Science: October 2006 Archives

Scientists have been using embryos from destroyed human organisms to investigate treatments for Parkinson's disease. The hope was to get these undifferentiated cells to take on the characteristics of the cells in the brain so that damaged brain cells could be replaced by the stem cells. Except from explicitly social conservative news outlets, all the press this kind of research has been getting has been nothing but favorable. Hardly anyone in the mainstream news mentions the obstacles in getting embryonic stem cells to work in this way, as opposed to the successes already achieved in using adult stem cells. Even if there is more potential good that might be accomplished by embryonic stem cells, it strikes me as a little dishonest to report only that and to ignore that actual success of adult stem cells and the difficulties with embryonic stem cells that have yet to be overcome. So there is already reason to suspect dishonesty in the news media on hiding some facts related to this research.

Even so, I have nowhere seen any mention of actual harm that this technique might cause (apart from the harm caused to the embryos themselves, of course), even among socially conservatives. Yet apparently there's long been a worry among scientists that this kind of stem cell technique would cause a different effect once the cells were at work in the brain. Undifferentiated cells have a real danger. They do not have the instructions regular brain cells have, and they need to absorb those. The hope was that they would. But what happens when cells in a part of the body do things they're not supposed to do? They become tumors. There are now indications that this may very well happen if this research goes forward with human beings. According to the article, this is something "scientists have long feared". Why, then, has hardly anyone been reporting that this kind of problem might occur? I would have expected at least those who are more conservative on this issue to mention it now and then, but I've never heard it from anyone. Are the scientists themselves hiding it so as not to decrease even further their chances of getting funding?

[hat tip: Cold Hearted Truth]

Autism and TV

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Rey responds to the latest nutso theory connecting autism and some randomly-selected phenomenon that has increased during the time period autism has increased. This time it's television. Someone needs to write a serious-sounding article claiming that not being Amish causes autism, using reasoning exactly parallel to that found in this kind of argument. The numbers are there for that just as much as they're there for vaccines, television, and eating bread. I'm sure someone out there will see it as a moral imperative that we all become Amish immediately in order to protect our children. It's sad to see Al Mohler involved with perpetuating this kind of nonsense.

I think my first thought at a real demonstration of a correlation, even aside from the alternative explanations raised by Rey, was that the causation is almost certainly the other way around if a connection is genuine. Has it even occurred to them that autistic kids are going to be watching more TV than neurotypical kids? After all, they don't have the interest or ability to develop the kinds of relationships that most kids want to develop, and the kinds of activities most kids engage in will therefore be both difficult and unattractive to them. They appreciate the bright colors and musical elements of programming for young children, since they stimulate the senses very well. They take to things like Sesame Street that offer very repetitive number and letter learning. Why isn't it obvious to anyone who knows much about autism that kids who are already autistic are going to be watching more TV? Never mind that parents of autistic kids will generally have a harder time keeping them within boundaries in order to do housework or other things during the day and will thus consider TV a very nice way to help lower the need for overstimulation from getting into cupboards, emptying silverware onto the floor, coloring on walls, dumping bins of toys, and so on. All kids do some of that, but autistic kids seem to want to do it 24-7 unless they have a distraction. That distraction can't always be an adult, since even full-time parents can't devote 100% of their time to kids, never mind to more than one kid when each would need 100% attention to prevent disaster. The fact is that TV calms them down, and thus parents will be motivated to have them stimulated in that way rather than in truly dangerous ways like what they're naturally inclined to do without the understanding danger that other kids naturally develop much earlier.

This is the the twenty-second post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I looked at the fine-tuning design argument for the existence of God, along with an initial look at the many-worlds conjecture as a response to the argument. This post will spend some more time comparing that conjecture with the designer explanation for the fine-tuning of constants in physics.

Is this objection decisive? It's an alternative explanation, and we need just one alternative explanation to show that the argument original designer explanation isn't the only one. So we have two explanations to consider. Which should we prefer? Which is more reasonable, theism or all these myriads of cosmoi? Both explanations do seem to explain the surprising fact about the constants of physics, and they seem to account for this fact equally well, but how do you weigh the simplicity of each theory? It's not as if both agree on the core that everyone agrees on, and then one goes beyond that to postulate all this excess baggage. Both scenarios contain something that in their theory about ultimate reality beyond what a naturalist might want to say.

Theism, even the minimal sort necessary if you accept this argument, involves a designer or creator, which certainly goes beyond naturalism. Simplicity might nudge us to discount theism in favor of the many-worlds conjecture, since those worlds all seem to be additional parts of nature -- the kind of thing a naturalist already believes in. There are just lots more of them than the one we originally believed in. However, the many-worlds conjecture may require going beyond naturalism as well. Why do all the possible cosmoi (i.e. all the possible sets of constants) get generated? Is there some mechanism that generates these different universes, maybe all at once in different universes or maybe one after the other? What would this mechanism be? It's certainly not something you can just read off physics. There's no explanation offered why there would be such a mechanism. So it's not clear if this response really fits the naturalistic picture either. The many universes would be more of what we already believe in (though many, many more things), but the mechanism to get many universes is beyond the core theory. Yet theism involves a wholly different kind of thing, a designer, though just one thing and not very, very many. A theory can be simpler in terms of how many things it requires, and a theory could be simpler in terms of what kinds of things it requires. We have two theories. Each one is more complex than the other but in a different way.

This is the the twenty-first post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I presented two versions of the design argument for the existence of God, along with some standard responses. This post focuses in on a third version, the fine-tuning design argument.

The laws of physics contain some constants that govern how things in the universe behave. Physicists have no idea why these constants have the values they do, but they know that if they had been just slightly different then we couldn't exist. Stars couldn't form, never mind rational life. (Some might argue that rational life vastly different from anything we've seen might still be possible. That is hard to speculate about, but perhaps it's worth considering.)

Physicists all accept this fact about the laws, which leaves philosophers to figure out what to say. Some argue that, since the chances are so low of getting these exact constants, it's too much of a coincidence that the constants we happen to have are the ones that allow the possibility of rational life. This leads some to conclude that the universe must have been designed with the purpose of leading to at least the possibility of rational life.

This is the the twentieth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I finished discussing the cosmological argument for the existence of God. In this post, I'm moving on to the design argument for the existence of God.

[note: These design argument posts are based largely on discussions by Peter van Inwagen in his Metaphysics, 2nd ed. (2002) Westview Press and Gregory E. Ganssle, Thinking About God (2004) InterVarsity Press.]

The main idea behind the design argument is that something about nature is unexplainable unless a creator designed the universe for a specific purpose. Nature is hard to explain otherwise. As with finding a watch on a beach, it seems hard to conclude that it just occurred naturally on its own. It seems to be put together in such a way that calls out for an explanation.

Sometimes the argument is based on of the beauty of the world or the universe, and sometimes it picks out a specific fact. Can the fact that we find music beautiful be explained by science? Why do we happen to enjoy patterns of sound that just happen to be mathematically interesting? Some have looked at beauty in the world and wondered how anything can explain such wonder without appealing to a designer who wanted it to be beautiful. Others have questioned such arguments by saying the only reason we find it beautiful is because our preferences happen to match what's there.

The issue turns on what beauty is, what it is we perceive when we see beauty, if scientific theories can explain the nature of beauty, and many other issues. I'll focus on one particular fact that has led some to believe in a designer, but let's first look at the history of this general argument type when based on aother kinds of facts.



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