Archive for December, 2009

Daniel Dennett: Why Darwin’s idea was the greatest ever

| December 31, 2009 | Reply
Daniel Dennett: Why Darwin’s idea was the greatest ever

In this terrifically engaging and accessible video interview, Daniel Dennett (talking with Richard Dawkins) explains his view that Darwin’s idea was the greatest idea ever. Dennett, who authored Darwin’s Dangerous Idea explains that natural selection unified the world of mechanism/material/physical and the world of meaning/purpose/goals which, until Darwin, seemed to be unbridgeable.

Many people feel that Darwin’s idea destroyed their sense of meaning, but Dennett argues that this “immaterial immortal soul” is a “crutch,” and that Darwin replaced that idea with that of a “material mortal soul.” Dennett describes our material souls as made of neurons. “They are blind little bio-robots . . . They don’t know; they don’t care; they are just doing their jobs.” If you put enough of these simple little bio-robots together, you end up with a soul. Out of these little bio-robots, you can assemble the control system of a complex organism. Simple little parts can self-organize into sentient being that can “look into the future . . . because we can imagine the world in a better way, and we can hold each other responsible for that.”

There’s no need to assume that a God implants any sort of soul. Rather, according to Dennett, a functional soul can “emerge” from soul-less little individual parts. The simple little parts don’t need to exhibit the functions and abilities of the assembled groups of parts, but this illusory jump is a huge stumbling block for many theists. They wonder how you can “make a living thing out of dead stuff,” but that is exactly what happens, “and that’s the wonder of it.” Science has also shown that you can also “make a conscious thing out of unconscious stuff.”

Over great periods of time, natural processes can constitute the design function that allows these incredible results we see in the world. It is not necessary that complex things need to be created by even more complex things. Darwin’s ideas destroyed this misconception and “this is a really stunning fact. Purpose can emerge from the bottom up.” The brain itself is a fast-paced evolutionary device; the learning process is a matter of generation and testing and pruning, over and over.

Dawkins asks Dennett to explain further how “cranes” (simple natural processes) can really account for the wonderful complexity of life in the absence of “sky-hooks” (supernatural beings). You could argue that our planet has grown a nervous system and it’s us. The above summarizes only the first ten minutes of the fifty-minute interview.

Numerous other topics are discussed in the video, including the following:

– Modern wars and strife constitute growing pains resulting from our being flooded with great amounts of information about each other. (15:00)

– Cultural evolution clearly exists. Languages and musical ideas evolve, for example, without anyone initially consciously “laying down the law.”

– Dennett’s recent brush with death (his aorta suddenly burst), resulting in many intriguing observations (21:00), including a deepened understanding of the phrase “thank goodness.” You can put goodness back into the world, “and you don’t need a middleman” (God). You can directly thank the doctors, nurses and medical journalists, the peer reviewers and the entire scientific enterprise that allows elaborate cures such as artificial aortas. According to Dennett, don’t bother thanking God, “go plant a tree, go try to teach somebody something . . . let’s make the world better for our children and our grandchildren.”

– Dennett elaborates on being part of this elaborate social and scientific fabric, this complex exploratory process. He finds this view much more inspiring that the idea that he is “a doll made by God . . . to pray to him.” (24:00)

– The scientific process is double-edged, exacerbated by the Internet. We can’t tightly control this information, and their effects might be detrimental. We need to think “epidemiologically” about this possibility, and to better prepare people to deal with the ideas gone awry to protect them. (26:00) Knowledge can be a “painful process,” yet we need to honor other people to make their own considered decisions.

– Darwin offers some consolation regarding our impending deaths: that they had the opportunity to walk on this planet “for awhile.” (29:00) Dawkins adds that it is a huge privilege to have been born, in that “you are lucky to have had anything at all . . . stop moaning.” Dennett adds that we are not aghast at the thought that there were many years that passed before we were born when we were also not alive . . . it shouldn’t bother us that we will someday again no longer be alive. Our grief at someone’s death is a measure of how wonderful someone was.

– The urge to thank someone for the many good things in one’s life is a great temptation for believing in God. (33:00). Dawkins argues that contemplating that amazing process that gave rise to you “is better than thanking because it is a thoughtful thing to do . . . You’re not just thanking your Sky-Daddy.” He argues that the urge to thank should be “sublimated” into the drive to understand how it all happened. Atheists, too, can feel the sense of “awe.” Dennett exclaims, “Hallelujah! It’s just spectacular. It’s so wonderful! The universe is fantastic!” Dawkins adds, “Hallelujah for the universe and for the fact that we . . . are working on understanding it.”

This June 2009 video is uncut; it is the full Dennett interview by Richard Dawkins. Parts of this interview were used in a British television documentary entitled “The Genius of Charles Darwin.”

Share

Read More

Killing antibiotics

| December 31, 2009 | Reply
Killing antibiotics

How is it that super-germs are difficult to find in Norway? It’s because Norwegians have severely cut back on the use of antibiotics. This approach has saved many lives in Norway and it could save tens of thousands of lives in the United States. What do Norwegian doctors do instead of providing antibiotics?

Norwegians are sanguine about their coughs and colds, toughing it out through low-grade infections.

“We don’t throw antibiotics at every person with a fever. We tell them to hang on, wait and see, and we give them a Tylenol to feel better,” says Haug.

Convenience stores in downtown Oslo are stocked with an amazing and colorful array — 42 different brands at one downtown 7-Eleven — of soothing, but non-medicated, lozenges, sprays and tablets. All workers are paid on days they, or their children, stay home sick. And drug makers aren’t allowed to advertise, reducing patient demands for prescription drugs.

Full story can be found at MSNBC.

Share

Read More

Privacy inverted

| December 30, 2009 | 2 Replies
Privacy inverted

I think we’ve almost reached the end of an extraordinary ten years or so. Immense amounts of information that should have been public has been kept private. Consider, for instance, eight years where the Bush administration classifying almost anything controversial to be “secret.” More recently, we’ve seen the supposedly transparent health care debate become shaped by opaque dealings because, for instance, Big Pharma and the White House. We continue to see the Federal Reserve successfully prevent tax-payers from learning the inner-workings of an extremely power organization, the actions of which affect us all. But there’s more to this decade than secret things that should be public. It’s public things that should be secret, and I think this second phenomenon is well-illustrated by the following video:

What should, for all intents, be a private moment, the marriage proposal by a pleasant-seeming fellow to his weather channel forecaster girlfriend, has been turned into a public spectacle. I’m sure that no one meant any harm, but as I watched this, it was as clear as can be that I didn’t belong there. This should have been a private moment between the two lovebirds, but the decision to broadcast what appeared to be a surprise proposal (from her standpoint) just couldn’t be resisted. The draw of the limelight was just too alluring. And proposing in public warped the situation in several major ways. She seemed to be willing, but was she really? Did she really want to make her lifetime commitment, and the tremble of her voice, a spectacle for numerous people who had actually tuned in only for the weather? And consider what this sort of thing does to the viewers. Watching this exchange turned me into a voyeur. Did you feel that way too? Here’s more information on this TV proposal.

Nor is this private-things-made-public situation unusual. Anyone turning on TV these days (TV is foisted upon us in waiting rooms, airports, stores, and even the courthouse where I served as a juror two weeks ago) sees numerous what-should-be private moments, including families airing out their dirty laundry on TV. We also see it on numerous blogs–I’ve read one where the woman advised the world that her husband is a drunken bum and that she’s going to leave him–she wrote this to total strangers before telling him. You can also get a regular dose of what-should-be-private information just by browsing Facebook or, better yet, MySpace. And the mainstream media simply just can’t get enough of what should be private family matters regarding politicians, actors, musicians and, of course, athletes.

So there you have it. We are simultaneously seeing a continuing explosion of public private things and private public things. This just can’t be healthy.

Share

Read More

Desiring God

| December 29, 2009 | 4 Replies
Desiring God

At Daylight Atheism, Ebonmuse points out how odd it is that the God of the Bible allegedly desires certain things (e.g., he likes sacrifices). But, as Ebonmuse explains, it should strike us as odd that the creator of the universe would have desires:

The belief that God wants and desires certain things is a common thread in monotheism. But when you think about it, this is a profoundly strange belief. Most theists don’t recognize this, but that’s because the analogy between God and human beings masks the strangeness of it.

After all, we all understand how, and why, human beings come to hold certain desires. We have instinctual physiological drives, installed in us by evolution, for basic things like food, sex and companionship. We have more complex desires as a result of culture, upbringing and past experience for things that we think will add to our happiness or help fulfill the more basic desires. Every one of us has gone through a long, complex and contingent process of development that shaped our likes and dislikes.

But God, so we’re told, is eternal and unchanging. He is pure reason, pure mind, pure spirit – no physical needs to fulfill, no past history, none of the contingent events that make human nature what it is. So how is it that he has, just like us, a complex nature with specific likes and dislikes?

The post is somewhat tongue-in-cheek , but Ebonmuse makes a serious point that theists really should confront, but they never actually do confront it. Instead, they concoct “souls” and “spirits.”

I would spin the issue this way. All desires, many of which stem from emotions, are associated with bodies. Without a body, there cannot be any emotion and thus there cannot be any form of craving or desire. There isn’t a jot of evidence that there has ever been any thought in the absence of a body. Further, there is no such thing as free-standing self-sufficient meaning; there is no such thing as meaning independent of a physical body; all meaning is embodied. I know that many believers would find my conclusions to be disturbing, but this is the direction I am turned when I rely upon the (expansive) scientific view of what it means to be a human animal (and see this entire category).

Share

Read More

No option for those killed or injured by medical devices

| December 29, 2009 | Reply
No option for those killed or injured by medical devices

When it comes to scrutinizing the use of new medical devices, the FDA has fallen down on the job.

Two new studies find shortfalls in the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process for heart devices such as pacemakers and stents. Safety targets often weren’t clearly spelled out in the research submitted by device makers and important patient information was missing. . .

If you are killed or injured by a defective medical device, you can still sue the manufacturer though, right? No longer true. State products liability suits are no longer available. They have been preempted by the U.S. Supreme Court case of Riegel v. Medtronic.

These two revelations demonstrate that safety of consumers of medical devices is not the highest consideration of lawmakers.

Share

Read More

Retaliate against too big to fail banks by moving your money

| December 29, 2009 | 1 Reply
Retaliate against too big to fail banks by moving your money

What can we do about the reckless and corrupt practices of big banks? Arianna Huffington and Rob Johnson suggest that you move your money:

The idea is simple: If enough people who have money in one of the big four banks move it into smaller, more local, more traditional community banks, then collectively we, the people, will have taken a big step toward re-rigging the financial system so it becomes again the productive, stable engine for growth it’s meant to be. It’s neither Left nor Right — it’s populism at its best. Consider it a withdrawal tax on the big banks for the negative service they provide by consistently ignoring the public interest. It’s time for Americans to move their money out of these reckless behemoths. And you don’t have to worry, there is zero risk: deposit insurance is just as good at small banks — and unlike the big banks they don’t provide the toxic dividend of derivatives trading in a heads-they-win, tails-we-lose fashion. Think of the message it will send to Wall Street — and to the White House. That we have had enough of the high-flying, no-limits-casino banking culture that continues to dominate Wall Street and Capitol Hill.

The four too-big-to-fail banks are JP Morgan/Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America. If you have money in these banks, consider moving it to a local bank, where it has more of a chance of helping local businesses. For a video explaining this simple plan further, and for the names of your local banks based on zip code, go here.

Share

Read More

An Alternate Look At The Way Things Did Not Go

| December 29, 2009 | Reply
An Alternate Look At The Way Things Did Not Go

Alternate history is a subset of science fiction. Stories and novels of this sort have been written for a long time, but in the last three decades or so the form has come into its own. Many of them are playful What-Ifs that look at how things might have gone had a detail or two gone differently. They are then excuses for adventure or thriller plots that quite often have little real poignance, not least because often the point of departure for the changed history is quite unlikely.

The best ones, however, play with changes that actually might have happened given just a nudge in one direction or the other, and the unfolding drama gives a glimpse of worlds that could easily have come about, often forbidding, thoroughly cautionary. We tend to assume, unconsciously at least, that things work out for the best, even when there is evidence to the contrary. An understandable approach to life given the limit power any of possess to effect events, change the course of history, or otherwise fight perceived inevitabilities. But unlike in fiction, it is rarely up to one person to fight evil or correct wrongs. It is a communal responsibility and the only tool we possess collectively is the wisdom accrued over time from which we might draw clues what to do.

Word War II provides a wellspring of speculation on what might have been done differently if. It seems occasionally that the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Seen purely from a military standpoint, perhaps so. For all its formidable abilities, Nazi Germany was ultimately limited by available resources, something certain generals tried to address on multiple occasions but ultimately failed to successfully repair. But politically? The world at the time offered faint comfort to those who thought the democracies could win in a toe-to-toe fight with the tyrants.

Allow me, then, to recommend a trilogy of novels that represent the better aspects of alternate history and effectively restore the chilling uncertainties of those times.

[more . . . ]

Share

Read More

South Africa’s rape problem

| December 28, 2009 | 1 Reply
South Africa’s rape problem

Until I read this BBC article, I had no idea the extent to which South Africa has a problem with rape. One out of every four girls in South Africa will be raped before she gets to be 16 years of age:

It is a fact that a woman born in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped, than learning how to read . . . The majority of the victims are 12 years old or younger. Many of the perpetrators are themselves children . . . Sexual violence pervades society, with one of the highest reported rates of rape in the world, and an alarmingly high incidence of domestic violence and child abuse.

The article indicates that many of the rape victims are babies. It is an utterly horrible situation.

Share

Read More

Celebrity nontheists

| December 28, 2009 | Reply
Celebrity nontheists

I hadn’t read a list of prominent nontheists (atheists, agnostics and other religious skeptics) for awhile. Here’s a recently updated list with lots of prominent names. Here’s another. Both of these lists include background information regarding each name on the list. Some famous contemporary atheists, agnostics and skeptics are:

Daniel Radcliffe
Bill Maher
Pat Tillman
Oliver Sacks
Bill Gates
Omar Sharif
Dave Barry
Warren Buffet
Phil Donahue
Katharine Hepburn
Angelina Jolie
Lance Armstrong

This list includes numerous scientists, along with many actors. Noticeably absent are politicians, which brings to mind polls showing that half of Americans would absolutely refuse to vote for any atheist politician.

What follows are the percentages of people indicating in 2006 that they would refuse to vote for “a generally well-qualified person for president” on the basis of some characteristic; in parenthesis are the figures for earlier years:

Catholic: 4% (1937: 30%)
Black: 5% (1958: 63%, 1987: 21%)
Jewish: 6% (1937: 47%)
Baptist: 6%
Woman: 8%
Mormon: 17%
Muslim: 38%
Gay: 37% (1978: 74%)
Atheist: 48%

Share

Read More