunction evolution "process 2").
It is clear that we can shift our mathematical formalism to incorporate any physical measurment device into the "system" and thus recognize it to be in the realm of wavefunction behavior. There is the "Wigner's friend" thought problem where even a human observer of an experimental setup can be placed in the "box" from the point of view of another human observer.
When we consider the observer problem from the point of view of a descriptive science (geology, astronomy, zoology, etc.) there is the immediate and rather alarming philosophical question: What was happening to, say, this star or tectonic plate or ancestral population of invertebrates before there was an observer to collapse the wavefunctions? Someone raised this question with Dr. Barr in the question and answer session after the talk. There is a phenomenon called "decoherence" (warning: that link is informative in places but far from the clearest read) which occurs for systems that are very open, interacting with their surroundings. Broadly speaking, the observable in question can trade uncertainty with its surrounding and settles down into a tighter range of possible states, simulating to some extent the effect of an observer collapsing the wavefunction. However, the two phenomena are not the same.