scientists

The Vatican joins the search for alien life

The Vatican joins the search for alien life

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is holding a conference on astrobiology, the study of life beyond Earth, with scientists and religious leaders gathering in Rome this week.

For centuries, theologians have argued over what the existence of life elsewhere in the universe would mean for the Church: at least since Giordano Bruno, an Italian monk, was put to death by the Inquisition in 1600 for claiming that other worlds exist.

Among other things, extremely alien-looking aliens would be hard to fit with the idea that God “made man in his own image”.

Furthermore, Jesus Christ’s role as saviour would be confused: would other worlds have their own, tentacled Christ-figures, or would Earth’s Christ be universal?

However, just as the Church eventually made accommodations after Copernicus and Galileo showed that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, and when it belatedly accepted the truth of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Catholic leaders say that alien life can be aligned with the Bible’s teachings.

Father Jose Funes, a Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican Observatory and one of the organisers of the conference, said: “As a multiplicity of creatures exists on Earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God.

“This does not conflict with our faith, because we cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God.”

Not everyone agrees. Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist and author of The Goldilocks Enigma, told The Washington Post that the threat to Christianity is “being downplayed” by Church leaders. He said: “I think the discovery of a second genesis would be of enormous spiritual significance.

“The real threat would come from the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, because if there are beings elsewhere in the universe, then Christians, they’re in this horrible bind.

“They believe that God became incarnate in the form of Jesus Christ in order to save humankind, not dolphins or chimpanzees or little green men on other planets.”

The Academy conference will include presentations from scientists – by no means all of them Christians – on the discovery of planets outside our solar system, the geological record of early life on Earth, how life might have started on Earth, and whether “alien” life of a different biochemistry to our own might exist here without our knowing, among many other things.

Thanks again to JT Hundley for this one.

Free Will vs. the Programmed Brain

Free Will vs. the Programmed Brain

Many scientists and philosophers are convinced that free will doesn’t exist at all. According to these skeptics, everything that happens is determined by what happened before—our actions are inevitable consequences of the events leading up to the action—and this fact makes it impossible for anyone to do anything that is truly free. This kind of anti-free will stance stretches back to 18th century philosophy, but the idea has recently been getting much more exposure through popular science books and magazine articles. Should we worry? If people come to believe that they don’t have free will, what will the consequences be for moral responsibility?

In a clever new study, psychologists Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara tested this question by giving participants passages from The Astonishing Hypothesis, a popular science book by Francis Crick, a biochemist and Nobel laureate (as co-discoverer, with James Watson, of the DNA double helix). Half of the participants got a passage saying that there is no such thing as free will. The passage begins as follows: “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of inevitable .”
The passage then goes on to talk about the neural basis of decisions and claims that “…although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.” The other participants got a passage that was similarly scientific-sounding, but it was about the importance of studying consciousness, with no mention of free will.

After reading the passages, all participants completed a survey on their belief in free will. Then comes the inspired part of the experiment. Participants were told to complete 20 arithmetic problems that would appear on the computer screen. But they were also told that when the question appeared, they needed to press the space bar, otherwise a computer glitch would make the answer appear on the screen, too. The participants were told that no one would know whether they pushed the space bar, but they were asked not to cheat.

The results were clear: those who read the anti-free will text cheated more often! (That is, they pressed the space bar less often than the other participants.) Moreover, the researchers found that the amount a participant cheated correlated with the extent to which they rejected free will in their survey responses.