Monday, May 25, 2009

NASA Image of the Day


Servicing Mission 4 to the Hubble Space Telescope has generated spectacular photos for NASA's Image of the Day gallery. Looking at these stills, one really feels the force of Steven Weinberg's reflections on the dignity of science.

Unfortunately, catching a view of the pale blue planet in the photos, and being reminded that the banality and corruption that floods its surface all but drowns out such noble enterprises, one also feels the force of Weinberg's sentiment that outside of the rational quest to discover and understand, life is largely farce. I am not sure which is more amazing: our capacity to send people into space to repair telescopes that can return high-resolution photos of galaxies tens of billions of light-years away, or our inability to shake off petty tribalism and superstition.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Weinberg on science and meaning

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.
But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.

From The First Three Minutes (New York: Basic Books, 1977), pp. 154-155.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Think very, very loudly, so the rest of us can hear.

There is now video of PZ Myers' eloquent commencement address to the new graduates of the Keck School of Medicine of USC. The last lines are the kind of thing one expects to see someday in a book of famous quotes:
You are graduates of an institution that encourages you to think for yourself. I want you all to continue doing that. And what's more, I want you all to think very, very loudly, so the rest of us can hear.

I've never been so gratified to be a poor, ugly nobody.

Achieving Fame, Wealth And Beauty Are Psychological Dead Ends, Study Says

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Another tirade against atheism

Charlotte Allen has written a vapid opinion piece in which she complains that atheists are whiny and boring and angry. Having grading to do, I refrained, this time, from taking time out to shoot fish in a barrel. Besides, I figured the usuals would jump all over Allen's pompous nonsense in no time, and I wasn't disappointed: Pharyngula and Friendly Atheist, for instance, are both right on target, though Sam Harris sums it up best in his note affixed to his reprint:
This is, without a doubt, one of the most embarrassingly stupid attacks on the “new atheists” to be published in a major newspaper.
A lot of people are puzzled that the LA Times would consider something so low-caliber fit to print; personally, I think the editors must have been trying to make atheism look good. So, thanks, LA Times; we don't actually need this kind of help, but we do appreciate the sentiment.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Why we need earthquakes: because God is impotent

Do you think earthquakes are bad? Did you ever wonder why the supposedly all-powerful and all-good ruler of the universe doesn't step in and stop them? Stop wondering! Dinesh D'Souza gives you the answers in a Christianity Today piece entitled Why We Need Earthquakes. His insight?
In sum, plate tectonics are a necessary prerequisite to human survival on the only planet known to sustain life...a world [with different laws of nature] surely could not have produced creatures like us. Science tells us that our world has all the necessary conditions for species like Homo sapiens to survive and endure.
And, there you have it.

So, if someone ever tells you that God can create whatever He wants ex nihilo, tell him he's wrong: Dinesh D'Souza says that not even God can create human beings directly; the hands of the Divine Sovereign of All Creation are completely tied by the existence or non-existence of plate tectonics.

Also, when someone asks, "Well, alright, even granting all of this, why does God continue to allow earthquakes now that we're here?" tell him... uhh... hmmm... D'Souza doesn't seem to address that at all. But rest assured, there must be a good answer. All of this talk people make about how they would prevent sources of suffering like earthquakes, and all of the research we continue to do to try to minimize the harm they cause, well thank goodness we haven't succeeded as well as we wanted to, because obviously that would make the world so much worse, somehow—obviously, since God, with his infinite power to do whatever he wants, chooses to stand by twiddling his thumbs while thousands of people are killed by his wondeful creation. There must be a reason, because, I mean, Christianity must be true, mustn't it?

(Via Friendly Atheist.)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Those computer games will ruin your mind!

Sheesh! Kids today, always talking on their iPhones and their jPhones, and getting on the computer Internet to play their Second Life, and their World of Warcraft, and that game where they discover new antibiotics by predicting how proteins will fold... wait, say what?

Gamers Unravel the Secret Life of Protein

Consequences of state stem cell policies

Salon.com has an interesting article on some of the economic and political ramifications of President Obama's decision to overturn Bush's stem cell funding policy. Bush's decision, you may recall, disallowed federal funding for research involving "new lines" of embryonic stem cells. I suspect this policy already had some of the same kinds of economic and political consequences the article talks about, since it meant that researchers ought to have gravitated towards individual states that funded such research. As the Salon.com article points out, there is now, of course, even more money at stake, so researchers have even stronger pressure to move to states that have more progressive policies. The anticipated results?
Several states have set aside billions of dollars to support stem cell research, and the new federal money Obama is promising will generally flow to those areas. That means states supporting stem cell research will experience an economic windfall while attracting highly educated technology workers who tend to vote Democratic. The more conservative states restricting stem cell research will attract fewer funds and fewer socially liberal voters. In short, a state's stem cell policy will influence electoral results and help determine whether a state turns red or blue.
One commenter aptly remarked that the process would "give a whole new meaning to the 'Left Behind' series." I'm curious to see how this will actually play out. The dynamic between economics and morality (or "morality") is always fascinating.

Duhem on Ptolemy

I need to take a break from grading, so what better than to talk about books and philosophy of science?

I recently finished To Save the Phenomena, an old book by Pierre Duhem which I had wanted to read for some time now. Duhem offers what appears (deceptively, it seems—see below) to be a detailed account of the history of astronomy from the ancient Greeks all the way to Galileo, and argues that there are two conflicting approaches to astronomy which persist throughout: one that takes good theories to be literally true, and one that takes good theories merely to be adequate to account for everything we see (that is, to "save the phenomena"), without necessarily being literally true. So, for instance, when one considers the Ptolemaic system, with all of its epicycles, one might argue that the epicycles represent real, physical things (like crystalline spheres), or one might argue that they are just mathematical devices to help us calculate the complex actual paths of the planets. Likewise, when one looks at the Copernican system, one might take it to say that the Earth actually does move, or, again, one might contend that the motion of the Earth is just an abstract assumption that makes the calculations easier. If you have some background in philosophy of science, you will recognize the two approaches as scientific realism and instrumentalism, respectively.

The book excited me from the first chapter, because Duhem claimed that Ptolemy himself was an instrumentalist, which is the opposite of what I had always heard. Alas, further investigation revealed that this claim (and more) had been refuted by G.E.R. Lloyd ("Saving the Appearances," The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 28, No. 1 (1978), pp. 202-222), and that Duhem apparently had already distanced himself from it in his later Aim and Structure of Physical Theory. Duhem's book has also been criticized for the chapters on the Arabs and on Copernicus, though I have not read through those particular critiques, yet. It's an interesting project, trying to figure out who exactly was a realist and who was an instrumentalist, and a good idea to have secure answers before passing on the examples to one's students.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

National Day of Prayer

Huh. Pharyngula informs me that today is the National Day of Prayer. Who knew? Who cares?

It should be called the National Day of Ineffectiveness.

In my two tours in Iraq, the only Marine in my Company to be killed was an evangelical Christian, and his death was completely random and meaningless (a vehicle crash—he went to Iraq to die in an accident). By contrast, I was never hurt once, despite stepping away from the group before our convoys, while the chaplain led everyone else in praising their Lord and expressing confidence in the efficacy of His miraculous IED-proof (but apparently not crash-proof) holy shield of divine protection. To cap it off, in the aftermath of my colleague's sensless death, someone circulated a poem by a family member which explained that it was all part of God's plan, and presumably wonderful, because Jesus was calling him home. So, pray that others will live, and then rejoice when the worst happens to them? Why even bother?

Just as I will not insult my colleague's memory by trying to pretend there was anything good about his death, I will not insult the memories of the thousands who die painful and meaningless deaths every hour, by pretending to kneel before some imaginary power which I fancy to be good, despite its failure to do anything. Consider that my contribution to the National Day of Prayer.

Harrison's 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God

In his extensive world travels, Guy P. Harrison discovered that religious people everywhere, regardless of which particular religious tradition they belong to, tend to offer the same reasons when asked why they believe in god(s). He also discovered that few of these arguments have anything in common with the kinds of reasons theologians offer (a point which theological critics of popular-level atheological writers like Hitchens and Dawkins keep failing to understand—the Four Horsemen don't bother with Aquinas because no one outside of the academy does). Finally, he discovered that none of these reasons are much good in the end. The result, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in God.

50 Reasons is a good addition to the corpus of critiques of popular religion. It is very easy to read, most of its arguments are sound, and, most importantly for me, it makes a few novel points, at least in its emphasis. One of them, repeatedly stressed throughout the book, is something which I already knew, but which I never appreciated before, despite having the figures right there, staring me in the face: no matter what religion you belong to, even if you define your religion fairly broadly (like "Christianity" or "Islam"), there are at least four billion people in the world who think you're wrong. Every religion is in the decided minority. We so often tend to take whatever religion dominates our surroundings, together with its conception of the divine, as the default. A little travel, a little broader perspective, should at least shake our conception of what the obvious contenders are.

(I actually have wondered about something related to this, but applied to the academy. I notice that the way philosophers of religion, particular the evangelical ones, argue, it is as though they believe that Christianity and naturalism are the only two options. They will do things like try to show that, as evidence for the existence of god, the cosmological fine-tuning argument "outweighs" the argument from evil. How ridiculous! Why not accept them both—that the former argument shows that there is a god, and the latter shows that the god in question is evil or uncaring? And, yet, that option is not even on the table for them. Why shouldn't it be?)

I was a little surprised by the size of the book: for some reason, I had expected brief, 1-2 page entries, like the kind of thing I am doing in my Atheological Thoughts web series, but the book is actually a hefty 354 pages. I also thought that Harrison did not come across nearly as sympathetically as he seems to think he does, even though he is folksy and good-humored throughout. In any case, though, it is a good book. I recommend it if you care about the reasons why most people believe; if you prefer to fence with Oxford dons and Aquinas scholars, look elsewhere, and may the devil take you.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Between Schopenhauer and Christianity

My view of the world is decidedly pessimistic, mostly on account of my low opinion of human nature, but I think it contrasts interestingly with two of the most pessimistic views of the world I know of: that of Schopenhauer and that of Christianity. I think I am positioned somewhere between the two: I think things are somewhat worse than what Schopenhauer describes, but substantially better than the offerings of Christianity, which represent a worst-case scenario.

For Schopenhauer, people are bad by metaphysical necessity. In fact, all of existence is. There is no hope for a future devoid of conflict and suffering, simply because this is metaphysically not possible. For me, in what may initially seem a paradox, things are worse precisely because I don't think utopia is metaphysically impossible. I don't believe people must remain corrupt; I believe merely that they will, in fact, remain corrupt. This is more unfortunate than the situation Schopenhauer presents, because I have to live with the belief that humanity will fall short of a greatness which it does not have to fall short of.

However, I don't think things are nearly as bad as Christianity sketches, because at least however far we fall short of utopia, we will not fall infinitely short of it. Christianity, by contrast, assures us of a future in which most people, though only finitely corrupt, end up condemned to a state of eternal and infinite torment—an injustice compounded by the further granting of eternal bliss (albeit in shackles) to a lesser number of equally corrupt people on the force of their sheer willingness to kneel before an insane sky-tyrant. It is difficult to think of many worldviews outside of the Abrahamic religions that are that mad or full of despair.

Of course, there is one respect in which my view of the world actually is better than either Schopenhauer's or Christianity's: death is permanent and unqualified. Materialism promises an ultimate balance in the end—not by any means the best-case scenario, but one that offers at least the consolation of not having to believe in eternal and limitless suffering.

I suppose I should also point out that my pessimism about how humanity actually will turn out, although hard-won for me, is less than mathematically certain, and I do not begrudge anyone the spirit of humanism. I would also suggest that perhaps sometimes even hopeless battles are worth fighting.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Uno de Mayo

The month of May is upon us—time to crank it up to 11!