Thoughts on a few controversial topics related to science

Thoughts on a few controversial topics related to science March 20, 2019


A nebula
Public domain image from Caltech/NASA/JPL


The Age of the Earth


I’m sometimes described online as believing in a young Earth, even a literal six-day creation.


But youth, I suppose, is relative.  When I’m directly asked how old I believe the Earth to be, I always respond that it seems to be roughly 4.54 billion years old.


I hope that’s clear enough.




The evidence for evolution is, in my judgment, convincingly powerful.  Moreover, evolutionary theory seems to me one of the richest and most broadly applicable ideas in the history of science.


That said, I don’t accept the idea that evolution compels us to accept a purely purposeless, meaningless, and godless universe.  And, if the history of science is any guide, there will be plenty of twists and turns and modifications and amplifications and wrong turns and corrections in the future of evolutionary biology.


Intelligent Design:


Although I believe in God, my theistic worldview doesn’t compel or require me to accept specific propositions advanced by proponents of “Intelligent Design” or ID.   I could, for example, go instead with some form of theistic evolution.  And, in fact, that remains a possibility for me.


However, I find the ID movement’s ideas interesting, and worthy of consideration.  And I do think that some challenges remain for mainstream evolution and that ID theorists have been entirely within their rights to focus attention on them — e.g., the ultimate origin of terrestrial life, the emergence and encoding of complex information within plant and animal cells, the so-called “Cambrian Explosion,” etc.


I enjoy reading about these things.


So-Called “Paranormal Phenomena”:


I’ve recounted a particular autobiographical episode and will do so here again:


Many years ago, perhaps before I was married, I was in the offices of the family construction business.  My brother suddenly came out of his office and handed me two metal rods, each something like the thickness of a relatively heavy metal clothes hanger.  They were maybe 2.5 feet long (perhaps slightly more) and perfectly straight, except that roughly six inches of each were bent at a right angle.


He told me to hold them loosely in my hands, gripping the short portions but allowing them some “play,” and to walk slowly across the reception area.  I did so, holding them parallel in front of me.   At a certain place, they crossed.  And then, as I continued on, they fell apart again.


I was quite confident that I was not responsible for the movement in the rods.  So I walked across the reception area again.  And again.  And again.  Each time, the rods crossed at the same place in the room.


So I had the secretaries do it, too.  And a guest who came into the office while I was there.  And the mailman, when he came.


In each case, the rods crossed at that same location in the room.


Only once did this fail to occur.  That was in the case of our mechanic, Red Faler, a massive bear of a man who, I suspect, held the rods too tightly in his huge hands to allow them to move freely.


I asked my brother for an explanation.  He told me that there was a water pipe under the floor at the place where the rods crossed.  “Ah,” I said, “so it’s magnetism.”  No, he responded.  It was a clay pipe.


This seemed to me a clear case of water witching, or divining, or “dowsing.”  I had read about such things.


I found the experience — I find the experience — quite troubling.  It didn’t fit my worldview.  It still doesn’t.


I’ve mentioned this story publicly a few times, and it has drawn considerable scorn down upon me (in certain entirely predictable quarters) for my allegedly superstitious gullibility with regard to the “paranormal.”


But I propound no grand theory, I advocate no particular position on water witching, and I have no explanation.  I simply say that this happened to me.  I can’t deny that it did — and I think that to do so would be both dishonest and, in a very real sense, unscientific.  Since that time, I’ve read a little about water witching — not much, but enough to assure me that the statistical, scientific evidence seems powerfully arrayed against the effectiveness of the practice — and I’ve heard a few anecdotes (from people I respect) who report experiences similar to mine.  That’s where it stands.  On “dowsing,” anyhow.


Lately, too, I’ve been jousting a bit with my blog’s chief resident atheist ideologue on the question of telepathy.


He declares flatly that there is no evidence for it.  I respond that he hasn’t even looked.  He doesn’t seem to deny that.


Again, I have no special commitment to belief in ESP, clairvoyance, and telepathy.  I’ve always been skeptical of them, and my overall worldview will do perfectly fine without any of them.


As it happens, though, I read a couple of books about a decade ago that shook my attitude just a bit on that score:


Gary E. Schwartz, The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death (2003)


Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind (2008)


I went through a brief spasm of interest in the subject because of a side comment that I had read from the distinguished Anglo-American philosopher John Hick, who had briefly reported his own surprise at what he regarded as the unexpected strength of the evidence for seemingly “paranormal” mental properties.


I retain a skeptical but open mind on such topics.  I just don’t see closedminded dogmatism as a virtue.



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