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Machines Like Us

Niall Shanks

Niall Shanks' early research interests were focused on issues in the philosophical foundations of quantum mechanics. The recent focus of his research has been on the implications of evolutionary biology for biomedical research. Shanks is also interested in the history of medicine and the role played by medicine in the scientific revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Professor Shanks received a B.A. (Hons.) in Philosophy from the University of Leeds in 1979, an M. Phil. in Philosophy from the University of Liverpool in 1981, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Alberta in 1987. Shanks is the author of several books and numerous articles on the history and philosophy of science, including God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory. Shanks latest book (co-authored with Ray Greek, MD) is Animal Models in the Light of Evolution. Shanks' research interests are currently focused on evolutionary biology and its implications for medical theory and practice from the standpoint of history of science and of research methodology. Professor Shanks is Vice-President of Americans for Medical Advancement. Shanks also served a term (2008-2009) as President of the Southwest and Rocky Mountain Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Shanks teaches courses on the history of medicine and the history of science and technology.

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Niall Shanks Quotes

[E]ven if we conclude that the constants were tuned by design, the numbers themselves tell us nothing about who or what did it. To get from the conclusion of mere design to the further conclusion that it was design by the God of religion X will require more than simple observations of cosmological fine-tuning. Such strong conclusions will involve (among other things) debates about the interpretation of sacred texts and philosophical and theological speculation of a kind that has no place in science.

A culture war is currently being waged in the United States by religious extremists who hope to turn the clock of science back to medieval times. The current assault is targeted mainly at educational institutions and science education in particular. However, it is an important fragment of a much larger rejection of the secular, rational, democratic ideals of the Enlightenment upon which the United States was founded. The chief weapon in this war is a version of creation science know as 'intelligent design theory.'

The aim of intelligent design theory is to insinuate into public consciousness a new version of science--supernatural science--in which the God of Christianity (carefully not directly mentioned for legal and political reasons) is portrayed as the intelligent designer of the universe and its contents.

Of God, the Devil, and Darwin, we have really good scientific evidence for the existence of only Darwin.

Though highly speculative, the multiverse hypothesis is an alternative to the hypothesis of one designed universe and the hypothesis of one universe simply due to chance alone (my preferred view). It is at least conceivable that there are features in our own universe that might carry information about the multiverse (or hypotheses that are formulated concerning its characteristics). In this sense, the idea of a multiverse may not be entirely beyond the scope of human ken. It frankly remains to be seen whether the idea of a multiverse will do useful work in science.