Tag: Science

Mending Fences, Part III – Calling a Truce and Considering the Science

| July 14, 2010 | 19 Replies
Mending Fences, Part III  – Calling a Truce and Considering the Science

This is the third installment of a series of postings I’ve titled “Mending Fences.” You’ll find the first installment here.

It’s time to call a truce.

Until recently, I didn’t think of atheism as a political movement; it didn’t occur to me that I was being systematically victimized. Rather, I commonly thought of a long personal history of rude, arrogant, and exclusionary behavior directed at individual atheists by individual theists. More recently, though, it has become apparent that atheists are victims of rampant bigotry. How else could you describe a situation where 15% of American adults are atheists, yet only one member of Congress (Pete Stark of California) has ever admitted to being an atheist? Thanks to the new atheists, atheists are now part of something that is akin to a civil rights movement.

Based on historical precedent, though, civil rights movements don’t become successful when they encourage their members to be angry and to call the the aggressors “stupid,” at least not in the long run. Nor is it productive to frame what we want to accomplish as a “war” on ignorance, or any other type of war, because “wars” (on drugs, terrorism) usually polarize opposing camps indefinitely. To stop discrimination against non-believers, we should borrow the successful methods used by women, blacks, gays and other oppressed minorities. In short, we need to add a strong educational component to our movement. Most of the people who make derogatory comments do so without examining the roots of their aggressive impulses. I agree with Hannah Arendt who, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, argued that most damage is not done by people trying to cause damage, but by normal people who fail to think things through—that is the nature of what Arendt termed “the banality of evil.”

How do we counteract deep unexamined prejudices against atheists? We need to be savvy about our PR. We should patiently show others who we are. We need to show believers that we don’t threaten their way of life except to the extent that they must stop slandering non-believers. I doubt that theists lay awake at night worrying about happy atheists; rather, in my experience, theists are far more haunted by images of snarly know-it-all in-your-face atheists. We need to promulgate images of friendly faces of real atheist Americans. After all, functional atheists have lives the stretch far beyond sitting around fretting about people who believe in “God.”

We must also become visible. If all of the atheist Americans glowed as dots on a national map, everyone flying overhead would see tens of millions of law-abiding atheists from coast to coast. We are taxpayers. We fight in the military. We are actors, housewives, musicians, business people, parents, police officers, scientists and teachers. We are inextricably socially connected to believers. We are their brothers, daughters, co-workers and neighbors. We give to charity too, including prominent atheists who give billions to help the poor (e.g., Bill Gates and Warren Buffett). We spend disproportionately less time in prison than those who believe in God.

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Redefining science

| July 12, 2010 | 4 Replies
Redefining science

At Daylight Atheism, Ebonmuse takes on yet another attempt by “Intelligent Design” advocates to redefine science as . . . not science. The claims of ID have been devastated repeatedly by scientists and others who self-critically and rigorously explore the natural world. Yet ID advocates plod on, undeterred by the numerous sensationally successful predictions made by natural selection (Ebonmuse lists and links to six such predictions), the failure of ID to make any predictions, and the incapability of DI to make any predictions. ID advocates don’t get it that once you step out of the well-knit causal framework that allows us to navigate the real world there is no basis for making predictions. Once we make a foundational conclusion willy-nilly (e.g., defining the age of the earth by an ancient “holy book” rather than by reference to the numerous reliable methods for dating the planet), on what basis could one possibly make any further conclusions or predictions, other than by further reference to the same “holy book?”

As all skeptics know from frustrating experience, these debates quickly hit the same impasse. The next logical step at this point is to ask why we should believe that the holy book is holy. But the only answer given given by ID advocates is simply that it is holy and that we must have faith in it. Consider further that the Bible doesn’t even mention atoms or galaxies. Nor does it propose any method for investigating the world. Those who use the bible as a “science” book do bible science by repeating the verses within whenever they conflict with real-world observations. That is the faux “science” proposed by ID. Yet the debate somehow continues . . .

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Mending Fences with Believers and Moving On – Part I

| July 11, 2010 | 18 Replies
Mending Fences with Believers and Moving On – Part I

I do not believe in any sort of sentient “God.” I do not believe in any sort of personified “Creator” of the universe. I never had any such beliefs. Nor do I think that science has all of the “answers” (as though we know how to ask the right questions).

Looking back over my past few years of writings, however, I can see that I have come a long way regarding my approach to religion. Prior to 2001, I was mostly in the live-and-let-live camp. Then came 9/11 when the destructive power of many religions (including American religions) came front and center. Out of mouths allegedly professing the words of God Himself, we heard plenty of bigotry (often aimed at gays, non-believers, people of Middle Eastern ancestry and, of course, members of other religions), war-mongering, anti-science, pro-ignorance, and biblical literalism.

I pushed back forcefully–one of my prime motivations for starting Dangerous Intersection was my strong reaction to the rise of conservative religions in the United States. Eventually, though, I came to realize that my reaction was overbroad. My concern should not so much have been against religion, but against those specific religious communities that encourage their members to engage in destructive behavior. I think that I understand why I made this error; following 9/11, almost all American religions chose to be silent in the face of the destructive behavior by competitor religions. I viewed that widespread silence as general approval. I assumed, based somewhat on the increasingly conservative views of several close acquaintances who had been religious moderates, that even moderate religious beliefs too often served as slippery slopes to fundamentalism.

I eventually developed a more nuanced view. I have come to believe that religions serve as grouping techniques that help good-hearted people do group-oriented good-hearted things and, yes, that religions invoked by mean-spirited and violent people amplify their destructive ways.

Even though I have my intellectual differences with virtually all people who profess religious claims, it turns out that many such people have more in common with me, politically and religiously, than many non-believers. There are many issues that we need to grapple with as communities and individuals, many of them having very little to do with religions claims. Further, after the 9/11 smoke cleared, I could see better that many good-hearted religious believers were of the live-and-let-live persuasion. These were important realizations. I eventually came to appreciate that many religious folks are truly my allies in what should be a joint quest to make the world a better place.

Over the past year, I spent many hours writing a long article on my own “spiritual” journey. Writing this chapter was an intense exercise in self-discovery that drew from many of the posts I’ve made at this blog. I originally planned to publish my article as a book chapter that was to be called “Mending Fences with Believers and Moving On.” My chapter eventually grew to an unwieldy length that branched off into several distinct (but related) topics. What follows is list of each of the Parts of “Mending Fences with Believers and Moving On.”

I. The day I discussed atheism at a church service
II. My atheism
III. It’s time to call a truce.
IV. What about the science?
V. The many things we have in common
VI. Where do we go from here?
VII. Conclusion

I do believe that the full finished product works well on its own and I’ve decided to break it into several parts here at Dangerous Intersection. Parts I and II of my article are included as part of this post. I’ll post the other sections over the next few days. I hope this collection is as engaging for you to read as it was for me to write.

[More . . . ]

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The inner life of your cells

| June 20, 2010 | 1 Reply
The inner life of your cells

I don’t claim to understand most of this Harvard video regarding the inner life of cells, but I’m fascinated by the visuals. This 2006 video by Alain Viel, Robert A. Lue and John Liebler, functions as a biography about you (and me) and brings to mind the following passages from Harold M. Franklin’s poetic/scientific book, The Way of the Cell, Page x (2001):

One response to the question, What Is Life?, is simply, Look around! Note the birds and butterflies, zebras and ammonites, the intricate web of life present and past, and joined the unending struggle to ensure its continuance in the face of human arrogance and mindlessness. This has been eloquently said by others, far better than I could, and it is not what I have in mind here. For the past 40 years, I’ve been immersed in research on the biochemistry and physiology of microorganisms, with emphasis on the fundamental aspects such as bioergetics and morphogenesis. In consequence, the central problems of life present themselves to me at the interface of chemistry and biology. How do lifeless chemicals come together to produce those exquisitely ordered structures that we call organisms? How can molecular interactions account for their behavior, growth, reproduction? How did organisms and their constituents arise on an Earth that had neither, and then diversify into the cornucopia of creatures that can live in each drop of pond water? My purpose is not to “reduce” biology to chemistry and physics, but to gain some insight into the nature of biological order.

Inevitably, then, this is a personal book–one scientist’s attempt to wring understanding from the tide of knowledge. It grew out of the experience of a lifetime devoted to research, scholarship and instruction; but since my purpose is to make sense of the facts of life rather than to expound the facts themselves, this inquiry walks the edge of science proper. The arguments and conclusions presented here seem to me sound, but they are certainly not the last word on the subject. The most valuable lessons that the discipline of science teaches are to play the game of conjecture and reputation, to appreciate the provisional nature of our knowledge, and to prize doubt! If what I have written here encourages a few readers to look up from their gels and genes to peer at the far horizon, I shall be well content. Of my shortcomings as an investigator, scholar, philosopher and expository I am keenly aware . . .

Every month it seems that I hear yet another sad story about someone who has been stricken by a terrible disease or who has recently died. When they hear of these things, most people wonder, “How could this have happened?” Though I also mourn these events, I inevitably find myself wondering how bodies work at all. They seem far too complicated to work for even a second, much less for a lifetime. I know that they work, because I sitting here breathing and writing, but how is it possible that the extensive mechanical-seeming processes taking place within each of my cells successfully scale up to the organism level?

Every breath is miraculous and every act of conscious generosity is beyond explanation (including religious “explanation”), at least to those of us who are honest.

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Sam Harris on objectively measurable moral progress

| April 13, 2010 | Reply
Sam Harris on objectively measurable moral progress

Within a tradition that extends backwards at least to David Hume, many people insist that science is utterly incapable of telling us what we ought to value, and that science is thus unable to weigh in on moral issues. This position has often been referred to as the naturalistic fallacy–the claim that what is “moral” can be defined in terms of natural properties.

In this highly-engaging and wide-ranging TED talk, Sam Harris argues that this is a dangerous illusion, because whether humans are experiencing “well being,” and whether communities “flourish” clearly depend on facts. He argues that questions of values reduce to facts about the brain functions and specific social circumstances of human beings. Science is thus relevant to values, and as we move further into the future this will be ever more obvious.

Harris paused to make it clear that he is not claiming that science will necessarily provide answers to all values questions. He is not claiming that those trying to decide whether to have a second child, for example, will turn to science. On the other hand, meting out corporal punishment on children (which is still allowed by the laws of many southern states) raises a factual question: Whether inflicting pain, violence and embarrassment encourages positive emotional development. He also points to the wearing of burkas under threat of physical punishment as a practice that can can be factually analyzed as not likely to improve well being.

Harris doesn’t offer a single recipe for a “right” or a “correct” way to run a society. Rather, he suggests that the moral state space consists of many peaks and valleys; there might be many right answers, in addition to many wrong answers. This multiplicity of approaches doesn’t mean that there aren’t factual truths about the better and worse ways of achieving social well-being, however.

He repeatedly makes the point that science has a lot to say about morality, and there is no good reason to be non-judgmental when the facts scientifically show that a particular practice leads to social dysfunction. In many human disciplines, some of the people weighing in are so ill-informed that their opinions shouldn’t count at all — not every person has a right to a wide audience on the topic of string theory. The same thing goes for moral expertise. Those who insist that the best thing to do when their young daughter is raped is to kill her out of shame lack moral expertise. Those who would behead their son because he is gay in order to keep him from going to hell do not have moral opinions that should count.

There are right and wrong answers regarding questions of human flourishing (this can increasingly be fleshed out in terms of brain function) and “morality” relates to a specific domain of facts.

It is possible for individuals and even whole culture, to care about the wrong thing. It’s possible for them to have beliefs and desires that lead to needless human suffering. Just admitting this will transform our discussion about morality.

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Natural Selection does not pit science against religion

| April 10, 2010 | 3 Replies
Natural Selection does not pit science against religion

Michael Zimmerman is a biology professor at Butler University. In 2004, he decided that something needed to done about a big problem: Many well-funded politically-connected creationists were working hard to frame the evolution “controversy” in terms of “science versus religion,” in an attempt to pit all religions against all scientists. This is a false divide, however. It is an undeniable fact that many millions of religious people have concluded that evolution by natural selection is an enormously useful and elegant approach to understanding biology, including the study of human animals. This religious support of Darwin’s theory is clearly illustrated by stalwart scientists like Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller, who both happen to be religious.

Zimmerman founded the Clergy Letter Project to allow members of religious clergy to express their support for teaching evolution.

For too long, the misperception that science and religion are inevitably in conflict has created unnecessary division and confusion, especially concerning the teaching of evolution. I wanted to let the public know that numerous clergy from most denominations have tremendous respect for evolutionary theory and have embraced it as a core component of human knowledge, fully harmonious with religious faith.

How many members of the clergy have signed on as of today? More than 13,000.

There are actually three versions of the letter (Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalism). The Christian version declares that the “overwhelming majority” of Christians do not read the Bible “as they would a science textbook.” Therefore, for most Christians:

We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

At the Clergy Letter Project Website, you can even hear sermons in favor of Darwin.

At Huffpo, Michael Zimmerman uses this substantial religious support for the teaching of evolution by natural selection to combat claims by the Discovery Institute, and other creationists, that evolution supposedly pits science against religion:

I am completely opposed to them implying that all who are religious must agree with them. As I’ve said so often, the very existence of The Clergy Letter Project and the more than 13,000 clergy members who have affirmed that they are fully comfortable with both their faith and evolution makes a mockery of such ridiculous claims.

The next time you hear a creationist claiming that “God opposes evolution” or that “The Bible disproves evolution,” remind them that there are tens of thousands of sincere Christian clergy who treasure Darwin’s magnificent insights, and who serve as living proof that the fault-line of the controversy is not drawn between religion and science. Rather, the opposite sides of that fault-line are A) motivated ignorance and fear versus B) Well-informed, rigorous and skeptical scientific inquiry.

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Children are not the problem

| March 24, 2010 | Reply
Children are not the problem

Neil Tyson is optimistic about society’s reception to science and technology. And the children who are our future are not the problem. It’s the adults.

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Morning Smoke

| March 16, 2010 | 6 Replies
Morning Smoke

Several weeks ago I was getting my son, Ben, up in the morning to go to school. Ben is 8 and in the third grade. I walked into Ben’s room as he slept and announced that; “Here’s everything you need this morning” (to get up and dressed for school).

A sleepy little boy voice said: “Did you bring me a drink?” The voice quickly continued: “How about world peace, Daddy did you bring me World Peace?”

“Uh, no,” I said.

“Then you DIDN”T bring me everything I need, did you?” said Ben. “Daddy, you need to be more precise in your language.”

Truer words were never spoken out of the mouth of babes. After I had finished giving my schmarty-pants son some noogies, hugs and kisses and getting some of my own, I replied. “How many times has daddy said that to you, Ben?”

“At least a Hundred Million Times!” said Ben. “But, now I GOT YOU!” Ben gloated. “HAH!”

I left Ben to finish his dressing and went downstairs and found my daughter Bella (short for Isabella) watching TV. Bella is 11 and fascinated by whodunits, often getting the culprit before I do. Bella was watching a DVR’d episode of “Bones” which features a beautiful brilliant woman forensic anthropologist, a hunky FBI agent and a bevy of interesting other characters who solve murders using human remains as clues. They all work at something called the Jefferson Institute.

“Daddy, why does “Bones” give the FBI guy trouble for believing in God?” said Bella.

[more . . . ]

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How the news cycle shreds careful science

| March 5, 2010 | 2 Replies
How the news cycle shreds careful science

Here’s how the news cycle shreds careful science.

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