Book Review: “Setting Aside All Authority” by Christopher M. Graney

The book “Setting Aside All Authority” comprises 10 chapters, 270 pages. The last half of the book is largely made up of two appendices: (A) the first English translation of Monsignor Francesco Ingoli’s essay to Galileo (disputing the Copernican system on the eve of the Inquisition’s condemnation of it in 1616) and (B) excerpts from the Italian Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli’s reports on his experiments with falling bodies. The book is published by the University of Notre Dame, 2015.

Cover of the book. The cover image is taken from Riccioli’s New Almagest (1651). Note the heliocentric system (top left) compared to the Tychonic hybrid geocentric system (bottom right).

The main thesis of the book challenges the notion that around the time of Galileo, and the beginning of the Copernican revolution, opponents of the heliocentric worldview, championed by Galileo, were primarily motivated by religion or dictates from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

The author, Christopher M. Graney, uses newly translated works by anti-Copernican writers of the time to demonstrate that they predominantly used scientific arguments and not religion in their opposition to the Copernican system. Graney argues that it was largely a science-versus-science debate, rather than church authority-versus-science as often incorrectly portrayed.

In the 1651, the Jesuit Giovanni Battista Riccioli published his book the New Almagest wherein he outlined 77 arguments against the Copernican system (pro-geocentrism) and 49 arguments in favour of it. Most arguments against the Copernican heliocentric system could be answered, at that time, but Riccioli, using the then available telescopic observations of the size of stars, was able to construct a powerful scientific argument that the pro-Copernican astronomers could not answer without an appeal to the greatness of God.

Graney largely uses Riccioli’s New Almagest, which argues in favour not of the Ptolemaic system but of the hybrid Tychonic system, where the Earth is immobile at the centre of the universe, the sun, the moon and the stars circle the earth; but the planets circle the sun. Riccioli built on the work of the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, and built a strong scientific case against the heliocentric system, at least through the middle of the seventeenth century, which was several decades after the advent of the telescope.

The main two arguments presented in the book, both scientific, are the size of stars and the effect on falling bodies.

Falling bodies

If the earth were rotating, then a falling body should hit a point on the surface of the earth at a definite distance from a vertical line to the surface, if dropped vertically. The same argument could be made for cannon balls fired in different directions on the earth’s surface. These type of discussions and arguments carried on for a century, and even Isaac Newton got involved. What we now know as the Coriolis force, a ‘fictitious’ force, resulting from the rotation of the planet on the fired or dropped objects could not be measured with the required precision in the 17th century.

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The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself? Part 9

Part 9 of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll. Part 8 is found here.

Purpose without a Creator

The next chapter entitled “Emergent Purpose” is about finding some sort of ‘purpose’ as an emergent property of evolution. He is quite clear that evolution itself is undirected but suggests that we humans can find some purpose in it.

He starts out with a question “Why do giraffes have such long necks?” and gives 4 possible answers, 3 of which evolutionist would believe. Option 1 he declares incorrect, which is Lamarckian, yet actually closer to Darwin’s original idea. Options 2 is the common way of explaining neo-Darwinian evolution, with mutations conferring better fitness. Option 3 is about sexual selection and option 4 is in line with his overall message of the book.

“Given the laws of physics, and the initial state of the universe, and our location in the cosmos, collections of atoms in the shape of long-necked giraffes came into existence 14 billion years after the Big Bang.” (pp.291-2)

None of this sentence has any credibility. Only by assuming everything to be true in the evolution story from the big bang to current day could you write this. So it is not a science statement but a theological statement. He says it avoids any particular evolutionary story, but it is not hard to imagine that the words “came into existence” does not mean at the hands of the Creator, but rather is a big bang. Otherwise there would be no need to start in the big bang, nor include the words “our location in the cosmos”. He says this is a poetic-naturalism way of speaking about emergent properties of the biological world. But that could only be true if you could demonstrate experimentally that each requirement in the statement is true.

Then from this sort of story, which he calls “the fundamental description of reality” (p.292) because of the big bang, expansion of the universe and the increase in entropy with time, he says

“… these emergent pictures invoke words like ‘purpose’ and ‘adaptation,’ even though those ideas are nowhere to be found in the underlying mechanistic behavior of reality” (p.293)

And

“How could evolution, which itself is ultimately purely physical, bring these utterly new kinds of things into existence? It’s a natural thing to worry about. The process of evolution is unplanned and unguided.”

“There is no general principle along the lines of ‘new kinds of things cannot naturally arise in the course of undirected evolution.’ Things like ‘stars’ and ‘galaxies’ come to be in a universe where they formerly didn’t exist. Why not purposes and information?” (p.293)

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The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself? Part 8

Part 8 of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll. Part 7 is found here.

Darwinian Evolution

In his next chapter “Evolution’s Bootstraps” Carroll starts by describing Richard Lenski’s experiment, which he labels as evolutionary biology. I am thinking that Carroll must have gotten the creationist message that evolution (in the goo-to-you sense) cannot be science because there is not one experimental demonstration of any process which changes microbes into molecular biologists. I say this because he states:

“Evolution is the idea that provides the bridge from abiogenesis to the grand pageant of life on Earth today. There is no question that it’s a science: evolutionary biologists formulate hypotheses, define likelihoods of different outcomes under competing hypotheses, and collect data to update our credences in those hypotheses.” (p.273, emphasis added)

In the first sentence he uses one definition for the word ‘evolution’ (the bridge from abiogenesis to the grand pageant of life) but in the following sentence it is different (mutations and selection though not explicitly stated). After the word ‘science’ what follows implies ‘evolution’ is observable in the lab, by carrying out experimental science. This is changing of the definition is called equivocation, and demonstrates very poor logic.

Very strangely Carroll does not see the point he makes himself in terms of the weakness of equivocating on the meaning of the word evolution when he admits that chemists and physicists have an advantage over evolutionary biologists because they can perform repeated experiments in their labs. The latter defines experimental science but nowhere in his statement (above) does he indicate that the evolutionary biologist carries out an experiment that “provides the bridge from abiogenesis to the grand pageant of life”.

The data collecting and formulating of hypotheses is in relation to what they believe happened in the past. At best this is historical science, a type of forensic science that tries to unravel the sequence of unseen past events. But experimental science or operational science, which is the usual definition used for science, depends on repeatable experiments to test hypotheses. This the evolutionary biologist cannot do and he admits it.

“It would be very hard to set up a laboratory experiment to see Darwinian evolution in action, just as it would be hard to create a new universe.” (p.273) (emphasis added)

Nearly correct, but not quite! It would be not “hard” but impossible. But like all evolutionists, he then equivocates at this point saying:

“But it’s not impossible. (At least for evolution: we still don’t know how to create new universes.)” (p.273)

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The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself? Part 7

Part 7 of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll. Part 6 is found here.

Origin of Life

In the chapter titled “Light and Life,” Carroll discusses the meaning of what life is and the origin of life itself. He makes a passing comment that at least bacterial life may be found on another planet. He mentions, as a fact, that Europa, which is one of the natural satellites or moons of Jupiter, “… has more liquid water than all the oceans on Earth” (p.238).

But that has only been conjectured if there are liquid oceans underneath Europa’s frozen surface ice. The oceans are thought to begin 20 to 50 kms (12 to 30 miles) below the surface. Thus it may be sometime before the conjecture can be confirmed or denied. If there is anything we can learn from this, it is that Carroll is not phased at presenting as fact something he hopes to be true. To my knowledge, as of writing this, no oceans have been definitely discovered on Europa.

He asks the question, in regards to looking for life in space, will we know it is life when we see it?

“What is life anyway? Nobody knows. There is not a single agreed-upon definition that clearly separates things that are ‘alive’ from those that are not.” (p.238)

He gives NASA’s definition as “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution.” (p.238) He claims that the ‘correct’ definition of life doesn’t exist. Yet he offers the following.

“Life as we know it moves (internally if not externally), metabolizes, interacts, reproduces, and evolves, all in hierarchical, interconnected ways.” (p.238)

Edwin Schrödinger, who helped formulate quantum mechanics, believed it was one of balance, balance between change and maintenance of structure and integrity. His definition is as follows.

“When is a piece of matter said to be alive? When it goes on ‘doing something,’ exchanging material with its environment, and so forth, and that for a much longer period than we would expect an inanimate piece of matter to ‘keep going’ under similar circumstances.” (p.239)

This focuses on the ‘self-sustaining’ part of NASA’s definition. Continue reading

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself? Part 6

Part 6 of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll. Part 5 is found here.

The Core Theory

Carroll spends several chapters discussing the quantum mechanical framework for the Core Theory, as he calls it. Quantum mechanics has been an extremely successful physical theory exquisitely predicting with enormous precision some parameters in particle physics. But what many people have heard of quantum theory is more about the various interpretations applied by physicists (e.g. Bohr’s abstract physical description, or, Everett’s many-worlds) to the way the theory might work beneath what we can measure.

Regardless of the correct interpretation it has enjoyed enormous success as a theory of physics in what is called the standard model of particle physics. The second very successful theory is general relativity—Einstein’s theory of gravity. Both work extremely well in their respective domains of operation, but outside that, in the realm of what is called quantum gravity neither operate nor has a theory been found to unite them. But that is exactly what Stephen Hawking and others have been seeking, to have the Universe begin in a quantum fluctuation of a meta-stable false vacuum.

But even though we have this limitation, in the realm of what humans can measure, Carroll has faith and writes:

“What we can do is show that physics by itself is fully up to the task of accounting for what we see.” (p.179)

However he admits that one class of particles not part of the current Core Theory are those that make up “dark matter” in the Universe. Such alleged weakly interacting putative particles are allowed for in the Core Theory because they are so weakly interacting with normal atomic matter that they are hard to detect. I would argue that dark matter and other dark entities are a philosophical construct used to keep the standard big bang cosmology from being discredited.1 Dark matter was first needed to explain the dynamics of spiral galaxies. Now it seems that it is no longer needed, when standard physics is applied correctly.2 Continue reading

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself? Part 4

Part 4 of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll. Part 3 is found here.

Understanding the World

Carroll devotes a few chapters to assessing how well we understand the world. He introduces us to Rev. Thomas Bayes who, in the latter part of his life, studied probability. He was published posthumously on the subject. His work has become widely used in mathematics, principally statistics, and also in physics. The subject has become to be known as Bayesian inference or Bayesian probability.

Bayes’ main idea involves how to treat the probability of a proposal being correct in the light of new evidence becoming available. In physics we rely on what we already know, or what we think we have established as foundational and we build upon that. When we get new information that could change our view we need to update what we believe is the probability of the hypothesis being correct in light of that new information. That probability is what is called a credence, or the degree of belief that we hold that we are correct.

So Bayesian inference attempts to apply a quantitative value to what we might infer from our attempts to explain the physical world. It is the basis of scientific investigation. In terms of experimental discoveries it is easy to see how this might apply. We can never prove any hypothesis or theory correct. All we can hope to do is update our credence, meaning to increase the probability of a theory being correct.  In physics a threshold is established of 5σ (5 sigma) above which it is said that a discovery has been made. Statistically that is like saying there is only 1 in a 3.5 million chance that the signal isn’t real and thus the theory is wrong. That is a very low probability indeed. But some discoveries have been made at the level of 3σ or less.I know of one hypothesis that had a 6σ probability yet it turned out to be wrong.2

But things don’t always work out to be correct, even with a statistical probability above 5σ. Any hypothesis may be refuted but it can never be proven. Do you remember the claim of faster than light neutrinos in 2011? The OPERA team’s experimental results indicated a 6σ level of confidence, which is much higher than the 5σ usually required for new particle discoveries. But in the following year, as many expected (because we don’t expect any particle to break the speed of light limit), an error was found in the experimental analysis resulting from a loose fibre optic cable, and that meant those neutrinos obeyed the universal speed limit. When the new information came in the Bayesian credence could be updated to nearly zero. Continue reading

Comments on Dark Matter and Dark Energy

A reader of my article Big bang fudge factors wrote the following comments:

Dark matter has been detected: neutrinos fit the definition of Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, as they have such small probabilities of interacting with atomic matter that it takes several moles of neutrinos to achieve the same probability of a single interaction as a single neutron or photon. Though individually nearly massless and invisible to matter, the sheer number of neutrinos surrounding us makes it possible to detect them, and makes their combined energy a significant component of the mass of the Universe.

Likewise, Massive Compact Halo Objects are quite ordinary matter. They are planetary and sub-planetary bodies, producing little or no light, and so hard to detect. To these, we add black holes, neutron stars, and brown dwarfs, which also emit little or no light, despite their mass.

Neither should the existence of dark energy be any surprise to Christians. After all, the Bible say, “The heavens are stretched out like a curtain.” Dark energy is the energy of the vacuum state, less than 1 microjoule per cubic meter, distributed uniformly. Only because of the vastness of space are we able to observe its effects. Even so, were this tremendous amount of energy somehow liberated, “the elements shall be consumed by fire.” The decay of the vacuum state, unleashing the tremendous amount of energy stored in it, could very well be the means by which the Lord transforms the Universe at the end of the age.

My responses are below. Continue reading