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Entries for October 2007

October 31, 2007

From Scopes to Dover-7: The Scopes trial goes national

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Once Scopes was charged with violating the Butler Act and the event publicized, things started moving extremely rapidly.

On May 9, 1925 "the county's justices three justices of the peace formally held scopes for action by the August grand jury, in the meantime releasing him without bond" (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 95). In mid-May, the 65-year old William Jennings Bryan, who had been campaigning across the nation against the teaching of evolution, volunteered to appear for the prosecution for free, thus guaranteeing the delighted city leaders that the trial would get the national publicity that the instigators eagerly sought. The local civic leaders, eager to get as many headliners as possible involved, even tried to get famous English author H. G. Wells, a supporter of evolution, to make the case for evolution at the trial. They considered that his distinguished literary presence would lend a certain cachet to the proceedings, but Wells declined to get involved (Larson p. 96).

Fearing that other cities, belatedly realizing the business boom that would result in having a nationally prominent trial, would try to take the trial away from Dayton, the local leaders decided not to wait until August for the trial but to move even more quickly. So the district judge, "acting with the consent of both prosecution and defense, called a special session of the grand jury for May 25 to indict Scopes before any other town could steal the show." (Larson p. 96)

When the eventual lead attorney for the defense Clarence Darrow was initially approached about whether he would defend Scopes, he declined the offer because he had just retired at the age of 68 and was not interested in taking on new cases. But when he heard that Bryan was appearing for the prosecution, the agnostic Darrow changed his mind and offered to appear for Scopes for no fee, relishing the chance to argue, on a national stage, against one of the most visible proponents of religion. This caused some dismay to the ACLU that was underwriting the defense case. They wanted to focus the case on the issue of academic freedom and felt that Darrow's militant agnosticism would alienate otherwise sympathetic potential religious allies. But Scopes chose Darrow to be his lawyer and stuck with him, feeling that an experienced defense lawyer was better than the constitutional lawyers that the ACLU wanted (Larson, p. 102).

Clarence Darrow was the perfect foil for William Jennings Bryan. Darrow was famous for his successful defenses of several high profile criminal cases but he also "delighted in challenging traditional concepts of morality and religion." He called himself an agnostic but was effectively an atheist, in which respect he was very similar to Charles Darwin. According to Darrow's biographer "He regarded Christianity as a 'slave religion,' encouraging acquiescence in injustice, a willingness to make do with the mediocre, and complacency in the face of the intolerable." (Larson, p. 71)

Good intentions underlay Darrow's efforts to undermine popular religious faith. He sincerely believed that the biblical concept of original sin for all and salvation for some through divine grace was, as he described it, "a very dangerous doctrine' – "silly, impossible, and wicked." Darrow once told a group of convicts, "It is not the bad people I fear so much as the good people. When a person is sure that he is good, he is nearly hopeless; he gets cruel – he believes in punishment." During a public debate on religion, he added, "The origin of what we call civilization is not due to religion but to skepticism. . .The modern world is the child of doubt and inquiry, as the ancient world was the child of fear and faith."
. . .
Darrow readily embraced the antitheistic implications of Darwinism. (Larson, p. 71)

Since both Bryan and Darrow were itching to square off against each other on the grand issue of science and religion, it was almost guaranteed that the trial would extend well beyond issues of free speech. The stage was now set for the 'trial of the century,' which would reverberate and color all future discussions on this topic.

POST SCRIPT: Comedian Lewis Black on Biblical literalism

October 30, 2007

Is Dumbledore gay?

By now everyone is aware of the bombshell dropped into the Harry Potter world by creator J. K. Rowling announcing that she had always envisaged Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore as gay, although she had not made it explicit in the books.

Advocates of gay rights have welcomed Rowling's statement, although some have said that they would have liked to have had this development made clear in the books itself, rather than revealed as an afterword. Those who already saw the books as evil because its magical aspects appeared like witchcraft to them, now have another reason to condemn the books, seeing it as an attempt by the author to 'further the gay agenda.' They fear that by making the most universally admired character in the books gay, young children will become (oh, the horror!) more tolerant of gay people.

But Rowling's announcement raises a different issue that has not received much attention and that is the question of to what extent an author has control of the content of her books after they have been published. In this case, does the fact that Rowling wrote Dumbledore thinking of him as a gay character actually make him so?

When I read the Harry Potter books, the question of Dumbledore's or any other adult person's sexuality rarely crossed my mind. The books are quite innocent in that respect and this is typical for this kind of British boarding school fiction where teachers tend to be portrayed as aloof, asexual figures, with no real life outside the classroom and school. On rare occasions I did idly consider the possibility of whether any romance existed between Dumbledore and Professor Minerva McGonagall that would be revealed at the end. There was nothing in the books to suggest this. It simply seemed like they would make a nice compatible couple, spending a quiet retirement together.

So is Dumbledore gay? One school of thought would argue that if his creator says so, then he must be so. After all, the entire Harry Potter universe is a product solely of her imagination so surely she has the right to determine the nature of each character. But the relationship of the author to her creations is not that simple because another school of thought says that once a book is published, it is no longer 'owned' by the author and the meaning of the books now lies with whatever meaning the reader assigns. While the reader cannot change the text in any way or create new facts, the reader's right to interpretation is on a par with that of the writer.

According to the latter view, since I had never considered the possibility that Dumbledore was gay while reading the books, he is not so, at least to me. Of course, now that this possibility has been raised, a re-reading of the books might cause me to change my mind, seeing in his character things I had not seen before. We all have experienced occasions when a conversation we have had or a film we have seen or a book we have read is suddenly recollected in a dramatic new light because we subsequently received new information. But whether Dumbledore is gay that is something that has to be determined by each reader, not the author.

I recall an author whose novels were sometimes assigned as texts by high school teachers and students would be asked to write essays on what was meant by such and such a passage. The author said that some enterprising students, realizing that he was still around, would track him down and call him to ask what he meant, hoping to get the 'correct' answer to their essay prompt. He would reply that he didn't know any more than they did. He was not trying to dodge the question, he was just expressing the view that once a work is published, the author has relinquished control of the meaning of the work. The same issues arise with the meaning of a painting or a sculpture or a piece of music.

This does not mean that all creators are comfortable relinquishing control of their work. I recall the story of an art museum docent who was horrified to find a visitor painting over a work hanging on the museum wall. Upon arrest and questioning, the 'vandal' turned out to be the original artist who had not been quite satisfied with the work he had sold, and had decided to make some changes.

A colleague and friend of mine Professor Christine Cano wrote a fascinating book called Proust's Deadline (2007) which dealt with the publishing history of Marcel Proust's epic multivolume novel In Search of Lost Time (formerly called Remembrance of Things Past). The volumes were published over the period 1913-1927, the last three edited and published posthumously after his death in 1922. Proust, like Rowling, had never published a novel before and yet ambitiously conceived of the first novel as an epic work whose story needed many volumes (seven in both cases) to tell. But whereas Rowling's story lent itself to being split into episodes and she seemed to have been a highly disciplined writer and mapped out the plotline carefully from the start and stuck to it, Proust had a much harder time of it. He was constantly rewriting, backtracking, changing course, and making revisions.

In 1987, long after Proust's death, one of his original publishers issued a revised version of Proust's novel based on an original manuscript in which Proust seemed, just before his death, to have deleted a huge 250 page chunk out of one of the novels. This posed a dilemma for Proust readers. Which was the 'real' novel: The longer version that had long been considered the canonical one? Or the 1987 abridged version that seemed to represent Proust's 'final' thoughts on his own work? Cano and most Proust scholars think that what was originally published is the final word. Once a work is published, the author's control over the story is over.

In a very minor way, I face the same problem with this blog. Sometimes, just after I have posted an item, I think of a revision that might improve the text. But I somehow feel that it is not quite correct to make the change, even though it is still 'my' work and I am the publisher. Once it has appeared on the internet, to be seen by the world, it no longer seems to belong to me except in the purely technical sense of owning the copyright. The only changes I make to published posts are if I discover a glaring factual error or a typo. I avoid making any substantive changes in meaning.

My discomfort with post-publishing changes may be because I have grown up with the older publishing model, where the appearance of a book was a landmark event simply because of the complex nature of creating a physical object. A bound book in one's hand has a sense of finality. Internet publishing, where changes can be easily made in a few minutes, has created a new dynamic. As it gains ground, it is not clear when any work will be seen as the author's final word.

POST SCRIPT: Janeane Garofalo

Watch actress and comedian Janeane Garofalo on a talk show a month before the invasion of Iraq. Notice that she was right about almost everything, unlike the idiotic interviewer. And yet she, and other people who were equally right, are almost never seen or heard from on the mainstream media while those who were wrong about everything (like the interviewer) are still there, this time yelling for war with Iran.

October 29, 2007

From Scopes to Dover-6: The Scopes trial conspiracy

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Although Inherit the Wind, the original play and film based on the events of the Scopes trial, was made as a drama, it would have been more accurate to portray the actual events leading up to and through the trial as a comedy.

Right from the beginning, rather than being a bitter adversarial contest between science and religion, the whole prosecution and trial was staged by the local civic leaders of the sleepy little town of Dayton, Tennessee as mainly a public relations exercise, with both prosecution and defense sides working together to create a show trial and thereby benefit the town by increasing its visibility because of the resulting publicity.

When word got around that the ACLU had issued a press release to the Tennessee newspapers looking for someone willing to test the Tennessee law barring the teaching of evolution, Dayton resident George Rappleyea, who personally opposed the anti-evolution law, saw the opportunity to make the sleepy town of Dayton get national headlines and publicity. He felt that this ACLU challenge gave Dayton the chance to hold a trial with well-known figures that would draw the national media and tourists to the city, leading to an economic boom. So he and other enterprising entrepreneurs set about planning to create such a trial. Working with Fred Robinson (a local businessman and also chair of the county school board), the school superintendent (who supported the Butler Act prohibiting the teaching of evolution), two city attorneys who agreed to prosecute the case, and a local attorney to handle the defense, they put all the ingredients into place. (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 89-91)

All they needed now was someone to charge with breaking the law. They did not want anyone's life or career to be harmed by being charged in what was essentially a show trial created for publicity. The team looked around for a suitable candidate to accuse and found one in 24-year old John T. Scopes, a general science instructor and part-time football coach. Although he was not the regular biology teacher, he made a good candidate because he was single, not a local, had no ties to the region, no intention of staying permanently in Dayton, and thus had little to lose from the case. This made him preferable to the regular biology teacher, who was married and was also the school principal and thus would have had a lot more at stake.

In the film, Scopes was arrested in his classroom by grim-faced city leaders while teaching his class about evolution, and then flung into jail where he had to stay until the trial. While there, he had to listen to hostile citizens marching around the jail carrying banners and chanting slogans vilifying him, flinging bottles through his cell windows, and seeing himself burned in effigy, while in the evening the clergyman preached fiery sermons condemning him to hell for his evil act of teaching evolution.

In reality, Scopes was a cheerful co-conspirator in the staged trial. The chummy nature of the whole proceeding is illustrated by the fact that all these friendly discussions took place in the local drugstore owned by the school board chair. The prosecutor, who happened to be Scopes' close friend, said he would be willing to prosecute Scopes as long as Scopes didn't mind. (Even during the heat of the trial, the prosecutors and the defendant went for a swim in a pond during a lunch recess.) Scopes was invited to these discussions and asked whether he would be willing to be prosecuted. Scopes believed in evolution and disagreed with the law so he said he was willing to go along. The group then called over the waiting justice of the peace to swear out a warrant for Scopes, and the waiting constable served him the warrant immediately. Rather than being hauled off to jail, Scopes then went off to play tennis while the others set the publicity machine in motion by wiring the state's newspapers with the news that they had charged someone with violating the Butler Act. (Larson, p. 91)

The little secret behind the trial was it was never firmly established that Scopes had even taught evolution at all and thus actually violated the law. He himself could not definitely recall teaching that particular topic. He never took the stand in his defense and thus was not forced to swear under oath on this issue. He and his students also seemed hazy on the entire concept of evolution. But everyone, including Scopes, decided to go along with the idea that he had taught it in order that the trial could take place. Since Scopes had filled in occasionally when the regular biology teacher was absent, and had used the assigned textbook that included a section on human evolution, this was enough for the friendly gang of conspirators to decide that they could reasonably charge him with violating the law. During the later grand jury proceedings, Scopes even had to urge his reluctant students to testify against him and coached them on how to answer in order that the grand jury would have grounds to indict him. (Larson, p. 108)

Thus from the beginning, the normal antagonism that characterizes the two opposing sides in highly charged trials was absent. It was said that the ACLU, eager to have a test case on the freedom of speech in the classroom, even volunteered to pay the expenses of the prosecution, but the offer was declined. The generosity was not all on one side. Anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan had not even wanted a penalty provision inserted in the law since he only wanted to make a point about what should be taught, and did not want to actually harm anyone, financially or otherwise. In fact, Bryan later offered, if Scopes were to be found guilty, to pay the fine himself (unlike in the film, where an outraged Bryan wanted an even stiffer sentence meted out). Everyone fully expected Scopes to be found guilty and even the defense wanted such a verdict so that the case could be appealed to the higher courts and the constitutional issues fully addressed.

The Scopes trial in Dayton was to be merely the first step in a case that was supposed to have much broader implications.

POST SCRIPT: The Chasers ask what should be done about Iraq

In a comment to the previous post, Nicole expressed incredulity that anyone could be oblivious to the infamous history of tattooing people of particular groups for identification purposes. Alas, such people do exist. There are many people out there who not only have no idea of the basic elements of history or current affairs or geography, they also have no empathy at all for people who are not like them, which leads them to say the most outrageous things.

The Chasers regularly exploit this dangerous combination of ignorance and bigotry for humorous purposes.

October 26, 2007

From Scopes to Dover-5: Teaching of evolution as freedom of speech

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While William Jennings Bryan was warning of the consequences of teaching the 'doctrine' of evolution in public schools while excluding religious doctrine, the other chain of events that led to the collision in the Scopes trial was the publicly expressed concern by the newly formed American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) regarding what it felt were infringements on academic freedom, with teachers being fired for advocating unpopular views. Following the worldwide rise of Communist ideas that ultimately led to the Russian revolution in 1917, the 'Red Scare' came into force in the US and state legislatures were proposing laws that harassed and called for the dismissal and even arrest of anyone who spoke in favor of "socialism, communism, anarchism, bolshevism, pacifism, the international labor movement." (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 64).

In 1915, the also newly formed American Association of University Professors (AAUP) had presented its General Declaration of Principles that addressed the issue of academic freedom. It said that those colleges specifically created to promote certain doctrines (for example, private colleges established by religious denominations) need not adhere to academic freedom and were free to have on their faculty only those who subscribed to their doctrines, but those institutions that received public funds "have no moral right to bind the reason or conscience of any professor." (Larson, p. 77)

In 1924, the ACLU issued a statement offering to "defend the right of public school teachers to free speech both inside and outside the classroom, and explicitly adopted AAUP's conception of academic freedom" (Larson, p. 81). In its own descriptions of attempts at stifling free speech, the ACLU broadened the list of topics from those covered by the AAUP, including anti-evolution laws together with laws against other unpopular ideas, and also extending its scope to protect teachers in secondary education as well. It offered to assist in the defense of people in both schools and colleges who were accused in such cases.

The explosive combination of conflicting views was now firmly in place and the fuse was lit when on March 21, 1925 the governor of Tennessee signed into law the Butler Act, which stated that it was:

AN ACT prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof.

Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

Section 2. Be it further enacted, That any teacher found guilty of the violation of this Act, Shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction, shall be fined not less than One Hundred $ (100.00) Dollars nor more than Five Hundred ($ 500.00) Dollars for each offense. (italics in original)

The ACLU, which had been following the progress of such legislation across the nation, decided to see if the Butler Act could be a test case and published a statement in the Tennessee papers on May 4, 1925 offering to defend any teacher prosecuted under the Act. This set into motion the rapid sequence of events that led to the Scopes trial.

Some enterprising entrepreneurs in Dayton, Tennessee saw in the ACLU's challenge a golden opportunity to put their little town on the national map. By putting on a show trial centered around the highly controversial case of teaching evolution in the public schools, an issue that was being debated nationwide and generating immense passions, they knew they would draw national media attention and bring about economic benefits to their town.

So they quickly set about making sure that the trial took place in their town.

POST SCRIPT: The Chasers quiz

The Chasers decide to ask Americans what should be done to Muslims.

Of course, this kind of 'person in the street' exercise is inherently unfair in that all the producers need to find are a very few people who give idiotic answers, edit out all the people who give reasonable responses, and thus make everyone look stupid. But for some questions, it is really quite shocking to think that even one person would answer the way they do.

October 25, 2007

From Scopes to Dover-4: Bryan's views on religion and evolution

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In order to understand what happened to Bryan during his testimony in the Scopes trial, it is necessary to understand something of Bryan's religious views. In those days, as now, there were splits among religious believers between those who took the Bible as an inerrant literal record of historical events, and those who allowed for some level of interpretive license, whereby some events could be interpreted metaphorically so as not to clash with scientific truths.

In terms of his own religion, Bryan was not as extreme a fundamentalist as today's creationists. By today's standards, he would be considered one of the more sophisticated religious believers, well read and knowledgeable about science, which makes the play and film portrayal of him in Inherit the Wind as a buffoonish dogmatic fundamentalist even more unfair. Although he would have considered himself a fundamentalist, Bryan was not quite as literal in his view of the Bible. He belonged to the 'gap' or 'ruin and reconstruction' school of Christian thought. Such people were not committed to a 6,000 year old Earth but believed that the days of creation described in the book of Genesis were metaphorical and represented 'ages' that could stand for very many years, long enough to be consistent with the geological evidence. This approach "allows for a very old, unspecified age of the universe, in which matter was first created, followed by non-human life and the formation of fossils. This creation process could have involved multiple cataclysms and creations and is flexible enough to accommodate most geologic evidence.' (Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs, Mano Singham, (2000, p. 9). For a fascinating account of the history of creationism and the evolution of that movement's evolving views, see the book The Creationists (1992) by Ronald Numbers.)

Bryan was also willing to go along with a limited form of evolution as long as it kept humans out of the tree of evolved life and made them special creations. But he would not go as far as the modernist theologians of his time who adopted 'theistic evolution', which accepted the idea of common ancestors of apes and humans and saw god's role as somehow guiding the process of evolution, which made it an early form of intelligent design creationism. Bryan believed in the Biblical story of the creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the great flood of Noah.

In those early religious arguments against evolution, one finds many themes that are echoed today: the idea that the theory of evolution is 'only a guess', a theory and not a fact, that it lacks evidence in support of it, that an increasing number of scientists disbelieve it, and that it contradicts the Bible.

In an essay titled God and Evolution published in the New York Times, February 26, 1922 (p. 84), Bryan explained clearly what he believed and what were the sources of his objections to the teaching of evolution in public schools.

The only part of evolution in which any considerable interest is felt is evolution applied to man. A hypothesis in regard to the rocks and plant life does not affect the philosophy upon which life is built. Evolution applied to fish, birds and beasts would not materially affect man's view of his own responsibilities, except as the acceptance of an unsupported hypothesis as to these would be used to support a similar hypothesis as applied to man.
. . .
Christianity has nothing to fear from any truth; no fact disturbs the Christian religion or the Christian. It is the unsupported guess that is substituted for science to which opposition is made, and I think the objection is a valid one. (italics in original)

Bryan added that just because some idea like evolution was false did not, by itself, warrant opposition unless it was also harmful. He then placed his finger on why he thought evolution was damaging and in the process summarized accurately the consequences of taking the theory of evolution seriously, showing a much better understanding of the theory's implications than even many of today's evolution supporters.

It entirely changes one's view of life and undermines faith in the Bible. Evolution has no place for the supernatural. . . .Evolution proposes to bring all the processes of nature within the comprehension of man by making it the explanation of everything that is known. . . . .Evolution attempts to solve the mystery of life by suggesting a process of development commencing "in the dawn of time" and continuing uninterrupted until now. . . .If a man accepts Darwinism, or evolution applied to man, and is consistent, he rejects the miracle and the supernatural as impossible. . . If he is consistent, he will go through the Old Testament step by step and cut out all the miracles and all the supernatural. He will then take up the New Testament and cut out all the supernatural – the virgin birth of Christ, His miracles and His resurrection, leaving the Bible a story book without binding authority upon the conscience of man.

Although Bryan's motives in drawing the consequences of evolutionary thinking in such dire terms for Christians may have been to scare them into backing his movement against the teaching of evolution, he is exactly right in his analysis. If one is consistent in applying the theory of evolution, one is forced to reject god's intervention anywhere in the process. Daniel C. Dennett in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995) speaks of the theory of natural selection as being like a mythical 'universal acid', so potent and corrosive that once released it cannot be contained or restricted in any way but breaks through all barriers until it reaches into every space. Once you accept the theory of evolution by natural selection as applying in any area of life, there is no way to prevent it being used to explain every aspect of life.

To add force to his argument that the theory of evolution was dangerous for Christian beliefs because it could cause people, especially young people, to doubt the existence of god, Bryan also pointed out how Darwin had started out in life as a religious person and become an agnostic as a result of his work: "If Darwinism could make an agnostic of Darwin, what is its effect likely to be upon students to whom Darwinism is taught at the very age when they are throwing off parental authority and becoming independent? Darwin's guess gives the student an excuse for rejecting the authority of God an excuse that appeals to him more strongly at this age than at any other stage in life."

In that same essay, he dismissed theistic evolutionists and their idea of god as someone who merely created the laws of evolution and then did nothing else. He said that they put "God so far away that He ceases to be a present influence in the life.. . [W]hy should we want to imprison God in an impenetrable past?. . .Why not allow Him to work now?" Thus Bryan saw acceptance of human evolution in any form, theistic or otherwise, as a very slippery slope that led to no good end: "Evolution naturally leads to agnosticism and, if continued, finally to atheism."

But while he disliked evolution for religious reasons and because he felt that it led to abhorrent social policies, those were not his stated reasons for objecting to it being taught in schools. He said he objected because he felt that the theory had not been shown to be true. And if it were not true, then that meant that those who taught it were merely teaching a doctrine, not scientific truth, and he saw no reason why they should have the right to teach in public schools what he considered an atheistic doctrine if religious teaching was not to be allowed.

The crux of his objections to the teaching of evolution was as follows:

The real question is, Did God use evolution as His plan? If it could be shown that man, instead of being made in the image of God, is a development of beasts we would have to accept it, regardless of its effect, for truth is truth and must prevail.
. . .
Those who teach Darwinism are undermining the faith of Christians. . .Christians do not object to freedom of speech. . .Christians do not dispute the right of any teacher to be agnostic or atheistic, but Christians do deny the right of agnostics and atheists to use the public schools as a forum for the teaching of their doctrines.

The Bible has in many places been excluded from the schools on the ground that religion should not be taught by those paid by public taxation. If this doctrine is sound, what right have the enemies of religion to teach irreligion in the public schools? If the Bible cannot be taught, why should Christian taxpayers permit the teaching of guesses that make the Bible a lie?

That was how one side in the conflict approached the Scopes trial, arguing that teaching evolution in schools while not teaching Biblical theories was giving an unfair advantage to one doctrine over another. It is an argument that has persisted in various forms down to this very day.

Next: How the other side approached the Scopes trial.

POST SCRIPT: Leave it to Dennis

(Thanks to Crooks & Liars.)

October 24, 2007

From Scopes to Dover-3: The role of 'social Darwinism'

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

As far as the legal issues were concerned, the famous 1925 'Scopes monkey trial' did not actually resolve anything and did not even deal with the same weighty constitutional issues that now surround the issue of evolution in the classroom.

The issues involved in the trial arose as a result of the collision of two trains of events, one emerging from the rising unease with the implications of Darwinian thinking for Christian beliefs, and the other with concerns about infringements on the fundamental right of free speech that followed the creation of the Soviet Union following World War I and the 'Red Scare' that followed.

Unease over the implications of the theory of evolution for religious beliefs had been simmering for some time, even since the full implications of Darwin's theory had become recognized. While some people were willing to tolerate the idea of all species other than humans being evolutionarily linked, the idea that human beings were also part of the great tree of evolutionary descent was repugnant to many because it seemed to imply that we were no different from other mammals and thus not in the image of god nor possessors of an immortal soul.

Williams Jennings Bryan was a devoutly religious Christian and also a populist, supporting many progressive causes while championing the underdog and fighting for the rights of the poor against their exploiters. Because of this, he was often referred by the nickname of The Commoner, in addition to the name of The Boy Orator, which he had acquired early in life because of the skill he displayed as a public speaker. He had basically a majoritarian democratic view that held that people, through their collective voice, had the final say in how they were to be governed. As such, he opposed elitist ideas, and he saw evolutionary theory as one such doctrine that was being imposed on people by a scientific elite.

In fact, while one reason he opposed Darwinian thinking was because of his religious beliefs and his fears that the theory left no room for god, another of the sources of his opposition to Darwin's theory were the claims of the so-called 'social Darwinists' like Herbert Spencer, who tried to extend Darwinian natural selection to explain human society and argued that 'survival of the fittest' meant that harsh social conditions were inevitable and maybe even desirable since that would weed out those who were 'unfit', thus improving humanity in the long run. The 'robber barons' of that time, people like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who had made enormous fortunes at a time of widespread poverty, also took comfort from social Darwinism since it seemed to bestow a seal of approval on them and their actions, suggesting that their success was due to them being exceptionally 'fit' for the world of business and innately gifted at it, and not because of their exploitative business practices. Bryan saw Darwin's ideas as being at the root of that particular evil, saying "The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate – the merciless law by which the strong crowd out the weak." (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 39).

Bryan was a humane and peace-loving man, who even resigned in 1915 from his position as Secretary of State in the administration of President Woodrow Wilson when it looked like Wilson was taking the country into World War I. That war gave Bryan yet another reason to oppose Darwinism because he was strongly influenced by some books written at that time that argued that the war was due to Darwinian principles at work among nations.

Another factor at play in the popular opposition to Darwinism was the rise of eugenics and its suggestion that the human race, just like livestock, could be improved by selective breeding, such as by segregating those people who were seen as 'defective' and preventing them from having children. Many viewed this as an abominable practice and those opposed to evolution saw this as a direct consequence of Darwinian thinking applied to humans, and dangerously close to playing god. Their linking of Darwinian evolutionary theory with eugenics was buttressed by the fact that one of the founders of this new field (and the person who coined the term) was the British polymath Francis Galton, who happened to be Darwin's cousin and one of the earliest supporters of Darwin's theory.

Bryan was opposed to the excesses of both capitalism and militarism and also rejected social engineering at the expense of the poor. He saw Darwinian thinking as the source of all those evils and thus as a pernicious idea that should be defeated and definitely not taught to students in public schools.

Next: Bryan's views on religion and evolution.

POST SCRIPT: How to get into any nightclub

Do you have trouble getting into selective bars or nightclubs? The guys from The Chasers tell you the secret of getting in that works every time. Well, almost.

October 23, 2007

From Scopes to Dover-2: How the Scopes myths originated

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

From the beginning the Scopes trial captured the popular imagination as symbolizing the conflict between science and religion, on a par with the trial of Galileo for his support of Copernican views. But just as the myths about the Copernican revolution have supplanted the actual history, so have the myths about the Scopes trial obscured the more fascinating real account. (See here and the links therein for my posts on the Copernican myths. The December 2007 issue of Physics Today will also carry an article by me on this topic.)

The 1925 Scopes "Trial of the Century" became shrouded in myth and the stuff of legend from the very beginning. How could it not be so when the subject matter of the case aroused strong passions nationwide, when the two main protagonists William Jennings Bryan (for the prosecution) and Clarence Darrow (for the defense) were flamboyant and high-profile characters, and when the national media and commentators (especially the acerbic H. L. Mencken) covered the trial? From the beginning, the spectacle overshadowed the facts.

After 1955, public perceptions of what happened at the trial and its implications were distorted even more by the long-running Broadway play Inherit the Wind, later made into a hit 1960 film starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March. The play's authors Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee were not really seeking to produce a docudrama of the trial itself. They fictionalized the events of the Scopes trial in order to make it into a vehicle to warn of the dangers of McCarthyist blacklisting that was going on in their own time, using the religion and science conflict of the trial as a proxy for the fight to retain freedom of speech and freedom of association.

The writers of the play did not claim that it was an accurate history of the trial and even tried to distance themselves from that charge by changing the names and places and the dates of the people and events, adding new characters, and tweaking some details such as introducing a love interest for Scopes. But the thin veil they drew over the real trial was ignored. Despite their intention of using the Scopes trial for purely allegorical purposes, their portrayal was too close to reality and has become the foundation of the modern folklore surrounding the Scopes trial, forever confusing people as to what really happened and what did not.

Largely because of the film and play, the trial is now recalled as an epic clash between the forces of narrow religious dogma and obscurantism (represented by famed orator and three-time Democratic candidate for president William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution) and the forces of science, progress, enlightenment, and secularism (represented by famed trial attorney Clarence Darrow for the defense). In the fictionalized legal contest, in a vivid scene towards the end which has left the most lasting impression, Darrow (called Henry Drummond in the play and film) puts Bryan (now called Matthew Harrison Brady) on the witness stand and with a withering cross-examination shows the foolishness of holding on to literal Biblical beliefs in the face of science, reducing Bryan to a mass of babbling and blubbering incoherence, making him a laughing stock in the courtroom and nationwide. Bryan soon after collapses and dies on the courtroom floor.

While the real trial did end with Darrow putting Bryan on the stand, what happened during the questioning was more complex, and Bryan died peacefully in his sleep five days after the trial. As is often the case with great epic myths though, when looked at closely the actual events behind them are often less sharply drawn than the legend, but fascinating nonetheless.

In order to get behind the myths and see how the Scopes trial came about, we have to note that Darwin's theory was first proposed in 1859 and had been taught in American schools for some time before the Scopes trial. So why, in 1925, did the little town of Dayton, Tennessee suddenly become the focal point for the 'trial of the century'?

That will be the topic of the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Campus Freethought Alliance at Case

Case has started its own Campus Freethought Alliance (of which I am the advisor) and its next meeting will be on Wednesday, October 24, 2007 at 7:30pm in Thwing Atrium. They have two guest speakers, philosophy professor Patricia Princehouse (who I think will speak about her own area of expertise which is evolution) and geology professor James van Orman who will talk about the science of radiometric dating. The meeting is open to all interested people.

The CFA is dedicated to "promoting and defending reason, science and freedom of inquiry in education, and to the enhancement of freethought, skepticism, secularism, humanism, philosophical naturalism, rationalism, and atheism on college and high school campuses throughout North America and around the world."

These campus groups are affiliated with the nationwide Center for Inquiry.

October 21, 2007

From Scopes to Dover-1: Overview

I have always been interested in the law, especially constitutional law. And given my interest in the subject of evolution, I was intrigued by how the teaching of that subject has been, at least in the US, the focus of so many court cases, involving various subtle shades of meaning and interpretation of the US constitution. This week begins a fairly long series of posts that attempts to clarify this issue, although the series will be interrupted from time to time with posts on other topics.

It is almost impossible to think of the evolution-religion controversy (or the larger science-religion issue) in America without immediately thinking of the famous 'Scopes monkey trial' of 1925, where a high school teacher John T. Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in the state of Tennessee. That event has become a touchstone, framing the issue in a way that is hard to shake off.

In some ways this is odd because that case played only a very minor role legally, setting no legal precedent. I recently read two books God v. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law by Marci A. Hamilton (2005) and Separation of Church and State by Philip Hamburger (2002) that dealt solely with the relationship between church and state and neither even mentioned the Scopes case. Yet, because of a curious confluence of factors, the shadow of the Scopes trial has hovered over all subsequent public discussions of the teaching of evolution in schools in a way that is completely disproportional to the actual legal significance of the case.

Because the legal questions surrounding the teaching of evolution in public schools are a fascinating subject in their own right, it is easy to forget that the real underlying questions extend beyond mere legalities and raise fundamental, difficult, and yet unanswered, questions about the relationship of individuals to their government in a democratic society. In this case the question is: Who gets to determine what should be taught in public schools? Should it be the community which funds the schools, through their elected representatives to schools boards and state and national legislatures? Should it be the subject matter experts in the disciplines being taught? Should it be professional educators like teachers, principals, and professors in schools of education?

If one takes the view that since it is the community that pays for the schools through their taxes, that they should be the ones who determine the curriculum, then how far is one willing to take that idea? Is the 'community' defined purely by the local community that is directly served by those schools or should the larger groupings in which it is embedded, such as state and national governments, also have a say? What if a local school board is dominated by members of one religious sect that seeks to teach its own version of religion-based science or history to all students in the school, overriding any and all minority views? What if the local school board wants to teach something that is flatly rejected by the community of experts in that field of study, such as that the Earth is 6,000 years old? What if they want to teach a version of history that is rejected by professional historians but inculcates in their students their sense of racial or regional pride? Should local bodies be allowed to do that?

In other words, should we adopt a majoritarian point of view and say that local communities absolutely do have the right to determine what should be taught and that the only recourse of the minority is to try and obtain redress through the ballot box?

On the other hand, if we dislike that approach, do we really want to adopt a purely technocratic attitude that says that local communities should abdicate their right to determine what their children should be taught and delegate it to content experts? Isn't there a danger that in doing so we are creating an elitist technocracy that could, in the long run, undermine the democratic ideal?

Such tricky questions were less likely to arise in the past in the US when the communities involved were smaller, more homogeneous, less sensitive to the needs of minorities, and where the primary purpose of public (or 'common') schools was seen primarily as religious education. Indeed in the early days of Western science, even the scientific communities believed in the divine revelation of nature as taught in the Bible and could not envisage any contradiction between the two. The role of scientists and other scholars was seen to be to explain how god had done what he had said he had done in the infallible religious texts.

But starting with Copernicus and Galileo, that role for science became harder to sustain, and it was inevitable that scientists would, at least tacitly if not overtly. cut their ties with religion and start pursuing lines of inquiry that did not seek or require consistency with religious doctrines. The tremendous success of science that followed the Enlightenment validated this approach and it then became seen as the task of theologians to try and modify their beliefs about god to make them consistent with rapid advances in scientific knowledge. This caused a split within the religious community between those who adopted a 'modernist' approach and those who adopted a 'fundamentalist' approach. Both agreed that scientific truths and religious truths had to be consistent. But modernists argued that in any apparent conflict that arose between scientific truths and religious truths, it is religious truth that must undergo reinterpretation to re-achieve consistency, while the fundamentalists feared that such reinterpretations would destroy the credibility of the Bible by making it seem less than infallible. The fundamentalists wanted to draw lines in the sand beyond which they were not willing to compromise their beliefs. If science crossed those lines, they were unwilling to move the lines as the modernist theologians tended to do but fought to try and force science to return behind the lines.

Where those lines were drawn depended on the individual and there were many such lines at play: the age of the Earth, the age of the universe, the origin of new species, the common ancestor of humans and apes, the creation of the soul, and so on.

It was the theory of evolution that seemed, at least in the US, to be a kind Maginot line for many religious believers, the line that they would defend at all costs. As a result, this arena is where the high profile science-religion battles have been fought, starting with the Scopes trial.

In this series of posts, we examine the history of the legal battles over the teaching of evolution in schools (which itself is embedded in the broader question of the role of religion in schools), starting with the Scopes trial in 1925 and ending with the 2005 trial in Dover, PA. As we see how the various cases were decided, the creation of various constitutional precedents, the evolution of legal reasoning, and the setting of the parameters of the decision making process, it is good to bear in mind that all these issues revolve around that single fundamental question: Who gets to decide what is taught in public schools?

POST SCRIPT: Interview on Machines Like Us

The indefatigable Norm Nason, the man behind the wonderful website Machines Like Us which serves as a gateway to the latest scientific developments, especially in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and artificial life (AL), conducted an interview with me where we explored some of my views and their origins.

You can read the interview here.

October 19, 2007

Soaps and Soap

For a very brief time in my life, about one week actually, I got hooked on daytime TV soap operas.

It happened in December of 1978. I had received a phone call that my father had died suddenly of a heart attack back in Sri Lanka. I was in graduate school in the US, far away from my family, and thus away from the kinds of support networks and rituals that help one get through such times of grief. I could not concentrate on my studies or reading or other things to distract my mind so turned for solace to watching TV all day, as so many do in such situations when seeking escapism through mindless activity.

In those pre-internet and early cable days, your TV choices were largely limited to just the three networks CBS, NBC, and ABC and during the day all three served up a diet of talk shows, game shows, and soap operas. Although I wasn't at all interested at first, quite soon I was quite absorbed in the various stories that made up the soaps. For those not familiar with the genre, these daytime soap operas involve multiple intersecting story lines involving quite a large cast of characters of usually middle class or rich people, with a few low-lifes thrown in to spice things up. The tales involve love, jealousy, intrigue, adultery, murder, larceny, backstabbing, lying, cheating, and other strong human characteristics.

These programs can be quite addictive and develop faithful followings as can be seen from the longevity of soaps like Days of Our Lives, All My Children, The Young and the Restless and As the World Turns, all of which have lasted over three decades.

Although I stopped watching after a week, these shows gave me a greater appreciation for the riotously funny weekly prime-time sitcom Soap, which was a parody of the daytime soaps, and ran for four seasons during the years 1977-1981.

The basic story of Soap was that of the intersecting lives of two families, the Tates and the Campbells, where the two mothers Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell were sisters. The best way to describe Soap is as daytime soap opera on steroids. Where the daytime soaps stories proceeded excruciatingly slowly, with long pregnant pauses in the dialogue, lengthy meaningful looks, and dragged-out plot developments, Soap went at break-neck speed with plot twists occurring in rapid-fire succession. All the standard complex plotlines of the daytime soaps were present and then made even more extreme in Soap by adding outlandish things like UFOs, alien abductions, demon-possessions, guerillas, gangsters, blackmail, kidnappings, exorcisms, brainwashing by a religious cult (led by the Reverend Sun whose followers were called "the Sunnies"!) and so on. Storylines that would be sufficient for a full season on the regular soaps were crammed into just a few episodes of Soap. This breathless pace was compressed into weekly half-hour programs, each episode beginning in classic soap style with a voice-over announcer saying what had happened in previous episodes, and ending with a dramatic cliff-hanger, followed by the announcer hyping up the suspense for the episodes to come.

What really made Soap one of the funniest TV programs was clever writing coupled with one of the best ensemble casts ever put together, easily triumphing over those of the more-heralded Seinfeld or Friends casts. Katherine Helmond as the ditzy Jessica (whom men found irresistible) and Cathryn Damon as Mary were the anchors that held the two families (and the show) together as increasingly bizarre things happened all around them. Some of the funniest scenes were when the two were sitting around a kitchen table, each trying to bring the other up-to-date on the latest bizarre happenings in their families and, in a perverse way, competing to top each other's stories.

Richard Mulligan as Bert Campbell (Mary's working class husband) was superb in his physical comedy, his body and face seemingly made of rubber, responding spasmodically to his nervous energy. Billy Crystal (a newcomer then) appeared as Jodie (Mary's son) in what may be the first portrayal of a gay person on TV that got laughs out of being gay while remaining a sympathetic character and avoiding becoming a caricature. Robert Guillaume as Benson, the sardonic back-talking butler for the rich Tates, was another actor who managed to take what might have become a stereotypical role (black servant of a rich white family) and infuse it with dignity and humor. In fact Crystal and Guillaume were perhaps the most sensible (or at least the least eccentric) of the entire Tate-Campbell menagerie.

Perhaps the most eccentric character was Bert's son Chuck who always went around with his ventriloquist dummy Bob. Chuck acted like Bob was a real person and would hold conversations with him while Bob would insult everyone and leer at women. The humor arose because other members of the family also sometimes ended up treating Bob as a real person and speak and argue and get angry with him, while not holding Chuck responsible for Bob's words. (It is an interesting thing to speculate as to what you would do if someone you knew acted like Chuck did. In order to spare his feelings, wouldn't you also treat his dummy like a real person, even if you felt ridiculous doing so?) In one such scene, Chuck plans to go out on a date leaving Bob behind but Bob harangues him until Chuck agrees to take him along. When they both finally leave, Mary asks Bert (who have both been watching this) whether they shouldn’t get professional help for Chuck, to which Bert replies, "Chuck doesn't need professional help, he should just learn to discipline Bob more."

The reason for these fond reminiscences is that I just discovered that these old programs are now available on DVD and I have been watching them again. There is always a danger in doing these kinds of trips down nostalgia lane because one's memories of old books, films and TV programs often make them seem better than they actually were. I was a little fearful that Soap would disappoint were but it passed the test handily. It is still laugh-out-loud funny.

The added bonus to watching on DVD is the absence of commercials. I also noticed how the opening and closing credits were more leisurely than they are now, allowing one to actually read the names of the actors and crew without distracting sidebar promos for other shows. The running time of each half-hour episode then was also 24 minutes and 30 seconds. I suspect that nowadays this has been reduced to allow for more commercial breaks.

There were other good TV comedies at that time, like M*A*S*H and Newhart, but I would not seek out DVDs of them the way I did with Soap.

Soap was a comedy classic and if you get the chance you should see it. And make sure you watch it in sequence.

POST SCRIPT: Class politics

Here's another provocative clip from the 1998 film Bulworth (strong language advisory).

October 18, 2007

Language and Evolution

I have always been fascinated by language. This is somewhat ironic since I have a really hard time learning a new language and almost did not make it into college in Sri Lanka because of extreme difficulty in passing the 10th-grade language requirement in my own mother tongue of Tamil! (How that happened is a long and not very interesting story.)

But language fascinates me. How words are used, their origins, how sentences are structured, are all things that I enjoy thinking and reading about. I like playing with words, and enjoy puns, cryptic crosswords, and other forms of wordplay.

All this background is to explain why I recommend an excellent book The Power of Babel by John McWhorter, who used to be a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley but is now a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. In the book he discusses the complexity of language and points out that the evolution of language is very similar to that of biological life. He suggests that there was originally just one spoken, very primitive, language and as the people who spoke it fanned out across the globe, the various languages evolved as separated communities formed. And in the process the languages became more complex and sophisticated, and evolved intricate features in their vocabulary and grammar that now seem to have little functional purpose, in a manner very analogous to biological systems.

The precise origin of spoken language is hard to pin down. McWhorter argues that it probably arose with the evolution of the ability to form complex sounds and roughly synchronous with the arrival of homo sapiens about 150,000 years ago. Others have suggested a more recent date for the origins of language, about 12,000-15,000 years ago, but pinning this date down precisely is next to impossible given that spoken language leaves no traces. What we do know is that written language began about 5,000 years ago

McWhorter points out that purely spoken languages evolve and change very rapidly, resulting in an extremely rapid proliferation of language leaving us with the 6,000 or so languages that we have now. It was the origin of writing, and more importantly mass printing, that slowed down the evolution of language since now the fixed words on paper acted as a brake on further changes.

He also makes an important point that the distinction between standard and dialect forms of languages have no hierarchical value and is also a post-printing phenomenon. In other words, when we hear people (say) in rural Appalachia or in the poorer sectors of inner cities speak in an English that is different from that spoken by middle class, college-educated people, it is not the case that they are speaking a debased form of 'correct' or 'standard' English. He argues that dialects are all there is or ever was, because language was always mainly a local phenomenon. There are no good or bad dialects, there are just dialects.

We can, if we wish, bundle together a set of dialects that share a lot in common and call it a language (like English or French or Swahili) but no single strand in the bundle can justifiably lay any intrinsic claim to be the standard. What we identify as standard language arose due to factors such as politics and power. Standard English now is that dialect which was spoken in the politically influential areas near London. Since that area was then the hub of printing and copying, that version of language appeared in the written form more often than other forms and somewhere in the 1400s became seen as the standard. The same thing happened with standard French, which happened to be the dialect spoken in the Paris areas.

McWhorter points out that, like biological organisms, languages can and do go extinct in that people stop speaking them and they disappear or, in some cases like Latin, only appear in fossilized form. In fact, most of the world's languages that existed have already gone extinct, as is the case with biological species. He says that rapid globalization is making many languages disappear even more rapidly because as people become bi-lingual or multi-lingual, and as a few languages emerge as the preferred language of commerce, there is less chance of children learning the less-privileged language as their native tongue. This loss in the transmission of language to children as their primary language is the first stage leading to eventual extinction. He points out that currently 96 percent of the world's population speaks at least one of just twenty languages, in addition to their indigenous language. These languages are Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portugese, Japanese, German, French, Punjabi, Javanese, Bihari, Italian, Korean, Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, and Vietnamese and thus these are the languages most likely to survive extinction. It is noteworthy that the population of India is so large and diverse that seven of these languages originated there, and two others (English and Arabic) are also used extensively in that country.

He also points out that languages are never 'pure' and that this situation is the norm. Languages cross-fertilize with other languages to form language stews, so that language chauvinists who try to preserve some pure and original form of their language are engaged in a futile task. For example, of all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary, more than 99 percent were originally obtained from other languages. However, the remaining few that originated in Old English, such as and, but, father, love, fight, to, will, should, not, from turn out to be 62 percent of the words that are used most.

McWhorter is a very good writer, able to really bring the subject to life by drawing on everyday matters and popular culture. He has a breezy and humorous style and provides lots of very interesting bits of trivia that, while amusing, are also very instructive of the points he wishes to make. Regarding the ability of language to change and evolve new words, for example, he explains how the word 'nickname' came about. It started out as an 'ekename' because in old English, the word 'eke' meant also, so that an 'ekename' meant an 'also name' which makes sense. Over time, though, 'an ekename' changed to 'a nekename' and eventually to 'a nickname.' He gives many interesting examples of this sort.

Those who know more than one language well will likely appreciate his book even more than me. It is a book that is great fun to read and I can strongly recommend to anyone who loves words and language.

POST SCRIPT: Whipping up war frenzy

Jon Stewart show how it is done.

October 17, 2007

Film shorts

There are some things that really annoy me when watching a film (or play).

The most annoying are when people act idiotically, not at all the way that normal people would. I described one such annoying plot device case earlier when I pleaded for no more daft women!

Another example is the absurd miscommunication device, where one person misunderstands the actions or motives of another person and because of this, endless complications ensue. This occurs in two versions. In one the person trying to explain some very important thing that would clarify everything has, for some reason, only a limited time to do so and either babbles incoherently or digresses so much or is so unclear that the other person goes off with the wrong impression. In the other, one person is trying to explain but the listener is so impatient or exasperated or in such a snit that she (I have noticed that it is usually a woman who does this) refuses to listen, either walking away or banging down the phone.

In both cases, a few moments of calm speaking and listening would have cleared up everything satisfactorily, but this does not happen because of these people's irritating mannerisms. My question is: Do real people ever behave like this? Have any of you ever been in such a situation? I cannot conceive of not even listening when someone is trying to explain something to me, especially if it is important. I may not agree with what is said but I cannot imagine slamming the phone down or otherwise closing the door on such communications before that person can even begin to speak.

Another plot device that annoys me is when people jump to idiotic conclusions. Although I like Shakespeare in general, two plays that really bug me are among those that are considered his greatest, Othello and King Lear. Whenever I read Othello, I always think that the title character acted like an idiot. How could he not see that Desdemona was a wonderful and faithful wife and that there must be something wrong in what Iago was implying? Why didn't he ask her a few simple questions that would have cleared up everything? I understand that Shakespeare was trying to show that jealousy can overcome love and reason and even sanity, but this just wasn't plausible. Sorry, Will, we need a rewrite.

Lear also strikes me as an idiot, so easily misled by flattery that he makes a series of disastrous decisions that lead to death and misery all round. What is amazing was that the three main people he misunderstood were his own daughters, people whose characters he would have been able to observe over many years. And yet, on the basis of a few statements, he dumps the nicest and most loyal daughter in favor of the two schemers. Was he some kind of absent father that he had no sense of the characters of his own children?

Jurassic Park has to be one of the most absurd films ever made. I don't mean the central scientific concept of someone finding a way to recreate dinosaurs from their DNA trapped in amber. That part if fine. Writers and filmmakers have to be allowed to be able to stretch the bounds of reality so that they can create a workable premise. And the special effects with dinosaurs were very well done. What really annoyed me about that film was how the characters behaved, completely at odds with any normal person's behavior.

For example, what does the person who has made an amazing, Nobel-prize winning quality scientific discovery by creating dinosaurs do? Announce in a press conference his spectacular result? No, he decides to build a dinosaur theme park in secret!. And despite hundreds of scientists and technicians and construction workers going in and out of the facility being built, it remains a secret. But that's not all. The owner then sends his fond niece and nephew on an unprotected train ride through the region where the deadly animals roam and sure enough, they get terrorized by the some vicious specimens. Wait, there's more! After making their escape and managing to get some rest by sleeping in a treetop, the children wake up to find a dinosaur at their head level looking at them. After their previous night's experience, you would think they would freak out. Instead, they calmly pat it on the head, somehow knowing that these particular animals are friendly. I cannot begin to list all the other things about Jurassic Park that really annoyed me.

And while I am on the topic of annoying things in films, I hate it when the credits continue well into the films. You get absorbed in the story and then they still break into it with more credits. One of the nice things about very old films is that they open with the credits, get them done in about thirty seconds, and then get on with the story.

Then there are actors who simply annoy me simply by their very presence. I cannot really explain why. Off the top of my head, here are a few: Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant, the later John Wayne when he stopped being an actor and became merely a macho symbol, Nicholas Cage, Renee Zellweger, and Tom Cruise. Seeing such people in the cast is enough to make me try and avoid the film.

There are other actors who I think are over-rated such as Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Scarlett Johansson. (I think I am in a distinct minority on this one!)

But there are also actors whom I like, whose names on the credits are enough to make me seriously consider watching a film even if I don't know much else about it: Burt Lancaster, Alec Guinness, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Peter Sellers, William Holden, Audrey Hepburn, Susan Sarandon, Cary Grant, John Cusack, Peter O'Toole, Michael Caine, Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Gregory Peck, Julie Christie, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Paul Newman, Peter Sellers, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Charlotte Rampling, Kevin Spacey, and Kevin Bacon.

All these lists are off the top of my head and I am sure I can add to them as other names strike me.

Those who like political films should see the excellent Warren Beatty film Bulworth (1998). The main plotline is far-fetched and the best parts of the film are the scenes about the underside of the political process, the powerful role of money, and how politicians pander to their various target audiences. Here's a nice clip from it.

Another good political film I saw recently was the fascinating documentary Street Fight (2005). Made by first-time filmmaker Marshall Curry, it tells the story of 32-year old Cory Booker's attempt in 2002 to unseat four-term incumbent Sharpe James as mayor of Newark, New Jersey. It is raw, bare-knuckle, down and dirty, street-level politics, with the 66-year old incumbent using all the power of the city against his young challenger. As a city council member, Booker had tried to tackle the serious issues of city hall corruption, crime, and drugs and in the process angered many powerful people who were benefiting from those things.

While the filmmaker's sympathies are clearly with Booker, James does not help his cause by deliberately shutting him out and very roughly too. If you see the film on DVD, make sure you watch the extra interview with the director as he discusses what happened in the years following that election.

The influential The Black Commentator website has strongly criticized Booker, arguing that he is completely in the pockets of rich, right-wing, white, power brokers who are pushing school vouchers and seeking to co-opt the next generation of black leadership to serve their needs. Whatever the merits of that charge, watch out for the name Cory Booker in national politics. I think we are going to hear a lot about him in the next 5-10 years.

October 16, 2007

Harry Potter and the supernatural

The release of each new Harry Potter book or film bring out of the woodwork those religious people who are disturbed by them and decide they need to spam everyone and try to make money from it as well.

I received a spam email following the release of Deathly Hallows that recycled old warnings about the subversive nature of the books and asking me to buy a video to help combat the Potter menace. It said:

Through Harry's world of sorcery [children] are learning the occultic tools -- occult visualization and soulish mind power, wands, brooms, spells and curses.

In this video, you will see how completely occult is the world of Harry Potter. After reading the Harry Potter books, millions of children will demand to see Warner Bros. new movie, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

Christian parents have faced a similar problem for years with the teaching of evolution in their public schools. They have responded by teaching their children that they cannot believe everything they are taught in school. Now, with the Harry Potter books on sorcery becoming part of public school curriculum, parents need to know enough about it to also teach their children that the spell-casting and other activities of Harry Potter are also forbidden territory. This video will help.

I have touched on this topic before and I said I that those religious people who objected to the Harry Potter books on the grounds that they seemed to promote witchcraft had it all wrong. The reasons for their objections should have been that the wizarding community seemed to be all atheists. The magic in the books does not involve any kind of spiritualism. Instead it seems to follow a prescribed set of rules and students learned about spells the way craftsmen learn the skills of a trade, by learning recipes and prescriptions and carefully choreographed series of actions. It is more like technology than dealing with the spiritual world.

What is notable about the books is the lack of any formal religion or religious practices, Satanic or otherwise. There are no ritualized practices of any kind. Since Christmas falls during the school year, its presence is acknowledged but it is clearly purely a Muggle phenomenon that happens in the background. As far as the wizarding community is concerned, Christmas only involves exchanging presents. I cannot recall any person in the books praying for anything or to anyone or invoking god, even when they were in the most dire straits and facing immense dangers and even death. Although some wizards were 'godparents' of others, these seemed to be just formal titles without any religious significance.

But there were many mentions of the afterlife and communications with people who were dead. As I have said before, the idea of an afterlife where our loved ones exist and whom we can hope to make contact with again is a much more appealing prospect than a god and one can see why it has such a strong hold on people's imaginations. It also makes for good drama. J. K. Rowling's mother, of whom the author speaks fondly, died while she was writing her first book in the series and Rowling mentions her regret that she did not know about the books. The strong themes of people being able to communicate with the dead under limited circumstances may have been a reflection of her own sense of loss for her mother's companionship.

The absence of god and the devil and other supernatural entities may reflect Rowling's own religious perspective but may also be due to the concrete needs of fantasy writers. I am not in general a fan of the fantasy genre but as commenter Shruti pointed out in response to a previous post, it seems that such writers have good reasons for keeping gods out of the picture. It is hard to mix fantasy used in novels with the even greater fantasy that is god.

In regular fiction, one can have characters who experience all kinds of problems because even deeply religious people are used to the fact that god does not intervene in everyday life, even though they continue to believe he can. So they don't ask why god did not step in (say) to stop some evil or save a major character from dying.

But when you are dealing with the world of magic, you have chipped away at the wall that separates the real world from the magical and then it is hard to explain why god is not playing an active role in the events. If wizards can use spells, then why isn't god the biggest, baddest wizard out there? Where is god while the forces of good and evil are battling each other on the fields of Hogwarts? It is much easier for the novelist to keep god out of the picture altogether. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there did not seem to be a god either, though I only saw the films and have not read the books. Perhaps those who are more familiar with the fantasy genre can help me out here and say if there are any fantasy writers who have a role for god in their books.

Whatever the reason, the absence of any forms of religion or religious observances in the Harry Potter books is quite striking. It would be an interesting study to see what influence these books have had on children's views of god, religion, and spirituality in general.

POST SCRIPT: Left brained or right brained?

I am not much of a fan of things that seem to provide quickie answers to complex questions but this one is fun. It shows a silhouette of a twirling dancer and whether you see her as turning clockwise or counterclockwise (looking from the top presumably) supposedly determines which of your brain hemispheres is dominant.

Curiously, when I first looked at it, she seemed to be going clockwise for a very brief moment but then suddenly switched to counter-clockwise. I could never recapture that original perception.

October 15, 2007

In praise of parodies

I like comedies. And within that genre of films, I particularly like parodies. The best ones are those that are based on clichés of particular genres or specific stories that are well known, since a successful parody depends crucially on the ability of the audience to immediately recognize allusions to the original

A parody idea is not hard to come up with. What is hard is to be able to sustain the conceit over the length of a film. Even in the written form, short article parodies are difficult (I know because I have tried and failed miserably) and only a skilled writer can pull it off. I often come across attempts at parodies that seemed to have started out as a single good idea but the writer could not sustain the conceit and it soon becomes painful to read. The ability to maintain a light tough and not to belabor the point is a skill that only a few seem to be able to master. Stephen Leacock and S. J. Perelman are two writers who were good at it. As a very young boy I read Perelman's Somewhere a Roscoe, a parody of the hard-boiled detective story, and I was hooked for life.

So here are some of my favorite film parodies. If you haven't seen any of them, you should check them out.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is a parody classic of Camelot. There are so many good scenes in it that it is hard to choose, so I went with the killer rabbit.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) is a superb parody of life in the time of Jesus. Here is one of the funniest scenes in it.

And since you can never have too much of Monty Python, here is another one from that same film.

Mel Brooks is undoubtedly the master of the film parody and has produced some of its finest examples. Brooks has the ability to insert a parody of one genre into a parody of another. In Robin Hood, Men in Tights (1993), one of the funniest scenes is where comedian Dom de Luise does a dead-on parody of the Marlon Brando role in The Godfather. Unfortunately, the only clip I could find of it was in German, so here is a different scene involving the title song.

In Spaceballs (1987), Mel Brooks took on the mighty Star Wars franchise.

In Blazing Saddles (1974), Brooks turned his attention to the western and showed his ability to use anachronisms to good comedy effect.

And of course, the monster horror film genre was ripe for Brooks' plucking with Young Frankenstein (1974).

Woody Allen scored a direct hit on the epic Russian psychological novel style of writers like Dostoyevsky with his wonderful Love and Death (1975), which to my mind is his best film.

A little-known but funny parody that I heard about just a month or so ago is Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981), in which George Hamilton stars as both Don Diego (the canonical Zorro) and Bunny Wigglesworth, his twin brother who was sent to England as a child and returns home just in time to substitute for his injured twin. Bunny has, shall we say, a more discerning taste in clothes than his brother and disdains the simple black outfits that he favors. In this scene, Ron Leibman playing the despotic Alcalde, starts hearing reports of Bunny/Zorro's exploits.

I had not thought of George Hamilton as a comedic actor, or even much of an actor at all and was pleasantly surprised at his ability to pull off camp comedy. I knew him as merely the famed possessor of the most perfect year-round tan, which made him a surprise choice to star as a creature of the night, the vampire Dracula in the parody Love at First Bite (1979), which was unfortunately rather uneven in quality.

I have not as yet come across good parodies of the James Bond series. Austin Powers seemed strained to me, too annoyingly caricatured, and I only watched the first one. The original Casino Royale (1967) brought together a whole series of famous actors and was a disaster. Even Peter Sellers and Woody Allen could not salvage a truly ghastly script. The only reason to watch this film is to see a colossal train wreck of a film, and the immense waste of talent.

Another genre that I have not seen a good parody of is the gangster film. It seems like The Godfather series needs a parody of its own, more than just a brief scene in Robin Hood, Men in Tights

Any suggestions for good parodies that I might have missed?

October 12, 2007

The case against religion

In the previous post. I argued that more education did not necessarily lead to less religion and that if one thought that its net effect on humanity was negative, one needed to more actively campaign against it. But others disagree. Even those who accept that religion has done some truly evil things might argue that the good that it does compensates (at least partially) and merits preserving it. The mere fact that it is false, it might be claimed, should not be sufficient to cause us to undermine it. They could point to children believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, that these are examples of false but benign beliefs. What is to be gained by destroying such innocent illusions?

But the reason that beliefs in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy are benign is because children are deliberately weaned away from such beliefs before they reach adolescence. If we did not deliberately do so, who knows what might happen? We might end up having wars with armies of the followers of Santa Claus battling with those of the Tooth Fairy. Having adults who are capable of causing great harm believing in magical false things is usually not benign. We are unfortunately all too aware of the truth of Voltaire's assertion "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities".

In a comment to a previous post, Corbin Covault argued that even though religion may be a human construct, it can still serve important functions that merit preserving it. He draws a comparison with government:

One could argue that both [religions and governments] are human social constructions. Both manifest in institutions which may give some great sources of benefit to societies and individuals, but both have also been great sources of destruction and oppression. Would it be fair to say that the argument that the "militant atheist" makes that the world would be better off without _all_ religions analogous to the argument that the anarchist would make that the world would be better off without any governments?

I think that we will all agree that religion can be the source of many good things and of many bad things. We will undoubtedly disagree on whether the net result is positive or negative. But the key question is not how the balance sheet between good and evil comes out for any particular institution, but whether that institution is the only one that provides those benefits, so that we have no choice but to also tolerate the evils that accompany it. With religion, I have argued before that every benefit claimed for it can be provide by other existing sources. If we get rid of religion, while we will lose both the good and the bad, my point was that we can regain every good thing lost using other means and institutions, so in the end we need only lose the bad things caused by religion.

The question then becomes whether we can say the same thing for government. If the answer is yes, then we should undoubtedly get rid of government but currently it seems like the answer is no. We know that there always exists a tension between the existence of governments and individual liberty. But we strike a deal, accepting the restrictions on personal liberty as the price we pay for peace and the benefits of community living. We struggle to define the proper balance between freedom and order. Although we currently seem to need some institutions of government, we are not committed to any one form. We are free to change them if they prove to be evil. We tend to deplore dictatorships and admire democracies and no particular government has any claim to divine sanction. There may come a time when people feel that no government at all is better.

A similar good-evil comparison can be made for science. Science has given us great benefits but has also been responsible for some terrible evils. No scientist can avoid the fact that we are, to some extent, complicit in the many evils done in its name.

My own physics research involved studying what happens when a high-energy photon strikes a nucleus and produces a short-lived sub-nuclear particle called a pi-meson. There is no obvious link between this and any weapons system, but that is deceiving. The whole field of study in which it is embedded, nuclear physics, is an integral part of weapons research. It is not inconceivable that someone else will come along in the future and find that my small and seemingly innocent contribution to the field is important in developing a component of a deadly weapons system. If it happens, I cannot claim complete innocence. Although I may have not intended my work to serve evil ends, the fact that it has the potential to do so is inescapable. No scientist can ever have clean hands.

While it is impossible for scientists to have a perfectly clear conscience, scientists are usually able to figure out rationalizations to justify their actions because the immediate goals of scientific research are usually to benefit humanity. Even those scientists who deliberately choose to work on things that are clearly destructive (the development of agents for biological and chemical warfare or more powerful bombs) usually can find some reason to square their consciences, by appealing to in-group/out-group thinking ("The enemies of my country/race/religion may also be developing these weapons and so I am doing this in self-defense and to protect humanity against a greater evil.").

This was the kind of thinking of many scientists who worked on the Manhattan project during World War II that resulted in the creation of the atomic bomb. There is no reason to think that they were any more evil than anyone else. In fact, I have met and spoken with Hans Bethe, the Nobel Prize winning physicist (for his work explaining the energy production in stars) who was the leader of the theory group on the project and instrumental in guiding and shepherding the many brilliant scientists who worked under him. Bethe struck me as a kind and gentle man, who after the war worked for peace and disarmament. Einstein was the same. Although they both advocated for the development of a nuclear weapons program prior to the war, and their own groundbreaking research was the basis for nuclear weapons, they were also consistently a voice for peace. And there is reason to think that the scientists working on the opposing German nuclear weapons program, led by another Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg, were doing so for the same reasons.

It is possible for society to decide to make a judgment that science is too dangerous to continue and to shut it down almost completely. If governments refuse to provide funding for research and for agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, modern science as we know it would cease to exist, because we could no longer maintain a professional class of scientists. Of course, the spirit of scientific inquiry will remain and there will be amateur scientists whose thirst for knowledge will drive them along. But we have to remember that the emergence of the professional scientist, someone paid primarily to do research, is a relatively new invention. In England, such people only came into being around 1850, with Charles Darwin's friends and colleagues Jacob Hooker and T. H. Huxley being two of the earliest. Darwin himself belonged to the earlier tradition of the amateur scientist who was independently wealthy enough to indulge what was essentially a hobby, or who had a job (clergyman or professor) that allowed them sufficient freedom and time to do so.

But in shutting down professional science, people would be aware that they would also be shutting themselves off from almost all the enormous benefits that science provides. And this is where the difference with religion arises. Although it can be argued that science and religion provide both benefits and evils, when it comes to science there is nothing else that we know that can be substituted to provide those benefits. We cannot keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater, so we make a Faustian bargain.

But in the case of religion, there is no benefit claimed by religion that cannot be provided by other institutions. The only real reason to continue supporting the idea of god is that it is true. Since there is no convincing empirical evidence at all in support of that proposition, religion becomes dispensable.

POST SCRIPT: Tortured logic

The Daily Show discusses the damage done to language by the 'war on terror'.

October 11, 2007

The effect of education on religion

Voltaire was stinging in his criticisms of religion in general and Christianity in particular. He provided his own definition of a Christian as follows: "A good-natured, simple fellow; a true lamb of the fold, who, in the innocence of his heart, persuades himself that he firmly believes unbelievable things that his priests have told him to believe, especially those he cannot even imagine. Consequently, he is convinced that three x's make fifteen, that God was made man, that he was hanged and rose to life again, that priests cannot lie, and that all who do not believe in priests will be damned without remission."

Voltaire was being sarcastic when he made the statement that Christians are necessarily 'good-natured' because elsewhere he makes clear that he knows that religious people are capable of incredible evil. But he may have genuinely thought that one had to be simple (in the sense of naïve) to believe in god because he viewed the whole concept of god as requiring one to believe preposterous things. As he said: "The son of God is the same as the son of man; the son of man is the same as the son of God. God, the father, is the same as Christ, the son; Christ, the son, is the same as God, the father. This language may appear confused to unbelievers, but Christians will readily understand it."

And to reiterate his view that to adopt religion involved the abandonment of reason, he said: "The truths of religion are never so well understood as by those who have lost the power of reasoning." (Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary (1764), taken from Jonathon Green, The Cassell Dictionary of Cynical Quotations.)

The authors of the current crop of atheist books have attacked religion head-on by showing how untenable the claims of religion are, and how antithetical to rational thought. I have argued before that there are no mitigating benefits for religion that cannot be obtained from other sources. Since people should have the right to believe anything they want, the practical question becomes: What is the best way of making the unappealing aspects of religion better known so that more people will voluntarily relinquish it?

Since the liberal intellectual tradition holds that education leads to critical thinking, the solution is thus seen to lie in more and better education, the idea being that this leads to more reasoning minds, which in turn will lead to greater skepticism towards beliefs that fail the tests of reason and evidence, and hence to the decline of religion.

But this may be too optimistic a view of the power of education. I am not so sanguine that education holds the key. I think Voltaire was wrong in his belief that only the unreasoning could believe in god. As I have repeatedly pointed out, smart people are quite capable of believing weird things and finding reasons to do so, provided the desire to do so is strong enough. So more education will not necessarily lead to less religion. In fact, a longitudinal study of 10,000 adolescents actually found the opposite effect, that those who did not go on to college had greater declines in attending services, in the importance or religion, and in disaffiliation from religion.

This result was not a surprise to me, despite the widespread critiques by some people that universities are liberal hothouses, indoctrinating students away from 'traditional' conservative values such as religion. As a teacher of many years, I have found laughably naïve the notion that college teachers have such power over student beliefs.

It is true that students are likely to encounter faculty who are, in general, less religious than the general public. An interesting analysis of religious beliefs in academia finds that "academics in the natural and social sciences at elite research universities are significantly less religious than the general population. Almost 52 percent of scientists surveyed identified themselves as having no current religious affiliation compared with only 14 percent of the general population."

But this may not be decisive. As I had said earlier, to some extent, the more education one has, the more one is able to find sophisticated reasons to hold on to whatever one wants to believe. As Michael Shermer says in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (2002, p. 283): "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons."

What more education (especially in college) does to student beliefs may depend on what the students' prior inclinations are. For those who arrive already doubting, the discovery in college that they are not alone, that there exist like minded students who share their views, and the general willingness of academia to treat doubt and skepticism as positive traits, could well speed them along the path to greater non-belief.

But for those who are determinedly faithful, college could provide them with better tools to defend their beliefs. Reason cannot easily overcome the will to believe. As Jonathan Swift nicely put it: "You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place."

So up to a point, more of traditional education actually aids belief, because much of it focuses on information and skills rather than deep learning. The point at which more education leads to disbelief is when people start really looking closely at evidence for beliefs, start trying to integrate different areas of knowledge into a coherent worldview, and begin to get in the habit of making reasoned judgments using incomplete knowledge. This becomes more likely to occur when students do more research-like activities because then the ability to form and defend judgments based on data and evidence and reason becomes paramount.

We see this in the fact that members of the National Academies of Science have far higher rates of disbelief in god than other scientists or the general public. "In a poll taken in 1998, only 7 percent of the members of the US National Academy of Sciences, the elite of American scientists said they believed in a personal God." (Victor Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis, p. 10.)

Charles Darwin is a good example of both aspects of this phenomenon. We know that he was religious in his youth and obtained a degree from Cambridge University in the sciences. At the time of his education, the prevailing view of life was special creation, that god specifically created species to make the fit into particular ecological niches. Nothing he learned at university dissuaded him from this belief and in fact he was strengthened in them and was considering a life as a clergyman. In his autobiography, he discusses how on his round the world voyage on the Beagle, the plants and animals and insects he saw in South America, seemed to challenge the view of special creation. In order to deal with this, he said he started inventing increasingly complex reasons to sustain his belief in special creation. He took this to such an extent that the sailors on the boat, although far less educated than him, found his explanations highly amusing. In other words, those much less educated than he could see the problems with the theory of special creation that he could not because not only did he not want to see them, he had the tools to explain them away.

But as he became more and more absorbed in his studies, went deeper and more global in his thinking, and tried to create an integrated theory to explain his findings, his religious beliefs just could not be sustained and he abandoned them completely, ceasing to believe not just in special creation, but in god as well.

The long-term solution to religion may not be more education but creating a climate where more doubt and skepticism are prevalent and acceptable. It is only then that education has something to work with. The current crop of high-profile books arguing against religion are creating just such a climate and are thus to be welcomed.

POST SCRIPT: Storms in tea cups

Lewis Black lets loose his frustration with political grandstanding over non-issues.

October 10, 2007

Why can't science and religion get along?

Much of the recent attacks on religion have come from those with a scientific background. But there are many atheist scientists (such as the late Steven Jay Gould) who have not wanted to criticize religion the way the current crop of atheists are doing. They have tried to find a way for science and religion to coexist by carving out separate spheres for religion and science, by saying that science deals with the material world while religion deals with the spiritual world and that the two worlds do not overlap. Gould even wrote an entire book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life based on that premise.

This is not a new argument. Such appeals from high profile individuals tend to recur whenever there is a science-religion flare-up, such as during the evolution controversy leading up to the 1925 Scopes trial concerning the teaching evolution in schools. Edward L. Larson in his book Summer for the Gods (1997) writes (p. 121-122):

When the antievolution movement first began in 1923 [James] Vance [pastor of the nation's largest southern Presbyterian church] and forty other prominent Americans including [Princeton biologist Edwin G.] Conklin, [American Museum of Natural History president Henry Fairfield] Osborn, 1923 [Physics] Nobel Laureate Robert Millikan, and Herbert Hoover, tried to calm the waters with a joint statement that assigned science and religion to separate spheres of human understanding. This widely publicized document describes the two activities as "distinct" rather than "antagonistic domains of thought," the former dealing with "the facts, laws and processes of nature" while the latter addressed "the consciences, ideals and the aspirations of mankind."

This argument, that the existence of god is something about which science can say nothing so scientists should say nothing, keeps appearing in one form or another at various times but simply does not make sense. Science has always had a lot to say about god, even if not mentioning god by name. For example, science has ruled out a god who created the world just 6,000 years ago. Science has ruled out a god who had to periodically intervene to maintain the stability of the solar system. Science has ruled out a god whose intervention is necessary to create new species. The only kind of god about which science can say nothing is a god who does nothing at all.

As Richard Dawkins writes (When Religion Steps on Science's Turf, Free Inquiry, vol. 18 no. 2, 1998 (pp. 18-9), quoted in Has Science Found God?, Victor J Stenger, 2001):

More generally it is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science's turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.

There is something dishonestly self-serving in the tactic of claiming that all religious beliefs are outside the domain of science. On the one hand, miracle stories and the promise of life after death are used to impress simple people, win converts, and swell congregations. It is precisely their scientific power that gives these stories their popular appeal. But at the same time it is considered below the belt to subject the same stories to the ordinary rigors of scientific criticism: these are religious matters and therefore outside the domain of science. But you cannot have it both ways. At least, religious theorists and apologists should not be allowed to get away with having it both ways. Unfortunately all too many of us, including nonreligious people, are unaccountably ready to let them. (my italics)

Victor Stenger in his book God:The Failed Hypothesis (p. 15) points out that the idea that science and religion occupy separate spheres is also in contradiction to actual practice: "[A] number of proposed supernatural or nonmaterial processes are empirically testable using standard scientific methods. Furthermore, such research is being carried out by reputable scientists associated with reputable institutions and published in reputable scientific journals. So the public statements by some scientists and their national organizations that science has nothing to do with the supernatural are belied by the facts."

Dawkins and Stenger make a strong case. So why are some scientists supportive of such a weak argument as that science and religion occupy distinct and non-overlapping domains? Stenger (p. 10) suggests a reason:

Nevertheless, most scientists seem to prefer as a practical matter that science should stay clear of religious issues. Perhaps this is a good strategy for those who wish to avoid conflicts between science and religion, which might lead to less public acceptance of science, not to mention that most dreaded of all consequences – lower funding. However, religions make factual claims that have no special immunity from being examined under the cold light of reason and objective observation.

Is that it? Are scientists scared of criticizing religion for fear of upsetting the gravy train that funds their research? That is a somewhat cynical view but not one that can be dismissed easily.

Another possible reason may be (as I argue in my book Quest for Truth) that scientists are simply sick of arguing about whether science is compatible with religion, find it a time wasting distraction from their research, and use this ploy as a rhetorical escape hatch to avoid the topic whenever it arises.

Yet another reason may be that scientists do not generally know (or even care) what other scientists' religious views are. A scientist's credibility depends only on the quality of the science that person does, and all that is required for good science is a commitment to methodological naturalism within the boundaries of one's area of research. A scientists' attitude towards philosophical naturalism is rarely an issue. Because of this lack of relevance of the existence of god to the actual work of science, scientists might want to avoid altogether the topic of the existence of god simply to avoid creating friction amongst their scientific colleagues. As I said before, the science community has both religious and non-religious people within it, so why ruffle feelings by bringing up this topic?

But while I think that it is a good idea to keep religion out of scientific discussions since god is irrelevant when one is interpreting experimental results or comparing theories, there is no reason why scientists should not speak out against religion in public life. If we think that religion is based on a falsehood, and that the net effect of religion in the world is negative, we actually have a duty to actively work for its eradication.

I think that Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789) gave the best reason for campaigning against religion when he explained why he did so:

Many men without morals have attacked religion because it was contrary to their inclinations. Many wise men have despised it because it seemed to them ridiculous. Many persons have regarded it with indifference, because they have never felt its true disadvantages. But it is as a citizen that I attack it, because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality, from which the interests of state policy can never be separated.

I agree with the Baron.

Next: Is more education the answer?

POST SCRIPT: Rationality and religion

"Rational arguments don't usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people." From another great little video clip from the TV show House.

October 09, 2007

Does religion play a uniquely useful role?

The recent appearance of best-selling books by atheists strongly criticizing religion has given rise to this secondary debate (reflected in this blog and the comments) as to what attitude atheists should take towards religion. Some critics of these authors (including fellow atheists) have taken them to task for being too harsh on religion and thus possibly alienating those religious "moderates" who might be potential allies in the cause of countering religious "extremism". They argue that such an approach is unlikely to win over people to their cause. Why not, such critics ask, distinguish between "good" and "bad" religion, supporting those who advocate good religion (i.e., those parts of religion that encourage good works and peace and justice) and joining with them to marginalize those who advocate "bad" religion (i.e., who use religion divisively, to murderous ends, to fight against social justice, or to create and impose a religion-based political agenda on everyone.)

It is a good question deserving of a thoughtful answer, which you are unlikely to find here. But I'll give it my best shot anyway.

Should religion be discouraged along the lines advocated by these books, by pointing out that evidence for god's existence does not rise above the level of evidence for fairies and unicorns, highlighting the many evils done in religion's name, and urging people to abandon religious beliefs because they violate science and basic common sense? Or should we continue to act as if it were a reasonable thing to believe in the existence of god, thereby tacitly encouraging its continuance? Or should religion be simply ignored? The answer depends on whether one views religion as an overall negative, positive, or neutral influence in society.

If you believe, as atheists do, that the whole edifice of religion exists on the false premise that god exists, then it seems logical to seek to eliminate religion. As believers in the benefits of rationality, we should try to eliminate false knowledge since nothing is gained by having people wallow in delusion. In fact, there is much to be gained by eliminating belief in the supernatural since that is the gateway to, and the breeding ground for, all manner of superstition, quackery, and downright fraud perpetrated on the gullible by those who claim to have supernatural powers or direct contact with god. I offer TV evangelists as evidence, but the list can be extended to astrologers, psychics, faith healers, spoon benders, mind readers, etc.

Those atheists who argue against doing this and favor the other two options (tacit support or ignoring) usually posit two arguments. The first point is really one of political strategy: that by criticizing religion is general we are alienating a large segment of people and that what we should preferably do is to ally ourselves with "good" religion (inclusive, tolerant, socially conscious) so that we can more effectively counter those who profess "bad" religion (exclusive, intolerant, murderous). The second is that religion, even if false, can also be a force for good as evidenced by the various religious social justice movements that have periodically emerged.

I have touched on the counterarguments to the first point earlier and will revisit it later. As to the second point, that religion can be justified on the basis that even if not true it provides other benefits that make it worthwhile, discussions around this issue usually tend to go in two directions: comparisons of the actions of "good" religious people versus that of "bad" religious people, or comparisons of the actions of religious people with that of nonreligious people. But such discussions are not fruitful because they cannot be quantified or otherwise made more concrete and conclusive.

I prefer to argue against the second point differently by pointing out that every benefit claimed for religion can just as well be provided by other institutions: Provides a sense of community? So do many other social groups. Do charitable works? So do secular charities. Work for social justice? So do political groups. Provide comfort and reassurance? So do friendships and even therapy. Provide a sense of personal meaning? So does science and philosophy. Provide a basis of morality and values? It has long been established that morals and values are antecedent to and independent of religion. (Does anyone seriously think that it was considered acceptable to murder before the Ten Commandments appeared?)

Now it is true (as was pointed out by commenter Cindy to a previous post) that religious institutions do provide a kind of ready-made, one-stop shop for many of these things and new institutions may have to come into being to replace them. Traditional groups like Rotary clubs and Elk and Moose Lodges, that mix community with social service, may be the closest existing things that serve the same purpose. The demise of religion may see the revival of those faltering groups as substitutes. Some countries have social clubs that people belong to that, unlike in the US, are not the preserve of only the very wealthy. England has the local pub that provides a sense of community to a neighborhood and where people drop in on evenings not just to drink but to meet and chat with friends, play games, and eat meals. The US has, unfortunately, no equivalent of the local pub. Bars do not have the family atmosphere that most pubs do, though coffee shops may evolve to serve this purpose. It may be that it is the easy convenience of religious institutions that inhibit people from putting in the effort to find alternative institutions that can give them the cultural and social benefits of religion without the negative of having to subscribe to an irrational belief.

I cannot think of a single benefit that is claimed for religion that could not be provided by other institutions. Meanwhile, the negatives of religion are unique to it. We see this in the murderous rampages that have been carried out over thousands of years by religious fanatics in dutiful obedience to what they thought was the will of god. I am not saying that getting rid of religion will get rid of all evil. But it will definitely remove one important source of it. The French philosopher and author Voltaire (1694-1778) had little doubt that religion was a negative influence and that we would be better off without it. He said: "Which is more dangerous: fanaticism or atheism? Fanaticism is certainly a thousand times more deadly; for atheism inspires no bloody passion whereas fanaticism does; atheism is opposed to crime and fanaticism causes crimes to be committed."

While the evils done in the name of religion are often dismissed as aberrations by religious apologists, they actually arise quite naturally from the very basis of religion. When you believe that god exists and has a plan for you, the natural next step is to wonder what that plan is, what god wants you to do. To answer this, most people look to religious leaders and texts for guidance. As political and religious leaders discovered long ago, it is very easy to persuade people to believe that god expects them to do things that, without the sanction of religion, would be considered outrageously evil or simply crazy. (As an example of the latter, recall the thirty nine members of the Heaven's Gate sect who were persuaded to commit suicide so that their souls could get a ride on the spaceship carrying Jesus that was behind the Hale-Bopp comet that passed by the Earth in 1997.)

The belief that god is solidly behind you and will reward you for obeying him has been shown to overcome almost any moral scruples or inhibitions concerning committing acts that would otherwise be considered unspeakable. The historical examples of such behavior are so numerous and well known that I will not bother even listing them here but just look at some of the major flashpoints in the world today, where the conflicts (even if other factors are at play) are undoubtedly inflamed by perceptions that people are acting on behalf of their god: the vicious cycle of killings in Iraq between the Shia and Sunni, between Israelis and Palestinians, between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland (now thankfully abating), and between Hindus and Muslim in India.

Just recently, certain Islamic groups have called for the death of a Swedish cartoonist who is supposed to have drawn a cartoon disrespectful to Islam. This is yet another example of how religion seems to destroy people's basic reasoning skills because for some religious people, it seems perfectly reasonable that they have to fight and kill to defend their god's honor.

The obvious response to this call to avenge god by killing the cartoonist is to point out how absurd it is that humans think they have to protect their god's interests by fighting and killing people. Do such believers think that god is some kind of mobster boss who has to have goons to carry out his wishes? Pointing this out would reveal the impotence of god and ultimately the absurdity of the idea of god. After all, any rational person should be able to see that if their god has the abilities they ascribe to him, he should be quite capable of taking care of himself. He can not only kill the offending cartoonist but even wipe the entire country of Sweden off the map to drive the lesson home that he will not be trifled with.

But our 'respect for religion' attitude prevents us from pointing out such an obvious truth, because it gets too uncomfortably close to revealing the absurdity of the underlying premise of religion. So instead what happens is some theologian is trotted out who argues that what their religious book is 'really' saying is that it is wrong to kill, despite the existence of other passages in the same religious books that have been used to argue to the contrary. And so we end up with yet another dreary debate between the so-called 'moderates' and 'extremists' about what god is 'really' like and what he 'really' wants from us.

This is why religion is bad. Not only is it false, it is dangerously false. Believing in such a false idea requires people to abandon rational thinking and makes even murderous intentions seem noble to them. If, as I argue, all the claimed benefits of religion can be provided by other institutions, and it has negatives that are solely its own creation, then it is hard to see what utility religion has that makes it worth preserving. I think that the conclusion is quite clear. The best selling atheist authors are, in the long run, doing us all a favor by directly confronting religion and showing that we would all be better off without it.

Next: Why can't we all get along?

POST SCRIPT: Silly talk shows

The Daily Show reminds me again why I long ago stopped watching the political analysis shows on TV.

October 08, 2007

Atheist/theist or naturalist/religious?

If one tries to categorize people by their beliefs about god, then there are many categories into which people fall (all definitions in quotes are from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary): the religious believe in the existence of a god who can and does intervene in the events of the universe; the deist is part of "a movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe"; the pantheist "equates God with the forces and laws of the universe"; the agnostic is "one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god"; and the atheist is one "who believes that there is no deity."

Most philosophical discussions about religion (and opinion polls that try to measure the prevalence of religious beliefs) tend to divide people along the theist-nontheist fault line, where a theist is one who believes "in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world" and nontheist consists of everyone else. If you divide people up this way, then the groups that I have labeled as religious, deists, and pantheists all end up on the theist side of the split; atheists fall on the nontheist; and agnostics straddle the divide.

While the theist-nontheist divide can lead to interesting discussions about important philosophical points, as a practical matter it usually goes nowhere, because there is no operational way of distinguishing between the deist, pantheist, agnostic, and atheist points of view.

The problem with the theist-nontheist division is that it depends on self-identification and all kinds of highly variable subjective factors come into play in deciding what label one assigns to oneself or to others. For example, almost all atheists will readily concede that the non-existence of god, like the non-existence of fairies and unicorns, cannot be proven and that therefore there is always the logical possibility that god exists. As a result, some atheists will prefer to describe themselves as agnostics, since the term atheist erroneously, but popularly, connotes the idea that such people know for certain that god does not exist.

Take the case of Charles Darwin. By the time he reached the age of forty, he was to all intents and purposes an atheist. The shift from belief to disbelief had been steady and inexorable. The more he learned about the laws of nature, the less credibility miracles and the doctrines of Christianity had for him. He considered the idea of a personal, benevolent, omnipotent god so illogical that he said it "revolts our understanding." Darwin wrote that he:

"gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as divine revelation." There was no smugness and no hastiness to his loss of faith; it happened almost against his will. "Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete." (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen, p. 245, my italics)

After he lost his faith, he had no doubts or anxiety about it but when pressed to give a label to his religious views he said, "The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain Agnostic." Darwin apparently shied away from the label "atheist" as being too aggressively confident, which went against his own cautious and non-confrontational personality, and he took refuge in the new word agnostic, which had been coined by his friend and colleague T. H. Huxley to meet the philosophical needs of just such people. I think many people who are functionally atheists share Darwin's unease with calling themselves that. When I tell people that I am an atheist, for example, they often try to persuade me that I must "really" be an agnostic since I readily concede that I cannot be sure that there is no god.

Similarly, many people probably choose to call themselves deists or pantheists, not because they have any evidence for the existence of the deity, but because they seem to feel that if there is no god at all then there is no meaning to life. Since they desire their life to have meaning, the idea of there being a god is comforting and appealing to them and they seek to find some way to hold on to it, despite the lack of evidence. Deism and pantheism offers such an option without also having to accept the absurdities that formal religions require, like infallible texts and miracles. It allows one to have a god to give one's life meaning for those who need such an external source, while not compromising one's belief that the world behaves in accordance with natural laws.

I feel that a more operationally useful classification scheme would to sort people according to their answer to the question "Do you think that god in any way intervenes in the course of events contrary to natural laws?" In other words, we should ask what their views are on what people normally consider miracles. Those answering in the affirmative would be classified as religious, and those answering in the negative (atheists, deists, and pantheists) would be grouped under the umbrella term naturalist, with the name being selected because all these people see the world operating solely under the influence of natural laws. Most agnostics, other than those who are doggedly determined to not commit themselves, should also be able to answer this question definitely and decide which of the two groups they feel most closely fits them.

(If agnostics are still not sure how to answer, a more concrete version of the question might be to ask them: "If the person whom you respect and trust the most and know to be very religious said that god had spoken to him or her and had wanted a message conveyed to you to give away all your money and possessions to charity, would you do it?" If you do not think this could have happened and refuse the command with no hesitation, then you are operationally a naturalist. If you say you would do it or are not sure what you would do, then you are effectively a religious person. I suspect that most agnostics will fall into the naturalist camp, since agnostics do not usually expect god to actually do anything concrete.)

This kind of naturalist-religious divide provides a more useful classification scheme since it is based on whether there is any observable difference in the behavior of people as a consequence of their beliefs, rather than on their beliefs themselves. The members of the naturalist group (the atheist, the deist, the pantheist, and most agnostics) all live their lives on the assumption that god does not intervene in life in any way. None of them pray or ask for god to intervene. (Those who did pray would be switched from into the religious group because then they effectively believe in an interventionist god.) As I have said many times before, what people say they believe is of little consequence except insofar as it influences their actions.

So the religious-naturalist divide based on the answer to the question "Do you think that god in any way changes the course of events contrary to natural laws?" is, to my mind, a much better measure of the level of belief in god than the theist-atheist divide. It would be nice to see polls conducted on this question. My suspicion is that there are far more naturalists (i.e. functional unbelievers) than one might suspect.

Next: Should atheists seek to undermine religion or does religion play a valuable role that makes it worth preserving?

POST SCRIPT: Sputnik trivia

Last week saw the fiftieth anniversary of the launching into space by the Soviet Union of the satellite Sputnik, an event that galvanized the US space program. In 1999, a nice film called October Sky was released based on the true story of a group of high school students in a small mining town in West Virginia who were inspired by Sputnik to build rockets on their own. The film was based on the memoir Rocket Boys of one of the boys Homer Hickam, who later did become a rocket scientist for NASA.

A curious feature of this story is that the name October Sky is an anagram of the name Rocket Boys.

October 05, 2007

Atheism and meaning

People often think that atheists do not have a life affirming philosophy. They have sometimes taken the quote by prominent atheist Richard Dawkins (Scientific American November 1995, p. 85) that "The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference" to argue that atheism leads to a philosophy of hopelessness and despair. I have heard several talks by intelligent design creationism advocate Michael Behe and he repeatedly uses the quote to get a laugh at the expense of atheism by saying that Dawkins must be a real downer at parties. But anyone who has seen interviews with Dawkins and read his writings will come away with the contrary impression, that he is a witty, courteous, and engaging man with a mischievous sense of humor. One can well imagine him livening up any party. Dawkins was merely making a factual observation about the nature of the universe, saying that it is futile to try and obtain our meaning and purpose externally from the universe, although we can observe it with awe and wonder. We can, and should, construct meaning and purpose for our lives.

The idea that atheists "suffer" from a "lack of meaning" is a curious preoccupation of religious apologists. For example, a Catholic priest called Jonathan Morris talks with sympathetic interviewers on Fox News and trots out the same old tired and discredited arguments for the existence of god, including the eye. Although he seems to have very little understanding of science himself, he has the audacity to suggest that people like Richard Dawkins don't know science. He also suggests that atheists suffer because they know that "the world makes a whole lot more sense if god does exist". Morris does not, of course, provide any evidence that atheists are more unhappy than believers.

In actual fact, the world make a lot more sense if you think that god does not exist. As this latest series of posts has repeatedly pointed out, it is religious people have to repeatedly resort to the MWC ('mysterious ways clause') when confronted with the numerous awkward contradictions that are raised in trying to understand a world that has a god in it.

Every atheist I know is relieved that they don't have to try and make sense out of absurd religious doctrines. When atheists do have regrets about the non-existence of god it is usually because it precludes the possibility of meetings one's dead loved ones again in the afterlife or, as philosopher Colin McGinn says, because it means that the people who do real evil and create suffering will likely escape punishment in this world. I admit that it would be nice to think that such people will get their comeuppance in the next. But the evidence is so overwhelmingly against the existence of god and life after death that to cling to it is to indulge in escapism. In the long run it is better not to take refuge in illusions but accept reality and use that knowledge as a spur to work for peace and justice in this world.

Religious people are given a philosophy of life and a sense of meaning packaged in with the religious teaching they imbibe from childhood. Atheism, on the other hand, is not itself a philosophy, any more than disbelief in fairies or unicorns (afairyism? aunicornism?) are philosophies. Since atheists do not have off-the-shelf philosophies and meaning that they can adopt as a package the way that religious people do, they have to create their own. Thus atheists have to do some reflective introspection to construct a philosophy of life, and in that sense, being an atheist requires a certain level of intellectual effort. Most naturally tend to be attracted to versions of humanist and existential philosophies. Ethicist Peter Singer in his book Writings on an Ethical Life (2000) outlines some ideas about what kinds of meanings and moral and ethical values an atheist might adopt. (I hope to write more about these some day).

That search for meaning in the absence of god can produce wonderful results. In the British TV program The Root of All Evil, the writer Ian McEwan says:

We are the very privileged owners of a brief spark of consciousness and we therefore have to take responsibility for it. We cannot rely, as Christians or Muslims do, on a world elsewhere, a paradise to which one can work towards and maybe make sacrifices, or crucially make sacrifices of other people. We have a marvelous gift, and you see it develop in children, this ability to become aware that other people have minds just like your own and feelings that are just as important as your own. And this gift of empathy seems to me to be the building block of our moral system.

If you have a sacred text that tells you how the world began or what the relationship is between this sky god and you, it does curtail your curiosity. It cuts off a source of wonder. The loveliness of the world in its wondrousness is not apparent to me in Islam or Christianity or the other major religions.

Richard Dawkins adds:

By disclaiming the idea of a next life we can take more excitement in this one. The here and now is not something to be endured before eternal bliss or damnation. The here and now is all we have, an inspiration to make the most of it. So atheism is life affirming in a way religion can never be. Look around you. Nature demands our attention, begs us to explore, to question. Religion can provide only facile, unsatisfying answers. Science, in constantly seeking real explanations, reveals the true majesty of our world in all its complexity. People sometimes say "There must be more than just this world, than just this life." But how much more do you want?

Atheists have one huge advantage over religious people that more than compensates for the fact that they are not handed a philosophy of life by religion. It is that they do not have to deal with all the intractable logical problems that belief in god entails and for which religious believers have to repeatedly invoke the MWC and shut down further investigations. They are free to pursue intellectual inquiry with no restrictions. Unlike religious believers, on the road to increased knowledge they do not have to obey signs that cordon off some areas saying "No admittance by order of religion". They are free to go anywhere and explore anything.

And that is a wonderfully liberating feeling.

POST SCRIPT: War crimes

Juan Cole analyzes the recently revealed minutes of a meeting prior to the invasion of Iraq between Spanish president Aznar and George Bush where it is made clear that Bush, despite his public statements to the contrary at that time, was determined to attack Iraq come what may and may have even rejected an offer by Saddam Hussein to flee Iraq. Cole argues that this is further evidence of Bush having committed the "war crime of the century" by initiating an unprovoked invasion of another country.

October 04, 2007

More religious needles in scientific haystacks

The arguments that I gave before against taking anthropic arguments seriously apply with even greater force when it comes to the whole intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement, whose advocates argue that a very few biochemical processes could not have come into being except by the actions of god and thus this is evidence of god.

If god exists but did not want to give us evidence because he wants us to believe purely on faith, then he surely would not have created the cases used by IDC advocates as examples of his interventions in the evolutionary process. On the other hand, if he wanted to show us he exists, he could have done so directly by stopping the Earth's rotation or something dramatic like that. Instead, we are asked to believe that god wants to give us evidence that he exists but for some reason chooses to provide evidence that is so subtle and ambiguous that it takes professional biochemists to even get a glimpse of it. If that is true, maybe we should abolish the current priesthood and create a new Church of Biochemistry with IDC advocate like Michael Behe as the BioPope, since only biochemists can see god and it was Behe who first saw him.

Although the IDC movement seemed to have died after the Dover trial fiasco, Michael Behe has apparently written a new book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits to Darwinism trying to resuscitate the corpse. Jerry Coyne (professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago), in his review the book says the following:

What has Behe now found to resurrect his campaign for ID? It's rather pathetic, really. Basically, he now admits that almost the entire edifice of evolutionary theory is true: evolution, natural selection, common ancestry. His one novel claim is that the genetic variation that fuels natural selection -- mutation -- is produced not by random changes in DNA, as evolutionists maintain, but by an Intelligent Designer. That is, he sees God as the Great Mutator.

Coyne goes on to clarify an important misconception about the meaning of the word "random" as used in natural selection:

What we do not mean by "random" is that all genes are equally likely to mutate (some are more mutable than others) or that all mutations are equally likely (some types of DNA change are more common than others). It is more accurate, then, to call mutations "indifferent" rather than "random": the chance of a mutation happening is indifferent to whether it would be helpful or harmful.

I haven't read Behe's new book but if Coyne's description of its central idea (that the role of god (aka "intelligent designer") is to create appropriate mutations so that they are not random but are designed to advance evolution towards a particular goal), then this is not even a new idea. This was proposed in the 19th century by eminent scientists such as Asa Gray, Charles Lyell, St George Mivart, and Richard Owen soon after Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. (Darwin: The Life of a Tortured Evolutionist Adrian Desmond and James Moore, p. 545). They, like Behe, were religious and were disturbed by the fact that Darwin's theory that random mutations and natural selection were sufficient to explain nature seemed to make god superfluous. They too were anxious to find something for god to do. But at least in their defense, they lived before the discovery of genes and DNA as the mechanism for inheritance and the source of mutations. The flowering of Darwinian thinking known as the neo-Darwinian synthesis came long after they were dead. Behe has no such excuse.

What underlies all these people's misgivings about evolution is that it seems to deny some special quality for human beings. They seem to be able to accept evolution for everything else but when it comes to humans think there must be some miraculous spark that is responsible for us. If there is no special plan for humans, then life for them will have no meaning.

But there is really no basis for this belief that we play any special role in the cosmos. What is remarkable is how inhospitable the universe is to human life. As Richard Dawkins, says (Stenger, p. 71, and Scientific American November 1995, p. 85) "The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."

If god does exist and humans are special in his sight, then he seems to have been extraordinarily wasteful by making, as far as we know, only this tiny Earth inhabitable, and creating enormous amounts of matter and space that we cannot reach or occupy. It seems like he really does not like us all that much and has essentially made us prisoners, destined to live forever in a tiny corner of the universe, with no chance of escape.

Next: Atheism and meaning.

POST SCRIPT: Remembering the Little Rock Nine

Last week was the fiftieth anniversary of the integration of Little Rock schools. This moving article profiles the story of one of them, Elizabeth Eckford, whose face was captured in an indelible image of that tumultuous day.

October 03, 2007

Fine-tuning arguments for god

Religious people sometimes complain that scientists do not take their arguments for god seriously. I think that the opposite is true, and that scientists have gone out of their way to argue within the narrow framework set up by religious believers, when it is the whole premise that should be rejected.

Take, for example, the so-called anthropic principle/fine tuning argument that goes roughly as follows: We know that the conditions on Earth are conducive to the creation of life. Small changes in initial conditions of the universe would likely have made life impossible. Furthermore, the laws of physics and the associated fundamental constants seem to have just the right values to enable life to exist. Such 'fine tuning' is highly unlikely to have occurred by chance and thus points to the existence of a god who must have chosen those values in order to allow for life as we know it to come into being.

Some scientists have argued against god while staying within this framework, saying that fine-tuning does not imply the existence of god. After all, we don't know whether other and different forms of life exist on undiscovered planets in this vast universe. Changing the laws and constants may simply mean that different forms of life have come into being that were suitable for those constants on other planets. Others have pointed out that the fine-tuning argument rests on what happens when you change only one parameter slightly while keeping all the rest fixed. Victor Stenger points to studies (God: The Failed Hypothesis, p. 148) that show that if you allow all the constants to change simultaneously, even by orders of magnitude, then you can still construct cosmologies in which stars, planets, and intelligent life can plausibly arise.

The willingness of scientists to do all this work shows how far they are willing to bend over backwards to accommodate religious arguments. So rather than scientists disrespecting religion, people like Stenger and Dawkins are actually granting it excessive respect by to treating these technical questions seriously when the big conceptual questions expose the silliness of the whole premise.

I have never understood the appeal of the anthropic/fine-tuning argument for god. Think for a moment what it requires us to believe. We are asked to believe that god first created humans (or at least had the idea of what humans should be like), an organism that needed very special conditions (such as oxygen and water) in order to exist. God then had to solve the problem of how to create a planet that had the ingredients to support the existence of the preplanned humans, and then had to fine tune everything else in this vast universe to enable that planet to come into being a long time after he triggered the big bang. We are being asked to believe, in effect, that the entire universe was reverse-engineered by god to meet the needs of humans as currently exist.

Reverse engineering is what we mere mortals have to do because we have no choice. We have to take the universe and life on Earth as given, and the best we can do is try and figure out how they got to be that way. But why would god have to do this? If he was the original designer, present right at the beginning, surely it would have been easier for him to design humans who were robust enough to be able to survive in all kinds of environments. Why would he needlessly box himself in, as the anthropic/fine-tuning seems to imply?

As Stenger astutely points out (p. 154) "In fact, the whole argument from fine-tuning ultimately makes no sense. As my friend Martin Wagner notes, all physical parameters are irrelevant to an omnipotent God. "He could have created us to live in hard vacuum if he wanted to." "

POST SCRIPT: George Bush, comedy writer

Some time ago, President Bush famously asked: "Is our children learning?" Well, he now has the answer.

October 02, 2007

The needle of god in the scientific haystack

In an earlier post, I spoke about studies that looked at claims that god answered prayers. Some of these studies were done by physicians and scientists who were themselves religious, and who presumably would have been immensely pleased if they could have found a positive effect. In fact, as Victor Stenger points out in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis, the idea that scientists are somehow conspiring to suppress evidence of god's existence (something strongly suggested by intelligent design creationists) is strange. A lot of scientists are religious and nothing would please them more than to find scientific justification for their beliefs. Furthermore, even if you were not religious, it would be very exciting to find evidence of god. Not only would it open up vast new areas of research, you can bet that Congress and foundations would open up their checkbooks and generously fund efforts to further identify the way that god acts in the world.

I myself am a little bemused by these efforts by some scientists to find statistical needles in the haystack for god's presence. I understand that when a hypothesis is raised, scientists instinctively think in terms of setting up research protocols in such a way that they can use statistical tests of significance to see if a positive result has occurred. So when someone claims that prayer can lead to healing, the instinctive reaction of a good scientist is to design a double-blind study to test that hypothesis. But stepping back and viewing the big picture, it just does not make logical sense to me.

The reason is as follows. The MWC ('mysterious ways clause') is either true or false; either god wants to reveal his presence to us or he does not. If it is true and god does not want to let us know about his existence, then he would surely rig the results of any tests like the prayer ones so that the results would come out negative. If the MWC is false and god does want to reveal to us that he exists, then he does not need to do so in a labored way such that only double-blind clinical tests show effects at the boundaries of the significance level. All god would have to do is to do something openly like stopping the Earth's rotation.

So people who invoke the MWC as a way of explaining why god does not reveal himself should actually be hoping for negative results from these kinds of prayer experiments so that their beliefs are consistent. In other words, although they believe that god does answer prayers, when experiments like this are done, those who depend on the MWC to defend their belief in the absence of evidence should hope that god would either ignore the prayers in the experimental groups or answer them carefully and selectively in such a way that the experimenters always find no evidence of god's presence. Otherwise, if statistically significant positive results turn up, it looks like god is not smart enough to thwart the experimenters from revealing his presence.

Of course, one can always create a kind of super-MWC narrative where god has decided to simply tease us with occasional tantalizing glimpses of his existence that can be seen only at the p=0.05 level of statistical significance, so as to keep us in a permanent state of uncertainty. Why anyone would want to believe in such a god is beyond me.

Religious people can invoke the MWC to explain why we don't see direct evidence of god. But then they should not advance fine-tuning or anthropic principle or intelligent design creationism arguments as proofs and evidences of god.

Either god wants to reveal himself or not. Which is it?

POST SCRIPT: Alan Greenspan, comedy genius

Tom Tomorrow exposes the role that Alan Greenspan played in causing the present subprime mortgage collapse and other disasters.

October 01, 2007

Ahmadinejad at Columbia

The "introduction" that Columbia University's president Lee Bollinger gave the leader of Iran after the university had invited him to speak there has attracted much attention. Writing in the Nation, Jayati Vora says:

In his statement, combative and unduly vicious, Bollinger accused his invited guest of being nothing more than a "petty and cruel dictator," of having a "fanatical mindset." He claimed that this exercise was valuable in knowing one's enemies and understanding "the mind of evil."

It was an extraordinarily rude display by the Columbia president. If you invite someone, anyone, to speak, it is because you feel that he or she has something to say that is worth listening to, even if you do not agree. The very minimal courtesy that one should extend is to listen to that person and afterwards, if you disagree, to point out the points of disagreement. It was left to Ahmadinejad to teach Bollinger proper manners when he said in his remarks "In Iran, when you invite a guest, you respect them."

To give a preemptive insulting tongue-lashing full of name-calling to an invited guest is a sign of boorishness, unworthy of anyone let alone the president of a prestigious university. It is almost a universal principle of hospitality that one never insults a guest in one's home. Columbia University and the US were diminished by Bollinger's actions. The people who have been desperately trying to demonize Iran as a prelude to starting yet another war might have cheered his actions, and Bollinger's words reveal the extent to which he wants to curry favor with that latter group.

Bollinger also said, remarkably, that he doubted that Ahmadeinejad had the "intellectual courage" to answer his questions. This was despite the fact that Ahmadinejad had agreed to appear before an unscreened audience in a country in which he has been demonized and which is in the process of being whipped up into a frenzy to attack his own. He was even willing to take questions from an audience which he had to know would be hostile to him, in a public place in full view of the media, a sign that he was willing to be confronted in the normal rough-and-tumble of political discourse.

In this respect Ahmadinejad showed far more "intellectual courage" than either Bush or Cheney who in their own country never speak anywhere unless there are no questions or without a carefully screened audience that has been prompted to either praise them effusively or ask softball questions. Even people who demonstrate and protest or wear t-shirts with antiwar or anti-Bush messages are either arrested or not allowed within sight of Bush or Cheney, as if they would faint at the sight, like the clichéd Victorian women when someone says "damn" or "hell" in their presence. How would Bollinger describe Bush and Cheney, I wonder? Would he have the "intellectual courage" to ask them tough questions or say what he thinks of them?

But we don't have to speculate about how Bollinger might act. His willingness to follow the official party line was seen when he hosted Pakistani President Musharraf, a strong Bush ally, in 2005. This is how Bollinger introduced him:

Rarely do we have an opportunity such as this to greet a figure of such central and global importance. It is with great gratitude and excitement that I welcome President Musharraf and his wife, Sehbah Musharraf, to Columbia University. . . President Musharraf is a leader of global importance and his contribution to Pakistan’s economic turnaround and the international fight against terror remain remarkable - it is rare that we have a leader of his stature at campus,"

Who is this person of such "stature"? This is how the BBC profiles him:

General Pervez Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 which was widely condemned and which led to Pakistan's suspension from the Commonwealth until 2004. . . In 2002 General Musharraf awarded himself another five years as president, together with the power to dismiss an elected parliament. The handover from military to civilian rule came with parliamentary elections in November 2002, and the appointment of a civilian prime minister.

General Musharraf has retained his military role, reneging on a promise to give up his army post and to become a civilian president.

Its pretty clear that it is Musharraf who is an unsavory military dictator, someone who has no time for democracy and ruthlessly arranges the murder of people who cross him, while Ahmadinejad is actually an elected president. Yet Bollinger referred to the former as a "leader" and the latter as a "dictator".

Vora was also at that earlier event:

On each of our seats was a pamphlet with a brief history of the leader. I was astonished to find that, according to his biography, Musharraf "assumed the office of chief executive of Pakistan in October 1999." There was no mention of the coup through which Musharraf seized power. Not once did Bollinger refer to the military man, who had overthrown the elected government and then refused to hold elections as promised, as a dictator--a word he seemed to have no problem using to describe Ahmadinejad. The question of how Musharraf "assumed office" was delicately avoided, a diplomatic skill that has clearly been forgotten in these two intervening years. No one seemed curious to know how Musharraf's rhetoric about democracy fit in with his continued reign as a dictator--at least, no one with access to a mike.

In fact, it was the audience questions at Columbia that exposed the weakness of the Iranian leader. When he responded to a question by saying that Iran had no homosexuals, he revealed his extreme homophobia to the world. Bollinger would have been well-advised to have merely given a pro-forma introduction and let the questioners take the lead in showing Ahmadinejad's weaknesses. Bollinger's attacks only strengthened Ahmadinejad's image at home and abroad, and increased the perception that Americans are uncouth and uncivilized and do not practice the basic elements of courtesy.

Jon Stewart has the correct attitude to Bollinger's remarks. In fact, Bollinger could learn a lot from Stewart about how to treat guests. Stewart interviewed Musharraf a year or so ago and then President Evo Morales of Bolivia just last week. He treated them pretty much the same although Musharraf is a ruthless military dictator determined to hold on to power while Morales is the first person of indigenous origins to be elected to the highest office in his country in Latin America and has pushed through sweeping reforms to benefit the poor of that country. ((By the way, note the amazing skill of Morales' simultaneous translator who is able to listen to new words while speaking the translated words that he had heard a few seconds earlier.)

As a footnote, it should be noted that Ahmadinejad also had a cordial meeting with a group of rabbis in New York and visited Bolivia and Venezuela after leaving the US, where he was warmly greeted in both countries.

POST SCRIPT: Please leave them alone!

What do Britney Spears and General David Petraeus have in common? Both have had "fan" videos protesting the way they have been treated.

Here's the Britney fan video:

And here's the Petraeus "fan" video:

Of course, the "Leave General Petraeus alone" video is a parody of the other. I originally thought that the Spears video was a piece of theater or performance art, but it seems that it represents the real feelings of a true fan called Chris Crocker.