Saturday, December 31, 2005

Our strange and incomprehensible universe

A couple days ago at Ambivablog, there was a comment that struck me as needing more than another comment in response. Key paragraph:
This is a very strange and incomprehensible universe -- or, I should say, collection of universes -- but the secularists feel better believing it's predictable and understandable.
This is in defense of the reality of alien abductions. Oddly, though, I found myself agreeing that our universe is strange and incomprehensible. I immediately flashed back to a passage from James Randi's Flim-Flam!, talking about the Cottingly Fairy hoax. this is the case where two little girls faked photographs of fairies, and got the endorsement of Sir Arthur Connan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes:
England at that time was not yet ready to mature out of the mindset that Queen Victoria had left as her hallmark: the notion that the world was a rather predictable place and that everything was secure and stable. Little girls were always innocent and frivolous. Evil men had heavy brows and wore black. People were forever classified by birth and education. And so it went. It was the tenor of the time.

Holmes himself, though apparently an intellect of huge proportions, could not have survived outside the fictional world that Doyle wove about him. For his deductions to be correct, the consistency of his world was absolutely necessary. People in particular had to conform to type; otherwise Holmes would have been hopelessly wrong. It was just this rather naively invented universe that Doyle imagined into existence and projected about himself, and it accounts in large measure for his fanciful interpretation of phenomenon that he came upon only late in life - the wonders of spiritualism.
Among the naive assumptions made in this case was that little girls would not fake photographs, and that moreover they would not have the required skill (one of the girls had worked in a photographers shop).

As strange as fairies and UFOs may seem, in some respects in the universe is stranger than proponents of such things realize. They imagine a universe where simple, one-and-for-all proof of their claims is possible, but there are too many uncertainties for this to be so. Children commit fraud as readily as adults, hypnosis generates false memories of alien abduction and satanic rituals, frauds devise mind-boggling slight of hand performances, oddities of human perception make lights in the sky perform seemingly impossible manuevers, and urban legends are generated at blinding speed. The list goes on and on.

This is the strength of science. Any given experiment may be the result of fraud or incompetence. What people sometimes fail to realize is that science does not hinge on single experiments. Science is, at a minimum, about repeatable experiments. More than that, though, it is about finding new ways to check a claim once it has been made, and then discovering more and more about the thing under study. This is what gives us well-supported theories that are the closest thing to certainties in this world - not the one knock-down experiment.

Dover Cliffnotes, damning Bush quotes

The Dover ruling: If you're like me, you opted not to read all 139 pages of the Dover Ingelligent Design version. Luckily, Jason Rosenhouse has prepared a Cliffnotes version.

Lying about spying: I've been tending to let other blogs deal with what's happened with the NSA, but Andrew Sullivan has dug up some quotes that are too damning to ignore. Both are from 2004:
Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires - a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so.
A couple of things that are very important for you to understand about the Patriot Act. First of all, any action that takes place by law enforcement requires a court order. In other words, the government can't move on wiretaps or roving wiretaps without getting a court order.

Friday, December 30, 2005

A Small Treatise on Hugs and the Importance Thereof

The following is not my work, but that of one of my friends. I decided I just had to share it:

I know that you all appreciate hugs, at least in the abstract sense. So I was thinking about them and why hugs are so damn awesome. Hugs are important because a lot of life's problems, if they have solutions at all, can only be solved by the person that has the problem. And once you recognize that, then as a friend, there's not a lot you can do to help, no matter how much you would like to. Hugs will never solve the problem, but most people will feel better about the problem and themselves with hugs. I think there are very few people that when their lives are going to shit, do not want to feel that somehow, something is all right, that someone still cares, even if they can't help. And that's what hugs give people. So give people hugs. Even if you don't know them very well, if they look like they need it, give them a hug anyway. I've met some of my best friends that way. And of course, a big huggle to all of you. I love you all, in different ways.

God the accident and what science doesn't know

God an evolutionary accident?:Evolutionblog has excerpts from an Atlantic Monthly article arguing that religion is an evolutionary by-product of other things:
First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife. Second, as we will see, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exits. This makes us animists and creationists.
I'm not so sure about this, though. Religion may have started with an excess of inferences, but modern people's strong attachment to religion - and newfangled pseudo-religions like UFOlogy - requires something more. Interesting stuff, though.

"But science doesn't know everything!":Skeptico has an essay on this line of reasoning, written as part of his series on fallacies.

Finishing up the Tremblay spat

Seth at Kingdom of Heathen has an excellent post giving advice on how to avoid these things:
The problem with the blogosphere is that it is so easy to waste a comments section with arguments and personal attacks. As soon as Person A says something Person B doesn't like, B can respond and instigate the wrath of A as well as C, D, and E. Then we all get mad at each other, as happens so often with Francois Tremblay. We desperately need to stop degrading him, because in doing so we degrade ourselves.
The key, I think, is to avoid escalation. Tremblay has made a post on the subject which he says will be his last, so hopefully we can put this all behind us.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Humans as spiritual beings

The topic for this upcomming God or Not is "Spiritual Beings" - ghosts, angels, and such. This is a somewhat difficult topic for the Nots to write about, though Hellbound Allee did a nice job writing about angel rape and stuff.

I, however, do not have as easy a time thinking of things to write about something I don't believe in, and I see no compelling reason to believe in ghosts, and less reason to believe in angels. Furthermore, the idea of an incorporeal being doesn't square well with what we know about memory. Even if there was some element of consciousness that could exist without the brain, we've got good evidence brain damage can ruin our memory. That gives us good reason to suspect total ceasation of brain function will mean no more memories. This severs an important tie between hypothetical ghosts and their earthly existence.

A further difficulty is summed up in this question: do ghosts sleep? We think of ghosts as disembodied consciousness, but embodied consciousnesses are not always conscious. If our consciousness periodically ceases to exist during our lives, it will probably do so forever at the end of our lives.

Still, I cannot accept the view that the mind is identical with the brain. We simply are unable to explain how it is that the brain produces what philosophers call qualia - the redness of red, the painfulness of pain. I protest that this is no argument from ignorance. The history of science is full of things that could not be explained with the science of the time, and rather than being solved by incremental advances, were explained by a major new theory. The motion of the planets required universal gravitation; life on Earth required evolution; chemical bonding required quantum mechanics. Consciousness will likely require more than incremental advances in neuroscience. The inadequacy of current science does not, by any means, show the traditional account is right. As I argued above, the traditional idea of an eternal soul is most likely wrong.

I am somewhat reluctant to divide the world into two types of substance, mind and matter, as Descartes did. Tell me, is an electron a fundamentally different type of matter than a photon? What about quarks? Talk of dualism and monism is an artifact of the 17th century, when the nature of matter was not well understood. Nonetheless, it seems fitting to say that humans are, in a sense, spiritual beings. Though I've previously grappled with comming up with an account of morals under any account of human nature, it seems it would be significantly harder to account for value if not for the human ability to feel joy, appreciate beauty, and undergo all the other concious states we see as related to value. Perhaps there are higher beings in the universe, but I don't think anyone can claim to have knowledge of them. We would to better in our search for meaning to focus on the one type of spiritual being we can truly know: ourselves.

Blog birthday, renegade physicians, ID is doomed

How do you measure a year:
In feedback
In topics
In comments
In lawsuits filed

In swords crossed
In e-mails
In media
In posts

Okay, enough with the silly song parody. RealClimate turns one, and provides reflection on the year, its future, and the future of blogging.

Hypocrisy on authority: Prometheus nails alties for, among other things, rejecting mainstream authorities while making appeals to a different type of authority - renegade physicians. He also offers this bit of insight:
One of the reasons that "alternative" medicine and "pseudoscience" appeal to the "average person" (i.e. people with little or no formal education in the sciences) is that they offer simple (some might say simplistic) answers to difficult and complex questions. People who find science intimidating and impenetrable (i.e. most of the population) want a simple answer to their questions. They don't like long, complicated answers riddled with probabilities and conflicting or ambiguous data. And they especially don't want to be told that nobody knows the answer yet. Regretably, most simple answers to complex questions are also wrong.
HT: Orac.

Intelligent Design doomed to repeat Dover:The Commissar thinks the problems faced by Intelligent Design advocates in Dover are inherent to the movement. Why?:
One, activists, or "strongly committed" people tend to act in ways and make statements that reflect their strong commitment... Two, the activists then have to conceal such views.

"Let the students decide": That's John McCain's latest position on teaching evolution and intelligent design. The Arizona Daily Star had a slightly editorializing comment on this - which isn't to say the implied take isn't right on:
McCain probably wouldn't champion the same letting-students-decide approach for, say, homework or blowing off algebra.
At the same time he made this new suggestion, he also said this:
"There's great uncertainty out there," said the senator who knows best. "We have to provide a lot more certainty for young Americans. That's my job."
Wouldn't it give kids more certainty if we clearly told them the difference between science and pseudoscience?

Steve Bennen thinks this is a craven appeal to the religious right. Nah. McCain just has weird views on education. He supports teaching Marxism, remember?

Dembski mothballs blog: Josh Rosenau wonders who he'll mock now.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Some business, conservative insight, and patriotism

First thing's first: Skeptic Rant reminds us all about the upcomming God or Not, this time about spiritual beings. Should be a good carnival for the theists, though I've got something comming for it.

Conservative pundits see through ID:Rush Limbaugh has called Intelligent Design advocates disingenuous while Cal Thomas calls what happened in Dover "sham attempt to take through the back door what proponents have no chance of getting through the front door." Jason Rosenhouse calls his column "surprisingly sensible," but its not too surprising - Thomas is may be a fundie, but he's written quite a bit about what's wrong with today's religious right. That, combined with his willing to blast Republican spending habbits, provides much reason to respect him. I may start reading him more regularly.

Sitting down for your country:At first, I thought I'd link to this without comment, but it's too good not to quote. It's about a kid - Fraizer - who wouldn't stand for the pledge of alligence:
"No, our soldiers are fighting a war," Frazier responded. "The flag is an inanimate piece of cloth that doesn't move and surely can't hold a gun." At that point, Alexandre said she was "sick" of Frazier and ordered him to leave the classroom.
Brent Rasmussen also has a zinger in response to right-wing criticism:
Say, Jay at "Stop The ACLU, here's an idea: if you want to live a right-wing police state with no civil liberties, then you move away. Your definition of "patriotism" seems to include rolling over and giving away our civil liberties any time anyone in authority says we have to. To me, that's a lot more shameful than standing up for your first-amendment rights.
Um, but isn't that sitting down for your fist-amendment rights?

When I was in high school, I eventally stopped standing up for the pledge. When it's every day, it becomes a mindless ritual that no one takes seriously, and the most respectful thing to do is to refuse to participate in the farce.

Not so touched by his noodly appendage:John Rennie at thinks the whole FSM thing will just turn believers off to evolution. Maybe, though I've seen a lot of people who aren't particularly anti-religious who think it's funny. Who knows.

Anti-evolution in Utah:An anti-evolution bill has been introduced in Utah; Distpatches from the Culture Wars has

Open letter to Francois Tremblay

Dear Francois:

Take down your shit list.

This post was largely prompted your addition of the Raving Atheist to your list. I probably would have shruged and thought, "spats like this happen," if not for the fact that you already had the Evangelical Atheist on the list. This, to me, suggested a bit of quickness to anger, so I took a closer look.

Your denunciation of RA was in response to a post telling Julia Sweeney not to bother reading about Ayn Rand. This one post was enough for you to class RA as an "imbecile" and "anti-individualist." I'm not even sure what has you so mad, since you've called Rand's followers "the worst corrupters of reason that exist" and the author of the book in question a "raving lunatic."

In EA's case, your response makes even less sense. He made a fairly bland observation - that just as we ask "where did God come from?" when we hear God created the universe, we are left wondering "where did the singularity come from?" when we hear the universe is the result of an exploding singularity. For this, you said he was "anti-science," "pomo," and "acting like a Christian."

Looking further into the list, I found the spat between you and Mark Spittle where you responded to his comment that your show was a "little flawed" by saying he "didn't get it" and "it's about individual choice, stupid."

In all these cases, you might say how they responded to you was as bad as anything you did. Fine. But in every case, you're initial response was far out of proportion to what you were responding to. One of these spats might have happened anyway, but I doubt you would have had three in a row if you hadn't done so much to escalate. If we want a strong online community, we can't let disagreements spiral out of control.

The EA case is particularly worisome to me, because there your outburst was purely a matter of his opinion, and not matter of dealing with an issue. If "freethought" is to be used as semi-synonymous with "secularism," we can't be so quick to issue anthemas against people we disagree with. I'm all for disagreement. I dislike the mythicist position on Jesus, and wish so many prominent atheists hadn't appeared in Brian Flemming's film. But violent denunciations make no sense. Getting into the habit of issuing them could easily give us a world where ethical objectivists like yourself treat top minds such as David Hume, Bertrand Russel, and Michael Shermer as heretics. Do you want that?

You've made some great posts, as I've said in the past. However, I'm with Vjack, Addie, and Atheist Messiah in thinking this list is a bad idea, and I probably won't be linking to any more of your stuff until it comes down.

Chris Hallquist

UPDATE: It's down, apparently thanks to Aaron Kinney.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Book notes: American Exorcism

Today, I finished reading American Exorcism, by sociologist anthropologist Michael W. Cuneo.

Earlier this year, modern exorcism made the papers in the form of panning reviews of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The movie was based on the story of a young woman who died in the course of officially-sanctioned exorcism. What few people are probably aware of is the number of exorcisms performed by a subsection of the Pentacostal movement along with a few rogue Catholic priests. This is the main subject of Cuneo's book. It's a fascinating subject that I won't cover in its entierty here, but I will look at some of the most striking passages in the book.

One such section delt with an official exorcism that ended up on 20/20. Here's what the priest who arranged the filming had to say about unofficial exorcists:
Like it or not, there are many people in this country who are engaged in struggles with what they believe are demonic forces. In the majority of these cases these forces are probably the product of an overactive imagination or some definable psychiatric condition, but in some cases, such as Gina's, they are all too real.
Let's look at that case, though. As the description of the ABC segment made it look pretty impressive. A writhing victim (of whom, I wonder) strapped in a chair, calming down when the priest commanded the demons to depart. The author went to the priest and asked how much the girl had been helped.

"Quite a bit," came the answer.

Quite a bit? Isn't exorcism supposed to be an all or nothing affair? It turns out that she had other psychological problems, but the priest insists there were also demons there removed by the exorcism.

If this official exorcist thinks the unofficial ones are imagining things, they must really be nuts.

Another section confirmed what I suspected about many cases of exorcism. One exorcist introduced the practice of telling the demons not to manifest, in order to cut down on theatrics. This was not only to keep real demons (sincerely believed in) in line, but also for the people. The exorcist explains, "There's so much autosuggestion and theraputic pressure at play when you pray over people for deliverance. If you tell them the demon will come out in a bucket of vomit, they'll vomit. If you tell them it will come out in a scream, they'll scream. If you tell them not to be surprised if they thrash on the floor, they'll thrash on the floor." This is from an exorcist, again. Some of them seem to understand what's going on pretty well.

There was one part, however, where I couldn't quite believe what the author was saying. This wasn't about anything the "possessed" people did, but rather about the psychology of the exorcists. Cuneo says that after witnessing more than fifty exorcisms, he saw none of the exorcist-style supernatural stuff, but...
Occasionally I found myself in a situation where I was the odd man out, the party pooper of all party poopers. Just about everyone else on hand would claim to see something extraordinary, and they'd be disappointed - confused and disappointed - that I hadn't seen it also.

"But you must have seen the body rising. The rest of us saw it. It clearly rose two, maybe three feet off the chair. How could you not have seen it?"

"I'm sorry, but I didn't see it. I was looking as hard as I could, but I didn't see it."
I've read plenty about collective delusions - from scores of people thinking they've been abducted by aliens to the sailors who mistook driftwood for a ghost. This takes the cake, though, and suggests even greater skepticism is needed of cases where many seemingly reliable witnesses have claimed to see something supernatural.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

CotG Christmas extraveganza!

Earlier today I said the blogosphere was quiet, totally forgetting about the Carnival of the Godless Christmas Extraveganza. Among the posts is one from Richard at Philosophy, et cetera on ethics. He says something I've been thinking for a long time but not gotten around to saying:
Further, conditionalizing our value in such a way is inherently disrespectful to humanity, suggesting that people have no real value in themselves, and wouldn't deserve your compassion unless God added that extra magic spark to make it worth your while.

Merry Newtonmas

The blogosphere's fairly quit today, but Skeptico has managed to serve up a bit of humorous cheer.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Festivus, deconversion, and a new blog

An Un-merry Christmas:With inspiration from Festivus in Seinfeld, John Cole is airing his grievances. My favorite:
5.) The Democrats- A full accounting of the gross incompetence of this party would require more bandwidth than I am willing to purchase, but what can be said about a bunch of partisan nitwits so inept that the GOP self-destructs in front of them, and all they can do is triumph the loony views of Cindy Sheehan and advocate for immediate withdrawal from Iraq?
Meanwhile, Michael Reynolds airs grievences at a diferent target:
Ten reasons why I don't like Christmas:

1. I can't stand having schedules imposed on me. I should be merry now? Not later? Not next week? Has to be right now? How about now?...
Read the whole thing; I like his suggestion at the end.

I feel somewhat bad linking to all this negativity, so now go read a list of what we get from the material world. A Christmas sermon I can say, "Amen!" to.

Deconversion, parts II and III:Jenna has posted a part II and a part three to her deconversion story. There's great thoughts in there about science and the destruction of the individual.

Without Gods: That's the title of a new blog by a New York University professor writing a book on the subject. This is particularly fascinating as a scholarly subject because denunciations of atheism ("the fool hath said in his heart, there is no god") pre-date open declarations of atheism, and it would be good to understand what exactly such denunciations were responding to.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Seriously absurd

I read The Onion every week. Living in Madison, where free copies can be found in almost every restaurant and university building, it’s hard not to. When I first came to Madison, I saw the Onion as one of the many things that made the city so cool.

After a semester of getting it every week, though, it can feel a little old. The Onion’s strength lies in its unique style of stating absurdities in a serious tone. Many times, wrapped in this style is great material. Often, though, it’s unexceptional stuff filling the same comedic formula.

Today, though, I fell in love with the Onion all over again. I finished my last final yesterday afternoon and returned home that evening. My family had planned to leave today to visit relatives in Michigan, which meant opening Christmas presents two days early. One of the things I got was the Onion’s Our Dumb Century – a fake collection of Onion articles from before the Onion existed.

While the Onion may be unique, this book has page after page of jokes few comedians would even think of making. It combines a foresight/hindsight from modern knowledge (‘The Only Thing We Have to Fear is a Crippling, Decade-Long Depression’) with knowledge of less well-known historical details (McCarthy’s alcoholism in ‘I Hold in My Hand a List of 205 Liquor Stores’). Then, of course, there’s the sheer irreverence that feels suspiciously like social commentary (Art Critics Impressed by Saturation Bombing of Guernica: Slaughter of Hundreds in Spanish Town Called ‘a Stunning Breakthrough in Post-Cubism’).

The reference is to Picasso’s painting of the event. It feels like social commentary because there’s an unstated question of how we can see something like Guernica or Schindler’s List and focus on the artistry, rather than the historical event. Perhaps the worst case of this is in the treatment of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, about the historical rape of the Congo under the auspices of King Leopold of Belgium. This oft-forgotten piece of history involved the deaths of at least five million people. Critics love Conrad’s style, but sometimes do so to the point of neglecting the history, and film versions (like Apocalypse Now) have ignored the history entirely by imposing the same story on a different setting.

Such things need no explicit statement to be exposed as absurd. All it takes is to state them seriously yet in full absurdity. This is what The Onion does so well.

The Pascagoula puzzle

Previously, I cited the Pascagoula abduction as a paranormal event I rejected in spite of being unable to explain. Here’s an excerpt from UFO’s and Abductions, the 2000 book where I first heard of the case:
An intense wave of sightings in 1973 contained incidents that changed the way in which researchers perceibed the UFO and abduction phenomenon. During this wave, Charles Hickson (age forty-two) and Calvin Parker (age nineteen) reported that they were fishing on the banks of the Pascagoula River in Missippi when a UFO landed about fifty feet from them and, before they could react, two aliens grapped them and “floated” them in to the UFO. Hickson said he was suspended in midair while a football-shaped device slowly passed around his body. After a short time, the two were released from the object. Hickson and Parker went to the sheriff with their story. The sheriff put them together in a room with a hidden microphone and listened from another room to their private conversation. Rather than laugh about how they were putting one over on the authorities, the shaken men talked about what had happened to them and then kneeled and prayed. A local reporter put the case on the wire services, and it made the national news.
After hearing this version, I was ready to accept that it was a hoax and they had made a lucky attempt guess that they’d be secretly listened to.

Then I found this website, which linked to several early news articles on the subject, as well as a transcript. About the same time, I found a Wikipedia article that agreed largely with the 2000 book’s description, but added a "some reports" qualifier to the microphone claim. Reading the linked articles, I couldn’t find the microphone claim in any of them. I had to wonder if the secret monitoring had never happened and only been invented later. But it would be one thing for the claim to be made up, another to blatantly fabricate a transcript.

The transcript was said to be from a book called Beyond Earth. I decided to order it as a used book from I went straight for the transcript. There was no citation for it, so it looked like I’d be unable to trace the story back any further. Then I saw the context for the transcript. It was preceeded by an interview transcript, with this bit of narration inserted:
Then Diamond and Captain Ryder went out and left the two men alone in the room with the tape recorder still running.
So they were being recorded during an interview – was that done in secret? Recorded interviews generally aren’t. Then, I thought I had the answer: the tape recording wasn’t so secret.

But no, the secrecy claim was on pages 10-11 and 14. Or did the sheriff only think there were doing it in secret – guessing that they’d fail to realize that the recorder was still going? It’s not a totally idiotic move, Uri Geller once pulled something similar with a phone. Then again, reading the transcript, Hickson seems less traumatized than Parker, could it be that Parker hallucinated and Hickson decided to use it to get famous? Are there any readers familiar with the case who could help here?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Feminism, meme time, and Virginia

Mainstream feminism:The Unapologetic Atheist talks about comming to see feminism's better side.

Whore-off: Here's a meme picked up by Pharyngula. PZ is scratching his head trying to figure out why he rated a 25% over Majikthise's 6%. I got a 61%, so there! Actually, the difference may have to do with whether you use your blog's URL or its name. When I use the name, I only get 9%, and Pharyngula gets 5%. "," however, gets... hmmm... only 6%. There's an explanation for how these numbers are calculated, but what they say about our blogs, I don't know.

If you see it on The Evangelical Atheist it’s so: The Evangelical Atheist rewrites a Christmas classic.

Roundups within roundups: There's been so much good stuff in response to the Dover ruling that I ended up not linking to any of it. Evolutionblog, however, has a nice roundup, which I choose to include in this round up. I like his quote from Billy Dembski:
"I think the big lesson is, let's go to work and really develop this theory and not try to win this in the court of public opinion," Dr. Dembski said. "The burden is on us to produce."
I think they're seeing the light.

Interestingly, Evolutionblog's roundup links to further roundups, including one that in turn links to this one, which is perhaps the best, and includes a section on juicy bits from the text of the ruling.

Jeremiah doesn't like Christmas: Goosing the Antithesis explains why Christmas is a triumph of secularism, quoting from Jeremiah to make his point.

24th Skeptic's Circle

The 24th Skeptic's Circle is up at Immunoblogging. My pick for the best of this carnival is Master Painter, as story in which, "A man was kind enough to share with me the truth; only, he did not know it." Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Cults, scepticism, and C. S. Lewis

Leaving a cult:Headlining today's roundup is the story of Jenna at Cyberspace Rendezvous, about her time in a Christian cult. It seemed to begin so nicely:
No one tells you in high school to “beware of religious cults”. No one told me that they will shower you with love, and subtley draw you into their world. They invited me to hang out with them at cafes. They invited me to devotionals where everyone hugged you and gave you oodles of attention. They invited me to study the bible with them– the clincher, the maneuver to get you to admit that the only way you can be saved is through them. And they invited me to move in with them in the beginning, so that I could leave my ex-boyfriend. Not knowing the consequences, I did. I ended up living in a living room, sleeping on the old, stained couch, for four months in a dirty two bedroom apartment with six girls, all from the church. The kitchen was infested with weevils, the closets with cockroaches. And they showered me with love that I did not know was fake; since I had no idea what social love was.
HT: UberKuh

Russell's skepticism:RealClimate has reflections on skepticism, using Bertrand Russel's Sceptial Essays as a jumping off point. I think this is the best essay on non-global skepticism I've read.

Lewis not so bad: Balloon Juice has a review of the recent Narnia movie, which defends C. S. Lewis against charges of bigotry.

Iran's president is insane:Well, we already knew that, but now he's moving to ban western music. And I don't just mean country and western (a ban on that wouldn't be so bad). HT: Might Middle

Newsy bits: In spite of the Dover ruling, Indiana lawmakes still want to push ID in schools. When will these people learn?

Also, Southern California University has denied a charter to a Christian group that wants to bar non-Christians from membership. I know they're going to cry "persecution," but they're breaking a rule that everyone has to obey. If Southern California is like Madison, non-Christian religious groups are being required to allow Christians in. It isn't persecution when you're asked to play by the same rules as everyone else.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Newsflash: ruling against ID

The Dover ruling is out, and Intelligent Design proponents lost. Meanwhile, pro-evolution bloggers are chortling over the specific of the ruling. From what I've seen, it looks like this is the sort of sweeping anti-ID ruling we were hoping for. I love this quote from the NYT story:
"A thousand opinions by a court that a particular scientific theory is invalid will not make that scientific theory invalid," said Mr. Thompson, the president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, a public interest firm that says it promotes Christian values. "It is going to be up to the scientists who are going to continue to do research in their labs that will ultimately determine that."
I agree - sort of. On one hand, it is up to the scientists, and the scientists had said no. If IDers had led scientists determine education policy, this case never would have happened. On the other hand, I'm not sure who's going to be testing the theory. Proponents have shown little interest in doing any real research on the subject.

Caution on Mirecki, two ways of thought, and pants

Controversy on how to respond to Mirecki incident:This weekend at Panda's Thumb, there was an essay that I considered linking to, then ignored. The reason I condidered linking to it is because the author was able to use exerience as a private investigator to argue that Mirecki did not, in fact, fake his injuries. Then it veered off into conspiracy land, at which point I decided the best response was to ignore it.

I mention it now because of the discussion of the post at Dispatches from the Culture Wars and Evolutionblog. What I did not realize up until now is that there are some questions about the incident less kooky than the claim that it was all faked. (I cannot find examples of this, though. If someone could point me to one in the comments, it would be appreciated.)

Uber Kuh on Theists:
There are two basic ways of looking at any situation. They are, given the facts, either (A) "This is what I want the facts to be" or (B) "This is what the facts are."...

Now, think about this in terms of religious belief. Religious belief involves belief in the truth of a religious claim(s). Moreover, especially with Western monotheistic religions, religious belief extends to include faith that certain logically implausible or impossible claims are true, which makes this type of faith one that holds despite the evidence. In other words, religious belief is admitted as irrational by those who hold it...

What I have never understood is why so many people are unwilling to give up their dreams when the hard, cold facts of reality affirm that those dreams cannot be real.
Read the whole thing.

Poo:Here's Pooflinger's Annonymous at it's best:
We see day after day incidents of adultery, of fornication, of deception, and of violence.
How the hell is this any different than the days when kings and tyrants alike were subject to the church above all else? Nothing has changed, dear. The only reason you see things as "worse" is a mixture of population density, acculturation and the simple fact that we have this lovely thing called "the internet" (perhaps you've heard of it) which allows you to instantly access information from all over the world. We don't need any mystical prophecies to tell us that social problems will become more noticeable as humanity proliferates.

Pants:Someone who believes very strongly that women shouldn't wear them. (I don't think this is a joke - but who knows.)

Monday, December 19, 2005

Being moralistic

Here's an old peeve of mine that I'm bringing out because partly because today is the God or Not carnival on morality, and partly because of something that came up in a discussion of torture of U.S. detainees. It's something of a gear shift from the essay I submitted to the carnival, so let me say this: I'm willing to amuse myself with epistemic skepticism, but I'm pretty confident that I have hands and the sun will rise tomorrow. Similarly, I'm pretty confident about some things morally, the above essay aside.

The second source of this post is when Glenn Reynolds called Andrew Sullivan "consistently, pompously, and annoyingly moralistic" - with regards to Andrew's hammering of torture on the government's watch. Say what else you will about Sullivan, that being moralistic about torture is supposed to be a bad thing shows how screwy our society's attitude towards morality has gotten.

We have formed up a concept of "morality" that is largely about sex, lying, and a handful of other vices. This is often taken to obscene lengths - so much that when we hear "moralistic," we are more likely to think about scum like the Rev. Phelps those who believe in treating gays as human beings, more likely to think about people who oppose vaccinations for STDs than those who want to save women's lives.

There are many organizations that are willing to fight fundamenalists on these moral issues. What we need, though, is one that is willing to stand up and frame its fight as a moral one - which it is. We need to revitalize the cause of morality against people who's conscience is back in the Middle Ages.

God or Not #4

The 4th edition of God or Not is up at The Goddess. Today's topic: morality.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

God forbid they learn to think, anti-crank tips, my elf name, fighting God

IB program protested: Parents in a city in Minnesota are protesting the International Baccalaureate for being "anti-American" and "anti-Christian." The first complaint is just silly:
From Borowski's view, the program is anti-American in the sense that it teaches students that the United States is equal to other countries. "My fear is that my kids are going to be taught America isn't better than any other country in the world," Borowski says.
Are they teaching that America isn't better, or are they merely staying failing to present propaganda that it is better? I mean, think about it, I can envision a teacher being neutral in a way annoys people used to our usual cheerleading history classes, but I can't envision a teacher getting up in front of a class and saying, "America isn't better than any other country." As much as I love this country, a neutral approach is perfectly reasonable, especially for an international program.

The anti-Christian complaints scare me though:
At the core of the program is the "Theory of Knowledge" course, which, among other things, teaches students how to identify ideological bias...

The anti-Christian critique was brought to the forefront during a January school board discussion about the required reading for the "Theory of Knowledge" course. Objections were raised about including Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World without the inclusion of a book to counter it. In the end, two board members, Dave Eaton and Bill Wenmark, voted against the book list, but the entire board voted 5 to 2 in support of it. Even so, dissent is a rarity in a district where the board usually unanimously agrees on everything.
Maybe someone more familiar with the book can fill in the details, but my understanding is that Sagan hardly deals with conventional religion in his book. What we seem to have here is parents' fear that their children will learn to think scientifically. Know what? Scratch what I said about my love of this country. I love some parts of it, like the constitutional freedoms surpassing those in even other advanced democracies. On the other hand, I'm embarrassed that teaching scientific thinking would be considered controversial.

Spotting cranks:Via Anne, some tips.

Elf names:Yet another silly meme, via Pharyngula
Your Elf Name Is...

Dixie Mc Flurry
Dixie? I guess that's what I get for having an androgynous real name.

Fighting God:Austin Cline responds to an e-mailer who wonders why atheists spend their time fighting something that doesn't exist. Once again, I must observe that people do spend their time fighting thinks like bogus cures and belief in alien abductions.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Impeachable conduct, evolution on trial, statistics in climate, and more

I have decided to return to the system of omnibus posting. However, this time around links on different subjects will be separated by bold headings.

NSA Spying: It has come out that Bush authorized the NSA to spy on American citizens. Skeptic Rant has a good round up, but the best commentary is at Mighty Middle:
The bottom line on domestic spying by the NSA is this: we have a system in place for allowing quick, legal means of doing what President Bush did. There are special courts. There is a bypass provision that allows intelligence agencies to start a wiretap prior to seeking authorization in the event of time pressure.

Mr. Bush chose not to follow the law. Not because he had to. Because he wanted to...

The importance of this, to me, is not just the law that was broken, but the President's psychological need to break that law; his evident need to be beyond the law. This is a step past arrogance into psychological dysfunction. This is dangerous. Presidents do not have the right to ignore laws. And when they ignore laws solely in order to exercise unrestrained power, for the rush, for the pleasure, for ego, they cross the line from mere law-breaking into megalomania.
One of the people Skeptic Rant linked to is calling for impeachment. A stream of thoughts on this: I've always thought the "impeach Bush" folks were crazy, but now I'm not sure. If perjury about sex is impeachable... but no, that's a bad argument, we shouldn't let the standard for impeachable conduct be set by the slime who went after Clinton. Still this is major. Ya know what, though? With a Republican Congress, it ain't gonna happen.

Cobb, Dover, and the UC:I've run into a whole mess of posts regarding various court cases on evolution. I'll start with the appeal of the Cobb case, the most timely. Bob Park shares my fears that the re-trial may not go well:
The attorney who argued the case against the stickers at last years trial remarked admitted that, "I'm more worried than I was when I walked in this morning."
The Panda's Thumb is covering factual errors made by one judge on the text book author's position and in accusing the ACLU of lying.

In the Dover arena, we have analysis of possible outcomes.

Now on to the University of California situation. Awhile ago, some students from a Christian school sued because the system wouldn't accept classes that used a science text book including the following statement:
The people who have prepared this book have tried consistently to put the Word of God first and science second. To the best of the author's knowledge, the conclusions drawn from observable facts that are presented in this book agree with the Scriptures. If a mistake has been made (which is probable since this book was prepared by humans) and at any point God's Word is not put first, the author apologises.
The case recently came to trial. This is particularly disturbing to me, as it represents a change of target to colleges, where the science departments, at least, are bastions of sanity. The Economist comments:
To the extent that educational establishments reflect cultural reality, it may be inevitable. After all, before the liberal era of the 1960s, there were no such things as courses in "Women's Studies" or "African-American Studies". Now, no prudent American university would be without them. It would be odd if conservative Christians did not leave similar footprints on the syllabus.
It's tempting to say such courses opened the door for religious groups to demand their place in the cirricula. However, whatever one may think about -studies departments, they generally don't involve teaching creationism-level nonsense (with some exceptions).

A climactic random walk?::RealClimate looks at the claim that climate statistics can be explained by a random walk. He's got a wonderful bit of snark:
Another common false statment, which some contrarians may also find support for from the Cohn and Lins paper, is that the climate system is not well understood. I think this statement is somewhat ironic, but the people who make this statement must be allowed to talk for themselves.

Self-defense myth: Pooflingers has advice for people planning on getting a shotgun for self defense, and takes out a myth about shotguns in the process.

Cranks:Evolutionblog writes about crank theories of physics and their similarities to creationism.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Mental ilness run amok

The title refers not to cases of mental illness, but the concept. Psychiatrists are considering labeling extreme bigotry as a mental illness:
If it succeeds, it could have huge ramifications on clinical practice, employment disputes and the criminal justice system. Perpetrators of hate crimes could become candidates for treatment, and physicians would become arbiters of how to distinguish "ordinary prejudice" from pathological bias...

Amid a profusion of recent studies into the nature of prejudice, researchers have found that biases are very common. Almost everyone harbors what might be termed "ordinary prejudice," the research indicates...

"I don't think racism is a mental illness, and that's because 100 percent of people are racist," said Paul J. Fink, a former president of the American Psychiatric Association. "If you have a diagnostic category that fits 100 percent of people, it's not a diagnostic category."
The general problem with mental illness is that almost everything in psychology exists along a spectrum. In my first critique of this concept, I noted hallucinations as a possible exception, but studies have shown 45%, 70% of the population has had some kind of hallucination. In most cases, we shrug them off, they don't impair functioning. Maybe this impairing of functioning is the standard we should use. But even this comes in degrees. Creationism may impair functioning for someone who wants to be a science teacher, but few of even the staunches of opponents of creationism would seriously consider it a disease.

P.S.: came to this story via a good general round-up in Slate.

Cautious optimism

That's how John Cole thinks we should treat news of the recent election in Iraq, and I second it.

I'm not confident in Maher's ability to think

On my bloglines account, I found a Skeptico post about Bill Maher, but it seems to have gotten taken down. Here's the transcript he refers to, along with the relevant excerpt:
KING: Worried about Avian flu?

MAHER: Not the least. You know my theory about health.

KING: What?

MAHER: Well, we've talked about it. I'm not into western medicine. That to me is a complete scare tactic. It just shows you, you can...

KING: You mean you don't get a -- you don't get a flu shot?

MAHER: A flu shot is the worst thing you can do.

KING: Why? MAHER: Because it's got -- it's got mercury.

KING: It prevents flu.

MAHER: It doesn't prevent. First of all, that's...

KING: I haven't had the flu in 25 years since I've been taking a flu shot.

MAHER: Well, I hate to tell you, Larry, but if you have a flu shot for more than five years in a row, there's ten times the likelihood that you'll get Alzheimer's disease. I would stop getting your...

KING: What did you say?

MAHER: That went better in rehearsal but it was still good. Absolutely, no the defense against disease is to have a strong immune system. A flu shot just compromises your immune system.

KING: So you don't take any western medicine, don't take an aspirin?

MAHER: Never, an aspirin no. Thousands of people die from aspirin every year.

KING: How do you treat illness?

MAHER: I promise you that if you get a headache the reason for that headache is not aspirin deficiency. The reason...

KING: No, of course not.

MAHER: Right, so you're taking -- so it's not...

KING: Something to take the pain away. Why is that bad?

MAHER: But why don't you find out the real root of that pain?

KING: Well, while you're finding take the aspirin.

MAHER: But that's what we do. We have immediate cures that address the symptom and not the root cause of anything. I have no worries about bird flu whatsoever. First of all, it's not going to happen. Second of all, the fact that it is mutating shows that if you did come up with a vaccine tomorrow, it wouldn't be effective against the disease when the disease comes because the disease is always morphing and mutating. It's just a way to funnel money into the pharmaceutical companies. Follow the money. You'll find out where the bird flu is.

KING: You wouldn't say the Salk vaccine was a bad idea.

MAHER: That's somewhat of a different case, yes.

KING: Polio was eliminated. MAHER: Yes but, you know, there are many books out that will -- that will -- and I'm not well enough versed on it to talk about it that will indicate that there are other reasons why it was.

And a lot of diseases that have been they say, whoa, this was eliminated because of a vaccine, they find out well no actually the country got toilets and that's what happened.
Skeptico links to a refutation of the claim that sanitation put an end to disease, to a previous post of his on Maher, and mentions e-mailing Maher to demand a source for the "10 times the risk of Alzheimer's" statistic. He also provides Maher's e-mail for other people to do this, the reason the post is down may be he decided this was a bad idea. For that reason, I will not provide that link.

In the process of scanning the transcript for relevant bits, I came across something that's really irrelevant, but pretty funny in juxtaposition with Maher's vaccine claims:
MAHER: You know our country has lost its way as far as being able to discern good from evil, right from wrong because we're not -- we're not confident in our own ability to think anymore.
Maher, I think, is a little too confident in his ability to think.

Live reporting of Cobb case

The Sanity Inspector has a first-hand account of the Cobb evolution stickers case. The judges seem to be grilling the plantiffs pretty hard, on the face, it seems like they're leaning in favor of the stickers, but this may be standard proceedure. I'm no expert in what a usual court case looks like.

Something I was previously unaware of:
Cobb had apparently gone from under-representing evolution in its classrooms, to providing a fuller treatment while putting these disclaimers in to placate the fundamentalist parents. So, big surprise: the policy was a garden variety government consensus monster. A little something for everyone, that wound up pleasing no one.
Also, interesting bit on our citizen journalist:
If you are nervous about being at the website of a conservative Christian, you needn't be. I have always despised creationism. It's like I always say, To believe in things that can't be proved is faith, but to disbelieve in things that have been proved is just obstinance.

Wikipedia as accurate as CNN headlines

According to Nature, Wikipedia has been found to be almost as accurate as Britanica. A study found that Wikipedia averaged 4 errors per entry, while Britanica averaged 3

The story had wanting to bang my head against the wall: "Journal: Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica". No, not as accurate, almost as accurate. It's annoying how popular press articles can simplify scientific studies, and particularly ironic in this case.

In spite of this exageration, this is encouraging for Wikipedia fans everywhere. In my experience, Wikipedia is actually a great source for learning about highly technical subjects. David Biello at SciAm Observations has further commentary, better than I could provide.

An end to torture

Balloon Juice and Thoughts from Kansas are celebrating the passing of McCain's anti-torture proposal, and Bush's declaration of support for it. He may not have had much coice though. If Andrew Sullivan is correct, it's veto-proof.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Popularizing science

Tuesday, I went to a lecture by Brain Greene, one of the top experts in String Theory. The lecture was held to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of Einstein's miracle year, when he published three of his most important papers.

The lecture had two strong points: first, Greene is good with humor. He began with a story of accidentally using soap for mouthwash when he was running late to a lecture. His film clip on the Big Bang was introduced in this way: "In the begining... [akward silence, then test screen appears] there were color bars." There was no shortage of little bits like that to keep the lecture moving.

Second, he deals with the human and historcial elements of science very well. He mentions, for example, Einstein on his death bed asking for a pad of paper to work on the unification of quantum mechanics and relativity. He explains this history of the question of unifying the two fields, and why scientists refuse to simply give up.

He also attempts to explain the science involved, and I didn't understand a word of it. The problem, you might think, was that it was too advanced, but the problem was that it was too simple for there to be anything to understand. Perhaps I am concious of it because I am just begining to learn quantum mechanics. I can explain chemical orbitals in terms of mathematical equations for electrons, but the popularized notion of "wave-particle duality" is of little use. An electron is neither of speck of dust nor a wave in the ocean. Similarly, Greene gave a very "layman's terms" explanation of how string theory reconciles our two areas of physics, but how it really does that, I have no idea.

All this is quite worrisome, because the result was a lecuture indistinguishable from the pseudoscientific gibberish used in some of the silliar scams out there. By no means would I say we should put an end to popularizing science, but it would be nice if it were done only when the public can be given some real understanding, rather than an illusion of understanding.

Theowhacks, Xmas war no more, risk taking, proof of God, and the Smithsonian "scandal"

It's official: the Iranian theocracy is run by a whackjob. Yesterday, he went on the record saying that the Holocaust is a myth (see CNN, Yahoo News, and the NTY today and yesterday.) Yesterday's NYT story is stunning in it's understatement: the headline is "Iranian Leader Escalates Anti-Israeli Rhetoric" and the EU's response is described this way:
In unusually strong comments, a top European Union official said Iranians "do not have the president, or the regime, they deserve."
They're living in a theocracy, of course they don't have the regime they deserve. That is not what we learned here. What we learned is that Iran the Iranian president is out of touch with reality and must be kept from getting nuclear weapons if it means a missle strike on their reactors. Well, some would say that we haven't learned anything. Here's Josh Rosenau on the story:
Did anyone doubt that he wanted to destroy Israel before he started mouthing off? That maybe the Iranian nuclear weapons program was meant as a deterrent against Afghanistan?

Of course it's incredibly offensive that he's denying the Holocaust, but it really seems like a "dog bites man" of a story.
Also, Orac reminds us that this stuff runs pretty deep in the region.

I've gotten tired of this "War on Christmas" stuff fast, but I think I'll do one last bit of linkage on it (last, hence the "no more" in this title). Atheist Revolution
speculates on the larger political issues:
Taken as a whole, this story supports my evolving theory that the real job of the right-wing political pundits is to make increasingly outrageous claims with no basis in reality for the purpose of preventing discussion of real issues.
Also, Lance at Eternal Revolution has some thoughts on all the fighting:
This is just the latest in a series of skirmishes in the war to save our culture from itself. The call of Christ to help rescue fellow sheep that are lost often gets tabled for bigger missions, like ’saving Christmas’ by boycotting Wal-Mart, or ’saving marriage’ by boycotting Disney.
As someone who's rather turned off by all this fighting, It's heartening to see someone on the otherside who feels the same.

Philosophy, et cetra has a post on thought experiments, which mentions an interesting real experiment involving them. If I were involved in the experiment, I think I'd say "no preference" to both questions. It's important to realize that real-life choices often aren't as subtle as hypothetical choices.

Lastly, UberKuh presents his argument from DOG, while Get Busy Livin' or Get Busy Bloggin' has analysis of the Smithsonian/Stenberg flap, where he nicely demonstrates how Sternberg went around the peer review process to get an Intelligent Design paper published (HT on the latter: Pooflingers').

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

On Madison

Via Sadly, No!, Bill O'Reilly has had this to say on my current residence:
I mean, this is not Madison, Wisconsin, where you expect those people to be communing with Satan up there in the Madison, Wisconsin media.
As long as I'm on the topic of Madison, the following was heard at during a stand up act I saw recently:
Comic: Being a Republican in Madison is like being black at a Klan meeting.

Black girl in audience: I can attest!

Review: Abducted

Susan Clancy's Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens is a fascinating book. It's a nice, easy introduction to the subject for anyone who's unfamiliar with abduction claims, but it may be even better reading for those with significant knowledge of the subject. Other books on abductions may be able to explain what happens in terms of false memories and the like, but this book explains it on a human level. Abductions may get pitched to the public as something that should be considered on empirical grounds (and to sketpics as something that should be rejected on such grounds), but Clancy makes in clear that for many people, being abducted by aliens is an experience of mystical significance. She quotes abduction researcher John Mack as saying, "It just doesn't fit into the Western rationalist tradition of science."

Here's one quote that's interesting on many levels:
Given that most of us want to understand our feelings, that very few of us think like scientists in our everyday life, and that alien abduction is a culturally available script, I often wonder why more people don't think they've been abducted. Today, confessing to such a belief doesn't make you "crazy" - it just puts you, in my opinion, a couple of standard deviations from the norm. Ten years from now, believing in aliens and their presence among us will perhaps become as common as believing in God.
We're getting there - earlier in that same chapter, she cites a CNN poll saying that 65% of Americans believe aliens have visited Earth. Still, a mere poll says little intensity of belief. I once thought Uri Geller's claims to psychic powers were something to be seriously considered, and it didn't take reading The Truth About Uri Geller to change my mind. All it took was getting into amature prestidigitation and hearing him casually refered to as a magician; the books considered the idea that his powers were real not worth mentioning. For many people, belief in alien visitation is probably a lot like that: they saw something on TV about it once that looked convincing, but probably a little education would change their minds. Belief in God tends to be a little firmer.

The whole religion-abduction connection raises another question. Not long ago, I was thinking to myself that when religion claims to be empirical, it deserves to be treated like any other empirical claim, and this sometimes means rating it as less credible than alien abductions. Does this also entail that when abductions claim to be mystical, they deserve to be treated like any other mystical claim? This could be taken as simply a call to denigrate mysticism, but Clancy's description of the role of the abduction experience in people's lives seems to demand a deeper understanding. I feel like I should go somewhere with this, unfortunately, it's more a random observation on my part. Perhaps someone can say something insightful in the comments.

Overheard conversation, shooting blood, and ID in context

Matt at Pooflingers Annonymous has posted an overheard conversation:

"Yes dear?"

"Do you believe in Jesus?"

"Why, yes I do."

"Okay; me too... Grandma?"

"Yes dear?"

"My daddy doesn't believe in Jesus."

"Oh really?"

"Yeah... he says we came from monkeys."
He also has his latest edition of his series on The Evolution Cruncher. (Yes Virginia, I am trying to increase that page's Google rank.) I admire his dedication on this, but I wonder why he doesn't tackle something a little more challenging.

The Raving Atheist has a particularly sly fake news story:
A holiday display outside a Manhattan brownstone depicting a bloody-bearded Santa holding a knife in one hand, and a severed doll's head shooting blood from the eyes sockets in the other, has provoked anger from parents who fear the gory display will traumatize their children....

"This is blasphemy," agreed Father Thomas Mallory, standing in front of an icon of the Virgin Mary miraculously shooting blood from her eye sockets like a South American horned lizard. "The gentle Yuletide message, for which Christ's flesh was flayed and pierced so that we all may now wash it down with His blood at Communion, is not served by these unholy displays."
At Slate, William Saletan puts Intelligent Design in perspective:
Nobody here is a candidate for FetishNite. But nobody seems horrified by it, either, just as nobody really doubts evolution. What used to be shocking is now just fun or silly, even to those of us who think of ourselves as believers. Fundamentalists have lost the media, the colleges, and the science academies. The battleground has been reduced to public schools, and creationism has been reduced to intelligent design—a pathetic, agnostic, empty shell. Creationists can't teach a dogma, so they "teach the controversy." They accept more and more of Darwin's theory, narrowing the dispute to isolated systems—the eye, the flagellum, the blood-clotting system—that they say Darwinism can't explain.
I found the last one via Evolutionblog and Panda's Thumb; I really need to start reading Slate regularly.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Narnia, vote Orac, random links, stickers, and incorrect science

Hank Fox at UTI reviews the recent Narnia movie. And, I quote, "it was sweeeeeet!" He says Aslan and Edmund aren't really good stand ins for Jesus and Judas, though.

Voting has begun for this year's weblog awards, and Orac is on the ballot. Remeber people, you can vote once a day until Thursday.

Skeptic Rant has begun a series of random links with commentary. Today's focus seems to be idiotic anti-atheism stuff.

Now, news. This week, a federal appeals court in Atlanta will begin retrying the case of whether the Cobb evolution stickers violate Church and state separation.

Lastly, Chris Mooney reviews the Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. Jason Rosenhouse comments:
First, anyone who insists on bragging about being politically incorrect can be dismissed out of hand. That's so passe.
Claiming to be politically incorrect on science is even weirder. Science is either correct or incorrect, this book seems proud to be the latter.

Philosophy Carnival XXIII

The 23rd Philosopher's Carnival is up at Right Reason. It's got an entire section on bullshit - the philosophy generator is particularly good.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Optimism, pessimism, and humanism

The German philosopher Gotfried Leibniz is famous for his declaration that we live in the best of all possible worlds. This was a sensible enough declaration for someone like Leibniz who believed in an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God. Being all-powerful puts God in total control of the intial conditions of the universe, being all-knowing lets him know how any initial set-up will turn out. Of course, there's no reason to restrict God to winding up the clock and letting it go. If things could be made better by occasional tweaking, God could do it. The result is that a perfect creation follows directly from the idea of a perfect creator.

This view attracted outright derision from several philosophers. F. H. Bradley said in response, "The world is the best of all possible worlds, and everything in it is a necessary evil." The best response, though, comes from James Branch Cabell*: "The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true." To say that a world with plagues, famines, wars, and genocides is the best even God could do is a depressing sentiment indeed. I grant that minor pains may produce greater goods, but the Holocaust is another matter.

Standing in contrast to both of these claims is an idea that has been associated with the philosophy known as humanism. This idea is that our condition leaves much room for improvement, yet we can, through our own efforts, improve it. Our rate of progress has been embarrassingly slow; a more moral people would have eliminated hunger and war by now. But our progress has been undeniable. The number of malnourished people in the world has slowly gone down as our population has increased, and malnourished really describes how almost everyone lived in the middle ages. Freedom House's statistics on freedom around the world show great improvement in the last 30 years. It is conceivable that these problems will be solved within my lifetime.

In the face of this, the optimist and, if I am correct, anyone who believes in a perfect God, must deny that what we are seeing is progress. I suppose religious people will note the decline of spirituality. Others will find secular ways in which our lives have become less meaningful. But if we were starving, we would hardly have the time to worry about such matters. I for one, think that improvement of the world is a real and noble.

There is of course, an very easy response to this and all versions of the problem of evil: deny God's goodness while maintaining his other perfections. This, though, saps the idea of God of all its emoitional appeal - the main reason people have for believing in God. How odd it is that emotional appeal can lead people to an idea that entails severe pessimism.

*Citation here. I had initially thought it from Voltaire, but could not find it attributed to him with Google.

Mysticism: Huge Entity and aliens

The Huge Entity has found this essay on mysticism. It's long and I couldn't bring myself to read the whole thing, but the last paragraph, which the entity quotes, is interesting:
A final comment should be made. The content of the mystic experience reflects not only its unusual mode of consciousness but also the particular stimuli being processed through that mode. The mystic experience can be beatific, satanic, revelatory, or psychotic, depending on the stimuli predominant in each case. Such an explanation says nothing conclusive about the source of "transcendent" stimuli. God or the Unconscious share equal possibilities here and one's interpretation will reflect one's presuppositions and beliefs. The mystic vision is one of unity, and modern physics lends some support to this perception when it asserts that the world and its living forms are variations of the same elements. How­ever, there is no evidence that separate­ness and differences are illusions (as af­firmed by Vedanta) or that God or a transcendent reality exists (as affirmed by Western religions). The available sci­entific evidence tends to support the view that the mystic experience is one of in­ternal perception, an experience that can be ecstatic, profound, or therapeutic for purely internal reasons. Yet for psychological science, the problem of under­standing such internal processes is hardly less complex than the theological prob­lem of understanding God. Indeed, re­gardless of one's direction in the search to know what reality is, a feeling of awe, beauty, reverence, and humility seems to be the product of one's efforts. Since these emotions are characteristic of the mystic experience, itself, the question of the epistemological validity of that experience may have less importance than was initially supposed.
Skeptico highlights a Reason interview with Susan Clancy, author of Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped By Aliens. Coincidentally, I just read the book last night. (It's synchronity, I tell you! No, it's the law of truly large numbers!) I'll post thoughts on the book maybe Wednesday, but for now, read the interview, it gives a nice taste of the things she says in the book. She also says somewhat more about recovered memory in general than in her book. Skeptico comments:
I have to admit, I thought that some repressed memories were possible, just that it wasn’t as common as some therapists claim. She seems to be saying it doesn’t work like that. I imagine many therapists disagree with her. Nothing new there then.
The problem with therapists since Freud is they aren't in a position to do controlled tests of their techniques. Clancy also makes a comment that surprised me:
Reason: You refer to alien abduction as a "culturally available" script. If abduction is yesterday's script, what's tomorrow's?

I think it's God. There is a cultural movement toward going back to God and wanting to have personal experiences with God. There was a very interesting Newsweek cover a few months ago about the increase of evangelism in which people are having kind of a direct physical contact with God. We want to be touched with the spiritual, we want to feel the divine, and I think some people are doing it with aliens and other people are doing it with God. I think this is a manifestation of a cultural need to get in touch with something spiritual, kind of moving away from science towards mysticism.
Damn these elder skeptics, they're always seeing trends I can't, only having been alive for 18 years. Could she be right? Maybe. I have trouble seeing traditional religion going away any time soon, but I have a hard time seeing it prosper. Liberalism is too weak to be attractive, yet fundamentalism gets softer every year. Can the latter remain attractive? We'll see.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Daily round-up

I'm going to beging putting my linkage fluff in single posts. Here's today's edition:

Evolutionblog talks about a disturbing article from Current magazine, about creationists in college. A comment that isn't made enough:
It's all well and good to say that professors should be respectful of student's beliefs. The problem is that I never hear any imprecation for the student to reciprocate this respect. Is the student expected to respect the fact that his science professors are experts in the relevant branches of science? Shouldn't the student be expected to take seriously the idea that professional scientists have good reasons for accepting evolution and rejecting creationism, reasons their religious instructors probably never explained to them?

The Politburo Diktat has a picture of Mirecki. He didn't do this to himself.

Rockstar Ramblings writes about this sign:
Anti-God is Anti-American
Anti-American is Treason
Treason leads to Civil War
I once heard a diferent opinion on this subject:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.

CotG - St. Nick's day extraveganza?

The most recent Carnival of the Godless is up at Unscrewing the Inscrutable. This edition has lots of Christmasblogging goodness, including my own entry. But the Christmas extraveganza isn't until next week. So, is this the St. Nick's day extraveganza?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Free will and morality

The following post is, perhaps, most suited to the Philosopher's Carnival, though it will also be submitted to God or Not, as the topic for the upcomming carnival is morality.

Our normal idea of morality is tightly bound up with the idea of free will. We tend to think that we regularly encounter situations where we could do one of several things, and in such situations there are some things we ought to do and others we ought not to do.

However, this view runs into trouble when we realize that randomness does not seem to have any moral significance. If I lose control of my arm and it randomly hits someone in the face, I am not responsible. This remains true when chance is merely deciding between two seriously considered choices. Given this, people are quite wrong to say that quantum mechanics has opened up the possibility of free will. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics may be true, I have no desire to argue against it, and it may result in large-scale indeterminacies, but none of that is of philosophical importance. Therefore, I want to try to see how far we can get with a deterministic model of humanity, and if anyone thinks the model is wrong because determinism is false, I only ask that they ask whether adding a random element really changes the situation.

Some would claim a deterministic system would leave no room for rational beliefs; I see no reason for this view. It is very easy to imagine a robot brain that takes information about the world and does a very good job of drawing true inferences from that information. We can further more imagine a robot with something analogous to human desires, though with a robot it seems more natural to use the word "goals." A robot with the right sort of goals might even respond to threats of punishment; arguably, punishment makes more sense under such a view of human behavior than an indeterminate view.

I think it is even possible to imagine a robot being swayed by something like moral argument. Consider an advanced computer program, able talk to humans and make human-like strategic calculations. It is to play in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma with another program, where in each round a program may decide to cooperate or not cooperate, and then scores points based on the decisions of the two players. Each program’s goal, it’s "desire," is to score as many points as possible. The program considers the situation and concludes it should never cooperate. It is worth noting here that the program has a choice, in a sense: it could choose differently if – and only if – it thought another strategy would score more points. Now suppose a human comes along and argues that it ought to cooperate in the first round and, after that, copy whatever its partner did in the last round. The human cites cases where such a strategy has been the highest-scorer, and the program is convinced.

This gives us an example of how determinism allows what Kant called "hypothetical imperatives." The program ought to go tit-for-tat if it wants to score as many points as possible, and it does. However, it fails to shed light on how there could ever be "categorical imperatives," things you ought to do no matter what. We cannot say whether the computer ought to desire a high score for itself, or a low score for itself, or a high total score between the two players. Such a state could be brought about by forcibly altering the program, but to say what it ought to do is absurd.

The program I have envisioned is supposed to be analogous to humans. Philosophers have long noted the dangers of such arguments by analogy; they may go wrong if the things are not as similar as they seem. Human desires are certainly more complex, but I am curious to know how this provides for the existence of categoricals. Such complexity arguably takes to form of desires competing with reference to others. Under such a view all we have is one desire, say, the desire for happiness, deciding between two others the way desires decide between actions. Here, we are still in the realm of the hypothetical: "You ought to desire other’s happiness if you want to be happy." We might try to claim that what we think of as moral action will always lead to happiness, but doing so forces the unpleasant conclusion that someone who can truly become happy at other’s expense ought to do so (if he wishes to be happy, perhaps some people do not).

A further note: questions of materialism and such are irrelevant to this argument. If we accept the argument about free will and cannot find a deterministic source of categorical imperatives, the conclusion goes for robots, animals, humans viewed as being without souls, humans viewed as being with souls, and even God, if he exists. It may even go more clearly for God, as the single-mindedness of perfect motivation is more like the program described above. God, then, may be viewed as following certain rules, which we might as well call “goodness,” but we cannot say that he ought to behave according to those rules or according to some other rules.

As was the case with my thoughts on justification, I cannot help but feel something is wrong here. I do not, however, know what it is.

More Republican heathenism

I previously noted Bush's contributions to the War on Christmas, and it turns out local Republicans are in on this. Here's an e-mail I got today:
Subject Republican Party of Dane County Holiday Party- 12/13
The Republican Party of Dane County (RPDC) invited the College Republicans to attend their annual holiday party. The party is next Tuesday, December 13th from 5:30- 8 at Tallard's Station, 8152 Forsythia St., Middleton. Dave Magnum and other local GOP leaders will be speaking at the event. The price for CRs to attend is $5- this includes food and drink. Please reply to this email if you are interested in attending so RPDC knows how many CRs to expect.

Kansas fails and Wisconsin... ugh

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has released its evaluation of state science standards. In the 2000 report, Kansas got an F-, my state of Wisconsin got a D. Kansas' standards once again attack evolution, but the report doesn't give them an F-. The current term is "not even failed." Hmmm... I wonder if I do really bad in a course, I can use that rationale to tell my parents I didn't fail. Wisconsin, while not slighting evolution, has sunk to an F, actually getting a lower % score than Kansas. Here's part of Wisconsin's report:
"Science," we are told in the standards, "follows a generally accepted set of rules. Would that we were told what those rules were! More to the point, would that the teachers making lessons, curricula, and tests be given real guidance on those putative rules of science and the degree to which they differ, if they do, from other "accepted sets of rules" in other occupations.
Hat tip:What's New

Reynolds on Christianity

Michael Reynolds has a post that gets to the heart of what's wrong with Orthodox Christianity. The title says it all: I'm Mad At My Dog. Must Kill Someone.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Thanks for the holiday, or, "You're enslaved! You're a fool!"

There's been some debate on campus about sign put up by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to accompany holiday decorations at the capital. It reads:
At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.
I initially considered citing it as an alternative to trying to get decorations removed, a sort of, "You can have your nativity scene, but we get ours." The last line, though, makes the sign more offensive than strictly necessary.

These thoughts came before reading the editorial linked to above. This last paragraph stuck in my mind, enough to make me determined to write on it. See if you can guess why:
At this time of celebration, regardless of what the celebration is for, people should remember what is really important in life. The holiday season is about gathering with loved ones to celebrate the closing of one year and the beginning of the next. Regardless of religion, the majority of people celebrate the season in some respect. It is about helping others. Demoralizing other people’s beliefs is hardly the definition of goodwill.
I decided before writing, I'd go down to the capital to see the thing.

When I got inside the capitol building, I saw a great two story tree with various decorations - no nativity scene. The decorations were all made by local school kids, and included two angels (one of which could have been mistaken for a butterfly). Other than that, it was the standard Santa&snowmen, not religious in the least.

The sign wasn't on the first floor. When I went to ask about it, a woman working behind the desk pointed me upstairs before I had finished my sentence. There I found a large variety of information desks for various religions: Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal, Hindu, Buddhist, Baha'i, Wiccan, and something callled Eckankar. There was also a table for an "Eigth annual interfaith awareness week." Then there were three signs: The FFRF one, one by the Family Research Institue of Wisconsin (which has pictures at its website) and one by Madison Baptist Church. The FRI one was specifically in response to the FFRF one, and was topped by a quote from Psalms: "The fool hath said in his hearth 'there is no God.'" The Baptist one, as far as I could tell independent of the other too, had John 3:16, "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believeth in him would not perish, but have everlasting life." This one sounds nicer, until you wonder what happens to those who don't believe. (John 3:18 has the answer: they're condemned. For some reason, 3:18 isn't quoted as often as 3:16.)

At any rate, what we have is an obnoxious response to a almost entirely secular display, and an obnoxious response to the obnoxious response. This is one of those symbolic tussels where I wish each side would just stuff it.

Now to the other issue that got me to the capitol building in the first place: the secularization of Christmas. The tree ornaments were almost entirely secular. And notice how the above columnist describes the holiday season: about gathering with loved ones, no mention of the associated religious beliefs. This is a general feature of how Christmas is treated. Stores don't care about the religious aspects, they just want people to buy their stuff. Personally, I'm not big on the yearly frenzy of materialism, but when someone says, "I'm getting you a present whether you like it or not" (as one of my friends recently did), I can't say I really mind.

Just this morning, we watched a movie in anthropology class about Native Americans protesting the use of their symbols by sports teams. Why don't Christians similarly protest the use of their symbols to sell stuff and put on blandly secularized public displays? Why don't they take offense at New York's tongue-in-cheek "Jewish Christmas" tradition (which, as my uncle on the easy coast has told me, involves mainly eating Chinese food)? Why don't they fight the hundred other secular co-optings of their holiday? Some have, but mostly they're insisting that when stores take advantage of their opportunity to sell stuff, they say "Christmas" and not "holidays." I mean, they can't rightly demand the tree and the date be kept religious - both have pagan origins - but you'd think they'd demand we call it something else.

Anyway, until they do in greater force, I'm going to keep using the term "Christmas." Talk of exchanging "holiday presents" just sounds weird. So Christians, thanks for letting us use your holiday.