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6/24/2017 » 7/1/2017
“The ‘Wicked Problem’ of Climate Change?” Star Island, Portsmouth, NH

“Creating Life in the Lab: Implications for Faith and Ethics,” State Line, PA

7/7/2017 » 7/14/2017
Summer Seminar on Intelligent Design, Seattle, WA

7/19/2017 » 7/22/2017
“Religion, Society and the Science of Life,” Oxford, UK

7/28/2017 » 7/31/2017
“Exploring New Heights for Science & Stewardship,” Golden, CO

Musings of the ASA Director Emeritus
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This blog compiles the occasional musings of Randy Isaac who was ASA Executive Director from 2005 to 2016 and is now ASA Director Emeritus.


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Reviewing the Dictionary of Christianity and Science

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Monday, June 5, 2017

It's time to do another book review. This one is not for PSCF since someone else had already committed to do it so this is at the request of the UK folks to be published in Science & Christian Belief. Zondervan's years-long project of publishing the Dictionary of Christianity and Science has finally come into print. I just received my copy and it will be quite a challenge to figure out how to review such a compilation.

Have any of you seen the book? Any insights or comments you have would be greatly appreciated. I'll try to post a few notes as I go through it.


Tags:  Dictionary  Zondervan 

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The Review is Complete

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Thursday, May 25, 2017

At long last, the review process of George Ellis’s book is complete. Yesterday I finally received the print copy of the book. Springer-Verlag has a protocol of giving reviewers 180 days online access (no downloading or copy and pasting) to read the book. Once the book review is published, the published copy must be uploaded for Springer to consider. If accepted, the reviewer can order a free copy of the book. Since my review appeared last week in the June 2017 issue of PSCF, I could finally order the book. I suspect I will be referring to the print copy rather often. I still learn a lot each time I read a page.

I would like to thank many of you for your most excellent assistance in commenting and questioning my notes and the drafts of the review. It was all most helpful.

The same issue of PSCF contains my review of An Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics by Marks, Dembski, and Ewert. The September issue will contain my review of Thinking Fair by Lucas Mix. I’ll post more on that later.

Meanwhile, I’ve enjoyed reading a few books that I do not need to review. Like American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. And Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee. And The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, by Benjamin Bradlee, Jr.

Meanwhile, spring has sprung and I enjoy getting my hands dirty in God’s creation, my favorite hobby of growing roses. This is what retirement is all about!

Tags:  Ellisretirement 

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Martin Luther: the 500th anniversary of the Reformation

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Wednesday, January 4, 2017

By now, most of us have heard the media rollout of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In particular, Martin Luther nailed a document of his 95 theses to the door of the cathedral of Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.

One of the highlights of my holiday was visiting the Morgan Library Museum in New York City. They are featuring an exhibit on Martin Luther until January 22, 2017. It is a small exhibit but worth seeing if you are near NYC.

To prepare for our visit, we listened again to the two-hour PBS Documentary on Martin Luther, narrated by Liam Neeson and starring Timothy West as Martin Luther. This helped us put the items on exhibit into perspective. After seeing the exhibition we listened to the documentary again to clarify details we had missed the first time.

The main elements of the story are well-known: the background of harsh discipline by Martin Luther’s parents; the effect of the plague on the society during his youth; his encounter with God in a thunderstorm leading to his becoming a monk; his insatiable quest for justification from God; and his fierce opposition to abuses of indulgences that triggered the 95 theses he put up for discussion. What was not as well known to us was the critical role played by Luther’s neighbor, friend and artist, Lucas Cranach the Elder. The exhibit displayed fascinating sculptures and paintings by Cranach that had a significant impact on portraying the ideas and concepts advocated by Luther. The PBS documentary had relatively little to say about this artist. The exhibit also featured many original and period artifacts that brought that era to life.

The account of Martin Luther’s stand at the Diet of Worms is also well known and often publicized. What was of more interest here was the development of ideas by Luther as he progressed in his ideology. He wrote the Augsburg Confession, still dominant in the Lutheran church, and translated the Bible into German from the Hebrew and Greek. He got married and had six children. He died of a massive heart attack at age 62. During that time he also seemed to advocate paradoxical views. On one hand, he wrote strongly against using violence to promote the gospel. On the other, he urged in harsh terms that the civil leaders should use violent means to quench the peasant rebellion. On one hand, he strongly defended the rights of Jews but on the other, he wrote some troubling anti-Semitic articles.

Luther was a dynamo, driven to work excessively and producing many hymns and orders of worship in addition to all his books and his teachings. Without a doubt, he ignited a movement that went far beyond what he intended and imagined. The past 500 years are worth contemplating in the light of his remarkable life. Because of him and the remarkable role of Frederick the Wise, the prince of Saxony, that region of Germany played the starring role in the beginning of the Reformation.

Tags:  Luther  Reformation 

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Evolutionary Informatics

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Now that the Ellis book review is in process for publication, it's time to move on to the next challenge. This time I will attempt a review of the forthcoming book in February 2017, Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, by Robert Marks, Bill Dembski, and Winston Ewert. Their website gives some indication of what it is about.

In contrast to the Ellis book, I will not bore you with notes and comments along the way. I would, however, be greatly interested in any perspective that any of you may have on this subject. If you have any knowledge of or interest in this topic, I would love to hear from you. It would help me.


Tags:  evolution  informatics  information 

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draft of Ellis Book Review

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Wednesday, November 23, 2016

I wish all of you a thoughtful and thankful holiday. If you need a break from family, fun, and food, I'd appreciate your taking a few moments to review the first draft of my attempt to take all those excerpts I've posted and construct a reasonable book review. The draft is posted here. I will keep it updated with changes as I edit it and then delete it and this post when I submit for publication. Please let me know what I left out, what I should leave out, and what needs clarification.

Thank you!

Tags:  Ellis  Emergence  Mind 

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draft for Smithsonian post

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Broad Social Impacts Committee of the Smithsonian Institute is asking each of us as members to write a 500 word or less post responding to a question about the Anthropocene Epoch. The question I am addressing is:

 "From your religious, philosophical or personal perspective, how do you understand the significance of the evolutionary process that has led to the global impact of Homo sapiens on planet Earth?"


I have written the draft below. It's a first pass and I'm willing to edit it significantly. I would greatly appreciate suggestions and comments from all of you. It is due before the end of November but I'd like to get it off my to-do list.

Thank you!


“What Are Human Beings That You Are Mindful of Them?”

Psalm 8:4, NRSV

Randy Isaac

The effort to formally designate our current age as the Anthropocene Epoch can be seen as either a paean to humanity or as an expression of self-exaltation. The latter view considers each extant species to be a successful culmination of billions of years of evolution with no species having superiority. The former view sees our species as a distinctive species worthy of praise for its accomplishments.

The psalmist looks at the grandeur of the heavens, notes the moon and the stars, and exclaims how remarkable it is that God would be mindful of human beings, by comparison hardly worthy of note. Yet the psalmist continues with amazement that God “…made [human beings] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet…” (Ps 8:5-6, NRSV)

The biblical perspective resonates with the Anthropocene Epoch designation in several ways. Three of those ways to be considered here are the uniqueness of humans, the human capability of understanding other species, and the responsibility given to humans for stewardship.

The biblical perspective emphasizes the uniqueness of humankind. Humans are the final act of creation and are the only species to whom God gives his own image. The Son of God became a human, signifying a special relationship between God and humans who have God-given responsibilities and are accountable to God. Scientifically, the unique evolutionary achievement of humans is manifold. Humans have an unparalleled adaptability enabling survival through significant environmental changes. Humans have an enhanced level of consciousness, communication skills, and ability for abstract reasoning. No other species comes close to human ability in these areas.

While most species interact with other species as needed for survival, only humans seem capable of studying and understanding any other species, independent of need. The biblical perspective stresses this capability in the account of Adam naming the animals. In Genesis 2:18-20 God forms animals and birds as helpers to Adam and they are brought to him for naming. The ancient practice of naming was not an arbitrary task of finding a pleasing word but an in-depth study of the characteristics of the one being named, assigning a name reflecting their nature. This is an indication that humans have evolved the ability and the mission of studying and understanding the nature of all species.

God explicitly gives humans the assignment of having dominion over the earth and all that is in it. This is a mandate for stewardship and loving care. Our scientific recognition that humans have a global impact, whether for good or for bad, shows how we cannot escape this assignment. The designation of an epoch reflecting our impact on the earth is a powerful reminder that we are responsible for sustaining all life on earth. May we all do our part to nurture and care for our world.

Tags:  anthropocene  evolution  human evolution 

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Ellis--Chapter Eight: The Broader View

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Friday, November 4, 2016

In this final chapter of the book, Ellis succinctly restates his views and admittedly embarks on a polemic for his world-view of emergence. He gives a practical example in the field of learning to read and write and lays out the path for more work to be done. The following excerpts give a hint as to the nature and tone of the book, which for me has been most compelling.

“The conclusion arising from the arguments given in this book is that there are other forms of causation than those encompassed by physics and physical chemistry alone, or even in genetics and neuroscience. Higher levels of structure have causal powers, based on strong emergence of higher level structure and function that can shape what happens in the world.”

“So from where do higher level ideas, theories, and behavior arise, given that they cannot be uniquely determined by physics data in the early universe? The obvious explanation is that they arise from the autonomous behavior of the human mind acting in an intelligent way, supervenient on but not causally determined by the underlying physics.”

“…emergence of higher level causal powers is possible because of randomness at lower levels that allows for selection of functionality on the basis of higher level selection criteria. And that is a form of top-down causation, adapting emergent life to its environment. There are essentially three ways that emergent properties come into being:

·       Self-assembly: emergence in the natural world

·       Natural selection: emergence in the biological world

·       Design and construction in the man-made world.”


“…while purely bottom-up effects can produce key ingredients needed for the existence of life, and while they can produce many interesting structures and patterns, what they can achieve is nevertheless strictly limited: it cannot lead to the existence of life. This needs the initiation of the top-down causal transfer of information that is required for adaptive selection to take place.”

“Chance, necessity, and purpose intertwine in the real world around us. Jacques Monod famously claimed that all that matters in biology is chance and necessity. But this misses the key element of purpose or goal-seeking, which is crucial to life.”

“That random processes are a core feature of biological functioning is indicated by many kinds of evidence…At the micro-level, biological systems do not live in a carefully controlled environment: they face rampant randomness all the time. It turns out that they take advantage of the storm of randomness encountered at the molecular level: there is much evidence that molecular machinery in biology is designed to use that randomness to attain its desired results…Randomness is harnessed through the process of adaptive selection, which allows higher levels of order and meaning to emerge. It is then a virtue, not a vice. It allows purpose to be an active agent by selecting desired outcomes from a range of possibilities.”

“[Physiological systems] came into being through natural selection, because they promoted survival. Once in existence, passed from generation to generation by genes and developed in each body by developmental processes, they have specific functions or purposes that are allowed by and indeed implemented through the underlying physics. But that physics knows nothing of these purposes.”

“Chance, necessity, and purpose all occur in living systems. It is the relation between them that is at issue, and this is where information comes in…And how does purpose fit in? An element of randomness at the bottom does not mean that all that happens is just pure chance. Rather it is one of the foundations that, together with necessity, opens up the possibilities of purposeful function and meaningful mental life, realized through physical existence. It does not have to have the connotation of meaningless so often ascribed to it. It is the gateway to variety and possibility.”

“Lower level random processes allow adaptive selection to work, creating purposeful order, on the basis of physical and chemical laws, embodying necessity. Physics provides the possibility space for what happens, but does not determine the outcome. Top-down causation allows higher level causes be what they appear to be: real effective causes that select lower level outcomes. Adaptive selection creates new classes of information and new instances of those classes, e.g., the genetic code and DNA that uses that code. Random fluctuations plus quantum uncertainty provide the freedom at the bottom needed to allow this to happen.”

“It is the existence of random processes at lower levels that enables purposeful actions at higher levels to take place through selection of preferred outcomes according to some higher level selection criterion. This enables processes of adaptation and learning in accordance with the logic of some higher level purpose.”

“Some aspects of complex systems are emergent from the interaction between the underlying particles and forces, but others are not emergent: rather they arise from the nature of the external environment. A crucial point then is that this environment includes abstract Platonic entities, such as mathematical forms and the laws of logic, which are not reducible to or emergent from any physical entities. They do, however, have causal power. They are transcendent entities in that they are timeless and universal, but not of a physical nature.”

“The issue is whether there is real emergence of higher levels, with genuine causal powers in their own right (‘strong emergence’) or whether the higher levels are epiphenomena, with no real power of their own: they are dancing to the tune of the lower levels.”

“The point then is that physics as it currently stands is causally incomplete. It is not able to describe all the causes and effects shaping what happens in the world…Physics at the micro-level has an irreducible random element. This allows higher level selection processes to select lower level outcomes to suit higher level function or purpose.”

“The view put forward in this book has substantial social implications. The bottom-up view of causation has pervaded much scientific thought in general, and so for example has been a major factor in medicine and psychiatry. In each of these areas there has in effect been a long-standing tension between bottom-up and top-down views with major implications for medical practice and effectiveness. The view implied by this book is that it is crucial that top-down effects be taken into account as a major influence, as well as bottom-up (molecular and gene-based) effects.”

One of the last sections in the book is written jointly with Ellis’s wife, Carole Bloch. It explores the implications of the views of this book on “Learning to Read and Write.” It elucidates the nature of bottom-up and top-down causality in field of oral and written language. Essentially, they argue the reading should not be taught bottom-up by first learning syllables and grammar but top-down by seeing the elements of written words in their meaningful context. The details can come later.

Ellis closes the book with this final paragraph: “The daily world in which we live came about by imaginative investigation of possibilities, discarding those that don’t work: the adaptive process that is a central theme of this book, enabled by a modicum of randomness at the macro- and micro-levels, interacting with necessary physical processes. And it is these processes that also allow the emergence of the ordinariness of everyday life: which actually is quite extraordinary. Bottom-up effects are crucial to emergence. Physics underlies all. Nevertheless, the vitality of life, which arises from physics, transcends it.”

Tags:  Ellis  Emergence  Mind 

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Ellis--Chapter Seven: The Mind and the Brain

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Saturday, October 29, 2016

Finally we come to the penultimate chapter of the book and the primary aim of the book. How does all of this relate to the mind and the brain? Ellis says “The main claim will be that one cannot begin to understand the brain properly without taking top-down causation into account…This is top-down causation from the social milieu to detailed aspects of brain structure.” He intends to show that just as in all the other examples given in this book so far, the brain is a combination of bottom-up and top-down causation. In this way, “physics can underlie the extraordinary nature of the functioning of the mind.” He underscores however that he is not claiming to have solved the problems of free will or of consciousness but rather to have outlined critical features that any such approach must include.

His view of the organization of the brain is summarized in this table:


Ellis emphasizes the role that symbolism and language, purpose and meaning, and our system of values and ethics plays in affecting our brain which in turns affects our higher level decision process and actions. He also notes that “The mind can discover unchanging eternal relationships and possibilities that were always there and exist independently of the human mind: that is, they can reasonably be called Platonic entities.”

Ellis embarks on a detailed description of the biology of the brain. A key point that he makes is illustrated by his quote of Alwyn Scott discussing the Hodgkin-Hawley equations that describe action potential in neurons: “One cannot derive these laws from physics and chemistry because they depend upon the detailed organization of the intrinsic proteins that mediate sodium and potassium current across the membrane and upon the geometric structure of the nerve fibres.”

In other words, this is genuine emergence. The physics and chemistry of the atoms and molecules within the neuron is constrained or bounded by higher level parameters from the environment. This is a true top-down causality with the emergence of new features that require new equations to describe.

“A key question, of course, is how the brain gets to be what it is…The primary point is that the brain is not developed in a predetermined way through genetic influences: rather it adapts to the environment in which it finds itself. Brain plasticity at the micro-level allows adaptation at the macro-level. This development is guided by experience, evaluated on the basis of the primary emotional systems.”

“Minds cannot be understood on their own: we have a distributed cognition that is not contained solely within the head of the individual…The human mind is unlike any other on this planet, not because of its biology, which is not qualitatively unique, but because of its ability to generate and assimilate culture, which provides us with symbolic tools such as language that then shape the way we see reality.”

“David Sloan Wilson remarks that the transition from bottom-up to top-down dominated causation in the relation of mind to the society in which it is imbedded is a major evolutionary transition in the historical development of humanity, resulting in the emergence of the social order as a higher level entity in its own right, and a consequent change in the nature of the evolutionary processes at work.”


“Interlevel causation, both bottom-up and top-down, is key to brain function. Evolution has selected for it to occur. The underlying physics is channeled and constrained to enable this to happen.”

“…this process faces a problem of infinite recursion: where does the next higher level of selection criteria come from? At some point we have to draw a line and say, this is where I stand: these are my founding principles, this is the purpose in my life. That is where one makes value choices based on one’s view of meaning…These are abstract ideas that shape what one does, and thereby act down to muscles, neurons, and genes, and on to electrons and atoms as we try to fulfil these goals and purposes.”

“[Consciousness] is an emergent property of a dynamic core of neurons. It is a higher level process enabled by the properties of the underlying neurons and genes, in turn enabled by the properties of the underlying molecules and physics, but it is not reducible to them, among other things because it is deeply meshed into ongoing interactions with the physical, ecological, social, and intellectual environment.”

The above selected quotes are just a small portion of the many that are worth reading and pondering. Ellis emphatically demonstrates the many ways in which top-down causation works in concert with bottom-up causation to create the mind. This is how physics underlies the mind. It is the bottom level that causes the higher levels to exist and to function. But that physics is constrained and guided by the top-down causation of the higher levels. He shows how the highest levels involve large-scale interaction with our environment—our peers, our culture, and even Platonic entities. In this way, the mind emerges from the brain, an awesome interaction both vertically and horizontally.

Tags:  Ellis  Emergence  Mind 

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Ellis--Chapter Six: The Foundations: Physics and Top-Down Causation

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Tuesday, October 4, 2016

This was another very enjoyable chapter for me and would be for any condensed matter physicist. Here Ellis digs down deep into the lower levels where physics dominates. Reductionists see everything being driven by physics at these levels. “At the bottom level, what happens is based on physics: it enables the emergence of higher level entities, which then in turn act down on the lower level components. Hence top-down causation takes place also in the context of physics.”

At the bottom level we find quantum dynamics. In sharp contrast to classical dynamics, we find inherent unpredictability. The state of a system evolves dynamically and collapses into an eigenstate only when a measurement is made or there is an interaction with another physical entity.

“Because the electronic band structures and the resultant lower level entities such as phonons are based on the higher level crystal structure rather than simply being based solely on properties of the lower level constituent, they are both emergent phenomena. They simply would not exist if the macro-structure did not exist.” Ellis goes on to use my favorite examples of emergence from my own fields of expertise, superconductors and semiconductors. Both materials exhibit unique particles such as Cooper pairs and holes and excitons that could exist only through the structural nature of a large ensemble of lower level particles, namely the ions and electrons that comprise the material. The top-down causation is the structural crystal lattice and the way in which the ions vibrate and respond to the electron cloud. None of these effects could be predicted on the basis of the independent particles alone. It is their interaction that enables the new particles and new behavior.

“…the higher levels of the hierarchy of complexity and causation provide the context within which the lower level actions take place. By setting the context in terms of initial conditions, boundary conditions, and structural relations, the higher levels determine the way the lower level actions occur.”

“The lower levels do the work, but the higher levels decide what is to be done.”

Ellis includes an interesting discussion of Olber’s Paradox which ponders why the night sky is dark. Integrating over an infinite universe would imply that the night sky should be dark. The fundamental reason for a dark night sky is that the universe is not infinite and the visual horizon is such that it is dominated by the cosmic background radiation. In other words, our universe is essentially a thermal bath at a temperature of 2.73K. The thermal gradient from the sun’s radiation to this bath temperature enables the energy driving force for evolution on the earth. Hence, he says “…the reason we observe the night sky to be dark is that if that were not true, we would not be here to see it.”

He also addresses the fascinating question of the arrow of time. Since all of the basic equations of physics are time invariant, being the same forward in time as backward, why should there be an arrow of time? Ellis says “The direction of time must be derived by a top-down process from cosmological to local scales.” In other words, the initial conditions and special boundary conditions at the big bang set up the entropy of the universe to be very small initially so that entropy always increases as the universe evolves.

Tags:  Ellis  Emergence  Mind 

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Ellis--Chapter Five: Room at the Bottom?

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Friday, September 30, 2016

In this chapter, Ellis addresses whether top-down causation overdetermines a system. He asks “How can top-down causation be possible in the case of the implementation hierarchy, if the physics at the bottom is a causally closed system, determining all that happens through interactions of particles and fields mediated by forces and potentials? Isn’t the system already fully determined so there is no room for any kind of top-down causation?” In other words, this book is all about responding to reductionism.

This issue specifically arises when discussing the mind. “The claim can be made that physics does not just constrain what happens, it uniquely determines what happens in the brain. If basic physics determines all, the situation is causally closed and there is no room for higher level influences.” Ellis responds to this concern in this chapter, arguing that “…the underlying physics establishes the set of possibilities that can happen, but not the specific events that actually happen.”

Ellis offers five ways, which are not mutually exclusive, in which top-down effects can work:

1.       Contextual constraints

2.       Constraining structures

3.       Changing the nature of lower level elements

4.       Existence of lower level elements

5.       Deleting lower level elements

This was a delightful chapter to read, both for being shorter and also for having more interesting examples. In essence, Ellis cites numerous examples in which high-level entities set a context in which the lower-level entities interact. In this way, the causality from above influences the outcomes of the lower-level causal forces. Reductionism cannot explain the high-level constraints. The simultaneous bottom-up and top-down causality is truly a beautiful interplay between the many different levels of existence.

Tags:  Ellis  Emergence  Mind 

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