Interview: Purpose and Pleasure – Exploring Addiction Science

FreeImages.com/Dean Smith
FreeImages.com/Dean Smith

What is the interface between ideas of purpose of science, and in faith – or life in general? This was one of the main topics of conversation during my interview with Alan Gijsbers. I wanted to find out whether medical professionals have a similar sense of wonder or spirituality to some laboratory scientists. Although the challenges are very different in medicine, I found that Alan shared the same combination of curiosity, questioning, and connection with deeper issues that is so important for many other researchers. Continue reading

More than atoms

Gerard79, www.freeimages.com
© Gerard79, http://www.freeimages.com

When atoms and molecules come together, the new structures or systems they form can have unexpected properties. This principle is called emergence, and some have claimed that it shows there is more to the universe than material things. Last month at the Faraday Institute summer course, the German physicist Barbara Drossel explained why she thinks emergence is a real phenomena, and why it is so important in discussions about science and faith.

Science uses reductionism to study a system. If you break it down and do what you can to understand the parts, you should understand the behaviour of the whole a bit better. According to Drossel, the reverse is also true. As complex systems come together, new and beautiful properties emerge that are every bit as fundamental as the forces that hold together the atom.

When you put a collection of molecules together, they start to do things that they couldn’t do alone. For example air exerts pressure on the sides of a box; when a fluid is heated from below it forms convection cells; and if you mix certain chemicals together they react in a way that produces beautiful patterns. Continue reading

The Emergence of Human Consciousness

© Leandro Cavinatto, http://www.sxc.hu

Why do we ascribe dignity and moral worth to human beings? At least part of the reason is because we can see beyond our physical makeup to qualities such as consciousness and the ability to make decisions. We are fantastically complicated biological systems, but we are more than our molecules: we are persons, and our conscious experiences are wonderfully real.

Last week the philosopher Tim O’Connor spoke at the Faraday Institute on The Emergence of Human Persons. Emergence is a fascinating area of research, and a controversial one. Although emergence is a philosophical argument, it has important implications for science.

O’Connor began his seminar by explaining where the idea of emergence came from. Continue reading

Changing the Lens

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© Eugene Z, http://www.sxc.hu

In his Faraday seminar on teleology (part 1 here), Dr Harvey McMahon suggested that we use more than one type of language to talk about biology. If language is a lens that gives us a certain perspective, then it would be useful to have more than one type of lens in our toolbox. The lens that McMahon suggested we use a little more is teleology, or purpose. He gave three examples of how teleological thinking can be applied.

The stochastic nature of biology

‘Stochastic’ behaviour involves a certain amount of randomness. You could predict the outcome of a stochastic event using statistics, but you would never be 100% certain what was going to happen. That is the nature of most biological processes. The question is, if we were smart enough to study biological systems down to the atomic level, would we find that they are actually completely predictable? Would knowing all the variables make 100% predictions possible? And if we could predict every process in our bodies and brains, would there be room for human decisions? Continue reading