Monday, January 25, 2016

Evolution directed by God?
The Lactase Persistence Gene

Distribution of the Lactase Persistence Gene 
from the University College of London

Mammalian babies drink milk. Almost all non-human adult mammals do not drink milk. Some human adult mammals drink milk (northern Europeans, East Africans, West Africans), while many adult human mammals (East Asian, Bantu, Basque) cannot drink milk without suffering lactose intolerance symptoms (lactose, a milk sugar, cannot be metabolized).

Here's the story: mammalian infants have an enzyme, lactase that enables lactose to be metabolized. This enzyme is normally lost after infants are weaned. However in certain groups where dairy farming has been carried out, a gene, "lactase persistence gene",  enables the enzyme to continue to be present. This gene was not present in these groups (Northern Europeans/East Africans) 8000 to 10,000 years ago, but is now (77% or higher in Northern Europeans). Therefore it must have appeared as a mutation and by enhancing survivability, spread.

This was the story I heard in John Hawkes' audiobook, "The Rise of Humans", (see also the article linked in the picture caption), and it seemed plausible, but as physicist I wanted numbers. The best science according to Fr. Stanley Jaki is quantitative, so that predictions or retrodictions can be assessed quantitatively. And I have found such a mathematical test in an article by Todd Bersagiliari and many others, Genetic Signatures of Strong Recent Positive Selection at the Lactase Gene.


Dancing on a tightrope of very involved statistical and Markov chain calculations (I have to confess I don't fully understand all the math, but accept it) the authors find that this mutated gene, which allowed persistence of the lactase enzyme action, enhanced survivability by between .09 and 0.19 for the Scandinavian population and between 0.014 and 0.15 for the East African. I take this "coefficient of selection" to mean that those Scandinavians carrying this dominant gene produced between 1.09 to 1.19 more children per generation than those who did not have the gene.    Their retrodictive frequencies are in accord with the relative frequencies of the gene: orange to red, high;  blue to indigo, low.


Here are some of the features of this problem that I don't understand.   The lactose intolerance symptoms described in the linked article (and others) cause discomfort but are not altogether debilitating.   In many cases, yogurt and other dairy products in which lactose has been degraded can be eaten by lactose intolerant individuals.   If dairy farming started out with products such as those, whence the 10 to 20 % increase in progeny from lactase persistent gene, which enabled less refined dairy products to be eaten?

When this article was posted as a short commentary in the Biologos Forum, I put a question to one of the authors of the linked paper:  how did the mathematical analysis distinguish between a single mutation that spread and multiple mutations?   He answered that the analysis was predicated on just a single mutation, and that was all that was necessary for the spread of the desirable trait.
If one looks at the map of incidence of high proportion of this gene, it appears in multiple regions: Northern Europe, East Africa and the Arabian peninsula, West Africa, such that migration of peoples with the gene would not have been a likely mechanism for its spread.   (I've read various accounts of where the mutation originated--Hungary, Iranian plateau--but a single geographic origin doesn't seem to be compatible with the present distribution.)

My point then is (and it's altogether speculative) what about God directing such a mutation (or more) to occur where dairy farming was prevalent?   There's no way of proving it (or disproving it), but it's consistent with the facts.

And we'll leave it there for critical comments (be nice, please).  Finally, let me say that I'm happy to not throw brickbats at the Neo-Darwinians who argue for survival of the fittest as a mechanism for evolution (provided God lends a helping hand).


My wife added some enlightening comments after she read this:  perhaps I had reversed causal relations:  dairy farming came after the mutation.   Also, in the Mediterranean and other warmer climates where sheep and goats rather than cattle are raised, yogurt and hard cheese are more common than milk and soft cheeses as dairy products (less liable to spoil) and less likely to cause lactose intolerance symptoms.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"It from bit"... What about God?

 "Consciousness from Cosmos"
" 'It from bit' symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — at a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that what we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe." John Wheeler,  Information, Physics, the Quantum: the Search for Links


In delving into information theory as a foundation for quantum mechanical theory,   I encountered again John Wheeler's revolutionary thesis that we create the past by observing it--"The Participatory Universe".    The thesis rests on John Wheeler's "It from Bit" hypothesis.   In what follows I'll summarize that thesis by examining the "three questions", four "no's" and five "clues" that he uses to establish the proposition.  I'll also try to see what theological implications, if any, are entailed by this scheme.   


These are the three questions:

  1. How come existence?
  2. How come the quantum?
  3. How come "one world" out of many observer-participants?"loc.cit. p.310
 Wheeler's answer to the first question is
"...every it — every particle, every field of force, even the spacetime continuum itself — derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely — even if in some contexts indirectly — from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes or no questions, binary choices..., bits." ibid.
That statement seems to be implicitly based on a a physicalist view of reality; that only those things measured or tied to a physical picture of the world are real. What about all those important things that can never be quantified as a binary choice?   I'll mention just three in which degree, rather than "yes" or "no" enter as qualifiers:  love, faith, happiness.    You, dear reader, please supply some others.

Wheeler gives three examples to support the claim that information theory--"it from bit"--is a foundation for quantum theory:

  • The Wootters-Zurek demonstration that the photon can not be split, can not be cloned;
  • The Aharanov-Bohm experiment in which a magnetic field, negligible in the neighborhood of an electron, nevertheless affects its trajectory;
  • The Beckenstein entropy of dark holes, in which the entropy of a black hole is proportional to the area encircled by its horizon, and thus contains (lost?) information.
Information theory as foundational for quantum theory is very much in vogue these days, as indicated by the number of popular science articles on the subject. (This assertion is disparaging, I'll admit and offer as an excuse only my own inadequate background in the subject.)  The most thorough and intelligible discussion of information theory/quantum mechanics that I've found is Christopher Timpson's Ph.D. Thesis, "Quantum Information Theory and the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics .   I'll not attempt to summarize that work, but only remark that Timpson shoots holes in several attempts to establish information theory as the grounding for quantum mechanics, but does endorse one proposal, which lays a quantum mechanics foundation not only on information theory but on the mathematics of C-algebras.

As did Wheeler, I'll leave the answer to the third question until the "four no's" and "five clues" are discussed.


And here are the four "no's":
  1. No "tower of turtles";
  2. No laws;
  3. No continuum;
  4. No space, no time.
The "no tower of turtles" statement asserts that infinite regress in a causal chain is not possible*.  In this Wheeler, St. Thomas Aquinas, and other philosophers are in agreement.

The "no laws" assertion denies that the universe is a machine built on law, a machine that would entail a multiverse, "universes in infinite variety and infinite number".    Rather, Wheeler envisions a "world self-synthesized":
"...the notes struck out on a piano by the observer-participants of all places and all times, bits though they are, in and by themselves constitute the great wide world of space and time and things." loc.cit, p. 314
The "world self-synthesized" by "observer-participants of all places and all times" is, presumably, the answer or part of the answer to the third question above.    But more questions are raised than answered here.  Would an annelid worm, an eagle, and a human synthesize the same world, or is it only "intelligent beings"?   If the last, what about the world synthesized by a Cro-Magnon man, an Australian aborigine, and Helen Keller?  I don't see a coherent scheme here.
But I do have a different answer--see below.

By stating there is "no continuum", Wheeler denies the reality of transcendental and irrational numbers.   He uses quotes from the mathematician Hermann Weyl and the philosopher Willard Quine. to support that claim.  One should also note that  the "no continuum" condition requires that space and time must be discrete (but see below).

Wheeler's "no space, no time" condition is perhaps the most unappealing intuitively.   He claims that space and time are man-made inventions, and that at the beginning of the universe, "The Big Bang", quantum behavior would override General Relativity--there would be no connectivity in space and before and after would have no meaning.


The five clues are listed below, but I'll not go into a detailed discussion of them, because (frankly) I find them confusing.
  1. The boundary of a boundary is zero;
  2. No question, no answer;
  3. The super-Copernican principle;
  4. Consciousness;
  5. More is different.
As near as I can understand the first clue, it rests on topology: for example, the boundary of a line is its end-points, which have zero length;  the boundary of a plane area is a circumference, which has zero area; etc.    The second clue I don't understand in full, other than it says that probabilistic analyses in physics are misleading and that physics should be built on bit-theoretic principles.   The third clue extends the Copernican spatial principle  to time (we are not the center of the universe; any location is equally suitable as a reference):  "now" is a misleading characterization of reality.   By "consciousness", Wheeler does not refer to any of the issues that engage philosophers of mind, connecting quantum theory with an observer directly.   Rather (as near as I can understand it) he refers to shared communication, as per his quote of Fellesdal:
"Meaning is the joint product of all the evidence that is
available to those who communicate."
 D. Fellesdal: "Meaning and experience," in Mind and Language, p. 25-44.
"More is different" states what many philosophers and scientists propose:  there are "emergent" properties of a group of elements that are not best analyzed by reduction to the properties of the individual elements;  for example, superconductivity is not best treated as a problem involving individual electrons in a metal.

Wheeler outlines a program for physics research that would employ all the ideas above, but that program won't be discussed here; it is available on the online version of his paper, linked above.


Missing from Wheeler's thesis is any notion of the Divine as Creator and Sustainer of the universe, and to me, this lack renders the enterprise without value, however interesting it might be.  I believe that quantum mechanics does provide an insight into Divine intervention.

In an article posted two years ago (almost to this day!) I wrote about the theological and philosophical implications of the quantum delayed choice experiment.    The experiment was originally proposed by Wheeler, and has been successfully implemented by several physicists,   What are the philosophical/theological implications of the delayed choice experiment?   I believe this has been best expressed by the American physicist Raymond Chiao, in his article "Quantum Non-Localities: Experimental Evidence" in Quantum Mechanics--Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, V.5  (publ: Vatican Observatory and Center for Theology and Natural Science;  see below for link).
Although it's a long quote, it expresses better than I can the link between quantum mechanics and neo-Berkeleyan vision of Divine intervention.
"I shall assume as a basic principle that the universe we live in bears witness to the Creator who created it  [emphasis added]...let us generalize Berkeley's philosophical principle to a 'neo-Berkeleyan point of view' in which God is the Observer of the universe, in the quantum sense of 'observer'.   This generalization starts from small which an observer created reality is seen to occur upon every elementary act of observation, and ends up with large systems--in particular with the entire universe.  
In this viewpoint, every elementary, individual quantum a result of a creative act of the universal Observer, in which all properties of all particles come into existence on their observation, in continual acts of creatio ex nihilo, which constitutes a kind of creatio continua  occurring everywhere at once.   Thus the existence of the universe itself is contingent upon the continual observations of the Creator.   The idea of contingency of existence, in the sense of the utter dependency of the universe for its properties and existence at each moment upon its Creator, is thereby introduced via quantum physics into philosophy and theology...
...Furthermore, this viewpoint suggests a new meaning of the immanence  of the Creator with respect to creation, since God is acting everywhere at once in the universe.   Thus God is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent...The neo-Berkeleyan viewpoint introduced here suggests not only a continual creatio ex nihilo qua creatio continua by an immanent Creator, but also a singular creatio ex nihilo by a transcendent Creator.
Moreover, the above Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen effects imply a quantum non-separability, which ties together the universe non-locally as a whole.  This reminds one of the words of the Apostle John,'All things come into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being that has being.'  (John I:3)and of the words of the Apostle Paul,'All things have been created through him and for him...and to him all things hold together.' (Colossians I:16,17)...We infer that 'all things' refers to the universe.  Not only are all distant parts the universe woven together throughout space, but also its future and its past are entangled throughout time, as if the universe were one seamless garment."  Raymond Chiao,  "Quantum Non-Localities: Experimental Evidence" in Quantum Mechanics--Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, V.5**
So, to summarize:  the Anglican theologian Bishop George Berkeley gave us the dictum, "esse est percipi"--to be is to be perceived, which we can invert:
percipi est esse.   In this Wheeler's Participatory Universe stands, but it is God who is the participating observer.    And to reinforce this point, what could be better than Monsignor Ronald Knox's limerick about Berkeleyan idealism:

"There was a young man who said, 'God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad.'
'Dear Sir:
Your astonishment's odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,
GOD.' "


*Wheeler is paraphrasing the expression "turtles all the way down".   There's  a famous anecdote about the elderly lady asserting a flat earth theory to a famous philosopher (two versions: William James or Bertrand Russell):  the earth rested on the back of a large elephant, which in turn rested on a larger turtle.   When asked what that turtle rested on, the lady replied, "don't be silly--it's turtles all the way down."

**Click on the reddish-violet icon for the book and the chapter headings will appear on the right;   click on the one for Raymond Chiao and a summary will appear.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

God's Gift to Man, Redux:
Music, Sacred and Profane

 "This so-called ‘music,’ they would have to concede, is in some way efficacious to humans. Yet it has no concepts, and makes no propositions; it lacks images, symbols, the stuff of language. It has no power of representation. It has no relation to the world."  Oliver Sacks, The Power of Music *
"Did you write the book of love, And do you have faith in God above, If the Bible tells you so? Do you believe in rock n'roll, Can music save your mortal soul?" Don McLean, American Pie


As  I listened to the NY Philharmonic's New Year's eve concert, "La Vie Parisienne", a post I wrote some time ago came to mind: on the power of music to shape our devotion in the Church.   Now, the music I had been listening to was not by any means sacred music;  Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld Overture, including the beautiful love song to Eurydice and that infamous "Can Can".    Nevertheless, the love song evoked emotion, as did Can Can, but of a different kind.

The week before I had been immersed in Christmas Carols, playing the alto clarinet for our parish instrumental group (harmony, tenor line of chorus or cello part).   Before the Christmas Vigil Mass, we played "Child of the Poor/What Child is This, beautiful counterpoint with tenor/baritone, tenor/soprano duets.  While playing Silent Night,  I thought "what a change from my childhood", when as a Jew, I had believed that I would betray my people by listening to the carol,  even though it sounded so beautiful.

But back to what this post is about.   I'm going to repost the earlier material and add some thoughts on how music has been corrupted by a modernist hedonist culture.    Let me preface  these remarks with an apology--I'm not a musician and not an expert in liturgical music; for a more informed view, there are other sources; the one I prefer is The Chant Cafe.


My first encounter with the power of music in liturgy came at a 40 Hours devotional service. (See Top Down to Jesus) .     I had been preparing for entry into the Church and although on rational grounds I had come to believe in the Resurrection and its implications, there were matters of dogma I found  difficult to understand, particularly that important one, transubstantiation, the change of the substance of the host into the body of Christ.   As the monstrance was carried in during the procession of the 40 Hours service,  Tantum Ergo was played, and as I read in the missal
"Præstet fides supplementum, Sensuum defectui."
enough of my high school Latin came back, "faith will supplement the deficiency of the senses", for me to realize in my heart, that the wafer, the host, was the body of Christ, that it was mystery beyond science and philosophy, and my eyes filled with tears.    St. Thomas Aquinas wrote great works of theology and philosophy, but perhaps his hymns are the most effective way he has led people to God.

Other liturgical music has struck to my heart in ways no homily or theological text seems to do.    During my first Easter Vigil Mass  The Litany of the Saints was played, and an overwhelming  vision of the history of the Church and all its holy people came to me.    During  Vespers at St. Vincent Archabbey (attended during retreat as a Benedictine Oblate)  a great peace and understanding  came over me as I listened to the strong voices chanting the psalms. 

Other music, not  liturgical--Bach (the B minor Mass),  Ralph Vaughan William's Dona Nobis Pacem,  will bring me to thoughts of God.  Peter Kreeft's saying "If Bach exists, there must be a God" is echoed by many.   

Hymns  that I want to be played at my funeral have made their mark:  Amazing Grace, Shall We Gather by the River,  Jerusalem my Happy Home, The Lord of the Dance (old and corny pieces from evangelical churches, for the most part).   And there are those I play with the instrumental group at Church, It is Well with my Soul, Panis Angelicus, Mozart's Ave Verum, The King of Love My Shepherd Is, Old 100th and so many others.  (I play the alto clarinet, not well, but enough to provide harmony--a tenor or  bass voice, since I can't sing on key.)

One thing should be clear: it isn't the music by itself that is moving, but the total situation:  liturgy, congregation, and the words.   I could read
"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,That saved a wretch like me.I once was lost but now am found,Was blind, but now I see.T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.And Grace, my fears relieved.How precious did that Grace appearThe hour I first believed." Liberty Lyrics John Newton 
It would be moving, but it is the combination of the words that reflect my own experience AND the music that brings me to tears of joy.  I could read the verses of Tantum Ergo and Pange Lingua, but it would not be meaningful without the presence of Christ's body, the procession, the Benediction,  and the congregation sharing this experience.

Am I only being sentimental and not truly devoted to the austere beauty of liturgy in my reaction to this music--too catholic (with a lower-case c)?   Some Church liturgists might think so.
"It is not surprising that Church leaders have doubted whether the feelings which music arouses are truly religious.  Music's power to fan the flames of piety may be more apparent than real..."Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind     


"Sing unto the LORD with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.  With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the LORD, the King." Psalm 98:5,6 (KJV)

The Hebrews did not worry about music being a distraction from devotion to the Lord.    David danced in the procession to the altar and the psalms say "Sing to the Lord a new song,  play the lute, the lyre and the harp, sound the trumpets".    St. Augustine, entranced by music, was concerned that this power might enable the senses to overcome the intellect in worship:
"So I waver between the danger that lies in gratifying the senses and the benefits which, as I know, can accrue from singing....I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired  with feelings of devotion.  Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth  which it conveys, I confess it is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer. [emphasis added]" St. Augustine, Confessions
The last sentence in the quote is the foundation for the expulsion of music from the Church in Calvinist sects (read "The Warden" by Anthony Trollope).   I cannot subscribe to that view.  I am one of St. Augustine's weaker spirits.   I believe God gave many, many gifts to man in giving him intelligence:  language, mathematics, music, art.   Music has the power to heal the soul (as Oliver Sacks shows in Musicophilia) and to bring one closer to God.   We give joy to God  when we rejoice in music, not only to praise Him, but to rejoice in life (l'Chaim)


I'll not say much about that music which leads us away from God--Gangsta Rap, Hip-Hop, and all the perversions of popular music--other than to curse it and its practitioners to an eternity of Gregorian chant.  (As with Fr. Groeschel's prayer for the singer Madonna, that she be reverted and go to a cloistered nunnery.)  I was forced to bear with milder versions of such during a trip, carrying a grandson back to college.   Is this music a cause or a symptom of what's wrong with our society?

This music appeals only to an immediate gratification, to the brutish impulses to dominate, to have that which we desire without thought of consequences or morality.  It leads away from God, not to Him.   I'm not a proponent of censorship, but...   So, is there a Gresham's law of music?  Does bad music drive out good?    At concerts the age distribution is weighted heavily to those with white or no hair.   On the other hand, I was happy to see at a chamber music concert at a local university a high proportion of undergraduates.   There may be hope.

Perhaps what we need to do as parents and grandparents is to introduce our children to the joys of good music.  We can't assume that their musical taste is totally corrupted.   Trade a half an hour of hip-hop for a half-hour of light classics and bring them to concerts at an early age.    And finally, bring good, serious music to the Liturgy.


In music, as is in all else, God has given us Free Will:  the freedom to make a choice between good and evil.


*This quote, to show what a strange gift  music is, comes from Arthur C. Clarke's classic "Childhood's End", in which an alien species comes to guide mankind from childhood to maturity.   The very intelligent aliens do not understand the power of music.    They go to a concert,  listen politely and come away wondering.

Friday, January 1, 2016

More St. Augustine: Weakness Becomes Strong

St. Augustine and the Fire of Wisdom
"He lies in the manger, but contains the world.
He nurses at the breasts, but feeds angels.
He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, but visits us with immortality.
He found no place at the inn, but makes for Himself a temple in the hearts of believers.
In order the weakness might become strong, strength becomes weak."

About Me

My photo

Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.