Entries for June 2007

June 29, 2007

Evolution-5: How probability intuition can lead us astray

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

One of life's ironies is that the difficulty in understanding the mathematics of Darwin's theory of natural selection may actually be caused by natural selection itself.

As we saw earlier, natural selection does not try for maximum benefit but instead works on a 'just good enough for now' principle. Steven Pinker in his book How the Mind Works (1997) is a cognitive scientist who believes that natural selection has been the driver for most aspects of our bodies and our behavior, and that the brain, being just another organ, has evolved to do what it does to effectively meet the challenges it faced at various times in our somewhat distant past. Pinker points out that humans, when compared with other animals, have unusually large brains compared to body size but that this rapid expansion in brain size occurred more than 100,000 years (or about 5,000 generations) ago (Pinker, p. 198) and then leveled off after that. This means that the structure of our present brains has been largely determined by a time when humans were hunter-gatherers and foragers.

This means that although modern life is undoubtedly very complex and require us to meet a vast array of challenges, our brains are best suited to meet the challenges of our ancient forebears, not those of driving on a highway or learning to operate a computer or solving sudoku puzzles. Thus we are very good at identifying faces and shapes, seeing things in depth, reacting to predatory dangers, and acting on instincts such as ducking when an object is thrown at our heads, etc, because our brains have probably evolved modules that handle such things efficiently. But we are not so good at solving quadratic equations. The kind of mathematics that helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive did not require much beyond an elementary sense of number. As for probability, simple concepts largely based on induction and extrapolating from past experiences, are sufficient.

But as culture developed in the last 10,000 years with the advent of more settled agrarian societies and written language, we now find ourselves having to struggle a bit to master the concepts needed to face today's challenges. They do not come 'naturally' to us, by which I mean that there are no brain modules that have evolved to enable us to quickly grasp and understand and respond to them.

This is especially true of probability and statistics. There was no need for our ancestors to develop modules to make Bayes' Theorem or the Central Limit Theorem easily understandable, which explains why our intuitions are so often led astray. For example, many people fall prey and lose money because of the 'gambler's fallacy' because they put their faith in a spurious 'law of averages', believing that the more repeated occurrences you have of the same thing (say getting heads on a coin toss or coming up black in a roulette wheel), the more likely a different outcome becomes on the next play. Similarly people who play the lottery numbers tend to avoid numbers that have won recently.

While mathematical sophisticates may look down on such naïvete , Pinker points out that such expectations are perfectly consistent with the kinds of probability experiences our hunter-gatherer ancestors experienced and which we still experience in most everyday life. After several days of rain, a dry day is more likely. After seeing several elephants appear in a line, it was more likely not to see one. In fact, event repetitions that are finite and terminate and change are the norm in nature, not the exception. Hence believing such things and acting upon such beliefs has some survival value that makes it plausible that our brains evolved modules that encoded those expectations, making us instinctively sympathetic towards believing things like the gambler's fallacy.

The reason that so many are fooled by the gambler's fallacy is that the creators of the gambling devices go to great lengths to make each event independent of the previous ones, thus violating our natural expectations. We thus have to consciously learn to sometimes go against our 'natural' instincts and this takes effort and is not easy.

Even though I consider myself fairly adept at mathematical manipulations, I am often humbled by how easily my intuition is led astray when confronted with a novel statistics problem. Take for example this case, which may be familiar to people who have taken an elementary statistics course, but fooled me when I first encountered it.

Suppose the incidence of some disease is fairly rare in a population, say about one in a thousand. You are told that there is a test for this disease that is pretty good in that it that has a 'false positive' rate of only 5%, meaning that if a randomly selected group is tested, only 5% of the people who do not have the disease will have test results that come out positive. Also you are told that the false negative rate is zero, meaning that if someone does have the disease, the test will definitely come out positive.

Suppose you are among those who are part of this random testing. To your dismay, the result is positive. What do you think are your chances of actually having the disease?

Most people would think that it is very high. They may put it as high as 95%, thinking that if there is a 5% false positive rate and 0% false negative rate, that means that the likelihood of someone testing positive having the disease is 95%. This sounds eminently reasonable.

But the actual chance of you having the disease despite testing positive is just 1 in 51 or less than 2%! How come? This becomes easier to understand if we shift from talking in terms of probabilities (which I have pointed out are not so intuitive) to talking about numbers. Suppose you are one of 1000 people being randomly tested. (Any size will do. I have chosen 1000 because it is a nice round number.) Then an incidence of 1 in 1000 means that we expect only one person to actually have the disease (and who will test positive), and 999 to be free of the disease. But a 5% false positive rate will result in about 50 of the 999 people who do not have the disease also testing positive. So your chance of actually having the disease is the chance that you happen to be that one person with the disease out of the 51 testing positive.

What the positive test result has done is provide a twenty-fold increase in the odds of your having the disease from 1 in 1000 (or 0.1%) to 1 in 51 (or slightly less than 2%), but your chances are still extremely good (over 98%) of not having the disease. I suspect a lot of people get unduly terrified by test results of this kind because doctors may not know how to present the data in ways that give them a better sense of estimating the probability. (Of course, I am assuming that you were selected randomly for this test. If the doctor recommended that you get the test because you had other symptoms that caused her to suspect you had the disease, then that would further increase the odds of you having the disease.)

The lesson here is to be wary of our 'gut' feelings when dealing with certain mathematics concepts, especially involving probability and statistics. This may partially explain why Darwin's theory of natural selection, dealing as it does with small probabilities and long time scales, is so hard for many to digest because they are outside the range of things we experience on a daily basis. In future postings, I will look at some of the issues that come up.

POST SCRIPT: Sicko opening nationwide on Friday

Michael Moore's new documentary on the health care system Sicko will be at the Cedar-Lee (2163 Lee Rd) in Cleveland Heights starting on Friday, June 29, 2007. The show times are noon, 2:30, 5:00, 7:30, and 10:00 but you should check before you go.

Moore also appeared on The Daily Show to point out once again what a scandal the health care system in the US is, where it is actually in the interests of the profit-driven health insurance companies to deny health care to patients.

June 28, 2007


If you read some of the more thoughtful analyses of the reasons behind the 9/11 attacks, you may have noticed repeated use of the word ‘blowback’. Some may not be aware that this word is used by the CIA to denote the consequences that its covert activities abroad might cause, and the disasters they might someday bring down on the US.

The idea that one's actions have repercussions is perfectly sensible. It is absurd to think that US foreign policy, especially when it is used aggressively and militarily and covertly to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, will not give rise to opposition and antagonism that may manifest itself in unexpected and unconventional ways.

This rational view of how actors behave on the world stage is excoriated by those demagogues in the media (by which I mean the major political leaders and pundits) who prefer to couch foreign policy debates in simple dualistic good-and-evil terms, and to suggest that the 'evil they' hate the 'good us' simply because of our virtue.

The word 'blowback' and its associated meaning moved from the murky clandestine world and entered the popular culture when it was used as the title of an influential book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire published in 2000 by Chalmers Johnson. Johnson is a former CIA consultant and a professor of Asian studies at Berkeley, and was an avowed cold-war warrior during the Vietnam war era.

Johnson has now written a very interesting article titled Evil Empire: Is Imperial Liquidation Possible for America? on the current state of affairs. The whole article is quite long but well worth reading but here are some excerpts:

The United States, today, suffers from a plethora of public ills. Most of them can be traced to the militarism and imperialism that have led to the near-collapse of our Constitutional system of checks and balances.
. . .
If these people actually believe a presidential election a year-and-a-half from now will significantly alter how the country is run, they have almost surely wasted their money. As Andrew Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism, puts it: "None of the Democrats vying to replace President Bush is doing so with the promise of reviving the system of check and balances.... The aim of the party out of power is not to cut the presidency down to size but to seize it, not to reduce the prerogatives of the executive branch but to regain them."

George W. Bush has, of course, flagrantly violated his oath of office, which requires him "to protect and defend the constitution," and the opposition party has been remarkably reluctant to hold him to account. Among the "high crimes and misdemeanors" that, under other political circumstances, would surely constitute the Constitutional grounds for impeachment are these: the President and his top officials pressured the Central Intelligence Agency to put together a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq's nuclear weapons that both the administration and the Agency knew to be patently dishonest. They then used this false NIE to justify an American war of aggression. After launching an invasion of Iraq, the administration unilaterally reinterpreted international and domestic law to permit the torture of prisoners held at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and at other secret locations around the world.

Nothing in the Constitution, least of all the commander-in-chief clause, allows the president to commit felonies. Nonetheless, within days after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush had signed a secret executive order authorizing a new policy of "extraordinary rendition," in which the CIA is allowed to kidnap terrorist suspects anywhere on Earth and transfer them to prisons in countries like Egypt, Syria, or Uzbekistan, where torture is a normal practice, or to secret CIA prisons outside the United States where Agency operatives themselves do the torturing.

On the home front, despite the post-9/11 congressional authorization of new surveillance powers to the administration, its officials chose to ignore these and, on its own initiative, undertook extensive spying on American citizens without obtaining the necessary judicial warrants and without reporting to Congress on this program. These actions are prima-facie violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (and subsequent revisions) and of Amendment IV of the Constitution.

These alone constitute more than adequate grounds for impeachment, while hardly scratching the surface.

It is a measure of how weakened the Congress has become that it has failed to seriously consider impeachment of the President despite having a very strong case for doing so. Only Congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich has made any moves to at least impeach Vice President Cheney.

POST SCRIPT: The flourishing of nonsense

Not heard about best selling self-help book The Secret? These two funny guys from Australia explain what it is all about and take the correct attitude towards it. (Thanks to Onegoodmove.)

One reason that religion is a negative influence in society is that it enables other evidence-free beliefs to flourish in its wake, because it creates a climate where vague mystical and supernatural forces are given credibility. How else can one explain the vast numbers of people who take stuff like The Secret seriously?

Materialists can dismiss this stuff as nonsense because it invokes some mysterious and unknown agency that intervenes in the world in response to human requests. But on what basis can someone who believes in a personal god do so, even if they wanted to? Isn't The Secret based on prayer and faith, just like religion?

June 27, 2007

Evolution-4: Darwin gets an idea from Malthus

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

In Darwin's travels to distant lands from 1831 to 1836 on the Beagle, the different climates and environmental conditions he encountered made him aware of the weakness of the existing theory of 'special creation', where god was assumed to have created creatures best suited for their environment. Darwin saw for himself that very similar climates could produce hugely different kinds of species, and that the nature of these species seemed to be more influenced by the species in nearby areas than by anything else. This seemed to him to suggest that new species arose from the modifications of the old.

The discovery that the Earth was much older than had been previously thought, and the evidence for which was in the geology book by Charles Lyell that he had read on the boat, told him that it may be possible for these changes to occur gradually by very small steps provided that there was enough time for the changes to accumulate.

But why should species change at all? Why shouldn’t they stay the same forever? Or if they changed, why wouldn't they change randomly instead of seeming to have a direction towards increasing complexity?

What Darwin still lacked was a mechanism that drove the change in organisms. The idea for this came in September 1838 when, after his return from his voyage and he was thinking about all the evidence he had gathered, he read Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population in which that political economist argued that the only thing that kept the population of anything (humans, other animals, plants) from experiencing runaway exponential growth was the limitation of essential resources (such as food and suitable habitats), and deprivations such as cruel climates, predators, and the like. (David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (2006), p. 42.)

Darwin knew that the size of plant and bird and animal populations in nature were fairly stable and he reasoned that the factors identified by Malthus might act differentially on members of the population, being more likely to remove the ones less suited and thus increasing the proportions of those more suited to the conditions. This kind of selection pressure, he felt, must be the driver of evolutionary change. Here at last was the mechanism that he had been seeking.

For the next twenty years, he carefully studied this process, starting with the breeding practices of pigeon owners and moving on to many others species. He even spent eight years studying barnacles. While breeders had the ability to artificially control the selection process, Darwin had the insight that the forces at work in nature might produce the same effect in the wild, hence his term 'natural selection'.

Darwin eventually arrived at the basic tenets of evolution by natural selection. (The Advancement of Science, Philip Kitcher, 1993, p. 19. I have mentioned these before but reproduce them here for completeness.)

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 (the larger the population, the greater the diversity) 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, as suggested by Malthus. The fact that it doesn't is due to limitations in these necessary elements and this is what results in only some surviving and 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 an advantage but because they are somehow linked to 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, one heart, etc.) are inherited from our ancestors.

All these four things were not controversial and were not hard to accept even for religious people. What gave Darwin's theory its uniqueness and created controversy was that from these four principles, he inferred the crucial fifth. It was this extrapolation that is the key to Darwin's theory of natural selection.

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, have properties that give them better chances for survival, and thus these characteristics will appear in the next generation in greater abundance. And from this he inferred that as these changes accumulate, eventually new species emerge.

But it was one thing to have a theory that satisfied him. It was quite another to convince others that it was the explanation for the diversity of life. There were many obstacles he had to overcome, not the least of which was the scale of time he was asking people to envisage was much longer than they were used to, the size of the mutations that underlay the process were so small as to be mostly invisible, and there was no agreement at that time on the whole question of how characteristics were inherited and how variations occurred in species.

It was to try and meet these objections that Darwin spent the rest of his life accumulating vast amounts of evidence from all over the world. Darwin, great scientist that he was, knew that just having a good idea wasn’t enough in science, however beautiful the idea was. You had to have evidence to support it.

Next in the series: How probability ideas can lead us astray

POST SCRIPT: How can we miss you if you won’t go away?

I was looking forward to British Prime Minister Tony Blair leaving office today. I found his preening pieties, his obsequious behavior toward Bush, and his self-righteous attitude irritating in the extreme and was looking forward to not having to see that on public display. But now comes the alarming news that Bush is thinking of making him some kind of special envoy to the Middle East, so we will be forced to endure even more of his grating presence.

Maybe Bush likes having his 'pet poodle' (which is actually an insult to a fine and dignified breed of dogs) around but as long-time Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk points out in the British newspaper The Independent, those who think that Blair, whom he describes as "this vain, deceitful man, this proven liar, a trumped-up lawyer who has the blood of thousands of Arab men, women and children on his hands," has any credibility at all in the Middle East are woefully mistaken.

June 26, 2007

The mixed views of candidate Ron Paul

If anyone had any doubts that the US is ruled by a single pro-war, pro-business party, recent Congressional action should dispel them. It is clear that the wheels are already being oiled for starting a war with Iran, and the Democrats are complicit in this pre-war demagoguery, just as they were before the war with Iraq, when many voted for the Iraq war authorization resolution.

Take the recent resolution H. Con. Res. 21 of the 110th session passed by the House of Representatives. As Arthur Silber points out, it lays the groundwork for what can be used later to start a war with Iran. 411 members voted for it, and only two voted against. The two were (no surprise) Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul and Kucinich explains why.

The vote may have been seen by some as symbolic, a chance for them to grandstand against Iran, the current target of demonization by the pro-war lobby. It was triggered by an alleged inflammatory statement by the Iranian leader that people who know the language and idiom well say is a mistranslation. (See Juan Cole and also here.) But as the bitter experience of Iraq reveals, so-called symbolic resolutions have a way of being used as if they are legal authorizations for war.

As for Paul, Rudy Giuliani must be kicking himself for taking on congressman Ron Paul during one of the early GOP debates. As a result of that exchange, Paul has received a lot of media exposure. I have mentioned approvingly his views on the Iraq war and the negative consequence of militarism in foreign policy. Another big thing in his favor is that he does take the constitution and the Bill of Rights seriously.

But we have heard very little in the media on his domestic views, some of which I disagree with, especially his opposition to single-payer universal health care system. Another negative against Paul is that he objects to gays serving in the military, and seems to support the current ridiculous "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. The issues page on Paul's website is a bit sketchy on details of his positions on many issues. The Carpetbagger Report lists other problems with Paul’s views and those of libertarianism in general.

Paul's sharp opposition to government in almost all its forms and almost uncritical support for the private sector seems to arise from a great faith in the 'free market', but his view of it, like that of many libertarians, seems to be an Adam Smith idealization, where lots of small companies vie for customers on a roughly equal footing. In such a situation, individuals have some power and can benefit but that situation is rarely found in the modern, highly corporatized, monopolistic economy. Now corporations have enormous power over individuals and one of the important tasks for both the government and the judiciary is to counterbalance that power so that individuals are not at the mercy of these powerful entities.

There is a danger with too powerful a government, though, because it can shift its allegiance from protecting the rights of ordinary citizens to serving the interests of the elites who wine and dine politicians and contribute to their campaigns and even outright bribe them. We currently have a system where a single pro-business, pro-war party government with two factions (labeled Republicans and Democrats) is actually colluding with corporations to exploit individuals, and a Supreme Court that is also more solicitous of business interests than that of individuals. It is time to swing the pendulum away from big government-big corporation domination of our lives.

Since the mainstream media tends to focus mainly on so-called 'leading' candidates, in order to redress the balance, here is collection of just Paul's responses to questions during the June 5, 2007 New Hampshire debate.

It is to Jon Stewart's credit that he asks Paul about his other views.

And keeping on a lighter note yet revealing of where Paul stands on a variety of issues, here he is on Stephen Colbert's show:

And as a result of appearing on Colbert’s show, he got the famous ‘Colbert bump’ and his poll numbers shot up to 2%!

While people like Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich are unlikely to win their respective party’s nominations since the media have already decided that they are not ‘serious’ candidates, their presence in the race has definitely opened the door to a wider range of views (especially on the Iraq war and the threat to liberties at home) and that is definitely a good thing.

POST SCRIPT: Bong hits 4 Jesus

Some time ago I wrote about the student who was punished for unfurling the "Bong hits 4 Jesus" banner during a parade. The Supreme Court has now ruled against him.

June 25, 2007

Evolution-3: Natural selection and the age of the Earth

(See part 1 and part 2.)

It is clear that many people find it hard to accept Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. One reason is of course because it completely undermines the need to believe in a creator, making god superfluous when it comes to explaining the nature and diversity of life, and thus people may have a negative emotional reaction that prevents them from seeing the power of the theory. As I have discussed earlier, people are quite able to develop quite sophisticated reasons to believe what they want and reject what they dislike.

Another reason that Darwin's ideas were so hard to accept is because, as Daniel Dennett says in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), he turned the whole model of how things come to be on its head. Up until then, people had thought that to make anything always required a more complex thing. Simpler things never made more complex things. You did not find a horseshoe making a blacksmith, for example. But what Darwin was suggesting was that a very simple mechanism, natural selection, could result in simpler things becoming more complex without an external agent, but just from the ground up, as it were. What is worse was that, according to Darwin's theory, intelligence, which had been thought as a precursor to creation and often used synonymously with god, turned out to be something that occurred much later in life's evolution. In other words, intelligence itself came into being by a non-intelligent mechanism. These ideas made people who thought of human beings as possessing some special divine qualities uncomfortable, to put it mildly.

People find it hard to accept the fundamental idea of evolution that very small changes, if cumulative over very long times, can result in big changes. This should not be an entirely foreign concept, especially to those with savings accounts who are familiar with the way that interest grows when compounded. If you keep some money in a savings account at a rate even as low as 1%, it will double in 70 years, quadruple in 140 years, become eight times as much 210 years, and so on, becoming over a thousand times as large in 700 years, and over a million times as large in 7,000 years. But therein lies the difficulty. People do not fully appreciate the power of compounding because they tend not to be able to grasp time scales much longer than their own life spans.

The mathematics and statistics that are relevant to understanding how natural selection works does not come easily to people, partly because we do not have a firm intuitive grasp of geological time scales which are so large as to be almost impossible to comprehend. I once had a college first year student say that she did not think evolution could have happened. I asked her why and she said that when you saw the images drawn on 'ancient' Egyptian inscriptions, those people looked just like us today. So in her view, since there had been no visible evolutionary change over what to her was an enormous length of time, this disproved evolution!

It is not easy to grasp that even written language only goes back 5,000 years or so. When we factor in that the more appropriate unit of time for evolutionary change is the generation (which for humans is about 20 years), we see that written language emerged only 250 generations ago. It is hard for us to even imagine what life was like back then. Even the Vietnam war, which was just one generation ago, seems like ancient history to college students today, almost obscured by the murky mists of time.

So it is almost impossible to wrap our minds even around the fact that the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees lived 300,000 generations or 6 million years ago, even though that itself is a blip compared to the origin of life itself (over 3 billion years ago) or age of the Earth (4.5 billion years ago). When we realize that the lifetime of a generation for many species is usually much less that 20 years, and is often measured in months and even days, the number of generations that have been available for evolutionary change to take place is staggeringly huge.

Although he could not quantify it at that time, Darwin knew that his theory of natural selection required very long time scales in order to be feasible. But he was born at a time when Biblical cosmology was dominant and the idea of an Earth that was less than 10,000 years old was widespread. This would not have been long enough for his ideas to work and it is unlikely that he would have hit upon his great discovery if not for having been born at a fortuitous time. In another example of how science is deeply interconnected in its theories, Darwin's theory was made possible because of the work of his contemporary and later friend, geologist Charles Lyell and his theory of uniformitarianism.

Prior to Lyell, ideas in geology were strongly influenced by the book of Genesis and it was believed that the Earth had had a series of catastrophes (floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, etc.) that had produced its major geologic features. The advantage of this theory of catastrophism was that it enabled people to believe that the Earth was quite young, since it made it plausible that major geological fractures like the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls could come into being suddenly.

Lyell in his three volumes The Principles of Geology: Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface, by Reference to Causes now in Operation (published over the years 1830-33) advanced evidence that the Earth had been around for a very long time and in particular, from his study of fossils, that human beings were much older than had been thought. Darwin read the first volume of this work on his life-changing trip on the Beagle (which lasted from 1831 to 1836) and it opened his eyes to a new way of seeing the diverse life forms in the exotic faraway places he visited. Lyell's work not only gave Darwin the large window of time necessary to fit his own theory, it also was a precursor of Darwin's central idea that very small changes, accumulated over very long times, could produce dramatic effects.

Although Lyell's estimate of the age of the Earth was only about 250 million years, smaller in comparison to current estimates by a factor of almost twenty, this was still a huge increase from earlier ideas, and Darwin saw in it an opening that the Earth was possibly very old, old enough that made it possible for the evolution of life as he saw it to occur and it encouraged him in his work. But after Darwin published his landmark On the Origin of Species in 1859, the old Earth theory of Lyell received a major setback when in1864, one of the most eminent physicists of that time, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), said that his calculations of the rate of cooling of the Earth's magma suggested that the Earth became a solid body between 20 and 400 million years, a disturbingly low lower limit. But it got worse, with later calculations reducing even the upper limit to much less than what Lyell had proposed, coming down to about just 10 million years. This was much less than what Darwin needed for his theory to work, and Thomson in 1868 explicitly challenged the validity of natural selection on these grounds. (David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (2006), p. 211.)

While this was undoubtedly a setback, Darwin doggedly persevered, accumulating more biological evidence for his theory, confident that future work in physics would vindicate him that the Earth was much older. But conclusive support on this question would only come after his death in 1882. Following the discovery of radioactivity, Rutherford and others in 1907 found evidence of rocks that were 1.6 billion years old. Further studies since then have increased the age to the current estimates of 4.5 billion years, more than enough for the theory of evolution to work.

Once again, we see how the interconnectedness of science can provide powerful constraints when it comes to constructing new theories, because theories in one area (such as biology) have to be consistent with theories in seemingly disparate areas (like physics and chemistry and geology). When creationists attack the theory of evolution and try to replace it with ad hoc theories of great floods, they are also severing ties with an entire network of scientific theories, and adding on yet more ad hoc hypotheses to fill in the obvious gaps does not help. When they reject a comprehensive theory like the theory of evolution by natural selection without replacing it with another one that is consistent with the findings of other scientific theories, they are pretty much rejecting the foundations of modern science.

As the philosopher of science Pierre Duhem wrote long ago in his book The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906): "The only experimental check on a physical theory which is not illogical consists in comparing the entire system of the physical theory with the whole group of experimental laws, and in judging whether the latter is represented by the former in a satisfactory manner." (emphasis in original)

POST SCRIPT: The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Hank Medress, vocalist of the group the Tokens, died last week at the age of 68. Here he is singing their big hit The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

June 22, 2007

Film reviews: Network and Matewan

Here are two more reviews of old films that are worth seeing.

Network (1976)

This film is a brutal satire on the TV news business and, sad as it is to say and even harder to believe, the kinds of attitudes it satirized in 1976 has only gotten far worse in the subsequent three decades.

Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky uses the story of Howard Beale, a network news anchor who has a mental breakdown when he is told that he is being fired because of his low ratings, to show what really drives TV news. When Beale starts saying the truth on air about how things really work in the news world and the contempt that the people in TV have for the intelligence of their viewers, he starts getting audience attention and his ratings start going up again. He starts to pick up steam by voicing the frustration and sense of powerlessness that people feel.

The people in the entertainment division of the network see the chance to gain huge ratings by converting the news into a kind of entertainment, complete with segments involving soothsayers and the like, the whole thing showcased by Beale, now nicknamed 'the mad prophet of the airwaves', ranting on some topic, as can be seen in this clip, where he denounces the dangerous control that TV has on the minds of the public.

(Nowadays, nowhere is this film's critique of how 'news' has become trivialized more apparent than in the ridiculous amount of coverage given to Paris Hilton. The best commentary on the media frenzy about the non-event that was her recent jailing was that given by Tommy Chong in an interview with Stephen Colbert.)

The film is immensely helped by the performances of two wonderful actors (William Holden and Peter Finch) in the twilight of their careers, aided by two other fine actors Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall who were at their peak. Finch won an Academy Award for his performance but died before he could accept it.

Although Chayevsky a tendency has sometimes to give his characters (especially the one played by Holden) set-piece speeches on life and love and death that give the film a somewhat stagey-look, his writing is so good that he gets away with it. There are some interesting side-plots involving urban guerrilla chic and radical black activists of that time. The film shows how, in the end, everyone is corrupted by the allure of fame and money that TV exposure brings, and are willing to be manipulated by the TV executives to achieve that goal.

Network is one of those films that I saw when it first came out and is still good after all these years. It is a film that has become a cultural touchstone, with the line "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore" familiar to people who may not know from where it originated.

Matewan (1987)

Matewan is another fine film by independent filmmaker John Sayles. It is based on the true story of the struggle of coal miners in the West Virginia town of Matewan to obtain better condition by forming a union, and the fierce attempts by the mine owners and their thugs and goons to prevent it. Seeing films like this makes me appreciate so much more the efforts of the early efforts at unionization, fought by workers and their families at great cost and danger to themselves, which now give us the kinds of working conditions and safety that we take for granted.

Sayles's first film was The Return of the Secausus Seven (1980), the story of a group of high school friends who reunite for a vacation ten years after graduation. It was shot on a low budget with an unknown and almost amateur cast. The much better-known The Big Chill (1983), which has almost the same story, looks like an unacknowledged remake of Sayles's film.

Sayles has since gone on to make more commercially successful films (you can see a list of the films he as made here) and has been able to attract better known actors along the way, with some of them, such as Chris Cooper and David Strathairn, appearing repeatedly.

Sayles epitomizes the true independent. Many filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh who began as independents went the big budget Hollywood route after they achieved commercial success. Sayles refuses to do so. Even after he has shown himself to be a critical and commercially successful filmmaker, he refuses to seek funding from the big studios because they would require him to relinquish control over the final product. He says:

I want to direct films that no one else is going to make. I know if I don't make them, I'm never going to see them. Of course, I hope some people will want to see my movies as well, but I won't pander to the public. I won't try to second guess what a Hollywood studio would like to see in a low-budget film, so that they will hire me the next time around. I know I will always do better work if I do projects in which I really believe. And if I never get to direct again, I will have made some movies I can feel proud of.

Sayles is very good at capturing the mood of a time and an event, and does not shrink away from showing the politics of race and class. For him, what a film says is more important than how it looks. As he said, "I'm interested in the stuff I do being seen as widely as possible but I'm not interested enough to lie. . .[A movie] may not look the way we'd like it to look or sound the way we'd like it to sound or get seen by as many people as we'd like to have see it but at least it will say the stuff we want it to say."

June 21, 2007

Evolution-2: The lack of evidence for perfect design

In the first post in this series, I showed with the example of a soap spray nozzle how natural design could come up with systems whose intricacy and complexity is such that it was superior to the efforts of intelligent human designers. But what about the argument that a god-like designer would be able to come up with an even better nozzle design? It is true that if we allow for the existence of such a designer, we could get the best possible design for a nozzle. The catch is that assuming that god is a perfect designer opens up a whole set of new problems, not the least of which is why if god is so powerful he would need any kind of nozzle at all and not simply create any kind of spray he/she needed.

Let me start with a limitation of natural selection. There is a well known result about any method of solving a problem that starts (like natural selection does) with some state, tries out small variations, selects the one that shows the greatest improvement over the starting point, tries out variations based on that new state, selects the best one again, and so on, which is exactly the way that natural selection works. The problem is that while you will end up with a better result than the one with which you started, it may not be the very best solution that is conceivable. Such algorithms result in finding a locally optimal solution but not a globally optimal one.

As an example, suppose you are in open ground and totally in the dark. For some reason, you need to get to the highest point in the ground, say because flooding is occurring and you know the water is rising very slowly. (The specific reasons are not important. The point is to have some kind of external pressure that drives the selection process in one direction.) You could gingerly take small steps in every direction, see which way went up the most, and move one step in that direction. Then you again take tiny steps in all directions and select the one direction that moved up most, and move to that position. And so on. By repeatedly doing this, you are guaranteed to arrive at a peak.

(This is how natural selection works, though to be a more accurate analogy, we need to start with many people at the starting point, have couples move in each direction, have only the couples that get to higher ground survive while the others drown, have those successful couples produce lots of children at that location, who then move as couples in different directions, and so on.)

The catch is that the peak you arrive at may not be the highest peak in the vicinity. If a yet higher peak were to be separated from your initial starting point by even a small dip in the ground, you would miss it using this algorithm, since it does not allow you to make a short-term disadvantageous change in anticipation of future benefits. Natural selection is not guaranteed to produce the very best or the most perfect solution or design. It instead works on a 'just good enough for now' basis. This means that biological systems do not necessarily make progress towards perfection even though they do become more complex over time.

Now a god-like designer would presumably be able to see all the possible solutions (even in the dark) and pick the one that is best overall and guide you to that point. But the interesting thing is that the results of nature are more consistent with the 'just good enough for now' strategy of natural selection than that of a perfect designer. After all, we know that while nature's designs (by which I mean designs arrived at by natural selection) are marvelously adapted and successful for many things, they are by no means perfect.

As Sean B. Carroll says in his book The Making of the Fittest (2006) which examines the DNA evidence for natural selection:

Modern species are not better equipped than their ancestors, they are mostly just different. They have often gained some coding information in their DNA and, as I have shown throughout this chapter, they have often lost some, or even many, genes and capabilities along the way.

The fossilization and loss of genes are powerful arguments against notions of "design" or intent in the making of species. In the evolution of the leprosy bacterium, for example, we don't see evidence that this pathogen was designed. Rather, we see that the organism is a stripped-down version of a mycobacterium, which still carries around over a thousand useless, broken genes that are vestiges of its ancestry. Similarly, we carry around the genetic vestiges of an olfactory system that was once much more acute than what we have today.

The patterns of gain and loss seen species' DNA are exactly what we should expect if natural selection acts only in the present, and not as an engineer or designer would. Natural selection cannot preserve what is not being used and it cannot plan for the future. (p. 136)

The very fact that it is estimated that over 99% of all the species that ever existed are now extinct is powerful evidence against perfect creation. The only way out of this for the religious believer is to think that god, although perfect, is somehow holding back and deliberately creating imperfections and thus making it merely look like something like natural selection is at work. Or god does not interfere at all, ever in the natural selection process once it began way back at the beginning of life. Or is simply careless and produces sloppy designs.

Darwin himself, based on his careful study of plants and animals, found it hard to believe in the idea of an intelligent designer. His biographer David Quammen in the book The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (2006, p. 120) highlights the kinds of questions that troubled Darwin, and which he expressed in letters to the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, who believed in the idea of special creation of humans.

I cannot see, as plainly as others do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world.
. . .
Why would a benevolent God design ichneumon wasps, for instance, with the habit of laying eggs inside living caterpillars, so that the wasp larvae hatch and devour their hosts from inside out? Why would such a God design cats that torture mice for amusement? Why would a child be born with brain damage, facing a life of idiocy?
. . .
An innocent & good man stands under [a] tree & is killed by [a] flash of lightning. Do you believe (& I really shd like to hear) that God designedly killed this man? Many or most persons do believe this; I can't and don't.

The question of pointless suffering and loss were not hypothetical issues for Darwin. He had been devastated when his own beloved daughter Annie had, at the age of ten, died after a long and mysterious and undiagnosed wasting illness. Darwin seemed to feel that such things were incompatible with a benevolent deity. As Quammen writes, "Any god who controlled events on Earth closely enough to preordain such an occurrence – or to permit it, if permission was necessary – wasn't one that Darwin could take seriously."

Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, although not aimed at doing so, ultimately provided the basis on which belief in a designer god, and thus god itself, could be abandoned.

June 20, 2007

Film reviews: Hearts and Minds and Medium Cool

Film reviews are usually about films that have been newly released. Since I am almost never the first to see any film, my reviews deal with very old but good or interesting films that people may have not seen the first time around but can do so now, thanks to the easy availability tapes and DVDs. I see these reviews as pointing out films to those who may not know what they are missing.

Here are reviews of two old films that I saw recently that dealt with the time during the Vietnam war.

Hearts and Minds (1974)

This has to be one of the best war documentaries ever, winning an Academy Award in 1975. It was filmed during 1972 and 1973, at a time when American combat troops had been largely withdrawn from the battlefield and 'Vietnamization', the process by which the South Vietnamese army was being built up and trained by the US to replace it in fighting against the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese Army, was well underway. The editing of the film was completed in 1974, just before the complete collapse of that US-trained army began, and was released late in 1975, the year in which South Vietnam was completely overrun, Saigon captured, and the country unified under the government in Hanoi.

At the time the film was being made, US public opinion had turned against the war and the US was clearly facing defeat. Director Peter Davis said that he set out to address three questions: "Why did we invade Vietnam? What did we do there? What did the war do to us?"

The director deliberately omitted a voice-over narration, to avoid the 'voice of god' effect common to documentaries As a result, there is little explanatory filler material and this might make the sequence of events a little hard to follow for people for whom the Vietnam war is ancient history and the people interviewed (such as Clark Clifford, Walt Rostow, Daniel Ellsberg, William Westmoreland) are unfamiliar. This would have not been a problem when the film was released since the events were fresh. But since the film is largely about the effects of war rather than a historical analysis, this lack of detailed information does not affect the film's power.

When I first saw the film (in 1976, I think) it made a huge impact on me. The immense tragedy of the wanton destruction of a people and a country and the passionless cruelty of the bombing and the napalming showed an ugliness to war that left a searing impression. During the Vietnam war, news crews were free to roam the battlefield and so you had plenty of footage of the effects of the bombing and the shattered lives and property of the people at the receiving end of it. You also saw the casual brutality of the occupying forces towards the people of Vietnam.

The US military learned from that experience not to allow journalists such free access in future wars and nowadays, with 'embedded' journalists, one gets largely the sanitized point of view of the military, boasting about the sophistication of its weaponry, and avoiding showing what a devastating effect war has on ordinary people, killing people, destroying homes, and tearing apart entire communities.

I was doubtful if the film would have the same impact on me thirty years later but it did. The interviews with villagers whose family members had been killed, their mud and thatch homes set on fire or brought to rubble by high altitude bombings were heartbreaking. The sequence near the end of a little boy's grief during the funeral of his father, a South Vietnamese soldier, was almost unwatchable because of the naked emotion on display. The interviews with the US soldiers and bomber pilots who fought in the war, some now sad and angry and bitter at what they had done, what they had become, and what had happened to them, others still gung-ho, showed the effects of war on those who carry out the orders to fight.

In the end, the film provides answers to the questions "What did we do there? What did the war do to us?" but the first question "Why did we invade Vietnam?" remains unanswered, even to this day, just like the question "Why did the US invade Iraq?"

In fact, the parallels with Iraq are eerie. By 1968 or so, it was clear that US policy makers had realized that Vietnam was 'lost.' But rather than admit it and stop the war, they hoped to create some distance from the looming defeat by withdrawing US combat troops and replacing them with South Vietnamese forces so that when the end came, the US might avoid being seen as the loser. But in order to provide cover for the withdrawal, they unleashed a massive bombing campaign (including the infamous 'Christmas bombing' of Hanoi that destroyed hospitals and other civilians targets) that created enormous additional casualties and destruction. The film argues that this bombing was largely meant for US domestic consumption, to signify that the US retained muscular power, although the US the government had already accepted the fact that the forces opposed to them would never give up until they achieved full victory.

We can see the same thing happening in Iraq now. I suspect that the US government has realized that Iraq is 'lost' and is desperately seeking a way to disengage from the fighting while still maintaining a significant military presence in the massive permanent bases it is building there. The training of the Iraqi forces and the "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down" mantra are the equivalent of 'Vietnamization'. There is also currently a escalation of the bombing campaign in Iraq, largely unreported in the US, creating an increasing number of civilian deaths. Even railway stations are being bombed. As William S. Lind observes, increased bombing is usually a sign of failure: "Nothing could testify more powerfully to the failure of U.S. efforts on the ground in Iraq than a ramp-up in airstrikes. Calling in air is the last, desperate, and usually futile action of an army that is losing. If anyone still wonders whether the "surge" is working, the increase in air strikes offers a definitive answer: it isn't."

Hearts and Minds is a landmark film and should be seen by everyone. I was so startled that it could provoke such strong emotions in me after so many years that I did something I never do, which is watch the film yet again, this time with the director's commentary on, to see what went into the making of it.

Medium Cool (1969)

The other film that dealt, although not directly, with the Vietnam war was Medium Cool. This film tells a Chicago TV newsman's story in the turbulent year 1968, which saw the Tet offensive in Vietnam, massive antiwar protests in the US that led to President Johnson's decision not to seek re-election, and the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Chicago's mayor Richard Daley essentially created a police state during the Democratic Party convention, complete with tanks and armored carriers patrolling the streets, and riot police clashing with demonstrators. The film captures the contrast between what was going on in the convention hall with balloons and streamers and party hats and speeches, and the pandemonium and mayhem in the streets just outside.

The film tries to capture the mood of the times, when TV was becoming ubiquitous in people's lives. Its director was Haskell Wexler, the acclaimed cinematographer, and it was natural for him to try to portray the events of that time through the eyes of a TV journalist.

Like most cinematographers, Haskell Wexler's name is largely unknown to the general public but he has been behind the camera of so many high-quality and well-known films that he has to be ranked among the best at his craft.

I would not call this is a great film. But it captures a slice of life during a very turbulent time in the US.

June 19, 2007

Evolution-1: The power of natural selection

We are rapidly approaching 2009, a year that marks a major scientific milestone that is going to be commemorated worldwide. It is both the 150th anniversary of the publication of the landmark book On the Origin of Species that outlined the theory of evolution by natural selection, and the 200th anniversary of the birth of its author Charles Darwin.

Darwin's theory represents arguably one of the most, if not the most, profound scientific advances of all time, ranking well up with those scientific revolutions associated with the names of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein. And yet it is widely misunderstood, or more appropriately, under-understood because most discussions of it remain on too high a level of generality, enabling critics to make statements about the theory that are not valid but yet seem plausible.

In order to create a better awareness of what the theory involves, today I will begin an occasional series of posts that looks at the details of the theory, including the mathematics that underlies it and which was developed later by people like J. B. S. Haldane, Sewall Wright, and R. A. Fisher.

One of the most common misconceptions about evolution by natural selection is that it works purely by chance. After erroneously assuming that notion, people then look around them, see the wonderful complexity of nature, and conclude that this simply could not have occurred by chance and that therefore this points to the existence of a designer who must be god. This is exactly the explicit argument of intelligent design creationists, but also the implicit argument of some people who want to somehow find evidence for the necessity of god's existence.

It seems as if no amount of reiteration (by those who have studied the theory of evolution) that this basic assumption of chance is not true, seems to have any effect. I recently had a correspondence with someone who, despite my repeatedly pointing out that chance was not the sole driver of natural selection, kept saying things like "How can you think all this came about by chance?"

Now chance does play a role in the way that genetic changes occur, externally from the occurrence of mutations due to things like ultraviolet radiation, and internally in the way that genetic shuffling occurs in the copying of the genetic information during reproduction. You cannot be sure, for example, what genetic features you will inherit from your mother and what from your father. But these chance variations are then acted upon by selection forces that are the very opposite of chance in that they pick out only those varieties that are beneficial for future propagation. This is a highly directed process that acts without an intelligent director and it is these selection forces that are behind the complexity of the systems that have evolved.

In response to the "evolution is just chance and is very unlikely to produce complexity" argument, those who understand the theory of evolution sometimes argue in its defense that the theory is just as good at producing complex things as any conscious designer. But such people are really selling the theory short. In actual fact, the theory of evolution by natural selection produces results that are often much better than those produced by conscious design.

A wonderful example that illustrates this point is given by biologist Steve Jones, as recounted in his book Almost Like a Whale: The Origin of Species Updated (1999) (Chapter IV, Natural Selection). (Thanks to Heidi Cool for alerting me to the podcast of a talk by Jones which is where I first heard this story.)

I once worked for a year or so, for what seemed good reasons at the time, as a fitter's mate in a soap factory on the Wirral Peninsula, Liverpool's Left Bank. It was a formative episode, and was also, by chance, my first exposure to the theory of evolution.

To make soap powder, a liquid is blown through a nozzle. As it streams out, the pressure drops and a cloud of particles forms. These fall into a tank and after some clandestine coloration and perfumery are packaged and sold. In my day, thirty years ago, the spray came through a simple pipe that narrowed from one end to the other. It did its job quite well, but had problems with changes in the size of the grains, liquid spilling through or − worst of all − blockages in the tube.

Those problems have been solved. The success is in the nozzle. What used to be a simple pipe has become an intricate duct, longer than before, with many constrictions and chambers. The liquid follows a complex path before it sprays from the hole. Each type of powder has its own nozzle design, which does the job with great efficiency.

What caused such progress? Soap companies hire plenty of scientists, who have long studied what happens when a liquid sprays out to become a powder. The problem is too hard to allow even the finest engineers to do what enjoy the most, to explore the question with mathematics and design the best solution. Because that failed, they tried another approach. It was the key to evolution, design without a designer: the preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of those injurious. It was, in other words, natural selection.

The engineers used the idea that moulds life itself: descent with modification. Take a nozzle that works quite well and make copies, each changed at random. Test them for how well they make powder. Then, impose a struggle for existence by insisting that not all can survive. Many of the altered devices are no better (or worse) than the parental form. They are discarded, but the few able to do a superior job are allowed to reproduce and are copied − but again not perfectly. As generations pass there emerges, as if by magic, a new and efficient pipe of complex and unexpected shape.

Natural selection is a machine that makes almost impossible things.

In other words, by mindlessly applying an algorithm based on the principle of natural selection, they were able to come up with a complex design for a superior spray nozzle that was inconceivable to the scientists trying to design one using engineering and science principles.

Believers in a god-like designer might argue that what natural selection did here was outperform mere mortal designers and that god, being a perfect designer, would be able to come up with a better design. But that argument doesn't work that well, either, as I will discuss in the next posting in this series.

June 18, 2007

Guest post by Corbin Covault

My two posts on Taking offense and Taking offense (revisited) generated a lively discussion in the comments. One of the responses covered many of the issues raised by those who disagreed with some or all of my remarks and I felt that it should reach a wider readership so I asked the author to write it as a guest post. While it is a little longer than my own posts, I think readers will find that it provides an interesting perspective.

So what follows is Corbin's guest post:

Thank you for your very thoughtful response to comments by myself and others regarding your post on taking offense. Indeed you tend to present very thoughtful remarks on your blog which is why I like to read it, and this most recent post is one of your most thoughtful. Your point on the tendency of conflation between plausibility and worthiness is particularly well taken.

Having said this and having reflected further on the issue, I would still say that you should not have been surprised to learn that some religious believers would find your comparison of belief in god to belief in the Easter Bunny offensive. But I should emphasize here at the start that I did not mean to imply in my previous comment that I myself found the comparison between god and the Easter bunny or whatever offensive. And even if I did, I probably not have "taken offense" at what was said.

An aside: I suppose it's a level of degree: I mentioned before that I find many of Ann Coulter's assertions offensive, but I do not "take offense" as she is so uniformly outrageous that it seems actively responding to what she says might serve no purpose. I also have number of friends and colleagues who by temperament may tend to say or do "offensive" things but since I otherwise value or respect the relationships for various reasons, its better to simply ignore the offense. In contrast, I recently found myself "taking offense" at some of our local Democratic congresspersons who failed to vote no on the war funding bill. In this case my offense took the form of phone calls, email and letters to the editor making known my unhappiness that they voted in apparent opposition to their stated commitments to end the war as soon as possible.

Anyway, I am saying that since you brought the topic of taking offense up, it seems quite natural to me that some people would find your comparison between god and childhood fictitious characters offensive. And as I said, I found Kathy's points rather compelling for the reasons I stated earlier.

Upon further reflection, I realize part of the issue has to do with what I might call my natural tendency to try to put myself in the "other person's shoes" on both sides of any discussion. If one side indicates that something expressed is "offensive" then this might be an indication that the other side appears not to have sufficient empathy for the alternate point of view.

I realize that an "apparent lack of empathy" for an opposing viewpoint is hardly a basis for evaluating the validity of a rational argument. But from a practical point of view in the context of persuasion and possible consensus building, it seems that some of the most effective discussions between opposing viewpoints result when a real effort is made by both sides to see the situation from an honest point of view of the other side. Of course the strength of arguments comes into the discussion as well, but I will say, based on my experience, that if there is not at least some level of willingness to "honor the viewpoint" of the other side, then all of the arguments in the world, no matter how rational, will fall on deaf ears. And if one side or the other "takes offense" then perhaps -- maybe -- this might be an indication that someone, somewhere is not really living up to this ideal of trying to be empathetic with the other side at some level.

Of course, I am not suggesting that trying to "avoid offense" is worthwhile in every scenario. If one is attempting to argue against what is perceived as a very dangerous idea, or if one is trying to counter an argument made by someone who at the onset demonstrates a propensity for demonizing those with opposing views then perhaps taking the empathetic tack might not get too far. As you indicated, perhaps there is not much value in worrying too much about whether Dick Cheney is offended by something. But I will contend that if one's purpose is to engage in a dialog with individuals or groups who have an opposing point of view, but with whom you otherwise might respect and are trying to persuade to your own point of view, then raising arguments that might be construed as offensive -- even if such an offense might be deemed irrational -- might not be the best tactic, practically speaking.

I also recognize that there is a difference between the "public realm" of discourse and debate (which seems to be more "rough and tumble") and the private or pseudo-private realm within (for example) families and organizations where a need for empathy might be much more motivated between people who have to be in close proximity to each other in some sense.

I suppose a "blog" lives mostly in the "public sphere" sort of....

Yes, I agree very strongly with your general point that it is not "fair" for people with religious ideas to expect to be insulated from any kind of criticism (rhetorical devices as you put it) even if the device is relatively harsh. I agree that any set of ideas, in a free and pluralistic society, is fair game for public scrutiny.

But I could also argue that making arguments with harsh rhetorical devices might not always be the best way to make arguments in any sphere of discourse. I can think of two or three columnists, for example, that actively promote political views that I substantially agree with but who do so with such venom for any opposing view that I am embarrassed. Perhaps one might excuse such a confrontational approach in the sciences, since ultimately any particular viewpoint will be resolved not by the emotional strength of an argument but by experimental verification. But in the political (and religious) arenas, there is no experimentalist to resolve the argument about competing theories.

It's not obvious to me that the way to find the best ideas in any given arena is always to subject them to withering rhetorical attacks to test their survivability. And one could argue that the use of harsh rhetorical devices might be as unhelpful for moving forward a rational discussion of the issues in the political and policy arenas as it may be becoming within the religious spheres. This is not to say that there is not a time and a place for the expression of objection, protest and complaint within a political arena, for example. But it seems to me that such activity all by itself is not the equivalent of making rational arguments. And it is my belief that if the rationale for an argument is sound, it should not depend so sensitively on a need to be expressed in the context of harsher rhetorical devices. And it might even be the case that the argument can be made more effectively if it is make empathetically. It's an issue of persuasion.

As an example in the political arena, one might argue that the Greensboro sit-ins did much more to persuade white Americans of the validity of civil rights demands than did any number of protest marches. So I am not saying that atheists do not have the right to make harsh public criticisms of religion. They certainly enjoy that right and religious people do not really have any basis to ask for special protection from such criticism. I am just saying that using harsh rhetorical devices might not always be the best idea if you want people to listen thoughtfully to what you are saying. So yes, as you say, that ship has sailed, but perhaps not everyone ought to hop on it.

Indeed, I might suggest that the fair complaint about of some of the writings of the "new atheists" is not so much that the arguments are "disrespectful" but that they are sometimes rather non-empathetic to the opposing point of view. Some of the writing seems to be developed with the aim of simply tearing down a viewpoint rather than persuading people to change their minds. Again, this has nothing to do with the rationality or validity of the argument, but if the argument comes across in a certain way it may not "convert" fence-sitters or others. Indeed if the tone is perceived as too strident then you risk turning people off to your argument, logical or not.

For example, I personally cannot read much of what Sam Harris writes....not because his arguments are unsound (although there are several arguments he makes that I do not agree with) but because much of his writing is so uniformly unsympathetic to any opposing view. For example, in your quote of Sam Harris where he says: "[Atheism] is simply an admission of the obvious..." This comes across as rather arrogant and to just this extent it's sort of offensive -- or at least irritating. "Obvious"? Obvious to whom? To many people the word obvious implies something that "anyone but a simpleton", anyone who has any rational ability at all, would readily agree to. In fact, by such a definition, atheism appears to be rather non-obvious. I know this is not the intended meaning. I know that Harris really means "obvious in the context of following the rational implication of adopting a purely scientific perspective on all things." But he doesn't put it that way, exactly. Instead he gives the impression of impatience and self-righteousness. I suspect that this particular wording of his argument here would only be appealing to someone who already shares this point of view.

I can think of one other example of this kind of thing. Some years ago I was involved in a class that dealt with the issue of scientifically assessing pseudo-scientific claims. It was a class for non-science majors, and one of the books on the reading list was The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Darkness by Carl Sagan. From my point of view this was an excellent book for this course that went right to the heart of several keys issues that I hoped the students would be addressing in the class. However, I was surprised by an outpouring of rather strong negative feedback about the book that I was getting from a large number of students in the class. Students felt that the writing was "arrogant", "condescending" and uncompelling -- "annoying to read" -- this from students who were otherwise apparently quite open in a general way to looking and considering ideas about how to scientifically approach pseudo-scientific claims.

The problem was not that Sagan's message was wrong or unsound -- the problem was that it did not reach students where they were at. It turned students off. The point here is that in this context, at least, even to the extent that the scientific message was presented with what I thought was a reasonable tone, students turned away from what they perceived to be a "harsh argument" even when ultimately they found similar arguments quite compelling when presented in a different context.

Okay now finally, I would like to articulate one last reflection related to the atheism arguments you have made. Specifically, it seems like your whole case for atheism rests on the central premise that one should "take a scientific approach to every aspect of life." You contend that atheism is not in-and-of-itself a philosophy, but I do not understand how a decision to "take a scientific approach to every aspect of life" is not itself a "philosophy". Maybe I am misunderstanding your use of the word.

Indeed, if I narrow the issue further, it still seems like the application of science is a "philosophy". If you say something as restricted even as "the best way to understand the physical universe is to apply the scientific approach" isn't this a "philosophy"? Don't we even call our experts "doctors of philosophy"? I will agree that it is a mighty powerful and effective philosophy but I do not see how it is not a philosophy. I do not see how science itself can be justified "scientifically". We apply science to the physical world and we discover "it works". Are you contending that science can be used to self-justify itself?

Likewise, when you make the argument that the "scientific approach should be applied to every aspect of life" are you not extrapolating at some level? I will concede that if one grants that such an approach should be taken, then what I will call a "strong atheism" is the logical rational conclusion. But I am not sure that rationality itself compels such an extrapolation. And while you might argue that the reason religious believers resist such an extrapolation is because they are extremely motivated to defend their beliefs, there have been and continue to be several prominent atheists who have also argued that it is not scientifically justified -- or particular helpful for the cause of science -- for atheistic scientists to make such an extrapolations. For example such an ardent defender of the scientific point of view as Lawrence Krauss has argued that science itself should not be used to dispute untestable religious claims. You may not agree with his conclusions but you also cannot attribute his opinion to a strong desire to defend his personal religious beliefs.

To my mind part of the issue is to what end is such an extrapolation being applied. What is the aim of extrapolating the very successful approach of science to arenas where science has not so clearly applied itself as successfully? What is the desired outcome?

It seems to me that the purpose of the application of science to the physical universe is the understanding of the underlying nature of physical reality -- that is to determine what is and is not objectively true.

But I think the case can be made that there are topics and issues where we might be properly motivated by considerations that have nothing specifically to do with whether something is objectively true or not. There are issues worth contemplating that are not related to anything really existing or not. I suspect this is the case for many people with regards to religious issues. This gets back to the "plausibility" vs. "worthiness" issue. I suspect that for some religious people -- especially those that might fall more into the "liberal" end of the spectrum -- the issue of whether there is evidence for god's existence has much less relevance than the issue of the value that the religious experience provides.

Indeed, you have mentioned and promised to address the issue of the "net good vs. evil" issue of religion in the world, and I think this is quite a tricky knot to tackle, but for many people, I suspect further that the motivation to adopt a religious perspective has less to do with the net world social value of religion and much more to do with the perceived value of that perspective to the individual, and this value is the central issue in making the decision to adopt the religious perspective. In other words it's a personal choice that is based on the attractiveness of the experience rather than on whether some particular claims are being made and if they are true or not.

I would also argue that this kind of value can be defended, even if the defense is not based on a "rational argument" as to whether some claim is true or not. As you have admitted before, we all have "irrational" viewpoints on a number of things. But I think that perhaps one can argue that this irrationality does not automatically reduce the value of the viewpoint. If one assumes that some perspective provides value for the individual, then this can be a "reasonable" basis for that individual deciding to adopting the perspective, even if the perspective cannot be judged to be "rational".

For example, last night I went to a baseball game. I had a great time (despite the fact that the home team lost) and I would go again. But I cannot see any way to justify my attendance at the game from a scientific point of view. Why did I go? Because it was appealing to go. Why did I cheer for the home team? Certainly not because I have some illusion that they are objectively more deserving of my support and praise relative to their opponents. Rather, I cheered the home team because the ritual of sport is constructed this way and because by investing myself in the outcome I become more engaged in the game and find it more rewarding. When the game ends, and the home team loses, however, I am quite content to put aside the ritual and recognize that the value of ritual is simply the emotional reward of the game itself. I do not carry my investment in the home team around with me from day-to-day. I am not a "sports fundamentalist".

Similarly, suppose a student is considering a life in pursuit of a career as a concert musician. I am thinking that such a decision would be difficult to defend on the basis of a scientific argument. The basis for making such a decision is not whether or not something objectively exists (except perhaps, musical ability). The issue is whether the pursuit of such a career is seen as worthwhile.

It's further worth remarking that just because neither baseball nor music can be justified scientifically does not mean that either of these enterprises is intellectually valueless.

Nor are these activities free to operate in a way that contradicts or ignores the constraints imposed by the laws of science. Physics governs baseballs and oboes. But physics does not define the home-run. Physics does not define an "impressive" concerto. People do this.

In the same way, then, I think, that there can be particular religious perspectives (liberal ones, I would think) that can make a case for themselves for particular individuals based not on assertions of belief regarding the existence of god, but on the value that these religious perspectives can provide -- a value that is more comparable to the value of a game of baseball or the value of a life committed to musical excellence than it is to the value of determining the age of a rock or the charge on a quark. In my opinion, if such a religious perspective is constructed in a manner such that its claims are not inconsistent with the demonstrated laws of science then it may be defended as "worthy" in this context. The example I mentioned before, where the traditions are interpreted metaphorically, not literally, and where the emphasis in on the artistic interpretation of the narrative -- and not on any objective claims of belief about the physical or meta-physical nature of god -- seems like one example of such an acceptable construct.

Finally, I would note that with such a liberal religious perspective, there is no claim on any kind of "literal truth". Such a viewpoint rather explicitly recognizes that the narratives from one tradition may be more or less attractive and worthwhile, varying from person-to-person and from culture-to-culture. In other words, the liberal tradition embraces an ecumenical perspective where a diversity of religious viewpoints and traditions by others are accepted and even celebrated.

June 15, 2007

Solving social problems the Confucian way

In writing my thoughts about Confucianism (here and here), one thing that struck me was the strong influence that its "Doctrine of the Mean" has, even down to this day. This is reflected in the "Chinese preference for negotiation, mediation, and the "middle man" as against resorting to rigid, impersonal statutes. Until recently, legal action has been regarded as something of a disgrace, a confession of human failure in the ability to work things out by compromises that typically involve family and associates. Figures are not available for China, but in the mid-1980s Japan in ratio to its population had one lawyer for every twenty-four in the United States." (Huston Smith, The World's Religions, p.191)

In reading that passage, I immediately recalled a day in September 1983 where this was played out in practice. It was the day before my family and I were to leave Sri Lanka to come to the US. I had a huge number of things to take care of before our departure and was driving in the heart of the business district of the capital city Colombo. While I was stopped in traffic, a car backed out of a parking spot in the main street, made a wide arc, and headed straight for me. Clearly the reversing driver had not seen me but I had no place to move and could only watch helplessly as the other car hit mine broadside creating a huge dent in the door.

I got out of my car as did the other driver, who turned out to be a very young woman, probably still in high school, and clearly not a very experienced driver. She was obviously shaken by the experience, although the accident happened at such low speed that neither of us was really in any physical danger.

But the fact remained that my car was damaged and although she acknowledged that she was completely at fault, I immediately realized what a problem this created for me. I simply did not have the time to make police reports, get multiple repair estimates, file claims with insurance agencies, and do all the other dreary things that become necessary in situations like this. It was also too much to ask friends or relatives to be saddled with all this legal and bureaucratic work for me in my absence.

The simplest solution would have been for both of us to have agreed that I would simply get the car repaired and send her the bill for payment. But even if she agreed to this, I had no guarantee that she would pay up later and, since I would be far away by then, I had no means of enforcing payment. Similarly, she could not agree to such an informal arrangement since she had no guarantee that I would not take advantage of her by inflating the repair bill by getting non-accident-related extra work done on the car or similar dishonest acts. This is always the problem in such situations. The people involved usually do not know and trust each other and thus we resort to the cumbersome legal system to step in as a neutral arbiter. Both of us wanted to avoid this.

We were at an impasse and stood there for awhile wondering what to do.

Then I had a brainwave, triggered by the fact that the woman was ethnic Chinese, a very small minority in Sri Lanka. I remembered that down the street from where the accident happened was a sporting goods store owned by Mr. Chang who was the father of a good friend of mine from my undergraduate days and whose home I had visited several times. I asked whether she knew him and she said yes so I suggested that we both go to his store and place our dilemma before him. So we both walked over and he greeted us and listened to us explain the problem. When we were done, he simply stood up and told her that he knew me and would vouch for my integrity that I would not cheat her with the repair bill. And then he told me that he knew her and her family and would vouch for the fact that they would pay the bill when it was sent to them.

And that was it. It was over in a few minutes over cups of tea and everything subsequently worked out just as had been decided, Confucian style. For its success, it depended on every one of us having a sense of honor that was important to maintain. The woman and I both sought to retain the respect of Mr. Chang, whom we viewed as a respected elder, and did not want to let him down by not carrying out the promises he had made on our behalf. He was putting on the line his own honor as an elder whose moral authority was sufficiently powerful that it obliged us to fulfill our promises to him.

I really like the Confucian idea that the best way to establish a just and humane society is by cultivating a sense of honor and propriety among the people, to establish standards for behavior for the various relationships that exist in society, negotiating solutions to problems by consensus rather than in an adversarial and antagonistic way, and establishing all these values as strong traditions that people feel honor-bound to respect, rather than as laws that force people to do so under pain of punishment.

The Confucian way says that we all function better when we take the collective good into account. It seems compatible with the vision of John Rawls of using people's intuitive sense of justice to create a social structure whereby the powerful cannot obtain runaway dominance over the powerless.

This emphasis on the collective good will be a hard sell in a highly litigious society like the US is now. It goes against the individualistic ethos where the idea is that I should concern myself only with the well-being of myself and my family and others have to fend for themselves, and that by each individual striving for self-betterment, the collective good somehow emerges.

POST SCRIPT: Bush in Albania and the Vatican

The Daily Show reports on Bush's recent travels.

June 14, 2007


The final religion that rounds out the major eastern religions is Taoism. Like Confucianism, it too is a rough contemporary of Buddhism. Its founder is named as Lao Tzu who is said to have been born around 604 BCE, which makes him the earliest of the three founders, but it is not clear if there ever really was such a person, or whether he was a later recreation to provide a single author for the book Tao Te Ching which translates as The Way and its Power and lays out the basic philosophy of Taoism. Huston Smith in his book The World's Religions says that scholars do not think that the book was written by a single person although the coherence of the book suggests at least a strong single influence in shaping it. It is believed that the book took its final form around 250 BCE.

Taoism is far more mystical and enigmatic than Confucianism or Buddhism. The word Tao (pronounced 'dow') means 'way' or 'path' and refers to the way of ultimate reality. Taoism states flatly that this is too vast for human rationality to fathom and that words are not adequate to describe it.

Three forms of Taoism have evolved, Philosophical Taoism, Religious Taoism, and a cluster of beliefs that Smith calls Vitalizing Taoism. All of them deal with increasing and harnessing the power (te) of energy (ch'i) to maximize its effectiveness in an individual. This is attempted via diet and exercise and meditation and yoga.

Taoism seeks complete self-knowledge that, if achieved, leads to extraordinary power over people and things. This power is not overt but subtle. It manifests itself in the ability to get things done without seeming to actually do anything, especially avoiding recourse to violence, coercion, or pressure. Its mode of operation can summed up in the following verse:

A leader is best
When people barely know he exists
Of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will say, "We did this ourselves."

Taoists do not see opposites (such as good/evil, light/dark, active/passive) as in conflict or contradictory with each other but as somehow one.

In its rejection of the ability of words to capture its deep ideas and its embrace of contradictions, Taoism is somewhat Zen-like. It is opposed to violence to the point of pacifism. Confucianism elevated the status of the scholar in society and Taoism placed the soldier at the bottom. Whereas Confucianism is deeply concerned with the role of the individual in society and how to make society function better, Taoism is more Buddhist-like in turning away from the material world and seeking to understand oneself.

As Huston Smith says:

Taoism and Confucianism represent the two indigenous poles of the Chinese character. Confucius represents the classical, Lao Tzu the romantic. Confucius stresses social responsibility, Lao Tzu praises spontaneity and naturalness. Confucius's focus is on the human, Lao Tzu's on what transcends the human. As the Chinese themselves say, Confucius roams within society, Lao Tzu wanders beyond. (Smith, p. 218)

Taoism, while focusing on the transcendental, does not seem to have the concept of a personal god. It recognizes, however, the existence of otherworldly entities like ghosts and spirits, and it has a pantheon of deities which include the founders of the philosophy. Taoists resort to soothsaying, faith healing and the like, and has rituals that are claimed to have magical effects if done correctly. Taoists also created a church and a sort of 'papal succession' that still exists. So unlike Buddhism and Confucianism, there is plenty of stuff in Taoism that would be beyond the pale of science.

Of the three Eastern religions that I have recently profiled, Confucianism, with its emphasis on creating a sense of propriety that is designed to create a social system without coercion, is the one that appeals to me most. Its only supernatural elements lie in the idea of our ancestors watching over us and sending coded messages which can be divined using various techniques, and us sending messages to them via sacrifices. But this feature seems incidental and almost superfluous, and can probably be eliminated without any loss to the philosophy. (In a future posting, I will look at arguments made by some that suggest that this ubiquitous belief in the continuing life of dead people has probably evolved in our brains due to the pressure of natural selection and has thus become ubiquitous. Confucius may have had little choice but to include it as part of his philosophy because the idea seems so 'natural' and practices based on this belief were widespread in his time.)

Taoism is the one I like least. It has too many vague mystical elements, with 'life forces' and the like that course around and supposedly can be guided.

At the great risk of oversimplifying these highly sophisticated religious systems, it seems to me that both Buddhism and Taoism are inward looking, seeking enlightenment and self-improvement as the ultimate goal, with correct interactions with others serving as a means to achieving this self-fulfillment.

But Confucianism is the opposite. It is outward looking, with the goal being to create a society of peace and justice, with self-improvement of individuals being the means to achieving that end. I like that.

POST SCRIPT: Bob Woolmer 'murder' shocker

You may recall my writing about the death of the Pakistan cricket coach Bob Woolmer during the Cricket World Cup.

After first saying he died of natural causes, it was later alleged by the authorities that he was murdered, with specific details such as that he had been strangled after first being drugged to make him immobilized.

In a stunning second about-face, the official conclusion is that his death was due to natural causes after all, and the case has been closed.

June 13, 2007

The essence of Confucianism

In the previous post, I briefly described the political and social crisis that China faced in Confucius' time due to the gradual breakdown in social order due to the erosion of a sense of tradition and custom and sense of propriety. Confucius was dissatisfied with the two opposite responses that were being suggested to deal with the problem. The Realists approach was to use force to create order, exploiting the ability of the ruler to deal out rewards and punishments. The Mohists said that you had to teach people to love all equally. Confucius felt that to ignore the special affection that one felt for one's own family was unrealistic. In this he was prescient in that modern evolutionary theory argues that natural selection does indeed result in one having special feelings to those to whom one is related, with the feelings getting stronger the closer the people are related.

The different approaches can be seen in response to the question: "Should one love one's enemy, those who do us harm?" The Mohists might simply respond: "Yes." The Realists might answer that you should punish severely those who harm you and put in place laws that severely deter such actions. Confucius's response was: "By no means. Answer hatred with justice, and love with benevolence. Otherwise, you would waste your benevolence."

Confucius's key idea was to bring back the power of tradition to govern human behavior, where the impetus for good behavior was not on laws and force (the Realist's approach) or depend on the good intentions of people (the Mohists' approach). He recognized that most of our behavior is determined by traditions. This is still true to a large extent. The way we dress for work, for example, is not governed by law but by the power of traditions and expectations. Anyone who went to their corporate offices in shorts or sweatpants would be looked at askance by their co-workers and that is sufficient to deter such behavior. In fact, such traditions have stronger force than laws.

Confucius recognized that the old traditions, which had been created unconsciously, had crumbled in China under the pressure of modernity and what he tried to do was to consciously create a new set of traditions that was more suitable to his day. But in order to do so, a society "must first decide what values are important to their collective well-being; this is why among the Confucians the study of the correct attitudes was a matter of prime importance." (The World's Religions by Huston Smith, p. 170). Once these attitudes were decided, they were articulated by Confucius into a coherent philosophy around five key principles: Jen, that dealt with the importance of good human-human relations; Chun tzu, that emphasizes the importance of developing the qualities of a mature person; Li, the proper way things should be done; Te, which deals with the proper use of state power and emphasizes that no state, however powerful and coercive, can exist for long without the consent and approval of the governed, for "if the people have no confidence in their government, it cannot stand."; and Wen, that deals with the arts of peace, such as music, poetry, art, and culture.

The basic philosophy was then formulated as a set of easily digestible aphorisms and sayings and were propagated by every possible means on every possible occasion, both formal and informal, until they became internalized and became second nature. For example, the first sentence a child learned to read was not of the "See Dick run" type that we are familiar with nowadays but "Human beings are by nature good."

As far as I can tell, Confucianism is atheist in that there is no personal god, but it is not entirely devoid of supernatural elements. There is a concept of heaven that is occupied by all of one's ancestors ruled by a single supreme ancestor. (One can see how that idea of a ruler of heaven can get easily extrapolated to the idea of god.) Life was seen as a continuum and death was merely a point at which one was 'promoted' to the higher state. Since all the ancestors were together, they knew the entire past history and thus were good at calculating the future. Since they had good feelings towards their descendants still on Earth, they desired to communicate this knowledge to them. But since they had no vocal cords, they were believed to send signs through those events that seemed out of the control of humans, such as weather or the actions of animals or even involuntary acts like sneezing. Hence the art of divination, or reading signs, was important.

Similarly, the people on Earth communicated to the ancestors by offering sacrifices, as a means of sharing their goods with them.

An interesting feature of Confucianism is its non-exclusivity. You could be a Confucian while at the same time being a Taoist or Buddhist or anything else.

In 130 BCE the Confucian texts became the basic training manual for government officials, and thus was the de facto state religion of China and remained so until 1905 AD. Since knowledge of Confucian philosophy was the stepping stone to administrative and political advancement, it elevated the scholar to the highest status in government, a highly unusual situation. So successful was Confucius in having his nation adopt this philosophy that it survived for nearly 2,000 years and, though formally displaced by the Chinese communist revolution of 1949, it still remains a powerful informal force.

Confucianism was imported into Japan, Korea and much of south East Asia and became the basis for their social structures and ethical behavior. If we multiply the number of people who followed this religion by the number of years that they did so, the Chinese Empire built on Confucianism was the most durable social institution ever created, dwarfing the much-heralded empires of Alexander or Caesar or Napoleon. (The World's Religions by Huston Smith, p. 188).

POST SCRIPT: Creationist entertainment

If you are not inclined to go to Kentucky to spend $20 to visit the creation museum but are curious about what it is like, here is a CNN report, a brief overview, and another review.

And if the creationist museum isn't enough to satisfy your religious needs, now there's a 'Bible Park' proposed to be built in Murfreesboro, Tennessee:

The park, described in promotional material as “edutainment,” would cost $150 million to $200 million. With a Galilean village as its centerpiece, one side of the park would present Old Testament stories like the Exodus; the other side would have New Testament stories like Jesus’ birth and crucifixion. The only displays in writing would be excerpts from Scripture, and parts of the park would be reserved for Bible study.

Here are Jackie and Dunlap at Red State Update discussing all the pleasures that await the true believers.

The fun just never ends.

June 12, 2007


Confucianism is an interesting religion that is little known or understood outside the countries where it is practiced. It is often portrayed merely as a bunch of fortune cookie type sayings, leading to jokes of the form "Confucius say. . ."

Although Confucius did say many things that can be quoted as aphorisms, the real religion is far more deep and interesting. (The source for my information is primarily the book The World's Religions by Huston Smith (p. 154-195). This is an excellent book for anyone seeking to understand the essences of religions. The author takes a non-judgmental, non-comparative approach to each one, trying to simply summarize its basic principles and practices.)

Confucius was born around 551 BCE and lived to the age of seventy three, making him a contemporary of the Buddha. Like the Buddha, he too did not claim to be anyone special or have special powers, and just saw himself as a teacher. The Buddha's teachings were not primarily social but instead focused inwards, on internal reflection and on what it takes for an individual to shed himself or herself from worldly entanglements and achieve enlightenment. Confucius's teachings, on the other hand, were explicitly social and this-worldly, trying to teach people how to live in order to create a better society.

Whereas the Buddha turned away from worldly things and adopted the life of a monk and a mendicant, teaching his disciples his philosophy, Confucius earned his living as a tutor almost all his life, teaching his students "history, poetry, government, propriety, mathematics, music, divination, and sports." Like Socrates, he was a kind of one-man university and taught in the Socratic style, with probing questions and dialogue rather than lecture, and he seemed to have been very modest, never claiming to be better than his students, although his reputation as a great teacher was huge.

To understand what Confucius was trying to achieve, we need to understand his times. Up to the eighth century BCE, China under the Chou Dynasty had been a more or less orderly society with a strong sense of custom and tradition and propriety that together kept the society cohesive and functioning. But this began to disintegrate, with self-interest beginning to predominate over group-interest and by the time Confucius came along, lawlessness had become rampant.

One response to this state of affairs was the Realist school which argued that what 'people understand best is force.' They believed that the ruler must maintain an "effective militia that stands ready to bat people back when they transgress. There must be laws that state clearly what is and is not permitted and penalties for violation must be such that no one will dare incur them. In short, the Realists' answer to the problem of social order was laws with teeth in them. . Those who did what the state commanded were to be rewarded; those who did not were to be punished. . .[T]he laws had to be long and detailed. . .every contingency must be provided for in detail. . .Not only must the requirements of law be spelled out; penalties for infractions should likewise be clearly specified. And they should be heavy." (p. 164)

The Realists, in short, were the Bush/Cheneys of that time. And like with the Bush-Cheney doctrine, they initially achieved some success in controlling society but created a mess thereafter. The Ch'in dynasty (221-206 BCE) fashioned its policy on Realist lines and succeeded in uniting China for the first time (and giving it its current name) but it collapsed in less that one generation.

Directly opposed to this was the philosophy developed by Mo Tzu, known as Mohism, which argued that the solution to China's social problems was not force but universal love, where one should (he said) "feel toward all people under heaven exactly as one feels towards one's own people, and regard other states exactly as one regards one's own state."

Confucius rejected both these extremes as unlikely to succeed in achieving the desired goal of social cohesion. He rejected the Realists use of force as clumsy and external. Smith summarizes Confucius' critique of the Realists: "Force regulated by law can set limits to peoples' dealings, but it is too crude to inspire their day-to-day, face-to-face exchanges. With regard to the family, for example, it can stipulate conditions of marriage and divorce, but it cannot generate love and companionship. This holds generally. Governments need what they cannot themselves provide; meaning and motivation." (p. 167)

As for the Mohist philosophy, Confucius rejected it as utopian and unrealistic. He acknowledged that love has an important, even essential role to play in maintaining harmonious social relations but it is effective only if it is supported by the appropriate social structures and a collective ethos.

Confucius thus thought that the Realists were mistaken in their belief "that governments could establish peace and harmony through the law and force that are their domain" and that the Mohists were also mistaken because they "went to the opposite extreme; they assumed that personal commitment could do the job."

Next: How Confucius set about creating a middle path.

POST SCRIPT: The Politics of Stem Cell Research

(Thanks to MachinesLikeUS for the link.)

June 11, 2007

Buddhism and atheism

Of all the major religions, Buddhism (as originally formulated) probably comes closest to atheism and being scientific. If someone, for whatever reason, cannot believe in god but feels uncomfortable with calling themselves an atheist and feels the need to be part of some well-established religious tradition, Buddhism probably meets that need best.

In is book The World's Religions (p. 82-153) Huston Smith outlines the basic elements of Buddhist philosophy, as articulated by its founder Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in the region now known as Nepal around 563 BCE and lived for about eighty years. It is important to realize that the name Buddha is technically not that of a specific person but given to anyone who achieves enlightenment, and Siddhartha Gautama did not even claim to be the first one to do so. But over time 'the Buddha' has become known as the name of this particular Buddha, similar to the way 'Jesus the Christ' has now become simply Jesus Christ, the name of Jesus.

If we stick to Buddhist philosophy as originally expounded by Siddhartha Gautama, it has the following features:

1. It is a religion devoid of authority. He was rebelling against the Hindu caste system and the hereditary authority of the Brahmins and in doing so he expressed a bracing openness to the spirit of scientific inquiry, saying: "Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your beliefs, nor because it is the saying of your teacher. Be lamps unto yourselves."

2. He preached a religion devoid of ritual, arguing that belief in the efficacy of rites and ceremonies was a hindrance to the growth of the human spirit.

3. He did not try to manufacture a cosmology to explain the universe, despite the entreaties of those around him to explain the cosmic mysteries, thus causing one of his disciples to complain: "Whether the world is eternal or not eternal, whether the world is finite or not, whether the soul is the same as the body or whether the soul is one thing and the body another, whether a Buddha exists after death or does not exist after death – these things the Lord does not explain to me." This reluctance to speculate on questions of scientific fact means that Buddhists are largely spared the embarrassment of having to choose between science and tedious religion-based alternative realities like the Christian creationists have to do with their 6,000 year-old Earth.

4. He rejected the authority of tradition, saying: "Do not go by what is handed down, nor on the authority of your traditional teachings."

5. He preached improvement by self-effort, and to not depend on gods to achieve ones desired ends.

6. It is interesting that the Buddha rejected the supernatural and "condemned all forms of divination, soothsaying, and forecasting as low arts." He did however think that the human mind was capable of what we now call 'paranormal' powers but condemned those who tried to use them to work miracles.

7. The Buddha favored an empirical and scientific attitude to knowledge. The 'faith' that is so admired in Christianity and is needed to sustain it (i.e., believing in things for which there is no evidence) is discouraged. He said that everyone must discover the truth by lived direct experience and not depend solely on even reasoning or arguments, because those too could mislead. He also believed strongly that every effect must have a cause.

8. Remarkable for its time, Buddhism was egalitarian when it came to women and also rejected the powerful hereditary caste system then in existence.

Perhaps the feature that most distinguishes Buddhist philosophy from that of other major religions is the denial of the existence of a 'soul', if by that we mean a spiritual substance that occupies and animates the body and retains its identity forever.

It is safe to say that the Buddha was an atheist, as far as believing in a personal god was concerned. But he also advocated some things that pose problems for the rational person. He was not, as might be expected from his other views, unequivocally opposed to the notion that nothing about a person survives bodily death. He retained a belief in the existing Hindu idea in reincarnation but thought that this was like the passing of a flame from candle to candle in that something continues even though we cannot speak of a perpetual and unique flame being handed on. His belief in causality was used to infer in favor of karma, that all effects must have causes, and that this meant that one's life now must have been caused (in some sense) by past actions that could be traced back earlier than one's birth. The idea of a free will idea was however retained.

These things are hard to fit into scientific and rational worldview and cause consistency problems.

Like other religions, as time went on Buddhism has splintered into three major factions (Mahayana, Hinayana/Theravada, Zen) each of which dominates particular countries. Sri Lanka, for instance, practices the Theravada form.

The irony is that like other religions, over time much of the Buddha's teachings have become corrupted with influences from theistic religions so that he would find the present forms of religion unrecognizable. The Buddha himself is now widely worshipped as a god, legends of miracles surrounding his life and work and death have now sprouted, and the Buddhist philosophy he preached has been buried in a thicket of rites and traditions and priestly hierarchies. Rather than following his preaching of rejecting worldly entanglements, Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka, for example, eagerly seek political power and resources and government patronage. Gautama would be appalled by what is now being done in his name.

In other words, all the original distinguishing features of Buddhism that would have appealed to a rational person have now been overwhelmed by run-of-the-mill theistic ideas, which make it hard to distinguish from other religions. Such is the power of the desire of people to believe in a supernatural deity.

POST SCRIPT: The 'disappeared' phenomenon comes to the US

Six human rights groups have charged that the US government is responsible for 39 people 'disappearing.' These people are alleged to have, at least at one time, been held in secret custody. When coupled with the allegations of torture, we are witnessing the replication by this US government of some of the worst abuses of Latin American dictators.

June 08, 2007

Highway merging and the theory of evolution

Some time ago, I wrote about the best way for traffic to merge on a highway, say when a lane is closed up ahead. There are those drivers who begin to merge as soon as the signs warning of impending closure appear, thus making their lanes clear. Others take advantage of this lane opening up to drive fast right up to the merge point and then try to squeeze into the other lane.

I said that although people who followed the latter strategy were looked upon disapprovingly as queue jumpers, it seemed to me like the most efficient thing to do to optimize traffic flow was to follow the lead of the seemingly anti-social people and stay in the closed lane until the last moment since that had the effect of minimizing the length of the restricted road. To merge earlier meant that one had effectively made the restricted portion longer.

Some commenters (Gregory Szorc, another Greg, and Jeremy Smith) disagreed with me, saying that what is important is not the length of the restricted road section but the ability of traffic to maintain speed. After all, a single lane of cars can travel quite smoothly at 60 mph for quite a distance, even if there is a lot of traffic. They said that the best thing to do is to merge into the other lane whenever you can do so without significantly losing speed. Clearly this means merging as soon as possible, when traffic is still light, rather than following my suggestion of waiting until the latest moment when traffic is heavier and merging has to be done at a low speed.

The last month I have been doing a lot of highway driving and have been observing this again and realize that I was wrong and the commenters right. When traffic is light, people can merge at any point and not back up traffic because the speed at which they merge is close to the normal speed. So it seems that the key feature is the ability to maintain speed and to merge when you can do so, which means when the traffic flow is light, which usually is well before the actual lane closing. In fact, I think that highway workers should post signs many, many miles ahead of the restriction and recommend that people merge as soon as possible.

But highway signs alone are not going to be enough to have the desired effect. What is needed is widespread public awareness of the benefits of merging well before you actually have to.

Of course, there will always be people who 'cheat' and try to go as far as possible along the closed lane and thus end up slowing traffic at the merge point and destroying the benefits for all. What can be done about this?

Interestingly, this phenomenon parallels the problem of explaining altruistic behavior using evolution by natural selection. It is easy to argue that a group benefits if all its members practice some particular trait, say by sharing food equally all the time so that everyone survives in both good times and bad. But the catch is that evolution by natural selection works on the basis of what is good for a single organism, not for groups, because it is an organism that has genes and propagates it. And that means that a cheater (i.e., someone who, when he has plenty, hides some of his food without being caught) benefits more than the others and is more likely to survive. If this tendency to cheat is an inherited trait, then over time cheaters will come to dominate in the population. Evolutionary biologists have developed theories on how to explain the evolution of altruistic behavior in the face of this seeming advantage for cheating.

In the case of highway merging, if everyone, without exception, follows the early highway merging rule, then long bottlenecks could be a thing of the past, unless traffic is so heavy that merging at normal speed is just impossible. But the occasional cheater will get a short-term benefit of getting a long stretch of open road, while the people behind him get the negative effects of having him slow down traffic at the merge point. So he gets the benefit of others merging early while others bear the cost of his cheating, making cheating an advantageous option to that single organism.

Of course, I am not suggesting that selfish and inconsiderate highway driving habits are inherited traits that will spread in the population by being passed down to the inconsiderate driver's children via his or her genes. But they could be like a 'meme', a mental virus that, like a gene, is a replicator that seeks to propagate and increase its incidence in the population, which in this case consists of the minds of people. This meme would encourage people to benefit themselves in the short-term at the expense of others, even though in the long term they too lose when someone else practicing the same behavior slows down traffic ahead of them.

June 07, 2007

The consequences of atheism

While atheism is not a philosophy as such, the reasons that one has for being one (mainly, the rejection of those beliefs for which there is no evidence) necessarily lead to certain consequences. Collected together, this set of results may look like a philosophy, but is not really. It is merely the playing out of the consequences of a scientific approach to every aspect of life.

For example, the same arguments that atheists use to reject the existence of god also lead them to the rejection of an afterlife. This has profound consequences for the way one lives and how one relates to others. For me, the fact that this life is all there is makes more imperative the importance of everyone being able to make the best of the one life they have. There is no heavenly compensation to satisfy the yearnings of people who are suffering here and now. All people have a right to, at minimum, adequate food, shelter, clothing, and health care, and there is no excuse for societies not being structured to provide them with those necessities.

Similarly, all people have a right to seek happiness wherever they can and with whomever they wish as long as they are not harming others. Hence gays, lesbians, and transgendered people are entitled to every right enjoyed by others, and atheists oppose objections to their behavior based on reasons like "god considers such acts sinful and they will go to hell" or because some religious text forbids it. (It is only such kinds of reasoning that is rejected. There may be atheists who disapprove of homosexuality on other grounds, such as that it is 'not natural' (whatever that may mean), but that is a different issue not involving religion.)

The same reasons that lead atheists to reject god also lead them to reject the idea of an independent soul that can survive the body. The problems of reconciling the idea of a non-material soul (or mind) interacting with the material brain and body are just as great as trying to figure out how a non-material god interacts with the material world. So I would argue that another corollary of being an atheist is to reject the idea of having a soul that can exist independently of the body. One can retain a concept of a 'soul' as long as it is merely a euphemism for the mind, a creature of the brain that ceases to exist when a person dies.

The idea that there is no god out there setting the standards of ethical and moral behavior also means that, rather than fighting to see which version of religious morality and behavior should prevail, atheists believe that we have to figure out what are the common bases on which we can live with one another in peace and justice in the world.

So in other words, the fact that atheism correlates with rejection of an afterlife and souls and religious text-based moral and ethical values means that the whole package has the trappings of a philosophy. But actually they are the almost independent consequences of having a philosophical naturalism philosophy that uses a scientific approach (empirical evidence and logical reasoning) to determine which beliefs are worthy of acceptance and which are not.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Moore on Oprah

The video of Oprah Winfrey interviewing Michael Moore on her show about his new film Sicko seems to suggest that she is going to take up the cause of a a single-payer universal health care system. (See the Post Script to this post for a preview and a clip from the film.)

If she does so, this could be a big step towards establishing such a system because the platform she has gives her a formidable ability to mobilize public opinion.

June 06, 2007

Taking offense (revisited)

There has been an interesting and (as usual) thoughtful set of responses to my earlier post on taking offense to critiques of religion. Instead of responding to each commenter separately as I usually do, in this case I thought I would respond to all collectively, not because they are all saying the same thing, but to make my response more coherent and less fragmented. I would urge readers to read those earlier comments in order to get a better sense of the context of this posting.

When it comes to critiques of religion, I think that the two issues of plausibility and worthiness tend to get conflated. When atheists put religions like Christianity and Judaism and Islam and Hinduism into the same basket as fairies and the Easter bunny, they are raising the issue of plausibility, making the point that all these beliefs suffer from the same lack of evidence for the existence of god and thus are equally implausible. That argument should be responded to on the basis of evidence.

But that is typically not what happens. The issue of relative plausibility is rarely addressed head-on. Instead religious believers tend to shift the focus to one of worthiness, and argue that mainstream religious beliefs have resulted in great things (like highly altruistic self-sacrificial behavior and contributions to culture) while beliefs in the Easter bunny and fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster have not, and thus religious ideas are worthy of greater 'respect' and should not be lumped with the others. (There is also an indirect implication that if religious ideas are more worthy, they should also be more plausible, but that argument is logically unsound. It should really be backwards, that more plausible ideas are more worthy (in a scientific and not moral sense) of belief.)

But even if we go along with the shift to worthiness, the issue is a wash. No one can deny that religions have inspired great music and poetry and art. But no one can deny that they have also resulted in unspeakable cruelty and murder and destruction. Even if we avoid a crude estimate of relative numbers for each side, religious people tend want to only consider the positive benefits and disown the negative results by saying that the people who did the latter things were really acting from other, baser, motives and were somehow deluded into thinking that they were following god's will when they were actually working against it.

But if that is the case, then we can say the same thing about the motives of those who do positive things as well, that although they think and say they do it because of god, they are really doing it out of love of music and poetry and humanity and so on. If you accept people's stated reasons for doing good things at face value, how can you reject their stated reasons for doing bad things?

As for the idea that comparing beliefs in god to Easter bunnies is offensive because it makes religious people look like simpletons, the whole point of my earlier post was to argue that this was not true, that in fact many very smart people over the centuries have believed in religion because they are able to find complex and sophisticated reasons for doing so. Michael Shermer's words, which I used in that post, are worth quoting again: "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons."

Recall Pascal Boyer's incredulity at the Christian theologian's contempt for Fang beliefs about witches. The Cambridge University theologian had probably put in a lot of effort into creating reasons for believing his own religion and no effort into justifying the Fang beliefs. But there is no reason to think that the Fang people (or those who believe in voodoo or shamanistic or animistic religions) are any dumber or smarter than the Christian theologian or Christians or Jews or Muslims or Hindus in general. The Fang and others have probably striven over centuries into developing reasons why their own beliefs are worthy and the beliefs of others are not.

Recall Jacob Weisberg, who was refreshingly candid as to why he disdained Mormonism while valuing the more traditional religions: "Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. It's Scientology plus 125 years. Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference. The world's greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor." (my emphasis)

The key factor at play here is not the intelligence of the believer but the level of desire to believe. If people really need to or want to believe something, they will find reasons to do so. The smarter people are, the more sophisticated and complex their reasons will be. And if they were to shift their considerable talents to other beliefs such as fairies and the Easter bunny and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, over time they will be equally successful.

POST SCRIPT: Preview of Sicko

Check out the preview of the new Michael Moore film Sicko on the scandal that is the US health industry:

You can also see a scene from the film, where Moore visits an English hospital:

The film is being released on June 29, 2007. I am definitely going to see it as soon as it comes out.

June 05, 2007

Is there an atheist philosophy?

I received a private email from a reader of this blog asking what exactly an atheist is and pointing out that my critiques of god and religion are written with a primarily western and Christian concept of a personal god in mind. I was asked how I felt about eastern concepts derived from religions such as Buddhism and Taoism, which the reader points out, do not require belief in a personal god.

It is true that I have focused primarily on Christianity. This is because it is the religion I was brought up in and is the one I am most familiar with. I have also studied it in some depth and am aware of much of its subtleties and apologetics, and of the differences in beliefs among its various sects. If I wrote about other religions, I would be necessarily less familiar with their details and more likely to commit gross generalizations that might be considered unfair by followers of those religions.

But one can make some general statements about atheism. As far as I am concerned, atheism rejects the idea of any supernatural entity that can influence the world. It does not have to just be a personal god in the western sense. Even if the word god is not used and the idea is called a 'force' or 'principle' or 'consciousness' or something else, as long as it represents some non-material intelligent entity that influences the material world, an atheist is likely to reject it for the same reasons he or she rejects god, unless some convincing positive evidence is produced in its favor.

Having said that, we should understand that atheism is not really a philosophy in itself. It is also not merely rejection of religion. Instead, atheism is a consequence of taking seriously the necessity of using evidence as a basis of beliefs. In other words, atheism is a particular result of a general policy of adopting a rigorous scientific worldview to things. I suspect that most atheists take the minimalist point of view expressed by Laplace in explaining to the emperor Napoleon why he had not mentioned god in his treatise on the working of the universe: "I have no need of that hypothesis."

Sam Harris in his Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 51) says:

Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, "atheism" is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a "non-astrologer" or a "non-alchemist." We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

But the reasons (the lack of evidence and the high degree of implausibility that there exists a non-material entity that can interact with the material world) that lead a person to reject any specific god, also lead them to reject all gods. I would suggest that all atheists reject the idea of a supernatural entity or supernatural behavior in all its forms, which would rule out the Jewish god, Muslim god, Hindu god, and the like, in addition to the Christian god. It would also rule out ideas of an afterlife.

If one asks followers of one particular god why they do not believe in a different one, you will usually find that they argue much like atheists, citing the lack of evidence or reasons for belief. The difference is that they apply the rule only selectively, to rule out all other gods except their own preferred one, although there is no empirical difference between them.

An atheist applies that principle uniformly across the board.

POST SCRIPT: Video on evolution

Here is a nice video explanation of the evidence for evolution and the common ancestors of humans and other animals.

June 04, 2007

Taking offense

I have written before (See here, here, here, and here.) that one of the odd characteristics about the discussions about the new atheism is the frequently made charge that the new atheists are 'rude' and saying 'offensive' things about religion.

I myself have said things that may warrant this charge. I have frequently compared belief in god to belief in Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, and the tooth fairy. Religious people may have got offended by this, thinking that I am trivializing their deeply held beliefs. But this reaction itself suggests what a privileged position religion has long held in public discourse, trying to force critics into muting their statements. It is not as if I am making ad hominem attacks on believers or calling them names.

When I compare belief in god to things like the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I am making the point that they all have the same level of empirical evidence in support of them and that the same kinds of arguments are used in their favor. Atheists are merely taking these arguments of religious believers to their logical conclusions as a means of showing their weaknesses, which is a perfectly valid and time-honored form of reasoning. Yet people take one belief (their own particular variant of god) seriously and dismiss the others, making this an interesting study of what kind of thinking enables them to do so.

In a discussion on British radio Richard Dawkins (author of the book The God Delusion) picks up on a point made by another scientist Lord Robert Winston who suggests that Dawkins is insulting religion by calling belief in god a delusion. Dawkins responds:

There is a double standard here, that if we were just having an argument about some scientific matter we could argue quite vigorously and you wouldn't feel insulted, you wouldn't feel offended. But there's something about religion that feels entitled to take offense if you just say something that would be comparatively mild in another context. I can't help feeling that offense is something that people take when they've run out of arguments.

Dawkins makes a good point. In politics or science or other debates, you do not usually say you are offended if someone criticizes your position. It is usually done only when you have no adequate response. For example, in 2005 Amnesty International leveled a serious charge against the US: "We have documented that the U.S. government is a leading purveyor and practitioner of the odious human rights violation. . . As evidence of torture and widespread cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment mounts, it is more urgent than ever that the U.S. government bring the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and any other facilities it is operating outside the USA into full compliance with international law and standards. The only alternative is to close them down."

When questioned about this Dick Cheney said he was "offended" by the comment. But why should we care if he is offended? His feelings are not the issue here. But what he was trying to do was make the issue off-limits to questioning, because he had no real arguments with which to respond.

When Kirk Cameron tried to ridicule evolutionary theory by suggesting that it should predict the existence of animals like 'croc-o-ducks', with the body of a duck and the head of a crocodile, I did not get offended and say "How dare you, sir!" in the fine manner of Victorian melodramas. I was simply amused and countered by pointing out how his statement shows his ignorance of the theory.

This tendency to give religious views shelter from criticism is the reason that one finds periodic eruptions of religious anger and even riots over perceived slights. The angry response by some Christians over the 'chocolate Jesus', the 'elephant dung Mary', and the 'crucifix in urine', the rioting by some Muslims over the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, and the anger of some Hindus in India because of the depiction of naked Hindu deities by an acclaimed Indian painter M. F. Hussain are all signs that religious sensibilities have been accorded far too much deference. The more deference one gives to someone or some ideas, the more prickly sensitivity such people exhibit, resulting in them demanding even greater deference. It is a very harmful feedback loop.

Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, said: "One of the most frightening things in the Western world, and in this country in particular, is the number of people who believe in things that are scientifically false. If someone tells me that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, in my opinion he should see a psychiatrist." (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote.)

Should creationists get offended by the suggestion that they need professional help? Note that even Crick did not explicitly say that he would actually tell the person that he should see a psychiatrist. To gratuitously tell people that they are borderline psychotic, when they merely hold a particular set of views and seem to pose no danger to themselves or to others, would be offensive. But there is nothing wrong with publicly saying that certain beliefs are irrational.

If anyone we knew said that they heard voices telling them what to do and that they believed in invisible things like magic unicorns, we would be more concerned and may try and get them some help. But if they say identical things about god, we give them a pass. The fact that we do not usually tell people that they should see a psychiatrist when they say that they think the world is less than 10,000 years old shows that religious beliefs already receive considerable deference and leeway.

The proper response to this demand for excessive deference to religious beliefs is not to go out of one's way to gratuitously insult people. That usually does not achieve anything worthwhile. But at the same time, people should not be allowed to say "I'm offended!" and expect that to be taken as a serious argument.

So when atheists suggest that the beliefs of Christianity have the same intellectual and scientific stature as belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the response should not be to get in a huff but to show why the two beliefs deserve to be treated differently. To merely say one is offended is, as Dawkins points out, to tacitly concede that one has run out of arguments.

June 01, 2007

"So, do you support the troops?"

That was the question asked by the perky young female TV news reporter holding the microphone near my face.

I must admit that I was surprised by the question. It seemed like such a non sequitur.

Perhaps I should back up a bit and explain how it got to that point. This happened to me four years ago but I was reminded of it during the recent discussions in congress concerning the supplemental appropriations for funding the war in Iraq when those who opposed it were accused, as usual, of not supporting the troops.

Back in 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq was launched, a group of students, faculty and staff at Case Western Reserve University opposed to the war had been holding weekly public vigils in Cleveland, Ohio. March 5th, 2003 was the day of the worldwide student moratorium against the war and on that bitterly cold, windy, dreary day, we were standing at a busy intersection holding up signs and urging people to honk their horns to show opposition to the war, which many obligingly did. The media news crews were present, looking for sound bites.

My colleague and I were holding a "Not in my name" banner as the reporter and her cameraman approached and asked me why I opposed the war. That was an easy question. Although not too media savvy, I knew enough not to try and give a lengthy, complex, or subtle answer.

"Because I believe a war is justified only in self defense or in the case of imminent threat and neither condition holds with respect to Iraq" I replied.

I waited for the next question, expecting a follow-up, maybe asking for clarification or elaboration or justification or even challenging my assertion. All those would have been natural continuations of the dialogue.

Instead I got the "So, do you support the troops?" question.

I paused. "What do you mean?" I eventually asked, looking into her eyes to see if I could decipher the train of thought that had caused her to ask a question that had little relationship to my response. All my years of teaching has helped me realize that behind the seemingly random questions and comments that a student would sometimes make, there usually lay some complicated but relevant train of that that could, under careful questioning, be brought to the surface. The student and I both learned something from that process of intellectual excavation.

So my question to the TV reporter was the first step in that process of deeper understanding. But she looked blankly at me, as if my question made no sense to her.

It then dawned on me what was going on. This was not the kind of dialogue I was used to with students. She already had in her mind a set of questions that, to her, represented journalism. And in that fixed mental template, to be against the war was to undermine the troops.

Just a little reflection (and comparative analysis) should persuade anyone that this is just plain silly. Suppose that we had been protesting the President's tax policies. Would anyone think to ask us "So, do you support the government's accountants?" If we were protesting the government's welfare policies, would the media ask us "So, do you support the administrators in the welfare departments?" The "Do you support the troops?" question has the same lack of logic. Troops are just the agents that the government uses to implement its war policy. Opposing the policy has nothing to do with one's attitude towards the agents who have no choice concerning it.

But it is too much to expect the media to appreciate this. They will continue to ask the question and those of us opposed to the slaughter in Iraq had better be prepared to answer it.

So this is the answer that I gave the TV reporter then. "I don't want the troops to die and I don't want them to be made into killers in an unjustified war. I would like them to be brought home."

Is this a good answer? I don't know. Did it make it into the five-second clip that would be shown on the evening news? I don't know that either because I long ago gave up watching TV news, especially the local ones. The encounter with the reporter reminded me why.

POST SCRIPT: Ron Paul interviewed by Bill Maher

Rudy Giuliani may have done congressman Ron Paul a big favor when, during the first Republican candidates debate, he tried to bully Paul into withdrawing his statement that the attacks of 9/11 were a consequence of resentment over US foreign policies. As a result of that exchange, Paul has gone from being an obscure congressman to receiving a lot of media attention, most recently being interviewed by Bill Maher.

In this interview, Paul comes across as a soft-spoken, thoughtful, and well-read person who actually knows history. He says that the goal of the US should not be to be loved or hated around the world but to be respected, and that would be achieved if it sets its own house in order by restoring liberties at home and avoiding interfering in other countries.

Is the Republican party ready for such a person as its presidential nominee?