Have You Ever Seen a Three? Mathematics joins the science-religion dialogue.

For a scientist and the mathematician, the question of ‘what is real’ is very strongly linked to proof. In his Faraday seminar last month, “Is There a Place at the Science-Religion Table for Mathematics,” the mathematician and philosopher P. Douglas Kindschi, pointed out that proofs are the building blocks of mathematics so, historically, maths has had the strongest claim on what is real. Continue reading

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

Is Teleology a Useful Concept in Biology?

Cells, by Dora Pete. www.sxc.hu
Cells. © Dora Pete. http://www.sxc.hu

Everyone uses teleological language – the language of purpose – even when it doesn’t seem to make rational sense. We ascribe motives to everyday processes, so the car won’t start because I don’t want to go to the dentist, your little brother fell down the hole because he was bad yesterday, and the ball keeps rolling away because the dog wants to play with it. We also tend to ascribe purpose to biological processes, so flowers grow because we enjoy them, and the DNA code came into existence in order that life can develop on earth – you might check yourself after saying or thinking such things, but we all think them. A recently study* showed that scientists are naturally ‘promiscuously teleological’, but  the current thinking in science is that we shouldn’t use teleological language. The world is the way it is by chance and not by design.

Last month, biologist Harvey McMahon spoke at the Faraday Institute on ‘Teleology and Biology: Friends, Foes, Mutually Exclusive or Complementary?’ McMahon and the members of his research group investigate the curvature of membranes, looking at how the physical shape of cells and their membrane bound ‘organelles’ is suited to function. In his seminar he argued, in a humorous but direct way, that biological language is not pure: it uses language from many fields in the attempt to understand itself. Stripping teleology from our language dehumanises biology, and science suffers for it. Continue reading