Thursday, April 30, 2009

Quote of the Day

"I said to one of the scientists: 'It seems very evident that due to changes in the chemical processes of the brain, many of our subjective experiences like perception and sensation occur. Can one envision to reversal of this causal process? Can one postulate that pure thought itself could effect a change in the chemical processes of the brain?' I was asking whether, conceptually at least, we could allow the possibility of both upward and downward causation.

The scientist's response was quite surprising. He said that since all mental states arise from physical states, it is not possible for downward causation to occur. Although out of politeness, I did not respond at the time, I thought then and still think that here is as yet no scientific basis for such a categorical claim.

The view that all mental processes are necessarily physical processes is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact. I feel that, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, it is critical that we allow the question to remain open, and not conflate our assumptions with empirical fact."
- The Dalai Lama, from his book, The Universe in a Single Atom.

Weekly Wrap-Up

I'm going to start putting together a weekly wrap-up of interesting articles. Enjoy...

Is the Panda's Thumb Really Proof of Evolution?: According to Dr. Paul Nelson, the answer is "No."

Mother Teresa's Dark Night of the Soul: "She was one of the rare souls who are able to sustain what mystic poet and theologian John of the Cross called "the dark night of the soul." - the lack of any emotional sense of the presence of God, accompanied by a great willingness to continue to do the things one knows he would want."

A review of ex-atheist Antony Flew's book, There is a God: "My discovery of the Divine has been pilgrimage of reason and not of faith."

A Scientific Experiment on the Link Between Ethical Behavior and a Belief in Free Will: "Those with weaker convictions about their power to control their own destiny were more apt to cheat when given the opportunity as compared to those whose beliefs about controlling their own lives were left untouched."

What Science Cannot Tell Us by Dinesh D'Souza: "Skepticism is of course a central tool of science, but many skeptics make the mistake of failing to apply skepticism to science itself...I call this the 'atheism of the gaps.' The basic idea is that if science hasn't figured something out, just wait a few years, because the brilliant scientists are working on it."


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Reason, Morality, and Progress

I've started watching this panel discussion, Darwin 200: Evolution and the Ethical Brain, moderated by our old buddy, David Brooks. The purpose of the panel is quite clear: to expand upon the ideas found in Brooks' Apr. 6 column, The End of Philosophy - namely, that people are not rational when it comes to ethical decision-making. In their opinion, if there is such a thing as "morality," it is an "instinct" created by literally millions of years of evolutionary pressure. Something just feels "right" or "wrong" and that's the end of it.

But is it? When it comes to morality and emotion, there are few things more morally critical and emotionally powerful than race and gender. And yet, we have witnessed some astonishing (and positive) changes in just a few generations.

Take race.

According to Gallup, in 1948, only 4% of Americans approved of marriages between whites and blacks. By 2007, that number had reached 77%.

Take homosexuality.

In the 1973 NORC survey, 73% of Americans agreed that “homosexual relations are always wrong.” By 2002, that number has dropped to 55%. And among 18-29 year olds, that number was only 48%.

Gee that’s interesting…If you believe the evolutionary psychologists, morality is an emotional instinct and a product of literally millions of years of mindless environment…but these poll numbers suggest another possibility…that morality can change – and change quite rapidly – due to reason – a heightened understanding of what is truly "right and wrong” – not just what is personally useful for our "sperm competition."

This is a good thing. We should be proud of our species’ ability to adapt and improve. There’s a lot of evidence to support it. So why do the evolutionary psychologists insist on using skewed data to dehumanize us?


**UPDATE, AUG. 20, 2009**

From Ryan Sager’s new article, The Gay Gap...

As contentious as the debate over gay marriage can get sometimes, I’ve always taken comfort in one simple fact: This is a generational battle, and that means the younger generation wins… eventually.

We all know there’s a gap between how old folks feel about same-sex marriage and how young folks feel. What you might not quite grasp is just how tremendous that gap is. A new paper (”Gay Rights in the States: Public Opinion and Policy Responsiveness” [PDF]) by Jefferey Lax and Justin Phillips puts it in a bit of perspective.

Just how big is the gay marriage age gap? Between the under-30 crowd and the over-65 crowd: 35 percentage points.

Or, try this on for size, at the state level: If people over 65 in each state made the laws, 0 states would have gay marriage; if people under 30 made the laws, 38 states would have gay marriage.

What does it mean? Well, it means the overwhelming majority of states are likely to have gay marriage laws in most of our lifetimes.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ideas Have Consequences

Today, I found an online review of Tim Birkhead's book, Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition. Don't let the cover photo of 2 happy seals fool you; there's some bizarre and distressing conclusions hidden inside.

As the book review summarizes...

Decades of accumulated work of this kind have changed our understanding of the nature of sex, reproduction and the different roles of male and female. From Darwin’s time up to the late 1960s – not coincidentally, the time when the intellectual assault on male-centred academic thinking got under way in earnest – it was thought that male animals competed for female partners, with the strongest and most attractive impregnating the most females; that females sought only monogamy, and if they did have sex with multiple partners (and biologists couldn’t help noticing that they did) it was against their will, always a form of submission to rape.

In the past thirty years, the conventional wisdom has been destroyed. The truth is that females of most species actively seek multiple partners to have sex with. If the aim of males is to put their sperm into as many females as possible, females are trying, with equal determination, to get the very best sperm to fertilise their eggs – even if that means having sex with many males in turn.

Rivalry between males and discrimination by females extends beyond the sexual act itself. Inside the female, the sperm of different males fight for supremacy – this is sperm competition. At the same time, the female may be able to select the sperm that are best for her – this is sperm choice. This is the true battle of the sexes. The males and females of each species are permanently locked in a struggle to out-evolve each other as their reproductive equipment and behaviour change to achieve their conflicting aims – i.e. maximum fertilisation v. best fertilisation...

While the book is focused on animals in the wild, a link is made to that other animal: human beings...

And Birkhead doesn’t let us forget that humans are sexual animals, too: it’s hard not to warm to a book which discusses Harold Macmillan in the context of the sexual problems of the dungfly.

At the risk of sounding overdramatic, when I read this kind of nonsense, I don’t know whether to laugh or’s so dehumanizing...treating human beings – me and you - with all of our hopes, thoughts, emotions, dreams, etc – as mindless agents in a “sperm competition.”

Yet that's what we are....Or at least that's what we've been told that we are. Starting in school. Then in our media. The message is constantly reinforced in our popular culture.

You and me baby ain't nothing but mammals
So let's do it like they do on the discover channel
Getting horny now
Ironically, there is no moral disapproval of this "sperm competition" is neither good nor bad because the terms "good" and "bad" have no meaning in nature...and WE are part of nature.

Sometimes I wonder how Western civilization has been able to survive for so long under the weight of this corrosive materialist philosophy. Then I remember...

1) These ideas have only been penetrating the American public for about the past 50 years (barely 2 generations), and

2) Up until recently, at least science gave us the possibility of free will – the chance to overcome our “sperm competition” heritage through reason, free will, and moral choice.

No longer. Now we are told that free will is an illusion.

If you have a chance, watch some of the video from AEI's conference: Genes, Neuroscience, and Free Will, which features some of the leading lights of the conservative intelligentsia: Dr. James Q. Wilson, Charles Murray, and David Brooks (who I analyzed here).

Since these are conservative intellectuals, one who think they would be on the frontlines of the Cultural War to PROTECT freedom; rather, by unanimously accepting the idea of "determinism," they are implicitly REJECTING freedom.

Brooks says at one point.: When he talks to neuroscientists about "free will,” they look at him like he has 3 heads....And if you listen to all 2 hours of this discussion, you will not find a single intellectual defense of free will - at least free will in an objective sense. There is a consensus, however, that the concept of free will is quite useful to society.

But how can a "concept" survive when most of society's leaders - whether they're teachers of TV pundits or scientists - are quite eager to proclaim that it's false?

Furthermore, the hope that enough people simply won't pay attention to the "real truth" is a fool's errand since (unlike in the past), with the near-ubiquity of higher education, there are fewer and fewer people who even have the option to ignore the so-called "real truth."

Bottom line: The idea that humanity's purpose is to participate in a "sperm competition" is bad enough…but when you combine it with the idea that “free will is illusion,” you are going to create something lethal – lethal to the individual and to society.

By denying "free will," the neuroscientists (and their defenders) are denying a critical (and much-used loophole) - the possibility of moral choice.

They can no longer proclaim, “Yes, we are highly-evolved apes, but through using our reason, we can choose a moral order based on “X, Y, and Z.”

That’s because...

1) If free will is an illusion, so is reason.

2) If people are simply behaving in the best way to increase their level of “dopamine,” (as Brooks says), the idea of “reason” itself – a set of moral universals that apply to ALL people regardless of their genes or environment – is impossible; the moral philosophy of society – if there is one – would be “do whatever you want.”

What we have here is something more sinister than “moral relativism” – the common idea that “people should choose their own morality." Rather, we are being instructed that morality itself is an illusion, and perhaps more importantly, the lack of morality is natural! Since reason is an illusion, a person's decision to follow their random, emotional instincts is quite fine.

The final question: Where does this leave freedom itself? What is the future of Western civilization – whose twin pillars have always been FREEDOM plus RESPONSIBILITY?

I’m not predicting anarchy or a Mad Max world writ large.

But it’s hard to see how liberal democracy – even in the United States – can survive this kind of intellectual environment – which is permeated nearly every segment of our popular culture (except organized religion, for the most part).

If the day should come when a critical mass of Americans believe… 1) We are nothing more than hairless apes, and 2) Free will is an illusion...Then it’s hard to see how freedom can survive more than another 1-2 generations...unless, of course, there's some sort of intellectual renaissance.

The sad thing is…there no reason for people to believe ANY of this crap.

One final piece of good news: it's hard to see how atheistic materialism (even if it's sugar-coated with consumerism) can fill the hearts and minds of the masses. So regardless of what happens, there will almost certainly be a backlash. In fact, that backlash has already begun.

Should it continue, the possibility of an "intellectual renaissance" becomes very real. Of course, there is still another possibility: that in the rush to reject materialism, people will not REDISCOVER reason, but will rather fall into the waiting lap of religious fundamentalists.

Unfortunately, in the long-long-term, that may be our future: not a grey, pacifist, tyranny, but a hot-blooded, conflict-happy religious war – especially if radical Islam continues to provoke it.

These are all just thoughts brewing inside my head. I make no predictions. I can only state a single truth: "Ideas have consequences." So let's choose our ideas wisely.


Note: The photo above is of Dylan Klebold, who, along with Eric Harris, committed the Columbine Massacre. On the day of the shooring, Eric wore a shirt reading "Natural Selection."

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Quote of the Day

I don't want to be seen as defending Richard Dawkins - the most famous and militant atheist in the world today - but I've noticed that most of his ire is directed against religious fundamentalism, NOT the idea of God's existence, per se. With that in mind, I found this Dawkins quote from a 2006 Time Magazine cover story to be quite intriguing...

"My mind is open to the most wonderful range of future possibilities, which I cannot even dream about, nor can you, nor can anybody else.

What I am skeptical about is the idea that whatever wonderful revelation does come in the science of the future, it will turn out to be one of the particular historical religions that people happen to have dreamed up.

When we started out and we were talking about the origins of the universe and the physical constants, I provided what I thought were cogent arguments against a supernatural intelligent designer. But it does seem to me to be a worthy idea. Refutable--but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect.

I don't see the Olympian gods or Jesus coming down and dying on the Cross as worthy of that grandeur. They strike me as parochial. If there is a God, it's going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed."

I actually agree with that.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Quote of the Day

"A single book at the right time can change our views dramatically, give a quantum boost to our knowledge, help us construct a whole new outlook on the world and our life. Isn't it odd that we don't seek those experiences more systematically?"

Steve Leveen, 'The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life'

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why Does Christianity Need I.D.?

Since I work in communications, one of the things I tell people is: “Don’t make assertions; give explanations.” In other words, don’t just say things like “tax cuts help the economy,” and then move on to the next topic. Instead, explain WHY tax cuts are good for the economy.

With that in mind, I feel guilty for consistently saying things like “it's not clear to me that Christianity (as it's currently practiced) has a bright future in the West” and that I.D. has the ability to “bolster the power of the West in its battle with an alternative faith,” without providing any corroborating data.

And…well…I still don’t have any data.

But I’ll try to provide a (brief) explanation anyway – knowing I’ll come back to this topic several times in the future.

Basically, 2 major points…

First, Europe has historically been the brain, heart, and soul of Christianity… and yet, today, Christianity is hardly practiced in Europe at all. It is no exaggeration to say that Christianity is dying in the Mother Continent. Why? Because traditional religion has zero credibility with its population. And the population of Europe itself is in major decline – probably for that reason! Europe is a cultural purgatory which refuses to defend its Christian/Enlightenment values – both at home and abroad. Meanwhile, it is challenged from within by an aggressive faith (Islam) that is antagonistic towards its traditional values (and Europe’s population trends – looking ahead 30, 40, 50+ years – show Islam gaining major ground within Europe’s borders). Since organized Christianity – whether Catholic or Protestant – has so little credibility with Europeans, there needs to be a major fusion of faith and reason. Intelligent Design can help start that fusion.

Now…as it pertains to the U.S.A...At the moment, traditional Christianity remains quite popular…no one disputes that…but it doesn’t have much appeal to the younger generation…on many contemporary issues (especially sex) the Bible seems irrelevant…worse yet, of the 2 potential brands of Christianity (the Old Testament and the New Testament), the least appealing one (the Old Testament) is the one that dominates our culture today... this has given liberals a major opportunity to co-opt the younger generation (which is naturally libertarian on social issues) and coerce them into supporting a socialist agenda at home an a pacifist agenda abroad (for example, in the 2008 election, Obama won voters under 30 by a mind-blowing margin of 66-32%)… the only way to reverse this trend is to make Christianity an appealing option for young people again (so they will feel comfortable participating in it on a personal level, and – when it comes to politics – feel less threatened by the Republican Party, and vote for candidates in a more logical way. Intelligent Design can help facilitate the transition from an emotional, fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity to the logical, loving version that Christianity can and should be.


Sex and the Next Generation

In their 2003 report, Spirtuality in Higher Education, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, conduced a poll of over 100,000 college students.

They divided the sample between student with a “high level of religious engagement” and those with a “low level.” They then surveyed their opinion on “social/political issues.”

The first 4 issues had to do with sex – and by an overwhelming margin.

Regarding the statement, “Abortion should be legal,” 23% of those with a “high level of commitment,” agreed; 77% of those with a low level” agreed. Thus, a 54-point difference.

Regarding the statement, “Sex is okay if people really like each other,” 15% of the “high” agreed; 67% of the “low” agreed. Thus, a 52-point difference.

Regarding the statement, “Same-sex couples should have the right to legal marital status,” 28% of the “high” agreed; 76% of the “low” agreed. Thus, a 48-point difference.

Regarding the statement, “It is important to have laws prohibiting homosexuality,” 53% of the “high” agree; 16% of the “low” agree. Thus, a 37-point difference.

Meanwhile, there is almost NO major difference between the “high” and “low” on issues NOT relating to sex.

For example… Regarding the statement, “The death penalty should be abolished,” 36% of the “high” agree; 30% of the “low” agree. Thus, only a 6-point difference.

Regarding the statement, “The activities of married women are best confined to the home/family,” 23% of the “high” agree; 18% of the “low” agree. Thus, only a 5-point difference.

This validates my point – made in The Mustard Seed – that the issue of sex is a major faultline between believers and non-believers – especially among the youngest generation. While the survey data is silent on this point, it is reasonable to assume that the traditional Christians’ attitude toward sexuality may be a turn-off for those with a “low level of religious commitment,” and thus, preventing those “low” people from making a religious commitment.

Traditional views on sexuality may also be a leading factor in the decline of organized Christianity among young people overall.

In their 2005 report, “OMG! How Generation Y is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era,” Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research asked 18-25 year olds… “Which of the following statements comes closest to describing your beliefs – you are religious, you are spiritual but not religious, or you are neither?

44% said “religious.” 35% said “spiritual, not religious,” and 18% said “neither.” Thus a majority (53%) do NOT describe themselves as “religious.”

In 2007, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons published a book called Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters.

The book is about what Christianity looks like to people age sixteen to twenty-nine who are outside the church. I’m tempted to buy the book, although, in this article, Clint McCoy provides a good summary.

In a nut shell, says Kinnaman, they think that Christians today no longer represent what Jesus had in mind for the faithful. Those ages 16 to 29 think “Christianity has become marketed and streamlined into a juggernaut of fearmongering that has lost its own heart.”

Beyond that, Kinnaman’s research has discovered that Christianity’s image problem is not just with those who stand on the outside. Younger people who think of themselves as being part of the church are also feeling the weight of negative perceptions. Kinnaman found that most young people who were involved in church as a teenagers disengage from church life, and often from Christianity itself, at some point during early adulthood. But unlike their forebears, the Baby Boomers, today’s young people are less likely to return to church later in life, even when they become parents.

They exhibit a growing hostility and resentment towards Christianity. Whereas a decade ago surveys tended to show that Americans possessed a widespread respect for Christians, this isn’t any longer true; in fact, to Kinnaman’s chagrin, the “disdain for evangelicals among the younger set is overwhelming and definitive.”

The research does not indicate that hostility to the church is due so much to theological perspective per se as to attitude. “In our national surveys we found the three most common perceptions of present-day Christianity are antihomosexual (91 percent), judgmental (87 percent), and hypocritical (85 percent),” followed by three-quarters’ percent of young outsiders who say the church is old-fashioned, out of touch with reality, insensitive to others, boring, not accepting of other faiths, and confusing.

The generation of young people from 16 to 29 years old yearns for a faith expression in which honesty, integrity, enthusiasm, energy, joy, humility, service, community, loyalty, faith, hope and love are self-evident in the lives of people.

Makes sense to me.


Would Rand Still Be An Atheist Today?

Honestly, I don't think so. In light of the scientific developments since her death in 1982, I think Ayn Rand would be a "believer" if she were alive today. Like another prominent atheist, Anthony Flew, I'm pretty sure she would "follow the evidence wherever it leads" - even if it directly contradicted literally decades of her literary work. After all, atheism was never fundamental to "Objectivism." It was only a product of it. And therefore, it could be removed relatively easily.

In fact, if I recall correctly, when I read the book, The Letters of Ayn Rand a few years back, there was a letter from Ms. Rand in which she said (and I'm paraphrasing here), "I know plenty of good reasons for the existence of God, but they're not the ones other people mention." There was also a note from the editor saying that Ms. Rand never elaborated on what those reasons might be! Talk about a missed opportunity! Anyway, I tried finding this quote through the Internet, but I wasn't successful. And I no longer have a copy of the book. So you'll just have to take my word for it!

But I digress...while looking for that quote, I found some intellectual nuggets on the relationship between Ayn Rand and Darwinism...

The Conservapedia page on Objectivism relates this story...

Rand was not willing to accept the theory of evolution as more than an hypothesis. She couldn't accept creation, but evolution discomfited her nevertheless--perhaps because it blurred the distinction between man and animal.

In regard to this last: Diana Mertz Hsieh accuses Branden of distorting Rand on this point, and says that Rand refused to endorse evolution merely because she believed she did not have the required scientific knowledge to make an informed judgement.

In actual fact, Branden details that conversation: I remember being astonished to hear her say one day, "After all, the theory of evolution is only a hypothesis."

I asked her, "Ayn, you mean you seriously doubt that more complex life forms, including humans, evolved from less complex life forms?"

She shrugged and responded, "I'm really not prepared to say," or words to that effect.

I do not mean to imply that she wanted to substitute for the theory of evolution the religious belief that we are all God's creation; but there was definitely something about the concept of evolution that made her uncomfortable.

What that something was, Branden never said. Neil Parille offers this explanation: that evolution cannot explain the development of consciousness, and that some of evolution's proponents, among them Ernst Haeckel, put Rand off by their explicit rejection of the human will.

Then there's this article, Ayn Rand and Evolution, by Neil Parille...

Parille quotes Rand...

"I am not a student of the theory of evolution and, therefore, I am neither its supporter nor its opponent. But a certain hypothesis has haunted me for years; I want to stress that it is only hypothesis. There is an enormous breach of continuity between nature and man’s consciousness, in its distinctive characteristic: his conceptual faculty. It is as if, after aeons of physiological development, the evolutionary process altered its course, and the higher stages of development focused primarily on the consciousness of living species, not their bodies. But the development of a man’s consciousness is volitional: no matter what the innate degree of intelligence he must develop it, he must learn how to use it, he must become human by choice. What if he does not choose to? Then he becomes a transitional phenomenon—a desperate creature that struggles frantically against his own nature, longing for effortless “safety” of an animal’s consciousness, which he cannot recapture, and rebelling against a human consciousness, which he is afraid to achieve." (Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It?, p. 45.)

According to Parille: "What is must curious about Rand’s hypothesis is her statement that it has 'haunted' her 'for years.' One wonders if what haunted Rand is the implication of her theory (which she made explicit in her journals) that at least some non-rational human beings are literally sub-human. Later, he says… Rand’s hesitation about evolution calls for an explanation. As Rand must have been aware, many religious conservatives (who were a frequent target of hers) reject evolution. There are a few possibilities for this hesitation.

First, evolution is generally seen as a deterministic and ultimately hostile to free will. (Machan, Ayn Rand, pp. 142-43.) For example, evolutionist Ernest Haeckel (1834-1919) asserted that free will had to be rejected along with other “cherished ideas” such as human immortality and a personal god. (Schwarz, Creation, p. 7.) Even before the advent of Darwinian evolution, materialists from Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) forward often rejected free will.

Second, if biological evolution is true, then many areas of philosophy might need to be reexamined. For example, how can man have a qualitatively different value from animals if is every bit a part of nature as animals?...One of La Mettrie’s (1709-1751) followers was the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) who argued that 'If human passions are mere physiological itches, man’s proverbial dignity is a fraud, and there is nothing—not even our normal revulsion against rape and torture—to stand in the way of treating other human beings as sex tools. From the materialistic perspective, nothing can be entirely unnatural.'"

Clearly, Rand's followers today consider Objectivism to remain an atheist creed. But it's still intriguing that Rand herself was so ambiguous about Darwinism, and even offered hint of a possible spark of faith inside her. One can only wonder what she would say today.


Quote of the Day

"If I were to speak your kind of language, I would say that man's only moral commandment is: Thou shalt think. But a 'moral commandment' is a contradiction in terms. The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments.” - Atheist Ayn Rand

A Bad Premise

While doing research for my post, "The New Theism: A Short History," I became familiar with the important contributions of Philip E. Johnson to the Intellectual Design movement. In fact, many people consider Johnson to be the "father" of the movement. Considering his important work, I'm genuinely embarrassed by how little I new about him!

In any case, while reading his Wikipedia biography, I discovered that Johnson had created a philosophical alternative to atheist materialism called "theistic realism." Since this sounded so similar to my own perspective ("Spiritual Rationalism"), I eagerly clicked on the link to the Wikipedia article on "theistic realism."

Unfortunately, in the first paragraph, the piece states...

According to Johnson, true knowledge begins with the acknowledgment of God as creator of the universe, the unifying characteristic of which is that it was created by God."
And then later...

Johnson bases his argument for theistic realism on several verses in both the Old Testament and New Testament Bible, particularly Proverbs 1:7, John 1:1-3, and Romans 1:20-23.

Needless to say, my own philosophy does NOT begin with the "acknowledgement of God," nor would I use the Bible at any point for evidence of God's existence. "Spiritual rationalism" begins the premise that 1) Reality is Real and that 2) Reason is the means to discover Reality. God's existence - or NON-existence - must conform with those facts.

Thankfully, it does. As I've said before,
"it is 'rational' to believe in God, and a personal God who has a loving interest in our lives." But our intellectual and spiritual journey can not BEGIN with that assumption. It must be a product of it.

While I'm almost certain that Dr. Johnson and I share many opinions on faith and philsophy, ultimately his idea of "theistic realism" is distinct from my "spiritual rationalism." And needless to say, I like my interpretation better.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Quote of the Day

I came up with this quote a while back:

"Reality is a harsh mistress. She won't be ignored. You can try avoiding her, but eventually she's gonna boil your bunny."


Where Does Obama Stand on I.D.?

Ironically, up until now, I never bothered to think about it. I just assumed he would regurgitate the old cliche that "there's no conflict between faith and science," but since young people aren't mentally equipped to make their own own judgment, discussion about the weakness of Evolutionary Theory should be kept out of the classroom. And sure enough - while doing research for my previous post - I found this news story from last year...

The York Daily Record (known for its coverage of the Dover ID trial) interviews Barack Obama:

Q: York County was recently in the news for a lawsuit involving the teaching of intelligent design. What's your attitude regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools?

A: "I'm a Christian, and I believe in parents being able to provide children with religious instruction without interference from the state. But I also believe our schools are there to teach worldly knowledge and science. I believe in evolution, and I believe there's a difference between science and faith. That doesn't make faith any less important than science. It just means they're two different things. And I think it's a mistake to try to cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don't hold up to scientific inquiry."

This fills a hole in our knowledge of Sen. Obama's views. In January, Ron Bailey summarized the positions of the Presidential candidates for Reason, and found:
An extensive search could find no explicit statement on evolution from Democratic frontrunner Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). In June 2006, Obama gave a keynote talk at a Sojourners conference in which he noted, "Substantially more people in America believe in angels than they do in evolution." Obama declared in that speech that the single biggest political gap in America was "between those who attend church regularly and those who don't." He then excoriated "conservative leaders" for exploiting this gap by suggesting that "religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design." At the very least, this implies that Obama believes intelligent design is unnecessarily divisive.

The New Theism: A Short History

There's a lot of talk these days about "the new atheism" - which, led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens - advocates a louder, more aggressive stance against faith and religion. But there's NO talk about the "new theism." Of course, that's because the "new theism" hasn't been invented yet! But is such a thing as the "new theism" were to exist (and I'd like to think that The Mustard Seed may promote that occurance), here are some historical milestones in that journey. Specifically, I would consider the "new theism" to be a conjoining of science and faith (see Chapter 9 of The Mustard Seed for how that would work).

1973 Brandon Carter states the “anthropic principle” at symposium honoring Copernicus's 500th birthday

1975 Life After Life is published

1978 Beyond and Back documentary is released

1980 Dr. David Bohm publishes Wholeness and the Implicate Order

1984 Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE) publishes The Mystery of Life's Origin

1986 The Anthropic Cosmological Principle is published

1991 Darwin on Trial is published

1991 The Holographic Universe is published

1992 Embraced by the Light is published

1994 Discovery Institute is launched

1995 Center for Renewal of Science and Culture is launched

1996 Michael Behe publishes Darwin’s Black Box

2004 Atheist Anthony Flew converts to theism

2005 Dover Trial

2005 President Bush weighs in on Intelligent Design debate

2007 GOP presidential candidates debate evolution

2008 Expelled is released

I'll add to this list as things unfurl from my memory.

One observation: From 1973-96, there's a tremendous effort to build 1) the intellectual roots of the "new theism," and then 2) create institutions to advocate for it. Then, from 1997-2003, there's a large gap where nothing happens. Finally, in 2005, the Dover Trial turns I.D. into a major political ssue. Then, after another brief lull, in 2008, the release of Expelled marks I.D.'s transformation into a part of popular culture.

Where will I.D. go next? Since we already have the intellectual and organizational infrastructure, hopefully we can build on the success of Expelled and continuing reaching into the cultural mainstream.


Is God Really Back?

This month, I finished reading a new book called God is Back by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. I enjoyed it. I thought it was a very well-argued, meaty, and thought-provoking book. As the title implies, the author's argument is that "religion is surging worldwide" and that "the global rise of faith will have a dramatic and far- reaching impact on our century."

A few reflections...

*First, this isn't the first time I've a read a book by this dynamic duo. I plowed through 2 of their earlier books - The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America (published in 2004) and A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Promise of Globalization (published in 2001). These books - like the newest one - were well-researched, well-argued, and enjoyable. However, it should be noted, that Mr. Micklethwait and Mr. Wooldridge have a terrible sense of timing. A Future Perfect was released on Aug. 14, 2001 - literally one month before the September 11 terrorist attacks halted globalization in its tracks. And while The Right Nation came out before President Bush's re-election, it should be pointed out that the next two elections - in 2006 and 2008 - were disasters for the Republican Party. Nonetheless, these two journalists are very good at spotting long-term trends, and explaining why those trends exist (even if, unfortunately for them, those trends have a habit of reversing themselves once their book hits the shelf).

*This would probably be a good time to mention another problem I have with the book: I'm not entirely convinced that God is "back," per se. I never think He left! If anything's changed in recent years, it's with how the American Elite perceives religion. Let me explain.

For literally decades - going back at least to the 1962 Supreme Court decision banning school prayer - the American Elite has been trying to remove religion from the public square, and acting aggressively on issues that directly affect religious Americans (think of abortion, stem cell research, gays in the military, etc.). In politics, as in science, every action has an equal and opposite RE-action. And, not surprisingly, by the 1970s, the Christian community was organizing itself into a potent political force. The 2000 and 2004 elections - in which a "born again" President was elected and then re-elected - represented the peak of the Christian Right's power. But they remain active to this very day (how it could not, when the American Elite continues to force their values down their throat? See the latest news on same-sex marriage). Ironically, though, with the exception of the welfare reform bill in 1996, it's hard to think of a single social conservative policy that became law.

Besides American politics, the other reason for the American Elite's RE-discovery of religion is 9/11. Needless to say, since that awful day, the nexus of religion of politics on a global stage has been the preeminenant issue of our lives. Will that continue? Yes, of course. There is a violent strain of Islam that is irrenconciable with the Western world, and that remains just as true today as it was eight years ago. In fact, you could make the argument that the tension between Islam and the West is higher now than at any point since the 17th century. So, yes, thanks to Islam's inability to reconcile itself with the modern world, religion will continue to be a major issue for decades to come.

However, God is Back is mostly focused on Christianity - NOT Islam. The majority of the book is focused on how Christianity - especially in America, but also in emerging countries, like China and Brazil - is using the tools of capitalism to rebrand itself and emerge stronger than most people could've ever expected. In light of these developments, the authors are quite "bullish" in Christianity. But unfortunately, they have a few blind spots.

*First of all, I think it's intriguing that the authors wait until p. 189 (!) to reflect on whether or not Christianity is "true" and then dismiss the subject of "truth" altogether in one sentence! While I am sure that most people share the author's casual attitude about the "truthfulness" of Christianity, there is a large minority of people who AREN'T as casual. And they may still find Christianity unattractive.

*Also, the authors only mention Intelligent Design ONCE and for a single paragraph! In fairness, as I said above, the authors weren't weighing the "truthfulness" of Christianity, per se. But even so, the rise of I.D. is a major public issue in its own right, and it's hard to see how the authors could've written a 400-page tome without giving the subject a more thorough treatment.

*Last, but not least, I don't think the authors ever proved their argument that
"the global rise of faith will have a dramatic and far- reaching impact on our century." Like I said above, the book is mainly focused on how traditional Christianity is coping with the demands of the modern world (and they're coping quite nicely, thank you very much). But I don't think that's where the action is. The action is with 1) Islam and 2) Intelligent Design. In the case of Islam, we are trying to reconcile Islam with the modern world. And through Intelligent Design, we are trying to reconcile Science and Faith with each other.

Having said all that, I do think the authors are correct in asserting that Christianity itself (as its been traditionally practiced) has a promising future - perhaps not in the West, but certainly in the Developing World). But the action, as I said above, is in the West (and especially on the frontlines between the West and Islam). And in that case, the ability of I.D. to reconcile the best of the Enlightenment with the best of Christianity would bolster the power of the West in its battle with an alternative faith.

As I've hinted at before (especially in The Mustard Seed), it's not clear to me that Christianity (as it's currently practiced) has a bright future in the West. The good news is that Christianity has already changed many times over it's 2,000-year history. And it can change again. In fact, it will need to.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Doubts About Dave

On Mar. 27, I praised New York Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote a fascinating piece called Neural Buddhism. In his article, Brooks took a close look at the relationship between science and society and observed that “over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism” and that “science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other.” While For that reason, I speculated that “Brooks and I see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues.”

Then, literally a week later, Brooks published a follow-up column about the same topic, entitled, humbly enough: The End of Philosophy. After reading Brooks' latest piece, I'm reminded of an old quote: "some things are so dumb only an intellectual could believe them‏!"

Brooks' column opens innocently enough...

Socrates talked. The assumption behind his approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.
Well, not exactly, Dave. Since the days of Kant, the leaders of the philosophical movement have been working to undermine - NOT advocate - the moral superiority of reason. But the goal of "thinking through moral problems" is still a worthy one, right? Not to Dave...

One problem with this kind of approach to morality, as Michael Gazzaniga writes in his 2008 book, “Human,” is that “it has been hard to find any correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior, such as helping other people. In fact, in most studies, none has been found.”
This is a bizarre quote that begs several questions: How does one define "moral reasoning?" How does one define "proactive moral behavior?" What is the evidence that "helping other people" constitutes "proactive moral behavior?" And what are these studies, by the way? Can't Brooks spare a single paragraph to give us an example?

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know. Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain...In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote, “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and ... moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.”

Needless to say, I do not share Brooks' viewpoint. I believe that morality is a product of the mind - NOT intuition. Can Brooks honestly believe that moral decisions - which, as the title of Brooks' column points out, have been a weighty subject matter for literally thousands of years - can be reduced to mindless preferences like the taste of food? Yet there it is above: "Moral judgments are like that." But are they? In The Mustard Seed, Brian Raises states...

"Feelings are a part of life – but they’re ultimately unreliable. And a life philosophy that is based on feelings is equally unreliable. What is reliable? Reason. Intelligence. Judgment. The power of the mind. The individual mind."

Later on, Brian says...

"The power to think – and by that, I mean the power to think rationally - is the power to grow, and to be everything you wish to be, including your highest manifestation: pure love."

Like all the fakers of philosophy, Brooks rings the Bell of Darwin, which in their mind, raises the credibility of their position immeasurably. According to Brooks, "the nice thing about this evolutionary approach to morality is that...we are all the descendants of successful cooperators."

I don't have the time or patience to deconstruct this Darwinian nonsense (if you're interested in an earlier post on this topic, click here). The point is: Brooks is wrong. Wrong factually. Wrong morally. Wrong in every way. But the effort to use "science" as a way to
justify false beliefs is especially nefarious. As I've pointed out before, bad ideas become extremely powerful when they are ultimately wedded to the logic of "science."

This new idea that morality requires mindlessness - literally, the suppression of the mind - and
our only moral duty is to "follow our feelings" - has been around for a long time. Indeed, for decades, we've exposed to the idea that we should "just do it." But never - as far as I know - has anyone tried to prove that "just doing it" is better than "thinking about it first" - at least not scientifically! Yet, if that's what Brooks and these scientists - Michael Gazzaniga and others - are trying to accomplish - then they are stepping on very thin ice.

I hope they think about the personal and social consequences of such a philosophy.
They better be sure they're right about it. Damn sure.


Quote of the Day

"Much of the evil in the world today comes from the fact that man is hopelessly unconscious." - Carl Jung

The Meaning of Israel

Recently, I read that Israel means "to wrestle with God." Since I know that the meaning of words can get distorted through translation, I decided to email a friend of mine (who's very knowledgeable about religious history, whether the word "wrestle," is correct. He wrote back...

"Yes. To wrestle, literally, according to a passage in the Old Testament...Jacob wrestled the messenger from God, and afterwards was known as Israel."

For some reason, I really like the concept of "wrestling with God" (literally), and I have a lot of respect for the ancient Hebrews for viewing such a term ("wrestler") positively.

We hear a lot of talk these days about "submitting" to God. Or "loving" God. Or holding God "in awe." And that's all fine and good. But there's something about the word "wrestling" that appeals to me - perhaps, ultimately, that's what we're actually doing with God! Wrestling for the truth. Wrestling for His acceptance. Wrestling for His protection. But He won't go down without a fight...Then again, neither will We...


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Lies My Teacher Told Me

A few years ago, James Loewen published a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me. No, it's not about Darwinism. It's about American history. But they could certainly publish a book about Darwinism with the same exact title.

The reason I mention this is...I decided to go back and review the controversy over the NCSE's answers to the
"10 Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution." I had previously mentioned this document in my review of the documentary Expelled.

I would like to discuss 3 of these "questions" in detail because I have a personal connection to them. After all, I did take high school biology. And I do remember some of it.

Note: NCSE is pro-Darwinist; The Discovery Institute is pro-Intelligent Design.

The first question...

"Why do textbooks claim that the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment shows how life’s building blocks may have formed on the early Earth--when conditions on the early Earth were probably nothing like those used in the experiment, and the origin of life remains a mystery?"

NCSE’s Answer:

Because evolutionary theory works with any model of the origin of life on Earth, how life originated is not a question about evolution. Textbooks discuss the 1953 studies because they were the first successful attempt to show how organic molecules might have been produced on the early Earth. When modern scientists changed the experimental conditions to reflect better knowledge of the Earth’s early atmosphere, they were able to produce most of the same building blocks. Origin-of-life remains a vigorous area of research.

Discovery's Rebuttal:

(a) Most biology textbooks include the origin of life--and the Miller-Urey experiment--in their treatments of evolution. If the NCSE feels that the origin of life is really “not a question about evolution,” the organization should launch a campaign to correct biology textbooks.

(b) Because the Miller-Urey experiment used a simulated atmosphere that geochemists now agree was incorrect, it was not the “first successful attempt to show how organic molecules might have been produced on the early Earth.” When conditions are changed to reflect better knowledge of the Earth’s early atmosphere, the experiment doesn’t work.

(c) If the origin of life “remains a vigorous area of research,” it is only because origin-of-life researchers are dedicated to their work, not because they have discovered anything that demonstrates how life originated.

Todd's Analysis:

Like former atheist Lee Strobel, I remember the Miller-Urey experiment from high school. Let's just say the subject was more than just "treated." Rather, it was portrayed as a major scientific breakthrough and solid evidence of Darwinism.

This webpage grades biology textbooks from "A" to "F" in terms of how they cover the Miller-Urey experiment. An "F" is reserved for textbooks which "
include a picture or drawing of the Miller-Urey apparatus with a misleading caption claiming or implying that the experiment simulated conditions on the early Earth; the text contains no mention of the experiment's flaws, and leaves the student with the impression that it demonstrated how life's building-blocks formed on the early earth."

I guess my high school textbook would get an "F."

Next question...

"VERTEBRATE EMBRYOS. Why do textbooks use drawings of similarities in vertebrate embryos as evidence for their common ancestry--even though biologists have known for over a century that vertebrate embryos are not most similar in their early stages, and the drawings are faked?"

NCSE’s Answer:

Twentieth-century and current embryological research confirms that early stages (if not the earliest) of vertebrate embryos are more similar than later ones; the more recently species shared a common ancestor, the more similar their embryological development. Thus cows and rabbits--mammals--are more similar in their embryological development than either is to alligators. Cows and antelopes are more similar in their embryology than either is to rabbits, and so on. The union of evolution and developmental biology--”evo-devo”--is one of the most rapidly growing biological fields. “Faked” drawings are not relied upon: there has been plenty of research in developmental biology since Haeckel--and in fact, hardly any textbooks feature Haeckel’s drawings, as claimed.

Discovery's Rebuttal:

(a) Far from confirming the NCSE’s claim that the early stages of vertebrate embryos are more similar than later ones, embryological research confirms that the claim is false.

(b) The NCSE’s claim that “the more recently species shared a common ancestor, the more similar their embryological development” is also false.

(c) Textbooks claim that the various CLASSES of vertebrates resemble each other in their early stages. By focusing on taxonomic levels below classes, the NCSE is attempting to evade the issue.

(d) Although the NCSE claims that “faked” drawings “are not relied upon,” a simple examination of biology textbooks shows that the NCSE is wrong.

Todd's Analysis:

I can personally confirm Point D. The NCE is wrong. The faked drawings are still in high school textbooks. I know because I used them. That's probably why
evolutionary biologist (and pro-Darwinist) Stephen Jay Gould wrote in 2000: “We do, I think, have the right to be both astonished and ashamed by the century of mindless recycling that has led to the persistence of these drawings in a large number, if not a majority, of modern textbooks.”


Next question...

"PEPPERED MOTHS. Why do textbooks use pictures of peppered moths camouflaged on tree trunks as evidence for natural selection--when biologists have known since the 1980s that the moths don’t normally rest on tree trunks, and all the pictures have been staged?"

NCSE’s Answer:

These pictures are illustrations used to demonstrate a point--the advantage of protective coloration to reduce the danger of predation. The pictures are not the scientific evidence used to prove the point in the first place. Compare this illustration to the well-known re-enactments of the Battle of Gettysburg. Does the fact that these re-enactments are staged prove that the battle never happened? The peppered moth photos are the same sort of illustration, not scientific evidence for natural selection.

Discovery's Rebuttal:

(a) The NCSE’s first point is technically correct: The textbook pictures are illustrations, not actual evidence.

(b) The NCSE is using this technical point, however, to obscure the real issue: The textbook pictures misrepresent the natural resting-place of peppered moths and conceal serious flaws in the standard story.

(c) Staged peppered moth photos are not comparable to re-enactments of the Battle of Gettysburg, because the former misrepresent the truth.

(d) If using staged photos and re-telling a flawed story “demonstrate a point,” as the NCSE claims, the point is that students cannot trust what they read in their biology textbooks.

Todd's Analysis:

Again, the NCSE is being willfully dishonest, and the Discovery Institute (regrettably) isn't being tough enough. In many textbooks, the peppered moth experiment isn't an innocuous "illustration." Rather, it's used as direct evidence for Darwinism. Again, see this webpage on different biology textbooks. The textbook I used would get an "F.'

I'm already looking forward to the next round of this controversy, because - in the very brief time since that list was published - even more Darwinian "facts" have been exposed as lies.

In my high school biology class, the mating behavior of peacocks was used as evidence for Darwinism. But as this blog post explains, recent evidence invalidates that theory.

Some of the highlights...

Darwin's theory of sexual selection is widely regarded as explaining how the peacock's magnificent tail evolved.

The PBS Evolution Library says: Peahens often choose males for the quality of their trains - the quantity, size, and distribution of the colorful eyespots."

And why, you ask?

Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller of University College, London, thinks he has an answer:

The peacock's tail is not just an arbitrary outcome of sexual selection. It's there because it's costly, which means only those fit, healthy, strong peacocks can afford to carry around those tails.
This hypothesis, called Zahavi's handicap or the "handicap principle," states:
An individual with a well developed sexually selected character [such as a peacock's flashy tail] is an individual which has survived a test. A female which could discriminate between a male possessing a sexually selected character, from one without it, can discriminate between a male which has passed a test and one which has not been tested. Females which selected males with the most developed characters can be sure that they have selected from among the best genotypes of the male population.
So, according to this thesis, the hen bird realizes that the tail is a handicap for the cock bird, but, to the extent that he bears it in a cocksure manner, she also realizes that he must be a healthy mate.

Sounds bizarre. But is it true? Umm, well...

Jennifer Viegas, of Discovery Channel News, reports on the work of Mariko Takahashi of the University of Tokyo and her colleagues on this very question (March 26, 2008). Their findings contradict earlier reports that the peahens are impressed by brilliant tails.

From spring 1995 through spring 2001, the researchers observed peafowl (the correct name for the species) mating at Izu Cactus Park on the Izu Peninsula, about 100 kilometres southwest of Tokyo. They found that the peahens do not pay much attention to the peacocks' feathered finery. As Viegas reports,

The determination throws a wrench in the long-held belief that male peacock feathers evolved in response to female mate choice. It could also indicate that certain other elaborate features in galliformes, a group that includes turkeys, chickens, grouse, quails and pheasants, as well as peacocks, are not necessarily linked to fitness and mating success. [ ... ] Across the board, the researchers were unable to link the elaborateness of a peacock's train with his mating success. In fact, Takahashi and her team found little train variance among males in the population they studied. They also couldn't detect any link between a particular male's fitness and his train.
Oh well. Better luck next time, guys.