Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

March 6, 2010

Responses to Lea Anne

Filed under: Education, meta — codesmithy @ 10:23 pm

Lea Anne was a commenter on the “90 Minutes in Heaven: One Atheist’s Perspective” post. I decided to answer in another post because it was getting off-topic and to give it more space.

In my first response, Lea Anne expresses her frustration with me making a big deal out of stuff I say doesn’t happen. In the context of the “90 Minutes in Heaven” post, I told her that I didn’t feel I was making a “big deal” out of it. I had merely read the book, at the prompting of another Christian, and wrote what I thought about it. Lea Anne felt that I had misconstrued the context of her question.

The “Big Deal” that I was talking about was the fact you don’t believe there is a God, not about the book. You’re whole website is devoted to disproving that God is real.

Let’s look at the most popular pages on this website:

Yes, “90 Minutes in Heaven” is top, followed by
Energy Ignorance: Making Saltwater Burn
Marie Antoinette and “Let Them Eat Cake”
Reuters Falls for Water-Powered Car Hoax
Aftermath of Spanish-American War Applied to Iraq
Robert Murray: Sociopath

So, I wouldn’t say the whole website is devoted to “disproving that God is real.” In fact, depending on define God, there are some claims about God I have no quarrel with. For example, pantheists say God is the universe that we are one with. That seems perfectly true to me, but indubitably confusing. So a truer statement would be: a portion of the website is devoted to explaining why claims for the existence of the Christian God are invalid or insufficient. I’ll have to work on making that a bit pithier.

I brought up Jephthah, and Lea Anne asked:

What do you like about Jephthah?

There is nothing I like about Jephthah. It is a cruel story in a book that is filled with cruel stories made all the more tragic by the fact there actually isn’t a celestial dictator pulling the strings, just a father killing his daughter for no good reason. Just like all the “witches” that have been burned to death for giving the “evil eye” or “cursing” people. Superstition kills.

What seems to me to be the best way to prevent future tragedies like these is to diffuse the lunacy before it becomes a dangerous cancer. This can be done by exerting social pressure by expressing incredulity.

You think there are aliens behind the Hale-Bopp comet who will transport you to paradise? Give us your evidence.

This wisdom has been with us for ages and was probably put best in this fable by Aesop.

A certain man who visited foreign lands could talk of little when he returned to his home except the wonderful adventures he had met with and the great deeds he had done abroad.
One of the feats he told about was a leap he had made in a city Called Rhodes. That leap was so great, he said, that no other man could leap anywhere near the distance. A great many persons in Rhodes had seen him do it and would prove that what he told was true.
“No need of witnesses,” said one of the hearers. “Suppose this city is Rhodes. Now show us how far you can jump.”
Deeds count, not boasting words.

Lea Anne also asked me some questions about my education after I tried to explain that the exact and spontaneous formation of the Y-chromosome was unbelievable as a leap in one generation, but can be explained as a result of a long history of evolutionary change.

How do you know all that you know?

Skeptical and critical inquiry.

Did you read it somewhere? I’m curious to know where all this expertise comes from?

A lot of it comes from books I read, but the books aren’t an end in themselves. Good books are like good teachers, and they take you through a process or a journey.

For example, I’ve been reading “The Great Equations” by Robert P. Crease. The first equation it gives is the Pythagorean theorem: the square of the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, or c*c = b*b + a*a. The book explains the profound impact Euclid’s proof of the Pythagorean theorem had on Thomas Hobbes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually give the proof. So I looked it up online and went through it until I understood it. Understanding the proof wasn’t just memorizing the steps Euclid took and regurgitating it. In fact, I probably can’t reproduce Euclid’s proof word for word. What I can do is produce a proof based on the same ideas and arguments Euclid used. Instead of having a bunch of disconnected facts, I have a bunch of ideas that take me in the right direction. Finding specifics is as simple as using Google.

But you just can’t read it, you have to apply it also. One could read Terry Eagleton for ages and all you would have at the end of it is a brain full of mush like he does.  This is what I think was the major failing of medieval scholasticism, they never questioned the book.

March 25, 2009

Questioning Evolution

Filed under: Education, science — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:55 am

One of the themes of “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” was that there was a dogmatic rejection of Intelligent Design in academia.  There is, in fact, no dogmatic rejection of Intelligent Design on the part of academia.  An acceptance of Intelligent Design as an intelligible explanation for aspects of nature would signal that we had entered into a new dark age.  The most succinct reason Intelligent Design isn’t a good scientific theory is because it doesn’t explain anything.  It is consistent with any and all facts we could discover about the universe including incorrect ones.  We find a natural explanation for the bacterial flagellum, the designer moves on to explain some new mystery.  Intelligent Design is no more than dressed up ignorance and no better than saying “I don’t see how this could have come about naturally, so let’s say Fred did it.”  

Sure, animals look like they have been designed, in the same way the Sun looks like it goes around the Earth.  Darwin explained how we got it backwards.  Animals adapt to their environment through a combination of mutation, inherited traits, differential survival and reproduction.  Darwin presented a substantial amount of evidence to support this view.  Since his time, every piece of credible evidence we have found has supported the general framework he proposed making it one of the best supported scientific theories in history. 

When people say they don’t feel secure about questioning evolution in academia, I say good.  It means reason is still prevailing.  If you choose to question evolution, you better have something more than your ignorance, because if that is all you bring to the table, you have just proven, beyond any shadow of a doubt, your incompetence.

Just like we wouldn’t want a detective who would throw up his hands at every mystery and declare a ghost must have done it, we don’t want to institutionalize ignorance with Intelligent Design.  Making the best decisions possible is contingent on having an accurate view of reality.  Science has proven itself to be the unmatched leader in enhancing our understanding of nature.  It is unfortunate consequence of our limited capacities that scientific knowledge has become so vast that it requires specialization to continue to make rapid progress.  Still, it is criminal to deny children a broad, basic and accurate understanding of what scientists have discovered even if we can‘t present every last detail.  

So, no, it isn’t dogmatic.  It is having standards.  Evolution meets a incredibly high standard for evidentiary support.  The reason why Intelligent Design can’t compete with evolution isn’t because of bias or discrimination, it is because it is remarkably inferior and if you can’t understand that then you have no business in the education system.

March 12, 2009

Liberty University Students Test Their Indoctrination Against Reality

Filed under: Education, politics, science — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:54 am

The Washington Post has an article on students from Liberty University taking a trip to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, presumably as a test of their religious indoctrination. Yes, they could claim that it is, I, who is indoctrinated with “Darwinism.” But, see, there is this little thing that I like to call reality. Evolution is true for the same reason the theory of gravity is true, they were arrived at by the same method. Believing in creationism requires a complete distortion of cosmology, astronomy, biology, geology, physics, along with countless other scientific fields. Steve Hendrix, the author of the piece, calls this “challenging the conventional wisdom.” I call it being in denial.

It seems to pass Hendrix without additional mention that at one moment DeWitt bemoans that some of material in the museum was out-of-date, pointing to a 1980’s-era introductory video, while one of his students is taken aback at Grandma Morgie.

Now, I’ve been to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum recently. The morganucodon is at the end of the exhibit on the dinosaurs. The overall point, which seems to have been entirely missed by this student, is that the dinosaurs go extinct, and when they do, mammals, like us, take their place.

This is not a trivial point. Evolution says that you share a common ancestor with all other forms of life on this planet. Yes, there is a common ancestor between us and chimpanzees, which usually draws the most attention. But, there is also a common ancestors between us and dogs, dinosaurs, fish etc. Richard Dawkins wrote a book examining our connections with this “Tree of Life” in The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life. Neil Shubin wrote more specifically about our fish ancestors in Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.

Somehow, I don’t feel the education of these students is lacking because they don’t have access to the latest information. Instead, it seems that they have no mastery over the basics.

I could be extrapolating too much, but the course is titled “Advanced Creation Studies” so it is more likely that this is just the tip of iceberg on nonsense that would spew forth from the mouths of these students upon a little more prodding. In the end, it is just a travesty that Liberty University is an accredited institution.

August 25, 2008

From the Front Lines of the Culture Wars

Filed under: Education, politics, religion, science — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:06 am

The New York Times has a story of a biology teacher in Florida trying to teach evolution.  Obviously it is an uphill battle.  PZ Myers asks whether or not we will ever stop running away from the source of the problem?  The source of problem, in Myers’ opinion, is religion.  I can’t help but draw parallels to Eugene V. Debs who wondered if we ever going to tackle the source of social inequity, which was in Debs’ opinion, capitalism.

Both capitalism and religion are entrenched power structures, in many cases reinforcing.  This is evidenced by the United States adding “under God” to the pledge of allegiance to stave off communism.

The goal of science education has to be in honing a certain sensibility.  A sensibility whereby people who examine the same set of evidence draw roughly similar conclusions.  If we draw vastly different conclusions, then it should be on a general acknowledgment among the informed that there is a lack of evidence one way or another.

The fact that religion falls on geo-political fault lines, as Richard Dawkins demonstrates, tells us something.  Namely, religious belief is antithetical to scientific sensibility previously described.  As long as superstition exists, including its institutional manifestation in the form of religion, there will continue to be a culture war.

I will say again, superstition is a terminal disease.  Humans are too clever.  We’ve built weapons that are too dangerous.  We made it these last 50 years by the skin of our teeth.  In case one has been paying attention, the situation is significantly worse today.  Nuclear proliferation has increased, meaning the possibility of a loose nuclear weapon is more probable.  September 11th demonstrated the resolve of religious extremists to kill scores of innocent civilians.  Population has increased.  We are having a measurable effect on the climate of the planet via our use of fossil fuels.  There are vast oceanic dead zones due to pesticides.  We are poisoning the environment, and there is an increasing probability that we will use the most lethal environmental poison we have developed so far, nuclear weapons.

We can no longer afford to entertain ignorant delusions.  It will be the undoing of civilization as we know it.    We must challenge idiocy.  We must also push aside the concern trolling reformers.  One is either for the continued survival of the human species or against it.  Either god is going to save us, or there is no help in sight.  With our collective survival at stake, do you want someone who believes in an invisible man in the sky or someone who will carefully examine the evidence and reach a reasonable conclusion?  Not teaching evolution means we will have more of the former than the later.

I say we must deal with the inconvenient truths of existence instead of shrouding them in fanciful myths.  Having a crippled intellect is no longer a matter of personal vice, but rather a moral failing.  The future depends on the choices we make today.  Failing to educate oneself or hampering the education of others is a dereliction of duty to the species.

August 13, 2008

Sanity Prevails in Federal Court

Filed under: Education, religion, science — codesmithy @ 11:30 am

U.S. District Judge James Otero ruled that the California university system can deny course credit from schools that use textbooks that declare the Bible is inerrant and reject evolution.  It is rather typical that the plaintiffs in the case would claim discrimination.  The ruling is not about religious freedom, but rather applying the same standard to all applicants.  This standard is necessarily secular because it is based on evidence we can all agree upon.

Religion, by its very nature, is based on credulity not skepticism.  Religion may satisfy certain human psychological needs but that is irrelevant to whether or not it is actually true.  The fact that religion plays off those needs means it should rationally be examined more critically, not less.  Any thing that promises eternal bliss or suffering should be examined under the most profound scrutiny.

As such, science, with its relentless skepticism, erodes religion.  The solution that the fundamentalists have stumbled upon is further indoctrination, manufactured disinformation, and ignorance.  What they seek from the rest of society is accommodation for their agenda.

I would like to believe that the cases are frivolous; their outcomes clear from the outset.  However, history shows such unconditional belief in the court system to be misplaced, which is why it is refreshing to see the system actually work.

July 11, 2008

My Letter Defending PZ Myers

Filed under: Education, politics, religion — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 10:26 am

I spent the large portion of my general blog writting time spent crafting an email defending PZ Myers’ academic freedom.  Or more to the point, his ability to express disbelief at transubstantiation.  He is probably safe, with tenure and all.  In retrospect, I probably should have pointed out how much I enjoy his blog and the interesting biological topics he covers.  There is always next time, I guess.  Anyway, a copy of the email is below.

It has come to my attention that Bill Donohue and the Catholic League is engaged in a campaign to get PZ Myers removed from his position at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

As an administrator at a higher institution of learning, I am sure you are aware of the importance of academic freedom. In our modern world, we sometimes speak of academic freedom, freedom of religion and freedom of speech without reflecting on what these concepts actually mean.
Subsequently, they become slogans without any real substance, hollow phrases. So, I would like to take a moment of your time to discuss freedom, its place in society, and finally relate it back to the particular circumstances concerning PZ Myers and Bill Donohue.

If freedom means anything in our society, it has to mean the ability to express unpopular views. Similarly, we do not defend freedom by merely defending the views we happen to agree with, but rather standing up for those with whom we disagree.

Along these lines, I understand that Catholics believe in “transubstantiation.” They are free to believe that if they wish. However, they must also respect the right of other people to say that transubstantiation does not occur, as PZ Myers did.

Complementary to this liberal concept of freedom is the standard of fairness. Fairness is not giving both sides of a disagreement equal standing (as it is commonly misapplied) but rather, holding both points of view to the same standard. If Catholics want to claim bodily theft, they
need to do so on evidence we can all reasonably agree upon, not just the tenets of their faith. Furthermore, threats of violence and other forms of intimidation should weaken our consideration of their claims, not strengthen them.

Finally, PZ Myers, as a member of the intellectual class in society, should be entitled to a significant amount of leeway to express controversial views. Academia, at its finest, does not exist to serve platitudes to those in power, rather it exposes inconvenient truths to the masses. This
sensibility is at the heart of academic freedom and the foundation of the public trust in the university as an institution. The moment the institution betrays that trust as a matter of political convenience, it
passes a terrible legacy of cravenness and capitulation onto future generations.

As an administrator of one of this nation’s institutions of higher learning, you are are a steward, not just of the ideals and values of our liberal democracy as it exists today, but also the possibilities for our nation’s future. As such, your actions and their lasting repercussions are vast, although they may not appear that way now.

The principles combined with the facts show that the case for PZ Myers’ dismissal is wholly without merit. There is no ambiguity. It is just a matter of defending another person’s right to express their views that you might not agree with and others find offensive i.e. the highest calling and
solemn duty for anyone who calls themselves a citizen of a liberal democracy.

Thank you for your time and patience.

May 16, 2008

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

Filed under: culture, Education — codesmithy @ 9:08 am

The Atlantic has an article called “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.” The byline is:

The idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. An instructor at a “college of last resort” explains why.

In the piece, an English instructor who is presumably a “professor” by his pen-name Professor X bemoans the fact that he has to fail a great number of his students. He cites an example of 9 of 15 or 60% of students will fail. Is 60% that unacceptable for a “college of last resort?”

As for the morality of the situation, it should be fairly simple. The only moral dilemma is whether students are initially mislead about their prospects of passing the course. An initial aptitude test to determine their general reading and writing level would probably suffice. As long as they are not misled about their prospects, there is no moral issue. If a student cannot put a coherent sentence together at the beginning of the class, there is little hope of them passing. It just isn’t in the scope of what can be realistically hoped to be accomplished during the class.

The author then relays the story of a hopelessly overwhelmed woman in her 40’s who the author calls Ms. L.

Ms. L. had done everything that American culture asked of her. She had gone back to school to better herself, and she expected to be rewarded for it, not slapped down. She had failed not, as some students do, by being absent too often or by blowing off assignments. She simply was not qualified for college.

At what point had Ms. L. done everything American culture had asked of her? The culture of this American is incredibly results oriented. One gets point for being competent, not because of how hard they tried. Anything less is an insult. By handing out a passing grade, the author is certifying a certain level of capability. So, let’s say the author did pass Ms. L. Let’s say Ms. L. gets a promotion instead of another person who did honestly pass. How would that be fair? Do you want a barely literate nurse treating you, when you have an injury?

Like it or not, colleges are the gate-keepers to our society. It is not “sexist,” “ageist,” or being an “intellectual snob” to tell someone they are not showing the potential to do the work required (as long as it is based on evidence not prejudice).

I sympathize with author’s plight. It is tough to be the destroyer of dreams. However, if success means anything, it is because of the string of failures left in its wake.

Here are some stories of other people who failed.

April 25, 2008

Daniel C. Dennett: Thank Goodness!

Filed under: culture, Education, religion — Tags: — codesmithy @ 8:28 am

I came across an article by Daniel C. Dennett, a “bright” philosopher of philosophy at Tufts University called “Thank Goodness!” It had a few ideas I tried to get across in an earlier post when talking about Chomsky’s remarks about religion. As I wrote at the time:

It therefore seems superficial to irrationally thank all these imaginary factors [god, prayer, etc.] without recognizing a few that actually made a tangible difference.

Dennett does an excellent job elaborating on that theme (before I thought of it no less!).  At some point I’m going to have to read his book “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,” but alas, there are only so many hours in a day.

In some ways I feel god is a stand-in for a tremendous amount of awe.  As a single person, with an individual capacity, I can’t imagine accomplishing feats such as building the car I drive from scratch, or the cell phone I use, or the apartment I live in, etc., etc.  Obviously there is someway to extract the resources of this earth in such a way to do it, but it is hard for me to fully comprehend everything it took to reach this point.  There are so many things we just take for granted, like not getting smallpox or polio that it are just extraordinarily difficult to quantify in any meaningfully way.  It seems too great for an individual, but nevertheless, it is something that we, a collection of individuals, do on a regular basis.

This is why religion scares me.  In one respect, it is insulting.  It is insulting to irrationally sing the praises of individuals and things which had no provable impact on a fortunate outcome while the people who made a difference are ignored.  If it were just in back-handed insult, I could probably ignore it.  The part that scares me is the lack of recognition.  The true believer really doesn’t see that it is us.  We did this.  Maybe with a little bit of luck and fortune, but also a lot of hard-work and sacrifice.  The failure to recognize that which is manifestly important to the essence, nature and achievement of our civilization will mean that it can be forgotten.  We can revert.  We can go back in the dark and watch the steady march of scientific progress crumble.  We can become the cargo cult worshipers, witch doctors, the people hoveled in superstition, ignorance and disinterest.  That possibility is the frightening one.

I realize there is no perfect time in history and there is no time to act in history other than the present.  Every generation must rewrite, replicate and reembody the values we wish to pass on.  However, it remains clear there are people who don’t get it.  They don’t get it because they are unable to place themselves in a world outside of themselves.  They are blind to the “goodness.”  A principle crutch to this blindness is religion.  If we care about preserving the “goodness” of the civilization, it is in our interest to takeaway that crutch.

How?  Teach comparative religion starting as early as possible.  Let them know there are at least 2 billion people who disagree with them no matter what religion they choose.  I believe the fundamental humility this realization breeds is as essential to the thinking we try to promote in education and the secular principles of our society as any other.

Religion is a real phenomenon and too important to leave to just the theologians.

March 19, 2008

Obama: A More Perfect Union

Filed under: culture, Education, history, politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:50 am

Still transcendent.

History is a mighty dramos, enacted upon the theatre of times, with suns for lamps and eternity for a background.  -Thomas Carlyle

March 3, 2008

Garbage Studies and Media Transparency

Filed under: Education, media — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:12 am

Every once in a while a news story comes along to bemoan the seeming lack of intelligence of the American population. Here is one bemoaning the ignorance of Americans of the first amendment. First of all, the study was done by McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum. From their website (unfortunately it is Flash based, and I don’t know of a way to deep-link it. Here are the links I followed Events & Information >> About Us).

The McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum is the nation’s first museum dedicated to freedom and the First Amendment.

Opening its doors on April 11, 2006, the Freedom Museum inspires generations to understand, value and protect freedom. Through interactive exploration, visitors gain a greater understanding of the struggle for freedom in the United States and the role the First Amendment plays in our daily lives.

So, a story appears bemoaning the state of education in the country about the first amendment based on a study done by an apparently expensive museum that was about to open built around educating the public on the very issue the museum is dedicated to.  Isn’t that convenient.

The underlying point is this good journalism, sound science, scrupulous governance is based around transparency.   Before the Internet, some forms of transparency were not always practical.  However, in this information age we find organizations unable to adopt the new norms, such as a simple link.  Why was the raw data not provided: the questions that were asked, the answers people gave, etc. in some standard machine readable format.  It doesn’t need to be presented in the story, however, it should be linked to and available, much like how books have endnotes.  I understand the privacy concerns over names and phone numbers, but there are certainly ways that much of the data can be filtered out and the more private data could be made available to legitimately interested parties.  Conclusions are worthless without the data that actually supports that view.

Education on the first amendment is something that I honestly support.  However, I cannot condone marketing presented as journalism.  There is a distinction between the two that it is important to maintain.  The issue isn’t whether I can prove McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum botched their study.  The issue is why the media doesn’t do more to provide transparency in such cases when the costs are negligible.

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