Cosmic Inevitability

by Kieran Healy on August 20, 2003

Just read “E.T. and God,” an article by Paul Davies in the current Atlantic Monthly about what would happen to religion if extraterrestrial life of any sort were discovered. The author tends to slide about between that question and the narrower issue of what would happen to the theologies of the major world religions, especially Christianity. As Davies himself notes, the discovery of E.T. would do all kinds of things for groups like the Raelians. (Funny how their clone story dropped off the map, by the way. Whatever happened to the allegedy respectable science journalist who was going to verify their claims, I wonder?)

Davies shows a marked weakness for the argument from design, and in particular its “anthropic principle” subgenus:

bq. If life is found to be widespread in the universe, the new argument goes, then it must emerge rather easily from nonliving chemical mixtures, and thus the laws of nature must be cunningly contrived to unleash this remarkable and very special state of matter, which in turn is a conduit to an even more remarkable and special state: mind.

He also paraphrases a biologist:

bq. Simon Conway Morris, of Cambridge University, makes his own case for a “ladder of progress,” invoking the phenomenon of convergent evolution — the tendency of similar-looking [sic] organisms to evolve independently in similar ecological niches … Conway Morris maintains that the “humanlike niche” is likely to be filled on other planets that have advanced life. He even goes so far as to argue that extraterrestrials would have a humanoid form. It is not a great leap from this conclusion to the belief that extraterrestrials would sin, have consciences, struggle with ethical questions, and fear death.

Hey, why stop there? I bet they also have homologues to non-fat vanilla lattes, frat parties and New Labour. I remember seeing a standup comic do a routine where he said he was an alien from a distant galaxy, where life was wholly different from Earth. “We have no concept of love, and no death,” he said, “and a different-shaped gearstick on the Honda Civic.”

As for the anthropic principle — the idea that the fundamental physical constants of the universe are so tightly calibrated that life could not have happened if any of them were a tiny bit different, and hence that the Universe was waiting for, e.g., Orange County to emerge — well, it’s always seemed like a lot of badly-reasoned old cobblers to me. It’s a bit like wondering how eggs know what shape eggcups are, or feeling pleased that God has organized things in such a way that the sun rises in the morning, just when people are ready to go to work.

Ever closer union

by Henry on August 20, 2003

“Dan Drezner”:http://www.danieldrezner.com/archives/000662.html points to this developing “story”:http://news.ft.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=FT.com/StoryFT/FullStory&c=StoryFT&cid=1059479073692&p=1012571727102 in the FT as an important test case for the EU. Under the “Growth and Stability Pact,” which lays down the rules for Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), all participating EU member states have to fulfil certain criteria in their national macroeconomic policies. Among other things, they’re not supposed to run a budget deficit over 3% of GDP, except in situations of dire emergency. It now appears that Germany is going to exceed this limit for the third year in a row. Ironically, it was Germany that pushed for tough rules on budget deficits in the first place – the German central bank was terrified that Italy and other ‘less responsible’ member states would go on spending sprees after they joined the EMU club.

The European Commission is making noises about keelhauling the Germans for their bad behavior, which Dan sees as a key test case for EU integration theory. International relations scholars who study the EU have traditionally been divided into two camps – those who believe that the EU is a standard international organization, with no independent power to do anything that its more powerful member states don’t want it to do, and ‘supranationalists’ who believe that it’s something more than the sum of its members. Dan is sympathetic to the former point of view; I tend to adhere to the latter. Dan thinks that the Commission is likely to back down on its threats, so that Germany, which is the most powerful member state, prevails – he believes that this will provide powerful evidence that the supranationalists are dead wrong. I think Dan’s prediction as to the likely empirical outcome is right – but I don’t think that this tells us very much about the bigger theoretical questions that Dan (and I) are interested in.

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Trotsky’s great-grand-daughter

by Chris Bertram on August 20, 2003

Via both CalPundit and Mark Kleiman comes the news that Trotsky’s great-grand-daughter has a high-profile position in US administations as director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She seems to have an odd line on the incompatibility of science and politics. An interesting nugget of historical gossip, anyway.

Gilligan’s own goal

by Chris Bertram on August 20, 2003

I missed the beginning of the Hutton Inquiry and I’m only just beginning to catch up. The details of yesterday’s evidence have been pushed down the headlines by the bigger news from Iraq and Israel, but it seems to me at least that yesterday’s evidence marks a major shift in favour of the government and against the BBC. Campbell performed well, but the really important revelation was Andrew Gilligan’s email to an aide of Liberal Democrat MP David Chidgey (Original email here). Gilligan – himself an “unsatisfactory witness” to the same select committee – is revealed both to have planted (if that’s not too strong a word) some of the questions that put David Kelly under so much pressure, and (despite having huffed and puffed about the need for journalists to protect sources) effectively “outed” Kelly as the source for his colleague Susan Watts. No wonder the BBC’s support for Gilligan seems to be fading, with their reaction limited to an anodyne “We are looking at this e-mail and will deal with it in the context of the Hutton inquiry.”

We shouldn’t forget, of course, that the government deliberately focused on the narrow issue of Campbell’s role in their row with the BBC in order to deflect attention from the big issue of whether the WMD case for war was deliberately exaggerated. But as far as the immediate political battle goes, the BBC looks to be on the ropes.

Job Creation

by Brian on August 20, 2003

When I first saw this line on the new Bush campaign website, I thought it must be another parody.

bq. Ruth supports President Bush because… of his work for job creation and economic growth.

You know, if my job creation record looked like this, I think I would be trying to pretend I’d had other priorities the last 30 months or so.