A world of plastic

So I'm thinking a lot about this ecoliteracy and thinking about our evolved state in the world and what we need to do. My friend Patrick sent this article, "Plastic Ocean: Our Oceans Are Turning Into Plastic. Are We?" to me a little while back and it is one of the most frightening things I have read in a while. I want to share it with you.

It began with a line of plastic bags ghosting the surface, followed by an ugly tangle of junk: nets and ropes and bottles, motor-oil jugs and cracked bath toys, a mangled tarp. Tires. A traffic cone. Moore could not believe his eyes. Out here in this desolate place, the water was a stew of plastic crap. It was as though someone had taken the pristine seascape of his youth and swapped it for a landfill.

How did all the plastic end up here? How did this trash tsunami begin? What did it mean? If the questions seemed overwhelming, Moore would soon learn that the answers were even more so, and that his discovery had dire implications for human—and planetary—health. As Alguita glided through the area that scientists now refer to as the “Eastern Garbage Patch,” Moore realized that the trail of plastic went on for hundreds of miles. Depressed and stunned, he sailed for a week through bobbing, toxic debris trapped in a purgatory of circling currents. To his horror, he had stumbled across the 21st-century Leviathan. It had no head, no tail. Just an endless body.

Leviathan. I'll say.
Humanity occupies an unprecedented niche in the living world. Our ability to adapt to new environments dwarfs all other “higher” taxa animals on planet earth. Though the humpback and bowhead whales sing elegant arias to one another over dozens of miles in a language of which we can only grasp the rudiments, they have no ability to make tools to change their environments. Last year researchers discovered that female chimpanzees in Africa were making and using spears to hunt; additionally, the females were teaching each other how to make the spears, thus creating a spear meme in their local culture. As fascinating as the unknown grammar and syntax of whale languages and “lower” order primate tool-making are, the human ability to speak, write, and read and use that language instinct to manipulate and adapt to its environment stand as both our greatest asset and our greatest weakness.
And here we see how it has become our greatest weakness. The ability to create plastic has naturally coupled itself with the human middle-world desire for convenience and the result? A massive swath of plastic twice the size of Texas. If I were religious, I'd start praying now. But that's not the point.
This is the kind of thing that requires action at every level - bottom-up and top-down. Our enormous evolved brains have gifted us with the most incredible abilities, including the collective delusion that garbage disappears. Out of sight. Out of mind. Here we are in middle world. Will we soon be walking on and swimming in our own trash?

Eco-Realism Part II

"When an opponent declares, 'I will not come over to your side.' I calmly say, 'Your child belongs to us already…What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing else but this new community.'"
- Adolf Hitler

David Orr recognizes in Ecological Literacy (if you're going to buy the book though, get it locally) that in order for children, especially American children we must presume, to become ecologically literate, that a great transformation must occur. Where traditional American education has focused on our developing students’ abilities to recognize and generate semantically meaningful language and become fluent with arithmetic and mathematics so that they might learn and master (at least partially) other scholastic disciplines, Orr believes that we must expand those scholastic disciplines and the application of linguistic and mathematical literacy to develop ecological literacy. “By failing to include ecological perspectives in any number of subjects, students are taught that ecology is unimportant for history, politics, economics, society, and so forth.”
Orr believes that children are the foundation on whom we are to build this brave new world. In order for this to happen, they must be instilled with both a sense of wonder and be given integrative thinking skills.
But some things must first be overcome. First, students need to think broadly about topics. American students are taught in an educational system that presents them with discrete topics where things do not overlap; they are boxed. But good thinking draws connections and presents us with the opportunity to “think at right angles.” Second, we are schooled inside. How are we to realize ourselves as mammals that are a part of the nature of things if we are so constantly shielded from much of the environment? Our schooling places blinders on how our culture shapes the biotic world. Third, and in no small part because we are shielded from nature by our cultural machines and machinations, we do not learn to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of nature. How do we appreciate the beauty of the Great Horned Owl in the knot of the Willow tree if we are cloistered indoors or staring at shopping malls and car lots? We will never see the owl. This is like the world in Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the movie of which was Bladerunner. In its world of technological advancement, animals are all but figments. Yet there is still some vestigial appreciation for their beauty and necessity. So they are engineered. Even worse, given the degree to which American homo sapiens sapiens spends on computers (look where I am now), we could end up in The Matrix or the world of E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops wherein human beings are fully integrated into machines that come to own them. You are not only what you eat, but you are what you use. These science fiction stories give us dystopic visions of how our attempt to separate ourselves from nature dooms us not even to forget nature outside of our own creations, but to not even know much of its existence at all.
To avoid this world, we must reeducate ourselves and our children by showing them and ourselves that all education is environmental education. From there, we have to integrate the lion’s share of disciplines and departments into the formal understanding of and dissemination of our gathered information on the environment. This education should take place in patient dialogues wherein we develop respect and understanding whose pace is “governed by cycles of day and night, the seasons, the pace of procreation, and by the larger rhythm of evolutionary and geologic time.” This pacing should lead us to develop experiential means that become, in some ways, the content and initiate a more conversational pedagogy between student and teacher as facilitator. Experiential environmental learning will also develop good thinking which, in turn, develops the learner’s competence with natural systems.
Orr hopes that our new educational culture will create people who realize that they are integrated in the world, part of the great chain of being. Orr, in a marvelous assault, contrasts his philosophy of education with Allan Bloom whose Great Books philosophy was set in stone in his 1987 tract, Closing of the American Mind, a book of such self-congratulatory narcissism that one feels trapped in a hall of mirrors that reflect only Bloom’s face.
However, Bloom does set down a vision of the liberal education, but one that ensconces a philosophy that sets man apart from nature. Bloom writes in his chapter, “Culture” that “[t]his Rousseauan-Kantian vision is in essential agreement with the Enlightenment view of what is natural in man. But for the first time within philosophy, something other and higher that nature is found in man (emphasis mine).” Bloom believes that the American student has lost his (he is thoroughly androcentric and patriarchal) way by losing his connection to the Enlightenment. In many ways, Bloom is right. Some of our best codifications of rational thought come from the Enlightenment and Locke, Kant, Newton, Leibniz, Voltaire, Hume, D’Holbach, Paine, and their intellectual ancestors like John Stuart Mill, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Bertrand Russell give us great tools for thought. But they are not the end.
In steps Orr, who hopes to reconstruct the liberal arts education “to develop balanced, whole persons who have connected minds and feelings.” He cites Alfred North Whitehead a fair bit. To go beyond Orr’s citations, we read in the preface of Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, “We may ask ourselves whether the scientific mentality of the modern world in the immediate past is not a successful example of such provincial limitation.” To use this in Orr’s terms, we should consider that Bloom’s Great Books ideal and the modern world’s scientism (which could now be renamed technologism) has been temporally provincial and myopic and must now shift to a new Kuhnsian paradigm of ecologically realistic science and humanities that would help learners become whole – integrated into their communities, including their campuses.
The quotation with which I opened this essay serves us as a reminder. I don’t just mean to be an alarmist or suggest that Orr and Hitler are somehow morally equivalent. It is pure caution on my part so that we approach the endeavor skeptically and compassionately. Children’s biobehavioral clay is molded by their cultural environments and we, the cultural occupants, shape that culture. We shape it for our own ends and by our own means and we form kinds of learners who become kinds of actors. Anyone who watches Triumph of the Will sees the young German learner believing in the realism of the Reich wherein Aryan science and Aryan humanities were developed. Consider the millions sent to the Gulag because they had violated the doctrines of Socialist Realism. Children are raised to believe in the moral efficacy of misogyny, filicide, patricide, homicide, and genocide by the world’s dominant religions. What we believe and how we believe it profoundly affect our behavior.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn said that a man with a gun in hand can kill one, five, or even twenty people. But a man armed with an ideology can kill millions. Ideas have consequences. While I agree with Orr that we need, desperately need, to realize ourselves as part of the biosphere, we must always guard ourselves against the tyrant within us who believes s/he knows what is best for others and will dominate others to see it through.
First, do no harm. Second, love others.

Eco-realism and other ideologies

As a graduate student in education right now, I am faced with an interesting barrage of science. I am taking anthropology which, depending on the branch, is pretty hefty falsifiable Popper-approved science, educational psych which can be so qualitative as to be armchair, and down to economics and political science. Nonetheless, I have to deal with postmodernists who want to relativize and gut lots of science because it doesn't serve their ideological goals.
So we've been reading Ecological Literacy by David Orr who wants us all to believe that we can launch ourselves into a postmodern world wherein we can recapture those good-old days as hunter-gatherers and reattain that Arcadian past. He tells us that he doesn't want a new Eden, but I find it hard to believe. He believes that humans aren't patriarchal. In rare exceptions are they not. We weren't always violent. That's a sham and any tribal society left to its own devices will show you that as will our nearest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees. He also thinks that human evolution took a "wrong turn" because our big brains and our culture have imbued us with a will to dominate nature.
Since when are we supposed to take value judgments from the non-intentional selections of our ancestors' mutations? This, I think is a profound misreading of evolution on par with the the eugenics professors of the late-19th and early 20th centuries who attempted to manipulate populations to create Nietzschean supermen.
Let me explain why, in no small part because I have used evolution as a justification for or realization of the roots of morality. I'd hate to be a hypocrite.
Evolution doesn't take wrong turns in and of itself. Local environmental pressures, which are moment to moment (even if they tend to be fairly consistent over time) select from the gene pool of organizations at any time. That's it. A set of selective pressures can not select a "wrong turn" so to speak. They can only select from what is available. Mutations are non-moral entities. They are random, insofar as DNA can generate "random" material with its limited resources. So to say that something in evolution is a wrong turn is to place a moral value judgment on something that was not moral in the first place, was not intentional, and therefore has no place as something to be castigated as such. It is creationist level nonsense and misreading.
But why am I calling this eco-realism? If you take some time to look at the books, as I hope to do here over the next couple of days, you will see that we are dealing with someone so blinded by ideology that he hopes to make science serve his political and ideological agenda.
This is where some of you might accuse me of being a hypocrite because I see science as serving the atheist. Note, however, that science is not made to serve the atheist agenda. I infer from the findings of science and induce based on the preponderance of the lack of evidence that verifies the god hypothesis (much less the God or Jesus or Allah hypothesis) that god(s) do not exist. But never do I, or does a reasonable scientist, remind themselves before testing and observation that all of this must disprove god's existence. Why bother? It's not what we are interested in as observers of the natural world. Sure, we are methodological naturalists, but we are not all philosophical naturalists. [I am, but I am not a majority.] We needn't put the cart of atheism before the horse of science because we don't have anything to prove. A positive assertion like "God exists" will show itself with evidence. Or...it won't. I needn't worry about it.
Science serves the atheist so far as it shows that natural explanations account for natural phenomena. It doesn't prove in the logical or mathematical sense that we can write a proof for "NO GOD" or make a water-tight deduction like "God doesn't exist." But we can induce from the available lack of data and make a statistical prediction that says, "Given the overwhelming absence of evidence and the very good natural explanations that we gave that god(s) are very very improbable. Why believe in them. Let them present their evidence for themselves instead of using apparently feeble human proxies."
To get back to Orr though, I am wary of his proposed doctrines. He wants to reconstitute the fabric of society. Lots of people have wanted to do this and I am naturally leery of them: Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, Napoleon, Bismarck, FDR, MLK, Gandhi, and more. Some of these worked very well. Some not. But you better have really good reasons to make over our society and they better contain a proposal that includes some hefty feasibility and not just wish-thinking and Arcadian revisionism (that's for another time I hope) to send us into a brave new world. Thich Nhat Hahn said something like, a man with a gun in hand can kill one, two, ten, or twenty people; but a man with an ideology he believes to the the truth can kill millions. As much as I sympathize with Orr's position, his eco-literacy could create a new straitjacket that limits free thought and inquiry.

Penn State non-believers unite

Last week I was coming off of campus after my Educational Psychology class and lo and behold, at the gates of the University Park campus stood two students holding a poster that something like, "Atheists and Un-believers unite!" Well, as you can imagine, I sped over to them on my bike and said, "Alright!" and introduced myself.
Nat and Dave and I chatted, I signed a petition to reform the old Penn State Atheist and Agnostics Organization...or something like that. How cool!
The next day I came by and they were there again and some idiot theist (I assume he was a Christian) was up on Nat's face threatening him. One of the coolest things about it, though, was that there were two Christian missionaries there trying to talk Captain Tough-guy down. We were all saying, "Dude. He [Nat] has the right to be here."
"It's an embarrassment!" He must have repeated this several times. It was the PSU vs. Notre Dame football weekend and this guy thought that a couple of atheists trying to organize was a problem. Talk about exactly the kind of guy that I worry really exists! Man.
So after a minute of wrangling and saying that Nat has the right under the First Amendment to gather and speak (the Christian missionaries and I both made this point...thanks guys), Capt. Tough-guy yells, "Not if I kick his ass he doesn't!"
At this point, I said, "Go ahead and do it. Do the Christian thing. Love your neighbor. Turn that other cheek buddy."
After some fluster, he left, clearly very frustrated. And there aren't people blinded by their faiths?
Let's hope that he was just having a bad day though.

Why won't this thing work?

In general, I avoid these kinds of things but...I really like this one. A former student of mine sent it along to me.

Modern prophets of atheism's demise are as deluded as they say they aren't

It's pretty sad, not to mention telling, when some religious folks like Denyse O'Leary (see also here and here)and Alister McGrath resort to prophecies about atheism's pending demise, Over at the Mindful Hack O'Leary has posted some thoughts on the matter. They are like most non-scientific predictions, loaded with wish-thinking and presumably some sort of confirmation bias.
After she lets us know that lots of atheists - namely one: the philosopher Michael Ruse - have a big beef with Richard Dawkins, one of the current so-called "New Atheists" who's gotten a lot of press for saying that religion is not immune to criticism, that it's factual proposition that God(s) exist(s) is so improbable as to be a deluded belief, and that religion as practiced and believed by too many people endangers humanity. His arguments are those that have existed for centuries, but he has the added bonus of the overwhelming majority of the modern scientific enterprise behind his assessments of religion. But I am digressing...
O'Leary wants us to know that the atheists are a desparate lot:

McGrath’s historical analysis sheds some light. He identifies three thinkers as founders of modern materialist atheism: Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72), Karl Marx (1818-83), and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939. Why these founders? Feuerbach was the first to treat God simply as a construction of the human imagination, essentially replacing theology with religious studies. In other words, when we ask why people believe in God, we do not entertain the idea that God has revealed himself in some way. God does not actually exist, and therefore the causes of belief are sought in society or nature.

I can only do so much with Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud, but I will tackle them briefly. Feuerbach, whose work I know only peripherally as a critic of Christianity, believed that human beings are animals infused with thought, will, and emotion. Because we feel so much for ourselves, we wish a being - God and Feuerbach's case - the Christian God into existence who is a paragon of our own image. Marx regarded religion as the "opium of the masses" but not an opiate as a mere diversion. He really thought of it as a medicine that provided the proletariat, the common man, with a respite from the nasty pains of the capitalist industrial society. Though Marx may have been a religious skeptic, he certainly sympathized with belief. Freud, like Feuerbach, thought of religion as an illusion, a manifestation of human wish-thinking. Obviously, we can spill millions of words on these men's thoughts.
Perhaps they had had so much trust in the power of their arguments that they believed that religion would one day fade away, though this seems unlikely. Freud also believed the religious impulse is delusional. While I sympathize with these men, they hadn't 20th- and 21st-century science behind them.
The 18th-century thinkers from d'Holbach and Hume to Jefferson and Paine created a marvelous basis for intellectually and ethically defensible atheism. And while Jefferson and Paine were highly critical and skeptical of relgious claims, they correctly innoculated us against sectarian battles by formulating a nation that separates church and state in which (like Canada too) people can privately address their own religious beliefs. Great. I'm glad. That wall of separation has served us well.
But in a way, whether or not a political system works well for people's private beliefs, that doesn't mean that people's private beliefs are reflected by reality nor that they are true. Not one shred.
O'Leary and McGrath think that Keats and Shelley weren't so bad because they had some sense of "transcendant ideas" like Aristotle and Plato. This is an appeal to the authority of the Greeks, but it's a red herring. When you consider the findings of modern cognitive science (see Pinker, Ramachandran, and Dennett) we find no reason to believe that we have souls. We are material. All of the evidence that we have supports the material proposition and none of it supports the ephemeral phantasmata of the soul. Not one shred.
It's alleged that if we are to accept that we have no souls, that then we are left with nothing but cruelty. Please. Can we stop trying to throw new paint on the gulag? The problem of Stalin is only tangentially an atheist problem. The real problem was true belief or true faith in the end of capitalism and the triumph of his own schizophrenic interpretation of Marxist-Leninist pending triumph. He had NO good evidence to suggest that it would happen. He was a myopic fanatic who believed that he was the inheritor of history. His fervor had all of the hallmarks of religious zealotry, not the strength of reason. Look at or listen to any moral philosopher or listen to or read the words of Dewey, Hook, or Kitcher or the respect and reverence for altruism amongst the "new atheists." These are not the post-modernist relativists that push us around on slippery slopes and not the cruel boogey men and women that O'Leary and McGrath try to assert we are. If anyone is using the po-mo arguments of separate but equal epistemologies, it's the IDists with their damnable forms of religion.
O'Leary ends thusly:

The story of atheism also provides a warning for prophets, religious or otherwise. Fifty years ago, who would have thought that post-atheism would better describe European society than post-theism? Trustworthy prophets should have a better track record.

Did I just see her throw a brick in her own glass house?

Doubting Teresa

Sam Harris has a new article at Newsweek where he exposes Mother Teresa's questions about her own faith. Christopher Hitchens has another at MSNBC. I find her confessions, below, to be rather poignant and that much more sad for not facing the reality of God's actual absence and Jesus' real and eternal death.

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone ... Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?
— addressed to Jesus, at the suggestion of a confessor, undated

This was the tethered mind of someone who felt she had no choice. Here we see the power of what Dan Dennett calls "belief in belief" (explained well here and developed in Breaking The Spell) She wanted to believe because she believed that in that belief she would achieve something that would transcend all of the the suffering of herself and the world; from this belief she could attain a level of love and bliss that she couldn't find in earthly life. Or, perphaps, it was her belief in belief that prevented attaining real joy here on Earth because belief in a supernatural omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent God would only ever grant it later. Thus, her embrace of universal suffering and her death houses (see Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything).
Just briefly, revisit this segment:

If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

This is much like one of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 130, De Profundis clamavi est, which reads:

Out of the depths I have cried to Thee, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.
Let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.
If Thou, O Lord, shalt observe iniquities; Lord, who shall endure it?
For with Thee there is merciful forgiveness:
and by reason of Thy law, I have waited for Thee, O Lord.
My soul hath relied on His word; my soul hath hoped in the Lord.
From the morning watch even until night, let Israel hope in the Lord.
Because with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him plentiful redemption.
And He shall redeem Israel from all her iniquities.

Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
Let us pray.
O God, the Creator and Redeemer of all the faithful,
grant to the souls of Thy servants departed the remission of all their sins,
that through our pious supplication they may obtain that pardon
which they have always desired;
who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

That's beautiful stuff in the light of medieval thinking. It is a call from loneliness to hope and I have and always will have a soft spot for it because it is the earnest cry of one who feels banished. Perhaps something could save the Psalmist from his and his community's iniquities? But alas, like Teresa, the Psalmist too was alone and without a God who reigns for ever and ever.

What do I labor for? If there be no God—there can be no soul—if there is no Soul then Jesus—You also are not true.

The reality is "darkness and coldness and emptiness" when you seek for that which is not there and maybe Teresa knew that nothing was there but fought it every day of her life as she sought for that thing, that eternal love from a fictitious malevolent filicidal misogynist that would never come. When people are tools for such a non-existent entity, they are NOT ends in themselves. They are MEANS for God. How can you have an "I-thou" relationship with someone who believes in nothing? Really, turn the question around: How can a person who believes in nothing have an "I-thou" relationship with you? By deceiving themselves perhaps. But it seems that it takes a rather herculean effort that stretches the believer on a Procrustean bed that really destroys parts of them.
Here we see Teresa faced with the existential crisis and it is binary, as I suppose it often is. She has faced herself with a seemingly logical chain:
1. There can be no meaning in life without a soul.
2. Souls come from God.
3. There is no God.
4. Therefore, I have no soul
5. Therefore, I have no meaning in life.
But her deduction is only as good as her premise, the first of which is false and so is its conclusion. Were she to have been unfettered by her slavish belief in belief, perhaps she'd have worked to alleviate people's suffering instead of giving them places to die from that suffering. Did she really make a mistake in surrendering her life to the Sacred Heart? It would seem so. As Hitchens notes, "It seems, therefore, that all the things that made Mother Teresa famous—the endless hard toil, the bitter austerity, the ostentatious religious orthodoxy—were only part of an effort to still the misery within." A lifetime of overcompensation. We can almost see the little woman inside of her like the real wizard in The Wizard of Oz, shouting all the time, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
But it would seem that there never was a man behind the curtain in this case, just the palest simulacrum.
So out of the depths I call to you my brothers and sisters, and that you will listen to the sincerity of my voice and leave behind these chains, stop this poison, break this spell, end this faith, and free yourself from this delusion that calls itself by many names - God, Yahweh, Jehovah, Jesus, Allah, Krishna, or Shiva - and leads us into meaningless labyrinths of smoke and mirrors.

Creationists who can't stop rewriting history

Over at Coral Ridge Ministries they've broadcast about everyone's favorite topic in a program called Darwin's Deadly Legacy that begins by wondering what Darwin's theory of evolution has contributed to humanty and promises to expose us the the truth by using the old Nazi cannards and those super-scientific scientists Anne Coulter and Ken Ham.

This week on The Coral Ridge Hour, Coral Ridge Ministries presents: Darwin's Deadly Legacy. Have you looked at the chilling social impact of Darwin's theory of evolution? Do you know how it is connected to the horrors of Nazism? Learn how this discredited scientific theory is impacting your life!

Wikart is my favorite. He says that because Nazis used a "selection" process that they were somehow informed by Darwin. D. James Kennedy's narration moments later, "Simply put: No Darwin. No Hitler." I don't even think that we have any evidence that Hitler had read Darwin. It's pretty erroneous.
To turn it around, as Hector Avalos did in a recent post at TalkOrigins, we can see that the real roots of genocide in Nazi Germany rest in Christian hatred of the Jews for killing Jesus. Luther's 7 points were carried out almost verbatim in the Final Solution. And if you look to the Bible, that tome from which we are to accept the immortal and all-loving teachings of the holy and loving creator of the universe, we need look no further than the book of Genesis to see that God is a genocidal bully on whose precedent bloody-minded men have placed their trust and faith. God is righteous. If he commits genocide then so can we. In fact, Hitler regularly cited "providence," "the almighty," and "our God" in Triumph of the Will. In the most overt statement of Nazi propaganda there is never even one mention of anything remotely related to evolution. Just the tyrannical delusions of the Third Reich's will to power. Will has no place in evolution.
They use the Columbine shootings as an example of Darwin in action because one of the shooters got an emotional thrill from the death caused by natural selection. So one example of how a sixteen-year-old kid can get his rocks off from death and destruction tears down a descritpive and predictive theory? I think not. For every example of alleged evil done in the name of Darwinism, we can find hundreds or thousands done in the name of religion. What about men who subjugate their wives and own them as property because that's what the Bible says is the case? Women are to be killed by their husbands on their wedding nights if the husband finds her virginal status to have been compromised. So why didn't Joseph do that to Mary? The books of Judges and Joshua? The centuries of witch trials and the Inquisitions? So when Kennedy says that Darwinism/ToE let us decide who must live and who must die, I think that he has a long road to travel that shows him and his religion to be hypocritical a la the death penalty and the pro-war platform of the American Christo-fascists.
How's that mote in your eye Kennedy?

The "happy" life?

“The struggle itself for the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
- Albert Camus, “They Myth of Sisyhus”

Sometimes we humans like to compare ourselves to the universe. We use our sentience, our reflective consciousness, our predictive powers, and our language instincts to compare our lives to the whole of existence – from the galaxy, our solar system, our planet, our whole nation, ethnicity, creed, nation, or even another person who we admire. In so doing, our lives may seem smaller than one molecule of salt in the Pacific Ocean. How is one to be happy in the face of the mammoth scope of everything? What is even scarier, is that we are just denizens of a kind of what Richard Dawkins calls middle world – we hear mid-range sounds, we run at a middle speed, we eat in the middle of the food chain as omnivorers (though we have extremes as well), we seen in the middle of the light spectrum, live middle length lives longer than many animals but certainly shorter than tortoises – that cannot experience everything. So even our own senses and our cognition limit our concept of everything. The materials of human existence force us into ignorance. How can one be happy knowing that they are so ill-equipped?
This question perplexes me. To paraphrase Camus, “Why shouldn’t you kill yourself?” That question gets us off the train well before Shining Time Station where people smile and laugh and long for one another’s company. All one needs not to kill one’s self are some iota of pleasure and another iota of purpose. Though this might be a glib assertion, life cannot be truly happy if it lacks meaning; a lack of meaning leads to nihilism; nihilism leads to death. Following meaning, we must also do good.
Our first two requirements for happiness is pleasure and meaning. Luckily, the universe hands us the materials that our brains make into meaning. Everyday experiences demand cognitive and emotional reactions or actions, some of which are instinctive and not subject to our selective powers/free will and some are subject to our selective powers.
In The Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan explored the human limbic system, calling it our R-complexe or reptile brains. The R-complex is the evolutionary inheritance of our ancient ancestors, the “dragons” that have existed in all life since the advent of the reptile hundreds of millions of years ago. Its response to things are so instinctive that we cannot prevent them or, at best, we can do little to prevent them. Examples include: fight or flight responses, sexual arousal from a potential mate’s pheremonal cocktail, sweating in the palms when we are nervous, salivating from the scent of delicious food. Each of those instinctive responses do feed into our desires which are at the base of happiness, but they are so libidinal as to lack the ability to fulfill human’s cognitive desires. Sleep. Sex. Eating. Drinking water. Movement. Surely these please us. But pleasure and happiness are not the same. Should we make a Venn diagram, happiness comes in part from pleasure but it must overlap with meaning in order for us to stay alive.
Hedonism cannot sustain the human animal. In our first class Jennelle said that we are unlikely to believe, at least prima facie, that a prostitute or drug dealer, are educated. Not only are they statistically unlikely to be educated, their lives are also statistically unlikely to be very meaningful to themselves or others. Why? The worth of their activities can only be determined by how they fulfill the reptilian desires of others or themselves and therefore lack the fulfillment that most human mind’s desire to learn and contemplate its will’s desires. It comes as little surprise that every year those in the hedonistic businesses of prostitution, pornography, drug dealing, drug abuse are statistically overrepresented in homicide and suicide figures. It is tragic. Too many of them have deemed themselves without worth and then others without worth. People become only implements of pleasure taking their relationships from what Martin Buber called an “I-thou” status to an “I-it” status.
Meaning comes from the life of the mind. It comes with the engagement of curiosity. Luckily for us, curiosity can be fulfilled in any number of ways. People learn about one another and devise ways to please them in their reptile ways and in their higher cognition. We make food that pleases our senses but then also can be communicated in language as instructions – either written or orally – so as to give us an activity with which to occupy our times and then, perhaps, share with others. We can make art as simple as sewing a small hat for a newborn child which will earn us the thanks of our friends or family who might then reciprocate to us thereby fulfilling a creature comfort that keeps a child warm, a primate desire to be social and appreciated, and the deeply human cognitive desire to use tools to make something new that can then affect our environment in some way. This list can go on and on and on: music, painting, religion, ceremonies, films, writing, taking classes, riding bicycles in Le Tour de France or being a fan of the riders who compete in Le Tour de France. All of these give us meaning. But are they good?
Good is an emergent property of deliberate altruism. The highest good and our greatest joys come from loving and sharing our love with our closest relatives, friends, community, and ideological members . That good should be extended to many: human and non-human animals, trees, mosses, and the entire environment. Good must come about from behaving honestly and openly with the best intentions for others as you would like for yourself. The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” The Categorical Imperative. I am in some ways a utilitarian who believes that generally the good of the many outweighs the good of the one. But I am also a civil libertarian who believes the interests of many are served by recognizing the sovereignty of the individual over themselves. This means that people are free to be as unhappy as they like until they infringe on those inalienable rights that most citizens of the United States take for granted.
So it seems that pleasure, meaning, and good give birth to happiness. A happy life comes with a sated libido, a full stomach, and a good night’s sleep for a person who values the activities of their daily lives and who carries out their actions in the interest of the greatest good. Or is it?
To cite one of the greatest monsters of history, I wonder if Genghis Khan was truly less happy than I am. Can we say that the forefather of 1 in 400 men on the planet who dominated tens of thousands of square miles of Eurasia and allegedly relished with glee the sight of his opponents’ suffering and spilled entrails…can we say that he was less happy than I am or you are? Perhaps we might explain his glee away by saying he was a megalomaniac. So we might say about Ivan the Terrible. Stalin. Hitler. Mao. Pol Pot. Charles Manson.
Perhaps if we read the book of Genesis’ story of Noah and the flood, we would come to see that Yahweh, the God of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, was a genocidal megalomaniac because he destroyed almost all life on earth except for two of each kind. In the process, would this not kill untold billions of innocents? In this light, can Yahweh be truly happy according to my definition. I suppose not.
But my definition is contingent upon my subjective feelings and cognitions. In that way, I find that the happy life is inevitably an illusion that we create to give ourselves meaning and that like Sisyphus, we are faced with explicate-order and implicate-order rocks that we push up metaphorical hills in our struggle to attain great heights. We like living enough that we will create any number of beliefs to hold ourselves up to keep going, pining to procreate our genes and our memes. Ultimately our meaning though is as self-involved as Narcissus and his image in the pond and perhaps few of the beliefs that we jealously guard are true in any objective sense. Happiness is a pleasurable illusion that we might all share.
We are strange loops. We maneuver our rocks up the hill only to see it tumble down another side. But let us hope that like Camus’ Sisyphus, we smile.

1. I am, perhaps unfairly, leaving the mentally retarded, seriously mentally ill, and the clinically insane out of my argument. To be honest, I don’t know that they can be truly happy. But that is beyond the scope of this brief essay.
2. However, we must always mind our species’ tendency toward clannishness whether as tribalism, nationalism, or ideological fundamentalism. These tendencies in humans limit our empathy and certainly compromise the essence of the Golden Rule. So we must extend our love, our altruism to all those who will share.

Historical revisionists and Hindu prayers in Congress

Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars Ed Brayton has posted a really good rebuttal to Rep. Sali (R.-Idaho) who objected to the Hindu prayer in Congress last month. Sali's sectarian intolerance comes as no surprise to me, nor does his defense of it by quote-mining founding fathers or using invented quotations (mis)attributed to George Washington.
Once again, these ideological revisionists will do whatever they can to shove their religions into everyone else's lives.
Brayton concludes well, saying

The problem is not that you're defending your faith, the problem is that you're claiming, falsely, that the faith of Adams and Franklin is identical to yours. That is clearly not the case. Their own words show that they reject your position on this, but you're too ignorant to know that.

A Brief Rant

I am not a believer in God, gods, spirits or any of the other nonsense that theists have foisted onto the masses for millenia. Before the advent of the scientific method, it might have been reasonable to believe in a creator. But in today's world, the educated have no solid reason to have faith in those things for which there are no evidence.
Faith is a slippery word. A child has faith that his/her parents will lead them to good and a spouse is said to be faithful if they are loyal. The parents nurture their child, hold them tight as they cry in the night, help them to suckle, and play safely in a world fraught with potential danger. Spouses repiprocate their feelings, talk deep into the night as they stare at Orion's belt or wonder how they came to meet, and enjoy the bliss of sex. But in the first instance, isn't it rather that once we learn that our parents treat us well that we trust them? And in the second instance aren't we loyal to our spouses out of reciprocity and trust? We learn, by experience, that there are reasons to believe that our parents will do us well and that our spouses will as well. And if they don't, we rightly (generally we hope) leave them.
Faith, though, is belief in things unseen and unexperienced...even more, unmeasured and unknowable. I do not mean that I can use a yardstick to measure the length of my love for my son or use a scale to weigh the profundity of my wife's loyalty or use a barometer to gauge the pressure of my sister's joy. But I can infer easily with my senses that she acts directly in my interest and she can do so for me. No such way exists for God(s) except through delusion and self-deception. It boggles my mind that there are tens of millions of my fellow Americans believe fervently in something that they say "moves in mysterious ways," is inscrutable, exists outside of time and space, and yet they know it loves them and condemns homosexuality or created the earth in six days. Is it inscrutable or not?
Why believe in such a thing? Why trust in something for which you cannot account and can behave outside of the rules that you have demanded of every other operant being in your small known universe? Why does God get away with demanding human sacrifice buy the Maya or the Spartans do not? Why can God demand the servitude and sexual submission of a naive virgin girl and it is miraculous when any other being we know of doing the same act would be a rapist? Why can God commit genocide in the books of Deuteronomy, Judges or Joshua (just to name three) and it is the glorious fulfillment of a plan but if Hitler kills all of the Jews, who are indicted in the Book of John as the murderer of Jesus, then it is murderous and hateful? Why is Mao more murderous than Yahweh? How is Stalin worse than Yahweh or Allah? God is, to paraphrase Dawkins, a genocidal bully.
I am not a believer in large part because "true-belief" Christians - dispensationalists, dominionists, and other fundamentalists - are relatavists of the worst sort. They hold three standards: one for God who can do whatever he wants to because he is the ultimate arbiter no matter what good arguments are posed; a second for those who follow this God and do his bidding no matter how subjective or amorphous; a third for those who hesitate to believe or don't believe the same way. Modern Christianity in America is a chimera and a hoax of the worst kind. It leads people to believe in nonsense and then to act on that nonsense to destructive, unethical, and immoral ends. It denies facts and demands servility in the service of a slaver's agenda. And that slaver doesn't even exist. It is a tissue of lies and deceit that is infinitely more dangerous than the tooth fairy. It is the source of too many problems and I for one have no faith in it.

Local governments get in bed with fundamentalism

Here we go. As if the Answers in Genesis scientificky sciencey anti-museum weren't awful enough on its own, a local Kentucky tourist bureau has endorsed the anti-museum in its literature. The Cincinatti Enquirer carries today's story.

The Northern Kentucky Convention & Visitors Bureau on its Web site says of the controversial museum: "This 'walk through history' museum will counter evolutionary natural history museums that turn countless minds against Christ and Scripture."

Well that's definitely the government's business to tell into what religion they should (and therefore should not) be indoctrinated. I have little problem with people visiting the anti-museum except that it will detract several points from their IQs. But the Establishment Clause and the Lemon Test make it pretty clear that this is not for the government. It doesn't get much closer to a state-sponsored church than this.

ID apologists just keep whining.

Over at Denyse O'Leary's Post-Darwinistshe's posted an entry that laments poor Michael Behe's thrashing by those nasty Darwinists who've reviewed his piece of trash, The Edge of Evolution. In her post she quotes from a pair of interviews she did with Behe in which they bring up the Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne reviews. They then wonder whether Dawkins and Coyne read the book because Dawkins brought up dogs.

O'Leary: I still can't believe that Dawkster garbage about dogs. [Richard Dawkins's review of Behe's book that did not make clear whether he had even read it or understood the challenge it poses to Darwinism, and indulged in an extended riff about intelligently designed dog breeding.]
Behe: Yeah, I was astounded when Dawkins talked dogs. Now Jerry Coyne is doing it too! These guys have some serious problems.

Did they read the reviews? Coyne thrashed that book and turned it into pulp in a lengthy review. [Note: I admire Coyne's extensive articulate style, excellently showcased in that review as well as "Intelligent Design: The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name".] But there is not one piece of substantive rebuttal to Dawkins, Coyne, Miller, or any of the tons of blogs that took Edge of Evolution through the ringer. No, they make a little joke out of Dawkins point. Let's look at it:

The crucial passage in “The Edge of Evolution” is this: “By far the most critical aspect of Darwin’s multifaceted theory is the role of random mutation. Almost all of what is novel and important in Darwinian thought is concentrated in this third concept.”
What a bizarre thing to say! Leave aside the history: unacquainted with genetics, Darwin set no store by randomness. New variants might arise at random, or they might be acquired characteristics induced by food, for all Darwin knew. Far more important for Darwin was the nonrandom process whereby some survived but others perished. Natural selection...explains the elegant illusion of design that pervades the living kingdoms and explains, in passing, us. Whatever else it is, natural selection is not a “modest” idea, nor is descent with modification.
But let’s follow Behe down his solitary garden path and see where his overrating of random mutation leads him. He thinks there are not enough mutations to allow the full range of evolution we observe. There is an “edge,” beyond which God must step in to help. Selection of random mutation may explain the malarial parasite’s resistance to chloroquine, but only because such micro-organisms have huge populations and short life cycles. A fortiori, for Behe, evolution of large, complex creatures with smaller populations and longer generations will fail, starved of mutational raw materials.
If mutation, rather than selection, really limited evolutionary change, this should be true for artificial no less than natural selection. Domestic breeding relies upon exactly the same pool of mutational variation as natural selection. Now, if you sought an experimental test of Behe’s theory, what would you do? You’d take a wild species, say a wolf that hunts caribou by long pursuit, and apply selection experimentally to see if you could breed, say, a dogged little wolf that chivies rabbits underground: let’s call it a Jack Russell terrier. Or how about an adorable, fluffy pet wolf called, for the sake of argument, a Pekingese? Or a heavyset, thick-coated wolf, strong enough to carry a cask of brandy, that thrives in Alpine passes and might be named after one of them, the St. Bernard? Behe has to predict that you’d wait till hell freezes over, but the necessary mutations would not be forthcoming. Your wolves would stubbornly remain unchanged. Dogs are a mathematical impossibility.

So what is the rebuttal to this? On O'Leary's blog it's that these rebuttals come from scientists who have gone off the deep end or, if you take a look at Behe's book, an argument from ignorance and a god of the gaps that ignores or distorts the role of natural selection so far as this blogger can tell. By reading a mountain of blog reviews that cross disciplines we can see a panoply of good reasoning that flunks Behe's bad math and bad science.
But what does O'Leary do? She makes it about the evil oligarchy of Darwinists by bringing up Lehigh University's statement that stands for academic integrity and against bad science:

The faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences is committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity and academic function. This commitment carries with it unwavering support for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. It also demands the utmost respect for the scientific method, integrity in the conduct of research, and recognition that the validity of any scientific model comes only as a result of rational hypothesis testing, sound experimentation, and findings that can be replicated by others.

The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years. The sole dissenter from this position, Prof. Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of "intelligent design." While we respect Prof. Behe's right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.

It's imperative that they make it clear. Not only are their images on the line, but the integrity of the scientific enterprise is at stake because of Behe's and the DI's arguments from logical fallacies, quote-mining, and hand-waving.
I suggest O'Leary et al get some real arguments instead of a bunch of foolish bluster and goal-post maneuvering.

Creationists for genocide: A new post at TalkReason

Over at TalkReason, Professor Hector Avalos has posted a new article called "Creationists for Genocide" which refutes the babble of many a Creationist that the Darwin's Theory of Evolution somehow led to Hitler.
Avalos writes

One understands nothing about creationism unless one understands that it is meant to be a system of ethics. That is why the assault on evolution has always included a lengthy history of moral judgments against evolution. Perhaps none of these judgments has been more accusatory than the idea that Darwinism led to the Holocaust. Such an idea is trumpeted in many creationist venues, including books and blogs. A prime example of this accusation today is found in Richard Weikart's From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (2004).

As someone who teaches a course on the arts before, during, and in the aftermath of the Third Reich, we must deal with the Judenfrage, or "Jewish Question" and its Enloesung, or "Final Solution." Even cursory understandings of German culture show us the entrenched anti-semitism that was based in religion. The most powerful of these in Germany were, of course, from Luther, who wrote The Jews and Their Lies.

"First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. ..."
"Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. ..."
"Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them. ..."
"Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. ..."
"Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. ..."
"Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them. ... Such money should now be used in ... the following [way]... Whenever a Jew is sincerely converted, he should be handed [a certain amount]..."
"Seventh, I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow... For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time behind the stove, feasting and farting, and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat. No, one should toss out these lazy rogues by the seat of their pants."
"If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews' blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from our country" and "we must drive them out like mad dogs."

Here then, the founder of the Protestant Reformation, has set the agenda for the Enloesung centuries before Darwin. Anyway, read on at TalkOrigins where you can see the historical ties of religion to genocide and its appropriation of anything to make its goal. Quote-mining is an old art it seems.

This just in from EXPELLED! the movie

Hmmm. So I thought I'd check out what you get when you sign up for material from the folks at EXPELLED and so far, I am unsurprised. It's the usual claptrap:
Hey ----,
We're really happy to have you on board. EXPELLED is sure to stir up a lot of controversy and bring up a lot of important questions. It's critical that we take a stand to fight for the truth. In EXPELLED, Ben questions why all the anti-theist Darwinists are so nervous right now. What are they so afraid of? That's what I'd like to know, too. What are they hiding?

Wherever you are on the spectrum of belief, it's critical that all students have as much information as possible in order to make the most informed decisions they can. This fight is about making sure we all have access to the truth.

We've got a LOT of great things coming down the pipeline in this campaign and the ultimate goal is to stage a series of nationwide debates in your high schools and universities, led by YOU.
Go ahead...let your voice be heard!

Make sure you check the website/email frequently to get the latest updates.
And invite a friend to join the campaign too.
I am afraid that these folks will successfully redefine science and use their notions of "mere creation" or "theistic realism" to send us back in time to the days before the scientific method was the best explanatory tool we have. No. The best invention human beings have ever made except maybe art. No. Science is better.
But we Darwinists (Oooooh!!! Boogiemen!!!!) aren't hiding anything. We don't need to. That's what's great about science. We can expose any part of it to the light by looking at peer-reviewed studies and replicable research unlike that religious revelation and apologetics they're traipsing out from the Discovery Institute, Access Research Network, ID Network, Uncommon Descent, and the rest of it. I don't do the research, but I keep up and I trust that bad ideas will be shelled or relegated to, at best, tertiary positons given enough time and effort. But the effort it's taken to totally dismantle ID's fact and logic claims has been quick in large part because the arguments are just dressd up Paley and creationist nonsense.
I couldn't agree with these guys more that this is "about access to the truth." That's why I fight against them tooth and nail every day. They aren't demons. They're people with agenda and so am I. It just so happens that one of us (me and the enlightened community) are honest and one of us is not (DI and its IDiot followers).
There might be a debate, but it's a pop-culture debate and one that I am happy to participate in. But their ideas are so vacuous (devoid of content) that scientists shouldn't have to take them on. Yet they do, and expose them for the frauds they are. Just link to any of the Wiessenshaft blogs or sites to your right on my blog and you can see the IDiots shredded for using a transparent media campaign built on a religious house of cards. This isn't about science. It's about religion and I am so tired of the wolf in sheep's clothing - ID trying to pass itself off as science by using its "inference to the best explanation" nonsense. It's not a good inference. It's totally subjective.

A new ID movie, EXPELLED! is yet more of the "wedge"

So PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, and Eugenie Scott are featured in a new ID movie called Expelled! that features Ben Stein and uses "Bad to the Bone!" as its theme song.
Check out there awesome banner!

I mean, how hip and rebellious can one group get? Ben Stein!!! WOW!!! He's such a rebel having worked for Richard Nixon and speaking out for that oppressed Christian minority. What a bunch of s***! And it seems pretty clear that this is just another part of the PR campaign inherent in the "Wedge" strategy. Consider these parts:

Phase I.

Scientific Research, Writing & Publicity
Phase II.

Publicity & Opinion-making
Phase III.

Cultural Confrontation & Renewal

Phase I. Scientific Research, Writing & Publication
Individual Research Fellowship Program
Paleontology Research program (Dr. Paul Chien et al.)
Molecular Biology Research Program (Dr. Douglas Axe et al.)

Phase II. Publicity & Opinion-making
Book Publicity
Opinion-Maker Conferences
Apologetics Seminars
Teacher Training Program
Op-ed Fellow
PBS (or other TV) Co-production
Publicity Materials / Publications

Phase III. Cultural Confrontation & Renewal
Academic and Scientific Challenge Conferences
Potential Legal Action for Teacher Training
Research Fellowship Program: shift to social sciences and humanities

Well, consider that Phase I, which is by far the most important in terms of its validity, has gotten nowhere at all. Zilcho. I guess they might have something going in a subterranean top-secret bunker of scientificy scienciness but I'm waiting for the evidence. Time will tell.
Phase III has also not gotten very far because of the setbacks in Ohio, Kansas, and especially Dover.
So this is just more of Phase II. More empty rhetoric dressed up in glitzy grammar. I will be joining PZ and Ed Brayton in wholeheartedly trashing this movie.
Others have really covered this way better than I can (especially PZ). Follow the links in from this Pandas Thumb link.

Michael Schermer on the Colbert Report

Michael Schermer, editor of Skeptic magazine appeared on the Colbert Report and promoted science.
I like Schermer more and more. His manner isn't so much my thing but he has taken to heart the call that science, skepticism, and understanding history (watch the Penn & Teller Bullshit episode on the Bible) needs to be promoted positively and shown to be powerful tools that are also fun, exciting, and meaningful. The folks over at Framing Science will surely be happy that Schermer is carrying the banner of positive science out there so that the only loud voices aren't just Dawkins, Dennett, and Stenger who have been (rightly) trashing God. Schermer doesn't care much about that and has joined up with the likes of Ken Miller, Lawrence Krauss, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Neil deGrasse Tyson to show the public that while science may be about disproof, it's also about excitement and wonder. That isn't to say that Dawkins et al are somehow opposed to wonder. All you have to do is read a book like River out of Eden to know that Dawkins is so in love with nature that anyone who would shortchange her beauty needs a good bloody nose. But Schermer and friends do show us what it should be about - wonder in the face of resplendent nature. If only those pesky fundamentalists...err...yeah...forget them.
Go team reason!

The end of an era: Nick Matzke leaves NCSE

Everyone say, "Bye Nick. We'll miss you."
Nick was the wizard behind the curtain at the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial in 2005 and has been Public Information Project Director at the National Center for Science Education (links to their farewell). He lined up so much material for the prosecution and made sure that they had their ducks in a row. Had he not been there, it might not have gone so well. To quote Matthew Chapman, Darwin's great-great-grandson,

"The NCSE staffer initially assigned to the Dover flare-up, he now briefed the lawyers on the arcane ins and outs of science. Bespectacled, in his thirties, he was tall and large and peered down at you with a look of beleaguered doubt, as if to say, 'You're asking me this question about science, but you know and I know that you're not going to understand my answer, so, although I find this stuff fascinating, wouldn't you really rather go for a beer?'"

When I went to the last day of the trial I got to chat for a few minutes with him and Wesley Elsberry after the closing arguments. They were so excited and rightly so. Scott Minnich had just been picked apart on the stand, the Dover board had been made to look like fools, Of Pandas and People was shown to be not only pseudoscience but relabelled creationism, William Dembski and Stephen Meyer failed to show up, and Michael Behe had been forced to admit that the new definition he proposed to ensconce ID as science would make astrology into science. What wasn't there to celebrate about? But Nick kept it pretty cool and was eager to chat with people including me, a lowly reporter for Voices.
I wish Nick the best of luck as he proceeds to his doctoral studies in Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley.

CFI Secular Society Conference

Well, here is another thing I'd love to be able to attend. Given that I'm already booked pretty heavily, we'll see about it.
The Center for Inquiry is running a fantastic conference this November 9-11 titled Religion, Secularism & Politics in the Twenty-First Century. Some of my favorite people will be there including Christopher Hitchens (author, journalist, and public intellectual), Eugenie Scott (head of the National Center for Science Education), Ann Druyan (widow of Carl Sagan, amazing writer, and skeptic), Neil deGrasse Tyson (president of the Hayden Planetarium and astrophysicist), and more.
What is the conference about?

The world is finally waking up to the dangers of religious faith. Books defending reason and religious skepticism top the bestseller lists. Secular Muslims are standing up for freedom of thought. The secular perspective has finally gained currency in the media and in cross-cultural dialogue. Young freethinkers and secularists are organizing and speaking out on campuses, ready to carry the torch of secularism into the new millennium.

Yet religious fervor in the United States and abroad remains at an all-time high. Science education suffers from the constant onslaught of creationist activists. Democratic politicians have joined Republicans in pandering to religious prejudices. The American courts are stacked with judges who openly denigrate the nation’s vital and historic separation of church and state. Islamic radicalism is on the rise in Europe as well as in the Middle East. In many ways, societies the world over face the ominous threat of de-secularization.

How do we seize this moment of opportunity to address secularism’s many challenges? How can secularists build a lasting movement? What political and rhetorical strategies should the reality-based community employ? Does vocal criticism of religion help or hinder the cause of secularism? Hear the thoughts of the world’s leading minds on these and many other questions.

This is going to be good.
If I can't attend, I hope they capture some of it on video, audio, or get transcripts so that those who can't attend can get a glimpse.

New computer. New editing post. New semester.

Yesterday I got my new computer, a 2007 MacBook. So far, so good. It's a sexy little thing. Let's hope it keeps working. My old iBook was too old and had crapped out. There's still a bunch of stuff on it that I need to transfer and I would like to do that before next week.
In other news, I am now the Community and Lifestyles editor for Voices, a local paper with a strong focus on labor, secularism, the environment and liberal/progressive things. We focus on issues pertinent to and developing in central Pennsylvania.
Finally, next Monday, the fall semester starts and it is going to be a busy one. I am teaching two sections of Integrative Arts 1: Intro to the Arts wherein we watch, listen to, and read art that is all done as a reaction to war or in preparation for war. This includes the expressionist works of the Second Viennese School (Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern), Nazi propaganda posters and the film Triumph of the Will, Night by Elie Wiesel, The Painted Bird by Kosinski, a slew of Polish and Russian music written during or in the wake of WW II, and then finally some music and fiction from Americans that reacts to the Vietnam War. In addition to that I am taking four classes to start my graduate certification/possible M.S. in social studies education.
Work. Marriage. Baby. Bikes. Editing. Keeping sane. A challenge for sure.

Civil Rights issue or P.R. problem: The New Atheists

Over at Framing Science, they've been posting a bunch about how the New Atheists (led by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and to a lesser extent Stenger) are shooting themselves in the foot. As part of this group who sees himself as an antibody in the inoculation against further religious fundamentalist infection, I am keen to understand the objections. Basically, it comes down to us being too shrill. Informing people that they are deluded or mistaken about some of their key beliefs about the nature of the universe will get us nowhere because people quickly become offended, cognitive dissonance kicks in and they opt for the most comfortable position which is generally their squishy religious beliefs. I buy the argument. People like comfort in all forms, whether it's the culturally sanctioned Sunday morning seat in the pew to hear an unmarried man tell us about the roles of men and women in marriage or a few too many donuts to fatten us up before winter.
But I digress...
Framing Science has a little catalog of their recent posts on the New Atheism. I've perused some of it and find a fair bit convincing, troubling because it concedes too much, and troubling because it seeks to brush aside atheists' rather repressed status.
The good:
Michael Schermer makes some good points in a recent article at Scientific American. I've used only the headers of some of his points:

1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail.
2. Positive assertions are necessary.
3. Rational is as rational does.
4. The golden rule is symmetrical.
5. Promote freedom of belief and disbelief.

I must agree with points 3,4, and 5 thoroughly with 5 as the most important. We must do to and for others as we want done for us. We must be honest, loving, and compassionate in our dealings or we run the risk of dehumanizing us all. The best way to do that is to be reasoned, informed, and loving in word and deed. At the heart of working democracy is the respect of the individual right to hold his/her beliefs. But the respect of the individual's beliefs do not necessarily follow. When they are transparently foolish or false in the light of all or the overwhelming majority of evidence, I needn't bow out and say, "You have the right to your opinion." Acceptance of the theory of evolution is not a matter of taste the way liking Neruda, Nielsen, or Napalm Death is. When an ideology infringes on reality, I must say, "Sorry, sir. But you are mistaken." And when someone stands in front of a gathered political body and declares the sovereignty of their sky god, its incorporeal avatar, and its carnal avatar in the form of its son over my nation and make subsequent legislation that flies in the face of all available evidence, I am going to be very motivated to annihilate them in the public war of ideas.
Therefore, I don't see how "Positive assertions are necessary" has been getting us very far in recent years. In fact, the Sagans, Krausses, and Goulds of the world (all of whom I love and admire greatly) did just that. Each of them, in word and deed, have promoted the scientific method, naturalism, and humanism beautifully by setting up positive examples and offering us the beauty of the natural world of which we are a part. A small part, but no less beautiful for our little role.
Positive assertions are necessary. We need to see the beauty and elegance that the universe offers us in its forms most beautiful: the Crab Nebula; the radial perfection of a nautilus shell as it spirals outward from the center constantly maintaining the golden ratio of the Fibonacci Series; the art of Kandinsky; the symphonies of Mahler; or as Paul Masvidaal wrote in the Portal song "Cosmos",

I long to live with some celestial beings
to adore in silence blissful friends
gliding into constellations of their smiles
melting into shining eyes

Celestial beings aside (which I do sometimes wish existed the same way that I wished dinosaurs were still around) I really love my community, my friends, my loved ones, and hope that all people can glide in constellations of their loved ones' smiles. That is positive. It is largely what I live for.
There is nothing more beautiful to me than my son's smile. The other night, I was pacing with him in the crook of my arm where he falls asleep most easily and I was overcome with how much I love him. He is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Nothing else has come close. Maybe my wife. Maybe. And that profound connection to him gives me even more meaning.
Why does understanding that that meaning results from my DNA's desire to replicate itself? That's just what DNA does. It replicates and has created remarkable ways for it do that, including stumbling on the emergent properties of cognition and its problem-solving ability. I am a cognizant being that wants to replicate itself and has done so and unsurprisingly found meaning doing it. What can possibly be controversial about that? Is it because I, following Darwin and Dawkins, have been able to trace one of the very hearts of Christianity - be fruitful and multiply - back to the material cause of DNA? Why should simple recognition of material reality discount me from holding public office?
This is where the "civil rights" issue kicks in. And yes, to an extent, I think that atheists have been kept down as a minority and encouraged to keep their mouths shut. Well, I won't.

Challenging Christian Nationalism at the USAF

This is an interesting piece over at The Humanist by Carlos Bertha. For a few years now we've been hearing reports, complaints really, that chaplains at the United States Air Force Academy (USAF) have been proselytizing to the cadets. Big shock. Evangelical Christians who are bent on making this a Christian nation can't keep their mits off of others' beliefs and use their government positions to convert the armed forces into a sword for Christ.
Here is an excerpt:

There are two main issues here: the mission of the institution and what sort of institution it is. According to page one of the USAFA Officer Development System Handbook of February 2004, the mission of the Air Force Academy is to "graduate lieutenants of character" for the U.S. Air Force. Faculty members are here to educate students, while air officers commanding--normally active-duty Air Force majors in charge of a squadron of 120-plus cadets--are here to provide basic military training to would-be lieutenants. This seems straightforward enough.

But the second issue throws a bit of a wrench in things. The USAFA is a military unit and, as such, it is also an institution of the federal government. Employees of the Academy are therefore subject to all sorts of laws and regulations to which ordinary university professors are not. For example, the law--as currently written--makes what I write in my office the possession of the government, which isn't subject to copyright. This means that, unlike a professor at the neighboring Colorado College, I can't write a book, negotiate to get it published, and earn royalties from it...

...What I may say in class is curtailed by the establishment clause of the First Amendment. As a representative of the U.S. government--which I most certainly am as a member of the faculty--I can't tell cadets that becoming a Christian is the only way to salvation, or that God is the adult version of an invisible friend. Could I say these things if I were to preface them with "In my opinion"? Well, no, because despite my best intentions, the military structure of the USAFA makes me the de facto commander of the classroom, and what the commander says can be--and often is--construed as the government's position on an issue.

This is really important. It's another example of Barry Lynn's allegation about "damnable religion" in the U.S., Chris Hedges' Christo-fascists, Kevin Phillips' argument that U.S. government has become entangled with an evangelical sect of Christianity that mustn't hold, and a perfect example of why Sam Harris wrote Letter to a Christian Nation.
This kind of proselytizing would fail the Lemon Test flat out. Why?
Prong one:

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose;

While chaplains are not statutes, they function as the executors of the secular government. As such, they are functionally carrying out the duties of legislation. In this regard, I would say that a Chaplain can never serve a secular function, but I begrudgingly yield to the spiritual welfare of soldiers and their faiths. That said, deliberate conversion at the level alleged at the USAF can not serve any secular purpose whatever, and can, in fact only serve sectarian Christian - namely Evangelical - purposes.
Prong two:

second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion;

The principal effect here does both. It advances the aforementioned sectarian agenda and seeks to repress the non-evangelical Christian faiths of others. It also inhibits on the non-believers' right to not believe. There are atheists in foxholes guys.
Prong three:

finally, the statute must not foster "an excessive government entanglement with religion."

This is a no-brainer as well. The chaplains are clearly entangling, via their government position, the government with a particular sectarian agenda. They will and are crying that their First Amendment rights would be trampled if they are not permitted to convert because it would inhibit their freedoms of speech and religion. Sorry guys. You are in a position to coerce. They don't have all of their First Amendment rights in the Air Force anyway.
When will the militant Christian nationalists learn that THEY are the ones ripping the country apart by forcing the divisions in the nation? It's absurd.

How might we New Atheists fail?

In a recent post on Science Blogs, called Framing Science, the author takes some of us New Atheists to task for forcing the religious moderatesand others into overly cognitively dissonant positions.

Everything we know from social science research on attitude formation and beliefs predicts that the communication strategy of the New Atheist noise machine will only further alienate moderately religious Americans, the very same publics who might otherwise agree with secularists on many social issues.

So we should temper the message and be more like the flock I suppose. Wear the sheep's clothes while we stalk among them? How do you quietly annihilate nonsense?
He uses a Carol Tarvis interview from Point of Inquiry to support his view.

Well DJ, as someone who has read our book and who understands cognitive dissonance, you would know exactly what the prediction is. Well this is one of the things I think is so important for scientists to understand, how cognitive dissonance works.
When they go around saying "Oh look how foolish it is to believe such and such a thing." What they are doing is putting people into a state of dissonance. "I am a smart capable, wise, kind person and you are telling me I believe something that is stupid and wrong, to the hell with you!"
To understand dissonance is to understand how to persuade other people, because you can't do it by making them feel stupid that they hold such and such belief.
I think it is really important for skeptics and scientists to avoid that tone that we know what is right and you don't. "We are smart because we are scientists and you are not..."
Not only is the tone off putting to somebody you want to persuade, but you won't be persuasive, it makes the other person defensive and even more likely to protect their own views.

This is food for thought though I am not likely to eat it now. I need some more people, not on my team, to talk to about it. Any takers? Convince me that not only should I temper my message, but give me some ideas as to how without compromising the integrity of the message. I'm game if you are.

The next piece of the 'Wedge' Strategy: "Shattered Tablets"

Here is the next piece of nonsense from a fellow at the Discovery Institute. Shattered Tablets by David Klinghoffer, comes as the newest batch of nonsense to fight the vicious cabal of naturalists, materialists, and atheists. How are we to do that? The Ten Commandments stupid!
The following is taken from the excerpt in the above link. After talking about one of Richard Dawkins' recent appearances on his God Delusion book tour and quaintly declaring Intelligent Design "a minority scientific viewpoint" (where is the science exactly and how tiny is that minority?), Klinghoffer says the following:

It just so happens that, centuries before Darwin, medieval Jewish scholars understood that the distinction between the “naturalistic worldview” and its “alternative” was exactly the key to understanding the first commandment. Recall the exact wording: “I am the Lord your God, who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” The Jewish sages asked why, in defining Himself, God had harked back to the exodus of the Jews from Egyptian slavery, recounted in the Bible's Book of Exodus shortly before the giving of the Ten Commandments, rather than to a still more dramatic event: the creation of the world, which He accomplishes in the Bible’s opening chapter. It’s as if a parent, wanting to impress her child with the awesomeness of the parent–child bond, were to say, “I’m your mother, who picks you up from school every day,” rather than, “I’m your mother, who gave birth to you.”

Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, an Italian sage born about 1470, taught that God saw it as a matter of highest priority to warn against what we today call a naturalistic worldview. If He had defined Himself here as the creator, that would not draw the line sharply enough. After all, there are ways to explain certain aspects of creation within the limits of naturalistic terms. But the Exodus is different. Accompanied by ten bizarre plagues that God inflicted on the Jews’ Egyptian oppressors, and climaxing with His splitting of the Sea of Reeds to drown the Egyptian army as it pursued the escaped slaves, the Exodus can only be comprehended as a miracle, a blatant violation of nature’s laws.

The point is, God does what He wants. He interferes. He gets involved in our lives and the lives of all creatures past and present, if often from inscrutable motives, reserving the right to direct the whole world down to the smallest details. He runs the show. And He doesn’t let nature stand in His way. This is the claim made by the first commandment, and it is one at which many Americans bridle.

I suppose that the book is about this nonsense - the enormous dichotomy between the vile belief in the naturalism and the loving liberation of the god of Judea who brought the Israelites out of Egypt. Ignore the overwhelming fact that philosophical naturalism is predicated on that which we know, that which we verify, that which we can deduce, induce, and infer to the best explanation and that all observable phenomena are either directly attributable to natural/material causes or so correlated with natural/material cause that to deny its reality as material is crazy. Ignore, also, the fact that Klinghoffer's recites the tired Exodus story, a story with absolutely NO evidence existing for it at all (see here and here.) He also whips out the creation myth too. Notice that this is a fight between reality and myths. How is this happening?
This shows the DI's concern in all of its glory. This is wish-thinking trying to take us on a trip back to the Middle Ages, before 1470, when we didn't use the scientific method and the European peasantry believed that Jews couldn't procreate without the blood of a Christian girl. This is the newest salvo from the theistic realists (older post). And the DI has a think tank about Science and Culture? Come on.
Sorry Klinghoffer, the point isn't that God interferes. The point is that his nearsighted minions interfere. They, read you, get involved in the lives of living creatures in an effort to extend human dominion over the whole earth for transparent reasons - power. But luckily, you don't run the show and nature stands firmly in your way because any serious investigation of the natural material world, of which human beings are a part, yields natural and material results that, when seriously considered without the blinders of religion, cast all of the gods of men into history's trash can. No matter how many mutations your religion takes, the selective pressures of culture will force it to become unrecognizable in its present form or it will go extinct.
I wish I could say, "I'm sorry." But I'm not. The U.S. doesn't need more adherence to the Ten Commandments (most of which are totally irrelevant to civic life anyway) and the superstitions to which its attached. We don't need more sectarian wrangling. We don't need more ignorance built on the revelations of Bronze Age shepherds. We need Enlightened thought.
I'm glad the tablets were shattered. I wish they'd be banished from our lives forever. Our moral principles do just fine without them.