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Join us for our first Science Salon, when the Skeptics Society hosts Lisa Randall in conversation with Michael Shermer on November 22, 2015 at 2pm.

The salon will be held at a magnificent and architecturally award-winning home in Altadena, with spectacular vistas of Southern California. (You will be given the address when you purchase your tickets.) In the tradition of European salons, there will be time after for socializing with drinks. Advance tickets include a reserved seat, an autographed copy of the guest’s book, hors d’oeuvres, and wine. Plus, you never know what other scientists and celebrities might just show up for these unique gatherings!

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Concert at the Science Salon Venue

A concert at the Science Salon Venue

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UPCOMING SCIENCE SALONS

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe

Lisa Randall (photo by Phil Knott)

Lisa Randall (photo by Phil Knott)

The renowned harvard cosmologist and theoretical physicist explores a scenario in which a disk of dark matter—the elusive stuff in the universe that interacts through gravity like ordinary matter, but that doesn’t emit or absorb light—dislodged a comet from the Oort cloud that was ultimately responsible for the dinosaurs’ extinction. Randall teaches us an enormous amount about dark matter, our Universe, our galaxy, asteroids, and comets—and the process by which scientists explore new concepts. Order Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs from Amazon.


The Quotable Feynman (& His Van)

Michelle Feynman (photo by Mark Houseman)

Michelle Feynman (by M. Houseman)

Join us on December 20, 2015 to hear Michelle Feynman who will discuss the life and legacy of her father: Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman. Physicist Seamus Blackey will bring Feynman’s van, newly restored and recently featured on The Big Bang Theory, so you can get your photograph taken with the famous vehicle featuring Feynman diagrams. And, joining us will be special guest Dr. Leonard Mlodinow, physicist and author of Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life and The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos.

Read more about this event

About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Richard Grigg explains why he thinks Douglas Navarick’s response to his essay contains serial violations of the scientific worldview.

Navarick’s article “The ‘God’ Construct: A Testable Hypothesis for Unifying Science and Theology,” appeared in Skeptic magazine 20.3 (2015).

Serial Violations of the Scientific Worldview

by Richard Grigg

I am convinced that Douglas Navarick’s response to my essay contains serial violations of the scientific worldview. I have simply outlined below what I believe to be the central issues. Taking Navarick’s contentions in order:

1. He holds that since experiments to establish abiogenesis have thus far failed, the existence of a supernatural power in the universe has essentially been established by default. But no serious biologist would give up on abiogenesis that quickly (just as neuroscientists have not given up on the idea that consciousness is somehow produced by the human brain and not a trans-physical phenomenon). Where abiogenesis, specifically, is concerned, quoting Dr. Carol Cleland of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, “It is…possible that life on Earth is the product of a very complex historical process that involves too many contingencies to be readily accessible to definitive experimental investigations.”

2. The heart of Navarick’s argument is based on cryopreservation: when a cell is frozen, chemical activity (at least the sort required for metabolism) ceases, but the cell is still alive. Thus life cannot be a function of the natural chemical processes in the cell. But there is a truly fundamental misunderstanding here: when a cell is frozen and metabolism (and most of the other six characteristics biologists use to define life) ceases, it is not in fact still alive; it is dead! There is no other conclusion to be drawn if we are to adhere, as we must, to the defining criteria that biologists use for identifying living material. When the cell is resuscitated, the processes determinative of life are restarted. Because we have all imbibed folk biology we are predisposed to get things wrong here, since that folk biology holds that there is an unbridgeable chasm between death and life: something that was once living but is now dead cannot come back to life, short of some wholly miraculous, trans-physical intervention (witness the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus). But we have been aware for decades now of the many cases in which a patient is clinically dead on the emergency room table only to be resuscitated a few minutes later. And if the frozen cell is dead, devoid of life, Navarick’s whole case collapses. The example of removing DNA from a cell is exactly parallel: for the time during which the cell is without DNA, it cannot reproduce, and reproduction is an absolutely essential component of any definition of life.

3. “In cryopreservation, a cell that is structurally intact is ‘sufficiently prepared’ to receive the influence that life will have on its biochemical activity when the cell thaws. There is no necessity for life to physically act on the cell by adding energy to it.” First of all, thawing the cell adds energy to it, the kinetic energy of random molecular motion. Beyond that, if there is to be any content to the contention that it makes a real difference for the allegedly transcendent property of life to be present in a cell, then that property must do something to the internal chemistry of the cell which that internal chemistry couldn’t do on its own; otherwise the purely natural chemistry of the cell would allegedly never manifest the seven essential characteristics of life. But to engage the cell’s internal chemistry and push it in one particular direction rather than another and have one specific causal effect rather than another, life must add energy to the cell. If life were not interacting with the cell’s natural chemistry in the form of adding a very particular sort of energy to the cell, then life would have no reason to have one particular effect rather than wholly different effects upon the cell. Indeed if life is a transcendent property that does not add energy to the cell, and even if it were possible for this non-energetic property to have a concrete and observable effect on the cell, the effect would be totally arbitrary and entirely different in each instance of this mysterious life-property interacting with a cell, so much so that we would not be able to identify life as having any particular, stable properties of its own; it would be a total blank for thought without any specific characteristics with which our minds could grasp what it is. In other words, the concept of “life” would be evacuated of all meaning. END

About the Author

Richard Grigg, Ph.D. is Professor in the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. He is the author of eight books and numerous articles on the subject of radical Western religious thought.

Life Is Potential, Not Current, Biological Activity

by Douglas J. Navarick

Richard Grigg’s objections to my arguments are based partly on a misreading of them and partly on a demonstrably false application of the seven defining characteristics of living cells. Listed below are my replies:

1. No Conclusions Reached Yet on the Supernatural Grigg misrepresents my position with the statement, “he holds that since experiments to establish abiogenesis have thus far failed, the existence of a supernatural power in the universe has essentially been established by default.” What I said was that “If abiogenesis failed, then…” the rest of the statement “would” follow—it’s conditional on the “If”, not a fait accompli. There would need to be a consensus among researchers that creating a living cell from non-living material was a probably an unachievable goal. Movement in this direction could be shown by a decrease in the number of researchers working on the problem or by a reduction in resources allocated to it by Synthetic Biology companies.

2. Frozen Cells are “Biologically Inert”, Not Dead Grigg states that “when a cell is frozen and metabolism (and most of the other six characteristics biologists use to define life) ceases, it is not in fact still alive; it is dead!” Grigg mistakenly equates life with the simultaneous presence of all seven of the biological functions that are required as evidence that the cell is alive. The example he gives of Venter’s synthetic bacterial cell is very helpful here because it makes clear that life is defined in terms of its potential to produce all seven biological functions, even if one of those functions (reproduction in this case) is currently absent.

As discussed in my previous reply to Grigg, the cell’s DNA was removed and then the manufactured DNA was inserted. During the interim the cell could not reproduce, so according to Grigg it failed the biological test for life and therefore it was dead. But the consensus in science and bioethics is that the cell was still alive. I quoted this conclusion from the Presidential Commission that was asked to investigate the claim that Venter’s lab had created life: “The researcher’s man-made genome was inserted into an already living cell.” When the new DNA was inserted, the cell used it to prsoduce another cell with the same DNA. As Grigg notes, frozen cells are at the extreme opposite end of the scale of how many of the 7 functions are present. Following his reasoning that Venter’s synthetic cell is “exactly parallel” to the frozen cell, we can reach the same conclusion that life remains present in the frozen cell because it creates the potential for the cell to resume all seven of its basic functions. Here is how the synthetic biology company, OPS Diagnostics, characterizes frozen cells: “Once at ultralow temperatures, the cells are biologically inert and can be preserved for years.” They could have said the frozen cells are “dead.” They chose to say “biologically inert”. It implies that the cell is not dead; it’s alive in the sense that the cell retains its potential (i.e. property of life) for resuming all of its normal biological functions.

3 Life is An Influence, Not an Energy Source. Grigg maintains that a transcendent property of life must in some way affect the chemistry of the cell by adding energy to it. But this is circular reasoning. He assumes at the outset that all natural processes are explainable in natural terms and then uses this assumption to support his contention that energy would have to be added to the cell because (he has assumed) that’s how nature works.

Later, Grigg considers the possibility that there could be a non-energetic effect of a transcendent property of life but concludes, no, it isn’t possible because this influence would have to be “totally arbitrary” and not specific to any of the cell’s functions, and so cells would have no unifying set of characteristics that we could point to as defining criteria of life. But the energy that cells naturally work on is also general and could be applied to any of the cell’s functions. Why would a transcendent influence have to contain within it any specific set of instructions?

In sum, the view that life is non-material is fully defensible. It is a legitimate alternative to materialism in an ongoing debate that if nothing else serves to stimulate thinking about who we are and our place in nature. END

About the Author

Douglas Navarick is an experimental psychologist and Professor of Psychology at California State University, Fullerton. He regularly teaches courses in Introductory Psychology and Learning and Memory. Since the 1970s Navarick has published research articles on choice behavior in pigeons and humans and is currently investigating how we make intuitive moral judgments.

7 Comments »

7 Comments

  1. Tzindaro says:

    All this is nothing to do with the actual world we happen to live in, a world in which living organisms are constantly forming directly from non-living materials all around us everyday. Abiogenesis, as you call it, is a never-ending process in soil, water, mud, piles of decaying vegetation, and most other places in the natural world. Most people without scientific indoctrination can see this happening all around them, but members of the scientific cult fail to see it because they hold theoretical assumptions that it is not happening.

    The unsophisticated experiments of Francisco Redi and Louis Pasture convinced the scientific community that the older theories of spontaneous generation were wrong, and biology ever since has been on the wrong track, assuming all life must be descended from ancestors instead of newly being created constantly. Any scientist today who tries to publish anything on the reality of spontaneous generation would not only never get published in any peer reviewed journal, but would get a reputation as a crank and be unable to obtain grants for any work on any subject.

    Fortunately, what scientists do or do not think is not very important in the real world. Science forms a closed sub-culture of it’s own and it’s beliefs are important only to other members of that sub-culture. Most people can ignore the opinions of members of the scientific cult and in everyday life, most people do exactly that. It is just unfortunate for some that scientific thinkiing so dominates the educational system that hardly any rival theories are taught in public schools anymore except for the equally absurd religious ideas which nobody takes seriously.

    • Tim Callahan says:

      Is this post a joke? You actually believe in spontaneous generation? You actually think science is irrelevant?
      The irony that you are posting this nonsense on the internet, using a personal computer seems to have escaped you. Or is it also your contention that all this high technology has nothing to do with science?

      • Tzindaro says:

        This is not a joke. I have seen evidence that spontaneous generation is real and new living organisms form constantly from non-living material under normal everyday conditions at the present day. Today, under the conditions that have prevailed on earth for the past several thousand years, most of the new life that forms is single-celled organisms too small to be seen without a microscope. But in prehistoric times, that is, until less than around 6,000 to 12,000 years ago, larger, multi-cellular organisms, including humans, also formed rather frequently. This still happens at times, but is now rare.

        The poorly-done experiments of a few Christian apologists like Louis Pasture and Francisco Redi would never pass today as having any merit, but in the early days of modern science, before there was an established paradigm to dominate scientific thinking, these few examples were able to win enough influence that today the principle seems firmly established that no new life can form. This superstition is drawn directly from the JudeoChristian teaching that life is not a natural phenomenon, it is of supernatural origin, and can only come about through divine intervention. That is the common basis of both the Christian and modern-biology worldviews. They only disagree on the relatively minor point of HOW life happened to get started, but both think it happened only one time, a long time ago, ands all living things today are descended from a long line of ancestors.

        In contrast, a truely scientific theory would recognize the faact that if life is indeed a natural phenomenon like any other, anytime the right conditions for it exist, it will occur. And the conditions under which it is most likely to form are those under which it flourishes today. Spontaneous generation is the only really scientific theory on the subject. What is more, it can be easily observed under laboratory conditions that rule out contamination by pre-existing life. At least that is so for single-celled micro-organisms. To observe large, complex multi-celled creatures such as humans forming, which is very rare today, requires a lot of patience, though it happens that I have seen this on more tham one ocassion. If you spend a lot of time at the seashore looking at tidal pools, you might see some things that would surprise you. Under the right conditions, rare, it is true, but still happening at times, you might even observe human larva forming in water and gradually transforming into land-dwelling animals indistinguishable from modern humans. That is why many tribes have traditions that they came out of the water.

        The failure of modern-day biologists to grasp the fact of spontaneous generation leads in turn to the nearly universal acceptance of the Bibical theory of evolution, a religious pseudoscientific theory based on the same falacy, namely that however life got started, it was long ago and cannot be seen happening now. In this, both the Darwinists and the Creationists agree. And they are both wrong.

        As for the importance of science, which is not the same thing as technology, the existence of computers does nothing to prove the correctness of the dominant theory of biology.

      • Bob Pease says:

        In a world ” I think it is true . so neener-neener” , it is OK to assert
        that Life and Technology both arose from MACICK (anti=science) .

        I can olny imagine the peculiar motivation to want to post such drivel to a SKEPTICS message board.

        rjp

      • Bob Pease says:

        my 2:45PM reply is intended as a follow-up to THIS post

        In a world of
        ” I think it is true . so neener-neener” ,
        it is OK to assert
        that Life and Technology both arose from MACICK (anti=science) .

        I can olny imagine the peculiar motivation to want to post such drivel to a SKEPTICS message board.

        rjp

  2. Bob Pease says:

    “All this is (SIC) nothing to do with the actual world we happen to live in, a world in which living organisms are constantly forming directly from non-living materials all around us everyday.”

    All this is a replay of a “So’s ya mudda” level response.

    Do we really need the
    “Shaddup and listen to the TROOTH” reprise over and over ,with the particularly moronic chorus that disagreement has nothing to to with anything.” ??

    Pease’ Fourth Law

    “Anything labelled “TRUTH” always contains more bullshit than something labelled “Bullshit ”
    (case in point : PLAIN TRUIH MAGAZINE by H.W. Armstrong )

    Dr. Latero Sidethink Hp.D
    69th Clench of the Stark Fist of Removal
    Reformed Church of the Subgenius

  3. bad boy scientist says:

    Me thinks Tzindaro is confusing abiogenisis with the properties of autotrophs. For fun, check out photosynthetic autotrophs – they ‘turn sunlight into life’

    Turning to the debate between Grigg & Navarik. The former’s argument seems to boil down to making assumptions that lead directly to him being right and the later seems to be now saying “Well, it *could* happen.”

    When my students tell me some thing *could* happen (Those lights in the night skies above San Francisco *could* have been ET spaceships, despite what the Navy says about their rocket tests) – I point out that is a slippery slope because it is mighty hard to demonstrate that something is impossible everywhere, at all times, under all circumstances (unless you have a time machine and a very large budget).

    Also, the “It *could* happen” defense it doesn’t rely on the validity of what it is defending – it can be applied to the most absurd positions. E.g. The Harry Potter story *could* be real – they’re wizards and have magic to keep us muggles from finding it. They have the ability to wipe memories from people and restore cities like London back the way it was before the wizard war. You cannot disprove the Harry Potter Theorem ;)

    Whenever you discover that your rhetoric can be applied to defending Harry Potter is real, you need to find another way to make your point.

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