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Entries for May 2007

May 31, 2007

How to talk to religious believers: A guide for atheists-5

In previous posts, I wrote about how to talk to the devout concerned believer, the devout offended believer, and the fundamentalist religious intellectual when you tell people you are an atheist. Today I continue with the last case (that of religious moderates) that was begun yesterday.

People can be persuaded to relinquish, at least intellectually, small-scale beliefs like superstitions, although the reflexive habits associated with them may be hard to give up. Deeply held religious beliefs are not like that, though, even though they have the same lack of evidence as superstitions. Believing in god has enormous ramifications and why people strongly hold on to that belief requires some explanation and understanding. Those beliefs are far more closely intertwined with people's self-identity and are not as easily conceded to be irrational. In fact, people will go to great lengths to make them appear rational. Why this is so is the fundamental question.

In trying to answer why otherwise rational people believe in such a hugely irrational idea like a god, there are certain ideas that are not helpful in reaching an understanding. For example, just as there is no evidence that religious people are more moral or ethical than atheists, there is also no evidence that atheists are smarter than religious people. So we should rule out differences in intelligence in explaining the difference. Belief in god is irrational but that does not mean that people who believe in god are irrational in general.

I speculate that the problem is that more sophisticated religious believers know that they believe things that are not supported by any empirical evidence but have found reasons to come to terms with it. Michael Shermer in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (2002) puts it well when he says that the people who believe weird things are not stupid. He says: "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons." (p. 283).

Almost all our religious beliefs and superstitions are acquired early in life, as young children, for non-smart reasons. Children arrive at their beliefs about god, Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, fairies, ghosts, etc. not on the basis of a reasoned judgment based on empirical evidence, but simply by trusting that the authority figures in their lives (especially parents, teachers, and priests) are telling them the truth. As we get older, some of these beliefs tend to get undermined and disappear while others remain. The difference lies in the level of effort made by the people around us to sustain the beliefs.

Some parents will go to extraordinary lengths to perpetuate the myth of Santa Claus while their children are young but then wean them away from this belief as they get older, because Santa Claus is not a belief sanctioned by adult society and a grown up who believes in him will be considered nuts. The same is true with the Easter bunny. As the child grows up and finds that none of the adults around him really believes in those things, he relinquishes the beliefs with perhaps only a faint nostalgic regret for a loss of childhood innocence

But that is not the case with beliefs about god. Because the adults around him continue to believe, the child continues to be given reasons to believe in the absence of any evidence and even in the face of massive counterevidence. And the reasons for belief become more and more elaborate the older people get and the more sophisticated they are.

Shermer describes a 1981 study by psychologist David Perkins who found "a positive relationship between intelligence and the ability to justify beliefs, and a negative relationship between intelligence and the ability to consider other beliefs as viable. That is to say, smart people are better at rationalizing their beliefs with reasoned arguments, but as a consequence they are less open to considering other positions. So, although intelligence does not affect what you believe, it does influence how beliefs are defended after the beliefs are acquired for non-smart reasons." (p. 302)

If children are not taught their religious beliefs when they are young, they are very unlikely to adopt them when they are old. The very fact that the religion of children is almost always the same as that of their parents, and that they have no difficulty in dismissing the beliefs of other religions as weird and unbelievable, is a testimony to the power of this childhood indoctrination, because their own religious beliefs are learned when they were impressionable children, unquestioningly accepting the authority of their parents, while they usually encounter the beliefs of other religions later in life. The fact that parents usually teach their young children that other religions are wrong helps to maintain this allegiance.

The people who have defended the existence of god and the afterlife in the comments to my previous postings on why belief in god is irrational or the afterlife are clearly people who have arrived at sophisticated reasons for believing in both. And they are helped by the fact that many very smart people (such as theologians, philosophers, and other scholars) have devoted their entire lives to find reasons to continue to believe in the absence of evidence and in the face of massive counterevidence. As a result, one finds the curious result that people find the supernatural elements and bizarre practices of their own religions quite plausible while the equally supernatural elements and bizarre practices of other religions are seen as unbelievable.

Recently, former Republican congressman Tom DeLay said the following: "God has spoken to me. I listen to God and what I've heard is that I'm supposed to devote myself to rebuilding the conservative base of the Republican Party." When religious people say things like this, there is a surprising lack of curiosity among those who claim to believe in the same religion. You would think they would ask questions like: "Really? How exciting! Was it a male voice? What did his voice sound like? Did he speak in English? Did he have an accent? Where did you hear the voice? Did you take down the exact words? Was anyone else there to hear it?" And so on. But they don't because, I suspect, asking such questions would expose the silliness of the whole idea of god "speaking" to people. Religious moderates have learned to keep things vague and unspecific and not ask probing questions, so that they can believe what they like and shift their beliefs when convenient.

This illustrates how important it is to religion that children be indoctrinated early and that they be brought up in an environment of like-minded believers. This also explains why 'mixed' marriages, where the parents are practicing members of different religions, are frowned upon by religious institutions, because children in such households are unlikely to receive the kind of thorough indoctrination necessary to maintain religious beliefs into adulthood.

May 30, 2007

How to talk to religious believers: A guide for atheists-4

In previous posts, I wrote about how to talk to the devout concerned believer, the devout offended believer, and the fundamentalist religious intellectual when you tell people you are an atheist. Today I will deal with the last case.

The liberal or moderate believer: The hardest group for the atheist to deal might be, strangely enough, the people who are religious believers of the 'moderate' and 'liberal' variety. This may seem odd because such people tend to be rational and scientific about almost all aspects of their lives, so one would think that it would be easy to have a dialogue with them. But we know that often the most severe disagreements and arguments occur within families or like-minded groups, mainly because we understand each other so well and know each other's weaknesses.

The reason for the awkwardness between atheists and liberal or moderate religious people arises for the same reason. Most people grow up with the same beliefs as their families and their communities. Once you become an atheist, the scales fall from your eyes and you realize that many of the religious beliefs you used to cherish make no sense at all anymore. But the rest of your views and values have not changed much and the people around you still are the same. So you have the difficult challenge of trying to understand how you could have unquestioningly believed all this stuff for so long and also why the people around you still continue to do so.

This is especially true if your epiphany occurs later in life, as in my case. The whole religious belief structure seems so preposterous and outlandish to me now that I am incredulous that I could ever have believed in any of it before. How could I have possibly believed in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving but invisible god? How could I have not seen that the entire structure of the universe is consistent with the non-existence of such a god? How could I have ever taken the story of Jesus seriously? And, even more difficult to answer, how can those around me, who are like me in so many ways, not see the world as I now see it?

And it is precisely this attitude that causes problems. It is hard for you to understand how the religious people around you could be so like you and yet believe such different things from you. Author Douglas Adams captured this sentiment when he said: "I find the whole business of religion profoundly interesting. But it does mystify me that otherwise intelligent people take it seriously." (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote)

Suggested response: It is tempting to think that because these religious believers are just like you in almost everything else, and are open to scientific ways of looking at the world, that one can hope to persuade them to have the same kind of epiphany that you had, that religion and god makes no sense. This is a mistake and can lead to long and fruitless discussions. While it is true that you can discuss things on a deeper level that you can with fundamentalist religious believers, I think that moderate religious people are harder to persuade because they are much better at finding sophisticated reasons for belief.

It is easier to get a handle on understanding this if you bear in mind that the world is not divided into rational and irrational people or between intelligent and stupid people, but only between rational and irrational beliefs. None of us is purely rational. All of us are irrational in some areas of our lives, in that we believe things for which there is no evidence.

There are many examples of irrationality in my own life. I think my dog is smarter and better looking than most dogs. I also think that I am a better-than-average driver. I cannot really provide any evidence in support of either belief. Sri Lankan society is riddled with all kinds of superstitions and one absorbs them as one grows up. Even now, I sometimes find myself doing something mechanically that, on reflection, turns out to be based purely on superstition.

We are not in a position to provide evidence to justify everything and in most cases this kind of belief is quite harmless. For example, most people will wish someone 'good luck' when they are about to go for a job interview or take an exam or take the field in a sport. Many people have their own superstitions, especially concerning sports, like wearing a lucky shirt or waving a towel when their favorite team is playing. Many people try not to say something that will jinx their team. Many read their horoscopes every day and some even take fortune cookies seriously. They will not walk under a ladder and are uneasy when a black cat crosses their path. A Friday that falls on the 13th day of a month causes them anxiety.

All these things are completely irrational and atheists are as susceptible to them as anyone else. But when questioned about any of these minor irrationalities, most people (religious and atheists alike) are sheepishly apologetic and will concede that what they believe and do is just a relatively harmless superstition and will not try to defend the practice as having any kind of real justification.

But religious beliefs do not belong in this class and understanding the nature of this difference is crucial if we are to have a cordial dialogue with moderate religious believers.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: Andrew Card booed

When President Bush's former chief of staff Andrew Card received an honorary degree at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, he encountered overwhelming scenes of protest. Huge numbers of faculty and students in the procession wore cards on their gowns with the word "CARD" crossed out and faculty even unfurled a protest banner right behind him on the stage as he received his diploma and he was loudly booed. It was quite remarakable.

This is what happens when members of this administration attend functions which are not tightly controlled with only loyal, handpicked attendees allowed to attend.

To see this event, click here and watch the long version.

May 29, 2007

How to talk to religious believers: A guide for atheists-3

In previous posts, I wrote about how to talk to the devout concerned believer and the devout offended believer when you tell people you are an atheist.

Today, I will address the religious fundamentalist intellectual: These people are the most fun to deal with because there is usually no rancor or personal element involved in the disagreements. These are people who have essentially constructed an alternate reality. They believe that the Bible is literally true, that Noah's flood and ark are historical events, that humans lived alongside dinosaurs, that the Earth and the universe is less than 10,000 years old, and so on. They have satisfied themselves that what they believe can be substantiated and will try to convince you of it. They are usually not offended by you being an atheist but are convinced that you are mistaken. If you are lucky enough to engage such people in conversation and have the time, you should probe their beliefs and why they believe them and you will witness the unfolding of a fascinating and complex set of hypotheses that are invoked to explain why their beliefs are so out of step with the results of mainstream science.

I met a lot of these people when I was in Kansas is 2002 to debate the intelligent design creationists. People who attended the debate would take me aside and read passages from the Bible to try and convince me why it was true and I was wrong. They were mostly very nice people. Even though they were convinced I was going to hell, they were nice about it and did not gloat, and only a few fell into the angry offended devout believers category I described earlier. But they were living in an alternate world from me. A professor of constitutional law who was on the same debate panel with me captured the situation very well when he said that he felt like he was at a Star Trek convention. Those who are on the outside cannot comprehend the devotion of such people to a fictional world, but can only marvel at it.

Suggested response: There is no point in trying to win such people over by arguments, especially standard scientific ones. They have heard most of them before and their responses take a standard pattern. They will start from a fairly mainstream scientific and historical position and at a crucial moment insert some piece of esoteric information that they claim throws doubt on the entire theories of evolution or geology or physics or any science that contradicts their worldview. This is then used to make a leap to justify their alternate reality. This leap will seeming totally lacking in logic to you but they are convinced it makes perfect sense.

A good example of this can be seen in the set of videos called Chatting with Charley. Charley is typical of this attitude. For example, he accepts the fact of continental drift but argues that it separated America from Africa in a couple of months, and a great flood caused the Grand Canyon to be formed in days rather than millions of years! I think that I would enjoy talking with Charley because it is just fun to listen to his 'arguments' because they are so weirdly fascinating.

I would similarly enjoy talking with Kent Ham, the force behind the new creationist museum that opened in Kentucky yesterday. An article in the May 18, 2007 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (page B10) has the author asking Ham how many sheep Noah's Ark would have to contain in order feed all the dinosaurs. This question was based on an article published by Bishop John Wilkins in 1668 claiming that the Ark contained 1600 sheep, sufficient to feed the carnivores. But the existence dinosaurs weren't known then, and their presence would increase the numbers of sheep required beyond the capacity of the Ark, prompting the question.

The author (who felt that the whole idea of the Ark being historical was preposterous) feared that Ham might feel that this question was a mocking one, but Ham answered in all seriousness. He suggested that the dinosaurs that Noah saved might be young ones, before they were full grown and thus needed less food. Ham also suggested that more animals might have been vegetarian then, becoming carnivores only later.

Ham also suggested that the Biblical 'kinds' of animals that were saved in pairs were not meant to be species but the higher category (the genus) thus requiring fewer. In other words, Noah did not save a pair of every breed of (say) dog, but only a single pair of dogs. Of course, this means that the present number of species had to evolve and differentiate into their separate species types in a few thousand years, but this can probably be explained with another ad hoc hypothesis.

People like Charley and Ham tend to not understand in a very deep way the nature of science and how science acquires and creates knowledge, and the basic interconnectedness of scientific knowledge. You cannot invoke ad hoc hypotheses to take care of one problem without exploring the consequences for other related situations where that hypothesis has applications.

They also skip over the basic problem of Cartesian dualism of how a non-material mind could interact with the material body. They cannot be convinced by arguments. After all, Ham has convinced religious people to spend $27 million dollars to build a museum enshrining this weird belief structure and that bespeaks a serious devotion. Because they are determined to believe at any cost, at any tricky point they invoke the Mysterious Ways Clause (Shorter version of the MWC: God has a reason for doing this and for keeping the reasons hidden from us and anyway our minds are too puny to understand god's plan.)

What is best in such conversations is to take an anthropological attitude and try and understand how these alternative realities are created. Simply posing questions about their beliefs, asking for evidence, posing counter-evidence and seeing how they respond, are the best ways to deal with them. Since you are not trying to convince them of anything but simply trying to understand why they believe what they do, this enables you to be detached and thus subject their beliefs to a clinical examination.

When you do so, you will find yourself gazing through a window into a world that is truly bizarre, in a fascinating kind of way, as if you had entered a looking glass world.

May 25, 2007

How to talk to religious believers: A guide for atheists-2

In the previous post, I discussed how to deal with the concerned devout believer. Today I deal with a more difficult case.

The offended devout believer: Like the concerned believer, this reaction will come from someone who is devoutly and unquestioningly religious. But their reaction will be to take strong offense at the idea that you have rejected beliefs that they hold dear. Some of them will be people who are close to you. Parents often fall into this category since they are the ones who taught you their religious beliefs and your rejection of the beliefs will be interpreted also as a rejection of them.

Julia Sweeney, who grew up as a devout Catholic, in her show Letting Go of God describes her parents' reaction when she said she was an atheist.

My first call was from my mother was more of a scream. 'Atheist? ATHEIST?!?!'

My dad called and said 'You have betrayed your family, your school, your city.' It was like I had sold secrets to the Russians. They both said they weren't going to talk to me anymore. My dad said, 'I don't even want you to come to my funeral.'. . . I think that my parents had been mildly disappointed when I'd said I didn't believe in God any more, but being an atheist was another thing altogether. (The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 324)

But more likely it will be people who are little more than strangers or acquaintances. Some of these people will jump to the conclusion that because you are an atheist, you are a person with no morals or ethics and someone to be avoided for fear that you are a bad influence. Such people will also sometimes say "I will pray for you" but what they mean by this is quite different from the concerned devout believer. In this case it is merely a code for saying that they have no doubt that you will suffer the torments of hell and that they relish the prospect of looking down and seeing you suffer while they sit in their Laz-y-Boy in heaven, sipping their lemonade. They do really tend to think of heaven and hell in such concrete terms and have no doubt that they are the apple of god's eye and have lots of treats in store for them when they die. This reaction will likely come from people who believe in the most extreme Biblical literalism, and even totally bizarre ideas like the Rapture.

Suggested response: There is no point getting angry with people who delight in the idea of their tightness with god and think that they know god's mind so well that the things and persons they like and dislike are identical with what god likes and dislikes. God is so real to them that they would likely not understand what Anne Lamott was driving at when she said that: "You can safely assume you've created god in your own image when it turns out that god hates all the same people you do." (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote)

Such people are hopeless. What can you say to people who actually delight the thought of other people suffering torments in hell? Sophisticated religious believers tend to think that such views are held by only ignorant people with an Old Testament mentality but that is not the case. Richard Dawkins writes (The God Delusion, p. 320) about the manifest relish with which many people write about others going to hell, smugly assuming that they are not in danger of ending up there.

Whatever they believe hell is actually like, all these hell-fire enthusiasts seem to share the gloating Schadenfreude and complacency of those who know they are among the saved, well conveyed by that foremost among theologians, St Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologica: 'That the saints may enjoy their beatitude and the grace of God more abundantly they are permitted to see the punishment of the damned in hell.' Nice man.

(Dawkins adds a footnote about proud Christian Ann Coulter who said 'I defy any of my co-religionists to tell me they do not laugh at the idea of Dawkins burning in hell.')

The only reaction to such people is to keep your sense of humor. You have to simply smile or laugh when people say these crazy things about atheists and atheism and express weird ideas about what might happen to you after you die. There is no reasoning with them because the ideas are so irrational and trying to do so is a waste of time. The best thing to do is to joke about going to hell and the like. Such people thrive on being fearful and creating fear in others. They cannot defend their religious ideas on any rational grounds. Heaven and hell are the only things they have and they use them to try and intimidate their opponents.

To treat the whole thing as a joke will infuriate them because it turns their biggest weapon into a damp squib.

Next: The religious fundamentalist intellectual.

POST SCRIPT: Comedian George Carlin on god and hell

May 24, 2007

How to talk to religious believers: A guide for atheists-1

One of the consequences of the outspokenness of the new atheists is that it enables people who are quasi-atheists to become more frank about their doubts about religion. Unlike closet atheists who are people who keep quiet about their atheism, 'quasi-atheists' those people who would not call themselves atheists but are already tugging at the some of the beliefs that hold together the fragile structure of belief and are thus close to bringing down the whole house of cards. Such people tend to say they are agnostics and not identify any specific religious group and instead hold on to some unspecified notion of spirituality.

Quasi-atheists' religious beliefs are just hanging on by a thread. Most thoughtful people have serious doubts about the existence of god and the afterlife. How could they not since everyday experience provides no support at all for such beliefs? But given the climate of official piety, most people will just keep their doubts to themselves to avoid the attention that expressing views that are different from the mainstream brings.

But the new atheists, by being so public in their dissection and dismissal of religious beliefs and the lack of evidence for them, are creating room in the space of public dialogue for regular people to take their more limited and hesitant doubts public. When they find that the heavens don't come crashing down on their heads for expressing doubts about religious dogmas, they will be on the road to a more complete disavowal of religion.

So my prediction is that within the next few years one will find opinion polls that show a dramatic rise in the numbers of people who describe themselves as non-religious, as more and more people become willing to express their doubts publicly and respond frankly to such polls. People may still shy away from the word 'atheism' and use euphemisms, but the shift away from belief will be palpable.

As more and more atheists and quasi-atheists speak about their lack of belief in god, it is going to be increasingly common for them to have to deal with the reactions of the religious believers around them. The kind of reaction they will experience will vary widely and require a flexible attitude, so here is my contribution to keeping the dialogue friendly.

Dealing with the concerned devout believer: This is the reaction of a devoutly religious person who knows you well, either as a family member or close friend. They will experience complete incredulity that you have rejected ideas that seem to them to be so obviously true. For them, everything that they see around them is testimony to god's existence. They are unshakeable in their beliefs and cannot imagine how anyone could think otherwise. Since they are good people, they will not be angry with you but will worry that you risk losing your soul and going to hell. They will make earnest attempts to convince you of your error, suggesting that you try different churches and pastors and Bible study groups, they will recommend books for you to read, and they will tell you that they are praying for you.

Suggested response: It is important to realize that such people are well meaning and have your best interests at heart. One should take react graciously to their efforts to try and bring you back into god's good books and not get upset. Such people are so wedded to the rightness of their beliefs that they do not see the irony of saying that they will pray for you to someone who thinks the whole idea of prayer is a waste of time.

With such people, one should simply and gently tell them why you don't believe in god. Remember that these people genuinely care about you and are concerned about you, even if in a misguided way, and such people are to be valued and treasured. Eventually, over time when they realize that you are still the same person that they always knew and loved and haven't suddenly become a mass murderer or rude and abusive and a person who is cruel to animals and children, they will learn to accept you for who you are.

Next up: The offended devout believer.

May 23, 2007

The power pendulum

It has been some time since I wrote about John Rawl's ideas in his book The Theory of Justice but the more I see how political developments are evolving both in the US and in the world, the greater the value of implementing his ideas.

The key idea that he proposed was that when creating a system or structure for anything, we should work under a 'veil of ignorance' in which we do not know which particular individual or group characteristic we ourselves will have once the system is underway. What this insures is that we will try and create a system that is as fair as possible for everyone.

The problem in real life is that the people who create (say) the laws that govern us already know which group they belong to so there is a strong temptation to create a system that perpetuates and increases their own strength and influence, at the expense of those who are not influential. This is why the legal and tax systems tend to favor the already well-to-do.

In government, we have seen what has happened in the last six years. With the Republicans controlling the Presidency and the two chambers of Congress from 2000-2006, the system of checks and balances carefully instituted in the US constitution was not enforced as the Congress essentially abandoned its oversight role and gave the administration a blank check at home and abroad.

The damage was compounded by an administration that had a dangerous penchant for secretiveness coupled with the strong desire to increase the power of the administrative branch of the government to the level of an autocratic state.

The Cheney/Bush/Rove regime seems to be under the assumption that they had a permanent majority and that thus they could create a system where they could simply do what they wanted and no one would challenge them. So basic human rights could be abandoned, torture allowed, the Department of Justice could be made a largely political arm, wars could be waged under false pretenses, and so on. They steamrolled legislation through Congress, not just using their majority to lock out the minority, but denying even careful scrutiny for the consequences of the legislation. The USA Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, the Iraq war authorization act, and the NSA warrantless wiretapping program are all examples of such things.

The recent revelations of the firing of US attorneys after stealthily passing legislation allowing for replacements to avoid confirmation hearings, and the astounding attempt by Gonzales and Bush's chief of staff Andrew Card to coerce then Attorney General John Ashcroft while he was ill in hospital to authorize a program that career Justice Department officials had deemed illegal are examples of an administration that has contempt for law and propriety and seeks to get its way at all costs.

The fact that the Director of the FBI had to order his agents to not allow Gonzales and Card to force then Deputy Attorney General James Comey out of the hospital room while they tried to pressure Ashcroft shows the depths to which this administration will sink. Any self respecting Attorney General would have resigned in disgrace or been fired by any self-respecting President. But not these people. They have no shame because they have been lulled into a sense that they can do what they want. (As usual, it is Jon Stewart who best appreciates what an astounding revelation this is of the administration's lawless mentality.)

But nothing remains the same and now with control of the Congress turning back to the Democrats, some oversight is returning. We already see Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez coming under close scrutiny for trying to replace career people with political operatives throughout the department. We see the Secretary of State coming under close examination for her role in the infamous "yellowcake from Niger" scam.

What happens is that when the Democrats take full control of all both houses of Congress and the White House, they will seek to get rid of the political operatives currently put in place. But with whom will they replace them? With people who are primarily career people or their own operatives? The temptation will be strong to replace them with their own Democratic operatives, in a tit-for-tat retaliation, so that Republicans get a taste of their own medicine.

But such pendulum swings in power and patronage do little to enhance the credibility of government or serve the people as a whole. Agencies like the Department of Justice and the IRS can only function effectively if the public sees them as at least somewhat impartial. And the only way to do that is to create systems where you take into account that different groups will inevitably rotate into power and be in control and yet the system serves everyone well.

The same argument applies to foreign policy. This administration is running roughshod over the rest of the world, and the only reason they think they can do so is because the US is the strongest military power right now and there is no danger of retaliation except by fringe groups. So they can and do invade other countries, kidnap people, put them in secret prisons, and torture them. But if there is one lesson that history teaches, it is that all great military powers eventually decline, usually because of internal decay, and there is no reason to think that the US is any exception. What will happen to the US when the major military power in the world is another country?

This is why it is so important to follow the principles that Rawls outlined, and create structures and follow patterns of behavior on the assumption that the tide will turn and that you will one day be in the weak or powerless situation. This is why things like the Geneva conventions, rules of law, and other treaties should be followed since they protect the strong as well as the weak and eventually membership in those two categories will change.

May 22, 2007

Asking the wrong questions about science history

In his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn points out that the kinds of questions we often ask about the history of science and that we think are simple and have been adequately answered (such as "who discovered oxygen and when?" "Who discovered X-rays and when?") turn out on close examination to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to answer.

It is not that there are no answers given in authoritative sources. It is that when we actually do examine the historical record, the situation turns out to be very murky, giving rise to the strong suspicion that such questions are the wrong ones to ask about the scientific enterprise. The simple answers that are given to such questions represent a rewriting of history to give readers a simple narrative but at the expense of giving a distorted sense of how science is done, as if scientific discoveries were clear and decisive events. I remember being very impressed by Kuhn's examples to support his thesis when I first read his book and subsequent readings of science history have convinced me that he is right.

For example, the latest issue of the newsletter of the American Physical Society's called the APS NEWS (vol. 16, no. 5, May 2007, p. 2) has an account of the discovery of the neutron. (The article is here but the current issue is password protected and non-APS members will have to wait a month before it is archived and people are given open access.) The title says "May 1932: Chadwick reports the discovery of the neutron" and recounts the familiar (to physicists anyway) story of how James Chadwick 75 years ago this month made the famous discovery for which he received the Nobel prize in 1935.

As the article proceeds to describe the history of the process, it becomes clear that its own story contradicts the impression given in the title.

As early as the 1920s, people had suspected that there was something in the atom's nucleus other than protons. Some thought these additional particles were made up of an electrically neutral combination of the already known proton and electron but no one could confirm this. But experiments went on trying to isolate and identify the particle, and around 1930 two scientists Bothe and Becker found radiation coming from a target of Beryllium that had been bombarded with alpha particles. They thought that this radiation consisted of high-energy photons. Other experiments done by Frederic and Irene Joliot-Curie also found similar radiation that they too attributed to high-energy photons.

Chadwick thought that this explanation didn't quite fit and did his own experiments and concluded that the radiation was caused by a new neutral particle that was slightly heavier than a proton. He called it the neutron. He published a paper in February 1932 where he suggested this possibility and then in May 1932 submitted another paper in which he was more definite. It is this paper that gives him the claim to be the discoverer.

But like all major scientific discoveries, acceptance of the new idea is not immediate within the community and it took until around 1934 for a consensus to emerge that this neutron was indeed a new fundamental particle.

So who "discovered" the neutron and when? Was it the people who concluded much earlier than 1932 that there was something else in the nucleus other than protons? They were right after all. Was it Bothe or Becker, or the Juliot-Curies who first succeeded in isolating this particle by knocking neutrons out of materials? They had, after all, "seen" isolated neutrons even if they had not identified it as such. Or do we give the honor to Chadwick for first providing a plausible claim that it was a neutron?

As to when the neutron was discovered, it is also hard to say. Was it when its existence was first suspect in the early 1920s? Or when it was first isolated experimentally around 1930? If we say that since the title of discoverer was awarded to Chadwick, the date of discovery has to be assigned to something he specifically did, when exactly did he realize that he had discovered the neutron? In his first preliminary paper in February 1932? Or in his more definite paper in May? Clearly he must have known what he knew before he submitted (or wrote) the papers.

All we know for sure is that sometime between 1930 and 1934, the neutron was "discovered" and that certain scientists played key roles in that process. For historical conciseness, we give the honor to Chadwick and fix the date as May 1932 and the judgment is not an unreasonable one, as long we insist on demanding that such events have a definite date and author. But it is good to be reminded that all such assignments of time and place and people for scientific discoveries mask a much more complex process, where "discoveries" involve extended periods of time involving large numbers of people during which understanding is increased incrementally. There is often no clear before-after split.

The detailed stories are almost always more fascinating than the truncated histories we are taught.

May 21, 2007

The nature of consciousness

In the model of Cartesian dualism, we think of the mind as a non-material entity that interacts somehow with the material brain/body in some way. Descartes thought that the locus of interaction existed within the pineal gland in the brain but that specific idea has long since been discarded.

But that still leaves the more fundamental idea, referred to now as Cartesian dualism, that states that I do have a mind that represents the essential 'me' that uses my material body to receive experiences via my senses, stores them in my memory, and orders actions that get executed by my body. This idea that there is an inner me is very powerful because it seems to correspond so intuitively with our everyday experience and the awareness that we have of our own bodies and the way we interact with our environment. Even the way we use language is intricately bound up with the idea that there exists some essence of ourselves, as can be seen by the way the words 'we' and 'our' was used in this and the previous sentences. The power of this intuitive idea of something or someone inside us controlling things has resulted in phrases like 'the ghost in the machine' or a 'homunculus' (from the Latin for 'little man') to describe the phenomenon.

For religious people, the mind is further mixed up with ideas of the soul and thus gains additional properties. The soul is considered to be non-material and can exist independently of the body, allowing for the possibility of an afterlife even after the body has ceased to exist. This soul model causes some problems that resist easy answers. For example, life begins with the creation of a single fertilized egg. This single fertilized cell (called a zygote) then starts to multiply to 2, 4, 8, 16 , 32,. . . cells and so on. All these cells are material things. At what stage along this progression did a non-material entity like the soul appear and attach itself to the collection of cells?

I think it is safe to say that almost all cognitive scientists reject the idea of a non-material mind, some kind of homunculus inside the brain somewhere that 'runs' us. This immediately rules out the religious idea of a non-material soul, at least in any traditional sense in which the word is used.

But even though the existence of a non-material mind or soul has been ruled out, the Cartesian dualistic model is still a seductive idea that can tempt even those who reject any religious ideas and accept a framework in which the material body (and brain) is all there is. The reason it is so seductive is that even if we discard the mind/body distinction as being based on a nonmaterial/material splitting, the idea of a central processing agent still seems intuitively obvious.

Consider a situation where I am responding to something in my environment. We know that we experience the external world through our five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) and that these senses are triggered by material objects coming into contact with the appropriate sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue) and excite the nerve endings located in those organs. These excitations are then transmitted along the nervous system to that part of our brains called the sensory cortex after which they. . .what?

At this point, things get a bit murky. Clearly these signals enter and proceed through our brain and excite the neural networks so that our brain becomes 'aware' of the phenomena we experienced, but the problematic issue is what exactly constitutes 'awareness.'

Suppose for the moment we stop trying to understand the incoming process and switch to the outgoing process. It seems like we have the ability to make conscious and unconscious decisions (pick up a cup or shake our head) and then the brain's neural networks send these signals to the part of the brain known as the motor cortex which transmits them to the appropriate part of the nervous system that sends the signal to the body part that executes the action by contracting muscles.

It seems reasonable to assume that in-between the end of the incoming pathway and the start of the outgoing pathway that I have described that there is some central part of the brain, a sort of command unit, that acts as a kind of clearing house where the incoming signals get registered and processed, stored in memory for later recall, older memories and responses get activated, theories are created, plans are made, and finally decisions for action are initiated.

As a metaphor for this command unit, we can imagine a highly sophisticated kind of home theater inside our brain where the screen displays what we see, speakers provide the sound, and is also capable of providing smell and touch and taste sensations, and banks of powerful computers by which memories can be stored and retrieved and action orders transmitted. 'Conscious events' are those that are projected onto this screen along with the accessory phenomena.

Daniel Dennett in his book Consciousness Explained (1991) calls this model the Cartesian Theater and warns against falling prey to its seductive plausibility. Accepting it, he points out, means that we are implicitly accepting the idea of a homunculus, or ghost in the machine, who is the occupant of this theater in the brain and who is the inner person, the 'real me' and what that inner person experiences is sometimes referred to as the 'mind's eye.' One problem is that this approach leads to an infinite regress as we try to understand how the Cartesian Theater itself works.

But if this simple and attractive model of consciousness is not true, then what is? This is where things get a little (actually a whole lot) complicated. It is clear that it is easier to describe what cognitive scientists think consciousness is not than what they think it is.

More to come. . .

May 18, 2007

Does science destroy life's mysteries?

One of the reasons that elite science and elite religion are now coming into conflict is that science is now addressing questions that once were considered purely philosophical. By 'purely philosophical' I mean questions that are serious and deep but for which answers are sought in terms of logic and reason and thought experiments, with the only data used being those that lie easily at hand or appeals to common everyday experience.

The difference with science is that the latter does not stop there but instead uses those things as just starting points for more esoteric investigations. It takes those initial ideas and converts them into research programs where the consequences of the ideas are deduced for well-defined situations that can be examined experimentally and tentative hypotheses can be tested.

Daniel Dennett in his book Consciousness Explained (1991) talks (p. 21) about how science tackles what he calls 'mysteries':

A mystery is a phenomenon that people don't know how to think about – yet. There have been other great mysteries: the mystery of the origin of the universe, the mystery of life and reproduction, the mystery of the design to be found in nature, the mysteries of time, space, and gravity. These were not just areas of scientific ignorance but of utter bafflement and wonder. We do not yet have the final answers to any of the questions of cosmology and particle physics, molecular genetics and evolutionary theory, but we do know how to think about them. The mysteries haven't vanished, but they have been tamed. They no longer overwhelm our efforts to think about the phenomena, because now we know how to tell the misbegotten questions from the tight questions, and even if we turn out to be dead wrong about some of the currently accepted answers, we know how to go about looking for better answers.

That passage, I think, captures well what happens when something enters the world of science. The mystery gets tamed and becomes a problem to be solved.

The charge that people sometimes make against science is that it seems to take away all the awe and mystery of life's wonders by 'explaining' them. I have never quite understood that criticism. If at all, my sense of awe is enhanced by having a better understanding of phenomena. For example, I have always enjoyed seeing rainbows. Has my enjoyment become less now because I happen to know how multiple scattering of light in individual droplets of water produce the effect?

As another example, I recently listened to a magnificent concert of the Cleveland Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1. It was a truly moving experience. Was my sense of awe at the brilliance of the composition and its execution diminished by my knowledge that the orchestra players were using their instruments to cause the air around them to vibrate and that those vibrations then entered my ear, got converted to nerve signals that entered my brain, which was then able to Fourier transform the signals into reconstructing rich orchestral 'sounds' that my brain used to trigger chemical reactions that resulted in my sense of emotional satisfaction? I don't think so. I kind of like the fact that I can enjoy the experience on so many levels, from the purely experiential to the emotional and the cerebral. In fact, for me the truly awe inspiring thing is that we have reached such depths of understanding of something that would have seemed so mysterious just a few hundred years ago.

The taming of mysteries and converting them into planned research programs of investigation is now rapidly progressing in the areas of cognition and consciousness. The reason that this causes conflict is because such close examination can result in the philosophical justifications for religion being undermined.

For example, the existence of god is predicated on a belief in a Cartesian dualism. God is 'out there' somewhere separate from my body while 'I' am here encapsulated by my body, and there is some gateway that enables that boundary to be crossed so that 'I' can sense god. For many religious people, this contact between the 'I' and god is a deep mystery.

In some sense, Descartes started taming this mystery by postulating that the contact gateway lay in the pineal gland in the brain but he could not explain how the interaction between the non-material god and the material brain occurred. Of course, no one takes the special role of the pineal gland seriously anymore. But the basic Cartesian dualism problem remains for both religious and non-religious people, in the form of understanding the mind-brain split. What is the 'I' of the mind that makes decisions and initiates actions and seems to control my life? Does it exist as a non-material entity apart from the material brain? If so how does it interact with it, since the brain, being the place where our sensory system stores its information, is the source of our experiences and the generator of our actions?

Religious people extend this idea further and tend to think of the mind as somehow synonymous with the 'soul' and as a non-material entity that is separate from the body though occupying a space somewhere in the brain, or at least the body. It is the mind/soul that is the 'I' that interacts with a non-material god. So the mind/soul is the 'real' me that passes on to the next life after death and the body is just the temporary vehicle that 'I' use to interact with the material world.

Religious people tend to leave things there and suggest that the nature of the mind/soul and how it interacts with both the material world (including the body that encapsulates it) and god is a mystery, maybe even the most fundamental mystery of all, never to be understood. And for a long time, even scientists would have conceded that we had no idea how to even begin to address these questions.

But no longer. The cognitive scientists have tamed even this mystery and converted it into a problem. This does not mean that the problem of understanding the mind and consciousness has been solved. Far from it. But it does mean that scientists are now able to pose questions about the brain and consciousness in very concrete ways and suggest experiments to further advance knowledge. Although they do not have answers yet, one should be prepared for major advances in knowledge in this area.

And as these results start to come in, the prospects for maintaining beliefs in god and religion are not good. Because if history is any guide, the transition is always one way, from mystery to problem, and not the other way around. And once scientists see something as a problem to be solved, they tend to be tenacious in developing better and better theories and tools for solving it until only some details remain obscure. And the way the community of scientists build this knowledge structure is truly awe-inspiring.

So the answer to this post's title is yes, science does destroy the mysteries but it increases the awe.

More to come. . .

May 17, 2007

Presidential candidates Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich

In the Republican and Democratic primaries, Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) are the only ones who opposed the Iraq war authorization act in 2002 and both have been calling for US troops to be withdrawn and closing of the bases.

In the latest debate amongst the Republican presidential candidates on May 16, Paul was asked about his position.

MR. WALLACE: Congressman Paul, you're one of six House Republicans who back in 2002 voted against authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq.

REP. PAUL: Right.

MR. WALLACE: Now you say we should pull our troops out. A recent poll found that 77 percent of Republicans disapprove of the idea of setting a timetable for withdrawal. Are you running for the nomination of the wrong party? (Scattered laughter.)

REP. PAUL: But you have to realize that the base of the Republican Party shrunk last year because of the war issue. So that percentage represents less people. If you look at 65 to 70 percent of the American people, they want us out of there. They want the war over.

In 19- -- 2002, I offered an amendment to International Relations to declare war, up or down, and it was -- nobody voted for the war. And my argument there was, if we want to go to war, and if we should go to war, the Congress should declare it. We don't go to war like we did in Vietnam and Korea, because the wars never end. And I argued the case and made the point that it would be a quagmire if we go in.

Ronald Reagan in 1983 sent Marines into Lebanon, and he said he would never turn tail and run. A few months later, the Marines were killed, 241 were killed, and the Marines were taken out. And Reagan addressed this subject in his memoirs. And he says, "I said I would never turn tail and run." He says, "But I never realized the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics," and he changed his policy there.

We need the courage of a Ronald Reagan.

Later, he took on the myth that the reason for the 9/11 attacks was that "they hate us for our freedoms" and in the a subsequent exchange refused to bow down to Giuliani's grandstanding on this issue. (You can see the video of that clip here.)

MR. GOLER: Congressman Paul, I believe you are the only man on the stage who opposes the war in Iraq, who would bring the troops home as quickly as -- almost immediately, sir. Are you out of step with your party? Is your party out of step with the rest of the world? If either of those is the case, why are you seeking its nomination?

REP. PAUL: Well, I think the party has lost its way, because the conservative wing of the Republican Party always advocated a noninterventionist foreign policy.

Senator Robert Taft didn't even want to be in NATO. George Bush won the election in the year 2000 campaigning on a humble foreign policy -- no nation-building, no policing of the world. Republicans were elected to end the Korean War. The Republicans were elected to end the Vietnam War. There's a strong tradition of being anti-war in the Republican party. It is the constitutional position. It is the advice of the Founders to follow a non-interventionist foreign policy, stay out of entangling alliances, be friends with countries, negotiate and talk with them and trade with them.

Just think of the tremendous improvement -- relationships with Vietnam. We lost 60,000 men. We came home in defeat. Now we go over there and invest in Vietnam. So there's a lot of merit to the advice of the Founders and following the Constitution.

And my argument is that we shouldn't go to war so carelessly. (Bell rings.) When we do, the wars don't end.

MR. GOLER: Congressman, you don't think that changed with the 9/11 attacks, sir?

REP. PAUL: What changed?

MR. GOLER: The non-interventionist policies.

REP. PAUL: No. Non-intervention was a major contributing factor. Have you ever read the reasons they attacked us? They attack us because we've been over there; we've been bombing Iraq for 10 years. We've been in the Middle East -- I think Reagan was right.

We don't understand the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics. So right now we're building an embassy in Iraq that's bigger than the Vatican. We're building 14 permanent bases. What would we say here if China was doing this in our country or in the Gulf of Mexico? We would be objecting. We need to look at what we do from the perspective of what would happen if somebody else did it to us. (Applause.)

MR. GOLER: Are you suggesting we invited the 9/11 attack, sir?

REP. PAUL: I'm suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it, and they are delighted that we're over there because Osama bin Laden has said, "I am glad you're over on our sand because we can target you so much easier." They have already now since that time -- (bell rings) -- have killed 3,400 of our men, and I don't think it was necessary.

MR. GIULIANI: Wendell, may I comment on that? That's really an extraordinary statement. That's an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don't think I've heard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th. (Applause, cheers.)

And I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn't really mean that. (Applause.)

MR. GOLER: Congressman?

REP. PAUL: I believe very sincerely that the CIA is correct when they teach and talk about blowback. When we went into Iran in 1953 and installed the shah, yes, there was blowback. A reaction to that was the taking of our hostages and that persists. And if we ignore that, we ignore that at our own risk. If we think that we can do what we want around the world and not incite hatred, then we have a problem.

They don't come here to attack us because we're rich and we're free. They come and they attack us because we're over there. I mean, what would we think if we were -- if other foreign countries were doing that to us?

Paul is quite right on the facts about the reasons for the attacks. Bin Laden published a fatwa in 1996 outlining his reasons for 'declaring war' on America. The pundits were surprised when in an (unscientific) Fox News poll on who won held immediately after the debate, Paul polled second (with 25%) to Romney's 29%, after having even led at one point.

What was appalling was the enthusiastic response that some in the crowd gave when Giuliani and Sam Brownback and Mitt Romney and Duncan Hunter implicitly but enthusiastically supported torture and the denial of due process.

You can see Dennis Kucinich express his views on Bill Maher's show and also see former Alaska governor Mike Gravel (also seeking the Democratic nomination) challenge strongly the bipartisan consensus on the war.

There have been rumors that Paul and Gravel may not be invited to future debates. That would be a travesty because it is only people like them who are really challenging the banalities uttered by the so-called leading candidates, since the media has abandoned that role.

May 16, 2007

Philosophy and science

An interesting example of the different ways that scientists and 'pure' philosophers view things arose in an exchange I had in the comments of a previous post.

Commenter Kenneth brought up an interesting argument that I had not heard before for the existence of the afterlife, an argument that he said had originally been proposed by the philosopher Spinoza (1632-1677). Basically the argument boiled down to the assumption that each one of us is simply a collection of atoms arranged in a particular way. When a person (A) dies, those atoms are dispersed and join the universe of atoms that percolate through space and time. But there is always the possibility that, purely by chance as a result of random motion, a set of atoms will arrange themselves in exactly the same arrangement that made up A when A was still alive. So thus A will have been 'reborn.' Kenneth argues that thus the existence of life after death has been established, at least in principle.

The nature of the argument can be perhaps understood better with a simpler example of thoroughly mixing ink and water in a glass and then leaving it alone to sit undisturbed. We would think that this mixing is an irreversible process and that separation into water and ink again would not be possible except as a result of extraordinary efforts by external agents. But in fact if you simply wait long enough, there is a very remote possibility that the random motion of the individual ink and water molecules will result in a momentary spontaneous separation of the mixture in the container into two separate regions, one of pure water and the other of purely ink molecules (whatever ink molecules are).

Since all that this argument requires is the ability to wait for a very long time for which these unlikely events to occur, Kenneth has satisfied himself, from a philosophical point of view, that Spinoza's argument is valid. And that once we concede the possibility that someone's atoms can be reconstituted in its original form, the existence of life after death has been established, at least in principle

But science does not limit itself to these 'in principle' arguments. Such arguments are just the first steps. Science is always looking at the detailed consequences of such ideas in order to translate them into research programs. And this is where Spinoza's argument for the possibility of an afterlife breaks down.

For one thing, the human body is not just an arrangement of atoms, like that of molecules in a mixture of ink and water, or the oxygen and nitrogen molecules in a container of air. The atoms in the human body are bound together in complex organic molecules, which are in turn held together by other forces to form cells and tissues and so on. It is not enough to just bring the atoms together, you also have to create the chemical reactions that fuse them into these molecules, and this requires energy from the outside used in a very directed way.

It is like frying an egg in a pan. Just breaking an egg into a skillet and leaving it there will not result in a fried egg, however long you wait, unless there is a source of energy to drive the reaction forward. A fried egg is not just a rearrangement of the atoms in a raw egg. It is one in which new compounds have been created and the creation of these compounds is a non-random process.

In addition, the probability of all the atoms that make up your body randomly arriving at the same locations that they occupied when you were alive is microscopically small. This is not a source of concern to Kenneth because all he needs is that this probability not be zero in order to satisfy his 'in principle' condition. But there is an inverse relationship between the probability of an event and the likely time that you would have to wait for the event to occur. For example, if you repeatedly throw a die, you would have to wait longer to get a six than to get just any even number because the probability of the former is less than that of the latter.

In the case of the body's atoms coming together again, the probability is so small that the expected time for it to occur would be incredibly long. Again, it would not matter if this were a philosopher's 'in principle' argument. But those arguments tacitly assume that nothing else is changing in the environment and that we have an infinite amount of time in the world to wait for things to occur.

But in reality events are never in isolation and science is always concerned about the interconnectedness of things. And this is where the 'in principle' argument breaks down. We know that the lifetime of the Sun is about ten billion years and that it will then become a huge 'red giant' that will grow enormously and even envelop the Earth. And later still, all the energy producing nuclear reactions in the stars will end, resulting in the heat death of the universe. So there will not be any surplus energy around, even in principle, to drive the chemical reactions to reconstitute the body's molecules, even if they did manage to arrive randomly in exactly the right positions.

I think that this is where scientific research and philosophical speculations diverge. A scientist is not interested in just 'in principle' arguments for the afterlife of the kind that Kenneth says Spinoza makes. To be become interesting to scientists, Kenneth will have to provide at least numerical estimates of the probability the body's atoms reconstituting themselves, and then use that probability to estimate the expected time for such an event to occur.

If that time is more than the expected heat death of the universe, then the question becomes moot. If it is less, then the scientist will ask if there is enough free energy at that time to drive the reaction forward and what is the probability that this energy will spontaneously be directed at the atoms in just the right amounts and directions to recreate the human body.

All these considerations, when brought together, suggest that Spinoza's argument fails and that life after death as proposed by him is not going to ever happen.

That is the kind of difference between the approaches of pure philosophy and science.

May 15, 2007

Alternative realities

One of the things that I have noticed in recent years is the proliferation of what I call 'alternative realities'.

In classical learning theory, it is believed that when someone confronts evidence that runs counter to that person's prior knowledge, a state of cognitive dissonance occurs in the mind of the learner which only goes away when the learner's knowledge structures have been adjusted to accommodate the new information.

This model of learning underlies what are known as 'inquiry' methods of teaching science where the teacher, having an understanding of what her students are likely to erroneously believe about some phenomena (such as electricity), deliberately sets up experiments for them to do whose results will directly confront their misconceptions, thus forcing the student into the difficult process of re-evaluation of what they already believe. By repeatedly going through this process at different levels of sophistication and context, the hoped for transformation is that the student develops an experiential understanding of the 'true' theory that the teacher is trying to teach.

One attractive feature of this mode of science instruction is that it models and parallels the scientific process, where the predictions of theories or paradigm are repeatedly being confronted with actual data. Seemingly discrepant data creates a kind of 'cognitive dissonance' in the scientific community as a whole which is usually resolved in one of several ways: by the data being shown to be incorrect or irreproducible, or by the theory being modified and extended to enable the incorporation of the data, or (more rarely) the overthrow of the existing paradigm to be replaced by a new one for which the discrepant data is no longer a problem. This process of resolution can take quite a long time (in some famous cases over a hundred years) and during that time the unresolved discrepant data occupies a kind of limbo. Its existence is recognized and acknowledged but other work proceeds unaffected.

What does not happen is the peremptory rejection of the data for no reason other than the fact that it disagrees with the existing theory, and to construct an alternative theory simply for the sake of excluding the troublesome data.

But what is happening in some areas now is the adoption of precisely the last option. Evidence and data is being rejected if they contradict existing beliefs. And in order to prevent that rejection causing any cognitive dissonance, alternative realities are being constructed that seem to describe a parallel universe where reality does not intrude.

In politics, for example, the idea that you can control the nature of reality rather than respond to it was expressed in the famous article published by Ron Suskind in which he said how startled he was when a high Bush administration official told him in 2002 that: "guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.'" This kind of administration hubris over their ability or control or create reality explains a lot how the debacle in Iraq occurred.

But this idea that one can either ignore reality or even create your own alternate one is becoming even more widespread. For example, practically everybody has by now heard of Wikipedia, the online open-source encyclopedia that has rapidly become a valuable resource for people to get information on a wide range of things. People have criticized it for the anonymity of the writers and the fact that some of the articles may be less than accurate and that it can sometimes be vulnerable (at least briefly) to the pranks of mischievous elements. All these shortcomings are being dealt with by the site's creators and despite them, Wikipedia has achieved an enviable level of usage.

One criticism that I had not heard was that Wikipedia had an anti-Christian and anti-American agenda. But apparently this is believed by some quarters and they have constructed a conservative alternative called Conservapedia. It says of its goals: "Conservapedia is a much-needed alternative to Wikipedia, which is increasingly anti-Christian and anti-American. . . . Conservapedia is an online resource and meeting place where we favor Christianity and America."

When I first heard of this, I thought it was an Onion-like spoof but this is not the case. The site is truly something to behold and can be a source of endless amusement for those in the reality-based world. For example, it says that "nothing useful has even been built on the theory of relativity" and that "This theory rejects Isaac Newton's God-given theory of gravitation and replaces it with a concept that there is a continuum of space and time, and that large masses (like the sun) bend space in a manner similar to how a finger can depress an area of a balloon."

It praises the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" trial for saving the state of Tennessee from 75 years of teaching of the "oppressive evolution theory."

Or about kangaroos: "Like all modern animals, modern kangaroos originated in the Middle East and are the descendants of the two founding members of the modern kangaroo baramin that were taken aboard Noah's Ark prior to the Great Flood." For more hilarious Conservapedia nuttiness that "shows" that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans and how they could have fitted into the Ark, see here.

If you want to keep living in an alternative reality, then another source is QubeTV which bills itself as the "conservative version of YouTube." Again, I had not been aware that YouTube had been the spearhead of a secret liberal agenda, but this is apparently what some people believe.

Or there is Chatting with Charley, Charley being someone who tries to cherry-pick bits of science to support his contention that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old.

And there is the rise of creationist 'museums' (like the one in Petersburg, KY organized by the group Answers in Genesis) that seek to convince visitors that the information given in regular museums are wrong because they do not conform to the what is found on the Bible.

So what is behind this rise of alternative sites like these? I think the problem is that these religious fundamentalist people who want young people to continue to believe in these ideas like a young Earth and Noah's ark are worried that exposure to popular sites like YouTube and Wikipedia will result in them having cognitive dissonances when they realize that normal people don't believe any of the stuff that they believe. The story of the ark and Noah's great flood is an event of major importance to creationists and forms the basis for their entire 'science'. If young people find no references to it at all when they look up things in Wikipedia, one can see why they might start wondering why, and some may begin to question their beliefs.

So the creators of these sites are trying to create a whole 'alternative reality' that true believers need never leave and thus never have to confront reality. What is interesting about these kinds of religious ventures is that they take almost all of science for granted and then find one seemingly discrepant event (which can usually be explained but they ignore this) and then build an elaborate alternate reality on this slender reed.

It will be an interesting exercise to see how far they can take this. As science and other forms of knowledge expand, the alternate worlds will have to get more and more elaborate and contrived to counter the information generated by them. This has to be an unstable situation.

After all, as Stephen Colbert said, reality has a well-known liberal bias.

May 14, 2007

The science-religion debate

The ABC news 'Face Off'', the 'great' debate between religion and atheism, was broadcast on Nightline last week. You can see the video of the program here. (You may be able to find the video of the full debate here.)

The side arguing for God's existence was evangelist Ray "Banana Man" Comfort and his trusty sidekick Boy Wonder Kirk Cameron. The side arguing against was Brian "Sapient" (not his real last name) and Kelly, the creators of the Blasphemy Challenge and the people behind the Rational Response Squad.

The debate was initiated by Comfort who had contacted ABC News and requested it, saying that he could prove god's existence. He set the bar for himself quite high. He promised ABC News that he would "prove God's existence, absolutely, scientifically, without mentioning the Bible or faith" and added that "I am amazed at how many people think that God's existence is a matter of faith. It's not, and I will prove it at the debate - once and for all. This is not a joke. I will present undeniable scientific proof that God exists."

The video of the program shows that the 'debate' was at a disappointingly low level, although to be fair the debate lasted for about 90 minutes and only edited portions were shown. From the outset, Comfort broke his promise, invoking both the Bible and faith. But even when it came to the 'science' part of his argument, he resorted once again to the tired Paley's watch/Mount Rushmore arguments.

The shorter version of this old argument is this: "We can immediately tell when something is designed. If something is designed, it must have a designer. Nature looks designed to us and therefore must have been designed. That designer can only be god."

The operational and philosophical weaknesses of this argument has been exposed by many people, including me, so that anyone who advances it cannot really be taken seriously unless they address those challenges to it. As far as I can see, Comfort did not do this. Although Comfort had previously alleged that the banana was the "atheist's nightmare" (because it fits so perfectly in the human hand and human mouth, the banana and human hand and mouth had to have been designed that way) he did not bring bananas along as props. Perhaps he had been warned that his video of that claim has been the source of widespread merriment.

Kirk Cameron's role seemed to be to undermine evolutionary theory but the clips of him doing that showed an embarrassing ignorance and shallowness. He invoked the old argument about the paucity of transitional forms but even here he brought it up in a form that would have made even those sympathetic to his point of view wince. He seemed to have the bizarre notion that evolution by natural selection predicts the existence every possible intermediate state between all existing life forms. He showed artist's sketches of things that he called a "croc-o-duck (a duck with the head of a crocodile) and a "bull frog" (consisting of an animal that was half-bull and half-frog) and argued that the fact that we do not see such things means that evolution is wrong. Really. It was painful to watch him make a fool of himself on national TV.

Cameron seems to be suffering from an extreme form of a common misunderstanding about transitional forms. The fact that humans and other existing animals share common ancestors does not imply that there should be forms that are transitional between them as they exist now. What evolutionary theory states is that if you take any existing organism and follow its ancestors back in time, you will have a gradual evolution in the way the organisms look. So when we talk about transitional forms, we first have to fix the two times that set the boundaries. If we take one boundary as the present time and the other boundary as (say) four billion years ago when the first eukaryotic cell appeared, then there are a large number of transitional forms between those two forms. Richard Dawkins book The Ancestor's Tale gives an excellent account of the type and sequence of the transitional forms that have been found. Of course, these ancestral forms have evolved along the many descendant forms so we would not expect to see them now in the same form they were when they were our ancestors. They can only be found in that form as fossils.

The DNA sequencing shows the connections between species as well and provide further evidence of the way species branched off at various points in time. So when evolutionary biologists speak of 'transitional forms', they are referring to finding fossils of those ancestors who preceded various branch points. The recent discovery of Tiktaalik, the 375-million year old fossil that has the characteristics of what a common ancestor of fish and mammals and amphibians would look like, is one such example. So is Archaeopteryx as a transitional form.

The 'missing link' argument against evolution, although lacking content, is one that will never die. One reason is the existence of people like Cameron who use it incorrectly. Another is that it is infinitely adaptable. For example, suppose you have a species now and a species that existed (say) two billion years ago and demand proof of the existence of a missing link. Suppose a fossil is found that is one billion years old that fits the bill. Will this satisfy those who demand proof of the missing link? No, because opponents of evolution can now shift their argument and demand proofs of the existence of two 'missing' links, one between the fossils of two and one billion years ago, and the other between one billion years ago and the present. In fact, the more transitional fossils that are found, the more 'missing links' that can be postulated!

This is what has happened with past discoveries of fossils. The fossil record of evolution has been getting steadily greater but the calls for 'proof' of the existence of missing links have not diminished.

POST SCRIPT: Antiwar.com fundraising drive

The website Antiwar.com is having a fundraiser. If you can, please support it. It is an invaluable source of news and commentary that is far broader and deeper than you can find almost anywhere else.

May 11, 2007

Respect for religion-5: Are the new atheists practicing bad politics?

There is no doubt that atheists are becoming more outspoken these days and this has led to people asking why these 'new atheists' are now so 'militant'. I do not think 'militant' is quite the right word. What has happened is that atheists are undergoing a change of attitude about what is and is not considered respect for religion.

It used to be that when it came to discussions about religion, a different standard applied than to discussions about (say) politics. With the latter, you could come right out and say that someone was wrong, and that was not considered disrespectful. But with religion, that was not the case. It was considered bad form to say that god and the afterlife did not exist and that those beliefs had no basis.

What atheists and others were supposed to do when god came up was to just be quiet and not challenge religious beliefs or statements of faith. But it was never clear why this has to be the rules of the discourse. After all, if someone claimed that they believed in the fairies dancing in their garden, we are not obliged to 'respect' that belief by not challenging it. At the very least we might ask for evidence or say something like "Really? How interesting. What makes you believe that?" So when someone says that they believe in god, why should we not respond the same way? But if we did so, they would likely be insulted because religious beliefs are supposed to be either self-evidently true or exempt from the rules of evidence or the bar for evidence is set so low that anything goes ("I know god exists because I feel his presence when I pray.").

The new atheists are having none of this old-fashioned notion of what constitutes respect for religion. The most that 'respect' can command is that we do not treat religious believers as being crazy because it is undoubtedly true that people who are perfectly rational about almost everything can have irrational beliefs in compartmentalized areas of their lives.

Respect cannot, and should not, be extended to discouraging the challenging religious beliefs. What the new 'new atheists' are doing is expressing their skepticism about religion directly, publicly, and sometimes in a spirit of mischievous humor.

The Blasphemy Challenge, where individuals post video clips of themselves cheerfully denying the Holy Spirit, are direct challenges to the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. The trigger for this challenge is the passage in the Bible (Mark 3:28-29) where Jesus draws a very clear line in the sand and says: "I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin." In other words, this particular sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, is the ultimate no-no, the sin that cannot be forgiven, ever. What the people behind the site say is that passages like this are meant to frighten people into believing in god, and the 'respect for religion' trope is being used to prevent people from pointing this out.

In the past, atheists would have simply ignored things like this. If you don't believe in a god, why would you care if you were condemned by this non-existent god? But now, there are hundreds of them going online, publicly risking damnation by making jokes about the Holy Spirit. They are not calling religious people names or things like that. They are simply and publicly saying what they don't believe.

This new atheism has ruffled quite a lot of feathers in a religious establishment that has got accustomed to having their pieties accepted unquestioningly. The Rational Response Squad, which is behind the Blasphemy Challenge, was even profiled on Nightline. In the interview, it is interesting how often the idea of 'lack of respect' comes up in the words of religious believers and the interviewer. But all the atheists are saying is that there is no evidence for god and they are not afraid of hell because there is no evidence that it exists either. The language of the atheists is scientific while the religious people appeal to faith and mystery and fear of hell.

Once again, it is perhaps the existence of the internet that has been the galvanizing force in this new movement. Formerly atheists were isolated. But now they are realizing that there are many, many more of them out there than they thought, and they are joining up with others, and discovering that being an atheist, far from being a lonely experience, is a lot of fun. That has to be a good feeling.

There is a political price to be paid for speaking out this way. Some religious people are using the well-known public dislike for atheism to cast doubt on science by implying that science and atheism are joined at the hip and to argue that modern science demands atheism. Richard Dawkins says that he is sometimes told even by people who agree with his views that he is helping the forces of religious fundamentalism by enabling them to portray all scientists as atheists and that hence science itself is atheistic.

This has happened to me too. As some readers know, I was on Ohio's Science Standards Advisory Board. During the struggle to keep intelligent design creationism (IDC) out of the standards, I was told that my public atheism was actually being used by some IDC advocates on the board to argue that evolution was atheistic and thus bad. It was gently suggested that I be more discreet about my atheism. I think that what some 'moderates' fear is that people's attachment to religion is so strong that if asked to choose between god or no god, and if science is identified with no-god, , they will choose god and thus science will be rejected, and the religious moderates will end up allied with the fundamentalist and extremists.

This really is the fundamental political question.

I think that the best political alliances are those formed around specific issues, not on the basis of compatible ideologies or even people. For example, in the movement that opposes the Iraq war, there are many factions, ranging all over the political and religious spectrum, who are unlikely to agree on other issues. And that is fine. Coalitions should form because they advocate similar policies on a particular issue.

The same thing arises with social issues like poverty and health care. The alliances for each will again be formed on the basis of agreement over specific policy proposals. When forming such alliances, each person and group will stay true to their own principles but come together on strategy and tactics to achieve a certain result.

For example, I work with and support a religious group, the InterReligious Task Force in Cleveland which does excellent work on highlighting issues of injustice in Central and South America. They began their work in response to the brutal rape and murder of four Catholic nuns by the US-supported dictatorship in El Salvador in 1980, and their motivation arises from the feeling that their religion calls upon them to fight for justice. I respect that. My motivation is different from theirs but we agree on the goal of justice for the people of that region and that is sufficient for joint action.

The same should apply to the science-religion question. I think that there is nothing wrong with the new atheists pointing out that the beliefs of even mainstream religions are not rational, but still joining with them to oppose the teaching of IDC as science. Presumably mainstream religions are opposed to teaching IDC in science classes because they think it is a bad policy. Thus they should be willing to work together with anyone, including atheists, on this issue even though the new atheists seek that ultimate end of religious beliefs altogether. This kind of disagreement does not have to be a barrier to working together on those things on which they agree.

I do not think there is really a problem here, except for a shallow understanding of the nature of coalition politics. The problem, if at all, is that people get offended because they are mixing the public with the personal. If someone disagrees with them because of their views on topic A, they are personally offended and will not work with them on topic B, even if they agree with them.

May 10, 2007

Respect for religion-4: Religion as Conversation-stopper

I have written in the past about how religion should be kept in the private sphere and out of the public sphere. I have since discovered that philosopher Richard Rorty wrote an interesting essay with the above title on this topic in 1994, that was published in his book Philosophy and Social Hope (1999). In the essay, Rorty challenges Stephen Carter who wrote a book The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. (Thanks to Michael Berube for bringing Rorty's essay to my attention.)

Rorty says:

Carter puts in question what, to atheists like me, seems the happy, Jeffersonian compromise that the Enlightenment reached with the religious. This compromise consists in privatizing religion -- keeping it out of what Carter calls "the public square," making it seem bad taste to bring religion into discussions of public policy.
. . .
We atheists, doing our best to enforce Jefferson's compromise, think it bad enough that we cannot run for public office without being disingenuous about our disbelief in God; despite the compromise, no uncloseted atheist is likely to get elected anywhere in the country. We also resent the suggestion that you have to be religious to have a conscience -- a suggestion implicit in the fact that only religious conscientious objectors to military service go unpunished. Such facts suggest to us that the claims of religion need, if anything, to be pushed back still further, and that religious believers have no business asking for more public respect than they now receive.

Rorty adds:

Contemporary liberal philosophers think that we shall not be able to keep a democratic political community going unless the religious believers remain willing to trade privatization for a guarantee of religious liberty.
. .
The main reason religion needs to be privatized is that, in political discussion with those outside the relevant religious community, it is a conversation-stopper. Carter is right when he says:

One good way to end a conversation -- or to start an argument -- is to tell a group of well-educated professionals that you hold a political position (preferably a controversial one, such as being against abortion or pornography) because it is required by your understanding of God's will.

Saying this is far more likely to end a conversation that to start an argument. The same goes for telling the group, "I would never have an abortion" or, "Reading pornography is about the only pleasure I get out of life these days." In these examples, as in Carter's, the ensuing silence masks the group's inclination to say, "So what? We weren't discussing your private life; we were discussing public policy. Don't bother us with matters that are not our concern."

This would be my own inclination in such a situation. Carter clearly thinks such a reaction inappropriate, but it is hard to figure out what he thinks would be an appropriate response by nonreligious interlocutors to the claim that abortion is required (or forbidden) by the will of God. He does not think it is good enough to say: OK, but since I don't think there is such a thing as the will of God, and since I doubt that we'll get anywhere arguing theism vs. atheism, let's see if we have some shared premises on the basis of which to continue an argument about abortion. He thinks such a reply would be condescending and trivializing. But are we atheist interlocutors supposed to try to keep the conversation going by saying, "Gee! I'm impressed. You have a really deep, sincere faith"? Suppose we try that. What happens then? What can either party do for an encore?

Rorty captures exactly the problems raised by the 'respect for religion' trope. Not only does the introduction of religious ideas not advance public policy discussions, it actually hinders them by introducing a non-evidence based, non-negotiable belief and thus stops the conversation dead in its tracks.

Rorty makes the excellent point that putting religion into the private sphere is the only way that can guarantee religious freedom. Once religion gets a toehold into the public sphere, it increasingly becomes dominated by a narrower and narrower range of views that seeks to exclude all but the true believers. So all those who worry about having freedom of religion should be working to keep it out of the public sphere.

What we should be doing instead is trying, along the lines suggested by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice, to find what moral premises we all have in common despite our differing personal backgrounds and belief structures.

Religious people might complain, in the words of Carter, that they are being forced 'to restructure their arguments in purely secular terms before they can be presented' in the public sphere and suggests that this is somehow unfair to them. Rorty replies that all that this requires is dropping references to the premises of the arguments (i.e., not saying things like "But that violates what it says in the Book of Leviticus….") when discussing public policy, and that "this omission seems like a reasonable price to pay for religious liberty." He goes on that this requirement "is no harsher, and no more a demand for self-destruction, than the requirement that we atheists, when we present our arguments, should claim no authority for our premises save the assent we hope they will gain from our audience."

Rorty in his conclusions makes an important point: "Carter seems to think that religious believers' moral convictions are somehow more deeply interwoven with their self-identity than those of atheists with theirs. He seems unwilling to admit that the role of the Enlightenment ideology in giving meaning to the lives of atheists is just as great as Christianity's role giving meaning to his own life."

So when atheists (of the 'new' variety and others) say that religion does not have any special place in any discussions of public policy and should not be immune from criticism, they are not being disrespectful or rude to religion, they are merely pointing out that "a speaker's depth of spirituality is [no] more relevant to her participation in public debate than her hobby or her hair color."

The new atheists are simply advocating a model of good democratic politics.

May 09, 2007

Respect for religion-3: Challenging the privileged status of religion

It used to be that when religious people said something about their beliefs that you disagreed with, the polite thing to do was to keep quiet, even if you thought it wrong or baseless or just plain silly. What is happening now is that religious-based statements are being seen more and more as on a par with any other statements and suffer the same scrutiny. Why the new atheists are causing a stir is because of their willingness to say openly what many have thought but previously kept to themselves: that the basic ideas underlying religions are no different from beliefs in a flat-Earth or fairies or magic unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Even comparing, as I have just done, mainstream religious beliefs with these other so-called 'fringe' beliefs is sometimes taken as insulting. But this increased willingness to say just such things has resulted in them being called 'shrill' or having 'no respect for religion.'

The way the word respect is used in this context is curious. I am a believer in respect for people. I also have respect for ideas that have merit in the sense that they are backed by evidence and reason. But the phrase 'respect for religion' seems to be demanding something more: that everyone must collude in maintaining the idea that god and an afterlife is a reasonable thing for adults to believe in and that to point out the flaws in those beliefs is to be somehow gauche.

I have written before about author Salman Rushdie who said:

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

Rushdie admires this approach but it is good to remind oneself that not all people enjoy this kind of argumentation on a personal level. But I do agree with Rushdie on the basic premise that no ideas should be immune from criticism and that no one has the right to expect to be shielded from ideas that they might find repugnant. In fact it is essential that people's ideas be challenged if they are ever to learn. But how one scrutinizes ideas depends a lot on the situation.

While Rushdie is perfectly right in saying that no ideas should be shielded from criticism, in the private sphere there is no point in upsetting people when it can be avoided by more careful use of language and by showing some consideration for their sensibilities, even while not avoiding saying what one believes.

But in the public world of ideas, there should be no sacred cows and no idea should be immune from close scrutiny. But the common idea of 'respect for religion' seems to expect more. It seems to demand an acceptance of the following premise: that religious beliefs, at least of mainstream religions, be seen as fundamentally good and reasonable, and that any evil committed in its name be characterized as aberrations. Anyone who challenges this and asserts that the problem may not be that between good and bad religion, but that religious beliefs themselves are a problem is seen as stepping over some line that should not be crossed. So when Sam Harris author of The End of Faith says: "We have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man's inhumanity to man," he is seen as being disrespectful to religion, because he is not distinguishing between 'good' and 'bad' religion.

'Respect for religion' is sometimes taken to suggest that if someone says that they oppose equal rights for gays because their religious doctrines assert that homosexuality is immoral, we are supposed to take that as a serious argument. If someone says that he opposes giving equal rights to gays, we would ask them to provide some justification. But if he says that his religion opposes homosexuality, then that is supposed to be a serious argument, exempt from challenge. Recently I was on a panel that discussed religion and sexuality. The Muslim panel member said that his religion required him to oppose granting homosexuals the same rights as enjoyed by heterosexuals. I said that while I understood his motives for opposing the gay lifestyle, a motive is not an argument. Saying that Islam or Christianity thought homosexuality wrong is as irrelevant to a discussion of public policy as the views of Satanists or any other religious group.

The basic point is that when discussing issues of public policy, there is no reason to provide beliefs based on religion with any special standing. The basic premise of the new atheists is that religious people, when engaged in the public sphere, should conform to the same rules of evidence, logic, and reason that all arguments must follow. If we use that yardstick, then we see that there is no reason to listen to people like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell because they rarely have any arguments, and simply quote Biblical verses to support their prejudices.

It is not an insignificant detail that the idea of 'respect for religion' also plays an important role in shielding religious beliefs from public skepticism. This is partly why people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger, are causing such a stir. They are challenging the idea that religious beliefs have some kind of special status in the public sphere that exempts them from scrutiny using the normal requirements of evidence and reason that we accept as applying to everything else.

POST SCRIPT: The power of tornados

I have never lived through a tornado but this video gives a glimpse of their terrifying power.

May 08, 2007

Respect for religion-2: What are the limits?

If one wants to see how much privilege is granted to religion in the public sphere, consider what happened last week. The Congress decided to expand the provisions of so-called 'hate crimes' legislation. The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 (H.R. 1592), would "provide federal assistance to states, local jurisdictions and Indian tribes to prosecute hate crimes" involving "actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability."

Some Christian groups, such as the Traditional Values Coalition objected to the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the list because they feared that this would prevent them from speaking out against homosexuals, cross dressers, and transgendered people.

Leaving aside for the moment the whole problematic issue of hate crimes, what is relevant to this post is that these Christian groups took particular offense that this vote was scheduled (and passed) on the same day as the 'National Day of Prayer.' They said that it was a 'slap in the face' to Christians, that it was disrespectful to bring up the inclusion of hate crimes against gays on their day of prayer.

Follow me closely here. The first step in the argument seems to be that some Christians feel that they have the right to oppose homosexuality because of their religious beliefs. Fair enough. In a free country people should be able to believe what they want as long as they do not obstruct the rights of others. The next step seems to be that the National Day of Prayer is a day that privileges their particular interpretation of Christianity and thus a discouraging word should never be heard on that day and passing any legislation that offends the sensibilities of those groups on that day is being 'rude' to them.

On one level, this argument is problematic because there are also many religious groups who oppose discrimination against gays and might see this as a perfectly appropriate day to pass such legislation.

The real problem lies in the whole idea of privileging religious beliefs in the public sphere at all. Even designating such a thing as a National Day of Prayer is questionable. Passed in 1952, it resulted from pandering to religious groups in general, not to any particular sect, and it dangerously treads on the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Not to mention that it seems a little silly for the government to be getting into the business of exhorting people to pray on a particular day.

I bring up this somewhat trivial blip on the political landscape to illustrate what happens when we let the trope of 'respect for religion' become a rule that is raised to a higher level than others. Why should religious beliefs be granted any special privileges denied to other beliefs?

This is not to say that we should go out of our way to offend religious people by throwing the cold water of reason on their beliefs whenever the topic of religion arises. For example, a close friend of mine, who is very religious, had an adult daughter who died a few years ago. My friend is still grief-stricken and even now will burst into tears when talking about her loss. She consoles herself by saying that she looks forward to the day when she joins her daughter in heaven. I never dispute this when I am with her because we all need some means of coping with life's tragedies and this is hers. The reason for my silence is because of my respect for her as a person and the desire to help her deal with her sorrow.

It is for the same reason that I bow my head when at some function someone starts to pray for something, or why I take off my shoes when entering a Hindu or Buddhist temple or a Mosque or wear a yarmulke when attending a synagogue that requires it. It is out of respect for the people there, not for their beliefs. The idea that I am entering a 'holy' space that requires this level of deference makes no sense to me, but I go along with these practices out of a sense of social obligation to not needlessly offend. It means nothing to me either way, so why not accommodate others when entering places that are special to them?

In a non-religious context, it is exactly the same reasoning for why I dress up formally (or as formally as will be acceptable) when I attend a wedding or observe the social niceties expected of me when I am the guest of someone else, such as not putting my feet up on their coffee table or lying down on their living room couch, even though I do these things in my own home.

But when we are discussing public ideas in a public forum, there is no reason to privilege religious beliefs in any way or to cushion religious believers from any arguments against their beliefs. I think Henry Louis "H.L." Mencken, American editor and critic got it right when he said: "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the same sense and to the same extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."

But respect for religion has been extended well beyond this reasonable accommodation that acts as a social lubricant, and seems to seek exemption from public criticism of the beliefs themselves. And it is this applecart that the new atheists are upsetting.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Rowan Atkinson on Jesus's miracles

May 07, 2007

Respect for religion-1: Are the new atheists rude towards religion?

There are two charges that are often laid at the feet of the 'new atheists'. One is that they are rude, shrill, angry, and otherwise disrespectful towards religion. The second is that their challenge to religious beliefs in general (as opposed to just the fundamentalist and extreme variants) makes for bad politics, since they are alienating those religious elements who act as a moderating influence in our society and with whom elite science has formed useful alliances in the past.

As to the first charge of rudeness and shrillness, this is clearly not a statement about that actual tone of the discussion conducted by the new atheists. Most of the prominent new atheists are urbane academics who are not prone to yelling or using profanity or ad hominem attacks. I have seem numerous interviews with Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most prominent of the new atheists, and never once have I heard him so much as raise his voice or even seem angry. The worst charge that can be laid against him is that he can be testy with those people who make sweeping claims about evolutionary theory without seeming to understand what the theory actually says. He is actually very mild-mannered when compared with some of the other voices one hears in the media.

So whence does this charge of rudeness arise? I think it is because the new atheists are directly challenging the idea that religious beliefs should occupy a privileged place in public discourse that shields them from the kind of scrutiny that any other belief would merit. If, for example, some public official like a member of Congress or the President were to say that he or she believed in fairies and had conversations with them, that would immediately raise questions about the mental competence of the person involved. But saying that he or she converses with god through prayer not only raises no concerns at all, it is seen as wholly admirable. The fact that people do not even see a similarity between belief in god and belief in fairies is a testament to how powerfully our society has internalized the idea that 'respect for religion' means that one must not point this out.

In his book The God Delusion (p. 178), Richard Dawkins quotes the anthropologist Pascal Boyer who once over dinner at a Cambridge University college recounted the beliefs of the Fang people of Cameroon who believed that "witches have an extra internal animal-like organ that flies away at night and ruins other people's crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets, where they will devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims."

Bayer says he was dumbfounded when a Cambridge theologian turned to him and said "This is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense." (italics on original)

Dawkins points out that the theologian, as a mainstream Christian, did not see any irony at all in referring to the Fang people's beliefs as nonsense even while he himself believed many or all of the following beliefs:



  • In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
  • The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus came back to life.
  • The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
  • Forty days later, the fatherless man went to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily in to the sky.
  • If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his 'father' (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
  • If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
  • The fatherless man's virgin mother never died but 'ascended' bodily into heaven.
  • Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), 'become' the body and blood of the fatherless man.

Note that this set of beliefs is commonly held by mainstream religious people, not just fringe groups. There will be differences amongst the various sects as to which to believe and which to reject (Catholics believe the last one which non-Catholics find preposterous) but clearly once you have accepted any one of them, it is hard to deny credibility to any of the others or to the beliefs of the Fang people.

What has disturbed the equilibrium in dialogue between elite science and elite religion is that the new atheists are saying that the beliefs of even elite religion are incompatible with a scientific outlook that values evidence. And this is what, I think, underlies the charge of rudeness, shrillness, etc. It is not the volume or tone or language or any of the other things that we normally associate with those words, but simply the fact that the new atheists have chosen to point out that, in an intellectually coherent sense, there is no such thing as a 'respectable' religious belief.

POST SCRIPT: Bush no longer influential?

I usually don't pay much attention to the periodical generation of lists of the 100 best or worst this or that. Those lists tell us more about the people making up the lists than anything else. But I was intrigued by the recent release of Time magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world and the fact that George W. Bush was not on it.

It seems absurd to me that the leader of the world's only superpower, and a man with a proven record of creating disaster and chaos, should not be considered objectively influential, if even in a negative way. The Mayor of New York, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Israeli Foreign Minister, and Osama Bin Laden make the list but Bush doesn't? Are there any reasonable criteria by which such an omission makes sense?

Yes, but only if you take the view that this list is not a measure of actual influence but simply measures the zeitgeist. And what Time seems to have decided is that Bush has become an embarrassment who is best ignored until the time comes when he slips away into obscurity at the end of his term, unless he is impeached first. His low approval rating of 28%, the lowest of any President since 1979, adds to his aura of being a loser.

Perhaps this cartoon by Nick Anderson, editorial cartoonist of the Houston Chronicle (in Bush's home state no less), best represents how Bush is increasingly being perceived.

Bush12yearold.jpg

May 04, 2007

The new atheism-6: The biological origins of religion and morality

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.)

You would think that natural selection would work against religion because those individuals who spent their time in prayer and other rituals, and used precious energy and resources in building temples and offering sacrifices, would be at a survival disadvantage when compared to those who used their time more productively. In the previous post, I outlined the basic framework of natural selection and summarized the arguments of those who explain the survival value of religion by saying that religious ideas are passed on and evolve as a byproduct of the survival advantage that accrues from young children being predisposed to believe their parents and other adult authority figures.

But while that may explain how religions propagate once they come into being, it is harder to understand how religious ideas arose in the first place. If the outbreak of religion were an occasional event occurring here or there at random, then we could just dismiss it as an anomaly, like the way that random genetic mutations cause rare diseases. But religion is not like that. As David P. Barash says in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Volume 53, Issue 33, Page B6, April 20, 200.): "On the one hand, religious belief of one sort or another seems ubiquitous, suggesting that it might well have emerged, somehow, from universal human nature, the common evolutionary background shared by all humans. On the other hand, it often appears that religious practice is fitness-reducing rather than enhancing — and, if so, that genetically mediated tendencies toward religion should have been selected against."

Barash summarizes the various suggestions that have been put forth to overcome this problem of how religion could have originated.

Other, related hypotheses of religion include the anthropologist Pascal Boyer's grandly titled Religion Explained, which argues that natural selection would have favored a mechanism for detecting "agency" in nature, enabling its possessor to predict who is about to do what (and, often, to whom). Since false positives would be much less fitness-reducing than false negatives (i.e., better to attribute malign intent to a tornado and take cover than to assume it is benign and suffer as a result), selection would promote hypersensitivity, or "overdetection," essentially a hair-trigger system whereby motive is attributed not only to other people and mastodons, but also to trees, hurricanes, or the sun. Add, next, the benefit of "decoupling" such predictions from the actual presence of the being in question ("What might my rival be planning right now?"), and the stage is set for attributing causation to "agents" whose agency might well be entirely imagined.

Boyer's work, in turn, converges on that of Stewart Guthrie, whose 1993 book, Faces in the Clouds, made a powerful case for the potency of anthropomorphism, the human tendency to see human (or humanlike) images in natural phenomena. This inclination has morphed into a more specific, named phenomenon: pareidolia, the perception of patterns where none exist (some recent, "real" examples: Jesus' face in a tortilla, the Virgin Mary's outline in a semimelted hunk of chocolate, Mother Teresa's profile in a cinnamon bun).

The same kinds of ideas are invoked to explain the origins of morality but here the work has advanced a lot more. The idea that morality comes only from religion has no validity, given that natural selection provides alternative explanations. As Barash says: "Taken together or in various combinations, kin selection, reciprocal altruism, group selection, third-party effects, and courtship possibilities, as well as simple susceptibility to social and cultural indoctrination, provide biologists with more than enough for the conclusion: God is no longer needed to explain "Moral Law.""

This is not to say that the question of the biological origins of morality has been completely solved.

In Darwin's Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson explored the possibility that religious belief is advantageous for its practitioners because it contributes to solidarity — including but not limited to moral codes — that benefits the group and wouldn't otherwise be within reach. That notion, appealing as it might be, is actually a logical and mathematical stretch for most biologists, relying as it does upon group selection. The problem is that even if groups displaying a particular trait do better than groups lacking it, selection acting within such groups should favor individuals who "cheat." Mathematical models have shown that group selection can work in theory, but only if the differential survival of religious groups more than compensates for any disadvantage suffered by individuals within each group. It is at least possible that human beings meet this requirement, especially when it comes to religion, since within-group self-policing could maintain religiosity; it certainly did during the Inquisition.

So where do things stand? The status of the game is that while there have been major advances in understanding the biological origins (based on natural selection) in the propagation and evolution of religious ideas, and the origins of morality, there still needs a lot more work to be done, especially on the question of the origin of religion. As Barash says:

We must conclude, sadly, that a convincing evolutionary explanation for the origin of religion has yet to be formulated. In any event, such an account, were it to arise, would doubtless be unconvincing to believers because, whatever it postulated, it would not conclude that religious belief arose because (1) it simply represents an accurate perception of God, comparable to identifying food, a predator, or a prospective mate; or (2) it was installed in the human mind and/or genome by God, presumably for his glory and our counterevidentiary enlightenment.

But the goal can never be to change the minds of people about the lack of necessity of god by direct arguments. That rarely succeeds for reasons to be discussed in a future posting. In fact, although I have written many posts on why belief in god is irrational, I basically agree with Charles Darwin's approach when he said "It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follows from the advance of science."

The reasons for my posts are not to persuade the determined believers to change their minds but to add to the universe of ideas, so that people who are not particularly committed to religion will find that their musings are not the dangerous thoughts of an apostate that will be punished by an angry god, but the perfectly rational doubts that arise in the minds of anyone who values the role of evidence and the pursuit of scientific inquiry.

What is exciting about the recent developments is that questions of religion and morality are now being investigated using scientific tools and methods, and those are bound to result in greater detailed understanding of those phenomena.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: This should be fun

Apparently ABC News has decided to stage a science-religion debate. Who suggested this idea and offered to represent religion? None other than Ray "Banana Man" Comfort and his sidekick, Boy Wonder Kirk Cameron.

Apparently Comfort requested the debate in order to counter The Blasphemy Challenge. Comfort says: "I am amazed at how many people think that God's existence is a matter of faith. It's not, and I will prove it at the debate - once and for all. This is not a joke. I will present undeniable scientific proof that God exists."

Right. Frankly, if I was a religious person, I would be really worried about letting Comfort be my standard bearer. But who knows, maybe he has found a proof more powerful than the banana. (Scroll down to see the video if you don't know what I'm talking about.) Perhaps he has managed to find god's designing hand in the avocado also. Maybe he will bring along Peanut Butter Man to clinch the case.

The debate will occur on May 5, 2007 and apparently will be streamed live on the ABC website and later be shown on Nightline.

Of course, what Comfort and people like him really yearn for is media exposure and he probably doesn't care if people hoot with laughter at his "proofs" of god.

May 03, 2007

The new atheism-5: The scientific approach to philosophical questions

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

The biological sciences approach to the questions of the origins of religious belief and morality is not to ask what the proximate causes are that led to belief in god and the afterlife (for which the answers may be to satisfy curiosity and provide comfort) but to see what evolutionary advantage accrues to those individuals who hold such beliefs, because natural selection works on individual organisms, not groups.

To better understand how evolutionary biology addresses these questions, it is useful to review the basic tenets of evolution by natural selection. Following Philip Kitcher's The Advancement of Science, (p.19), Darwin’s four fundamental evidentiary claims can be stated as follows:

1. The Principle of Variation: At any stage in the history of a species, there will be variation among the members of the species: different organisms belonging to the species will have different properties.

In other words, children are never identical with their parents. Within each species there is considerable diversity in properties and in support of this position Darwin took great pains to point out how hard it was to distinguish between different varieties within the same species, and between species.

2. The Principle of the Struggle for Existence: At any stage in the history of a species, more organisms are born than can survive to reproduce.

If there is an abundance of food and other resources, the population of any species would multiply exponentially. The fact that it doesn't is due to limitations in these necessary elements and this is what results in only some surviving and their populations reaching more or less stable values.

3. The Principle of Variation in Fitness: At any stage in the history of a species, some of the variation among members of the species is variation with respect to properties that affect the ability to survive and reproduce; some organisms have characteristics that better dispose them to survive and reproduce.

The members of a species that are more likely to survive and pass on their properties to the next generation are those that have properties that give them some survival advantage in the environment in which they find themselves. It is important to note that only some of the properties need to be advantageous for the organism to have preferential survival. Other properties may also flourish not because they have a similar advantage but because they are somehow linked to the advantageous properties and are thus carried along. Thus some properties may simply be byproducts of selection for other properties.

4. The Strong Principle of Inheritance: Heritability is the norm; most properties of an organism are inherited by its descendents.

Most properties that we have (five fingers, four limbs, heart, etc.) are inherited from our ancestors.

From these four principles, we infer the crucial fifth:

5. The Principle of Natural Selection: Typically, the history of a species will show the modification of that species in the direction of those characteristics which better dispose their bearers to survive and reproduce; properties which dispose their bearers to survive and reproduce are likely to become more prevalent in successive generations of the species.

So natural selection will favor those organisms that, by chance mutation in their genes, have properties that give them better chances for survival, and thus these characteristics will appear in the next generation in greater abundance.

This is the powerful theory that Darwin and Wallace proposed and which forms the basis of all modern biology. Note that it does not deal with how life originated in the first place and Darwin was frank about this limitation and offered just the broadest and mildest speculation about that big question. There is no question that when dealing with the issue of life itself, the problem of how life evolved and diversified has received better answers than the question of how life first originated.

Pretty much the same situation applies to religious beliefs (and the evolution of language also, but that is a topic for another day). Once religious ideas came into being, it is not hard to see how they could have continued and produced the present diversity using the above principles.

It is obvious that when it comes to religion, the strong principle of inheritance applies. The best predictor of what a person's religious beliefs are is the religious belief of the parents. Most children believe the same religious ideas as their parents except for slight variations. Most young children have very little idea that other religions even exist and don't even think of their own beliefs as 'beliefs' because they have been taught them as facts and believe them because their parents told them. (Interestingly, it is found that the eldest child is likely to be more faithful in adhering to the parents' beliefs than subsequent children.)

Applying the theory of natural selection to religious beliefs, the theory goes in the direction of religion being propagated as an accidental byproduct of selection for something else. It has been argued that in terms of natural selection, there is a definite survival advantage to favor a genetic predisposition for children to believe parents and other authority figures than to disbelieve them, and that thus this quality will be preferentially selected. In other words, natural selection does not select for religious beliefs per se, but religious beliefs are propagated as a byproduct of selection for trusting one's parents.

To see how believing what one's parents tell you is beneficial, we know that unlike many animals, young children are not at all capable of surviving in the wild on their own. They need parents to protect them. A child who listens to her parents (don't touch the fire, don't walk over the edge of the cliff, etc.) is more likely to survive than a child who ignores the authorities around her. Thus it is not hard to see how natural selection would prefer to select for a propensity to believe authority figures and that thus human children have evolved to have a predisposition to believe them.

But as Richard Dawkins points out in The God Delusion (p. 176) the catch is that the child is not able to discriminate between useful and useless bits of advice. "The child cannot know that 'Don't paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo' is good advice but 'You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail' is at best a waste of time and goats. Both admonitions sound equally trustworthy. Both come from a respected source and are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience."

So while there is a survival value to the child inheriting a genetic predisposition to believe what her parents tell her, a byproduct of this is that the child inherits the religious beliefs of the parents as well, with slight variations. So once religious ideas gain currency in the early days of human evolution, they start propagating and diversifying like any other organism in the tree of life and become distinct entities that share a common root. Over time, just as individual biological variations became separated and formed into distinct species, so do religious beliefs. After some time, with the process often assisted by some charismatic religious leader, these religious variations became codified to become the distinct religious doctrines we see around us.

Another suggestion is that religious ideas, once they come into being, are 'memes' (ideas) that are analogous to genes but act like the mental counterparts of viruses, in that they act to propagate themselves and not for the benefit of the organism they inhabit. Dawkins describes the possible existence of 'memeplexes', a collection of memes that form the environment of ideas in which other memes have to compete for survival. He suggests that existing memeplexes might favor the survival of the following memes (p. 199):

• You will survive your own death
• If you die, you will go to an especially wonderful part of paradise where you will enjoy seventy two virgins (spare a thought for the unfortunate virgins)
• Heretics, blasphemers and apostates should be killed (or otherwise punished, for example by ostracism from their families)
• Belief in God is a supreme virtue. If you find your belief wavering, work hard at restoring it, and beg God to help your unbelief. (In my discussion of Pascal's Wager I mentioned the odd assumption that the one thing God really wants of us is belief. At the time I treated it as an oddity. Now we have an explanation for it.)
• Faith (without evidence) is a virtue. The more your beliefs defy the evidence, the more virtuous you are. Virtuoso believers who can manage to believe something really weird, unsupported and insupportable, in the teeth of evidence and reason, are especially rewarded.
• Everybody, even those who do not hold religious beliefs, must respect them with higher level of automatic and unquestioned respect than that accorded to other kinds of belief. . .
• There are some weird things (such as the Trinity, transubstantiation, incarnation) that we are not meant to understand. Don't even try to understand one of these, for the attempt to understand might destroy it. Learn how to gain fulfillment in calling it a mystery.
• Beautiful music, art, and scriptures are themselves self-replicating tokens of religious ideas.

I am not too familiar with the whole meme framework but I mention it here for the benefit of those who may know more about it.

I think that, just as in the case of life, there is a plausible biological explanation for how religious ideas propagate and diversify once they come into existence. The more difficult challenges are explaining what caused religious ideas to come into being in the first place, and similarly, what are the biological origins of morality.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Amazing pool shots

I have played pool only a few times in my life, enough to give me an appreciation of how skilful this player is. It is said that skill at pool is a sign of a mispent youth. By that rule, this pool player must have completely wasted his life.


Amazing - Watch today’s top amazing videos here

May 02, 2007

How the Iraq war was sold

If you missed the excellent special episode of Bill Moyer's journal Buying the War: How did the mainstream press get it so wrong? that was broadcast on PBS on Wednesday, April 25, 2007, you can see the 90-minute program online.

I would strongly urge that you watch the program. Those of us who followed the run-up to the war closely will not find any startling new revelations in the program but by assembling the information into one narrative, Moyers shows dramatically how the administration and Congress and the media colluded in misleading the country into the disastrous Iraq war. (See Justin Raimondo's review of the program which adds useful information.)

I have written extensively about how the media works before, about the benefits of unbalanced media coverage, the consequences of having media monopolies, how the media censors itself, the incestuous media, business, and political worlds, how the media propaganda model works (here, here, here, and here), the the class nature of journalists, and how to avoid being suckered by the media.

Watching the Moyers program and seeing how newspapers like The New York Times and the Washington Post and the main television network news and talk shows not only uncritically reported White House propaganda but acted as cheerleaders for the war, vindicated my long-time strategy of not reading or watching these sources but instead looking for more better news sources and analysis.

Like many other people, I knew that the war was immoral and illegal and that the case being made was a sham and said so at that time. This was not because I was smarter or had better sources than other people but simply because I am always skeptical about obviously self-serving statements by politicians and pundits. If you are willing to look, you can find valuable news and analysis. But if you sit back and take only what is given to you, you will be misled.

For example, just a couple of days after Colin Powell's infamous UN speech in February 2003, it was clear from reading the international media that almost his entire presentation was a fraud. But you would never have guessed it if you had only read the swooning coverage in the mainstream US media.

There were some exceptions to the rule as Moyers points out. Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy) news service reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel took the trouble to actually investigate claims and statements made by government officials (imagine that!) and found that they seemed to be living in a different world from the rest of their media colleagues. But since their news service is not a 'glamour' operation and owned no newspapers in the New York and Washingon markets, the skeptical reports they filed were drowned out by the noise machines.

Media stars like Tim Russert and reporters like Judith Miller and Michael Gordon are revealed for what they are, mere stenographers and conduits for administration propaganda. Dan Rather of CBS and Walter Isaacson of CNN offer mea culpas now for how they were swept by and made fearful by the patriotic fervor at the time, but their statements seem self-serving and pathetic. Bob Simon of CBS at least asked the right questions and had a good sense of what the truth was even if he did not push hard enough to get the story out.

As Norman Solomon says, the real test for journalists is how they respond during times of peak emotion, not when they have time to look back, and by that standard Rather and Russert and Isaacson failed miserably. As Rudyard Kipling said in his poem If:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
. . .
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son!

But very few of them met Kipling's standard. Nearly all of them lost their heads in the pro-war hysteria.

All the gung-ho pro-war pundits like Thomas Friedman, Charles Krauthammer, William Safire, Roger Ailes, and Judith Miller weaseled out of appearing on Moyers' show, not willing to stand by their words or defend them. All of them are still around, unfazed by being spectacularly wrong. And others who misled the US into war (like William Kristol, Peter Beinart, and Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson) even get rewarded by being given even more prominent platforms than before.

See this excellent Tom Tomorrow cartoon called Great Moments in Punditry capturing the statements of these pundits in 2003. What is amazing is that they are still around, still spouting warmongering nonsense.

Now that the war has gone seriously wrong, some people are trying to edge back in to respectability by becoming critics. I am always suspicious of such people like Zbigniew Bzerzinski and Madeline Albright. These people like to shine their anti-war badges on the backs of an unpopular war so that they will be taken seriously when they advocate in favor of the next war. After all, Bzerzinski was the shameful architect of Afghanistan's current troubles and Albright was the one who casually dismissed the deaths of half a million Iraqi children as 'worth it' to pursue US policy goals. These people have no principles, they are just opportunists, waiting for their next chance in the seats of power. And they will use the phony antiwar credentials they have created during this unpopular war to make themselves more credible when they agitate for a future war.

Similarly former CIA head George Tenet is now whining about how badly he has been treated by his former friends, trying to act like he was a poor, misunderstood voice of reason who has been treated dishonorably by others and Colin Powell is, as usual, is trying to persuade us that he is an honorable man by rewriting history. One should treat all these people with caution

One adage that I keep in mind when following the news is not to just pay attention to what people are making a fuss about but to look at the things about which they silently agree. Very often, the big, noisy controversies are like a magician's patter, designed to distract your attention form where the action really is. For example, the recent big drama about the president vetoing the bill that Congress sent him putting timetables on troop redeployment masks the facts that Congress is not objecting to money going for the construction of many large permanent military bases within Iraq. This suggests to me that there is a silent bipartisan agreement to station a large number of US troops in Iraq indefinitely. If the Democrats were really serious about withdrawal, why would they continue funding to build those bases? Such an action would not even leave them open to the phony charge of 'not supporting the troops.' Their silence on this speaks volumes.

This is why I encourage people to read and support sites like Antiwar.com. They have been taking a principled stand on war from early on, and provide links to a wide variety of news reports and commentary. Even when I disagree with them on specific issues (and there are many), I respect them for not being the kinds of shameless opportunists that infest the mainstream TV and newspapers.

POST SCRIPT: How and why god caused global warming

When a science teacher in Seattle wanted to show her class the film An Inconvenient Truth, an outraged parent named (ironically enough) Frosty Hardison managed to get it stopped, unless an anti-global warming film was also shown 'for balance.'

The Daily Show's Jason Jones interviewed Frosty and the interview is hilarious and has to be seen to be believed. It turns out that he believes the rapture will occur in the next five to seven years and that the current warming trend is due to god's wrath for our abominable behavior.

What is really strange about these rapturites is that if one of these days a major city were to be suddenly demolished for whatever reason with massive casualties ensuing, the rest of us would see the event as a major tragedy, whatever the cause. But the rapturites will wait hopefully, wondering if this is a sign of Jesus's return.

May 01, 2007

The new atheism-4: The new questions posed by the new atheists

Religious beliefs are ubiquitous and have been around for a long time despite the lack of any convincing empirical evidence in support of the beliefs. As I have said before, the evidence asked for is not unlike the evidence required if someone says that there are three kinds of electric charge in the universe, as opposed to the two kinds that scientists currently believe in. You have to provide data to support that contention. If you don't, people are perfectly justified in rejecting that position. To assert that a third kind of charge exists but it has no measurable and observable effect on anything is not a position that has any intellectual merit. And yet that seems to be precisely the kind of argument that elite religionists are making.

That is not the only kind of evidence that god could provide. Sam Harris in his book Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 78) points to a website that asks why the people who claim that god heals people in response to prayers never seem to pray to have the limbs of amputees re-grow, even though salamanders routinely do this without any prayer. As the website says: "If we pray for anything that is impossible -- for example, regenerating an amputated limb or moving Mt. Everest to Newark, NJ -- it never happens. We all know that. If we pray for anything that is possible, the results of the prayer will unfold in exact accord with the normal laws of probability."

Yet despite this lack of evidence, almost all societies at all times seem to have had some form of religious beliefs and observances and this naturally begs the question of why this is so. Religious people and theologians will answer that this is because god really does exist and people have sensed god's presence in some way. This then requires an explanation of why, if there is a single god, there are so many varieties of religious beliefs that are quite different.

One commonly accepted explanation is that only one religion is right and the rest are wrong. This assumes that only one particular religious group managed to sense correctly the right nature of god. The catch, as we all know, is that each of the different religions believes that they are the truly special ones and there seems to be no way of determining which belief is correct.

But another explanation can be obtained by bringing social scientists and anthropologists into the picture, and trying to explain the divergence of beliefs in this single god in the light of historical contingencies. In other words, they argue that god's presence is revealed to humans in such subtle ways that people interpret god in the light of their immediate social and cultural contexts, leading to different conceptions of the one god at different times and different places. Why is god so subtle in leaving clues instead of being direct? That is put down to inscrutability.

But one can easily come up with yet more alternative explanations. One (which I just made up in the course of writing this post) is that there isn't just a single god but many gods, each competing for the allegiance of people on Earth. In other words, rather than one religion being right and all the others wrong, they are all right. The Jewish god, Christian god, Muslim god, Hindu god, and all the other gods that people worship are all separate entities, playing a game according to some rules they have agreed upon that results in the people on Earth, who are the 'pieces' in their game, competing as proxies to see which god is going to emerge the winner with the most followers.

This explanation explains quite a lot that a single god model does not. For example, take the problem of why bad things happen to good people. When people suffer for no discernible reason, this model could argue that it is caused by one god trying to make the believer in another god angry with their current god and shift their allegiance. This model would also explain why for most religions apostasy is one of the biggest sins and unquestioning faith and devotion are portrayed as great virtues, because all these things discourage people from switching allegiances and thus causing their god to lose the game.

It is often argued that religions can also arise even in the absence of any god because the notions of an all-powerful god and the existence of an afterlife are so comforting for those who fear death, that they have been tempted to invent a benevolent father figure and a life after this life. Or that religion arose because ancient people were trying to find explanations for the wonders of the natural world and the idea of a cosmic creator made sense to them. These kinds of explanations arise from the fields of individual and social psychology.

But such explanations for the existence of religion are not satisfying for those who look at it from the point of view of evolutionary biology because they come in response to the wrong question. For such scientists, it is not enough to suggest that religion came into existence because it satisfies psychological needs. Since the paradigm for them is evolution by natural selection, a satisfactory explanation would have to answer the harder question of why it was evolutionarily advantageous for those individuals who had predispositions for behaviors that result in religion coming into being to be preferentially selected over those individuals that did not. Saying that beliefs in god and the afterlife satisfy human curiosity and are comforting may be true but miss the point.

The answer to this question is not at all obvious. On the face of it, religion is at an evolutionary disadvantage because evolution prefers those organisms that use their time and resources wisely and efficiently to propagate their genes. It is hard to see how people who seem to want to spend their energy and resources building places of worship, and their time in worship, can have an advantage (in terms of natural selection survival) over other humans who use their time in more productive ways such as cultivating food or building better shelters or hunting prey.

This is why the entrance of natural scientists into the science-religion debate has shaken things up so much, because they are not only asking new questions, they are suggesting that they may soon be able to provide biologically-based answers to age old questions of then origins of morality and religion and consciousness.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: NPR host audition

I heard that NPR is having an American Idol style contest to find the next National Public Radio program host. A good friend of mine Daniel Steinberg has submitted an audio clip which you can listen to here and then rate him.

I listened and he has a terrific voice, very NPR-y. But even more important than that is that as a host Daniel (by training a mathematician but now diversified into many areas) would bring with him a sharp intelligence, wit, broad knowledge, a good humored approach, and common sense.

I hope you will listen and vote accordingly. To avoid ballot stuffing, there is a quick registration process to assign you a password before you can vote, but that was quick and painless and they do not ask intrusive personal questions.