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William Dembski Debate

December 2005

Is life on Earth the product of a supernatural Creator or Darwinian evolution? Can science prove the existence of God? Michael Shermer goes head to head on Audiomartini with noted Intelligent Design theorist William Dembski, fellow of the Discovery Institute. The devout and the heretical alike will gain insight from this fascinating interview.

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Mr. Skeptic Goes to Esalen

December 2005
Science and spirituality on the California coast
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The Esalen Institute is a cluster of meeting rooms, lodging facilities and hot tubs all nestled into a stunning craggy coastal outcrop of the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, Calif. In his 1985 book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”, the Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman recounts his experience in the natural hot spring baths there, in which a woman is being massaged by a man she just met. “He starts to rub her big toe. ‘I think I feel it,’ he says. ‘I feel a kind of dent — is that the pituitary?’ I blurt out, ‘You’re a helluva long way from the pituitary, man!’ They looked at me, horrified … and said, ‘It’s reflexology!’ I quickly closed my eyes and appeared to be meditating.”

With that as my introduction to the Mecca of the New Age movement, I accepted an invitation to host a weekend workshop there on science and spirituality. Given my propensity for skepticism when it comes to most of the paranormal piffle proffered by the prajna peddlers meditating and soaking their way to nirvana here, I was surprised the hall was full. Perhaps skeptical consciousness is rising! (continue reading…)

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Rupert’s Resonance

November 2005
The theory of “morphic resonance” posits that people have a sense of when they are being stared at. What does the research show?
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Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to do a newspaper crossword puzzle later in the day? Me neither. But according to Rupert Sheldrake, it is because the collective successes of the morning resonate through the cultural morphic field.

In Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance, similar forms (morphs, or “fields of information”) reverberate and exchange information within a universal life force. “As time goes on, each type of organism forms a special kind of cumulative collective memory,” Sheldrake writes in his 1981 book A New Science of Life (JP Tarcher). “The regularities of nature are therefore habitual. Things are as they are because they were as they were.” In this book and subsequent ones, Sheldrake, a botanist trained at the University of Cambridge, details the theory, which is again hotly debated in the recent June Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Morphic resonance, Sheldrake says, is “the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species” and accounts for phantom limbs, how dogs know when their owners are coming home, and how people know when someone is staring at them. “Vision may involve a two-way process, an inward movement of light and an outward projection of mental images,” Sheldrake explains. Thousands of trials conducted by anyone who downloaded the experimental protocol from Sheldrake’s Web page “have given positive, repeatable, and highly significant results, implying that there is indeed a widespread sensitivity to being stared at from behind.” (continue reading…)

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Unweaving the Heart

October 2005
Science only adds to our appreciation for poetic beauty and experiences of emotional depth
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Nineteenth-century English poet John Keats once bemoaned that Isaac Newton had “Destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism.” Natural philosophy, he lamented, “Will clip an Angel’s wings/Conquer all mysteries by rule and line/Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine/Unweave a rainbow.”

Does a scientific explanation for any given phenomenon diminish its beauty or its ability to inspire poetry and emotional experiences? I think not. Science and aesthetics are complementary, not conflicting; additive, not detractive. I am nearly moved to tears, for example, when I observe through my small telescope the fuzzy little patch of light that is the Andromeda galaxy. It is not just because it is lovely, but because I also understand that the photons of light landing on my retina left Andromeda 2.9 million years ago, when our ancestors were tiny-brained hominids. I am doubly stirred because it was not until 1923 that astronomer Edwin Hubble, using the 100-inch telescope on Mount Wilson in the hills just above my home in Los Angeles, deduced that this “nebula” was actually a distant extragalactic stellar system of immense size. He subsequently discovered that the light from most galaxies is shifted toward the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum (literally unweaving a rainbow of colors), meaning that the universe is expanding away from its explosive beginning. That is some aesthetic science. (continue reading…)

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Rumsfeld’s Wisdom

September 2005
Where the known meets the unknown is where science begins
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At a February 12, 2002, news briefing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained the limitations of intelligence reports: “There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Rumsfeld’s logic may be tongue-twisting, but his epistemology was sound enough that he was quoted twice at the World Summit on Evolution. The June conference, hosted by San Francisco University of Quito, was held on the Galápagos island of San Cristóbal, where Charles Darwin began his explorations. Rumsfeld’s wisdom was first invoked by University of California at Los Angeles paleobiologist William Schopf, who, in a commentary on a lecture on the origins of life, asked: “What do we know? What are the unsolved problems? What have we failed to consider?”

Creationists and outsiders often mistake the latter two categories for signs that evolution is in trouble, or that contentious debate between what we know and do not know means that the theory is false. Wrong. The summit revealed a scientific discipline rich in data and theory as well as controversy and disputation over the known and unknown. (continue reading…)

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