Saturday, February 18, 2012

Dan Barker vs John-Mark Miravalle Pt 2 pt ii

See the first part of part 2 here.

Miravalle's final opening argument is a logical argument and another appeal to infinity. He posits that there is a quality of "being" and a quality of "non-being", that being necessarily exists and non-being necessarily does not, and finally that being must be infinite. I'd call the argument spurious, but clearly a lot of thought has gone into it (most of it not presented here), so I'll just call it wrong.

This is a very Catholic argument. They love to say that things have essences which are in fact separate from the things themselves. For example, every week, thousands of Catholics speak a magic incantation over a cracker and it loses its essential crackerness and becomes the flesh of a Jewish zombie. They then perform engage in ritual cannibalism on the zombie and speak some more incantations. This is known as the magic of transubstantiation. The substance of the cracker is changed, without changing anything about the cracker at all to the substance of the flesh of Yeshua bin Yusef.

In this case Miravalle is arguing, with no evidence whatsoever (after all, this is a "logical" argument) that everything that exists partakes of the quality of being, and everything that doesn't exist partakes of the quality of non-being. As nothing that doesn't exist actually exists, the quality of non-being does not, in fact, exist. Therefore, being is infinite.

Awha? He makes something of a leap there and argues that the quality of being is entirely separate and somehow physical or spatial, and necessarily infinite.

This all goes back to the Aristotelian metaphysics that Catholicism gleefully saddled itself with back in the middle ages when Greek philosophy made it back to Europe after its time in Arabia. Aristotle and Plato differed on many things, but the church took up the notion of Platonic ideals, as they meshed quite well with the Christian notion of the soul.

It is possible to consider the concept of 'woodiness' as something separate from actual wooden things. Wood is a fibrous material of a certain stiffness, a certain ability to be shaped and carved, a certain resilience, but a certain pliancy, and this varies from wood to wood, and also depends upon the thickness and treatment of the wood. But does woodiness exist separately from actual wooden objects in any real sense? Is there some aether in which you'll find the notion of parabolas existing independently of the equations they represent, and the paper we draw them on? We can consider the notion of the color red and understand that it is an assigned quality, something our mind perceives without true external reality, a symbol that the brain has attached to a certain wavelength, or combination of wavelengths, of light.

But do any of these abstract concepts have an external reality? If they do, then Miravalle's argument may begin to have a leg to stand on, because if being, as a quality, exists separately from the objects that exist once they are imbued with that quality, then we can begin to consider the qualities that the quality possesses.

At that point his argument leaves the purely logical realm, because it posits the existence of this realm of the platonic ideals, and further attributes facts, qualities, and indeed very real being to these notions, as if the fact of assertion is all the proof necessary that the thing asserted has a factual reality.

The best argument against Plato's Theory of Forms was advanced by Plato himself, as well as Aristotle (though Plato was doing it in order to rebut the argument so as to strengthen his theory). It's known as the Third Man Argument. A man is a man, and he partakes of the form of a man, but part of the form of the man is partaking of the form of the man, so there is another form, that being partaking of the form of a man that is also part of the form of a man, but this means that partaking of that form is also part of the form... Essentially, the Platonic ideals are self-contradictory. In this case, everything partakes of the essence of being, including the essence of being itself.

However, where the Theory of Forms breaks down, Miravalle runs with it and posits that the essence of being is necessarily infinite, which may be why he somehow gives it a physical reality. But his argument is incomplete and full of holes, because he argues that the essence of being exists and all extant things partake of it, but that non-being cannot exist because only non-existent things could partake of it, and they don't exist, which means the essence of non-being must not exist for them to partake of. But even in the absence of a thing partaking of a form (say a room devoid of chairs) that wouldn't mean that a form didn't exist for something to potentially, eventually, partake of it. In fact, even though the form of non-being is a form that cannot be taken by any thing, that doesn't mean that the ideal notion, the Form of non-existence doesn't itself exist in the Platonic theory. In this way, the Platonic Theory of Forms may defeat even Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. Even members that can't be a member of the set can be a member of the set.

In any event, I cannot accept his notion of forms (the essence of being in this place) that exist separately from the things that partake of those forms, because the qualities of physical objects only exist as they are embodied by physical objects. And even temporarily granting the forms, there is no reason to accept that they have some sort of physical reality in themselves, rather than an ideal, non-physical reality. And even granting some separate universe, there's no reason to grant the form of Being some sort of infinite physical presence because there's no reason not to grant the form of non-Being the same physical reality as the form of Being. And then his final step is perhaps his most egregious failure.

There's no reason to say that this essence of being is god, and particularly not the Christian god.

As a final parting shot, Miravalle delivers a half-formed transcendental apologetic: that just as morality and being descend from god, so too does logic descend from god and therefore the atheist cannot argue against the existence of god because doing so requires the use of logic which requires admitting that god exists. Fortunately, the statement is poorly fleshed out, not well-developed, and I wouldn't have noticed it if I hadn't learned a bit about transcendental apologetics. I hope Barker doesn't respond to it, but as he's a reformed Pentacostalist preacher, I've no idea what his debate style is like. I also hope he doesn't fall into the trap of trying to respond to Miravalle's arguments, weak as they are, but rather correctly identifies that each of them is, in its own way, a restatement of the Kalam Cosmological argument, points out the ultimate weakness of that argument, and dismisses all three.

Next: Barker's turn at the podium.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Dan Barker vs John-Mark Miravalle Pt 2

Here's part one.

Miravalle's second argument is the "moral" argument. That is to say, we all appear to have innate moral convictions, but that those necessarily come from god.

He briefly props up a straw man of "we get morals through observation" but knocks it down with "but we see people do bad things, therefore we don't get our morals from the world around us". He doesn't, however, notice that this also knocks down his thesis, that our morals are innate. I've argued elsewhere that morals are innate, but not from god. To put it briefly: they've evolved as a mechanism to foster cooperation so that each of us benefits as the group benefits. Evil is, in this model, either an alternative approach (psychopathy as a method only feasible for a small minority of the population) or when two groups come into conflict (when morality is based upon defining an in-group, some people will necessarily be defined as out-group and not receive the benefits of moral cooperation).

He also tries to argue that morality can't be in some way naturally innate because it's not innately selfish. He differentiates personal preferences from morality (appropriate) but claims that an empathic drive cannot be in any way innate. This is wrong because it has been empirically shown that, except among psychopaths, empathy is innate; there's a whole chunk of brain that's given over to considering the needs and desires of others.

He argues that moral outrage is entirely separate and different from disappointment over unfulfilled desires. I believe the implication he's striving for is that our personal desires, being small and petty and selfish, evoke a small, petty response whereas our moral convictions are a larger striving for the numinous and evoke a larger response. The difference between finding out there aren't any cookies left is obviously different from the torture of a child, and it's obviously a difference of kind rather than degree, but it certainly doesn't imply that it's somehow an external, imposed response. Say I step out of my house, lock my door, and turn to see a dog ambling in circles with a hesitant, lopsided, shambling walk. I'm going to quietly freak out about the possibility of being attacked by a rabid dog and attempt to quickly, quietly get back inside. Contrast that with stepping barefoot in a pile of dog shit on my way to get the mail. The disgust and fear responses are as different from one another as they are from hunger or sexual desire, yet all are wholly natural. There is nothing in his argument that actually distinguishes moral outrage from a natural, biological impetus.

His third quick-counter (part of the structure of debates is to set up and knock down possible arguments by your opponent) is that morality is cultural. Cultural relativism is a favorite opponent of apologists, because they hate hate hate relativism. If morality is not absolute, how can it really be a thing? He specifically links it to progress (I believe he's being very smart there, playing to the audience, gathered by an atheist/agnostic organization), saying that progress is meaningless in the absence of an external absolute against which to measure it. He's entirely incorrect; there's no external metric against which to measure technology, and yet my cell phone is clearly a superior and more sophisticated device than ENIAC.

He thus claims to have eliminated all other possible sources of morality, and that the alternative is therefore god. He then proceeds to try and make the argument from logic.

Next, Part 2 Part ii.

Dan Barker vs John-Mark Miravalle Pt 1 of 8

I'm watching the YouTube videos of ReasonFest 2011, because some of the blogs I follow have been pimping ReasonFest 2012 and there aren't any videos up for that yet. The first thing I'm watching is a debate on the existence of god between Dan Barker (former Pentacostalist preacher, now atheist) and John-Mark Miravalle (Catholic apologist).

Miravalle opens with a sophisticated sounding argument based on "essential" vs. "non-essential" features of objects. I say it sounds sophisticated because it really boils down to an argument for infinite regression and the need to remove that infinity. It's the Kalam Cosmological argument that happens to rely upon the supposedly non-essential feature known as "existence".

Flaw the first: All the flaws of the Kalam Cosmological argument. It's an argument from first cause and I don't think a sophisticated thinker should rely on it. We know of acausal events, we know of self-causing events, we can and have developed models for the universe that have no need of a god. The KC argument is no longer a self-evidently true proposition. In fact, it never was; it merely held the field because there were no alternatives.

Flaw the sceond: The specific example he gives of an object with the non-essential quality of existence is a triangle he drew on a piece of paper. The essential quality: it has three sides, and asking why it has three sides brings you back to the definition of a triangle. The non-essential quality: it's blue, asking why it's blue brings you through regress to him and his blue marker. Then he takes us by analogy to the non-essential quality of existence. The triangle exists because he drew it, he exists because of his parents, and so on and so forth through a chain of causation terminated by the arbitrary assumption of the Christian god.

However, this is a problem of arguing from the specific to the general. That particular triangle exists because he drew it, but he would have us infer from there that all triangles exist only because they were created. Indeed, the concept of triangleness was created. Indeed, all things were created. He argues, without justification, that all of existence is a non-essential quality bestowed upon everything by a being/object that for which existence is an essential quality (analogy: a magnet that bestows magnetism down a chain of magnetically held objects).

In other words, he uses an object he created to argue that all objects are so created, and he does so without justification. "I drew a triangle, therefore someone created everything we see." He's attempting to argue that the fact of creation is proof of creation, but it's a smokescreen. What he's really saying is that the fact of existence is proof of creation and there's no connection between the two. He's trying to pull an infinitely long chain out of a hat and then say that it's not infinitely long because there's a god* at the other end.

Flaw the third: This is just another way of asking "Why is there something rather than nothing?" to which I believe the proper reply is "Why, in the face of all this something, do you persist in expecting nothing?" Our observation of the universe should lead us to expect that something does exist; the universe is manifestly self-organizing. From nothingness, somethingness continuously springs. The vacuum of emptiest space seethes with spontaneously manifesting particles. If a perfect nothing were ever to appear, we should expect a universe to happen, not for the nothingness to remain.

Next, on to the second part of the video.

* A lot of people have pointed out that none of these logical, metaphysical, etc arguments in fact argue for the Christian god, notwithstanding there many flaws, but just for some vague concept of godness that most people don't even attribute to or accept as the Christian god.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Australian government has attached a ...

The Australian government has attached a penalty to not vaccinating children. This post has some good arguments for why that should be the case.
Vaccines and the State
Here's a report from Australia:
"The Australian government has decided to deprive parents of their tax benefits if they do not immunise their children against diseases.
Some families could lose over $2,000...
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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

SP6: Why Value Diversity?

Multiculturalism is simply the presence of multiple cultures. According to Jonathan Haidt, one of the differences between liberals and conservatives is that liberals love new experiences whereas conservatives hate new things and want everything to stay exactly the way it looked like on TV when they were growing up.

So liberals love diversity, because it means they can gentrify a crappy neighborhood and enjoy burritos for breakfast, falafel for lunch, and a lox-bacon-cream-cheese bagel for dinner. They get to enjoy finding new and different things around every corner, and they get to make friends with people whose names they enjoy learning to pronounce and quiz who can answer increasingly intrusive questions, and they get to tell stories about all that around the hypoallergenic environmentally friendly water cooler the next day.

Okay, so liberals like diversity and multiculturalism, but why should they value it?

In fact, a study of history indicates that multiculturalism is valuable on its face. Though he doesn't call it such, Jared Diamond describes a version of it in Guns, Germs, and Steel when he posits a hypothesis to explain why Europe conquered China and not the other way around. Simply put, Europe's many internal borders promoted factionalism and strife, but also allowed for the development of large countries and communications between them, whereas China was large and monolithic. This is simplistic, not least because China was exposed to outside influences and conquered multiple times. However, I believe it's true at its core, because China always viewed itself as the center of the world and even those who conquered it tended to agree (just as 'Mediterranean' means "middle of the world", so does 'Zhongguo' mean something similar).

China has a long history of inquisitively exploring, inventing powerful new technology (printing, firearms, explosives), developing them a little bit, and then completely abandoning them. Contrarily, Europe enthusiastically adopted these new technologies and even when conservative forces attempted to suppress them, those conservative forces were wiped out either by opponents who understood the power of the new technology within the state or by opponents who successfully used it against them from without. In other words, Europe was for centuries aroil with conflict that tested, improved, and discarded technologies, philosophies, cultures, tactics, etc. This is a controversial style of argument because it stinks of group selection, which notion evolutionary biology has been tussling over for decades*.

Compare this to suggestion that among the contributing factors to the American Revolution and the society/government that sprang out of it was the syncretism of European schools of thought with the much more egalitarian cultures of the Native Americans. That is to say, the American nation is something new, a combination of those two very different cultures. And then throw African cultures into the mix, and is it any wonder that rock and roll took the world by storm?

In the end, that's my argument for multiculturalism, diversity. Recall that our grandparents grew up with an entirely different variety of banana. Bananas, in their current form, are a wholly artificial human construct, a seedless clone race grown only for our consumption. That's why, when a disease struck, it virtually wiped out the Gros Michel (Big Mike) cultivar, which was replaced by the current banana, the Cavendish. In the same vein, were our culture to lack diversity, then should some virus of the mind or technological development come along that was incompatible, we could be wiped out.

One of the costs of maintaining diversity is that it makes it difficult to function. Some subcultures here in the US are like an autoimmune disorder, attempting to eliminate what they see as hostile, invading aliens, but which are in fact healthy growths. Others, like theocratic fundamentalist Christians, are potentially deadly cancers (their less active fundamentalist brethren are more like benign tumors. Not actively deadly, but they bear watching). Deviating from the biological metaphors for a bit, the fact is that multiculturalism is actually just more difficult to live with. We are all more comfortable when we're around people like ourselves, and our stress levels go up and sense of community goes down when surrounded by people not like ourselves. A diverse community is, in a very real and very unfortunate way, a less happy and stable community.

Those are the trade-offs. On the one hand, being open to new cultures and ideas has exposed us to the humanity of different peoples, helping to bring about the human rights revolution, feminism, civil rights; a truly healthy, vibrant society. On the other hand it can occasionally be stressful.

Suck on that, conservatives.

* Given that certain behaviors make sense only in the context of a group consisting mostly of members that also exhibit those behaviors (think cooperation, loyalty), I don't think group selection can be ignored, however I would consider it a secondary effect most of the time, as even in the context of the group, the individual has to compete with other individuals of the species to reproduce.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The Rational View of Tradition

Julia Galef (She of the Straw Vulcan discussion) vlogged about the skeptic (rationalist) take on traditional practices. It's well worth a watch.

She discusses a number of things, including various biases. She also touches on the natural selection analogy. She briefly discusses, edging toward meme theory, that a behavior can be beneficial without being chiefly beneficial to the organism that expresses it.

There are a number of examples of this.

First: An ant climbs to the top of a stalk of grass and waits there until it gets eaten. The ant is expressing a gene that is clearly not beneficial to itself, but to that of a parasite whose life cycle requires spending time in an ant's brain and in a bird's gut. Similarly, when you get sick, you sneeze, which is more to the benefit of your infection than to you.

Second: The Westermarck Effect is that which prevents close kin from doing the nasty. Any humans which grow up in close proximity from a young age imprint on one another such that they are actively disinclined to have sex with one another. This confers little benefit to them, but definite benefit to their descendants, as it encourages outbreeding and reduces the chance of inbreeding depression. This may be countered by the genetic sexual attraction hypothesis, which suggests that relatives are more attractive to us than complete strangers. This can be used to combat outbreeding depression. In both cases, the benefit is to your genes rather than to you.

Galef was responding to her listener's hypothesis: traditions aren't completely groundless. That they exist implies that they probably exist for a pretty good reason. That is, their existence is evidence that they should continue existing. Galef linked it to natural selection; cultural traditions and mores that exist do so because they benefit individuals or groups; she gives a decent example. She follows up with an analogy by G.K. Chesterton of a fence/gate across the road; don't destroy it without learning why there's a fence, that it's part of a larger structure of traditions.

I want to take this further: the good reason a tradition exist might have nothing to do with our benefit, but for the benefit of the tradition (it exists so that it can continue to exist: like a lot of little superstitions), or another tradition (reflexive deference to religion), or other people (the ingrained obsequiousness that supports class structures; "yassa massah"), and so on.

Traditions and cultural mores exist within a world that contains other traditions and mores and each has to be considered within that context. Take for example the tradition of dueling in early modern Europe. Any insult or minor blow had to be answered with a duel, usually to the death. This was a particularly barbaric practice that faded by the end of the nineteenth century, but to try and remove it entirely in 1775 would have been absurd, because it was part of a larger complex of "honor", whereby any insult or blow had to be answered or the insulted's honor was compromised and he was weak, cowardly, or conniving. This caused him material harm as people had less to do with him, were less charitable, less friendly, and so on. That dueling was in fact a much more liberal and cultured response than would have previously been the case is important. Before the careful dance of the duel (arranged by seconds with standards and rules), the response would have been an immediate fight to the death, without call for apology, that probably would have turned into a brawl with multiple injured/dead parties that would have lead to the clans a feudin' down the generations.

Galef points out that her reader's natural selection argument is flawed: a bad gene dies out quickly, whereas a negative cultural more is actually quite sticky. To quote the Declaration of Independence, "Indeed, experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by altering the forms to which they are long accustomed." We stick with the devil we know, occasionally even in the face of an obviously better alternative. Galef argues that this conservatism is in two parts, the other being that there isn't much randomization (mutation) in social mores.

While I can't help but agree with the first, I have to disagree with the second. Cultures and traditions, being untethered in many cases, to reality are free to shift and do so with remarkable rapidity. Music, clothing, speech, how we treat one another, all can change in a heartbeat. She also said that there's not much selection pressure because of this; in an increasingly global and diverse community, I think that's increasingly untrue.

An important point I think Galef failed to make was that while a tradition's existence is evidence of its positive value, it's not necessarily valuable to us, either individually or as a group. A tradition might exist for the benefit of another group, another tradition, or just to itself. Futher, given the very valid point she raised about the status quo bias, that greatly reduces the strength of the evidence the tradition's existence provides.

In the end, though, I agree with her conclusion, that experimenting with social norms is good for all of us. It's why diversity is a good thing.

Your commute probably sucks because everyone's...

Your commute probably sucks because everyone's selfish. Especially you. Yes, you, Sam.
Why Blocking Roads Can Speed Up Traffic
It's so counter-intuitive that it's called Braess' Paradox: How can closing a road actually make everyone's commute shorter? You would think that blocking a route would be an inconvenience, but under some...
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Wednesday, February 08, 2012

So the US military is spending millions of...

So the US military is spending millions of dollars to convert soldiers and their children to evangelical Christianity. That's not cool. In fact, it's illegal.
Calling all atheists for academic research into notorious 'Spiritual Fitness' testing
Please, if you have 10 minutes. We need your help fighting the unconstitutional nonsense behind the military's mandatory Spiritual Fitness testing and training.
Researchers are doing actual science to combat...
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Some People Want to Watch the World Burn

But did he? Did he really?

Sunday, February 05, 2012

My Library: The Voyage of the Argo

The Voyage of the Argo, or Argonautica, by Appolonius of Rhodes.

This was another on my wall of shame, at least until I read it in anticipation of writing this. This, as is not infrequently the case, was a book assigned for a class back in college. Specifically, it was for a class on Greek literature. I loved the class, not least because the professor was awesome. He was a Brit with that particularly fabulous British humor. Like Chris Hitchens, only discussing ancient Greek literature rather than how religion poisons everything*.

I think it's somewhat unfortunate that this translation is fifty years old (forty when I took the class), because from the first word the turn of the century attitudes of the translator cover everything. He talks about how it wasn't assigned to him to read when he was in school (in the original Greek) at the beginning of the twentieth century, and rather laments the fact. The translation was published in 1959, and it breathes stodginess.

It also breathes apologetics. As most apologists do (I'm thinking Christian apologists here), he's willing to forgive, explain, and defend everything about the poem in his introduction. For example, astronomy and geography: errors either weren't actually errors (the original Greek didn't say that Ursa Major set [which it wouldn't have back then, not in the view of Rhodes or Alexandria], but that it lay on the horizon), are excusable poetic license (particularly when he bows to Homeric tradition), are perfectly correct (in the locating of Elba off Italy's coast though not, admittedly, Sicily), or are acceptable ignorance (for a guy living in Rhodes and Alexandria, he actually knew a surprising amount about the geography of Germany and Switzerland, so the complete bolloxing of the Rhine and the Rhone is actually ok!). That the translator is unapologetically in love with the poem he's translating bodes ill and well. Passion for your work is good, but how much of his own interpretation and opinions made it into the work? It's bad enough that he transformed it from a poem into a novel (~200 pages).

Still and all, how accurate does it need to be? Even without reading the poem, I know everything there is to know about Jason and the Argonauts: He was a hero looking for a golden fleece (sheep's wool, unwoven) so he could marry a king's daughter, his ship (Argo) could sail itself... um, they had to carry it. He married Medea. He cheated on her. She killed his kids. Only in some ways the myth is told (damn the Greeks and their love of playing with a well-known story!) Medea wasn't an infanticidal mad-woman, but an incredibly devoted mother who sacrificed herself to save her kids. Maybe.

Okay, I don't actually know much about Jason and the Argonauts. However, I have to get points for knowing something about them from the age of 11, thanks to They Might Be Giants.

Apparently the epic poem had gone out of favor at the time Appolonius was composing this, and I think it really shows. I'd say we were thrown in in media res, but the story clearly starts at the beginning. It's just very abrupt. Very abrupt. It essentially begins, "Jason showed up with only one sandal so he got sent on a quest by this guy and these people went with him: [INSERT LONG LIST OF PEOPLE]."

And the story continues that way. "This guy started a fight! He's a jerk! Then they went HERE. They did stuff! Then they went HERE! And killed stuff! Then they went HERE! And left Heracles behind even though the story made a big deal about him being on the ship. Also some other guy. Then they went HERE."

Perhaps I'm being too hard on Appolonius; it might be the translation, but I really, really prefer the Odyssey. However, even then, that might be because I had an erudite and amusing Englishman to give me bountiful insights on many things. Still and all, I'm looking forward to when I get to the H's of my library.

All that said, it's an old poem that I think deserves to have survived, and it shows even through the prose translation (which, come to think of it, might have been done to save paper; a cost thing), and despite its brevity it's easy enough to follow, though a touch more difficult to get into. Perhaps my other problems are that I'm not particularly familiar with the wealth of Greek myths; perhaps, like Norse kenning, you have to be familiar with the broad** scope of myth and history here. It's like trying to do a crossword not knowing the four letter word for "1996 Tony Award Winner". Heracles showing up at the beginning of the story (because he has to, because Appolonius is putting his own spin on an old tale) and leaving when he has too is just understood, and his presence is sort of like Superman's in The Dark Knight Returns; you know who he is, so you don't need to know any more about him. He's larger than the story he's contained in.

Still and all, I do wish Appolonius had had the stones to write the poem the way it should have been. Good and long, with all the stupid details he wanted (even the excessive analogizing the translator occasionally cut out).

I'm glad to have this off of my wall of shame.

And now, They Might Be Giants.

Next: Four Plays by Aristophanes

* Classics 211, The Greek Experience, with this guy. What's amazing isn't that he's still teaching. What's amazing is that I was able to find out who he was. You can look forward to more books from his class (a lot of plays, an epic, maybe two, and a history book).

** Seriously, like wow.

The Zero Sum Fallacy

It seems fairly common to view all of life as a zero sum game: all gains by one party are necessarily losses for another. If life gets better for one, another must suffer. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This mindset believed that women getting jobs necessarily took them from men; that the liberation of women is the enslavement of men. This creation of jobs, this liberation of wealth, this increase of freedom means increase in freedom and wealth for all. We are all the richer, healthier, happier for the liberation of women.

This mindset believed that blacks striking off their shackles a full century after the civil war necessarily endangered others; that the liberation of blacks meant the enslavement of whites. This is absurd on its face.

This mindset believes that the best you can hope for is to be the most powerful of a group of mutually shackled slaves, that the best is to be on top of a pile of stinking, fearful, ignorant apes. That you must be constantly vigilant lest those you tread upon rise up and cast you down into their own degradation, taking your place. This mindset would keep us all blind and afraid, lest any new truth or value ruin what precarious peace we have. This is a shameful and pathetic view of the world.

In truth freedom begets freedom and wealth begets wealth. When all are free to reach for their dreams, to achieve their full potential, then all are better off. Each of us is made more free, more wealthy, when freedom and wealth are truly available to all around us. We need not hold one another down; peace and happiness are the result of true freedom and prosperity.

If I lift you into the sky, you will pull me up after and together we will fly.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

SP5: Irreligiosity and Age in Scientists

Mano Singham over at Freethought Blogs asks "Do scientists get less religious as they get older?" Unfortunately, there's not much literature on the subject, as most scientists have better things to do with their time than talk about religion; they have jobs, after all, and those jobs aren't "religion". If only more preachers and bible salesmen had something useful they could be doing. Let me rephrase: If only preachers and bible salesmen were doing something useful, which they currently aren't.*

Still, studies have shown that scientists are irreligious, and that particularly eminent scientists (members of Britain's Royal Societies or the National Academy of Sciences in the US) are particularly irreligious. In the scientific community, eminence has the distinction of being earned over the course of a lifetime**. Thus members of those bodies are particularly steeped in science and particularly irreligious and particularly old. Unfortunately, two data points don't necessarily make a trend. However, the general consensus can be shown that the older a scientist gets, the less religious he gets (with a very few exceptions, such as NIH director Francis Collins).

The facts demonstrate that increasing education decreases religious belief, and science is particularly vulnerable to this defrocking effect, especially biology. Further, a career dedicated to scientific discovery will necessarily be one of increasing education; the pursuit of science is the pursuit of knowledge and continued research not only unveils universal human ignorance, but your own. However, I don't think that would have nearly so dramatic an effect as four years of college, nor a further four years of graduate school. Those are intense learning experiences, whereas post-graduate careers in science are ... careers. You're at work every day, gradually peeling away the universes petticoats, whereas college and grad school are more like a grand unveiling.

It's the difference between working your way through a library book by book and running through the natural history museum as soon as it opens (seriously; I love museums!).

I posit that there are two different factors at play here. The first is cultural. Science as a whole is pretty starkly liberal and antireligious; the community is fairly hostile to both. Now, I'm not saying that most scientists will get in your face and call you a fundy-idiot (this isn't Hollywood we're discussing, but real life). Rather, they'll be dismissive of your beliefs and make fun of you behind your back. Whereas I was pleasantly surprised to find myself entirely surrounded by atheists at the beach last summer (I knew my friends were all liberals, but atheists, too? Awesome!), I was incredibly surprised to learn that a colleague was a Pentecostal from a very conservative branch back in grad school; his parents and grandparents were fundamentalists who didn't believe in evolution. Even more surprising than my friend's revelation as Pentecostalist was learning that his father had a Ph.D. in physical chemistry as well! Fundamentalists with advanced degrees are rare, and even more rare too find that they're actually using their degrees for science (his dad was a working chemist). So I suspect that a major factor is that research scientists gradually weed out faith-heads, letting them get their little degrees, then sending them out to work for companies, bothering the universe for profit while letting the real scientists get on with the business of ferreting out truth for truth's sake.

The other factor I think is at work here is that these things take practice. As Dan Dennett said at Ted, "Every time you read it or say it, you make another copy in your brain." I haven't attended an Episcopalian service in fifteen years, but I can still sing the Doxology, and if I went tomorrow morning I would slip back into the liturgy no problem (It is meet and right so to do). I went back to Charleston for my high school reunion and so much of the area was absurdly familiar, despite having not been back since roughly the same time I last attended an Episcopalian worship service, but I still didn't know my way around and happily bought a map so I could try and see some familiar places. Point is, after years away from religious practices, and having spent those years in a community where religion isn't a regular topic, the habits of religious thought and genuflection go away. Old scientists have spent decades falling out of the Overton Window. What was once common and accepted has become foreign and stupid.

Oh, and finally, with age and eminence comes immunity. "I'm old, I'm famous; what're you gonna do to me?"

* Note entirely fair, I know. Studies have shown that religion comforts people whose lives suck, so bible salesmen are offering hot water bottles and preachers are hot water bottles, so their lives aren't entirely pointless. However, it would be a much better world if they did what they could to make the world more like, for example, Norway and Denmark, where life demonstrably doesn't suck and religiosity has demonstrably declined as a result. You don't need to turn to a mythical hot water bottle when you have an actual hot water bottle, and then all those preachers and salesmen could profitably get on with doing something more useful (ie. anything else that isn't actively murderous).

** One would like to believe the same is true for sports as well, being a field in which so much evidence is collected and dissected on a daily basis, but, alas, such is not always the case.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Mantic Wednesday 4

Very nearly went to bed without my Wednesday post. Hmm...

We are in the midst of yet another fundamentalist revival. It won't die until the baby boomers do. So we're in for another twenty years of rough sailing.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

My Library: T. Rex and the Crater of Doom

No, this isn't a Harry Potter knock-off. The full title is "The story that waited 65 million years to be told -- how a giant impact killed the dinosaurs, and how the crater was discovered", by Walter Alvarez.

This is one of the books I spent ~$100 on in the museums of DC a few years back. Believe me, if I hadn't put a limit on myself, I would have come home with a few dozen pounds of books without any difficulty. Why did I pick this one out? Because the discovery of the crater and the confirmation of what killed the dinosaurs was pretty big news back when I was in middle/high school. And, frankly, who doesn't love dinosaurs? Dinosaurs are awesome.

Dr. Alvarez was one of those who spent more than a decade hammering out the science of the KT extinction, and this book is more than just a scientific explanation of the research, the theory, and its confirmation; it's also a personal tale. More than a decade? KT? 1) Yes. Science takes a very long time. You can find out in just one test that you've been wrong for years, while it can take years to prove that you're right. And even then, it could just be that you haven't been proven wrong yet. 2) KT stands for "Cretacious-Tertiary", the two geological periods in question. The Cretacious (spelled with a 'K' in German) was the end of the dinosaur age and the Tertiary is ours. There is a distinct dividing line between the two and a very clear mass-extinction event. Below the line you have an abundance of dinosaurs and plants and microbes of the Cretacious age. Above that line you have a world with much of its life, at all levels, wiped out.

There are several reasons why the impact theory was so difficult for Alvarez to espouse and prove. Proof is a difficult thing to come by for an event sixty-five million years in the past. If a comet or asteroid lands in the ocean, there's a very good chance that it will be erased by the forces of plate techtonics, for example. Erosion, subsidence, tectonics, all these things collude to hide and erase evidence. Also, for much of this, Alvarez and his collaborators were working blind, having to devise models and hypotheses with nothing to guide them. If there were an impact, what would the evidence for it be?

The other problem, advocating the hypothesis, was that geology had been dominated for a very long time by the doctrine of uniformitarianism. Geology was a popular pastime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Gentlemen (and one or two ladies) with a little time and a little hammer could venture out into the country and collect a few rocks or fossils and learn a bit about the world. However, absent radiometric dating and the like, they could only tell that some rocks were older than others (sedimentation and volcanism being somewhat understood, it was clear that the higher the layer of rock, the younger it was), but not their absolute ages. Thus early geology was fraught with argument from two different schools. One was a very Christian school, which advocated for a young Earth dominated by catastrophic processes like floods and earthquakes. They came up with some clever, albeit entirely incorrect, explanations and were known, among other names, as Catastrophists.

Eventually the Catastrophists were wiped out* by the other school of thought, the Aristotelian Uniformitarians, who believed the Earth to be much older and dominated by slow, gradual, relatively uniform processes. This school eventually won because, let's face it, the evidence was on their side. It gradually became clear that sedimentation and other geological processes were quite slow, and the layering of rock requires many eons. Also, there was a fairly popular theory developed in the middle of the 19th century by and English parson that explained the origin of the species by means of natural selection, which was evidently perfectly correct on its face and which also required vast eons of time to work its wonders.

Thus the uniformitarian view dominated geology, and still dominates it today. And this is good, because it's correct. The geological processes of the earth are quite slow because they involve the motion of rock and rock is not, by any measure, a hasty or intemperate medium. Geologists are and were of course aware of such things as earthquakes, tidal waves, and volcanic eruptions, but those are the end results of very slow processes, rather than sudden events in and of themselves. According to standard geological theory as of forty years ago, the extinction of the dinosaurs was a gradual event, the result of climactic shift over millions of years. This was apparently supported by the fossil record, as dinosaur fossils don't occur at the KT boundary. That fact has since been explained by statistics; fossils are very rare and in the event of a catastrophic extinction, you should expect a gap such as you would also find for a gradual extinction.

Alvarez and his collaborators (all named in the book) were not alone in advocating for occasional catastrophes. For example, geologists Pardee and Bretz spent decades arguing and proving that the scablands** of Washington state were formed by the sudden release of a glacial like when the glacier damming the lake melted; a literal flood. Not, perhaps, coincidentally, Bretz and Pardee were honored with the Penrose Medal (the highest award of the American Geological Society) in 1979, shortly before Alvarez began trying to explicate the mystery of the KT extinction.

They happened upon the idea of an extraterrestrial event almost by accident. In attempting to find out about the KT boundary, the question first asked by Alvarez was, "How long did it take to form?" and, on the suggestion of his father, he looked at iridium levels. Iridium is rare on earth, as it mostly sank to the core when the planet was still molten, however the countless bits of space dust that rain down on the planet every day shower us with small amounts of iridium all the time, so Alvarez looked to use it as a tool to determine the length of time for the boundary to form. The answer was wildly unanticipated (much higher levels of iridium than either a slow or fast deposition would indicate) and led them to the notion of a large impact.

The book documents many surprising successes, much satisfaction of a job well done, and a number of disappointing false leads. It concludes with the event that I remember from school, the discovery of the crater itself, buried under the Yucatan Peninsula of southern Mexico. Along the way it shows how years of dedicated work by many, many geologists around the world helped transform geology from a uniformitarian science to a uniformitarian science with occasional episodes of catastrophe.

The book is a bit basic for someone with a master's degree in science (me) but I think it covers all the necessary information well enough that anyone with a high school education should be able to follow it. It's also a fairly short read; I re-read it in order to write this (it had been a few years).

You know what the best part is? The science is still happening. Was the extinction event a single massive impact, or multiple? Did volcanism (the Deccan Traps) also play a part and how much? How long would an impact-winter last? Why did some species survive and not others? How exactly did the impact devastate the globe? Science is fun because there's always more answers.

Next: The Voyage of Argo by Appolonius of Rhodes

* Not entirely. Religious fundamentalists who like to stick their fingers in their ears and advocate, in the face of literal mountains of evidence, for a Young Earth, still believe things like the Grand Canyon were created in a very short period of time by a global flood.

** How evocative!