Entries for June 2008

June 30, 2008

2001: A Space Odyssey

The American Film Institute recently ranked the top ten films in each of ten genres. All such 'best of' rankings are, of course, just for fun and meant to provoke vigorous debate about films that did not make the cut as well as the unworthy ones that did. They are not meant to be taken more seriously than that. I was puzzled, however, as to why comedies were not included as a separate genre, the closest category being the vaguer 'romantic comedies.' The omission of musicals as a genre was also puzzling. Maybe those lists will come out later.

I had only two major objections. I was shocked that Walt Disney's Jungle Book did not even make it into the list of best animations, even though to my mind it is easily the best of that genre, and one of my favorite films in any genre. That favorite of film critics Pulp Fiction of course made the list in the gangster category, although I hated the film, with its gratuitous violence and racially offensive language. I vowed never to see a Quentin Tarantino film again after that.

It turns out that I have seen a lot of the top 100 films (63), a sign of a happily wasted life. I recall one year when I was about 16 when I kept a log of the all the films I had seen that calendar year. I counted over one hundred, or on average one every three days, all in the movie theater. I was able to do this because the theater was walking distance from my home and the manager was a friend of my father and gave us a pass to see films free. Since my parents did not stop me from this indulgence as long as I was keeping up with my schoolwork, I saw almost every film that was shown. I have to admit that I saw a whole lot of lousy films. Time seems much more precious to me now and so I am much more choosy about what films I watch.

I have seen all ten of the top animations listed by the AFI. The other genres that I have seen most of were westerns (8), mystery (8), and courtroom dramas (7), while the least was fantasy (4).

I have seen all of the #1 ranked films except for The Searchers in the western category, which I plan to see soon, and City Lights in the romantic comedy category. I have always been a fan of good westerns, many of which had strong stories and characters and promoted values of honor and justice.

While one can quibble with the top rankings in each genre, the one film whose #1 will be unquestioned is 2001: A Space Odyssey in the science fiction category.

I recall seeing it in a wide-screen theater when it was first released in 1968 and it stunned me with its brilliance. My impression of it was so vivid that I did not want to see it again on the small screen using videotape or DVD. Instead I waited and waited for it to be re-released on the big screen, to capture again the awe of space that it inspired. There had been rumors of this being done in 2001 but that did not occur. I then thought that it might happen this year on its 40th anniversary but when that did not seem likely to happen, decided to give up and watch the DVD.

There is always danger in re-watching a film that one has fond memories of from the distant past, the fear that one will be disappointed. 2001 is not one of those films. Watching it again, even on a small screen, was a wonderfully rewarding experience. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke combined to make one of the truly great films of all time, something that lifted science fiction films from cliché-ridden, quasi-horror, gimmicky films with cartoon-like aliens creatures into a true work of art.

What impressed me is how well the film stood up 40 years later. Not only did the science still remain credible, the special effects were also wonderful, which is amazing when you consider that Kubrick did not have the benefit of computer graphics, and all the visual effects had to be captured directly on film.

The film may not appeal to modern filmgoers, jaded by the action fantasies of films like Star Wars. In 2001, the plot is simple and there is no frantic action, no explosions, no shoot outs with laser guns, no light sabers, no love story, no sex, not even human conflict. 2001 played down these traditional film staples. In fact, all the actors seemed to be deliberately underplaying their roles, leaving the enigmatic computer HAL 9000 that runs the spaceship as the most interesting character. And yet, all these things that sound like negatives actually combine to make the film utterly engrossing.

Although 2001 grabbed the imagination of two young boys George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as to the tremendous possibilities of science fiction film making, their own films in this genre went off in different, and in my view, inferior directions.

2001 is a highly visual film, almost ballet-like with its minimal dialogue. The first half-hour is totally word-free, leading up to one of the most memorable visual transitions in the history of filmmaking. The last half-hour is also wordless. Kubrick does not rush scenes or have frequent jump cuts, exploiting the seemingly slow pacing and the ambient sounds of breathing to capture the silence and immensity of space. The attention to detail of how things work in space (how people can walk when weightless, how to simulate weak gravity on a spaceship, how to eat and drink, the difficulty of using toilets, etc.) gives the film a scientific credibility and timelessness that will ensure that it remains the top film for the next hundred years.

The film was not well received when it first came out. Its measured pacing bored some who were used to the action clichés of the older films in this genre and the famous enigmatic ending confused the general public as to what was going on. But science fiction fans had hours of fun debating what it all meant.

I also recently watched another science fiction film that I had never heard of previously, and that was Colossus: The Forbin Project which also deals with a computer that decides to take control, this time on Earth. The film was interesting mainly because of its probing, like 2001, of what might result if a computer becomes a truly intelligent, self-aware, self-learning device, and raises the notion of the nature of consciousness and whether computers will be able to create it. The excellent website Machines Like Us probes just these issues and its editor was the one who tipped me off to the existence of this film.

Watching Colossus so soon after the re-watching of 2001 was perhaps a mistake. Although the ideas the former film explored were intriguing, the quality of the filmmaking was nowhere close to that of the latter. The execution of the idea needed the genius of a Kubrick to really do it justice.

If you have never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, you have missed a treat. It is a landmark in filmmaking.

POST SCRIPT: How to avoid discussing the election

June 27, 2008

The difference between human and other animal communication

In his book The Language Instinct (1994) Steven Pinker pointed out two fundamental facts about human language that were used by linguist Noam Chomsky to develop his theory about how we learn language. The first is that each one of us is capable of producing brand new sentences never before uttered in the history of the universe. This means that:

[A] language cannot be a repertoire of responses; the brain must contain a recipe or program that can build an unlimited set of sentences out of a finite list of words. That program may be called a mental grammar (not to be confused with pedagogical or stylistic "grammars," which are just guides to the etiquette of written prose.)

The second fundamental fact is that children develop these complex grammars rapidly and without formal instruction and grow up to give consistent interpretations to novel sentence constructions that they have never before encountered. Therefore, [Chomsky] argued, children must be innately equipped with a plan common to the grammars of all languages, a Universal Grammar, that tells them how to distill the syntactic patters out of speech of their parents. (Pinker, p. 9)

Children have the ability to produce much greater language output than they receive as input but it is not done idiosyncratically. The language they produce follows the same generalized grammatical rules as others. This leads Chomsky to conclude that (quoted in Pinker, p. 10):

The language each person acquires is a rich and complex construction hopelessly underdetermined by the fragmentary evidence available [to the child]. Nevertheless individuals in a speech community have developed essentially the same language. This fact can be explained only on the assumption that these individuals employ highly restrictive principles that guide the construction of grammar.

The more we understand how human language works, the more we begin to realize how different human speech is from the communication systems of other animals.

Language is obviously as different from other animals' communication systems as the elephant's truck is different from other animals' nostrils. Nonhuman communication systems are based on one of three designs: a finite repertory of calls (one for warnings of predators, one for claims of territory, and so on), a continuous analog signal that registers the magnitude of some state (the livelier the dance of the bee, the richer the food source that it is telling its hivemates about), or a series of random variations on a theme (a birdsong repeated with a new twist each time: Charlie Parker with feathers). As we have seen, human language has a very different design. The discrete combinatorial system called "grammar" makes human language infinite (there is no limit to the number of complex words or sentence in a language), digital (this infinity is achieved by rearranging discrete elements in particular orders and combinations, not by varying some signal along a continuum like the mercury in a thermometer), and compositional (each of the finite combinations has a different meaning predictable from the meanings of its parts and the rules and principles arranging them). (Pinker, p. 342)

This difference between human and nonhuman communication is also reflected in the role that different parts of the brain plays in language as opposed to other forms of vocalization.

Even the seat of human language in the brain is special. The vocal calls of primates are controlled not by their cerebral cortex but by phylogenetically older neural structures in the brain stem and limbic systems, structures that are heavily involved in emotion. Human vocalizations other than language, like sobbing, laughing, moaning, and shouting in pain, are also controlled subcortically. Subcortical structures even control the swearing that follows the arrival of a hammer on a thumb, that emerges as an involuntary tic in Tourette's syndrome, and that can survive as Broca's aphasic's only speech. Genuine language . . . is seated in the cerebral cortex, primarily in the left perisylvian region. (Pinker, p. 342)

Rather than view the different forms of communication found in animals as a hierarchy, it is better to view them as adaptations that arose from the necessity to occupy certain evolutionary niches. Chimpanzees did not develop the language ability because they did not need to. Their lifestyles did not require the ability. Humans, on the other hand, even in the hunter-gatherer stage, would have benefited enormously from being able to share kind of detailed information about plants and animals and the like, and thus there could have been an evolutionary pressure that drove the development of language.

Human language was related to the evolution of the physical apparatus that enabled complex sound production along with the associated brain adaptations, though the causal links between them is not fully understood. Did the brain increase in size to cope with rising language ability or did the increasing use of language drive brain development? We really don't know yet.

The argument against a linguistic hierarchy in animals can be seen in the fact that different aspects of language can be found to be best developed in different animals.

The most receptive trainee for an artificial language with a syntax and semantics has been a parrot; the species with the best claim to recursive structure in its signaling has been the starling; the best vocal imitators are birds and dolphins; and when it comes to reading human intentions, chimps are bested by man's best friend, Canis familiaris. (Pinker, PS20)

It seems clear that we are unlikely to ever fully communicate with other species the way we do with each other. But the inability of other animals to speak the way we do is no more a sign of their evolutionary backwardness than our nose's lack of versatility compared to the elephant's trunk, or our inability to use our hands to fly the way bats can, are signs that we are evolutionarily inferior compared to them

We just occupy different end points on the evolutionary bush.

POST SCRIPT: But isn't everyone deeply interested in golf?

If you want yet more reasons why TV news is not worth watching . . .

June 26, 2008

Can animals talk?

One of the most interesting questions in language is whether animals can talk or at least be taught to talk. Clearly animals can communicate in some rudimentary ways, some more so than others. Some researchers are convinced that animals can talk and have spent considerable efforts to try and do so but with very limited results. In the comments to an earlier post, Greg referred to the efforts by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh (and Duane Rumbaugh) to train the bonobo chimpanzee Kanzi to speak, and Lenen referred to the development of spontaneous language in children who had been kept in a dungeon. There have been other attempts with chimps and gorillas named Washoe, Koko, Lana, and Sarah.

One thing that is clear is that humans seem to have an instinctive ability to create and use language. By instinctive, I mean that evolution has produced in us the kinds of bodies and brains that make learning language easy, especially at a young age. It is argued that all humans are born possessing the neural wiring that contains the rules for a universal grammar. The five thousand different languages that exist today, although seeming to differ widely, all have an underlying grammatical similarity that is suggestive of this fact. For example, this grammar affects things like the subject-verb-object ordering in sentences. In English, we would say "I went home" (subject-verb-object) while in Tamil it would be "I home went" (subject-object-verb).

What is interesting is that of all the grammars that are theoretically possible, only a very limited set is actually found in existence. We do not find, for example, languages where people say "Home went I" (object-verb-subject). What early exposure to language does is turn certain switches on and off in the universal grammar wiring in our brains, so that we end up using the particular form of grammar of the community we grow up in. This suggests that language structures are restricted and not infinitely flexible, indicating a biological limitation.

The instinctive nature of language can be seen in a natural experiment that occurred in Nicaragua. There used to be no sign language at all in that country because the children were isolated from one another. When the Sandinistas took over in 1979, they created schools for the deaf. Their efforts to formally teach the children lip reading and speech failed dismally. But because the deaf children were now thrown together in the school buses and playgrounds, the children spontaneously developed their own sign language that developed and grew more sophisticated and is now officially a language that follows the same underlying grammatical rules as other spoken and sign languages. (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994, p. 24)

What about animals? Many of us, especially those of us who have pets, would love to think that animals can communicate. As a result, we are far more credulous than we should be of claims (reported in the media) by researchers that they have taught animals to speak. But others, like linguist Steven Pinker, are highly skeptical. When looked at closely, the more spectacular elements of the claims disappear, leaving just rudimentary communication using symbols. The idea that some chimps can be taught to identify and use some symbols or follow some simple spoken commands does not imply that they possess underlying language abilities comparable to humans. The suggestion that animals use sign 'language' mistakenly conflates the sophisticated and complex grammatical structures of American Sign Language and other sign languages with that of a few suggestive gestures.

The belief that animals can, or should be able to, communicate using language seems to stem from two sources. One lies in a mistaken image of evolution as a linear process in which existing life forms can be arranged from lower to higher and more evolved forms. One sees this in posters in which evolution is shown as a sequence: amoebas→ sponges→ jellyfish→ flatworms→ trout→ frogs→ lizards→ dinosaurs→ anteaters→ monkeys→ chimpanzees→ Homo sapiens. (Pinker, p. 352) In this model, humans are the most evolved and it makes sense to think that perhaps chimpanzees have a slightly less evolved linguistic ability than we do but that it can be nudged along with some human help. Some people are also convinced that to think that animals cannot speak is a sign of a deplorable species superiority on our part.

But that linear model of evolution is wrong. Evolution is a branching theory, more like a spreading bush. Starting from some primitive form, it branched out into other forms, and these in turn branched out into yet more forms and so on, until we had a vast number of branches at the periphery. All the species I listed in the previous paragraph are like the tips of the twigs on the canopy of the bush, except that some (like the dinosaurs) are now extinct. Although all existing species have evolved from some earlier and more primitive forms, none of the existing species is more evolved than any other. All existing species have the same evolutionary status. They are merely different.

In the bush image, it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that one branch (species) may possess a unique feature (speech) that is not possessed by the others, just like the elephant possesses a highly useful organ (the trunk) possessed by no other species. All that this signifies is that that feature evolved after that branch separated from the rest of the bush and hence is not shared by others. The fact that nonhuman animals cannot speak despite extensive efforts at tutoring them is not a sign that they are somehow inferior or less evolved than us.

Some efforts to teach animals language skills seem to stem from a sense of misguided solidarity. It is as if the more features we share with animals, the closer we feel we are to them and the better we are likely to treat them. It is undoubtedly true that the closer we identify with some other living thing, the more empathy we have for it. But the solution to that is to have empathy for all living creatures, and not try to convince ourselves that we are alike in some specific ways.

As Pinker says:

What an irony it is that the supposed attempt to bring Homo sapiens down a few notches in the natural order has taken the form of us humans hectoring another species into emulating our instinctive form of communication, or some artificial form we have invented, as if that were a measure of biological worth. The chimpanzees' resistance is no shame to them; a human would surely do no better if trained to hoot and shriek like a chimp, a symmetrical project that makes about as much scientific sense. In fact, the idea that some species needs our intervention before its members can display a useful skill, like some bird that could not fly until given a human education, is far from humble! (p. 351)

While any animal lover would dearly love to think that they can talk with animals, we may have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that it just cannot happen, because they lack the physical and perhaps cognitive apparatus to do so.

Next: The differences between animal and human communication.

POST SCRIPT: Superstitions

One of the negative consequences of religious beliefs is that it leads to more general magical thinking, one form of which is superstitions. Steve Benen lists all the superstitions that John McCain believes in.

It bothers me when political leaders are superstitious. Decision-makers should not be influenced by factors that have no bearing whatsoever on events.

June 25, 2008

When did language originate?

Trying to discover the origins of language is a fascinating scientific problem but the evidence is necessarily indirect. Clearly our bodies' physical capacity to articulate sounds is a biological development. Language had to be preceded by the evolution of the physical organs responsible for vocalization. Those organs must have co-evolved with those parts of the brain that can process language. But this evolutionary history is hard to reconstruct since the voice organs and brains are made of soft tissue and are thus unlikely to fossilize. Even if we could get an accurate fix on when the actual physical ability to speak came into being, this the could only be used to set a limit on the earliest time at which language could have occurred, but tells us nothing of when it actually did.

Since humans have these language organs and our closest existing cousins the chimpanzees do not, and since our branch of mammals split off from chimpanzees about 5-7 million years (or about 350,000 generations) ago, it is theoretically possible for language to be that old and still be consistent with only humans being able to speak.

At the other end, the discovery of cave art in Europe consisting of depictions of animals and humans in carved and painted and sculpted forms by Cro-Magnon humans in the Upper Paleolithic era about 35,000 years ago indicate complex social thinking indicative of the presence of language, suggesting that this sets a limit on the latest time for the origin of language.

But 35,000 to 5-7 million years is a huge time interval and attempts have been made to get a more precise fix on the origin of language. Various approaches have been attempted. One avenue of exploration comes from linguistics: the study of languages themselves and how they evolved. Another is to look at the physiological development of the human body. A third method is to look at the development of lifestyles to discern levels of complexity that suggest the kinds of social organization that would require language. A fourth is to look at the use of tools, to see if there is sophistication and uniformity over a wide area suggesting that knowledge was being shared and transmitted to distant locales.

While these are all promising avenues of research, unfortunately the lines of evidence from these different approaches currently do not converge on a single time, suggesting that we still have a long way to go in determining when language might have arisen.

Starting with linguistics, it is known that the structure of languages is very analogous to the biological tree of living organisms. Just as the fossil and DNA evidence all point to all living things being descended from a common ancestor, the approximately five thousand languages that currently exist exhibit grammar and vocabulary relationships strongly suggestive of the fact that they are all derived from a single common proto-language that existed long ago that evolved and split into branches the way that living organisms did. By tracing that linguistic tree back in time, we may be able to fix narrower bounds on the date of origin of that proto-language.

Steven Pinker argues that since modern humans Homo sapiens first appeared about 200,000 years ago and spread out of Africa about 100,000 years ago, and since all modern humans have identical language abilities along with a universal grammar, it seems likely that language appeared concurrently with the first appearance of modern humans. (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994, p. 363, 364) Furthermore, there was a more than a tripling of brain size (from 400cc to 1350cc) during the period between the first appearance the genus Homo (in the form of Homo habilis) about two million years ago until Homo sapiens appeared, suggesting that the brain developed in that period partly in order to accommodate the new language centers. Pinker suggests that since Homo sapiens are us, it seems reasonable that language came into being as long ago as 200,000 years ago.

As for biological development. Richard Leakey explains what it is about the human body that enables speech. (The Origin of Humankind, 1994)

Humans are able to make a wide range of sounds because the larynx is situated low in the throat, thus creating a large sound-chamber, the pharynx, above the vocal chords . . . the expanded pharynx is the key to producing fully articulate speech . . . In all mammals except humans the larynx is high in the throat, which allows the animal to breathe and drink at the same time. As a corollary, the small pharyngeal cavity limits the range of sounds that can be produced. . . Although the low position of the larynx allows human to produce a greater range of sounds, it also means that we cannot drink and breathe simultaneously. We exhibit the dubious liability for choking.

Human babies are born with the larynx high in the throat, like typical mammals, and can simultaneously breathe and drink, as they must during nursing. After about eighteen month, the larynx begins to migrate down the throat, reaching the adult position when the child is about fourteen months old. (p. 130)

The unique position of the larynx in human speech suggests that if were able to identify when it got lowered to its present position, we might be able to determine when we first had the ability to speak. But the problem is that those parts of the body are made of soft tissues and do not fossilize easily. However, the shape of the bottom of the skull called the basicranium is arched for humans and essentially flat for other mammals and this part of the skull is an indicator of how well it can articulate sounds. "The earliest time in the fossil record that you find a fully flexed basicranium is about 300,000 to 400,000 years ago, in what people call archaic Homo sapiens." (Leakey, p. 132)

But of course that does not mean that language developed simultaneously with the basicranium. Leakey says that it is unlikely that language was fully developed among archaic Homo sapiens.

The brain is another indicator of possible language origins. The part of the brain known as Broca's area is a raised lump near the left temple associated with language and the use of tools. Furthermore, the left hemisphere of the brain (which is associated with language) is larger than the right. So if we can find fossilized skulls that indicate the presence of either of these features, that would also indicate the onset of possible linguistic ability. A fossil found nearly two million years ago seems to have just such features. Combined with the discovery of tool-making around this time Leakey thinks it is possible that it was with the advent of Homo habilis (the handyman) about two million years ago that language first started to appear, at least in a very crude form. (Leakey, p.129)

Another strategy is to look at the various tools and other artifacts that humans created and see if there is an increase in sophistication and increased spread of similar designs, which would suggest the sharing of knowledge and ideas and thus speech. The more complex the social structures in which people lived, the greater the need for language. As for tools, although they started being made about two million years ago, the earliest kinds were opportunistic in nature. More conscious tool making began about 250,000 years ago but then stayed static for about 200,000 years. The kinds of ordering of tools that are really suggestive of language does not seem to occur until suddenly about 35,000 years ago, coinciding with the sudden spurt in cave art in the Upper Paleolithic period. (Leakey, p. 134)

So basically the situation is confused. While it is possible that language began to appear in some primitive form as early as two million years ago, it seems more likely that real language skills began about 200,000 years ago. Also it is not clear whether language evolved gradually since that time or whether it remained in a low and more-or-less static state before suddenly exploding about 35,000 years ago into the complex language structures that we now have.

Next: Can animals talk?

POST SCRIPT: Fred and Wilma? Who knew?

The most unforgettable act of the 1969 Woodstock festival was Joe Cocker's rendering of the Beatles' A little help from my friends, a gentle song sung by Ringo Starr, which Cocker turned into an over-the top, weird, air-guitar-playing, frenzied, incoherent performance that looked like he was having some kind of seizure. Throughout it, you kept wondering what the hell he was singing since the lyrics seemed to have only a passing resemblance to the original.

Some helpful soul has now provided captions for Cocker's words. It all makes sense now. Or maybe not.

(Thanks to Jesus's General.)

June 24, 2008

The power of language

One of the things that makes some people uneasy about the theory of evolution is its implication that humans are just one branch in the tree of life, connected to every other living thing through common ancestors, and thus not special in any mysterious way. It is surely tempting to think that we must be somehow unique. Look at the art and culture and science and technology we have produced and for which nothing comparable exists by any other species. How can we explain that if we are not possessed of some quality not present in other species?

One doesn't have to look far to find one feature that distinguishes the human species from all its cousins in the evolutionary tree of life. It is language. Somehow, at some point, we developed the capacity to speak and communicate with each other through well-articulated sounds and that has had a profound impact on our subsequent development. Although the number of phonemes (units of sound) that humans can make (about fifty) is not vastly greater than the number available to apes (about a dozen), we can use them to generate an average vocabulary of about 100,000 words. "As a consequence, the capacity of Homo sapiens for rapid, detailed communication and richness of thought is unmatched in the world of nature." (Richard Leakey, The Origin of Humankind, 1994, p. 122)

Without language, the knowledge of animals is restricted to what they are born with as a result of their evolutionary development (i.e., their instincts) and what they acquire during their own lifetimes. That is necessarily restricted and each generation essentially starts life at the same point in knowledge space as the previous one.

But with language, all that changes. Now knowledge can be passed on from generation to generation and we can learn from our ancestors. Knowledge becomes cumulative and the process accelerated with the discovery of writing about 6,000 years ago, resulting in the ability to store and retrieve knowledge over long times and long distances.

I have sometimes wondered why religious people, always on the lookout for a sign that humans are special in god's eyes and possessed of some quality that could not be accounted for evolutionarily, have not seized on language as that which makes us uniquely human. Why don't intelligent design advocates suggest that it was god's intervention that enabled us to develop the ability to speak?

One advantage to religious people of using the introduction of language as a mysterious sign of god's actions is that it is hard to pin down exactly when and how language started, and thus might make it hard to explain scientifically, making it an even better choice for a religious explanation than the bacterial flagellum or even the origin of life. Language was a significant development in our evolutionary history but how it came about is murky because spoken language leaves no trace.

Of course, the fact that we humans possess a unique feature does not necessarily imply that we are special. After all, elephants can also boast of a uniquely useful organ, the trunk, that can do truly amazing things. It is strong enough to uproot trees and stack them carefully in place. It is delicate enough that it can pick a thorn, draw characters on paper with a pencil, or pick up a pin. It is dexterous enough that it can uncork a bottle and unbolt a latch. It is sensitive enough to smell a python or food up to a mile away. It can be used as a siphon and a snorkel. And it can do many more things, both strong and delicate. (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994, p. 340)

Why did only elephants evolve this extremely useful organ compared to which the human nose seems so inadequate? It presumably developed according to the laws of natural selection, just like everything else. But if elephants were religious, they might well be tempted to argue that having a trunk was a sign from god that they were special and made in god's image, and thus that god must have a trunk too.

So uniqueness alone doesn't imply that we are possessed of some spiritual essence. But even if the ability to speak does not confer on us a mystical power, the question of when and how humans developed this profound and incredibly useful ability is well worth studying.

Next: When did language originate?

POST SCRIPT: George Carlin on language

I had written this post on language last week but then learned that comedian George Carlin died yesterday at the age of 71. He pushed the boundaries of comedy and many of his riffs dealt with the hypocritical use of language. His famous routine "Seven words you can't say on TV" ended up in 1973 as a case in the Supreme Court, which ruled that the government did have a right to limit the words used on broadcasts.

That routine is below. As to be expected, there is extensive and repeated use of the seven naughty words so don't watch if such language offends you.

Bonus video: George Carlin was also an atheist who poked fun at the lack of logic underlying religious beliefs.

June 23, 2008

Cloning and stem cell research

(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007. The complete set of these posts will be archived here.)

In the Appendix of his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), Francis Collins gives a very clear and brief exposition of the issues involved in stem cell research and cloning, which are not the same thing despite popular impressions.

A human being starts out as a single cell formed by the union of an egg and a sperm. The nucleus of this cell contains the contributions of DNA from each of the two parents and thus all the genetic instructions, while the region outside the nucleus, called the cytoplasm, contains the nutrients and signaling mechanisms that enable the cell to do whatever it is meant to do.

The single cell starts multiplying by copying itself, a process known as mitosis. In the very early stages, all the cells are identical and capable of eventually becoming any specialized cell like a liver cell, blood cell, etc. Such cells are called 'pluripotent' because of their ability to become any of the tissues that make up the body and it is these cells that are called embryonic stem cells and the center of the ethical debate.

Soon these embryonic cells begin to specialize and differentiate into cells that begin to form different organ tissues. They do this by having the DNA start turning switches on and off in its genes. Some of these specialized cells, such as those found in limited amounts in bone marrow, become what are known as adult stem cells in that while they still have the ability to differentiate further, they can do so only into a much more limited variety of adult tissues. Such stem cells are called 'multipotent'.

The promise of stem cell research is that one can use a person's own stem cells to regenerate tissues lost or damaged by all kinds of diseases. Since these cells are not perceived as foreign matter, this would not trigger the body's immune mechanism that rejects foreign tissues, as occurs currently with transplants. At present, this immune response has to be suppressed with powerful drugs, leaving the patient vulnerable to other infections.

The ethical problem is that although adult stem cells can be obtained and used from an adult without harming that person, they have only a very limited flexibility. Pluripotent cells are preferred but at present using such cells results in the loss of the embryos from which they are taken, and this immediately raises the ethical issue of whether by destroying an embryo, we are destroying life.

Currently pluripotent stem cell lines are created during the process of in-vitro fertilization, by taking an egg from a woman, fertilizing it in a petri dish with sperm from a man, and growing the resulting cell in solution containing the necessary nutrients for its growth. After about five days, what is called a 'blastocyst' is formed which consists of about 70-100 cells. This consists of an outer wall of cells encompassing a hollow cavity, and an inner clump of about 30 cells (called the inner cell mass) at one end of the cavity. It is the inner cell mass that eventually turns into the tissues that make up the growing fetus, while the outer wall becomes the placenta.

In-vitro fertilization is done to assist childless couples. The selected blastocyst is implanted in the uterus of either the person who donated the egg (the biological mother) or a surrogate, and once it adheres to the wall of the uterus, it receives oxygen and other nutrients from the mother and develops as any other fetus.

The ethical dilemma arises because the process is not 100% certain, and thus many more fertilized eggs and blastocysts are created this way than are currently used to generate actual pregnancies, and this has resulted in hundreds of thousands of unused fertilized eggs. They are currently kept frozen.

Researchers suggest that these fertilized eggs be used (with the donors' permission) to generate embryonic stem cell lines that can be used for research purposes. To do this, the inner cell mass is extracted from the blastocyst and transferred into a dish containing a culture that enables it to grow. When this is done, the blastocyst is effectively destroyed and cannot be used to create a human.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research say that even a single fertilized egg cell is a human life and thus the blastocyst created this way should never be destroyed. Others argue that a blastocyst has none of the qualities that we associate with being human and thus destroying it not taking a life.

This dilemma created by scientific advances may be resolved by further scientific advances.

One possible compromise arises from the discovery of the process by which animals have been cloned, starting with the famous cloned sheep Dolly. This process is known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). What happened with Dolly is that a single cell was taken from the udder of an adult sheep and its nucleus (containing all the genetic information) was extracted. Then an egg cell was taken and its nucleus removed and replaced with the nucleus that had been extracted from the udder cell.

What one might have expected to have created was a cell that was specialized for udders since one had taken a cell from the udder of an adult and by that time the cell should have become specialized for just that purpose. It was once thought that this process of specilization was irreversible. i.e., once a pluripotent embryonic stem cell becomes an adult stem cell or an adult specialized cell, there was no going back to its unspecialized state.

What researchers found to their amazement was that when the udder cell nucleus was inserted into the egg cell that had had its nucleus removed, the nucleus seemed to effectively go back in time and become like the original embryonic cell that had eventually resulted in the sheep from which the udder cell was obtained. When this was then implanted in a sheep, it grew as if from a single fertilized egg and gave rise to a new sheep (Dolly) that had genes identical to those of the sheep from which the original udder cell was taken.

This process has now been repeated with other mammals like horses, cows, dogs, and cats. Although the Raelians made the spectacular claim that they had used this technique to clone a human being, that seems like a hoax.

As a result of this research, it looks like it should be possible to take a nucleus from (say) the skin cell of an adult human and insert it into an egg cell that has had its nucleus removed and thus create cells that have all the properties of embryonic stem cells. Thus it should be possible to create blastocysts in the laboratory without having them originate in the fusion of sperm and egg, the traditional way in which children are conceived. These stem cells would have DNA identical to those of the adult whose skin cell the nucleus was taken from, and not a fusion of mother and father DNA information, the way an embryo is normally formed.

Of course, if this cell is implanted in a uterus, one could potentially create a cloned human being but no one is suggesting that that be done. In fact, there is strong worldwide opposition to such an act. But if the cell is grown in a petri dish, then it could generate the equivalent of embryonic stem cells for both research and therapeutic purposes.

Would the process of SCNT be considered sufficiently different from the usual process of creating a fertilized egg to be considered not a potential human and thus overcome the ethical problems of stem cell research? That remains to be seen.

POST SCRIPT: Tough times

We know that the troubled economy is hurting many people. The Daily Show looks at how it is affecting the people of Beverly Hills.

June 20, 2008

Bioethical dilemmas

(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007. The complete set of these posts will be archived here.)

In the Appendix of Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), he tackles the difficult ethical issues raised by advances in science and medicine, especially in the field of molecular biology. His own major contributions to the human genome have undoubtedly made him acutely conscious of these issues. Collins's describes the science and the issues arising from them very clearly and this Appendix is well worth reading.

Having mapped out the entire human genome, scientists are now in the position of being potentially able to identify the presence of genes that may predispose people to certain diseases or behaviors long before those things have manifested themselves in observable ways. This ability has, of course, some obvious advantages in the prevention and treatment of diseases.

For example, breast cancer has a hereditary component that can be identified by the presence of a dangerous mutation in the gene BRCA1 on chromosome 17. This mutation, which also creates a greater risk for ovarian cancer, can be carried by fathers as well, even though they themselves may not have the disease. In those families in which breast cancer is prevalent, knowing who has the mutated gene and who hasn't may influence how closely they are monitored and what treatments they might be given.

As time goes by, our genetic predisposition to more and more hereditary diseases will be revealed. But is this an unqualified good thing?

On the plus side, having this knowledge may enable those people at risk to take steps (diet, exercise, preventative treatment) that can reduce their risk of actually contracting the disease. After all, genes are usually not the only (or even the main) factor in causing disease and we often have some degree of control over the other risk factors for diseases such as diabetes or blood clotting.

We may also be able to treat more genetic diseases by actually changing an individual's genes, although currently the only changes being made are to the genes in the somatic cells (the ones that make up our bodies) and not the ones in the 'germ' line cells (the ones that are passed on to children via the egg and sperm). At present, there is a scientific and medical consensus that influencing the genes of future generations by changing the germ line is not something we should do.

Furthermore, our bodies' reaction to drugs is also often affected by our genes. That knowledge can be used to individualize treatment, to determine which drug should be given to which patient, and even to design drugs that take maximum advantage of an individual's genetic makeup. This kind of personalized medicine lies in our future.

But there are negatives to this brave new world of treatment. Should everyone have their DNA mapped to identify potential risk factors? And who should have access to a person's genetic information?

Some people may prefer not to know the likelihood of what diseases they are predisposed to, especially in those cases where nothing much can be done to avert the disease or what needs to be done would diminish by too much the quality of life of the individual. Furthermore, they may fear that this information could be used against them. If they have a predisposition for a major disease and this knowledge reaches the health insurance companies, the latter may charge them higher premiums or even decline to cover them at all. After all, the profit-making basis on which these companies run makes them want to only insure the pool of healthy people and deny as much coverage as possible to those who actually need it.

It works the other way too. If someone knows they have a potential health problem but the insurance companies don't, they may choose health (and life) insurance policies that work to their advantage.

So genetic information can become a pawn in the chess game played between the individual and the health (and life) insurance agencies.

This is, by the way, another major flaw of the current employer-based private health insurance schemes in the US. If we had a single-payer, universal health care system as is the case in every other developed country, and even in many developing countries, this problem regarding genetic knowledge would not even arise. Everyone would be covered automatically irrespective of their history, the risk would be spread over the entire population, and the only question would be the extent to which the taxpayers wanted to fund the system in order to cover treatment. That would be a matter determined by public policy rather than private profit. There would still be ethical issues to be debated (such as on what basis to prioritize and allocate treatment) but the drive to minimize treatment to maximize private profit would be absent, and that is a huge plus.

There are other issues to consider. What if we find a gene that has a propensity for its bearer to commit crimes or other forms of antisocial behavior? Would it be wrong to use this knowledge to preventively profile and incarcerate people? It has to be emphasized that our genes almost always are not determinants of behavior but at best provide small probabilistic estimates. But as I have written before, probability and statistics is not easy to understand, and the knowledge that someone has a slightly greater chance of committing a crime can, if publicly known, be a stigma that person can never shake, however upstanding and moral a person he or she tries to be.

There is also the question of what to do with people who want to use treatments that have been developed for therapeutic purposes in order to make themselves (or their children) bigger, taller, stronger, faster, better-looking, and even smarter (or so they think) so that they will have an advantage over others. That thought-provoking film Gattaca (1997) envisions a future where parents create many fertilized eggs, examine the DNA of each, and select only those which contain the most advantageous genetic combinations to implant in the uterus. Collins points out that while this is theoretically possible, in practice it cannot be used to select for more than two or three genes. Even then, there are no guarantees that environmental effects as the child is growing up may not swamp the effects of the carefully selected genes. (p. 354)

Collins argues, and I agree with him, that these are important ethical decisions that should not be left only to scientists but should involve the entire spectrum of society. He appeals to the Moral Law as general guidance for dealing with these issues (p. 320). In particular he advocates four ethical principles (formulated by T. L. Beauchamp and J. F. Childress in their book Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 1994) that we might all be able to agree on in making such decisions. They are:

  1. Respect for autonomy – the principle that a rational individual should be given freedom in personal decision making, without undue outside coercion.
  2. Justice – the requirement for fair, moral, and impartial treatment of all persons
  3. Beneficence – the mandate to treat others in their best interest
  4. Nonmaleficence – "First do no harm" (as in the Hippocratic Oath)

These are good guidelines, though many problems will undoubtedly arise when such general secular ethical principles collide with the demands of specific religious beliefs and cultural practices. When supposedly infallible religious texts become part of the discussion, it makes it almost impossible to seek underlying unifying moral and ethical principles on which to base judgments.

POST SCRIPT: Brace yourself

Matt Taibbi warns that this presidential election is going to be very rough.

June 19, 2008

The Language of God-9: An appeal to the scientifically minded

(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007. The complete set of these posts will be archived here.)

At the very end of his book, Collins appeals to those who may feel that science is incompatible with belief on god.

Have you been concerned that belief in God requires a descent into irrationality, a compromise of logic, or even intellectual suicide? It is hoped that the arguments presented within this book will provide at least a partial antidote to that view, and will convince you that of all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational. (p. 304)

I am afraid that this is a forlorn hope. If anything, this book with its mish-mash of faulty logic, ad hoc assumptions, contradictions, and question-begging rationalizations may actually achieve just the opposite. After all, if this is the best that an eminent scientist like Collins can come up with in defense of religion, then the situation is truly hopeless.

It may be that there are other scientists who can come up with better attempts and reconciling god with current scientific knowledge. Finding Darwin's God by biologist Kenneth Miller tries to use the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics to get around the question of how god can influence the course of events without being detected, but that argument has no credibility whatsoever. Also Miller's book does not have the breadth of Collins's work. Whatever the faults of Collins's book, and there are many, he has to be commended on facing up squarely to the major problems and trying to come to terms with them.

In reading Collins's book, one finds a refreshing honesty and lack of guile. You get the sense that he knows he is grappling with very difficult issues of science and faith and genuinely believes what he writes. This is in contrast with much of the writing emerging from (say) the intelligent design creationism camp that, while also sophisticated, strikes one as propagandistic, that they understand the weakness of their case but are trying to cover it up.

Collins's problem is just that his solutions to the problems are so inadequate. But even here, the fault cannot be laid entirely at his feet. It is partially due to society at large which has given belief in god a respectability that has persuaded even people who should know better that it must have a rational basis, even though all the evidence is against it. Once Collins had taken the step to decide to believe in god, he simply cannot avoid slowly sinking into the sea of contradictions that eventually engulfs him.

Although I have tried to review Collins's book fairly, some readers may think I have been too harsh. If so, they are not going to like Sam Harris's review at all. He gives his review the title of The Language of Ignorance and says:

Francis Collins—physical chemist, medical geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project—has written a book entitled “The Language of God.” In it, he attempts to demonstrate that there is “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between 21st-century science and evangelical Christianity. To say that he fails at his task does not quite get at the inadequacy of his efforts. He fails the way a surgeon would fail if he attempted to operate using only his toes. His failure is predictable, spectacular and vile. “The Language of God” reads like a hoax text, and the knowledge that it is not a hoax should be disturbing to anyone who cares about the future of intellectual and political discourse in the United States.
. . .
If one wonders how beguiled, self-deceived and carefree in the service of fallacy a scientist can be in the United States in the 21st century, “The Language of God” provides the answer. The only thing that mitigates the harm this book will do to the stature of science in the United States is that it will be mostly read by people for whom science has little stature already. Viewed from abroad, “The Language of God” will be seen as another reason to wonder about the fate of American society. Indeed, it is rare that one sees the thumbprint of historical contingency so visible on the lens of intellectual discourse. This is an American book, attesting to American ignorance, written for Americans who believe that ignorance is stronger than death. Reading it should provoke feelings of collective guilt in any sensitive secularist. We should be ashamed that this book was written in our own time.

Collins's hope expressed towards the end of the book that scientists who read it will be persuaded that "of all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational" is a statement revealing wishful thinking on a massive scale. My own feeling is that anyone who reads his book without suspending their powers of logic and reasoning will arrive at exactly the opposite conclusion.

Although I have been critical of Collins's attempts at arguing for the existence of god, there is no question that when dealing just with science he writes and argues well. In fact, the Appendix of his book The Moral Practice of Science and Medicine: Bioethics is an excellent primer on some of the critical ethical issues facing us today as a result of the rapid advances in science in which he has played such an important role.

I will write about them in the next two posts.

POST SCRIPT: The Two Johns discuss Bush's policies in the Middle East

June 18, 2008

The Language of God-8: The problem of free will, omnipotence, and omniscience

(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007. The complete set of these posts will be archived here.)

The one new (to me at least) and interesting argument in The Language of God was the attempt by Francis Collins to reconcile the idea of free will with god's omnipotence and omniscience. This knotty problem is caused by religious people wanting to hold on to three beliefs simultaneously: (1) We have free will. (2) God is omnipotent (all-powerful). (3) God is omniscient (knows everything in the past present and future).

Can all three things be simultaneously true? In the absence of a comparison with data, the only way that one can judge whether a proposition is false by reason alone is if it leads to a logical contradiction. Most people would immediately see that these three assumptions lead to irreconcilable contradictions and that one has to relinquish at least one of them. But Collins, like a lot of religious people, cannot bring himself to do that. He wants to believe in the traditional properties of god.

He also has the problem that although evolution by natural selection is not purely a chance-driven process, chance does play a role in one part of the process, that which causes mutations and variety. Chance can also play a role in the kinds of events that can change the environment in which an organism finds itself and thus change the way that the non-random natural selection process operates. For example, the asteroid collision that occurred about 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs profoundly affected the subsequent evolution process because it created opportunities for other species to emerge that might otherwise have been destroyed by dinosaurs.

This element of chance prevents religious people from simply assuming that god created the universe with its laws and then let it run its course because there is no guarantee that chance events like that asteroid collision would have occurred. Then how can you guarantee that humans would emerge without God intervening? The idea that humans emerged because of that chance collision does not cause atheists any problems. We are just thankful to have had that lucky break. But for religious people, humans were the goal of creation and their appearance cannot be left to chance. So what to do?

In item #4 of his basic tenets of BioLogos, Collins says that god never intervenes in the evolutionary process once he sets it in motion along with its associated laws. But he knows that there are contingent factors in evolution. So how can he ensure that humans must eventually appear? Again, to his credit, he does not duck the question or try to pretend it is not there.

Collins tries to deal with it by greatly expanding his concept of god:

The solution is actually readily to hand once one ceases to apply human limitations to God. If God is outside of nature, then He is outside of space and time. In that context, God could in the moment of creation of the universe also know every detail of the future. That could include the formation of stars, planets, and galaxies, all of the chemistry physics, geology, and biology that led to the formation of life on earth, and the moment of your reading this book – and beyond. In that context, evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God's perspective the outcome would be entirely specified. Thus, God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time, this would appear a random and undirected process. (p. 272)

This is a truly remarkable passage, essentially saying that everything that would eventually occur was known by god at the time of creation, although to us it may seem like we have random events.

He had foreshadowed this extraordinary claim in an earlier part of the book (p. 113, 114) where he laid out his claims step-by-step.

  • If God exists, he is supernatural
  • If He is supernatural, then He is not limited by natural laws.
  • If He is not limited by natural laws, there is no reason He should be limited by time.
  • If He is not limited by time, then he is in the past, the present, and the future.

The consequence of those conclusions would include:

  • He could exist before the Big Bang and He could exist after the universe fades away, if it ever does.
  • He could know the precise outcome of the formation of the universe even before it started.
  • He could have foreknowledge of a planet near the outer rim of an average spiral galaxy that would have just the right characteristics to allow life.
  • He could have foreknowledge that the planet would lead to the development of sentient creatures, through the mechanism of evolution by natural selection.
  • He could even know in advance the thoughts and actions of those creatures, even though they themselves have free will

It seems to me that in this passage, Collins has given up on free will altogether and reverted to a strict determinism, although free will was invoked by him in defense of suffering caused by people and free will is an essential component of the concept of sin. After all, sin has no meaning if we are all just automatons playing out our pre-ordained roles in a drama authored and directed by god.

But as is usually the case, trying to adjust god's qualities to take care of one problem immediately creates new problems elsewhere. John Allen Paulos (Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up, 2008), points out one:

[E]fforts by some to put God, the putative first cause, completely outside of time and space give up entirely on the notion of cause, which is defined in terms of time. After all, A causes B only if A comes before B, and the first cause comes – surprise – first, before its consequences. (Placing God outside of space and time would also preclude any sort of later divine intervention in worldly affairs.)" (Paulos, p. 5,6)

Paulos also points out that Collins's efforts to have both omniscience and omnipotence runs into another well-known contradiction.

Being omniscient, God knows everything that will happen: He can predict the future trajectory of every snowflake, the sprouting of every blade of grass, and the deeds of every human being, as well as all of His own actions. But being omnipotent, He can act in any way and do anything He wants, including behaving in ways different from those He'd predicted, making his expectations uncertain and fallible. He thus can't be both omnipotent and omniscient. (Paulos, p. 41)

I think that these are insurmountable obstacles for any religious believer to overcome. Francis Collins tackles them gamely but is defeated by them.

POST SCRIPT: Man Crushes

James Wolcott analyzes this phenomenon that exists amongst male journalists and politicians.

June 17, 2008

The Language of God-7: The problem of theodicy

(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007. The complete set of these posts will be archived here.)

Any defense of god has to confront a tough question: Why would a benevolent and omnipotent god allow suffering? The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-271 BCE) posed the essential and, to my mind, ultimate contradiction that believers in god face: How to explain the existence of evil.

Is god willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is god both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?

Collins has nothing really new to say about this age-old problem but to his credit he does not avoid it. On the question of suffering to people caused by other people, he blames free will.

[We] have somehow been given free will, the ability to do as we please. We use this ability frequently to disobey the Moral Law. And when we do so, we shouldn't then blame God for the consequences. (p. 64)

Collins seems to give a curious excuse for the evil caused by religious people, the very people who should be acutely able to distinguish between right and wrong.

In some unusual cultures the [Moral Law] takes on surprising trappings – consider witch burning in seventeenth century America. Yet when surveyed closely, these apparent aberrations can be seen to arise from strongly held but misguided conclusions about who or what is good or evil. If you firmly believed that a witch is the personification of evil on earth, an apostle of the devil himself, would it not then seem justified to take such drastic actions? (p. 39)

He also points to the suffering caused by non-religious people throughout history, as if that explained anything. I hear this argument often and always find it an odd one for religious people to make, even accepting for the moment the dubious proposition that throughout the course of history nonbelievers have caused more suffering than religious people. Is it really considered an argument in favor of a benevolent and omnipotent god that his followers have caused less suffering than non-believers?

On the more difficult question of suffering caused by natural disasters that god presumably has the power to avert and in which free will is not involved, Collins gives a confused answer, suggesting that these occur due to 'natural' laws and causes, and for god to prevent such events would require him to make repeated interventions in contravention of these laws. He says that this, for some reason, would be bad.

Science reveals that the universe, our own planet, and life itself are engaged in an evolutionary process. The consequences of that can include the unpredictability of the weather, the slippage of a tectonic plate, or the misspelling of a cancer gene in the normal process of cell division. If at the beginning of time God chose to use these forces to create human beings, then the inevitability of these other painful consequences was also assured. Frequent miraculous interventions would be at least as chaotic in the physical realm and would be interfering with human acts of free will. (p. 65-68)

The notion that people prefer suffering to the 'chaos' caused by repeated intervention by god in the world is a specious argument. If parents had a child who was dying of cancer, I bet that they would want more than anything for god to intervene and cure her, and wouldn't give a damn if that caused 'chaos' for anyone else, including those scientists doing cancer research. In fact, religious people are always praying for god to intervene in such ways. That is when their need for god is greatest. If the people god supposedly created and whom he supposedly loves deeply want god to intervene to do a manifestly good thing and don't care about chaos, why does god care? Or if he really wants natural laws to work but also cares about curing people of cancer, why doesn't he whisper in Collins's or other scientists' ears the mechanism he used to cause cancer cells to emerge and how they can cure it?

Recognizing that saying what is effectively "Hey, stuff happens!" is weak consolation for massive and widespread suffering due to natural disasters or the actions of people, Collins inevitably retreats to a reliable refuge and plays that old get-out-of-jail-free card, the 'mysterious ways clause'.

[If] God is loving and wishes for the best of us, then perhaps His plan is not the same as our plan . . . We may never fully understand the reasons for these painful experiences, but we can begin to accept the idea that there may be such reasons. (p. 65-68)
. . .
Recognize that a great deal of suffering is brought upon us by our own actions or those of others, and that in a world where humans practice free will, it is inevitable. Understand, also, that if God is real, His purposes will often not be the same as ours. Hard though it is to accept, a complete absence of suffering may not be in the best interest of our spiritual growth. (p. 305)

In other words, suffering might be good for us. But while pleading ignorance of god's intent when it comes to suffering, like all religious believers, Collins seems to have extraordinary knowledge of god's character and nature when it works to his advantage, like when he knows which act is a miracle of god and which isn't or how god has chosen to act. For example, when arguing against young Earth creationism ideas, he says "Is this consistent with everything else we know about God from the Bible, from the Moral Law, and from every other source – namely, that He is loving, logical, and consistent?" (p. 237)

Eventually this is what all believers in god end up doing: Defining god in such a way that it suits their own personal emotional needs, adding ad hoc assumptions to deal with any and all problems created by their definition, and invoking the mysterious ways clause as a last resort when even the ad hoc additions aren't sufficient.

Francis Collins, for all his sophistication and scientific expertise, is no different.

POST SCRIPT: Tim Russert

It should be no surprise that his fellow Villagers are praising the late Tim Russert as a great journalist. He was, after all, one of them, serving their interests faithfully. But while I am sorry that he died suddenly at an early age, Jonathan Schwarz captures my feelings exactly about how people like Russert endlessly drive their preferred chosen narrative, even if it is contradicted by facts.

How Tim Russert Planted The Seeds For Iraq War

December 19, 1999: With Al Gore as guest, Tim Russert says on Meet the Press: "One year ago Saddam Hussein threw out all the inspectors who could find his chemical or nuclear capability." Russert asks Gore what he's going to do about this.

Soon afterward: Sam Husseini leaves a message on Russert's answering machine, and speaks to two of his assistants, telling them the inspectors were withdrawn by the UN at the request of the United States.

January 2, 2000: With Madeleine Albright as guest, Tim Russert repeats the error on Meet the Press: "One year ago, the inspectors were told, 'Get out,' by Saddam Hussein." Russert asks Albright what she's going to do about this.

January 21, 2000: Sam Husseini writes a letter to Russert, again laying out the facts, and requests a correction.

January 22, 2000-March 19, 2003: Russert never corrects his error.

March 19, 2003-present: Hundreds of thousands of people die in Iraq War. Russert dies, not in Iraq War. Official Washington weeps copious tears for Russert and his Extraordinary Journalistic Standards.

Notice that even if Husseini was not considered important enough to be listened to, it looks as if none of the many, many Village journalists who knew Russert bothered to tell him the truth about the inspectors either. They all live together in their Village and believe their Village myths, and then foist them on us. It was because of this relentless driving of the White House's preferred war narrative that so many people, even now, believe so many false things about the Iraq war.

David North and David Walsh provide a much better review of Russert and his career than the hagiography that went on over the weekend.

June 16, 2008

The Language of God-6: Existence and universal claims

(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007. The complete set of these posts will be archived here.)

Collins also takes the familiar tack of using negative arguments for god as a wedge to get his foot in the logical door and, after doing so, to make sweeping claims. This chain of 'reasoning' will be familiar to anyone who has ever discussed the existence of god with a believer and it goes like this:

  1. Start by identifying some features of the universe for which we do not currently have a good scientific explanation.
  2. Assert that we cannot prove that god was not the cause of those specific events.
  3. Assert that therefore it is possible that god could have been the cause.
  4. Assert that therefore it is possible to believe that god can exist.
  5. Assert that since god can exist and I feel that god exists, therefore god does exist.
  6. Assert that since god exists, he can do anything at all, so any and all miracles are possible.
  7. Grant miracle status only to those that I personally or my particular religious sect approve of.
  8. Hence only my particular religious belief in god is correct and everyone else's is wrong.

This is basically how all religions justify their claims that they are the one true religion. Here are some examples from Collins's book of the first three steps of this reasoning at work. (The next four steps were also taken by him elsewhere, as I showed in previous posts. Collins is an inclusive evangelical and tries to avoid the right religion/wrong religion debate and thus does not explicitly make the last claim, although his belief in Jesus Christ as the son of god is an indirect statement of it.)

[Dawkins] argues that evolution fully accounts for biological complexity and the origins of humankind, so there is no more need for God. While this argument rightly relieves God of the responsibility for multiple acts of creation of each species on the planet, it certainly does not disprove the idea that God worked out His creative plan by means of evolution. (p. 220)
. . .
The major and inescapable flaw of Dawkins's claim that science demands atheism is that it goes beyond the evidence. If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence. (p. 222)

This fails the logic test. As mathematician John Allen Paulos argues in his book Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up (2008), basic logic requires that existence claims and universal claims be treated differently.

Existence claims can be proved but not disproved. "No matter how absurd the existence claim (there exists a dog who speaks English out of its rear end), we cannot look everywhere and check everything in order to assert with absolute confidence that there's no entity having the property." (Paulos, p. 42) But all the person making the existence claim needs to do to prove it is to produce just one specimen. So the burden of proof is on the person making the existence claim, and in the absence of such proof, it is perfectly logical to deny the validity of the claim.

On the other hand, universal claims can be disproved but not proved. For example, the claim that all swans are white can be disproved by producing just one black swan. But no one can prove the universal claim since we can never say we have checked each and every swan. So the burden of proof is on the person denying the universal claim and in the absence of such proof, it is perfectly logical to assume the validity of the universal claim.

This is how science works. Claims that Higgs bosons with certain properties exist (as is claimed by the currently dominant theory in particle physics) is an existence claim and until evidence is produced for it, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that there is no such thing. That is why over 2,000 physicists from 32 countries are involved in the building of a huge and expensive accelerator in Europe known as the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) that is designed to produce at least one such Higgs particle, even though theorists feel confident that it exists.

On other hand, the claim that "all electrons have the same rest mass" is a universal claim based on observations of a limited set of electrons and it is logical to accept it as valid until someone produces a counter-example.

The claim that god exists is clearly an existence claim, and so the burden of proof is on the believer to produce god. If believers fail to produce god or to provide indirect but credible evidence of his existence, the rational thing is to assume non-existence.

When it comes to religion Collins, like many others, abandons the reasoning powers he has demonstrated in his scientific work when he says "Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason." (p. 222)

Collins's claim is simply wrong. Atheism is the logical and rational consequence of the failure of believers to produce evidence in favor of their existence claim for god.

POST SCRIPT: Why you shouldn't throw paperclips

We have all had experience with the co-worker or acquaintance who thinks he/she is being funny by repeating something over and over when it is just infuriatingly annoying. Well, sometimes it is just too much to take.

June 13, 2008

The Language of God-5: The nasty problem of miracles

(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007. The complete set of these posts will be archived here.)

As I said before, sophisticated religious believers like Francis Collins and John Lennox always start out by arguing for a God of the Ultimate Gaps. The insurmountable problem that they then face is that their emotional need to believe in a Personal God who communicates with them individually and can answer their prayers requires them to go well beyond the narrow role they initially assigned to a God of the Ultimate Gaps, and results in them getting tied up in all kinds of logical knots.

Because they have to find ways for god to act in the universe, they inevitably make additional assumptions to allow for that. Collins does this by expanding the powers of god, so that miracles violating natural laws are now possible, even though this contradicts his earlier claim that god is not in our universe and thus we should not expect to find tangible evidence of his presence in the universe.

He tries to suggest, like Lennox, that miracles are possible because once you accept the existence of god, all things become possible: "Miracles thus do not pose an irreconcilable conflict for the believer who trusts in science as a means to investigate the natural world, and who sees that the natural world is ruled by laws. If, like me, you admit that there might exist something or someone outside of nature, then there is no logical reason why that force could not on rare occasions stage an invasion." (p. 77) He further justifies this by saying, "Is not God the author of the laws of the universe? Is He not the greatest scientist? The greatest physicist? The greatest biologist?" (p. 235)

The fundamental illogic of saying that god acts in nature and thus miracles are possible, just after arguing that god is outside of nature, does not strike a true believer like Collins.

He seems to think that this flat-out contradiction can be waved away by arguing that miracles are rare. He writes: "Perhaps on rare occasions, God does perform miracles." (p. 65) And again, "But for the most part, the existence of free will and of order in the physical universe are inexorable facts. While we might wish for such miraculous deliverance to occur more frequently, the consequence of interrupting these two sets of forces would be utter chaos." (p.65) And again, "On the other hand, in order for the world to avoid descending into chaos, miracles must be very uncommon." (p. 77)

The idea that this hopeless muddle can be rescued by saying that such miraculous 'invasions' from outside the universe are rare only makes the logical hole he is digging deeper. If god can do one miracle then we already have the chaos Collins fears because we do not know in advance which event is the miracle and which is not. It would be different if god were to announce when he was doing a miracle but that is not what happens. By allowing for any miracle at all, Collins has effectively lost the argument that he has carefully made against the YEC and ID people.

He seems to think that he can minimize the damage he has caused to his logic by requiring of his rare miracles "that they should serve some purpose, rather than representing the supernatural acts of a capricious magician, simply designed to amaze." (p. 77) This allows him to find reasons to accept the 'miracle' that Jesus rose from the dead while dismissing the 'miracle' of Jesus appearing on a piece of toast or a French fry. But by now logic and reason have been thrown to the winds, leaving only self-serving assertions, because Collins is now effectively saying that it is only religious sophisticates like him who know the mind of god well enough to judge what is a miracle and what is not.

He tries to have it both ways even when dealing with the Biblical stories of creation.

The real dilemma for the believer comes down to whether Genesis 2 is describing a special act of miraculous creation that applied to a historic couple [Adam and Eve], making them biologically different from all the other creatures that had walked the earth, or whether this is a poetic and powerful allegory of God's plan for the entrance of the spiritual nature (the soul) and the Moral Law into humanity.

Since a supernatural God can carry out supernatural acts, both options are tenable. (p. 275)

It is sad that a gifted scientist like Collins cannot see that his religious beliefs have blinded him to the obvious truth that was expressed by another evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin much earlier: "We cannot live simultaneously in a world of natural causation and of miracles, for if one miracle can occur, there is no limit." (Scientists Confront Creationism, Laurie R. Godfrey, (ed.) 1983.)

POST SCRIPT: Thinks tanks and enviroskeptics

In my series on 'think tanks' (titled The Propaganda Machine), I discussed how they are often used to provide a scholarly veneer on propaganda. A recent study says that over 90% of the books expressing skepticism on threats to the environment have think tank roots.

(Thanks to Machines Like Us.)

June 12, 2008

The Language of God-4: The contradictions start piling up

(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007. The complete set of these posts will be archived here.)

Thoughtful religious people have always faced the problem of explaining why there is no tangible evidence for god anywhere. They have sought to "explain" this by fiat, by simply asserting, as Collins does, that god exists 'outside the universe' (whatever that means) and therefore we will not find evidence for him within the universe.

It would seem, then, that Collins would support Stephen Jay Gould's idea, suggested in his book Rocks of Ages (1999), that the two realms occupy 'non-overlapping magisteria', where all explanations for physical phenomena are reserved for science while leaving the moral and ethical realms for religion. Gould was expanding on an earlier (1984) formulation by the National Academy of Sciences that said that "[R]eligion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief."

I have pointed out in an earlier posting and in my own book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (2000) that this approach of the NAS and Gould leads to terrible contradictions. Collins shares my dislike of this 'two realms' model, but for different reasons. Unlike Gould, who did not believe in god himself but was merely trying to negotiate a truce between moderate religion and atheism so that they can join forces against the creationists, religious people like Collins are seeking a unifying vision of god and science and hence the 'two realms' model does not work for him.

Collins wants to be able to be in personal communication with god and so he is obliged to find a way to cross the bridge that separates the 'inside' and 'outside' of the universe, or the two 'magisteria', and there is simply no way to do so without creating all kinds of logical problems. This is similar to the kinds of problems faced by writer J. K. Rowling in creating a magical world that is parallel to the real world. Once you step on the extremely slippery slope of trying to find ways for god to act in the universe, you quickly slide to the bottom and land in a mess of contradictions, circular arguments, and question-begging ad hoc rationalizations.

We see the contradictions beginning right out of the gate, on page 15. After rejecting the two realms model as "potentially unsatisfying", Collins immediately contradicts himself, starting on the very same page.

In my view there is no conflict with being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us. Science's domain is to explore nature. God's domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul – and the mind must find a way to embrace both realms. (p. 15)
. . .
It also became clear to me that science, despite its unquestioned powers in unraveling the mysteries of the natural world, would get me no further in resolving the question of God. If God exists, the He must be outside the natural world, and therefore the tools of science are not the right ones to learn about him. (p. 47,48)
. . .
BioLogos doesn't try to wedge God into gaps in our understanding of the natural world; it proposes God as the answer to questions science was never intended to address, such as "How did the universe get here?" "What is the meaning of life?" What happens to us after we die?" Unlike Intelligent Design, BioLogos is not intended as a scientific theory. Its truth can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind, and the soul. (p. 270, 271)

The expression to examine something with the 'heart and mind and soul' can be viewed as a mere rhetorical device, to imply that one is devoting one's full and undivided and enthusiastic attention to the task. But when religious people talk about the 'heart, mind, and soul', it is clear that they have entered a squishy world where resonant phrases are used to cover a lack of content.

I can understand what people mean by the mind (it is the cognitive processes of the brain) and what it means to use the mind to examine something. The tools of science enable one to study phenomena and the mind is unquestionably a part of those tools since we need to think and reason about things. The brain-based mind is necessary to do so. But what does it mean to examine things with the 'heart and soul' as well? As far as I can infer, it seems to refer to just emotions. If you feel good about something, your 'heart and soul' approves. If you feel misgivings, your 'heart and soul' is saying no.

Neuroscientists know that our emotions are the result of certain chemicals called neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline excreted by various parts of the brain. Hence emotions are also merely the result of the working of the brain. But religious people tend to take these emotional chords as the language that god uses to communicate with them.

Since many people seem to feel an emotional need for god, it is hardly surprising that their 'heart and soul' says yes to the idea that god is talking to them and they then take this as 'evidence' that god exists. But is this kind of self-indulgent thinking really to be taken seriously as evidence for god?

As John Allen Paulos says in his book Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up (2008, p, 75), this kind of argument for god can be summarized as follows:

1. People feel in the pit of their stomach that there is a God
2. They sometimes dress up this feeling with any number of unrelated, irrelevant, and unfalsifiable banalities and make a Kierkegaadian "leap of faith" to conclude that God exists.
3. Therefore God exists.

Of course, the unrelated, irrelevant, and unfalsifiable banalities do play a role. It's been my experience that, everything being equal, many people are more impressed by fatuous blather that they don't understand than by simple observations that they do.

In the next post, I will look at how Collins deals with the knotty problem of miracles.

POST SCRIPT: Religion? What religion?

Guess who 'believes that Earth’s appearance is a recent geologic event — thousands of years old, not 4.5 billion' and that "The most incredible thing I believe is the Christmas story. That little baby born in the manger was the god that created the universe"?

None other that the chairman of the Texas state education board, Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist in Central Texas

"But Dr. McLeroy says his rejection of evolution — “I just don’t think it’s true or it’s ever happened” — is not based on religious grounds."

Whew, that's a relief. For a moment, I thought he was one of those crazy people trying to bring their religious beliefs into the science classroom.

June 11, 2008

The Language of God-3: The God of the Ultimate Gaps again

(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007. The complete set of these posts will be archived here.)

The subtitle of Francis Collins's book A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief leads one to expect evidence, and scientific evidence at that, for the existence of god. But the book does not actually present any evidence. What it does is rework the same philosophical arguments that have been around for a long time, especially as reformulated by Oxford academic C. S. Lewis, another atheist who later converted to Christianity and whose writings (especially Mere Christianity) have been influential in Christian apologetics in general and for Collins in particular. It was Lewis's writings that started Collins on his own journey from atheism to belief. (Lewis is also the author of The Chronicles of Narnia.)

Rather than present any evidence for god, Collins' book suggests simply that modern scientific knowledge can be made consistent with earlier religious arguments for god. In other words he, like Lewis and other theologians before him, try to establish the existence of god by reasoning alone. They have to try and do this since they have no evidence but they immediately face a logical problem. "As David Hume observed, the only way a proposition can be proved by logic and the meaning of words alone is for its negation to be (or lead to) a contradiction, but there's no contradiction that results from God's not existing." (John Allen Paulos, Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up (2008), p. 40)

Collins's arguments for the existence of god run into difficulties when he presents his own model reconciling his belief in god with science. When one examines closely his arguments, one sees that they are very similar to the ones made by John Lennox in his debate with Richard Dawkins and which I have examined before. In fact, it follows precisely the same pattern, varying only in its details.

Both Lennox and Collins start out by arguing on a highly abstract plane. Collins asserts, like Lennox, that the god he believes in is not a 'God of the gaps'. But for the concept of god to have any real meaning one needs some opportunities for god to act and so Collins ends up, like Lennox, arguing that science has not ruled out the possibility of a 'God of the Ultimate Gaps'. Then, like Lennox, he uses sleight-of-hand. After first arguing that it is logically impossible to rule out the existence of a God of the Ultimate Gaps, he takes that as a license to believe in any and all things supernatural

Where Collins differs with Lennox lies in his choice of Ultimate Gaps being a little different from Lennox's. While mathematician and philosopher of science Lennox sees the Ultimate Gaps as being the origins of the universe and the beginning of life, Collins (being a biologist and more familiar with the latter area) thinks that the origins of life is probably something that can and will be solved by science and warns against invoking god as an explanation for it.

Given the inability of science thus far to explain the profound question of life's origins, some theists have identified the appearance of RNA and DNA as a possible opportunity for divine creative action . . . Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps. Faced with incomplete understanding of the natural world, believers should be cautious about invoking the divine in areas of current mystery, lest they build an unnecessary theological argument that is doomed for later destruction. . . [While] the question of the origin of life is a fascinating one, and the inability of modern science to develop a statistically probable mechanism is intriguing, this is not the place for a thoughtful person to wager his faith. (p. 127-129)

Collins's Ultimate Gaps are the origins of the universe (as was expected from point #2 on his list of the fundamental tenets of his BioLogos philosophy) and what he identifies as the existence of the "Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history" This is his point #6. (p. 264)

Collins says that "[M]aterialistic skeptics who wish to give no ground to the concept of the supernatural . . . will no doubt argue that there is no need to consider miracles at all. In their view, the laws of nature can explain everything, even the exceedingly improbable." (p. 78) He then flatly asserts, "There is at least one singular, exceedingly improbable, and profound event in history that scientists of nearly all disciplines agree is not understood and will never be understood, and for which the laws of nature fall completely short of providing an explanation." (p. 78, my italics.)

After making this sweeping and unjustified statement about an unexplainable gap, Collins fills it with god, saying "The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that." (p. 94)

This kind of argument has been derided as 'the argument from personal incredulity' ("I cannot imagine how X could have happened. Therefore god must have done X.") and is exactly the same as that of the intelligent design advocates that Collins had just criticized. This is always a dangerous argument, because science is never static and what is unexplained today may not be so tomorrow. In fact, just recently, some physicists are claiming to have found clues to the time before the Big Bang.

Also, as Sam Harris points out in his review of the book, the Big Bang argument for god is weak on other grounds.

It is worth pointing out the term “supernatural,” which Collins uses freely throughout his book, is semantically indistinguishable from the term “magical.” Reading his text with this substitution in mind is rather instructive. In any case, even if we accepted that our universe simply had to be created by an intelligent being, this would not suggest that this being is the God of the Bible, or even particularly magical. If intelligently designed, our universe could be running as a simulation on an alien supercomputer. As many critics of religion have pointed out, the notion of a Creator poses an immediate problem of an infinite regress. If God created the universe, what created God? To insert an inscrutable God at the origin of the universe explains absolutely nothing. And to say that God, by definition, is uncreated, simply begs the question. (Why can’t I say that the universe, by definition, is uncreated?) Any being capable of creating our world promises to be very complex himself. As the biologist Richard Dawkins has observed with untiring eloquence, the only natural process we know of that could produce a being capable of designing things is evolution.

Any intellectually honest person must admit that he does not know why the universe exists. Secular scientists, of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point. Believers like Collins do not.

As for Collins's other Ultimate Gaps, it comes from Christian apologist C. S. Lewis. Collins claims that everyone around the world seems to have the same intuitive sense of what is right and wrong (what Immanuel Kant called the Moral Law) and that they all seem to yearn to believe in god and that this is evidence that these things must have come externally from god. He arrives at this conclusion by simply dismissing the possibility (as he did for the origin of the universe) that our sense of right or wrong or the ubiquitous belief in god may have perfectly natural causes, despite much research (which I will explore in future posts) that point to just such a possibility.

If the Law of Human Nature cannot be explained away as cultural artifact or evolutionary by-product, then how can we account for its presence? There is truly something unusual going on here. To quote Lewis, "If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse suspicions?" (p. 45, 46)
. . .
In my view, DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God. (p. 189-190)

Note carefully his argument. He says that god is "outside the universe" and therefore we should not expect to find evidence for him "as one of the facts inside the universe." Collins says that the evidence for god must be what we find "inside ourselves as an influence or command trying to get us to behave in a certain way." Since we have such a thing in the Moral Law and also our yearning for god, we have the necessary evidence for god.

This argument conveniently serves the purpose of providing an answer to pesky atheists like me who keep asking why we never seem to find any credible and objective evidence of god. We keep being asked to accept people's personal testimonies, by saying that such internal experiences are the way that god acts in the world.

The logical flaw in this argument is obvious. If some thing is inside us, and we are inside the universe, then the basic logic rule of syllogism implies that this thing must also be inside the universe. So how can Collins claim that this thing that is inside us is outside the universe? The only way to do that is to invoke magical Cartesian dualism and assume that our mind (and consciousness) is also outside the universe, although it can somehow communicate with us enough to make our bodies do things. But then you are back to the old unsolved problem that always plagues religious believers of how something that is asserted to be outside the universe can communicate with something inside the universe.

In the next post, I will look at how Collins tries to deal with this problem.

POST SCRIPT: On a French Fry?

Someone claims another sighting of Jesus.

June 10, 2008

The Language of God-2: Theistic evolution aka 'BioLogos'

(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007. The complete set of these posts will be archived here.)

As I said in the previous post, Francis Collins rejects both young Earth creationism and intelligent design creationism. Instead he says that he is an advocate of 'theistic evolution', or as he wants to rename it, BioLogos. He outlines the basic premises of this belief structure:

  1. The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.
  2. Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.
  3. While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.
  4. Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.
  5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.
  6. But human are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history. (p. 264)

Collins suggests that this is a view that could be, and is, held by many Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and suggests that people like Pope John Paul II, Maimonides (the 12th century Jewish philosopher) and Saint Augustine would have also signed onto them if they had lived today and been aware of current scientific knowledge.

Points 1, 3, 4, and 5 are unimpeachable and would be accepted by any scientist (atheist or not) as well. As we will see, point #2 hints that he is going to invoke the anthropic principle, and point #6 is where his main argument really lies.

The best parts of the book (for me at least) were chapters four and five where he deals with biological evolution and molecular genetics. This is his field of expertise and he is sure-footed and authoritative in his writing as he explains clearly the principles of these fields and how our understanding of the genome has enriched our knowledge of evolution and helped in developing medical treatments.

All the scientific evidence he marshals in these sections is used against the religious arguments of the YEC and ID people. Collins leaves no doubt that he is a convinced Darwinian, something that will cause some dismay to those who may look to him, as an eminent biologist who accepts Jesus as his personal lord and savior, to champion the anti-evolution cause. Collins says that a mass of data has provided "the kind of molecular support for the theory of evolution that has convinced virtually all working biologists that Darwin's framework of variation and natural selection in unquestionably correct." (p. 190)

Here are some other passages from the book that address many of the specific criticisms of evolution by natural selection put forward by those who seek to discredit it.

[The argument] that the Cambrian explosion is evidence of the intervention of some supernatural force . . . is another "God of the gaps" argument, and once again believers would be unwise to hang their faith upon such a hypothesis. (p. 130)
. . .
While there are many imperfections of the fossil record, and many puzzles remain to be solved, virtually all of the findings are consistent with the concept of a tree of life of related organisms. Good evidence exists for transitional forms from reptiles to birds, and from reptiles to mammals. Arguments that this model cannot explain certain species, such as whales, have generally fallen by the wayside as further investigation has revealed the existence of transitional species, often at precisely the date and place that evolutionary theory would predict. (p. 132)
. . .
No serious biologist today doubts the theory of evolution to explain the marvelous complexity and diversity of life. In fact, the relatedness of all species through the mechanism of evolution is such a profound foundation for the understanding of all biology that it is difficult to imagine how one would study life without it. (p. 136)
. . .
Some critics of Darwinism like to argue that there is no evidence of "macroevolution" (that is, major change in species) in the fossil record, only of "microevolution" (incremental change within species). . . This distinction is increasingly seen to be artificial . . . The distinction between macroevolution and microevolution is therefore seen to be rather arbitrary; larger changes that result in new species are a result of a succession of smaller incremental steps. (p. 177-178)
. . .
From a biologist's perspective, the evidence in favor of evolution is utterly compelling. Darwin's theory of natural selection provides a fundamental framework for understanding the relationships of all living things. The predictions of evolution have been borne out in more ways than Darwin could have possibly imagined when he proposed his theory 150 years ago, especially in the field of genomics. (p. 196)

He dismisses the idea, advocated by the ID people, that scientists are dogmatically committed to rejecting any alternative to evolution by natural selection, using arguments that will be familiar to readers of this blog.

Intelligent Design fails in a fundamental way to qualify as a scientific theory . . . A viable scientific theory predicts other findings and suggests approaches for further experimental verification. ID falls profoundly short in this regard . . .providing no mechanism by which the postulated supernatural intervention could give rise to complexity. (p. 249, 250)

Furthermore he says that scientific advances have steadily accumulated in the areas of the blood clotting mechanism and the bacterial flagella (ID's prized examples of alleged irreducible complexity that natural selection cannot explain) and that "each such new puzzle piece provides a natural explanation for a step that ID had relegated to supernatural forces, and leaves its proponents with smaller and smaller territory to stand on." (p. 257)

Such comments are not likely to endear him to the advocates of ID over at the Discovery Institute, which may explain why one of its members wrote a lengthy rebuttal of his criticisms.

So if Collins rejects young earth creationism and intelligent design creationism and wholeheartedly endorses Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection as the explanation for the diversity and complexity of life, how does he reconcile science with the existence of god?

That is the topic of the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Who's to blame?

One of the most idiotic spectacles in sports is the athlete in the post-game interview who thanks god for some game-winning feat. But what about the athlete who chokes and blows it?

June 09, 2008

The Language of God-1: Introducing Francis Collins, distinguished scientist and evangelical Christian

(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007. The complete set of these posts will be archived here.)

In this book Francis Collins tries to present arguments for the existence of god. Collins is an eminent scientist, the person who took over in 1992 from James Watson (co-discoverer in 1953 of the double-helix structure of DNA) as head of the Human Genome Project that in 2000 finished mapping out the complete sequence of 3.1 billion bases in human DNA. This was a monumental feat and Collins managed to shepherd this huge project to a successful conclusion.

To the extent that one can infer the nature of an author from his writings, Collins comes across as a thoughtful, compassionate, tolerant, and genial man, someone with whom it would be enjoyable to spend some time with discussing deep issues. He seems like someone who is sincerely trying to reconcile his scientific and religious beliefs, and he does not shirk the hard questions though his responses to most of them (as I will discuss in later posts) are contradictory and superficial. But that is unavoidable. Once you have made the decision to try to reconcile science with belief in a personal god, you cannot avoid contradictions because the two worldviews are fundamentally incompatible.

His personal history is also interesting. He was born to parents who lived a free-wheeling and free-thinking life on a farm where he was home-schooled. After getting his degree and Ph. D. in physical chemistry, he then obtained a medical degree and got interested in genetics research, ending up as a medical geneticist at the University of Michigan. He helped discover the genetic causes of cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, and Huntington's disease.

He started out as an agnostic, then for a short while in college became an atheist until, at the age of about 26 and towards the end of medical school, he started questioning his own lack of belief and by the age of 28 became a convinced evangelical Christian. He has remained so despite a tragedy in his family that might have shaken the faith of someone else. Although he says that god never 'spoke' to him, he did receive what he considers a sign that finally convinced him of god's existence and he describes this climactic conversion moment to faith. While grappling with questions of belief, he was hiking in the Cascades and when he saw a "beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ." (p. 297)

Why did the waterfall make him convinced of Jesus' divinity and not (say) Allah, Krishna, or Thor? Why would it make him think of god at all instead of wondering (as I would have) about the steps by which rushing water gets frozen? The book does not say but in a profile of him in Time magazine on July 17, 2006, he reveals that the frozen waterfall was in three separate streams, suggesting to him the Trinity.

Collins is convinced that Jesus is a historical figure and that he died and was resurrected. He also thinks that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and John were Jesus' disciples of the same names (p. 295) and were thus writing eyewitness reports, although that is a matter of considerable dispute.

Given his impeccable scientific credentials and personal religious history, he makes an ideal candidate for countering the arguments of atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger.

The book is an easy read, one that I managed to finish in a single day, though I may have been helped by being familiar with the arguments he was making. Although Collins is not a particularly elegant or stylish writer, he more than makes up for that by having a direct and straightforward style that makes his argument easy to follow. He is dealing with a difficult subject and he knows he has an uphill task in trying to reconcile belief in god with science but he does not try to hide the difficulties in a thicket of incomprehensible verbiage.

But unfortunately, this very clarity also works to his disadvantage since, as I will show, the glaring flaws in his logic now become painfully obvious, raising the interesting question of how someone who clearly is able to apply rigorous evidence-based reasoning to his science can abandon it when he talks about religion and not even realize that he has done so. If one needed good evidence of how religious faith undermines scientific and rational thinking, this book is Exhibit A.

Even many religious people are going to be somewhat uncomfortable with his attempt at synthesizing religious beliefs with science. For starters, he dismisses creationism, especially young earth creationism (YEC), as harming religion by requiring its adherents to hold on to beliefs that are manifestly contradicted by facts, thus being anti-science and inviting ridicule.

This is not much of a surprise. Most sophisticated religious believers find young earth creationists to be an embarrassment and distance themselves from that movement.

More surprising is his complete rejection, like that of another religious biologist Kenneth Miller, of intelligent design (ID) creationism as well. He points out, correctly, that ID is a 'God of the gaps' theory that postulates supernatural intervention for phenomena that science cannot currently explain. He points out that such arguments have failed in the past as science was able to explain those earlier gaps and that ID is failing now as the gaps it invokes (the bacterial flagellum, blood-clotting cascade processes) are also being steadily being understood.

The perceived gaps in evolution that ID intended to fill with God are instead being filled by advances in science. By forcing this limited, narrow view of God's role, Intelligent Design is ironically on a path toward doing considerable damage to faith . . . [This] ship is not headed to the promised land; it is headed instead to the bottom of the ocean. If believers have attached their last vestiges of hope that God could find a place in human existence through ID theory, and that theory collapses, what then happens to faith? (p. 259-260)

So if he rejects both YEC and ID, what exactly does he believe? The next post will examine this.

POST SCRIPT: The perfect gift for Dad

Father's Day (another holiday cynically designed to get people to spend money on junk) is coming up and people everywhere are wondering what would be the best gift to give their dear old dad. Dave Barry has completely captured my sentiments and the sentiments of many other fathers on what they really want for this day, their birthday, and other celebratory occasions.

June 06, 2008

Tuesday night election afterthoughts

The Daily Show provides a wrap up of the events of Tuesday night, comparing the speech of Barack Obama with the non-concession, self-absorbed speech of Clinton and the disaster that was McCain's presentation (that was supposed to upstage Obama's night) that was panned even by the Fox News punditocracy.

The Daily Show is one of the very few that actually digs up at the archives of what people said in the past and contrasts it with the present, and shows how the talking heads usually have nothing useful to say. Note how in the clip the media pundits assumed in 2006 and 2007 that the nomination was simply Hillary Clinton's for the taking and that it was futile for anyone to even challenge her. It was only around March 2008, after she stumbled in Iowa and lost a string of eleven straight primaries to Obama that the media narrative switched and people decided she was unlikely to win.

Contrast the predictions of the TV pundits that of blogger Markos Moulitsas who said way back in December 2006 that if Obama ran, he would win, and carefully explained why.

I want to emphasize that it is not that Moulitsas was right in his prediction and the media pundits wrong that makes me compare them. Long-term predictions in politics are tricky and one can easily be wrong because there are so many contingent factors at play, any one of which can cause fortunes to fluctuate wildly. (I am almost always wrong in my own election predictions.) The reason the media pundits are so useless is because there is no depth to their analysis, no sense that they have taken into account the complexity of the process. They focus on one or two factors (gender, race, demographics) or some trivial issues of style and then draw sweeping conclusions and make flat declarative predictions. And then they move on to the next topic, never acknowledging that they were not only wrong, they did not even know what they were talking about. This kind of hit-and-run punditry is a waste of time.

Moulitsas, by contrast, takes into account the various factors involved and tries to weigh them appropriately. He may have been lucky in his prediction but his approach was correct.

In some ways, this difference in approach to punditry was replicated in the way the Clinton and Obama campaigns were run. Clinton based hers on sweeping but shallow generalizations, while Obama's looked at the nitty-gritty details carefully. Clinton adopted the standard Democratic Party strategy of focusing on those large states where the Democrats are strong and trying to run up the vote count there and spending little time on the smaller states that are often Republican. But Obama's people studied the rules and realized that by carefully targeting congressional districts across the country in all the states, and keeping the margins close in the traditional Democratic strongholds, they could win the delegate battle.

There is an important consequence of the Obama strategy. As a result of it, many voters sympathetic to Democrats but living in Republican states suddenly found themselves being wooed after being ignored for so long, which has boosted the chances of Democrats around the country. Obama's strategy paralleled that of the Democratic National Party chair Howard Dean who after taking that position announced a 50-state strategy where the Democrats would not concede any state to the Republicans. Traditional Democratic insiders ridiculed the fact that he put party organizers in every state as a waste of time and money, but it laid the groundwork on which the Obama candidacy could build.

It is significant that Obama has announced that he wants Dean to continue as chair of the party. It signals that they are going to jointly pursue a strategy of campaigning everywhere, for all positions, forcing McCain and the Republican Party to defend themselves in states which Republicans have taken for granted in the past. As a result, the 2008 election may have a record-breaking turnout.

And Stephen Colbert adds his thoughts on the events of Tuesday night.

POST SCRIPT: Baxter again

Probably wondering why I keep taking pictures of him. . .


June 05, 2008

Some thoughts on the presidential race

The Democratic Party primary process has finally come to an end with Barack Obama having secured the party nomination by virtue of having acquired the majority of delegates.

In many ways it has been a remarkable process. A system that had seemed for so long to belong to just white men found two candidates not fitting that mold fighting it out to the finish. While I knew that the barriers of race and gender would eventually be overcome, I had thought that it would be first breached by a woman before a minority, simply because the numbers were in favor of women.

But politics is not just mathematics and statistics. It does have an element of contingency and it turned out that this year the particular candidate who happened to be a minority appealed more to Democratic Party members than the candidate who happened to be a woman.

So now it will be Obama versus John McCain who are both, to a lesser and greater extent, establishment politicians, supported by Wall Street and the business sector and the Villagers, so whoever becomes president we should not expect major shifts in policy, especially on the domestic front. I do not expect to see single-payer, universal health care being even considered by either of them. I do not expect to see a fairer and more progressive tax system or more oversight of the corporate and financial sector.

On foreign affairs, I see both Obama and McCain continuing the imperialistic tendencies that have dominated American foreign policy for so long. What I do hope for is marginal improvements, that an Obama presidency will not launch military attacks on other countries and will seek to engage in dialogue with countries that have long been labeled as enemies. Not talking with those whom with one disagrees has always struck me as an insane policy. McCain strikes me as another reckless, dangerous, non-negotiating warmonger in the Bush tradition.

The Hillary Clinton candidacy has been painful to watch and not because she insisted on staying in the race. That was perfectly justifiable and even a good thing because people in every state should have the chance to vote their preferences. In fact, I would have liked all the candidates in both parties to stay to the end so that people have a real chance to vote for the people and policies they favor. I was annoyed that by the time that the Ohio primaries came around on March 4, the only choices I had were Obama and Clinton, although they were #4 and #7 on my preference list from the eight Democratic candidates who started out. The way the system works now, it is the amount of money that a candidate can raise early in the process that determines who stays in and who drops out.

I have written before (see here and here) that both Clintons are ruthlessly ambitious people who seem like they will do anything to achieve personal power. It was not the fact that Clinton stayed to the end that surprised me but the way she ran. I am not naïve. Politicians have to be ambitious and even ruthless but they usually have the good taste to reveal only their ambitions for the attainment of public policies, and keep their personal ambitions under wraps. The Clintons are startling in the way their drive for personal power is so naked and transparent. It seems like there is nothing they will not say or do to win, even if it means dividing their party and the country along lines that are difficult to subsequently heal. Dividing and ruling the poor and powerless by setting them against each other is a tried-and-true, but despicable, tactic of ruling class politicians and yet she seemed to be doing just that, pitting working class and less-educated whites against similar minorities.

A Saturday Night Live sketch from May 10 gave a harsh but also disturbingly perceptive caricature of her campaign's tactics. In it, a Clinton-like character gives three reasons why the party should choose her as the nominee over Obama, and none of them reflect well on her.

The cliché that politics makes strange bedfellows was illustrated dramatically when the very people whom the Clintons once considered their enemies (the 'vast right wing conspiracy' led by people like Richard Mellon Scaife, Fox News, and others) became her supporters against Obama, and she in return has embraced them. It is extraordinary that the very people who had a such visceral dislike for the Clintons that it bordered on the insane, and threw their energies behind the Monica Lewinsky affair, Whitewater, and Vince Foster's death to try and bring them down through impeachment, are now the very people who are urging her on.

She and Bill Clinton have done another surprising thing and that is openly campaign for the vice-presidency once her chances of winning the nomination receded. Traditionally it has been the case that people have campaigned for that slot very discreetly, while publicly disavowing any interest. The Clintons have turned that on its head and are publicly demanding that her strong showing practically requires that Obama give her the position.

Frankly, I do not see that happening. Obama would find himself hemmed in by two (Hillary and Bill) power-hungry, ambitious, ruthless, limelight-seeking people. Furthermore, her speech on Tuesday night when Obama's victory was sealed was, as Greg Saunders remarks, remarkable for its gracelessness and self-centeredness, in startling contrast to the warm praise Obama gave her in his own speech.

Actually, I think Hillary Clinton would be more compatible as John McCain's running mate. McCain has started saying very nice things about her, perhaps hoping to appeal to those Clinton supporters who have been goaded to fury by the Clinton campaign's extraordinary and repeated claim that she has been singled out and treated unfairly by her party, even though the process was carried out according to the rules established by the party and agreed to by her at the beginning. As this Washington Post article points out, Obama's strategists studied the rules carefully and devised a plan that they could use to win the majority of delegates even while losing the popular vote in some of the big states. This enabled them to overcome Clinton's enormous early advantage in name recognition.

The Obama phenomenon is something that scholars will analyze for many years, whether he wins the presidency or not. If you had told me in late 2001, when America was angry and lashing out at the world and entering a period of extreme nationalism and xenophobia following the attacks on the World Trade Center, that in just seven years there would be a good chance that the country would elect as president a man born of an African father, with a foreign-sounding last name that was just one letter away from that of the hated author of those attacks, and whose middle name had Muslim roots and was the same as the last name of the foreign leader that the Bush administration was goading the public into a frenzy against, I would have said you were crazy.

And yet here we are with a candidate whose seems to have so fired the imagination of so many people that all these factors, though not ignored or insignificant, have ceased to be of overriding concern.

What is the source of Obama'a appeal?

He has been vague on specifics and what he has said about policy seems very traditional and mainstream, so it cannot be any new ideas that are drawing people in.

Perhaps it is because people really are looking for change and that it is the very fact that he is so obviously different from every serious candidate of the past that makes him attractive, a symbol for a nation that really wants to show that it has broken from some of the ugliest aspects of its past. As Ezra Klein wrote after Obama's victory speech on Tuesday night:

Obama's speech tonight was powerful, but then, most all of his speeches are. This address stood out less than I expected. It took me an hour to realize how extraordinary that was. I had just watched an African-American capture the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States of America, and it felt . . . normal. Almost predictable. 50 years ago, African Americans often couldn't vote, and dozens died in the fight to ensure them the franchise. African-Americans couldn't use the same water fountains or rest rooms as white Americans. Black children often couldn't attend the same schools as white children. Employers could discriminate based on race. 50 years ago, African Americans occupied, in effect, a second, and lesser, country. Today, an African-American man may well become the president of the whole country, and it feels almost normal.

Some of Clinton's supporters claim that Obama benefited unfairly simply from being black and Klein's comment may seem to provide support for that view. That would be an error. The prejudices against black people run deep and Obama's candidacy will generate considerable unease. Many people will not vote for him purely because of his skin color, making laughable the suggestion that he is benefiting from being black. But that negative may be at least partially compensated by others who, while voting for him because of the hope he has inspired in them, will also take pride and pleasure in making a symbolic gesture towards creating a post-racial America. This makes John McCain's tactic of claiming to be the more experienced candidate somewhat dicey, since it also makes it easy to paint him as representing the past and the status quo, a perception that kept dogging Clinton as well.

At least we can be reassured that Obama will carry himself with the kind of dignity that one expects from a national leader. One cannot see him doing cringe-inducing chest-bumps and other adolescent acts with Air Force Academy graduates as Bush did last week. Obama will not be an embarrassment.

Obama also seems like a person who thinks things through and does not make rash and ill-considered decisions and that will no doubt come as a relief to all those people who have been on edge as to what crazy plan Bush will sign on to next because his gut (or, equivalently, his god) tells him it is the right thing to do.

I don't think many Americans quite understand how despised and disliked America and Americans are in the world right now, thanks to the arrogance, incompetence, and insensitivity that the Bush administration has displayed over the last seven years that have made Bush, even within this country, reach such low approval ratings that, combined with his disastrous performance in office, guarantees that he is going down in history as the worst president ever.

Whoever the next president is will have a very difficult time lifting the country out of the economic, political, and military dumpster that this administration has tossed it into, but one can be sure that Obama will start off with much greater feelings of goodwill around the world than McCain. When I was in Sri Lanka in January and April, I was amazed at how excited everyone I met was at the prospect of an Obama presidency. I did not meet a single person who expressed a preference for any of the large number of candidates of either party then running

Although I do not expect too much from Obama, I hope he wins. I am a hopeful optimist by nature and maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised by him.

POST SCRIPT: Sicko now online

Michael Moore's film on the scandal that is the US health care system is now online courtesy of Machines Like Us and you can see it here.

If you haven't seen it already, you really should.

June 04, 2008

Am I spiritual?

Having thought and written about atheism and science and religion quite a bit, there are few questions that I encounter about these topics for which I do not have at least a partial answer ready to hand.

The one question that used to flummox me until quite recently was when people asked me whether I am spiritual.

This question usually arises after they discover that I am an atheist. I think it is driven by the common misperception that atheists are emotionless rationalists who cannot accept anything that is not accessible via the senses. People cannot seem to quite come to terms that a person who seems otherwise 'normal' does not believe in some sort of transcendent element in their lives.

This question about my spirituality used to baffle me because I was not sure what people meant by the word. I often refer to the 'human spirit' but when I do I am using it as an umbrella label that encompasses such things as hope, courage, will, and perseverance, the qualities that enable people to struggle against great odds to achieve some worthwhile goal. But it is clear that this is not what is meant by the word 'spirit' when people ask me if I am spiritual, since then everyone would be spiritual.

So now when people ask me if I am spiritual, I reply by asking what they mean by the word. This usually surprises them and leaves them initially at a loss because the word is used so freely that they clearly thought its meaning was self-evident, even if they had not given much thought to it and cannot easily articulate what they themselves mean by it. My question has elicited a wide range of responses, suggesting that the word spiritual has become almost individualized, with each person assigning their preferred meaning to it.

Some people use the word spirit as almost synonymous with the word soul, to represent some sort of non-material supernatural entity that exists as part of them but also independently of them. My answer to whether I am spiritual in this sense is no. I do not believe I have such a soul-like entity.

Other people use the word to signify belief in a non-sectarian god that gives them some sense of cosmic meaning and purpose. This belief in god is not accompanied by a religious doctrine or ritual or even a shared community of believers. Such people have their own definition of god, unfettered by any official dogma. It is not uncommon to find such people saying things like "I am not religious but I am spiritual." I am not spiritual in that sense either. I find no reason to believe in the existence of any type of god or metaphysical entity.

But other people use the word spiritual to imply that life and the universe has some sort of meaning and purpose independent of what we assign to it. Such people do not talk of god but of some vague 'life force', some underlying organizing principle that gives our life some direction. I am not spiritual in that sense either. I believe that the universe has no external purpose and meaning. The universe just is. We have to give our lives meaning.

Some people use the word spiritual as a descriptor of certain kinds of attitudes and behavior. People who have a dreamy approach to life and like to speak in mystical terms of life's great mysteries are often referred to as being spiritual people. Such people tend to resist scientific explanations of mind, consciousness, will, and the origins of life and the universe, preferring to think of these things as deep, insoluble mysteries, defying any attempt at further elucidation. I am not one of them. I think that all these things are all amenable to scientific investigation and that there is nothing intrinsic in the nature of these things that prevents us from learning about them, though the answers may be difficult to obtain.

Sometimes the word spiritual is used as a measure of whether one has an appreciation of the finer, non-material things in life, like art and music and poetry. Such things can arouse emotions and feelings that are perhaps ineffable. People who like to contemplate the metaphysical, who can watch a sunset and be so mesmerized by the beauty of the sight that they are speechless, are thought to be 'spiritual' and said to have a 'soul'. Conversely those who look at the same sunset and the only thought it arouses is to remind them that "Hey, it's time for dinner!" are believed to be crass, soul-less, and unspiritual.

Used in this sense, the words spiritual and soul are again merely umbrella labels, this time for a complex mix of emotions that are thought to be deep and profound. In that sense I think we all are spiritual and 'have a soul', varying in just the kinds of things we are spiritual about. For example, the sense of awe that I feel when I think about the vastness, beauty, and complexity of the universe, and of our ability to understand so much of it, is a spiritual experience of this kind. So everyone can probably answer 'yes' as to the question of whether they have this kind of spirituality.

It is clear that the word 'spiritual' is used with such widely varying meanings that it has ceased to be useful unless its meaning is narrowed down, which may explain why I used to have such a lot of trouble answering the question about my own spirituality.

POST SCRIPT: Calling a lie a lie

Jon Stewart refuses to let Scott McClennan get away with euphemisms about 'the culture of Washington' and pins him down on the fact that they all lied.

Meanwhile, Stephen Colbert accurately nails the media performance

Once again, we have to look for the comedy shows to get any worthwhile analysis.

June 03, 2008

The end of god-23: The false equivalence of science and religion

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

In this final post in this series, I want to address the attempt to bring down science to the level of religion by arguing that science and religion are equivalent because there exist questions that neither can answer. This approach is illustrated by Lord Winston (emeritus professor of fertility studies, Imperial College London) in his debate with Daniel Dennett.

Winston does this by setting up a straw man version of science as that which consists of certain knowledge. He says: "Dennett seems to believe science is "the truth". Like many of my brilliant scientific colleagues, he conveys the notion that science is about a kind of certainty."

Winston then attacks that straw man, using the Biblical story of Job as a basis for specifying questions that he claims science cannot answer.

God asks Job where he was when He laid the foundations of the Earth? Do we understand where we come from, where we are going, or what lies beyond our planet?

The problem is that scientists now too frequently believe we have the answers to these questions, and hence the mysteries of life. But, oddly, the more we use science to explore nature, the more we find things we do not understand and cannot explain. In reality, both religion and science are expressions of man's uncertainty. Perhaps the paradox is that certainty, whether it be in science or religion, is dangerous.

Winston's idea, that scientists believe that scientific knowledge is synonymous with certain knowledge, is hopelessly outdated. It was something that originated with Aristotle when he tried to find a way to demarcate between science and non-science, but fell out of favor by the mid-to-late 19th century as a result of the repeated overthrow of long-held and widely believed scientific theories, such as the Ptolemaic geocentric solar system and the phlogiston theory of combustion. It is now generally accepted that all knowledge is fallible. In fact, it is only some religious believers who still cling to the idea that some knowledge is infallible, because they think that their religious texts are directly from god and hence cannot be wrong. To argue, as Winston does, that it is science which thinks of itself as infallible is to wrongly impute to science a claim that is made about religious beliefs.

Winston's other argument, that there are questions ("where we come from, where we are going, or what lies beyond our planet") that neither science nor religion can answer with certainty and hence that gives both equivalent status in terms of knowledge, is absurd. It ignores the fact that science has produced vast amounts of useful and reliable knowledge over the centuries and continues to do so, while religion has produced exactly zero. Secondly, even for those questions, it is only science that has given us any insight at all as to what answers to them might look like. Religion has only given us myths that have to be re-interpreted with each new major scientific discovery. Religious knowledge always lags behind science and keeps falling farther and farther back. How can anyone plausibly claim that the two knowledge structures are of equivalent value?

Religion and science are clearly not equivalent. Science is always searching for answers to questions and its knowledge evolves as old questions get answered and new questions emerge. I don't know what future research in science will bring forth but I am pretty sure that the science of a hundred years from now will be quite different from the scientific knowledge we have now. Religion, on the other hand, is stuck in the past, still recycling the ideas of five hundred years ago.

Also, we can do perfectly well without religion. All the alleged benefits it provides can be provided by alternative secular sources. We cannot do without science because whatever its faults and deficiencies (and there are many), there is no other knowledge that can replace the benefits it provides.

One final point is about the use of reason and evidence. Religious people like to use evidence and reason when trying to defend their faith and challenge their critics, but turn around and argue that their own beliefs are based on faith and transcend evidence, logic, and reason and so those things should not be used against them.

Daniel Dennett in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995, p. 154) says that if, in a debate with a religious believer, you assert that what he just said implies that god is a ham sandwich wrapped in tinfoil, your opponent will be indignant, saying it means no such thing and demanding that you supply reasons and evidence to justify your assertion. But if you ask religious believers to justify their assertion that god exists, they will invariably end up saying that the existence of god has to be accepted on faith, that this is a question that is outside the bounds of evidence and reason.

Because of this, Dennett says, arguing with religious people is like playing tennis with an opponent who lowers the net when he is playing the shot and raises it when you are. But religious believers shouldn't continue to be allowed to have it both ways. They have managed to do so for centuries because of the idea that 'respect for religion' means not posing hard questions. If religious believers deny a role for reason and evidence in arguing for the existence of god, then anything goes and they are obliged to accept any nonsensical response. (This is the clever premise of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and its Pastafarian members who demand to be treated with the same respect as the older religious traditions.) Of course, such a discussion would be a waste of time for all concerned. That is why any worthwhile discussion must involve reason and evidence on all sides.

What I hope this series of posts has done is convince the reader that advances in knowledge in science and other fields over the last two centuries has made god obsolete and redundant. That is a good thing because if we are to have any hope for humankind to overcome its petty tribal differences, it is essential that religion and its associated superstitions be eliminated from the public sphere and religion be categorized along with astrology, alchemy, and witchcraft as beliefs that may have some interest as cultural and historical phenomena but which only the naïve and gullible accept as having any lasting value.

God is dead. Sooner or later, religious people will have to move past their current stage of denial of this fact and accept that reality.

POST SCRIPT: Lewis Black on the economic stimulus package

June 02, 2008

The end of god-22: Playing with words

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

In the previous post, I said that some scientists (like Einstein) used to use god as a metaphor even though they were not believers, and that this caused some confusion as to what they truly believed.

There are, of course, some scientists who really do believe in god and try to find ways to reconcile their beliefs. Biologist Francis Collins, recently retired head of the National Human Genome Research Institute and an evangelical Christian, has written a book The Language of God where he apparently argues that the structure of DNA reveals god at work. (I plan to read his book in the very near future and will report on what his argument is.) Biologist Kenneth Miller, a Catholic, wrote a book Finding Darwin's God that argues against god's involvement in the evolutionary process (he is an opponent of intelligent design creationism) but tries to use the uncertainty principle as a gateway for god to act in the world without violating the laws of science. John Polkinghorne, a physicist who later became an Anglican clergyman, argues in his book Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship that both science and religion use similar truth-seeking strategies.

Quantum physics has been a real boon to those people trying to find some room for god in science. Such people have exploited some of the admittedly strange properties of quantum physics to make some fairly strong metaphysical claims. while ignoring the fact that it is a materialistic theory that can be used to make precise predictions without requiring any mystical elements. Yves Gingras takes to task those scientists who have exploited this longing for mysticism among the general public, calling, for example, Fritjof Capra's very popular book in this vein The Tao of Physics a 'monumental joke'.

As Gingras says:

What these books do is try to wrap modern scientific discoveries in an allusory shroud that insinuates a link between cutting-edge science and solutions to the mysteries of life, the origins of the universe and spirituality. They depend on cultivating ambiguity and a sense of the exotic, flirtatiously oscillating between science and the paranormal. This is X-Files science - and The X-Files is science-fiction.
. . .
It seems to me that scientists involved in popularisation have an obligation to present science as the naturalistic enterprise it is, instead of attempting (cynically or naively) to stimulate interest in science by associating it with vague spiritual or religious notions. This eye-catching genre can only generate bitter disappointment among those motivated by it to pursue the study of science; for they will quickly learn that they will never meet God in a particle accelerator or in a DNA sequence.

The essence of science is a naturalist vision of the world that makes it understandable without any appeal to transcendental intelligence, be it Zeus, Poseidon or any other God.

Physicist Paul Davies is one of the scientists most guilty of creating the kind of ambiguity that Gingras deplores. Davies is a 'Templeton scientist', 1995 winner of their award for attempts to reconcile science and religion, and author of numerous books liberally sprinkled with the words god, spirit, miracle, etc in the titles and the text. Recently Davies wrote an op-ed suggesting that scientists have faith too and that this makes science and religion somehow equivalent.

[S]cience has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. . . And so far this faith has been justified.

Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.
. . .
Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too.

Davies argues that because we don't know why the laws of science have the form they do, science is inadequate. He says "until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus."

Davies' claim that science falsely purports to be 'free of faith' is itself a bogus argument. What he is doing is conflating two different meanings of the word 'faith', the way I warned against doing for the word 'believe' in my own An Atheist's Creed. Physicist Bob Park gives the appropriate rejoinder.

It's time we had a little talk. The New York Times on Saturday published an op-ed by Paul Davies that addresses the question: "Is embracing the laws of nature so different from religious belief?" Davies concludes that, "until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus." Davies has confused two meanings of the word "faith." The Oxford Concise English Dictionary on my desk gives the two distinct meanings for faith as: "1) complete trust or confidence, and 2) strong belief in a religion based on spiritual conviction rather than proof." A scientist's "faith" is built on experimental proof. The two meanings of the word "faith," therefore, are not only different, they are exact opposites.

When I or any other scientist says that we have faith in the law of gravity or the conservation of energy or the laws of thermodynamics, we may invoke the same word as religious believers when they say they have faith in god, but we use it in a completely different sense. We have faith because the laws have been tested over and over in very carefully controlled conditions and have never let us down. They have always worked as advertised and thus we have 'complete trust and confidence' that they will continue to do so. Does this mean they always will? We cannot say. There is always the possibility that there is a subtlety in those laws that we are not aware of that may reveal itself under unusual circumstances as a seeming failure. That is why we say that we have 'faith' in those laws instead of absolute certainty. But that tiny residual uncertainty is a concession that scientists make in acknowledgment of the fact that we never know anything for certain.

This is a far cry from religious people having faith in god when they have absolutely no reason for doing so apart from some vague yearnings that are largely the residue of childhood indoctrination. To conflate the evidence-rich use of the word 'faith' by scientists to the evidence-free use by religious people is to be naïve or to willfully mislead.

Even though scientists and religious believers use the same words 'faith', 'belief', and even 'god', they view those words and the world in quite different ways. Scientists should consistently point out this difference so that merely verbal manipulation can be removed from the discussion.

POST SCRIPT: Rewriting history

The publication of a self-serving book by former White House Press Secretary and Bush confidante Scott McClennan that castigates the behavior of everyone in the White House (except Bush and McClennan) and the media (for its gullibility about its unquestioning acceptance of propaganda and its cheerleading for war with Iraq) has produced a flurry of historical revisionism on the part of the media. McClennan seems to see no irony in charging the media with not asking hard questions when he did nothing but stonewall and lie to the same media.

Much of the media defense has taken the form that everyone at that time believed that Iraq had WMDs.

Not so fast, say Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of McClatchy (formerly Knight-Ridder) news syndicate. That news group was one of the very few in the mainstream American media who expressed some skepticism and backed it up with solid reporting.

Of course, many of us outside the American media Village bubble never bought the case for war either, seeing the whole enterprise as an illegal and immoral fraud from the beginning.