Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Golden Compass and ID

(For who have yet to read The Subtle Knife, this post may contain some spoilers. None are essential to the stories of Lyra or Will or the choices they make, but I felt you might want to be warned at the very least.)

I finished His Dark Materials a few years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed the books. I never hopped onto the Harry Potter wagon, nor any other recent children's series, but HDM intrigued me before I even understood the scope of the story (in fact, I may have been sold based on this fan drawing of Iorek). I enjoyed them so much that I bought an audio copy of the third book to entertain me on trips between my hometown and the university, and while listening to it recently, it occurred to me that Christians are missing out on an opportunity to use HDM for Christian ends but that this might actually be to their benefit.

For those who aren't familiar with the trilogy, the the major story arc is concerned with the development of sentience, the acquisition of the knowledge of good an evil, and the relation of the two to sin. Like Adam and Eve, the children's quest takes them to a point where they are tempted on a matter somewhat unrelated to the major objectives of the adults in the story (who are the one's out to kill The Authority, not Lyra, despite what some are claiming). The backstory and the explanation for much of the more magical elements concerns the development of consciousness in matter. The angel-like beings in the books were simply the first to develop consciousness, and The Authority, the very first, lied and said he'd created all of the world.

The books leave one question wide open: how and why did consciousness arise? The books give a partial answer, but it is still unsatisfactory for the elements involved need not have been there. In the eyes of ID proponents, the very existence of matter and consciousness in the stories demand a world-internal creator. The entire story could be read as false-prophet Authority facing his punishment for assuming a role not his own while the real watchmaker sits in the background watching his world tick. The books can (and perhaps should) be read as a warning to liars and those who presume to know more than they do or take a power that is not theirs. The books do not deny that reading.

Yet the reason why ID can be invoked to explain life and consciousness in HDM is exactly the reason it is rejected by scientists: ID makes no predictions. It could explain a world with half-human half-vulture harpies and simple devices that always tell the truth as well as it could explain our current world. That HDM is specifically intended to be a world where there is no creator but ID can still purport to explain that world is an example of ID's failure to explain anything. If it can be applied to the godless world of the book, how can we be sure that our world is not godless and the arguments IDists present are not just false positives?

To invoke ID (or the argument from infinite regress or any other popular theistic argument) in the world of HDM is to demonstrate their vacuousness.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Science, science, science

I know I sound like a broken record sometimes, but I think illuminating the reasons why might be helpful at this point.

Edit: This isn't meant to be a conclusive list. I'm just trying to state some reasons for why my position is my position.

Reasons Why Science Is So F-N Cool
Science is open. Although the necessary credentials are needed to step anywhere near a particle accelerator, the process of science is technically available to anyone, anywhere, at anytime (barring economic or political oppression). A scientist is only as good as her work.
Science has no prophets. Spokespersons, yes. Heroes, perhaps. But no one whose work is taken as the literal word of the universe or the goddess.
Science is adaptive and evidence-based. Good scientific communities respond to the current state of the evidence. All conclusions are tentative, and all conclusions must be revised when new evidence is brought to light. A theory is only as good as the evidence it explains and no better than the evidence it can't explain.
Science is fractal in organization. The way science approaches small problems is the same way it approaches big problems. Any well-formed theory, no matter how large or small, new or old, can be tested against the evidence. Science takes no inference or presumption for granted (see the last point on that). There is no body of knowledge presumed to be immutable or fundamental to the scientific process. There are no scientists whose work cannot be challenged, no texts whose theories are safe from new evidence.
Science is self-correcting and self-organizing. If you attend enough scientific conferences, you will see that no matter how cut-and-dry a theory might seem and how well the evidence supports a researcher's conclusions, someone in the audience will have a problem with their hypothesis, their methods, their data, or their conclusions. The scientists most respected are typically the scientists whose work informs our observations on the largest unsolved problems or whose work approaches questions once thought solved in a radically new light. Thus, motivated scientists often tackle the most open-ended or most-essential questions in their field.
Science can prove that naturalism is the wrong approach to our world. Because of its reliance on evidence, science can eventually demonstrate (if not conclusively) that we do not live in a world with consistent structure. Modern physics is currently struggling with that very question, but as of yet, the evidence seems in favor of the scientific approach.

Reasons Why Science Isn't Always What We Hope It Could Be
Scientists can be obfusticating. Scientists most often work in highly specialized subfields asking complicated questions about complicated natural phenomena. The language they use in their work can be a barrier towards the openness of science and the public understanding of their work.
Scientists act as gatekeepers. Sometimes unfairly. Degrees, personal reputation, appearance, alma maters, and who was on your dissertation commitee too often matter much more than they should. Like any human, scientists can be petty, mean, or oblivious to the needs of others and act poorly when emotion is involved.
Scientists are constrained by natural limits. The scientist's place in space-time, human psychology, the scientist's culture, the scientist's position in soceity, and the finite resources allocated by society to the scientist impose limits of varying degrees on the types of questions that a scientist is likely to ask and the types of evidence a scientist can gather.
Science is constrained by philosophical limits. Without access to the entirety of existence, scientists can never deliver complete proofs in support of their theories.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ann Coulter on Conversion

Yeah, my apologies to Christians for even mentioning her name, but Ann Coulter got herself some attention this week while appearing on CNBC's The Big Idea.

In sum, Coulter said the host, Donny Deutsch, and all Jews should convert to Christianity and that the US would be a better place if we were all Christian.

I'm not sure why some folks found this so surprising. I'm always surprised that so many Christians are willing to not evangelize. My own parents, for example, politely never mention that my sister and I may be going to hell. If I didn't know any better, I would begin to suspect that they don't actually care about my well-being. But like scientist supernaturalists, it seems most Christians have a switch that allows them to ignore their religious beliefs when they aren't at church.

At DC it was asked how we can best debunk Christianity. I think the most effective way is to make Christianity culturally irrelevant. Non-Christians aren't likely to convince many Christians to leave the church through debate because the majority aren't interested in seeking out debate. But if we continue pushing political policies of tolerance or policies based on science that - for whatever reason - large numbers of Christians oppose, the religion will have to continue to change to survive as the culture changes. The Barna Group poll showed that for young people, heterosexism was a defining characteristic of Christianity, and in light of this generation's more-or-less tolerant attitude, that attribute made Christianity appear less favorable to them. By continuing to support endeavors that make contraceptives and knowledge about safe sex and human sexuality more available, we will make such things the norm. Luckily for us (but unfortunately for a large number of young Christians), evangelical leaders continue to push policies and practices that simply do not work according to best evidence. So long as these Christians hang their name around abstinence only education and opposition to environmental policies, they'll be effecting their own end.

For me, all of this serves to underscore the delusional aspect of supernaturalism. When you begin to remove yourself from an evidence-based understanding of reality, you're going to be wrong on occasion in such a way that is damaging to your central points. Even a more liberal Christian like John Lennox demonstrated that he had distanced himself and his beliefs from the historical process, which lead to some of the more serious faults in his arguments in the Dawkins-Lennox debate. When you oppose something based upon your understanding of eschatology or an purportedly absolute morality and then the culture or evidence shifts beneath your feet, you will begin to have difficulty finding new converts. Your beliefs will either need to evolve w ith the culture (e.g., the Catholic Church on cosmology) or face serious criticism and possibly extinction (e.g., the Catholic Church on contraceptives, which continues to hurt its image as leaders make belief-based assertions that no evidence supports).

Friday, October 12, 2007

Comments on the Dawkins - Lennox Debate

(Link to audio for the debate.)

From akakiwibear in a comment at Debunking Christianity:
BUT both Dawkins and Lennox made good points that should have stimulated real discussion rather than the self affirming comments I read
I won't comment on other responses, but my initial opinion was that there was little to no actual discussion at all due to the format and that John Lennox's position alternated between factually false or (perhaps worse) entirely vacuous.
But, assured by akakiwibear's comment that Lennox's statements are a fair representation of Christianity and while I'm sitting here too ill to go out and enjoy the weekend, I'm going to listen to the debate again and try to better understand and then respond to Lennox's position. I've been short on ideas for posts lately anyway. And despite being billed as "not a science vs religion" debate, I found the debate fits nicely into the questions I've raised in my last few posts.

First, a statement on the format. After the opening statements, the first portion saw the moderator read one of six quotes from The God Delusion representing the "six major themes" of the book, then Dawkins elaborated for five minutes, and Lennox responsed for five minutes. At the end, both participants were allowed a closing statement. The format provided Dawkins no time to respond to Lennox except his closing statement. This was frustrating for Dawkins and his supportive audience because Lennox's statements were full of mischaracterizations of Dawkins's arguments and blatantly fallacious arguments.

Opening statement.
Despite later stating he is not a post-modernist, that his god represents the "ultimate truth behind everything", and emphasizing that religion can be supported by evidence, Lennox opens by stating that each of us has individual answers to the big questions life throws at us. This may be true, but if truth is singular, then the answers to certain questions under debate must have one and only one correct answer. If Lennox truly believes religion should be debated in a rational way and that God does reveal himself in the universe and the Bible, then it seems to me the opening comment on individual answers was either his attempt at an opening line to a bland grade-school essay or counter to rest of Lennox's argument.

A mathematician and philosopher of science, Lennox states that his parents encouraged him to be intellectually inquisitive because of (not in spite of) their Christian faith. At this point, he doesn't state how the Bible or Christian doctrine encourage intellectual inquisitiveness (c
ertainly the letters of Paul don't with their repeated appeals to his own self-declared revelatory authority). But the Abrahamic religious texts are numerous enough and the doctrines diverse enough that I'm certain there's some combination of interpretations and practices that will get that result. After all, the intellectual curiosity that spawned the Enlightenment arose from a primarily Christian culture, even if not all Christian cultures have produced similar results. Lennox asserts that Biblical Christianity doesn't raise a "firewall" between Christians and the truth, but it's hard for me to see how this can be the case considering the number of fundamentalist/literalist Christians who have difficulty accepting verifiable facts about our universe. Granted, I don't believe Christianity imposes any particular difficulty on discovering truth compared to other supernatural beliefs, but this assertion that Christianity or the Bible are clear and accurate revelations ignores the long history of variation in Biblical interpretation and the variety of Christian reactions to scientific discoveries and socio-cultural progress based upon those interpretations. Christianity is much more complex of a social phenomenon than Lennox wants to give it credit, and we'll see that this is a returning theme.

(Note: It wouldn't surprise me if Lennox would claim I've misrepresented his position here, but he said surprisingly little about the Bible and evidence for Christianity despite the fact that he made it the foundation for his argument. I was very disappointed in this regard. There will be more of this below.)

Counter to what I believe Lennox seems to be implying atheists believe, I wouldn't personally claim that atheism necessarily encourages rationality. Likewise, rationality only encourages an agnostic atheism as a default position in a world that does not provide the evidence necessary to prove any available religion (even then, rationality would deny coming to an absolute conclusion). Lennox briefly mentions that he studied "systematic exposure to atheism" in Eastern Europe during the Soviet era, but he will return to this point latter, so I'll save more for then.

Lennox states that he is opposed to any religion that asserts itself through force, including self-proclaimed Christian, and I think Dawkins and I can agree that we'd feel the same way about any atheism that asserted itself through force.

In any case, Lennox begins the debate by stating that the outcome should be determined by evidence. We'll see how he does in what follows.

First Theme: Faith is blind, science is evidence based.
Lennox agrees that science is evidence based and is correct to be so, but he asserts that some faith is based on evidence. According to him, faith is only as "robust" as the evidence that supports it. He agrees with Dawkins that blind faith can be very dangerous, but at the end of this section, Dawkins and Lennox debate the definition of faith. It seems clear that they're at least both distinguishing assertions based on evidence from those that are not. Whether we call an acceptance of the general model of evolution faith is really immaterial to distinguishing it from any belief that has no supporting evidence. What's agreed on here is that the strength of a claim is in the evidence that supports it.

On reasonable faith, Lennox states
faith in the Christian sense is not blind, and indeed, I do not know a serious Christian who thinks it is.
He claims part of the evidence for Christian faith is objective, based upon science and history. Unless I've missed something, he never provides a shread of this legitimate, objective evidence. The other part of the evidence for Christianity is subjective (experience). I would say that calling personal experience "evidence" is wrong or misleading, but Lennox makes no other references to this line of evidence either (except for the occasional appeal to personal in/credulity).

Lennox also states that
What is beyond science is not necessarily irrational.
For example, science cannot tell us whether a work of art is beautiful. I find this a rather ridiculous line of inquiry. For the example stated, the human experience of aesthetics is fully within the realm of science, and though I haven't read much work on it, I'm certain there are blossoming subfields in the cognitive sciences that focus on questions about the human experience of beauty. Of course, science cannot tell us whether a flower is beautiful, but neither can any less rational field of study. Science can however tell us whether a random selection of humans (perhaps from some specific culture) are likely to find a particular flower beautiful.

The other questions Lennox raises that are presumably outside the realm of science are of the sort who am I?, what is my purpose?, and where am I going? The very asking of these questions (in their broadest, metaphysical senses) assumes that there must be an answer, and I'm not entirely convinced that that is the case. Without further definitions and a body of knowledge
currently beyond human observation, the questions aren't going to lead to insightful inquiry. That science cannot answer these questions is no surprise then because there is no way to answer these questions meaningfully (at present at least).

Lennox admits that Christians have been lazy in using the god of the gaps argument, but asserts that there are some gaps that science opens but cannot fill. As an example, he names the physical constants, which are certainly a mystery but not exactly one that science has no hope of answering. He makes a distinction between good gaps and bad gaps, but gives us no measure for determining which gaps are which. He brings up the point of Newton, which is rather disappointing. The gaps Newton insisted only a god could explain are gaps that are now being filled in. That Newton made the argument is no reason for us to continue using it, particularly since his case has ultimately failed.

Lennox also makes a comment that science came about because humans expected law in nature due to a belief in a supreme lawgiver. This may be accurate historically, but current psychology is uncovering a great deal of over-activity in the human cognitive systems for recognizing ordered or causal relationships. That humans expect there to be a lawgiver is no more an argument for a lawgiver than a child's intuition that liquids can spontaneously change volume and mass is evidence that liquids do not obey the law of conservation of mass and energy.

Second Theme: Science supports atheism, not Christianity.
(Seemingly disagreeing with the moderator's wording of the theme, Dawkins tries to re-characterizes this theme as something like: supernaturalism and naturalism are incompatible world views. He disagrees with Gould's non-overlapping magisterium model and asserts that a universe with a god should be distinguishable from a universe without a god.)

Lennox admits that the methods of science are appropriate for evaluating Christianity and claims that Christianity is falsifiable. I would very much like to hear how we can go about falsifying Christianity from his perspective, because it seems these experiments are long overdo.

Lennox claims that atheism undermines science because science requires a faith in the rationality of the universe. He is wrong on this: science only requires the assumption that the universe is inherently rational. Science is quite capable of providing evidence that the universe is irrational, and any good scientist would have to admit that, in the end, our the assumption of a rational universe could be wrong. In the social sciences, we often find earlier assumptions dispelled as new evidence comes in, sometimes in the direction of irrationality (or, to put more accurately, in the direction of increased complexity/chaos).

Throughout, Lennox is assuming that a rational universe requires a designer. If the universe is rational, it seems much simpler to me to state that this rationality arises from the inherent and immutable properties of matter and energy. This leads us to the issue of reductionism and Lennox's misrepresentation of it. He attempts to form a paradox when he states that atheism and materialism should lead us to question the very validity of statements made by matter-based beings. I'm not entirely sure why he thinks this paradox works, but it seems the only way to make it work is to deny both that physical entities can interact with other physical entities and that cognition is an emergent property of a sufficiently organized neural network.

Lennox also throws out the pointless tidbit that the Bible predicted that our universe has a beginning. Dawkins is quite right to point that the prediction isn't a good test for the truth of the Biblical account as there were only two possibilities to begin with. In this exchange, Lennox also overlooks that science's discovery that the universe has a beginning is an example of science being able to self correct itself, even when the corrections are perceived as irrational (e.g., science has indicated that our universe has a definite beginning, even though current logic tells us that leads to problems). Laughably, Lennox tells us that the books of Moses accurately describe the creation of the universe. Has he not paid any attention to the debates on evolution? From my understanding of the current historical evidence, the Talmud isn't even accurate in describing early human society or the early history of the Hebrews (Adam, Eve, the Flood, and the exodus plagues need to go, for starters).

Lennox also mentions the phrase a "universe created out of nothing", which is a tired assumption on his part. The singularity before the big bang effectively erased all evidence of what was in existence (if anything was) before the big bang. At present, we have no evidence from any dimension or entity that was not a product of the big bang. Lennox is invoking a "bad" gap here, and it's rather ridiculous of him to do so after condemning gaps earlier.

Third Theme: Design is dead, otherwise one must explain who designed the designer.
In this exchange, Lennox is of course right that evolution does not explain abiogenesis. Although, just as Dawkins simplified his argument so far that he missed that mistake, Lennox leaves out that contemporary theories of abiogenesis are well on their way toward explaining the process. (It's another bad gap, in other words. Have there been any good gaps yet?)

Lennox chides Dawkins for using the "old schoolboy argument" in the question who created god? I feel the need to derail this post by referencing the Firesign Theater's The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra. On the first side, Hemlock Stones examines a coded message and remarks that any simple English school boy could solve it. He then asks his assistant to retrieve a copy of Simple English Schoolboy Codes (or some similarly ridiculous title). A simple argument is not necessarily a bad argument. In this case, Lennox's response left me wanting. He has simply defined a god that is beyond the realm of plausibility from which the question assumes without presenting any verifiable evidence to justify that leap. Until theists begin to earnestly formulate methods of independent inquiry into divinity and eternity, I'm afraid I can't accept an explanationless eternal creator. Considering how long this specific debate has been in circulation, I doubt it will be solved by any comment I have to make. So I will leave it at that, but if any one does have extra-Biblical evidence, please feel free to comment.

To support his position, Lennox makes an analogy that I found particularly lame: the one about scratch marks discovered in a cave. Dawkins is correct in his criticism on this: the creator of the scratch marks, a human, is a result of long and incredibly complex physical and biological processes. Furthermore, we have extensive evidence from independent lines of inquiry verifying that human beings do exist. We have no such evidence for eternal creators.

During part of this exchange, Lennox comments that physical structures like DNA, with a "semiotic" dimension to them, are proof of some god, but he is again ignoring the physical reality. The "meaning" of DNA - if we must call it that - is expressed in physical form. The relationship between signifier gene and signified biological characteristic have a direct physical relationship. Within modern evolutionary theory, this relationship hardly requires the intervention of a creator.

Lennox also ignorantly confuses complexity in the physical sense with his own difficulty in understanding a concept. Dawkins calls him out on this one, though he doesn't spend much time on it.

Fourth Theme: Christianity is dangerous.
Lennox states that he is ashamed of some Christians, particularly paying attention to the Crusaders. He claims that these men were not truly following Christ, but this particular debate reveals a fault on his part more serious than the No True Scotsman fallacy.

In asking us to imagine a "world without atheism", Lennox dredges forth the usual names of Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot (though he thankfully leaves out Hitler). Regardless of what such figures and the movements they represent thought of atheism and regardless of whether they viewed it as the basis for their ideologies and campaigns, the simple point is that atheism has no doctrine. Lennox even tosses in a lie about Dawkins's claims, stating that Dawkins has insisted that atheists never engage in genocide or other horrible acts. Atheism has no universally accepted texts, and has here-and-there arisen independently throughout history. Nothing can be considered the necessary result of atheism because there have been many types of atheism, as there have been many types of religion, and to the best of my knowledge, a lack of belief in gods doesn't reliable predict personality archetype, political beliefs, or ethical judgments. For any human feature we can measure, it's likely that you'll find atheists at every point along the curve.

Like his lazy dismissal of earlier Christian doctrines as not truly Christian (despite their historical influence on modern doctrines and practices), Lennox is ignoring psychological and sociological diversity as meaningful predictors of human behavior and human beliefs. He specifically refuses to discuss anything Dawkins phrases in terms of Zeus or Wotan because these are "created gods", but he fails to see how his own religious beliefs and practices can be explained with equal validity as products of human imagination and culture. He's failing to look at his own religion objectively.

I admire that Dawkins has tried not to speak of individual acts of evil but only in general terms on the effects of supernaturalism on human actions, but I disagree that supernaturalism ultimately encourages evil more so than any other world view. Human beliefs and actions largely depend upon individual characteristics and the culturally environment in which that individual finds herself. Certain beliefs may lead to violence moreso than others, but I'm not convinced supernaturalism is one of those beliefs.

Fifth Theme: We do not need god in order to be good or evil.
Lennox once again misrepresents Dawkins's argument, asking and answering a question he alone raised:
Can an atheist be good? Of course.
At last moving on with the evidence that he mentioned way back at the start, Lennox believes that our common moral core is evidence for the Biblical claim that we are moral beings made in the image of his god. With all the interesting studies being done on altruism and deception among social animals, I'm surprised he can honestly maintain that belief.

Lennox questions whether we can have a foundation for the concepts good and evil without a creator, and correctly quotes The Devil's Chaplin on the fact that science cannot provide a solution. Science can explain why we have the perception of events being good and evil and anthropology can relate our varying experiences to cultural phenomena. Like many Christians who have commented on the failure of atheism to provide a foundation for morality, he seems particularly unable to give up the idea that morality requires a logical or absolute foundation despite the lack of evidence supporting such an idea. (If commenter wishes to continue to assert that absolute morality exists, be warned, I will expect a functioning model of human-absolute interaction.) Like others, Lennox ignores that Christian morality has continously been evolving in response to other cultural pressures, that other cultures consider Christians immoral (say, for eating meat), and that absolute morality introduces a paradox of a creator who either arbitrarily decides what is good or evil or is limited by an external source of morality.

During this exchange, Lennox asks how there can be any part of us that can rebel against our genes and thereby once again tellingly equates the atheist view with his particularly limited approach to reductionism. Each time he makes the mistake, I'm further convinced that he hasn't truly attempted to understand the physical phenomena involved but

Lennox also states that a pitiless universe removes the very categories of good an evil, because there is no absolute on which to define them. If that's the case, then I posit that the lack of absolutes also removes the categories Christian, Marxist, and John Lennox. Does this require Lennox to make his god the source of these categories as well?

Sixth Theme: Christian claims about the person of Christ are not true.
Here Lennox makes some laughable claims about the universal acceptance of the Gospel of Luke as history, even referring to the author as Luke. I'm not sure how to even respond to that.

Lennox picks at Dawkins's characterization of Christianity as being an expression of ingroup/outgroup morality, and I'm not personally interested in that debate. Nor am I interested on whether miracles violate the laws of nature or not. The former is a historical and sociological debate, which Lennox, Dawkins, and myself aren't informed enough to enter (and I'm not particularly thrilled with the way they've set up the discussion). The latter is, in my opinion, utterly nonsensical to debate as the religious can simply define a miracle as whatever they like.

Lennox makes the usual criticism of Dawkins for not reading theologists and for quoting laypersons instead. It's my understanding that Dawkins's was less concerned with the theologists who have defined their god out of the picture than with the fundamentalists and evangelicals who are doing real, measurable damage to our world and culture. Like most of philosophy, I tend to find that theologists tend to argue well but have difficulty selecting verifiable and meaningful premises from which to argue. I don't feel qualified to enter the debate on the historicity of Jesus and his miracles.

Concluding Remarks
Lennox's concluding remarks on the garden misses the entire point on the distinction between the supernatural and the natural. He makes one final appeal to that evidence promised to us by saying "the evidence is all around you." Right. And I thought we agreed we weren't invoking the god of the gaps argument?

Lennox's less than stirring discussion of judgment day and ressurection is an astounding let-down after hearing about his evidence-based faith. Christ's resurrection, he claims, is the "central evidence" of his faith. Hearing that, I felt robbed of my time. That's the proof I was waiting to hear? His final remark left me speechless in its vacuousness.
If there is no ressurection, if there is no life after death, the terrorists will have gotten away with it.
I don't want to repeat some of Sam Harris's less than truthful generalizations, but... the terrorists don't believe in life after death?

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Maxwell's Demon and the Soul

Over at DC, Lee Randolph has been writing about how neuroscience provides grounds for reasonable doubt over the beliefs that we have free will and that we can all be held equally accountable for our sins: two recent posts here and here. The Christian response so far has been to assert that we won't be held equally accountable come Judgment Day, but this response completely dodges the apparent counter-evidence to the theory of free will.

Being engaged in science myself, I'm never content to let one side dominate the discussion without providing other sides the chance to test its predictions. Thus, while riding my bike today, I traipsed upon an architecture for experiments that could potentially reveal evidence for the soul or whatever transcendental entity theists' believe supplies free will.

But first, some background on the inspiration.

In 1867, James Clerk Maxwell described a thought experiment about a "demon" that could violate the second law of thermodynamics, which we should remember states that a closed system of two bodies in contact and with equal temperatures will never reach a state where one body has a significantly higher temperature. This is the law that gave us the concept of entropy: over time differences in temperature, density, and pressure become diminished across an isolated system.

Here's Maxwell's description of the demon, taken from the Wikipedia page.
... if we conceive of a being whose faculties are so sharpened that he can follow every molecule in its course, such a being, whose attributes are as essentially finite as our own, would be able to do what is impossible to us. For we have seen that molecules in a vessel full of air at uniform temperature are moving with velocities by no means uniform, though the mean velocity of any great number of them, arbitrarily selected, is almost exactly uniform. Now let us suppose that such a vessel is divided into two portions, A and B, by a division in which there is a small hole, and that a being, who can see the individual molecules, opens and closes this hole, so as to allow only the swifter molecules to pass from A to B, and only the slower molecules to pass from B to A. He will thus, without expenditure of work, raise the temperature of B and lower that of A, in contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics.
If you've ever read The Calling of Lot 49, then the description will sound familiar (its occurring to me now that the section may have been Pynchon self-correcting his previous amateurish obsession with entropy documented in Slow Learner).

Maxwell's demon is, of course, an impossible entity in the physical world. The Second Law only applies to an isolated system, and Maxwell's conclusion to the thought-experiment fails to include the demon itself within the system. To perform its actions, the demon - as a physical entity - would be as much involved in the system's sliding toward a state of equilibrium as the molecules in A and B.

Yet if the demon, like its namesake, is not a physical entity and not subject to the physical laws that apply to the molecules or the vessels, then the Second Law could be violated. An observer from within the system could identify that some supernatural effect was taking place by the evidence available to them without needing to describe the specific mechanisms that allow the demon to sustain itself and interact with the physical world. The observer couldn't describe the the demon but only its effect on the material world.

If the soul allows humans to have wills that are free (at least to some degree) from material causality, then our souls must act like Maxwell's demon in some sense. The soul must allow neural impulses to proceed unhindered in some instances but not others, but being separate from the physical world, there's no physical requirement for the soul to balance the energy consumed and the energy expended. The purpose of the soul is less specific than Maxwell's demon, but we might expect to see that energy is added to the system extra-physically when the brain makes moral decision and that the energy added may be proportional to the complexity of the dilemma or to the desire of the individual to do the immoral act.

Directly observing the brain and the circular system interact at this level of detail is still a difficult task, but our methods for studying the body are improving all the time. Given a specific hypothesis and the funding, I'm sure the next decade could see at least early trials performed and the methodology refined until the real experiments can be done.

Regardless of how soon the work is done, these experiments could provide solid evidence for a concept that is now currently sustained through faith alone. Current material evidence and prevailing scientific attitudes suggest that our minds are purely the product of our physical brain. If Christians and other theists wish to assert otherwise, it might be beneficial for them to close the empirical gap rather than continue to assert their position by appealing only to faith, ancient writing, and fear that a material universe provides no absolute morality.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Insurance Language

Wading through my insurance policy, I found the line:
Covered Medical Expenses for pregnancy, childbirth and complications of pregnancy are payable on the same basis as any other Sickness.
That's a bizarre defintion of sickness that they're working with. I would search to see how common that might be, but I imagine 99% of my results would be about morning sickness.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Abrahamic Religions and Intersexuality

Rather than continue to inject comments on this subject over at Debunking Christianity, I felt it appropriate to build up my case in a post here.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. - Gen 1:27
Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for [her] hair is given her for a covering. - 1 Cr 11:14-15
In several places, the Old and New Testaments and the Qur'an make it clear that the Hebrew and Christian gods intended that there be two human sexes with a distinct gender role assigned to each within the religion and within the ideal family structure. For a member of either of these sexes to perform the other sex's gender is a shameful or sinful thing. This model was the dominate view within European and Middle Eastern societies since that time as it has been in many other cultures. With the advent of empirically driven medical sciences, many within these societies have come to acknowledge the fact that other cultures have long recognized: among all sexually dimorphic animals, there is room for "error" when primary and secondary sexual characteristics are expressed in an individual.

Among homo sapiens, around 0.018% of all children born fall within that margin of atypical sexual development and are born with ambiguous genitalia or other mismatches between external phenotype, internal body chemistry and structure, and genotype. Due to social norms and the success of behaviorist psychology, the dominant approach by European and North American medicine to these children over the past century had been to "fix" their genitalia when they displayed outward signs of their condition. Often this meant simulating the outward appearance of the female organ due to an assumption that living as a female with lessened reproductive capabilities would somehow be less distressing than living as a male with an atypically small penis. The professionals involved assumed that conditioning during childhood would cause the child to develop in the assigned gender role. The number of cases that were successful cannot be determined, but the number of cases where a gender was chosen unsuccessfully are building. You can read more about the current state of affairs at the Intersex Society of North America's website.

A few things should be noted here:
  1. I am not discussing transsexuality, where an individual of one sex identifies psychologically as another gender. Although intersexuality is often included under the blanket transgender label, the causes of the two conditions and their manifestations are different enough to distinguish them.
  2. Like the rest of us, individuals with disorders of sex development tend to identify as one of the genders typical in their culture. The majority of intersexed individuals in the United States, for example, identify as a man or a woman and not as a third gender because our mainstream culture does not recognize more than two genders. I do not see this as a contradiction of my point, as I am discussing sex, not gender. The first is biological, the second is a combination of the psychological and social.
  3. I understand that what I am arguing poses no problems for theists who have left the exclusivist or literalist wings of monotheism and recognize that all ancient books are human documents and subject to human failings.
My question is: when the documents one is supposed to accept as divinely inspired law maintain that sex is a discrete category and the biological reality is something else entirely, how does one reconcile the difference? What becomes of the strict gender roles when their biological basis is shown to be a failed hypothesis?

When raising a child with fused labia, no uterus, and an enlarged clitoris, do we require them to cover their head or not in prayer? Should they wear hijab? Can they become a priest? Who are they allowed to marry? Do any answers change if they undergo masculinzation at puberty? What if they identify with that masculine identity but had been raised a girl up until then?

Today we might recognize an individual's specific disorder and prescribe hormones or other treatments to help them achieve a semblance of sexual normality and restore some function. Individuals in the past may have been wrongfully condemned or punished because they were unable to seek similar treatments. Who is at fault: the individual, their contemporaries, or the authors of the religious texts that insisted there were discrete sexes and condemned homosexuality and gender atypical behavior?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

On the Limits of Science

Before I make it to bed, I have a few random comments on the limits of science and scientists.

Religion and Science: Are they Insoluble?

Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe wrote a clever piece here. The relevant quote:
DID YOU hear about the religious fundamentalist who wanted to teach physics at Cambridge University? This would-be instructor wasn't simply a Christian; he was so preoccupied with biblical prophecy that he wrote a book titled "Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John." Based on his reading of Daniel, in fact, he forecast the date of the Apocalypse: no earlier than 2060. He also calculated the year the world was created. When Genesis 1:1 says "In the beginning," he determined, it means 3988 BC.

Not many modern universities are prepared to employ a science professor who espouses not merely "intelligent design" but out-and-out divine creation.
The teacher turns out to be Sir Isaac Newton. Jacoby is making the case that if Dawkins and Harris have their way, scientists with religious beliefs will be dismissed or not hired and that science itself could suffer. Predictably, the article calls for each side acknowledging the other.
To be sure, religious dogma can be a blindfold, blocking truths from those who refuse to see them. Scientific dogma can have the same effect. Neither faith nor reason can answer every question. As Newton knew, the surer path to wisdom is the one that has room for both.
The question I want to ask is what does faith bring to the table? How did Sir Isaac Newton's religious writings advance religious knowledge? How was Christianity bettered by his life and work? In what ways did Newton's faith in the Bible improve our understanding of the age of the earth? When the religious answer questions about our world using ancient texts they accept on faith, how do we objectively evaluate one text or one interpretation in relation to others if science isn't to interfere?

I will guess that "scientific dogma" refers to the assumption of materiality underlying scientific methodology. When has this failed science or humanity? When has religion needed to correct scientists in their models of reality? From my admittedly limited knowledge of the history of scientific thought, it seems that the fact checking scientists have done for each other has yielded greater results than the feedback received from religious thinkers.

What Jacoby appears to want is for science to leave religion alone, to leave some questions to religious faith. He's not the only one asking for this.

Science and Mystery

Over at ScienceBlogs, Wyatt Galusky has written about science and mystery.
Perhaps few would credit a mystical explanation over a more antiseptic scientific one, especially if one had designs on reproducing or controlling such a phenomenon. But, still, don't we stand to gain with the retention of mystery? Or, rather, don't we lose when we forget that, no matter how powerful our conceptual schemes and how finely parsed our analysis, mystery remains? Let me point to some coalescence of thought on the subject.
The post includes an anecdote about a doctor who was struck by lightning and afterwards experienced an increased appreciation of and desire for music. The post concludes:
In Sacks' article, he notes that, when offered the chance to have neurological tests done on his brain to suss out a neurological basis for his musicophilia, Cicoria (an orthopedic surgeon by training) demurred, preferring to see his new found musical love as a mystery, and an act of grace.
What was gained by leaving this mystery alone (if it is indeed a mystery)? Did Cicoria or Galusky consider that submitting to the tests might one day help a patient with the opposite problem, the inability to perceive or be moved by music? Or is that a mystery that shouldn't be touched as well? If scientists are to purposely leave gaps in our knowledge so that we can step back and admire the mystery and/or let religion, mysticism, or aesthetics find answers unhindered, how is knowledge or the human condition improved?

If I disagree with Harris and Dawkins, it is in their methodology. There is excellent work being done in the sociology and psychology of religion, and society could only be improved, I think, were this knowledge to spread. If Newton were to apply for a job in astrophysics today and expressed the views he held in his life, he would rightly be denied a position. The case for the time frame of our universe's birth and growth is too overwhelming to consider such radical alternative theories to be on the same grounds. Likewise, I hope respectable universities would not hire a philosopher of religion who believed all religions are subject to cultural change and environmental pressures except for their own particular faith.

In my personal experience - and this appears to be the case for some other scientists - my appreciation of the world is only increased as I learn more about it. Many of my fellow linguists are full of anecdotes about their young children struggling with language. This doesn't interfere with their love for their children (I hope!), but it is simply a expression of that amazement each linguist has for the complexities of human language. Despite two centuries of work in linguistics, the field has enough mystery left that I doubt I'll ever be out of a career.

I suspect that one reason many psychologists and sociologists studying religion have not joined the campaign to eliminate respect for religious beliefs in the public sphere is that these scientists picked their subject because of a deep fascination for it. They likely recognize that religion and society interact in such complex ways that the broad generalizations made by both sides are inherently faulty.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Cain't Got No Time: Grammaticality Judgments at the Edge of Acceptability

After avoiding listening to her for months (I might read Rolling Stone when I have a free copy lying around, but I tend to be selective in acting on its recommendations), I was eventually put into a situation where I found myself listening to Amy Winehouse. Specifically, her song "Rehab." While the music appeased the musical ear, something flagged down the attention of my linguist's ear. See if you can hear it just after 0:36 in the YouTube link, and again at 1:23.

Unless I'm mistaken, Winehouse sings
I cain't got seventy days.
And later
I cain't got the time
All of the lyrics printed online that I can find transcribe both lines with ain't, but I hear a velar obstruent before the ain't. I wasn't aware that the "southernism" cain't was recognized as a "Americanism" across the pond. If any British English speakers have insight on this, please let me know.

Now I know those of us from Northern Indiana like to think we speak "plain" English, but the fact of the matter is my dialect has as much in common with southern US dialects as it does with more eastern dialects. So it's not the word cain't that caught my ear but its use. For those unfamiliar with the word, a quick Google search on "cain't" produced the following examples.
I'm just a girl who cain't say no.
Oh you cain't getta man with a booooook!
Poor Bill, He Cain't Help It.
Cain't you do nothing 'bout them weeds?
Make 'em an offer they cain't refuse.
I Cain't Get No Wireless.
Cain’t yew afford no gas?
It just ain't fair if you cain't cheat!
Ya cain't get thar from hee-yah!
Why cain't we get the FDA to label food made in China?

Prussian Blue: Them thare girls cain't sing.
The word means essentially the same thing as can't but perhaps more forcefully negative. Some of the results returned by the search clearly mock the word (and by extension, its users) and some results are even references to other song lyrics (Rodgers and Hammerstein's "I Cain't Say No"). Did Winehouse appropriate the word cain't to add authenticity to her fake soul vocals only to use it erroneously? I thought a few Google searches would prove that hunch.

The only search result I could find of "cain't got" was on a German LiveJournal page.
you cain't got no chance with cupid
In contrast, "cain't get" returns 715 results as of this posting, one of which was quoted above. Why the difference? A speaker of more prestigious dialects might point out that got is not an infinitive whereas get is, but the got here is being used as a verb denoting possession. As in "I got five weeks left." In at least my dialect, some negative auxiliary verbs can appear before this verb: don't got, ain't got, haven't got. Others cannot: *can't got, *won't got. Could there be a statistical effect intervening, flagging the construction as ungrammatical when what it means is "I haven't heard this before"?

I gathered some quick google stats on the likelihood of cain't appearing with verbs of possession in comparison to other negative auxiliaries.

don't can't ain't cain't didn't couldn't wouldn't Totals
got 428,000 13,000 2,240,000 1 96,700 687 630 2,779,018
% 15.40 0.47 80.60 0.00 3.48 0.02 0.02
get 84,100,000 46,700,000 28,800 715 17,500,000 6,420,000 2,250,000 156,999,515
% 53.57 29.75 0.02 0.00 11.15 4.09 1.43
have 340,000,000 2,930,000 49,600 45,900 44,300,000 3,070,000 17,100,000 407,495,500
% 83.44 0.72 0.01 0.01 10.87 0.75 4.20
own 2,130,000 142,000 523,000 5 444,000 25,300 47,000 3,311,305
% 64.33 4.29 15.79 0.00 13.41 0.76 1.42
hold 2,370,000 2,020,000 1,990,000 4,910 727,000 1,120,000 433,000 8,664,910
% 27.35 23.31 22.97 0.06 8.39 12.93 12.93
buy 7,060,000 2,160,000 2,870,000 3,930 2,070,000 443,000 1,050,000 15,656,930
% 45.09 13.80 18.33 0.03 13.22 2.83 6.71
find 2,170,000 51,000,000 6,340,000 13,400 2,580,000 4,060,000 547,000 66,710,400
% 3.25 76.45 9.50 0.02 3.87 6.09 0.82
Avg % 41.78 21.25 21.03 0.02 9.20 3.92 3.93

Based on these numbers, there appears to be a dis-preference for cain't got, cain't get, and cain't own. Whether that difference is significant remains to be determined with better data. Only the one of these strikes me as sounding ungrammatical. This raises interesting questions for the ways in which statistical feedback informs grammaticality judgments. I doubt the differences of the chart can be accounted for solely by semantics.

One interesting result is that ain't got appears much more frequently than would be predicted from the other patterns. This might be a matter of informal style favoring aint' over don't. The possessive meaning of got is less likely in more formal styles. Another factor could be that ain't got is preferred over ain't have. Perhaps for formality reasons.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Principles and Faith

Recently, other blogs have attempted to define faith and scientific knowledge in ways that demonstrate the two are not the same. (See "You don't need faith to believe the principle of evolution") An example of how scientific principles are developed occurred to me just a few minutes ago, which I thought I'd share.

We begin with a proposition, principle, theory, assumption, or even a belief if you like, since we'll assume the speaker believes it: "Whatever one puts into a refrigerator will be there when one opens it again."

This statement would be an excellent hypothesis for a scientific investigation because it is readily testable. One can open the door, and see that the items are either there or not. The hypothesis is readily generalizable as well, one can test with a variety of items, a variety of refrigerators, and a variety of individuals. Several experiments can be done to test for all sorts of conditions and combinations.

Now let's say the hypothesis is shown to be wrong in at least one experiment. The refrigerator is opened and a specific item is missing. Possible hypotheses might include the item turning invisible or disappearing on its own, but these would require significant alterations of well established principles. After doing some investigative work, we might determine that a flatmate removed the item. When more items go missing, we might discover that every time it was another human agent who removed the item and that they always removed it between our placing the item in the refrigerator and opening it again (assuming, for sake of argument, that we have extraordinarily honest or sloppy flatmates). Eventually we will amend our hypothesis: "Whatever one puts into a refrigerator will be there when one opens it again unless an entity has removed it during the interval."

Now suppose we place green leaf lettuce in the refrigerator and forget about it for a month. When we open the vegetable drawer again, we will find black spotted and wilting lettuce instead of the delicious and crisp lettuce that we placed there. More experiments will demonstrate that many items left unattended for long lengths of time will slowly undergo change and that the rate of change is dependent on the temperature setting and type of item. We can amend our hypothesis again: "Whatever one puts into a refrigerator will be there when one opens it again unless an agent has removed it during the interval. Items are subject to continual degradation depending on conditions including temperature, the type of item, and the air-tightness of the item's container."

This theorizing sounds painfully obvious to adults, but remember that most humans learn this theory of conservation at a young age. You can actual watch children progress through stages when first they realize that objects are permanent (do not disappear when they cannot be seen) and later that the volume of a liquid does not change with the shape of its container. (Many adults still have trouble thinking in terms of conservation as the term is used in the physical sciences, but that's another matter.)

The progression of our hypothesis demonstrates why scientific theories are subject to continual revision and why a good hypothesis is one that makes predictions that can be tested. If our hypothesis had been "whatever is found in the refrigerator will be a subset of items placed therein" it would have lacked explanatory power. That is, it fails to explain the hows and whys of the changes taking place. If our original hypothesis was "Whenever we open the refrigerator, what will be inside will be what Zeus wills to be inside", we would never have professed beyond that formulation unless we were given unmitigated access to Zeus's will and then began to investigate that (but, of course, Zeus's will is beyond human comprehension). Even if our flatmate had taken some food, we could still argue that that had been Zeus's will and not need to add additional clauses. Or we could argue with equal validity that our flatmate had violated Zeus's will and then feel justified in taking punitive measures.

This is the problem many of us have with beliefs held on faith alone. The religious begin with a proposition that they accept on faith (Yeshua was the legitimate messiah, Paul was divinely inspired, Mohammad was divinely inspired, the Hadith of the Cloak is valid, Zeus causes lightning, Kuan Yin refused to enter Nirvana). When required, evidence is selected to prove the statement of faith and contrary evidence is explained away (Zeus willed Melissa to take the last pita. Zeus only wills milk to spoil after a few weeks.). Very rarely will the proposition itself be modified (e.g., the emergence of Deists who believed Jesus was wise but not a miracle-worker).

When some IDers/Creationists argue against evolution, they often display a lack of understanding about the difference between a hypothesis and a statement of faith. No living biologist would expect everything Darwin wrote about evolution to be true. Scientists do not end debates by quoting him (though they make look toward his writings in search of inspiration or to wonder at how much he predicted on weak evidence was actually proven with the developments of genetics), nor are there active schools of philosophers debating the proper interpretation of his writings. If a fossil or living creature was found that was half-dog/half-grass and did not fit into our current biological classification morphologically or genetically, then the current theory of evolution would be thrown for a loop. Its possible that explanations could be found that explained the odd hybrid and preserved much of the current theory, but it would not be without considerable effort, testing, and modification of our knowledge about the process we call evolution.

On the other hand, religious faith is not subject to the same kind of revision (though it certainly changes, those changes often resemble other cultural changes and not changes in scientific knowledge). If a religion predicted that it was the only valid method for approaching an absolute source of morality, one might make the prediction that its adherents should be more moral by their own standards than adherents of other religions. If that observation was not born out in the data, the faithful could invent all sorts of justifications that may or may not have been elements of the original faith. From Christianity, one frequently hears that even Christians are sinners and therefore won't necessarily be more moral, but still insist that they have personally felt the holy spirit's touch at important moments or that atheists are by nature immoral.

The same is true for historical events that the religious accept on faith. That there is no independent evidence corroborating the story would not shatter their faith. They would argue (quite logically) that one cannot prove a negative in such a situation. But they might hypocritically deny similar stories originating in other religions have occurred as described on the basis of "common sense" or their faith.

This is the point where those who approach the world from a non-religious perspective reach impasses when we argue with the religious. A proposition held on faith and not subject to revision or review based on evidence is a proposition that is difficult to disprove. One can argue that the proposition is unlikely or unnecessary to explain the data (as most "evangelical" atheists are content to do), but is not the same thing and the faithful know it. When the interpretation of Zeus's Will is subject to extreme disagreements, it becomes even more difficult for the non-religious to suggests tests of those principles as there is likely to be some group that disagrees with the interpretation selected for testing.

In the scientific community, when two groups support theories that contradict one another, the outcome is determined by the strength of the theory in predicting new evidence. More than occasionally scientific communities will adopt theories that turn out to be erroneous, but it is most often those same scientific communities who discover the faults in the theory. Among the faithful, beliefs that contradict each other are typically determined by the strength of each side in converting others, military or colonial campaigns, trade radiating from key economic or cultural centers, and other means of cultural dispersion. Religious faiths have had difficulty in spreading when there is no social or economic advantage to their adoption. (To be fair, the adoption of science as a methodology frequently spreads in a similar fashion, but because science is based on logic applied to the natural world, there is nothing preventing scientific methodology from being developed twice except time and the dwindling numbers of pre-industrial societies. It is less likely that a religion identical to Christianity would develop independent of old-world denominations.)

Where the faithful (sometimes) find fault in scientific principles is that they are always an incomplete picture. In the real world, we would have to make an assumption that a human agent stole our food because human agents are not always honest. When it comes to matters like this, scientists must assume what Dr. House is fond of arguing: patients lie, but symptoms never do. This is why scientists in many fields often seek a variety of lines of inquiry into a problem to determine independently that some principle is true. For example, we would use video recordings to watch the refrigerator or an analysis of the kitchen trash can's contents in addition to conducting interviews of flatmates. We cannot date fossils through direct observation, but by using a wide variety of independent dating methods and finding that the majority converge at similar dates, one can establish the likeliest time frame.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Life Update

So folks may be streaming over from LiveJournal and MySpace in the two by two's now, so here's the big update on things not related to invisible men.

Classes and related studies have been soaking up lots of my time. I've been reviewing the theoretical, mathematical, and historical foundations of modern linguistics. Right down to topics like set theory and predicate logic. Classes are going very well. I was complemented for introducing a change of topic after leading the class Monday: we ended up discussing some of our views on theoretical syntax, and I got to say my little bit about admitting data driving theory, which is the major thing the professor and I agree on. It was a refreashing change of pace from the morphophonetics we normally discuss.

Speaking of such, my paper for advanced phonology did better than I imagined in my best estimates. Much better. Nearly all of the comments I received were the thoughts I had inbetween turning it in and getting it back. Semantisc, the one class I had been looking forward to for over a year, has been a let down. But I will be given the incentive to study MRS in more detail. Now to finish my statement of purpose...

And write that grammar of Moroccan Arabic to back up my possible dissertation project...

3 Mustaphas 3 are bubbling through my headphones as I write this. I should really write more reviews here. I may have to do that. Maybe it was working with John and Adam over break, but I've been turning to metal more than I ever did. It's really the last popular genre I haven't already gotten bored with. At the same time, Bauhaus, The Smiths, and Echo & The Bunnymen have been getting steady plays.

I picked up the guitar for the first time in a while today. I've been considering a number of projects, but I really don't have the time to devote to anything. Today I mostly played some Phil Ochs and Woody G, the original (union) gansta. And a Miller Sisters tune or two. I swear I will make them work for my voice if I die trying.

I'm still picking my way through Baudolino. I've begun Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and it's been fascinating. Just not as important to me right now as Mathematical Methods in Linguistics. For some reason, I was almost tempted to read the first of the Gormenghast books, but I should really finish something else first.

Writingwise, I've been picking at an untitled fantasy world and a couple of scripts. Nothing firm or immediately forthcoming. The fantasy world has been a long, slow process. It incorporates stuff I sketched out as far back as 10 years ago, but I've been careful to build up a world that I'll be 100% satisfied with. I'll probably write a bit more on the fantasy traps I see elsewhere and how I mean to avoid them.

My free time has either been spent trolling religious and anti-religious sites and message boards. Or watching movies. Babel, Casino Royal, The Royal Tennenbaums, and Resevoir Dogs made the last couple of weeks. Babel was exceptional among the new movies I've allowed myself to see. Casino Royale made me wonder what Tarentino would do with the spy genre. The idea of Bond as a semi-sociopath as he was in the movie just screams for someone to come along and take it further, like Leone did with the cowboy genre.

Question Faith, Part II will come someday. I swear. Just waiting for the energy to strike.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Gospel Story Quiz

I found this quiz hilarious. If only it explained itself at the end.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Replies to Beast Rabban

These are my replies to a discussion here that has grown too dissassiated with the original post.

Beast Rabban, you seem to have misunderstood a few of my comments, so most of my responses will be clarifications.

Firstly, yes, I understand that there is a separation of church and state in the Constitution. However, the interpretation given to this is that the Founding Fathers wanted 'freedom of religion', rather than 'freedom from religion'

I've never seen a document from any of the founding fathers that suggested that. If you know of one, please let me know. There's quite a lot of evidence that some of them were specifically not the god-fearing Christians today's moral-reformers make them out to be. For example, from the Treaty of Tripoli that John Adams signed into law: “[T]he Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion...” And certainly Jefferson would have accepted "freedom from religion" as a legitimate interpretation: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God.”

It might, therefore, be beneficial to non-Christian children to learn the basic tenets of Christianity in order for them to understand, and not be excluded from, the common culture of their nation.

I'd agree with that more strongly than you might imagine. However, prayer in school is not an effective pedagogical means of doing that. Neither is direct religious instruction. Historical, literary, psychological, and anthropological methods would suit better in an educational setting.

Then there is the question of what constitutes 'meaningful instruction'. As a Christian, I'd strongly argue that religious education does constitute exactly this.

I assumed that - like in every school I attended or taught in - when a portion of the students are excused to participate in some religious study or activity, those left behind are give worksheets or other busywork that are not only contraindicated by many studies on effective practices but aren't even graded, since most of the class is out of the room at the time. Effectively, while some students are singing about Jesus, the other portion are learning nothing.

You mention in connection with history lessons on comparative religion teaching facts, rather than opinions or guesses. Presumably you mean that in their approach to religion, an atheist, philosophical physicalist approach be made to religion, rather than a religious interpretation. This is, however, merely another opinion or guess.

I'm not entirely sure what your accusing me of here, but by facts I mean things like "this is was X believe, this is what X do" with a focus on the real and meaningful divisions and issues within each religion (e.g., not teaching Islam as "normal Moslems versus terrorists" but from the more important division between Sunni and Shi'ite). I've seen people of a Christian background pay lipservice to religious diversity without ever making an effort to understand how religion functions in other cultures. To avoid that, I think a thematic rather than geographic approach to units would do much better (e.g., a unit on religious revelation, another on religious responses to modern biology or physics, another on how religions adapt to changing social contexts). The comparative aspect would come across much better that way.

Also, historians will tell you that history isn't about facts, but argument and interpretation, and the histories of different events and periods can vary widely, all based on the same basic facts.

Yes, and a good history class presents the different viewpoints held by historians and lets students come to their own conclusions - conclusions that should be drawn from evidence, not simply religious insight.

History is only one aspect of what I'd want the class to cover anyway. Social psychology and cognitive science should have nearly equal roles.

Regarding the teaching of religious history, this might actually strengthen religion, particularly in the field of science.

Yes, perhaps. Remember though, that its only recently that anyone in US society has even been able to say that they are atheists freely and publicly without suspicion, and even then we had the brief setback in the 1940s-50s when all atheists were presumed to be communists. There was even a tradition among deists in claiming that atheism was a logical impossiblity. That Christians have been and are involved in European science is expected in such a climate.

I wonder whether the relationship between religion and science would do better in a history class or science class. I have a feeling that a history class would neglect to show things like how even great mind's like Newton have historically used religion - the existence of god in particular - as a filler for the gaps that the contemporary theories failed to explain. These explanations - though common - are routinely dismissed as not being scientific, since they make no empirical claims. Just like ID is being dismissed today by mainstream biology.