Charles Babbage: Laplace, Bayes and Hume on Miracles

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On 18 October 1871, the English inventor Charles Babbage (1791–1871) passed away. He is remembered for contributions in mathematics, mechanical engineering and philosophy and is sometimes considered the “Father of the computer” for originating the idea of a programmable calculator.

As a contributor to the 19th century apologetics series “The Bridgewater Treatises,” he had considered miracles in light of the mathematical principles of induction. Reference: “The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise. A Fragment” (Philadelphia, PA: Lea & Blanchard, 1841), 270 pgs.

He begins the mathematical section of the text by considering the Laplace law of succession for the improbable event that a person would resurrect (P(Rₙ₊₁)) from the dead (after a very large number, “n”, have died without resurrection):

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Next, he considers the Bayes rule for total probability, with a given number (m) of possibly-lying (P(¬Wₘ)), or possibly-truthful, (P(Wₘ)), witnesses reporting an actual hoax (P(¬Rₙ₊₁)), or an actual resurrection (P(Rₙ₊₁)):
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Bertram Brockhouse: Moral Implications of Material World

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On 13 October 2003, Bertram Brockhouse (1918 –2003) passed away in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He was co-awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize in Physics with Clifford Shull (1915–2001) “for pioneering contributions to the development of neutron scattering techniques for studies of condensed matter,” in particular “for the development of neutron spectroscopy.”

Prof. Brockhouse had thematically framed his Nobel Lecture around the conflict between whether physics was restricted to only a pragmatic materialism, or whether it allowed moral metaphors.

“The Grand Atlas comprises ‘maps’ of the world we live in, metaphorical maps which just might prove to be metaphysical, maps that link percepts with other percepts, by means of theory. On a pragmatic view, as on a religious view, theory and concepts are held in faith… Beyond that, theory and concepts go to constitute a language in which the scientistic matters at issue can be formulated and discussed.

“At a given epoch of the ‘state-of-the-art’ there are applications visible – technological or scientific applications – and also perhaps moral implications which go to forbid or enjoin them. And there can be metaphors visible, which modelled upon, may ultimately find places as theory held in faith, in the Grand Atlas. So that metaphors too are to be watched for their moral implications; nuclear fission, nuclear fusion are examples. Might it not be better that these notions never have been thought?

“In the world to which the Grand Atlas applies, there is an enduring tension: additional evidence increases the reasonableness of accepting the concepts as actual entities or even as moral, not merely mental, realities – but the burden of proof can always be shifted to the opposite side.”

Referenced:
Brockhouse, Bertram Neville. “Nobel Lecture: Slow Neutron Spectroscopy and the Grand Atlas of the Physical World.” Stockholm, Sweden. 8 Dec 1994.
Image: © TheFamousPeople(dot)com.

Ferid Murad: Possibilities of Faith for a Scientist

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September 14 marks the birthday of Ferid Murad (b.1936), the 1998 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine for “discoveries concerning nitric oxide as a signalling molecule in the cardiovascular system.”

In the cardiovascular system, nitric oxide (“•NO”) can freely diffuse across cell membranes and provide an intercellular signaling mechanism. A review article with more information: Liu, Victor WT, and Paul L. Huang. “Cardiovascular Roles of Nitric Oxide: A Review of Insights from Nitric Oxide Synthase Gene Disrupted Mice.” Cardiovascular Research 77.1 (2008): 19-29.

Dr. Murad provided some reflections on scientific research and the possibility of religious faith in an interview at his alma mater Depauw University:

 “‘Science is about seeking the truth. The existence of god is irrelevant to a scientist, as is his or her faith. It is possible to have faith and be a scientist at the same time; it is also possible to be an atheist and a scientist at the same time. There are some researchers, however, whose faith and religion tend to distort the facts. That’s not going to lead to high-quality science… Science is all about getting to the facts — to information: how creatures are “created” and evolve, including on other planets too where there could be life.’”

His Nobel autobiography included some additional background: “[M]y brothers became Catholic when they married Catholic wives and I was baptized Episcopalian in college. My wife of more than forty years is Presbyterian, two of our daughters married Jewish men and one married a Catholic man… Throughout college…I would take additional classes at one of the local extensions of Indiana University for additional math or literature classes in order to take more courses in biology, chemistry, physics or Greek and Latin at DePauw. The Greek and Latin courses in high school and college were of great value subsequently in learning the root derivatives of many scientific words… ”

Referenced:
“Nobel Laureate Ferid Murad ’58 Discusses ‘Beauty of Science’ in Nature.” Depauw University. News & Media. 19 Oct 2011.
Murad, Ferid. “Nobel Biography.” ©Nobel Foundation 2005. Web 14 Sept 2018.
Image: Portrait of Ferid Murad by Isabel Pino.

James Joseph Sylvester: Baseis of Belief

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j.-j.-sylvester.-365x365On 3 September 1814, James Joseph Sylvester (1814–1897) was born in London, Great Britain. He was a British-American mathematician known for his contributions to number theory, combinatorics, matrix theory, partition theory and invariant theory.

Taking his first mathematics job at the London Equity and Law Life Assurance Society and contributing actuarial methods, Sylvester had found that further job advancement had required a law degree. He thereafter studied jurisprudence, at which time he met fellow mathematician Arthur Cayley (1821–1895), and then obtained a professorship at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, GB. In 1876, he was able to travel to the United States and begin teaching mathematics at Johns Hopkins University, where he founded the American Journal of Mathematics in 1878. His collected scientific work fills four volumes.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, 1866, Sylvester had noted how advances in mathematics often depend on the mathematician’s faith, something which he had likened to “a grain of mustard seed.”

“It seems very desirable to ascertain if either [genus of the cyclodes] or both is or are amenable to algebraical or analytical quantification. As crystallography was born of a chance observation by René Haüy of the cleavage-planes of a single fortunately fragile specimen, and the theory of invariants owes its existence to a solitary individual accidentally encountered and put on record by Gotthold Eisenstein, so out of the slender study of the Norwich spiral has sprung the vast and interminable calculus of cyclodes, which strikes such far-spreading and tenacious roots into the profoundest strata of denumeration, and, by this and the multitudinous and multifarious dependent theories which cluster around it, reminds one of the Scriptural comparison of the kingdom of heaven ‘to a grain of mustard-seed which a man took and cast into his garden, and it grew and waxed a great tree, and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it.’”

As noted in some sources, Prof. Sylvester’s adherence to Judaism had brought him difficulties at Oxford University (whose professors were required to subscribe to the 39 Articles of the Church of England), Columbia University and Johns Hopkins, where he observed how “the Baltimoreans are a very church going people and the Episcopal Church held in the highest honor.” Nonetheless, he still recorded: “I firmly believe that there is a better opportunity for creating a great mathematical school here than exists England and the young men of the Country are fired with the love of science and seem to me to be especially gifted with a genius for mathematics which has never before now had a chance of showing itself.”

Referenced:
Sylvester, James Joseph. “Outline trace of the theory of Reducible Cyclodes.” Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society. 1.1 (1866): 137-160.
Sylvester, James Joseph, and Karen Hunger Parshall. James Joseph Sylvester: Life and Work in Letters. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013), 203-204.
Image: Portrait of J.J. Sylvester by Alfred Edward Emslie (1848–1918).

Albert Claude: Higher Resolution to See God’s Providence

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On 24 August 1899, Albert Claude (1899–1983) was born in Neufchâteau, Belgium. He was a Belgian medical doctor and cell biologist who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1974 with Christian de Duve and George Emil Palade “for their discoveries concerning the structural and functional organization of the cell.” After the development of the technique of cell fractionation in the 1930s, he applied this method to the study of the agent of the Rous sarcoma, and cell organelles such as mitochondria, chloroplasts, endoplasmic reticuli, Golgi apparatuses, ribosomes and lysosomes. He was also among the first to utilize the electron microscope within the field of biology.

His Nobel Lecture (12 December 1974) had envisioned a future in which new possibilities for faith, including faith in God, could emerge from his generation’s scientific discoveries.

“We know the laws of trial and error, of large numbers and probabilities. We know that these laws are part of the mathematical and mechanical fabric of the universe, and that they are also at play in biological processes. But, in the name of the experimental method and out of our poor knowledge, are we really entitled to claim that everything happens by chance, to the exclusion of all other possibilities? About a year ago, I was invited to an official party by the Governor of a State. As the guests were beginning to leave, the Governor took me aside in a room nearby. He looked concerned and somewhat embarrassed. ‘Dr. Claude,’ he asked, ‘you seem to know much about life. Please tell me: what do you think about the existence of God?’. The question was unexpected, but I was not unprepared. I told him that for a modern scientist, practicing experimental research, the least that could be said, is that we do not know. But I felt that such a negative answer was only part of the truth. I told him that in this universe in which we live, unbounded in space, infinite in stored energy and, who knows, unlimited in time, the adequate and positive answer, according to my belief, is that this universe may, also, possess infinite potentialities…

For the resolving powers of our scientific instruments decide, at a given moment, of the size and the vision of our Universe, and of the image we then make of ourselves. Once Ptolemy and Plato, yesterday Newton, today Einstein, and tomorrow new faiths, new beliefs, and new dimensions. As a result of the scientific revolution of the present century we are finding ourselves living in a magic world, unbelievable less than hundred years ago-magic our telephone, radio, television by multichannel satellites, magic our conversations with the moon, with Mars and Venus, with Jupiter-magic these means which transform our former solitude into a permanent simultaneity of presence, among the members of the Solar System. For this equilibrium now in sight, let us trust that mankind, as it has occurred in the greatest periods of its past, will find for itself a new code of ethics, common to all, made of tolerance, of courage, and of faith in the Spirit of men.”

Referenced:
“Albert Claude.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Claude, Albert. “Nobel Lecture: The Coming Age of the Cell.” Stockholm, SWE. 12 December 1974. Image: République Togolaise Stamp.

John Paul II: Faith has no fear of Reason

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“Thomas [Aquinas] recognized that nature, philosophy’s proper concern, could contribute to the understanding of divine Revelation. Faith therefore has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it. Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfillment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason. Illumined by faith, reason is set free from the fragility and limitations deriving from the disobedience of sin and finds the strength required to rise to the knowledge of the Triune God. Although he made much of the supernatural character of faith, the Angelic Doctor did not overlook the importance of its reasonableness; indeed he was able to plumb the depths and explain the meaning of this reasonableness. Faith is in a sense an ‘exercise of thought’; and human reason is neither annulled nor debased in assenting to the contents of faith, which are in any case attained by way of free and informed choice.”

St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 43.

>> Fides et Ratio

Frederick Hoyle: Pursuing a Greater Understanding of Religious Thought

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small_8247On 20 August 2001, Frederick Hoyle, (1915–2001) passed away in Bournemouth, UK. An important 20th century astronomer, he had coined the phrase “Big Bang,” and then later advocated for an alternative theory of cosmic expansion, the ‘steady state theory,’ in which the density of matter remains unchanged in the expanding universe due to a continuous creation of matter.

He also authored original papers on the triple-alpha process—nuclear fusion chain reactions from helium-4 to carbon-6, the B²FH theory—outlining several possible processes explaining the synthesis of elements in their natural relative abundance, and the Hoyle-Narlikar theory—a theory of gravity based on Mach’s principle compatible with the “steady state theory.”

When working to fit data to mathematical analysis, Prof. Hoyle and his collaborator Raymond A. Lyttleton (1911–1995) had observed the following with regard to their methodology:

I don’t see the logic of rejecting data just because they seem incredible. It is often held that scientific hypotheses are constructed, and are to be constructed, only after a detailed weighing of all possible evidence bearing on the matter, and that then and only then may one consider, and still only tentatively, any hypotheses. This traditional view however, is largely incorrect, for not only is it absurdly impossible of application, but it is contradicted by the history of the development of any scientific theory. What happens in practice is that by intuitive insight, or other inexplicable inspiration, the theorist decides that certain features seem to him more important than others and capable of explanation by certain hypotheses. Then basing his study on these hypotheses the attempt is made to deduce their consequences. The successful pioneer of theoretical science is he whose intuitions yield hypotheses on which satisfactory theories can be built, and conversely for the unsuccessful (as judged from a purely scientific standpoint).”

Perhaps critically applying these precepts of a scientific method to the evaluation of religious texts, he and collaborator Chandra Wickramasinghe (b. 1939) later wrote:

In the language of religion, it is the facts we observe in the world around us that must be seen to constitute the words of God. Documents, whether the Bible, Qur’an or those writings that held such force for Velikovsky, are only the words of men. To prefer the words of men to those of God is what one can mean by blasphemy. This, we think, is the instinctive point of view of most scientists who, curiously again, have a deeper understanding of the real nature of religion than have the many who delude themselves into a frenzied belief in the words, often the meaningless words, of men. Indeed, the lesser the meaning, the greater the frenzy, in something like inverse proportion.”

Referenced:
Hoyle, F., and R. A. Lyttleton. “On the Internal Constitution of the Stars.” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society .102 (1942). Quoted in: Kragh, Helge. Cosmology and Controversy: The Historical Development of Two Theories of the Universe. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 194-195.
Hoyle, Frederick and Chandra Wickramasinghe. Our Place in the Cosmos. (London, UK: J.M. Dent Publishers, 1993), 14; partial text at: wikiquote. Image: “Frederick Hoyle’s Pursuit” (1952), mosaic by Boris Anrep (1883–1969), © National Gallery, London.