19 October 2014

The eerie silence

I recently read a book, "The Eerie Silence", by physicist Paul Davies. Paul Davies is the head of project SETI. The book is about the search for extraterrestrial life/intelligence. Of course, to-date, there has been no hint of any life whatsoever outside our own planet. Nevertheless,  the 50-year old project SETI, apparently now privately funded, is alive. There are many excellent reviews of the book on the Internet, for example, on the Guardian (see here and here), the New York Times, Goodreads, Science News, and others. The book is, indeed, interesting. It debunks UFO stories, discusses the issue of whether life is a commonplace in this galaxy (or in the universe)--with no conclusions, of course, the issues of habitable zone and multiple biospheres on Earth, the probability of intelligent life elsewhere (and Drake's "equation"), the need for less anthropocentric search methods, the possible ways that aliens might communicate with us (which may be far from what we currently think of or use), the inability we might have in even recognizing advanced extraterrestrial technology, various philosophical issues, what would happen if we ever recognized that life existed, and an optimistic conclusion.

Now, all that is great, we need to be optimistic, we need to keep searching and wondering and, as is well known, the answer to the question "is there life elsewhere" would be profound regardless of whether it is positive or negative. But the book is rather long and tends to get a bit boring at times. Drake's "equation" for instance is hardly anything remarkable. It's just a back-of-the-envelope calculation that anyone with high school knowledge can think of (except that data may be missing, and they still are). At times, there are diversions towards religion, history or philosophy. What I found remarkably shallow is the author's claim that it was monotheistic religions (and, by this, he means the Abrahamic religions) are conducive to science. Namely, Davies claims, in the book and elsewhere, that, as opposed to Hinduism, the Abrahamic religions hold that the universe had a beginning. He also claims
The Greek philosophers taught that humans could come to understand the world by the existence of reason, which achieved its most disciplined form in the rules of logic and mathematical theorems that followed therefrom. They asserted that the world wasn't arbitrary or absurd, but rational and intelligible, even if confusing and complicated. However, Greek philosophy never spawned what today we would understand by the scientific method, in which nature is `interrogated' via experiment and observation, because the Greek philosophers' touching belief that the answers could all be deduced by pure reason alone.

Meanwhile, monotheism increasingly shaped the Western world view during the formative stages of science. Judaism represented a decisive break with almost all contemporary cultures by positing an unfolding cosmic narrative based on linear time.

The concept of linear time, and a universe created by a rational being and ordered according to a set of immutable laws, was adopted by both Christianity and Islam, and was the dominant influence in Europe at the time of Galileo. The early scientists, who were deeply religious, regarded their work as uncovering God's plan for the universe, as revealed through hidden mathematical relationships. What we now call the laws of physics they saw as thoughts in the mind of God. Without belief in a single omnipotent rational lawgiver, it is unlikely that anyone would have assumed that nature is intelligible in a systematic, quantitative way, mirrored by eternal mathematical forms.
Davies' claims suffer from a number of historical and logical inaccuracies.
  1. It is true that ancient scholars had not fully developed the scientific method, but it is not true that they only relied on things they could do in their heads. Indeed, the name of Archimedes is never mentioned in the book. Neither is any mention of the Antikythera mechanism. It is true that these things belong, perhaps, to the domain of engineering, but it is clear that nobody could have built them by thinking only, without any kind of experimentation. The claim that "nature [was not] `interrogated' via experiment and observation does not seem to be correct.
  2. When Davies speaks of monotheistic religions, he means the Abrahamic ones. There have been other monotheistic religions which are not included in his `reasoning', for instance, Zoroastrianism.
  3. Davies speaks of what--he thinks--monotheistic religious scientist achieved several centuries after these religions were invented, but he never mentions what happened, for example, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Who got rid of all work in mathematics and reason, up to that point, if not the new monothestic religion (or the particular version which the emperors adopted)? 
  4. The claim that "linear time" and "universe which has a single beginning" are both mentioned by monotheistic religions does not imply that monotheism implies these concepts. It is, merely, an accident that these concepts were adopted by the Jews (and hence by Christians and Muslims). The implied implication is not valid. 
  5. "Early scientists were deeply religious." We've heard this argument many times. But why is not Davies considering the obvious fact that those scientists had to be religious in order to be allowed to do what they were doing. Yes, some of them believed in god (there was no alternative anyway), some did not, but everyone had to pretend and behave as if they actually believed. So we will never know the truth. Imagine, for instance, the future historian who will claim that "in 20th. c. America, every president was highly religious and always appeared to pray in public". We, of course, know that without appearing to be religious they stand no chance of getting elected.
This is a weak point of the book. Other than that, I liked it, but, as I said, I could have read the same things in half the space.

Davies seems to be a smart person. So let us examine why he often digresses to praise monotheism. Well, there are several reasons, among which I can identify at least two:
  1. First, he's director of SETI which is privately funded, so he needs to please donors. Many of them (by virtue that they come from a religious country) are probably religious.
  2. Second, he probably likes awards. For example, he's a recipient of the Templeton prize. This is a very peculiar prize because it is given to all kinds of people, including ones who have caused harm. The prize has been criticized by Richard Dawkins ("[the Templeton prize is] usually [given] to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion"),  Sean  Carroll (people cannot take Templeton research grants when they do not support Templeton's beliefs) and Martinus Veltman ("the Templeton prize bridges the gap between sense and nonsense")
Davies' claims that monotheism is conducive to science gives religionists ground to support their irrational beliefs. Some Muslims believe that the Quran contains science and they sometimes quote Davies as scientific support of this ridiculous claim.

On the Christian front, Davies seems to be a friend of John Lennox who likes to use "mathematics" and "logic" and "science" to support his religious claims. (The worst of all, in this conversation, is that Davies and Lennox, a physicist and a mathematician, discuss "specified complexity", a bogus concept invented by William Dembski for the sole purpose of promoting creationism.)

Last but not least, I can't fail but notice that the website (mentioned in the Eerie Silence) IETI (invitation to extraterrestrial intelligence, created because if--they claim--aliens get in touch with us, they might do so over the Internet) contains 100 individuals (inviting aliens) among which a certain Sohail Inayatullah who "brings an Islamic and Indian tantric perspective to understanding the Other, space travel, and alternative futures."

The upshot of all this is that, by trying to please everyone, including those who have nothing to do with science, one ends up having their work used for the purposes of the those who do nonsense.

1 comment:

  1. Thanx for the review-- I was aware of Daview bias - interesting to see it pop up again.



What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant