Saturday, December 30, 2006
"There is no God, and Mary is His Mother"- George Santayana, Catholic atheist.
I have finally finished Daniel Dennett's book "Darwin's Dangerous Idea". It was perhaps the most difficult book I've read, or finished I should say. It assumes a lot of knowledge in alot of fields and a broad array of background reading in subjects from Architecture to Artificial Intelligence.
The primary theme of this book centers around "cranes" and "skyhooks". Cranes are building blocks of design that create from the ground up through incremental advances. Skyhooks are deus ex machina of one sort or another (usually over-arching unexplainable "miracles" of design).
This book is primarily a refutation of the attempts to invoke "Skyhooks" to explain life/evolution. From the ground floor, the design of nature seems incredibly complex. Our first intuition is obviously to invoke a great big skyhook to explain it all. But as we inspect the cranes of invention we notice that we can gradually understand how things develop in a way which is non-miraculous (I know, it's called reductionism). Take something like Calculus for example. How could someone possibly determine how much snow fell overnight even though the rate of snow varied throughout the night several times, and varied gradually? From the ground floor it seems impossible to understand Calculus. But when we inspect the cranes of Algebra and Trigonometry, we can see how and why Calculus works, and the miraculousness of it fades away as the cranes are understood.
In debates over nature, people continuously invoke skyhooks whenever explanations fail. The skyhooks are invariably replaced by explanatory cranes, and the critics construct ever more skyhooks to keepsake their precious sense of the mysterious. This book is a refutation of the major historical skyhooks.
The first 105 pages of the book are fairly easy to read and I enjoyed them enough to make a deal with devil at the crossroads that I would finish it. After 105 pages it becomes similar to having a discussion with a very smart schizophrenic who keeps citing books and authors he assumes you already know inside and out, while dancing around like a word-salad in a mirrored rat maze. Daniel Dennett doesn't believe strongly in segues. You might read a thousand words on three different subjects wondering where in the hell he is going, and the payoff is not always sweet or rewarding or particularly enlightening. It's like his editor encouraged him to use as many words as possible to explain even the simplest of points. But in this day and age where critics cherry pick and distorts one's views, it is no wonder why these science books are all over 400 pages long. They hold your hand and slowly say it and repeat it then say it again in another form trying their damnest to make it as hard as possible for someone to mischaracterize their ideas. They will anyways, of course.
There have been many assaults on Darwin's dangerous idea- that there are no skyhooks, only cranes. Even those who accept evolution mischaracterize it or do not really accept that it is all just cranes. Just algorithms. Just selection. Just blind. We look up at the precipice of design and insist a designer, or a conscious inventor of an underlying cosmic principle. But yesterday's skyhook is tomorrows well understood crane.
Dennett comes down hard on Steven J. Gould's attempt to poke holes in orthodox Neo-Darwinism. The press and media were excited that the foremost American evolutionary theorist of his time (Gould) would try punching holes in neo-orthodox Darwinian thought, yearning for a place to store the mysterious skyhook they long for. But over the years according to Dennett, Gould's ideas, though helpful in clarification were not the grand dramatic assault hoped for. Take Gould's famous idea of punctuated equilibrium for example- the idea that slow change isn't explanatory enough to account for evolution, but that evolution happens in fits and starts. Gould hoped to find repositories for skyhooks in this theme, as did the multitudes of mysterian onlookers. According to Dennett, Gould was looking for some extraordinary revolution to pin his name to, and although he clarified certain aspects of evolution, his idea was not revolutionary at all. Overall, the attack on neo-Darwinism by Gould and others has been trounced by the overall scientific concensus. They have clarified issues, but it is still the concensus that Darwin's idea was correct, only now we know it was more correct in more ways than he had imagined. It is still the concensus that cranes are the builders, and the need for skyhooks stems from ignorance and a lack of creativity. There may be a skyhook somewhere, nobody denies this. But there has not been one found yet, despite how eager we are for the supernatural.
Orgel's Second Rule: Evolution is cleverer than you are
Looking up at the peak of design, we lustily invoke skyhooks. Imagine being transported to an advanced alien world where beings of light float in mid-air and communicate telepathically. Who wouldn't invoke skyhooks?
We look at glorious paintings and pieces of music, or my best metaphor- the game of chess, and we think we see the beauty of creativity and expression. Yes they are beautiful and full of clever expression. Reading a chess book once by Josh Waitzken (from searching for Bobby Fisher acclaim) Waitzken talks about the knack for digging into creativity that simple calculative types and mathemitician types are not able to do in the game of chess. There may be something to this idea, but Josh invokes a nebulous skyhook to explain his ability to play well. It implies behind the scenes that there is something more going on in cognition other than the crunching of variations and the drawing from past experiences. It implies a consciousness that is not altogether algorithmic. It implies a skyhook, as Dennett might say. Perhaps this book was old, but I've been following the man vs. machine chess battles, and since the last game between Kasparov and deep blue (Kasparov won the first game but lost the match), the mindless computer algorithms with no creativity whatsoever have been upgraded to the point where they have not only defeated every challenging human in every match, but so far as I know, nobody has even been able to win a single game from the computer since. They have been trounced decisively by an algorithm. Not even a few decades ago, it was commonly thought that chess was too complex a game, requiring too much strategy and long term vision and insight to be cracked by a computer algorithm. That skyhook of Chessic creativity is now another crane. We feel that our best move came from some mysterious intuition, but the algorithm playing behind the scenes in ourheads didn't care to let us in on the details of how it brought our move to cognition so easily. We chalk it up to mystery.
The final chapter of the book is wonderfully written and very readable. I encourage everyone to read these 10 pages. It is not an indicator of how the rest of the book was written, or even it's primary topics, so don't think you should start at page 1 based on the goodness of the final chapter. This book is not for the faint of heart, or anyone who is married. If you have kids and are married, I suggest not even putting this book on your shelf because it could lead to divorce and loss of custody due to inability to hold a job. Watch some sesame street or something, then dig it out of the used book store when you're in your 60's.
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Monday, December 25, 2006
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
I bought my copy of this book recently but am in the midst of Daniel Dennett's painfully diffuse tome "Darwin's dangerous idea". I made a vow to myself to read it through.
I am so greatly looking forward to Dawkins' lucid writing after slaving away through Dennett's verbose Jackson Pollock spewing of loosely related ideas.
If my own personal history is to judge, I will re-read Dennett's book in 5 years and proclaim it to be one of my favorite of all time. But for now, it is sort of like Mr. Miagee's paint the fence, sand the deck. He gives you a work out, but it is very slow to pay off. However, I appreciate Dennett. He is no shallow thinker. He treads deep honest waters and slowly takes you for a mesmerizing swim. It's one of those books that will fundamentally alter my worldview, but in ways which I have yet to quite fully realize. I have to digest it. I don't enjoy reading it, but it is good to read something over your head once in awhile to force you to stretch out and realize how much you don't know.
I also picked up voyage of the beagle, origin of species, and have the ancestors tale as a bathroom book. I'm spread a bit thin with this reading binge I'm on, but I am obsessed with becoming historically informed on evolution because I am fascinated to no end by the complete ignorance of public discourse on the subject, particularly by people like Francis Collins. Also, Naushaba and I were talking about going to the Gallapagos Islands, and one MUST read voyage of the beagle before that.
Anyways, I wanted to post what I thought was a most extraordinary piece of writing. It is review number one from Amazon.com's page on the selfish gene. I think this reviewer speaks for alot of us. Though I've yet to read the book, I am already very familar with the premise. The book landed Dawkins on the map and was considered #9 on the all time most important science books in history (Discover magazine) behind only:
Darwin (Origin of Species and Voyage of the Beagle)
Galileo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems)
Copernicus (On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres)
Vesalius (De Humani Corporis Fabrica- an anatomy book)
Einstein (Relativity: The Special and General Theory) .
One cannot underestimate the importance of "the selfish gene" by Dick Dawkins. The logic of "the gene's eye view" explains so much and is so clearly obvious, but the implication has devastated many people's satisfying view, including my own. When I believed in a view of guided evolution like Collins has or Ken Wilber has or Andrew Cohen has, I really thought that I understood evolution through natural selection, but I did not. I think the only way to truly grasp that evolution is blind is to do years of field work observing and studying nature like E.O. Wilson and Darwin. The idea has led to strong backlashes by those who insists that nature is not just a blind algorithm. I am at the part in Dennett's book right now where he is attempting to prove that Stephen J. Gould was trying desperately to find a way to show that orthodox neo-Darwinism is not true because the implications of the idea were too unsettling for him to take. Gould never succeeded within the science community at doing this in his lifetime. But Dennett illustrates his frustration that the public is too divorced from facts to realize this. The problem is that the human mind is absolutely unwilling to accept the idea (see my reply to the reviewer's post afterwards)
Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it., August 7, 1999
Reviewer: Michael Edwards (Healesville, Victloria Australia) - See all my reviews
I wish I could rate this book at 5 stars and 0 stars at the same time. It is a fascinating book, very well-written, and it conveys a real sense of how life works on the biological level, how all sorts of diverse factors interact with each other to create an incredibly complex system (the evolution of life, in this case); it also just as vividly conveys a sense of how scientists come to understand these processes.
I started it many years ago at the suggestion of a friend, thinking I wouldn't find it very interesting, and not much liking the kind of philosophy of life that (on the basis of my friend's description) seemed to lie behind it. But only a chapter or two in, I was completely hooked, and wanted to read more Dawkins.
On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings-out of such complex processes, often made up of quite simple elemental mechanisms, but interacting so complexly to produce the incredibly complex world we live in.
But at the same time, I largely blame "The Selfish Gene" for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade, and part of me wants to rate the book at zero stars for its effect on my life. Never sure of my spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper - trying to believe, but not quite being able to - I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further. This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.
The book renders a God or supreme power of any sort quite superfluous for the purpose of accounting for the way the world is, and the way life is. It accounts for the nature of life, and for human nature, only too well, whereas most religions or spiritual outlooks raise problems that have to be got around. It presents an appallingly pessimistic view of human nature, and makes life seem utterly pointless; yet I cannot present any arguments to refute its point of view. I still try to have some kind of spiritual outlook, but it is definitely battered, and I have not yet overcome the effects of this book on me.
Richard Dawkins seems to have the idea that religion and spirituality are not only false, but ultimately unable to give a real sense of meaning and purpose in life. Their satisfaction is hollow, empty, and unreal, in his apparent view, and only a scientific understanding of life can give a real, lasting sense of wonder and purpose.
I would question this. While I am not sure what (if anything) there is spiritually, I know that a scientific view of life cannot offer the slightest hope of life after death, and since we're all going to die and most of us don't want to, this is a crippling drawback to the kind of scientific vision Dawkins wants us all to have. If there is nothing beyond death, no spiritual dimension to anything, and everything is just a blind dance of atoms, I fail to see how this by itself can give one a real sense of purpose, however fascinating the dance that Dawkins describes - and it *is* fascinating; let there be no mistake about that.
Because of this, I have the curious feeling of dichotomy about Dawkins' book that it is certainly fascinating on one level, but that I cannot give even qualified emotional commitment to the outlook on life that seems to lie behind it. I would in the end rather have the hope of something wonderful and purposeful that only some spiritual outlook can offer, even though it may be a deluded fantasy, than the certainty of a scientific vision that eliminates any possibility of long-term hope, that condemns us to an empty, eternal death of nothingness in the end. This scientific view may be completely rational; but rationality is not the only important consideration to shape our outlook on life.
Anyone who has a narrow religious view of life, who is absolutely sure their religion is completely right, would be best off avoiding this book like the plague - it probably won't change their views, but they will quite likely get very upset and outraged. And anyone with an open-minded spiritual view had better at least be prepared to do a lot of thinking, and perhaps be willing to change some of their views, because this book *will* challenge almost any spiritual or religious viewpoint I can think of - whether it is of the open-minded or dogmatic sort.
Some critics of this book have found its reasoning unconvincing, its materialist reductionism too superficial and shallow. But, from my perspective, the problem does not lie here; the problem with the book is that it is *too* convincing, that it is *entirely* convincing. The book makes it very difficult to continue to believe in anything that contradicts its basic premise, but which might be more comforting, and might give a greater sense of hope and inspiration, and provide a real sense of purpose in life.
Such have its effects on my life been that, in my more depressed moments, I have desperately wished I could unread the book, and continue life from where I left off.
It has been said that each of us has a God-shaped hole inside, and that we spend most of our lives trying to fill it with the wrong things. I firmly believe that God-shaped hole is there, that we have inner longings of a wonderful sort almost impossible to describe in words. Whether a God exists to fill it, I do not yet know. But what I am sure of is that, as wonderful as Dawkins' view of nature and of life may be on its own level, it will not fill that God-shaped hole.
I thought this was a wonderful review. It describes what I have gone through as well. Dawkins' ideas not only make sense, they make so much sense that any idea that denies their validity is immediately suspect. In truth, I think that reality leads one to nihilism. Our perception of beauty and grandeur is *also* an illusion set up by our genes. Just as one elephant finds another elephant to be the sexiest imaginable beast, so our concept of "beauty" is equally arbitrary and ungrounded in ultimate reality. All of our imaginable perceptions as human beings are just smoke and mirrors. I've always thought that secular humanists were nihilists in denial. I'm willing to pretend personally. What else is their to do?
"Evolution is God's plan for giving upgrades.You're a fruitfly it doesn't work so well, you need to do more than that. You're a mammal but you still have that thumb that isn't in the right place. Upgrade! You need a bigger brain in order to have your intelligence, upgrade! You need language, upgrade!"
If these statements are not patently absurd to you, you are a creationist. Did the lizard which shoots blood from it's eye have to upgrade from it's prior state of not shooting blood from it's eye? Collins seems to suggest that the dinosaurs were a n experiment that diddn't work so God wiped them out to make way for mammals. This is bordering on psychosis in my estimation. This is a deep and intentional misreading of reality.
Collins shows that a person can be brilliant and inciteful in one area, but terribly misled and forcefully delusional in another. Deciphering the human genome, let me remind you, does not require being informed in evolutionary biology.
Collins believes precisely what he wishes to be true.
He needs to read "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins. See my next post.
"I don't see neuroscience as serious. What they have are nutty little theories, and they do elaborate experiements to confirm them and don't know what to do if they don't work. This book [The Emotion Machine] presents a very elaborate theory of consciousness. Consciousness is a word that confuses possibly 16 different processes. Most neurologists think everything is either conscious or not. But even Freud had several grades of consciousness. When you talk to neuroscientists, they seem so unsophisticated; they major in biology and know about potassium and calcium channels, but they don't have sophisticated psychological ideas. Neuroscientists should be asking: What phenomenon should I try to explain? Can I make a theory of it? Then, can I design an experiment to see if one of those theories is better than the others? If you don't have two theories, then you can't do an experiment. And they usually don't even have one."
~ Marvin Minsky Author of "Society of Mind" and the "Emotion Machine". MIT Professor and AI pioneer.
Quoted from Discover Magazine - January 2007
Monday, December 11, 2006
By Kristin Roberts Mon Dec 11, 3:32 PM ET
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A watchdog group that promotes religious freedom in the U.S. military accused senior officers on Monday using their rank and influence to coerce soldiers and airmen into adopting evangelical Christianity.
Such proselytizing, according to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has created a core of "radical" Christians within the U.S. armed forces and
who punish those who do not accept evangelical beliefs by stalling their careers.
"It's egregious beyond the pale," said Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. "We apparently have a radicalized, evangelical Christian Pentagon within the rest of the Pentagon."
The group asked the Pentagon's inspector general to investigate a video in which some Army and Air Force officers discuss their faith while in uniform.
According to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the video played for reporters was a promotional tool for Christian Embassy, a group that describes itself as a ministry helping national and international leaders blend faith and work.
The executive director of Christian Embassy, Bob Varney, did not respond to a request for comment.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Defense Department does not endorse any religion or religious organization or judge the validity of religious expressions.
He confirmed the Defense Department inspector general, the Pentagon's internal watchdog agency, received the letter requesting the probe, but noted it was the inspector general's policy not to say whether an investigation had been opened.
"At this point it would be inappropriate to speculate as to what actions might be taken," Whitman said.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation said the officers on the video violated military rules by wearing their uniforms while discussing their religious beliefs, giving the appearance of official participation in a religious organization.
That appearance, according to the group, is particularly damaging in the military, where rank carries great influence.
"It associates the power of office with sectarian ideology," said MeLinda Morton, a Lutheran reverend and former Air Force chaplain who said her military career was hurt because she did not adopt evangelical views.
The religious freedom group also raised issues with the content of the video, including a comment from Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack Catton that he would discuss his faith with people who came to his Joint Staff directorate within the Pentagon.
Weinstein compared what he said was radical proselytizing within the military with the Islamist militants U.S. troops are confronting in wars overseas.
"When we're facing a global war on terror against what we call Islamic extremists, it certainly doesn't help when we have apparently a viewpoint from the cognoscenti and glitterati, the leadership of the Pentagon, pushing a particular virulent worldview down the throats of people who are helpless to argue against it," Weinstein said.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Friday, December 01, 2006
Sam Harris suggests passing this flyer around. There is apparently a better more printable picture on his website. I personally can't think of any Christians *I* know who would bother to read it. My brother needs to read it, but won't. My Jewish friend read it and loved it, but thats easy.
Funny, last night my Pakistani friend had another pair of Mormon kids come to her door. The first time they came she suggested that they read the Koran and convert to Islam (she of course isn't religious at all in truth). This time she told them that she was an atheist. The Mormons asked how she came to be an atheist and she replied, by studying lots of different religions. A great answer, because part of the essence of being a Judeo-Christian of any sort is that you are very very afraid to learn much about other religions, and this immediately puts you on shaky educational ground, especially when they are 17 years younger. If Christians use unreason to debate, then just use the unreason of a different set of unprovable scriptures to debate back. They went on to say something about how even the Christians hated them. Which is true. Naushaba told them she might visit their church if they gave her a free gift.
It's hillarious, my co-worker crazy fundamentalist went on and on about how unbiblical Mormonism is. Gee, how could anyone possibly believe something sooo unbiblical?
And here's a good observation one could use in a debate with a Christian. Christians are fond of pointing out that "something" supernatural must have happened that would spread Christianity around the world. It can't be completely baseless. Well, by that logic "something" must have happened between Jospeh Smith and the angel Moroni that would create a giant new religion spreading across the globe, therefore you "must" believe in Mormonism right? How about Mohammed and the angel Gabriel? Something *must* have happened. Of course the religious meme counters by saying "those religions cropped up because of Satan's deceptions".
I promised I would finish my review of this book. I finished a long time ago, and got caught up with stuff. Its a great book. You can see Dawkins read pertinent excerpts on video from YouTube at Lynchburg Virginia where he makes some hysterically funny comments to some lunatics from Liberty University (the shithole Jerry Falwell founded).
Anyways, in observing Dawkins' talk about his views he plainly says that there is no adequate explanation for the seeming fine-tuning of the universe. The multiverse idea, where there are so many universes that eventually you would get one with the right constants for intelligent life - is far fetched according to Dawkins. So he is just as amazed by it as everyone else. His view is that the only way we know of that complex intelligence can form is through evolution, so to postulate a god who is already complex is more unlikely than there not being a god. Its a good idea, but it is not satisfying to me. I think there is certainly something beyond comprehension going on, but we would not understand it, and it doesn't appear to care about us, unless somehow we are consciously connected to it, which would be our only semi-religious hope left that hasn't been utterly refuted (imo). The Yogis and Buddhists who have taken the "God-contact" issue to it's finality all but prove it's uselessness, especially it's uselessness at giving us answers that make a difference to our understanding. That path is frought with hallucinatory delusion.
Sadly, any inkling of possibility of a creative intelligence is used by creationsists to bolster their opinions that somehow this makes it likely for Christianity or Islam or whatever story to be true. I can't remember what it was like to have such a small and limited mind.
Dawkins spends roughly a small paragraph discussing the mystery of consciousness if I remember right. So, to me, this book is merely a refutation of theistic beliefs and most deistic ideas, which is fairly easy. Something like the NDE was mentioned maybe once in passing. I think Dawkins sees it is a non-sequitur that NDEs are not evidence of a soul.
To me, all of nature cries out that there is no spiritual reality. Whether there is a creator is not as important to me as whether there is a spiritual reality. My most powerful argument against a spiritual reality would be - all of natural science, evolution, and human/animal behavior. Books like the "moral animal" spell it out. Everything that we think is altruistic, our most meaningful well thought gestures of social caring and our love for our offspring etcetera are nothing but genetically induced "rules of thumb" (as Dawkins would put it) which create social leverage. In fact all our most positive attributes, to their very core are simply schemes of nature. Can someone explain to me how this is not obvious? The feelings are so powerful and well disguised that it takes a tremendous amount of insight, disgruntledness, and education to even *want* to know whether this is really true. It will put you into the fetal position once you realize it. Once you realize it, you will realize that all of us mock humanists are merely nihilists afraid of telling the truth. Our goal is to create a more pleasant fantasy world, not to end the world. So I am not ashamed of calling myself a nihilist the way I define it. May as well play the only game in town.
And have I said how much I love all of you lately?
As Julia Sweeney put it: "It's so hard to accept that even those qualities that I strive to perfect in myself: compassion, love, sacrifice and so forth, stem from the most unwily and advantage-seeking impulses."
Thats a mild and politically correct way of putting it. I would have said something like "no matter how hard we try to be good and loving, we are being fraudulent because even the act itself was derived from a natural process which continuously rewards fraudulence and deception with genetic perpetuation. Altruism is probably the most airtight way of securing social leverage. You fake right and move left, grab the prize, ask forgiveness, then do it again. Wash, rinse, repeat. Wash, rinse, repeat."
I have trouble being in any social setting without noticing the body gestures, the vocal intonations, the choice of words which scream out to my ears "pay attention to me, owe a debt to me, secure me, and notice that I am superior to you".
Praise Jesus. To think there is a loving spiritual reality based on perhaps our most insidious form of self-righteous powermongering- namely our sense of altruism- is unimaginable to me anymore. This is my number one reason for not believing.
As Dawkins said, our present day altruism is based on rules of thumb our brains enact that derived as we evolved amidst small bands of relatives where reciprocity was guaranteed, and you had to play social politics much more carefully. We no longer live in these small communal bands so when we help someone on the street we don't expect to ever see them again and then we wonder "wow, how did my desire to help a random stranger evolve?" Well, when it evolved, there were virtually no such things as "random strangers". But we enact the same rules of thumb our brains developed. Dawkins calls it an evolutionary mistake, -a blessed, wonderful, important mistake
Many of us come to these realizations before ever coming across Dawkins'idea, but this idea secures the mechanism. It is only so so obvious. Every primate does it. Throw in language and sexual selection and it doesn't take a genius to say how humanity got to be where it is.
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Julia Sweeney's one woman act called "Letting go of God" is coming out on CD. I saw something on her blog about the book "The Moral Animal" by Robert Wright and how influential it was to her.
It was to me as well. And to Steve. In fact, when I got off the plane in Phoenix and met my anxiety ridden friend and fellow obsessor-about-these-topics Steve J. for the first time, the conversation had turned to this book. Steve had been reading it, I think, on the plane. He had to put it down, because he was feeling like curling up into the fetal position. Steve was deeply affected by this book, and so am I and Julia Sweeney.
Here's from Sweeney's blog:
Okay. There is another book I totally forgot from my 17 and is almost the most important!18. The Moral Animal, Robert Wright.I am still recovering from this book. As I said to Robert Wright, when I met him at the TED conference last year, "Your book totally f**ked me up!" It's so hard to accept that even those qualities that I strive to perfect in myself: compassion, love, sacrifice and so forth, stem from the most unwily and advantage-seeking impulses............
...... In any case, I recently reread the Moral Animal. When I first read it, I had to go lie in the fetal position for what seemed like months, just to recover from it. I gave it out as a Christmas gift to the entire Sex & the City writing staff. This book is so important to me.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Today I'm sitting here snowed in (yes, due to 1.5 inches, only in Washington state) with work being cancelled. I have been wondering to myself what must go through the mind of someone like Dennis Prager. How can anyone possibly believe what he does? And yet probably most of our friends and neighbors have more in common with his worldview than his oppositions.
After watching the recent science conference, it was perfectly clear that the overwhelming majority were embarrassed by faith based world-views, many of them vehemently and outspokenly so. Yet these people with faith based worldviews who poo-poo naturalistic
worldviews literally equating them with "the enemy" of our future, inundate the media and particularly talk radio. When I think of people who call themselves conservatives, the only thing I really acknowledge their designation to mean is that they allow faith to determine much of their opinion. Many of these people almost certainly have never once seriously considered that there may NOT be a holy father pulling strings and ensuring that good things happen to good people, and everything else is a spiritual lesson. I believe that you can distill roughly 85% of politics down to the differences between a faith based worldview and a naturalistic worldview and of course the degrees on the contiunuum where people are. And even part of that remaining 15% is about whether you have a traditionalist religious faith or a new agey sort of faith based worldview. Those two are very different also.
I am saddened by the fact that this bulk of our population, including Prager, do not understand the basic tenents of scientific naturalism. They have not internalized even the utility of scientific scrutiny to understand the world, and they most certainly have not made a serious attempt to understand the world through naturalistic science in an honest way. They have made up their minds before they have started, fitting part of nature, part of scripture, and part of human nature to their worldviews and ignoring the rest as (metaphorically or maybe not so metaphorically) "the work of the devil" or "God's will". People like Prager have said "my oh my, isn't the world pretty, there must then be a creator". On top of that they have said to themselves "my oh my, since the Western world is dominated by cultures which sprung from a Judeo-Christian past, lets assume that we can attribute the entirety of it's magnificence to the Judeo-Christian religion". They go even further and make this massive leap and say "and since the Judeo-Christian religion begat all this goodness, it therefore seems perfectly reasonable to assume that Jahovah is indeed the creator of the universe".
And they'll look at you with a straight face with bewilderment at why you can't see this.This "conservative" worldview is pretty much what I believed as a teen-ager (I still wish to be called a conservative, but I can't in this present political climate). This was before I received a basic science education and learned about natural selection and exposed my mind to the importance of being deeply critical of claims which go against evidence.
I suspect Dennis Prager is a very intelligent person. People who argue seriously and stringently and somewhat coherently with opinions that have the preponderance of evidence against them have to be intelligent (see Michael Shermer's idea that smart people are better at rationalizing bad ideas). Intelligence has absolutely nothing to do with why Dennis Prager believes in the Judeo Christian Jehovah. You could spot him 50 IQ points and it would not make his opinions any more carefully weighed, it would only make him better at defending the same ideas. The issue is that Dennis Prager has not exposed his mind to the "Magisteria" of naturalism enough to even understand that his faith arguments pose no challenge or conflict whatsoever. Anyone who understands the extraordinarily powerful arguments of naturalism would never take seriously a plea to beauty as a reason to believe in a theistic God.
Dennis does. And with a straight face. And with hand-wringing delight.
How do you have a debate with someone whose most powerful and energetic argument is such a blatant non-sequitur to his scientifically informed opponent that it isn't even deemed worthy of discussion? It reminds me of the Dawkins interview with Ted Haggard where Haggard said the bible was so perfectly uncontradicting and flawless that nothing remotely like it has existed and this alone is amazing evidence for Jehovah's existence. Such a ludicrous and easily debunkable statement is so silly to Dawkins that he didn't even acknowledge that it was said. Like other people for whom reason and intellectual honesty is revered, Dawkins didn't find it worth responding. He assumes as good reasoners unfortunately do, that others watching are also reverent towards intellectual honesty and will see the absurdity. But they aren't. No doubt many people thought Richard dodged the question because of it's power of persuasion
And the Aunts, Uncles and Cousins in Prager's listening audience who also are incapable or unwilling to explore the arguments of naturalism in a systematic educational way also accept this argument from beauty as having some sort of obvious opinion swaying weight in debate. "Ah yes, the mountain is glorious, any fool can see there is a God". The flowers, the trees... the 20,000 species of grasshopper, all testiment to nature's moral underpinning. Even the most cursory pop understanding of modern neuroscience, natural selection etc, would evidence the futility of such a statement, yet this is lost on the vast sea of the well intended masses who deem naturalists as blind and insane, made worse and more blinded the more education and knowledge they accumulate. Once again, this anti-intellectualism adored by conservative talk radio hosts is obviously repugnant to those who feel edified by knowledge. Harris and Prager both agreed that more education makes people less religious. So it's natural for Prager to attack that which is making people less religious, namely knowledge about how the world works.
And Prager knows he lacks understanding of the magesteria of naturalism as evidenced by his debate with Harris where he appeals to the rather uncommon opinion of one great scientist (Francis Collins) as reason for intelligent people to believe in not just God, but can you believe it, a personal god named Jehovah who desired burnt sacrifices and demanded that the animal used in bestial acts was also destroyed. The God who shows no sign whatsoever of realizing that homosexuality is almost entirely biologically ordained and not a "moral" choice. Prager knows he would never waste his time seriously absorbing the educational bedrock which solidly encases naturalism into firm ground and unites the major sciences from Biology to Geology to Anthropology uncontested amongst the educated and informed. He would never bother to understand Richard Dawkins much less agree with him. The world is beautiful, therefore Dawkins is wrong. That is enough for Prager, and it's enough for millions and millions of people looking into the Escher maze and seeing no reason to doubt it's coherency or even listen to those who would point out to them how it isn't right. It is blindingly obvious to these people that they are correct, and they can see no reason why greater education would change them to a position they view as absolutely insane. The natural result is for Prager and his ignorant fellows to decry institutes of higher education as bases of conspiratorial assault on God belief as if all the world revolves around this political power struggle between secularists and the faithful, and teenage kids somehow go to college and learn their basic science and sociology or whatever and suddenly lose faith in traditional religion not due to the subject matter, not due to the information, not due to becoming more well informed, but due to the fact that the courses are taught by people who (naturally of course) have worldviews which are based on science and reason as opposed to faith. One wonders what the alternative would be? The Taliban certainly have an answer for me.
Prager would complain that our institutes of higher reason foster wacky ideas such that men and women are equal, and he is correct. There is an insidious and disturbing wave of moral relativity that obscures reason and obvious evidence precisely the way religion does. Despite trying to be clear and evidenced based, even those who revere honesty accumulate pet biases. We are all human. But the difference is that this idea for instance that men and women are equal is in the process of being undone by neuroscience. Yes, it should have been obvious before, but unlike faith, this disease has a simple cure. Reality is clarified over time. Good evidence accumulates and not even the grandest PR firm can maintain beliefs which go against solid evidence. This cannot be said about faith. Faith is the only thing in life where people feel as if they are rewarded more for believing in things which go more against the evidence.
What does Prager think about the beauty of the regal horned lizard which squirts blood from it's eye? What about the orchid mantis pictured below (looks just like a dried leaf or flower petal)? Exactly how committed to intellectual dishonesty does one have to be in oprder to not see that these creatures evolved over vast spans of time via natural selection to fit their habitat? And if predators and prey are both perfectly designed by God, which side is God on?
How comitted to intellectual dishonesty does one have to be to see the quirky, bizarre, and brutal behaviors in nature and not notice that this process has absoutely nothing to do with an underpinning of primate style morality?
Peoople like Prager have a never ending supply of untouchable and unfalsifiable excuses.
As long as Prager and his kind can prevent the populace (and himself) from understanding that maybe, just maybe the foundational understanding of modern science accepted unquestioningly by the world's best and brightest science minds just might actually be true, then Prager will always have a nice porcelain pot to piss in.
We are reliving the Galileo incident in our modern times. Only difference is, evolution through natural selection arguablyt has more compelling evidence for it than Galileo had for a heliocentric universe. At any rate, both propositions should be equally obvious to the intellectually honest.
And it really all does boil down to intellectual honesty. The type of sophistry and non-argument used by Prager in his debate with Harris is a prime example. Prager is a talk radio evangelist for a crafted "conservative" ideology for which Judeo-Christian religious chest beating pride is a key component. The style of argument he uses is foreign to the intellectually honest truth seeker. It's a style of argument which is satisfied with straying from the spirit of a discussion by swapping meat with tangential word-dicing which should seriously have made even those rooting for Prager cringe. Prager's claims that the entirety of Western societal virtue can be credited to the wonder of the Judeo Christian God (who, due to the magnificence of western culture must then exist), is so loony and unconvincing that we can only imagine him struggling to keep his own face straight in front of the keyboard.
A good historian could probably come up with a near infinite number of explanations why Western society is successful in the ways Prager describes without crediting religion at all. To be fair, religion did motivate wonderful art. What better use of time for a talented gay man than to decorate an edifice of worship to a deity which has made it perfectly clear that he detests the architect in question for eternity due to the arbitrary swath of chemicals in his amniotic sac in the second trimester, or perhaps the small alteration caused in the genetic recombination which created the genome of his first cell. Sinful bastard.
The reasons for theism are ludicrous, whether they are espoused by Francis Collins or Ted Haggard. All the education and expertise in the field of genetics that Francis Collins has, and yet his arguments for theism could not possibly be any more sophisticated than those of Ted Haggard. Why not argue on behalf of Hinduism or Buddhism? What profound egotism makes a person insist that their God is true despite the billions of devout people with similar extraordinary feelings who believe their story for exactly the same preposterous reasons?
Another mystery is why is it that these talk radio hosts (Medved, Prager) are Jewish people who don't even believe in Jesus, yet are staunch defenders of the virtues of these falsehoods?
Politics. Intentional distortion. Self-deception so multilayered and deep that it is no longer even noticed by them.
There are many truth seekers in science who value rigorous honesty and disciplined clarity as if it were their religion. Unfortunately, this idea, this noble way of living is quickly beaten out by those who are adept at baiting an ideological hook whith the stink cheese of labyrinthine word games.
In the science conference, one person noted that when he flipped through science journals he would note that most of it was "nonsense". One after another idea that probably wouldn't pan out. But he never felt anxious to write a letter to the editor. He had perfect confidence that the bad ideas would be weeded for lack of evidence and for good counterargument. He pointed out that he could not feel this way in any other public arena. In Prager's world, shit ideas can become the cream of the crop with strong PR. The desire for meaning and the fear of death are a built in PR campaign inside each of us which has insured that even such a blatantly foolish and unmeritorious conclusion such as theism can continue to exist.
Sunday, November 26, 2006
This is from Brian Flemming's blog (author of the god who wasn't there).
It burns. Proceed at your own risk.
Example (condensed from the original):
SAM HARRIS: Even if your claim about the link between faith and morality were true, it would offer no support whatsoever for your religious beliefs. Even if atheism led straight to moral chaos, this would not suggest that the doctrine of Judaism is true. Islam might be true in that case. Or all religions might function like placebos. As descriptions of the universe, they could be utterly false but extraordinarily useful.
DENNIS PRAGER: You are right that this moral clarity and courage among the predominantly religious does not prove the existence of the biblical God. Nothing can prove God’s existence. But it sure is a powerful argument. If society cannot survive without x, there is a good chance x exists.
SAM HARRIS: No, Dennis, this moral clarity is not a “powerful argument,” or even an argument at all; please keep your x’s straight. If humanity can’t survive without a belief in God, this would only mean that a belief in God exists. It wouldn’t, even remotely, suggest that God exists.
DENNIS PRAGER: It is hard for me to imagine that any fair-minded reader would reach the same conclusion. If we both acknowledge that without belief in God humanity would self-destruct, it is quite a stretch to say that this fact does not “even remotely suggest that God exists.” Can you name one thing that does not exist but is essential to human survival?
I know, I just gave your eyes third-degree burns. I warned you.
Is there a word for this phenomenon of relatively intelligent people being suddenly unable to use their brains in the face of an obviously valid point? Oh, wait, I just remembered. It's called religion.
But is there a word for the phenomenon of people in the public eye making such extraordinarily stupid statements and still keeping their audience? Oh, wait, I just remembered. It's called talk radio.
A debate between Sam Harris and talk radio twat, Dennis Prager was posted recently. It took place, I believe, over a month ago. It's great to read because you can really get into the mind-set of a defender of Judeo-Christian conservative and dissect the disease under the microcope. Harris is at his best here, offering unshakably crisp evidential arguments. Dennis Prager does the typical talk radio conservative tactic and tries to appeal to contorted reinterpretations of history and round-about facts as if they contribute to his stance. Examples:
Prager says at one point that he knows of no intelligent atheists. Yes, no kidding. He says they may have great minds but they lack wisdom. Part of his argument is that this is because atheists are totally bizzare due to the fact that they can't see beauty in art, music, and nature without instantaneously coming to the conclusion that there is a creator. Obviously Mr. Prager has never been a serious student of natural selection or basic biological science. Unfortunately, his talk radio audience is surely comprised of the same types of people, for whom a reasoned argument debunking this using the science behind natural selection would fall on completely deaf ears. They take it a priori that beauty is an inherent aspect of the primordial nature of things, and it does not occur to them for a milisecond that beauty may be just a neurological creation of natural selection.
This bastion of ridiculousness also makes the blanket statement that spending time in universities warps people and this is why higher learning is almost linearly associated with atheism (10 % of the lay public are atheists, 40% of doctors, 60% of research scientists, and at the highest levels of distinguishment- 93% of members of the National Academy of Scientists are atheists). I can only imagine that Mr. Prager would like to see the Judeo Christian religion forced down people's throats in the college setting to offset this glaring bias towards atheism as education level grows. I'm sure his talk radio fans (most no doubt with very little science education) eat this explanation up without any internal controversy. Prager makes the suggestion that social scientists are even more atheistic than members of the hard sciences, a stat Harris nor I, am aware of. Prager uses this to suggest that the colleges themselves purposely lead people to atheism. But as I have ranted on for so long about, studying human behavior - self-deception, unconscious bias, interpersonal manipulation etc... perhaps more than anything leads people to be atheists and *certainly* must lead people to dismiss the brainwashing of organized religion in a very strong way. Prager wouldn't catch this.
Here is the actual statement he made:
You write that, "There is little question that exposure to a scientific education reduces the likelihood that a person will believe in God,"
a point I fully acknowledged in my last correspondence. But exposure to other areas of higher education, specifically the "social sciences," further reduces the likelihood that a person will believe in God. We therefore have two choices about how to interpret these data. One is that the more one knows, the less likely one is to believe in God. That is your interpretation. I have another interpretation—that contemporary higher education increases factual knowledge but decreases wisdom. With some exceptions, I believe that the more time one spends at a university the more foolish he or she becomes.
Prager would never understand the following statement made by social scientist Mahzarin, at the conference (not a perfect quote):
Mahzarin said that a humanities person might read a poem and fall to their knees and believe, an atrophysicist may look into the cosmos and fall to their knees and believe, but those of us who are social scientists who deal with human beings, when you do that there is very little reason to see God.
Prager and people like him are simply upset that observing human nature lends no reasons to believe in God. It's not a brainwashing of college students that makes them nonbelievers, it is learning more about reality that makes them unbelievers. It ins amazing that the "conservatives" have invented a loophole out of this obvious fact by pretending that institutes of higher learning just magically became bastions of secularism. Hello? No shit. What do you want, Pat Robertson to come preach at Harvard?
Then Prager makes the following claims, which I find to absolutely hysterically absurd:
I have in fact made the case for the unique legitimacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition in 25 essays I wrote in 2005. Suffice it to that Judeo-Christian values alone gave humanity the notion of the sacredness of human life; linear history and therefore the idea of moral and scientific progress; universal standards of good and evil; the abolition of slavery; the scientific method; the development of democracy; equality of the sexes; the greatest experiment in non-ethnicity-based society (America); the greatest music ever composed; and the greatest art ever drawn.
Ok, it should be obvious that this is a profound warping of reality for reasons that anyone who has read the bible will point out immediately. Prager is equating virtues of modern western civilization with it's Judeo Christian background. I think someone else pointed out that according to this logic, in 100 years a future Prager like person would write something like this:
Suffice it to say that Judeo Christian values alone gave humanity the notion that evolution through natural selection was a better way of understanding the origins of life, that homosexuals should be given the right to consecrate their affinities for each other legally, and that women should be allowed to be members of the Roman Catholic priesthood, and that the eradication of numerous diseases using embryonic stem-cell research was all made possible by our society's deeply entrenched Judeo-Christian heritage.
Sound silly? Imagine going back in time to a group of Christians just a couple of centuries ago and trying to tell them with a straight face that the Judeo-Christian religion was responsible for eradicating slaverly, equality of the sexes, scientific progress, multicultural pluralistic societies etcetera.
The obvious fact is that these things happened DESPITE the Judeo Christian religion, not BECAUSE of it. Religion fought it every step of the way!
And any advancements such as the civil rights movement which were inspired in part by the faith based community were made possible as well by the ability of religious people to begin to reinvent their religion and to literally IGNORE their own Judeo-Christian scriptures in favor of a more modern, secular, pluralistic society. MLK got his doctrine of non-violence from Ghandi who got it from the Jains.
These people astonish me. After watching these forums and debates, it goes to show that clever people can find any twisted and contorted reinvention of the spirit of history to support their desired positions. The difference is intellectual honesty. When you read the debate, you see that Prager needs to result to vaccuous intellectual dishonesty to defend himself. The extent of his argument is simply that god has to be true because nature is mysterious. And since the Judeo Christian religion inundates the modern world, that particular God must therefore be the one true God. The problem is that, for the minions of believers, this is not considered a bad use of logic, as long as it tells them what they want to hear.
Saturday, November 25, 2006
I have finally reached the end of the conference videos. Wow. I can't wait until next year's conference. What an impact the internet makes! Imagine how much money people would be willing to dole out to attend this thing, and here you are given a front row seat, actually better than a front row seat for free.
There were so many highlights and so many amazing conversations I can't recount them all, not even the ones I enjoyed the most. I was most struck by the quality of the usage of language amongst all of the participants. Sam Harris was one of the center-stage discussion members in many topics and he is just as succinct in oration as he is in writing. So much more can be accomplished in discussions when people can use language crisply. And when you are in an audience of people who are trained bullshit detectors, there's none of this getting away with sleight of hand illogic that you might see in a political discussion or an internet chat room, without just a universal and heartfelt disapproval across the room, even by those who might agree with that person's position. This is the beauty of reason, and it can't be easily found in other arenas of discourse.
The emotional focal point of the conference reached a head in the morning of the third day when Sam Harris debated
Melvin Konner and James Woodward.
Konner and Woodward are atheists who think that using reasoned arguments against religion is not going to get anyone anywhere and is a waste of time. Konner even said that humanity is religious and I love humanity, which pretty much sums up his desire to accept religious dogmatism as an integral part of humanity. This is precisely the attitude that Harris considers one of the major inablers of religious insanity. Within the debate you had your standard bullshit response that "its not all about religion because of Stalin and Pol Pot..." blah blah blah. Harris had to waste valuable time refuting this deplorable sophomoric horseshit, and he did so by saying that he could have changed the title of his book to "End of Dogma" and added a chapter about totalitarian atheists and it wouldn't have changed anything. When I hear these religious apologists continuously try to equate these insane dogmatic dictators with modern secular humanists, I know that it's a shit argument laid reflexively and strainingly on the table due to the fact that there isn't any other argument to be made with any impact. It's as if they are saying that since there are other forms of dogmatism which create atrocities, so stop picking on religion. This is just a direct fleeing from the battle, a total cowing away from the issue at hand. Dawkins joined the discussion table and went off noting that just because viruses are not the only things which cause disease, since bacteria do to, we should not quit worrying about viruses (sad that such an observation needs to be made at all, but it did). Then Konner makes this off-handed totally specious remark that we wouldn't be able to live without bacteria. Can you imnagine? What a silly bullshit statement! Dawkins' reply was "but we CAN live without religion". Then Konner and Woodward demanded the "emprical data" that this is true, at which point you can see Sam Harris trying to hold his cookies. For Jesus fucking christ sake what is the point of this manure? Had they been present during the conference at all? Did they not notice 9/11? Did they notice that issues like Gay marriage and stem cell research dominate the national conversation? This is a pure illustration of the absurdity of this moderate religious worldview, constantly doing gymnastics in order to defend religion under any stripe. I am glad this whole thing was caught on tape for all time.
What was readily obvious was that Harris had a full load of ammunition and examples to demolish every whimper of an argument the other two made, and Woodward and Konner were left stammering and stalling. Konner found Sam's reference to Nazism as being specious and tedious. Harris pointed out that the entire concept of anti-semitism which spurred the German public sentiment stemmed "from stem to stern" from religion. Konner pulls out some more gymnastics and notes that anti-semitism pre-dated Christianity by a long time because of tribalism, which is totally besides any point whatsoever because last time I checked the non-Jewish German population at the time was not filled with Arabs debating race issues with Semites and fighting over land. This is common in a debate where you have no valid rebuttal- you choose some totally irrelevent trifle of fact which is unrelated to the spirit of the argument and pretend it discounts the argument. Beautiful piece of work, he should be a Fox news analyst.
Konner's talk was particularly annoying. His attitude was that rational argument is not effective in changing the minds of the faithful. I have already helped convert one Jewish friend in my life to a leaning towards atheism after merely listening to Dawkins and Harris on YouTube and reading their books. She plans to come to my house this weekend because she feels like her life has been turned upside down by this alteration in beliefs and needs to talk to me about it. Her husband didn't take it too well. I suspect she will raise her two children slightly differently now. This is life changing stuff for people, and it wasn't that they didn't already intuit the problems with their religious upbringings, it's that they needed the resources to clarify their thoughts and let them know that it is okay to come out of the closet. I suspect Harris and Dawkins' books are changing lives all over the place. They clarified my position, they offer ammunition to those who enter into debate, they spark conversation. I have not heard a single impactful argument against the positions of Sam and Richard. The only thing argued somewhat effectively is that the staunchness of their atheism scares away the religious and further entrenches them. A fair argument, assuredly true for some people. But it's not a rebuttal of the facts. When you listen to Sam and Richard you see people who devote time and energy to what they do out of a desire to reduce human suffering and to increase human understanding. We need their no prisoners approach, even if it only persuades believers half way.
What happens as Harris has pointed out, is that nobody publicly changes their minds at these conferences. They privately change their minds, then slowly alter their position over time and then try to claim that they always held this position. Nobody is ever allowed the glory of changing someone's mind publicly until perhaps years later. As Kipling said- "those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still".
Religion is getting reduced. And reasoned argument is why it is being reduced. Just because it happens too slowly to be gratifying doesn't mean reasoning is pointless. It becomes more and more obvious that arguments against evolution are embarrassing and dishonest, and some people are realizing that. Creation science will never take hold because there are too many intelligent people in the country who know better, and to any reasonable open minded observer of the data, the facts are just as obvious as any of the other accepted elements of science.
After watching this particular debate I can see the problem more clearly that Harris elucidates. His first response to Konner and Woodward was that he was grateful for their talks because they illuminate the problem itself. I wholeheartedly agree.
Friday, November 24, 2006
It is exceedingly rare that something catches my attention enough to engross me for hours on end. When it happens I savor it, and when I can find nothing to engross me, I search far and wide usually in vain. These science and religion conference archives are a treasure. I stayed up until 2am last night watching and only went to bed so I can get up early enough to continue watching this morning. Okay, I don't expect very many other people to sit through them all with any interest. But what a gift it is to sit and listen to the best and the brightest on this issue. I am grateful for my limited education for giving me the opportunity to understand enough of it to follow the conversations. Fortunately, since I am not married, I can enjoy the benefits of being able to do whatever I want, when I want, and for how long I want (at least during this 4 day thanksgiving break). I will certainly stay this way as long as I can.
Richard Dawkins gave a stunning performance. He seemed a bit tired and sort of stumbled through some of it, but the material grabs the issue by the throat. He speaks of the selfish gene, altruism, and then goes on to completely devastate the idea that religion is responsible for our morality with extraordinary snippets from various writings, notably from Abraham Lincoln and H.G. Wells which, if you have never heard them before, will literally make you gasp. Both were considered luminaries of liberalism for their time, and both were sharply and undeniably racist. His discussion of the evolution of altruism makes it crystal clear to me that a soul has nothing whatsoever to do with it. It is purely selected for the benefits of selfish genes by a random process.
Watching the video, you can tell that many members of the science elite reveal through their questions that they have a very incomplete understanding of modern theory of natural selection. Of course, it's not the business of a mathematician to do this anymore than a highschool P.E. teacher, but it is very telling for how science runs so disconnectedly in it's various branches.
Dawkins raised issues that cut to the very core of what we call our humanity and likens the core of our humanity (our altruism) to a moth who was once guided by the light of the moon and stars only to now be guided into the flames of candles. Altruism the way we evolved to use it, was for the vast majority of our heritage amongst those of our own kin. We did not mix nearly as much genetically, and helping others without question preserved many of the very same genes that your own genome contained.
Now it's different, we help those mostly who have nothing to do with our family line (if you are in a service profession, say). Dawkins says this is an evolutionary mistake, like the moth who flies into candles for reasons which once suited it's navigation for millions of years. It would be idiotic to ask why a moth evolved to fly into flames. It is also idiotic to wonder why humans evolved to help people they don't even know for no benefit to themselves, for the very same reasons. There once was a benefit to their genes for caring for their kin like they would care for themselves (everything makes sense from a "genes-eye-view" and the proper question is not "how does this trait help me" but "how did my genes use this trait to replicate themselves"). But this point is utterly lost on 99.5% of the populace who takes the existence of altruism as a perfectly bullet-proof argument for a moral universe, and can't grasp even the basics of natural selection.
As I said, I could tell that some of the elite scientists who were not biologists, had a shaky grasp of natural selection and it's implications by their questions and their stunned looks as Richard smashed cherished notions with the ease and naturalness of taking a shit. This is not surprising, because I am convinced that half the students who go through biology 101 in college still have no real grasp of natural selection. It isn't really the focus of the class. It is also not surprising that those astrophysicists and mathemeticians who don't dwell on natural selection would be more likely to believe in a creator, and statistically they are. Why do people have trouble grasping natural selection? Because it cuts to the very core of our humanity. The implications can be destructive. We literally fight to ward off this understanding, (I know I did this for a decade even after I had somewhat grasped it). It's not that I didn't believe it, it's that I needed a more human-centric explanation that gave my life meaning. But after having so many of my own experiences with people and being a very self-reflective person, I have come to see that my own mind and the mind of humanity itself is a cauldron of political sales pitches, mostly masquerading as something done for the benefit of others, and mostly having nothing at all to do with the benefit of others directly. Sort of like buying the warranty at Best Buy- a complete rip off, but packaged in such a way that makes you think it might be wise.Part of the discussion was about a man of science who learned about the selfish gene and the origin of altruism. He was a very caring person who would randomly give to the poor and needy, I think he was also a Catholic Priest. As he grasped the concept, he slipped into a profound depression, eventually leading to the taking of his own life. Can't remember his name.
Thursday, November 23, 2006
Professional bullshit detector extraordinaire. When I watched her lecture (session 7), I realized I had missed my perfect calling in life.
Mahzarin Banaji, currently Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, studies human thinking and feeling in social context, particularly how unconscious assessments reflect hidden attitudes about social group membership such as race, gender and class. Her research has implications for theories of individual responsibility and social justice.
I was completely hooked after she made a reference to the study of the number of believers amongst the educated elite according to their different academic categories. Why do some sorts of categories have more or fewer believers? Math and physics have more believers, but biologists have fewer believers. Actually, those who work with actual people in the physical world have the fewest believers (except for doctors who have more believers likely due to their task of continuously breaking devastating news to those who need to find meaning).
Mahzarin said that a humanities person might read a poem and fall to their knees and believe, an atrophysicist may look into the cosmos and fall to their knees and believe, but those of us who are social scientists who deal with human beings, when you do that there is very little reason to see God.
Amen to that sister. What good is even asking whether there is a God when the entire foundation of human beingness is just a big complex exercise in memetic chicanery? She gets paid to do what I wish I could- sit around and find ways to show the strings on the puppets.
If you want to see what happens when a masquerading new ager presents ideas about collective quantum consciousness to a group of top scientists in their fields, watch this. He gets shelled in an embarrassing way. His talk is semi-followable, but then he leaps into this sheer speculation about his untestable hypotheses. At the end of the talk I exclaimed "oh thats bullshit", and in the post mortem discussion it seems the experts thought it was even more bullshit than I surmised.
I think Hameroff has some great ideas, but this is a case where we run into the danger of untestable quantum-speak. The issue of consciousness and quantum microtubules is too far out to verify. It is imagination hypothesis. Can it even be called science? I also think this is a case which really shows why, of all the sciences, there are more atheists to be found in biology than anywhere else. Stuart Hameroff can espouse that there is a Platonic underpinning in the conscious fabric of the universe which can motivate gene mutations ( a sophisticated ID mechanism). Most biologists understand too much about the red in tooth and claw aspect of nature to take such an idea seriously, thus their greater likelihood to embrace atheism. Hameroff suggests that there is a primordial moral underpinning to the fabrisc of the universe, whereas what we know of nature seems to reveal quite persuasively (to many of us anyways) that nature couldn't give the remotest shit about morality, and that morality evolved quite recently finding it's use primarily as a tool for social politics and reciprocity. To understand my point, consider only those under age 30 (the population of our species for the vast majority of the time we have been around) and observe people around the ages of 17-22 hanging out in the malls and bullshitting on their cell phones. Observe the way they use morality, observe the way they socialize, and you will see precisely the whys and hows of the evolution of morality. It did not evolve because it made 60 year olds wise and reflective! as so many would romantically like to believe.
V.S. Ramachandran, the author of the great book "Phantoms in the Brain" was the next speaker. His talk was short but interesting as always. I always wonder if the way he rolls his R's is exaggerated intentionally.
He spoke of a person who had a disconnected right and left brain hemisphere. He could turn one side off and talk to each of them individually. The right side believed in God and the left side didn't. He then raised a religiious question of whether the right side would go to heaven and the left to hell.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Ive watched the first 2 segments of the program and the second one is just about as entertaining this subject gets (apart maybe from watching Dawkin's eyes almost pop out when he talks to Ted Haggard). Neil Tyson is a good thespian of science and an entertaining emoter.
So far it is amazingly entertaining (at least to this obsessed nerd). I am listening to segment 3 as I type, and a woman is defending faith by doubting the accuracy of science. A cardinal sin in my opinion. She is comparing apples and oranges. Major scientific "paradigms" will not be overthrown with new information, but put into greater perspective and fine-tuned. Attacking the foibles of early scientists for their incompleteness is pretty underhanded. I have heards that by the end there are emotionally heated arguments.
I apologize for the below poster which is really an advertisement for next years session of "Beyond Belief". I hope this thing gets plenty of play on the net. I think it will inspire the curious to read the speakers books to try to find out why someone can be so confident that something like Christianity is bogus in it's entirety. Now Richard Dawkins is called up to rant about Weinberg's "bending over backwards" to be nice to religion. He cries "I am utterly fed up!". HAHA. Awesome.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
One religious guy made a great point against atheist's duplicity by noting that in one minute atheists can say how meaningless and blind nature is and in the next point out how grandiose and wonderful it is. Very true! Nature is grandiosely FUCKING sick! Beyond all imagination it is reviling and repulsive to behold when one really grasps the blindness of the process. The beauty of design came with incomprehensible suffering, and even the human concept of "beauty" is patently meaningless as far as nature is concerned. Beauty is just an algorithm in the reward and suffering scheme that DNA uses to replicate itself.
I agree with Dawkins in that the mystery of everything coming into existence without a God is no more mysterious than everything coming into existence with a God, and since nature is a patently mindless process designed as an unwinnable reward and suffering game which leads invariably to suffering and delusion and absolutely nowhere meaningful (I consider even the most noble of human promptings to be duplicitious incongruent lies to their very core.. eg Oprah Winfrey).
I can never understand why Dawkins is so humanistic. I agree with John Grey (Straw Dogs) that humanism is really just the new Christianity dressed up for a post Christian world. Humanism the way it is popularly conceived is every bit as superstitious as Christianity (even though as I say again and again... I am willing to pretend that the urging for human nobility is not a selfish lie invented by the gene replication process.. even though it is just as "beautiful" and morally driven as an anal gang bang scene in a midget porno).
I truly am a nihilist at the end of the day. I think the very kernel of our existence is bogusness. The implications of natural selection are too harmful for even Richard Dawkins to take- who uses the grandeur of science as his spiritual manna. Even the experience of grandeur is an illusion itself.
Looking back at our most adept of spiritual heros the world over, I KNOW without a shadow of any doubt that these people were more delusional and deeply misled about the nature of the univere and life than say, Corky from "Life Goes On". None of their efforts to be noble and God-filled got them anywhere at all but deep into the depths of ignorance and delusion. What sort of God would it be who demanded delusion and ignorance to reach Him? The only reasonable conclusion is that all human spirituality is false and merely body driven (an idea which has come to seem blatantly obvious to me in recent years especially after looking into the new neuroscience and finally having enough of the NDE to pull the Wiz's curtain out of my eyes). Of course, religions espousing a personal deity (the one's with all the followers) are even more profoundly and embarrassingly sick and worthless. It seems that seeking God, even if there is one, leads one further from God than not seeking God.
And life is not about learning lessons. Lets get that much straight. Nobody is learning jack shit. If the Dalai Lama doesn't acknowledge basic science (he is self-admittedly closed to the possibility of consciousness extinguishment at death and therefore intellectually disingenuous), then he isn't learning anything but how to lie to himself.
The only lesson I have learned is that all aspects of human spirituality are bullshit social ploys ingrained in our biology by a cunning yet unconscious dick/pussy reward/punishment algorithm. It's so obvious.
Saturday, November 18, 2006
Any discussion of the topic of Wisdom, Spirituality, Religion, Altruism, and Love which does not acknowledge and give credence to biological evolution and the arbitrary nature of how these qualities arose naturally, is self-deception. Intentional head-in-the-sand self deception. Evolution is the universal acid. Human beings are natural born liars. Our brains and nervous systems are designed by nature to self-deceive, compete, manipulate and conquer. Even spiritual people are competing constantly over who is more loving, caring, and altruistic. There may be no better way to display one's dominance over another than to give and provide to them. Spirituality is all just as duplicitous and secretly power mongering as the most blatant of Darwinian motivations, it is merely one of natures more ingenious scams.
Deepockets Chopra is a biotheist- a position just as radically asinine and contrary to evidence as young earth creationism. He observes the world through a lens which is intentionally blinded from the findings of evolutionary biology. He invents his own way of seeing as divorced from intellectual honesty as a talk radio spinmeister. His reasoning is perfectly circular in that he "chooses" his way of seeing based on wisdom and love and other emotional qualities, rather than observing the evidence available in the natural world in it's entirety first and then developing a world-view. It's funny that the new age community harps on over the dichotomy of fear and love, when it is stark cold fear which prevents them from acknowledging the universal acid of biological evolution through natural selection which is utterly devastating to their views, and which they scarecely understand or are willing to even try to understand.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Aaron: the only truly honest act a human being can do is to commit suicide at the prime of his life in perfect well-being for no observable reason whatsoever.
Steve: Like Doug Stewart.
Steve: My beloved friend.
Aaron: any other life is dishonest
Aaron: but I prefer the dishonest existence
Aaron: over extinguishment
Steve: unless we survive
Aaron: we dont
Monday, November 13, 2006
I don't know where this came from. I wrote it October 28th and must have meant to post it but never did.
"Stay the Course"
Part of the success of talk radio and cable news programs is their ability to get away time and again with absolute lies with virtually no accountability. Their echo chamber gobbledegook is so belligerent, emotion-laden and void of critique that even the most blatantly false statements are forgotten in the dissonant belch of disingenuous horse-shit faster than Rush Limbaugh's latest one night stand in the Dominican Republic. They say exactly what they want to believe. They say it loud and often, and people want to believe it so much that they start ignoring reality to do it.
It is an effective strategy. For instance, in Sean Hannity's world, the war on terror is a huge success, we freed the Iraqi people, and the economy is better than it has ever been despite the fact that Bush inherited a recession from Clinton. He can say it over and over again. It's his own little world, how dare any biased Darwin believing liberals argue. Since most people are far too busy to learn anything complicated, the one's who live in the echo chamber will hear nothing but the echoes they love so much without all that nasty and confusing counterargument.
What sheer evil it is to be so enthusiastically deceptive.
Last night I saw David Letterman hand Oreilly his ass on a platter. Oreilly was saying something about how simple the Iraq issue was, and Letterman said "it's not simple for me because I'm a thoughtful person". Fast food news (virtually entirely right wing conservative by nature) achieves success by reducing extremely complex issues down to emotional faith based either-ors. It's a substitute brain for those without the energy or capacity to reason (or those who have faith and don't need to reason).
Strangely enough, the only news outlets brave enough to call the cowardly evil bullshitters on their deceptions are comedy shows. Despite the innumerable bald faced lies of Limbaugh, Hannity and Oreilly, you would never see some sort of NBC expose segment describing them in detail and taking them to task for their counterfeit form of "effortless journalism". That would be decried as "biased liberal media" no matter how obviously true the expose was. It turns out that the fake Christianist authoritarians are entitled to their outright lies as much as the next person. Opinions must be balanced, even if some of them are completely and demonstrably counterfactual.
But the comedy shows do the service that the real news is scared to do, thus their success.This is one instance which is amazing, sad and breathtakingly funny.
Sam Harris was on an internet discussion recently. I picked his lines out. There's some good statements in here. My favorite:
"..what is so frightening about religion--it allows normal people to believe by the millions what only lunatics or idiots could believe on their own."
I am, of course, not optimistic about converting many fundamentalists. But the truth is that fundamentalists do, occassionally, change their minds. I have heard from many of them. They have had their religious certainties eroded by rational argument. It is possible. So I keep making noise...With any luck my next book will be about the brain.
Yes, they do change their minds-- but it is frankly amazing how many reasonable people are not aware of this. I left of a scientific meeting where it was an article of absolute certainty for many people that you can never crack a person's faith through rational argument, evidence, etc.
A person, for instance, can lose his feeling of separation from the universe (this is possible)-- but is says nothing (or not very much) about the universe. It doesn't entitle you to make metaphysical claims about there only being the "one mind", for instance.
But it suggests to me that if we make any significant progress, we won't be talking about "atheism" anymore. We'll just demand that people be reasonable. Now, we don't talk about "feminism" very much, we just demand that people examine their gender biases.
Another obvious analogy would be the civil rights movement: does it still exist? I'm not sure, but we condemn racism wherever we find it (more or less). I think the dissolution of identity or the marque (atheist, feminist, etc.) is a good sign.
General comment on arguing (with anyone about anything) -- you almost never get the pleasure of seeing that you won the argument in real time. People just don't like to publicly change their minds. They change their minds in private.
Fundamentalist atheist -- I think this is just a play on words: Like "science is a religion", "atheism is a faith", etc.The question to ask is, can we be too intellectually honest? Too undogmatic? Too open to evidence and argument?
I like the idea of requiring schools to teach more religion. The bewildering multiplicity of beliefs provides its own argument against the likelihood of any one being right.
but I also think that in science class, ID has to be exposed as closet creationism, and creationism has to be exposed as ludicrous.
I think the weirdest stuff is the people who agree with my criticism of religion, point for point, only to then put forward their own totally insane beliefs -- alien superintelligence-channelled-knowledge, etc.
I think that the scariest thing is that most of them are just like us -- that is, not mentally ill, not especially stupid, not sociopaths, etc. That is what is so frightening about religion--it allows normal people to believe by the millions what only lunatics or idiots could believe on their own.