Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The 'So Help Me God' Controversy

A number of groups advocating religious freedom have just instituted a lawsuit that would prevent the Chief Justice from using the words 'God' in the swearing-in ceremony for the President at the Inauguration. Naturally, this is being spun up by the press, since religious controversy is always a big draw. The plaintiffs admit that a President can insert the words in the ceremony, but the government official who swears him in cannot. Historically, the courts have taken the position that such words constitute "ceremonial deism" that serves a secular purpose.

Are the words "So help me God" valid in a secular government ceremony? Is this lawsuit a good tactic for secularists to pursue? As a staunch secularist, I have mixed feelings about it. I would rather try to persuade religious folks of the value of secular government, and I don't think that this controversy moves us in that direction.

On the other had, the "ceremonial deism" excuse strikes me as a transparent ruse to weaken the Constitutional requirement of a religion-neutral government. Deism is about belief in a God who doesn't intervene in human affairs. The term is misused here by theists, who feel that God will be more kindly disposed to us if we make every excuse to beg his help.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Solstice Sign--Good or Bad Tactic for Atheists?

I must confess to mixed feelings over the Freedom from Religion Foundation's sign in the Washington state Capitol Rotunda. Nobody detests the unconstitutional lack of separation between church and state more than I do. I understand the feelings and the passion behind it. Whenever a religion tries to use government property as a means of promoting their religious opinions, I am offended. So, if the state government is going to insist on sponsoring religious messages on government property--something that I vehemently oppose--then it only seems fair that an anti-religion group post their own message. The idea is to give Christians a taste of their own medicine, to show them the cost of using the public commons to shove their views down my throat.

Now, what is so bad about a secular sign that celebrates the Winter Solstice? This one was put up for those of us who do not want the government to be seen as pushing the idea that we ought to believe in any god, let alone the god of Christians. The problem in my mind is that most nativity scenes and other Christmas displays do not carry overt messages that one ought to believe in God. That message is somewhat more subtle. The very fact of a nativity scene on public property is a little bit of a victory dance for some Christian groups, and that is why they push for them. But this FFRF sign had the statement: "Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." Ouch. Yeah, I believe that, but I don't want to shove it in people's faces. Especially not in the holiday season. It doesn't make people stop and think "Well, gosh, I never realized how religious messages on public property must be like for nonbelievers!" It makes them stop and think "Well, gosh, I guess those atheists really are nasty, angry people!" Object lessons are designed to make the message giver feel better, not the message receiver.

That said, I have to admit that the FFRF sign has as much right to be in the Capitol Rotunda as religious symbols. I really do, although I would rather that there were no religious messages on public property. And I'm glad that they made an issue of putting something up. I just wish that they had thought of a message that was a little gentler, a little more in tune with the holiday spirit. After all, I want people to respect my beliefs, and that means I must try to respect theirs.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Geographical Argument

What does the distribution of the world's religions tell us? It tells us that the vast majority of people acquire religious faith on the basis of an accident of birth. What one comes to believe normally depends on place of birth and parentage. If there are gods whose influence ought to be felt by all, then they do not seem to be very effective in making their presence known to the entire pool of potential worshipers. Either that, or the gods in question simply choose to reveal themselves only to a select few, who are then charged with spreading their divine knowledge by word of mouth alone. That seems a rather unlikely scenario, given the existence of competing false religions that are spread by the same means, but a lot of people of all different persuasions seem to have embraced the idea.

Thanks to the Age of Imperialism, Christianity and Islam have grown to become the two most popular religions in the world. Like Judaism, the parent from which these two evangelical movements schismed, they posit the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient creator god that wants people to believe in his existence so badly that he punishes those who don't or, at best, fails to reward them with an everlasting life in heaven. (A tiny few even take the position that God rewards everyone regardless of their behavior.) Given the geographical distribution of religions, their god seems not to believe that all who might merit a heavenly reward ought to have an equal opportunity to win it.

The geographical argument does not prove the nonexistence of any god, but it calls into serious question the existence of all of them. If there is any religion that is absolutely true to the exclusion of all others, one could reasonably expect it to have a more diverse origin than just a single point in time and space.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Brawling monks in the Holy Land

As we approach the Christmas season, it is always worth pondering what Jesus really stood for. Would he have preferred his Armenian worshipers to have allowed a Greek participant in their procession? Would he have healed the cut next to the eye of the young Greek monk who proclaimed "We were keeping resistance so that the procession could not pass through ... and establish a right that they don't have"? So far, no signs from God on this matter. He is busy continuing to behave as if he didn't exist.

Perhaps the most senseless violence on this planet is violence inspired by religious fervor. I wonder what they have planned for Easter celebrations. image

Friday, September 26, 2008

Prominent conservatives beginning to abandon Palin

It is worth noting that Parker is not alone. Other prominent conservative pundits are also questioning Palin's qualifications. These include David Brooks, David Frum, and George Will. The disastrous interview with Katie Couric seems to have started a lot of grumbling among conservatives, although there are still many who believe that she can do no wrong. And now Ed Schultz is reporting the following:
McCain Camp insiders say Palin "clueless"
Capitol Hill sources are telling me that senior McCain people are more than concerned about Palin. The campaign has held a mock debate and a mock press conference; both are being described as "disastrous." One senior McCain aide was quoted as saying, "What are we going to do?" The McCain people want to move this first debate to some later, undetermined date, possibly never. People on the inside are saying the Alaska Governor is "clueless."
Will Palin continue on the ticket, or will McCain be forced to dump her? I can't see how he can dump her, given the huge revolt that would cause from his newfound evangelical supporters.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Keeping the Faith

My Christian friends tell me, often accusingly, that I do not want to believe in God. As an atheist, my first instinct is to say that belief is not a matter of choice. One cannot just choose to believe something for which there is no real evidence. For example, I cannot choose to believe that I have a billion dollars in my checking account. That would be a pleasant thought, but I would get into trouble if I actually believed it and tried to live as if it were true.

I am no longer satisfied with that first instinct. Belief is more complex than just having evidence to back up beliefs. The fact is that most of our beliefs are acts of faith. I believe that there is no atmosphere on the moon, but I have never been to the moon to check that out. I believe in the existence of molecules and that water molecules consist of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom, but I do not have never seen, heard, or touched a molecule. It is easy to see that people lose consciousness with brain trauma, so I believe that they lose it permanently when the brain dies. I have no proof of that, however. Finally, I believe that there are no gods, but I certainly don't have any way to prove that negative claim.

So how do I keep faith in science, but not in God? I have made a choice to believe in science and a choice not to believe in God. What drives those choices? In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett goes into great detail about such choices in his chapter entitled "Belief in Belief". He points out that most of us probably believe in Einstein's famous equation E=MC², but most of us haven't the faintest idea of the mathematical proof or even how to go about justifying such a belief. But there is an important difference between faith in science and faith in God. Faith in science does not require elaborate effort to maintain. We do not pray to science to help us believe in it, nor do we go through elaborate rituals of bowing, kneeling, and standing in the service of that belief. Perhaps that is because we know how to verify our scientific faith to our satisfaction, but there is no satisfactory method of testing faith in God's existence.

Belief in a religious doctrine is expensive. It requires a great deal of time and effort. Faith maintainers cannot devote that time to other activities that might please or benefit them. It intrudes on their lives and the lives of those around them. It often requires them to give up some of their hard-earned wealth and to sacrifice for the benefit of others. Why go through all of that? I probably don't need to explain why. Faith has many benefits. It provides one with social approval, and it promotes cooperative social behavior. Churches usually engage in charitable services to the community, and they help people cope with their daily difficulties. Sometimes strong religious faith can even cure illness. So there is a return on the investment. There is a strong motivation to maintain religious faith, just as there are benefits to be received from maintaining faith in science.

So why don't I just choose to believe in God? That would allow me to reap the same benefits that so many of my relatives, friends, and acquaintances reap. Perhaps it has something to do with never feeling all that comfortable in crowds. In my case, though, I think there is something else other than mere standoffishness or love of iconoclasm that drives me to shun that choice. It has to do with the self-consciousness of the effort. If I could choose to believe in God, then I could choose to believe in anything. That is, I could choose to believe I was a billionaire. I could go through elaborate rituals to make myself believe that my bank statement was somehow mistaken or an effort by the bank to steal my wealth. But knowing that I could cheat my belief system in that way would undermine and cheapen all of that enormous amount of faith I have built up in everything else I believe about the world. If I could believe just anything I wanted to, then I would lose confidence in all my beliefs. To put it in Dennett's terms, I would no longer believe in belief.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Playing Two-God Monte with Christian Apologists

There can be no doubt that the Christian God has anthropomorphic qualities. The Old Testament Jehovah was more of a human caricature in that he seemed less than omnipotent, prone to anger and revenge, an advocate of tribalism, and too much like some kind of ancient patriarchal potentate. The New Testament version had a much softer image, but he still behaves largely like a person. He has emotions, thoughts, and goals. He loves humans and orders them to behave in ways that benefit human relations. He takes an interest in sexual behavior, just as any human would, and he is moved by praise from humans and pity for their plight.

Christians have a problem with charges of anthropomorphism, because it makes their god look more like the cartoonish creation that some would argue characterized the pagan gods of ancient mythologies. Those gods were too obviously made up out of whole cloth by primitive people who needed to explain natural forces in terms of human-like agencies. We no longer tend to think of natural forces as the result of imaginary beings that we can influence with gifts of wealth and devotion. So God has been cleansed of many of the old anthropomorphic traits. A modern Christian might use a male pronoun for God, but most seem to reject the idea that he is anything like a male in the conventional sense. In more recent times, a picture of God has emerged in liberal theology that is more of an essence--a Ground of Being--than a person. So allegations of anthropomorphism by skeptics are quite often countered by descriptions of God's essential ineffability--his immanence in and transcendence of our physical reality. A kind of First Cause that is beyond our comprehension or understanding.

The stripping from God of all anthropomorphic traits leaves us with a God that cannot really be argued against. It is hard to argue with the abstraction of an essence that is alleged to permeate everything and whose behavior and motives are beyond our understanding. Do you believe in the existence of things that are beyond your awareness? I don't know. There are certainly things that I will never be aware of, but what could a "thing" be that is beyond comprehension? This is the Shield--the belief that cannot be denied.

But do any of the believers stop praying because God's motives are unfathomable? Do they abandon religious morality because God maybe didn't literally appear as a burning bush and hand some stone tablets to Moses? Not usually. They still attend church and sing along with the choir. They still pray for forgiveness and praise the Lord as if God were subject to human feelings. You can't love an abstraction, and religion isn't much use if it has nothing to offer. So God switches right back to the anthropomorphic entity that serves the needs of those who worship him. You don't worship a First Cause. You worship a being that can be influenced by worship.

This oscillation between anthropomorphic and non-anthropomorphic deities is something that I have experienced many times in my lifetime of debating with Christians and others of faith over the nature of religious belief. It is a pretty good defense mechanism for a largely untenable belief. The God-as-essence version is the shield that defends the more vulnerable God-as-person version. The former wraps around the latter when it comes under attack, but the latter emerges to serve the believer's real needs when the former has warded off the attackers.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Daniel Dennett: Breaking the Spell

I am currently working my way through Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. If you are a Christian, you will likely have the same reaction to it that Leon Wiesletier, a book critic for the New York Times, does. I have to say that the book that Wiesleter read seems completely different from the one that I am reading. Most of Dennett's book has little to do with Christianity or Christian concepts of God. Rather, it is a study of the phenomenon of religion, and it is based on research that he undertook in support of philosophy classes that he teaches. Unlike Dawkins, in his well-known book The God Delusion, Dennett does not confine himself to an attack on Christian views of God. What has surprised me is that I think Dennett has done a far better job than Dawkins at exploring the evolutionary bases for religion in the human species. Dawkins is the evolutionary biologist, but Dennett seems the more thoughtful and objective evolutionary thinker. Perhaps it is because Dennett is not really engaged in a polemic. That is, while he makes the occasional polemic remark, he is for the most part concerned with just trying to understand what it is about religion that makes it so ubiquitous in human society.

The thing about Dennett's book is that he constantly asks the Latin question "Cui bono?" (To whom is the benefit?). This is the essence of evolutionary thinking, because evolution is design by what Dennett calls "free floating rationales". That is, there is no intentional designer with a rationale. There is just a free-floating benefit to replicators that happen to be lucky enough to be in the right place when the conditions are right. Religion is an expensive form of behavior. It requires people to devote large amounts of their time to maintain and promulgate it. Vast resources are expended to defend various competing religious doctrines. Quite often it leads to strife and warfare, causing members of the species to die off prematurely. So why would it have emerged as such a common form of behavior in human society? To answer the question, Dennett takes the view that there must be some payoff somewhere to make religion such a species-wide phenomenon. What do people get in exchange for all that effort to "keep the faith"?

There is no simple answer to this question, because evolution is always messy. There are usually many factors that come into play to support specific behaviors. Evolution is a "substrateless" phenomenon in that it always requires 3 ingredients: 1) Replication (a copying process), 2) Variation (mutation), and 3) Competition (natural selection). It is not just about DNA and genetics. There may be no single gene that causes humans to be religious, but there is likely a complex of genes that favor the creation and replication of religious "memes" in human society. For example, we are all programmed to believe in and obey authoritative sources of information. Children in particular benefit from this programming, because it favors their survival to take advantage of the experience of more mature members of the species. Ancestor worship is a form of authoritarianism, and ancestor worship seems to form to basis of many religious myths, e.g. the Gilgamesh epic. So these are the kinds of issues that Dennett analyzes and critiques in his very detailed analysis of the ubiquity of religion. I highly recommend this book, but only for people who have the stomache for provocative thinking. Dennett never tries to hide his atheist bias, but he also allows for the possibility that atheism may not be the best answer to our survival as a species.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Maliki endorses Obama's withdrawal plan

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has endorsed Barack Obama's call for a withdrawal of US troops within 16 months. This is a stunning slap in the face to Bush and McCain's 100-year stay, permanent US bases, and siphoning off of Iraqi oil revenues to pay for our stupidity. The war will end up costing us a trillion dollars, and we get nothing but a sinking economy, loss of national prestige, and the need to send even more troops to our neglected, failing effort in Afghanistan. They will be keeping their oil revenues along with the billions that we sent them in aid and promptly lost track of. We get to keep our gas-guzzling SUVs, which will also help to rebuild the Iraqi economy.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Yet Another Gap Filled in the Fossil Record

It is a requirement of science that its discoveries be continually verifiable and verified. Even the obvious must be constantly checked as if some new discovery could overturn or modify what is already known beyond any reasonable doubt. So this latest discovery of transitional fossils in flatfish does not shock or surprise any scientist. It was predictable that such fossils might exist, although it was possible that none did or would ever be discovered. Not every animal or intermediate stage in evolution is recorded in the fossil record, only those whose deaths happen to have been preserved by the sedimentation process.

In this case, the lack of intermediate fossils to demonstrates the evolution of eye migration in flatfish had long been taken as one of those unfilled gaps in the fossil record. It is precisely the existence of such gaps (although they are fully expected and compatible with evolution theory) that is constantly trotted out by anti-evolutionists as a kind of "proof" that evolution cannot explain everything in nature. Yet the existence of such gaps also provides an opportunity. No evolutionist expects there to have been any historical gaps in real history, only in the imperfect recordings of that history by the fossilization process.

The fossil record leaves us with a kind of lengthy movie of the history of life on this planet, but a movie with many missing frames. So we see that "movie" as a kind of sped-up old-time film, a silent movie where the scenes and characters jump around. Yet the time-edited film itself stands as proof that real actors once played before that camera.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bacteria make major evolutionary shift

Since evolution takes place across generations, it is usually difficult to observe it actually happening. This New Scientist article is an excellent example of speciation, although it occurs at the microscopic level. Because bacteria reproduce and die at a much faster rate than humans, scientists can observe major shifts in their genome when they occur. In this case, E Coli is distinguished from other bacteria in terms of its inability to use citrate. Biologist Richard Lenski has now shown that bacteria can evolve into a new species under observation in the laboratory. As the article states, "Lenski's experiment is also yet another poke in the eye for anti-evolutionists."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Free Will and the Impossibility of the Christian God

It may be impossible to prove the non-existence of gods or monotheism, but it is possible to prove the non-existence of gods that are defined with contradictory properties. For example, it is a logical impossibility for an omniscient being to create beings with free will. Here is an example of a logical disproof of the Christian God.

(1) If a being has free will, then no one can know how it will choose to act.
(2) An omniscient being knows how everyone will choose to act.
(3) God is omniscient. (by definition)
(4) God cannot create beings with free will. (by 1, 2, and 3)
(5) God has created beings with free will. (by most versions of Christian doctrine)
(6) Therefore, God does not exist. (by 4 and 5)

There are several ways around this argument. One is to abandon the notion of free will, but that calls into question God's judgment that people have disobeyed his will or willfully committed sins. The other is to claim that God somehow does not know how people will behave, but that negates his omniscience. Many Christians, in my experience, simply try to deny (1), but that makes a mockery of the concept of "free will". It is reminiscent of "Hobson's Choice", the story of the legendary stable owner who allowed his customers to choose any horse in the stable as long as it was the one standing nearest to the door. The choice was between that horse and no horse at all.

It is my opinion that this logical argument is a fairly ironclad argument against belief in a very popular conception of the Christian God--one that is both omniscient and capable of creating beings with free will. However, like many philosophical arguments, it does not address the real motivation that people have for belief in a god--the desire to survive indefinitely and control one's destiny. We did not invent gods just to explain the nature of reality, although most believers use gods to explain the mysteries of nature. We really invented them in order to give us leverage against nature. Supernaturalism is essentially that--the ability to trump our natural circumstances.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Teacher Burns Crosses on Children's Arms

Christian evangelicals often complain bitterly that they are not allowed to use public schools to promote their religious beliefs. Yet many public schools still lend themselves to evangelical teachers to purvey their own brand of Christianity at public expense. Here is a report of a public school teacher who has survived 21 years in Mount Vernon, Ohio, and he has survived at least 11 years of complaints according to Lynda Weston, the district's director of teaching and learning. Finally, this man was driven by his passion to burn crosses in the arms of his students, but still there is no serious talk of firing him. Oddly enough, he is certified only to teach science. That speaks volumes about the certification process.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Murchison Meteorites: New Evidence for Abiogenesis

Creationists and those who argue for Intelligent Design like to claim that complex molecules such as RNA and DNA could not arise spontaneously in nature, but most scientists who study such matters disagree. Even the erstwhile longtime atheist philosopher Antony Flew has been taken in by this argument from incredulity, and Christians have generally been delighted with his recent conversion to deism.

Now we know that fragments of meteors that fell near Murchison, Australia, in 1969 contained carbon-based compound precursors to the "raw materials of life". Scientific American reported on this discovery in a June 16, 2008 article. Although this does not prove that life was created from similar sources, it is the strongest evidence yet that RNA and DNA could have evolved naturally.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Age of McCain

I have to admit that I am puzzled by McCain's strategy on how to deal with his age issue. There are two recent past examples of the age problem in presidential politics: Reagan and Dole. The conventional wisdom is that Dole's age was one of the issues that killed his candidacy, but it didn't cause Reagan any serious problem at all. We all remember Reagan's swift comeback when the issue came up in a televised debate with Mondale, and that seemed to be a watershed moment for his campaign. It is also true that they showed him working out with weights and doing other vigorous physical activity. His hair, magically, never showed even a strand of grayness, and he denied that it was unnaturally colored. He wasn't a war hero, and he didn't seem very religious, but people bought him anyway. Dole didn't manage to put the issue behind him, although he was a war hero. He came to be a symbol for an aging politician, and he ended up doing Viagra commercials after he lost the election.

McCain now faces that age hurdle, but his only winning strategy so far is to trot out his aging mother to show what good genes he has. We don't see clips of him doing any vigorous exercise, as we did with Reagan. We don't seem him jogging in any parks. Instead, we see a classic rapid-response technique. They are all primed and ready to go for Obama to start making comments about his age. So, when Obama made a "lost his bearings" comment, they immediately fired back with a sharp criticism. Unfortunately, they seemed to have jumped the gun, because Obama's comment was about McCain's ethical bearings, a charge that could be leveled at any politician including even Obama himself. The quick-fire response method was honed by Bill Clinton in his successful political campaigns, so it was a reasonable thing to try. The thing is that it just reminded everyone that age is an issue, and unnecessarily so. In fact, McCain jokes about his age frequently--perhaps to try to recapture that Reagan moment when a quip deflated the whole issue. In McCain's case, however, those continual quips now serve to remind voters that they need to keep focusing on his age. Is McCain going to be able to get around this issue, or is he just going to keep making it worse?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

American Politics and Character Issues

It is legitimate to worry about the personal traits of a political candidate. Will John McCain be too old to lead the nation? Is he getting senile? Is Hillary Clinton trustworthy? Does Barack Obama lack an understanding of average Americans? Will his race prevent him from being elected? These are all reasonable questions for voters to ask, and the public news media are right to address them. But sometimes it seems that those are the only issues that matter to American voters. Personality disputes don't require a lot of investigative reporting, and people seem to prefer not to think about the serious problems that the nation faces.

Our elections have come to be treated by our news media as little more than sporting events. News shows spend almost all of their time reporting on who is up or down in the polls and every primary contest becomes a "make or break" situation for the candidates. Meanwhile, food riots go on in the background, the rising cost of oil is driving prices of everything through the roof, water supplies are dwindling, sea levels are rising, and the weather is playing havoc with our lives. Surely, there are more important things to focus on than the opinions of Obama's former pastor and whether or not he can "weather" them in a contest that few doubt he has already won.

Neither party is proposing radical changes in our future, but radical changes are on the way. No political candidate is going to campaign on the prospect of meeting the challenge of impending catastrophes, but that is just what the future president faces. We will need a leader with extraordinary abilities, but our style of campaigning seems only able to focus on the failures and weaknesses of proposed new leaders. The news media can be blamed to some extent for failing to address issues that voters care about, but is it really all their fault? In the end, they are driven by ratings, and Americans don't want to hear that serious changes are on the way. They want a president who will reassure them that their lives will remain largely unchanged from the past. So the public dialog comes down to who has the least worst personality, not what the candidates intend to do about the real world.

Friday, March 28, 2008

None of Us is Real

What can we really know about reality? Is it ever the case that we know any perfect truth about anything real? We are constantly revising our opinions of what is true. Our memories of experiences almost always include information that we did not actually see, hear, touch, smell, or feel. That is because human cognition depends on what some semanticists call frames. A frame is a knowledge structure that schematizes or idealizes experience. The vocabulary and expressions of our language tend to evoke frames by naming parts of them. Similarly, frames tend to shape the language we use by evoking other words associated with a frame.

One of the founders of frame semantics, Charles Fillmore, had a couple of stock sentences to illustrate the power of frames. Consider these two sentences:
1. John spent four hours on land.
2. John spent four hours on the ground.
The expressions "land" and "ground" mean roughly the same thing here, but they evoke different frames of reference. The first sentence suggests a maritime frame of reference, where "land" evokes the thought of being on water. The second sentence suggests a aerial frame of reference, where "ground" evokes the thought of being in the air. We build the meanings of words from references to schematized memories that contain a far more information than the mere words themselves convey. That is how human cognition works. It fills in details about our experiences that go beyond raw perceptions. Quite often, the details that schematized knowledge supply us with are wrong, so we are constantly updating our beliefs about what is true. The smartest among us are best at discarding expectations that prove false upon further scrutiny.

Another good example of frame-based thinking is to consider how we characterize people. Suppose that we witness an event where John considers buying something but refuses to pay because the price is too high for him. That objective event might be characterized in two different ways:
3. John was being thrifty.
4. John was being stingy.
There is no way to determine the absolute truth of those two sentences. They both tell us that John refused to spend money, but the frames associated with the words add different information. The "thrifty" frame characterizes John's act as a good thing in that he avoided unnecessary expense. The "stingy" frame characterizes John's act as a bad thing in that rejected a trivial expense that would have benefited someone else. So the use of those two words to characterize the same objective event tells you a lot more about the event (or the speaker's perception of it) than just the content of what John did. The vocabulary situates the event in a context.

Now, coming back to the epistemological question of how we come to know reality, we can understand why it is that nothing we believe is truly real. All knowledge exists relative to these internalized schemas that build a kind of virtual reality in our heads. We constantly test and revise those mental models, but we never actually get everything perfect. We are always gaining new experiences and trying to fit them into our mental models. We do this so unconsciously that we sometimes trick ourselves into believing that knowledge can be absolute and finite. There is an end to what we can discover if we can just stop having to revise our flawed expectations.

People are the most important things in our lives, and we ought to ask ourselves whether anybody is really real, even ourselves. Have you ever done anything that you didn't expect of yourself? Everyone does. We are constantly changing and updating our models of ourselves, not just others. The people that we know best are those whose behavior we can predict the best. But we can never predict anyone's behavior perfectly. To know someone well is just to have a very complex model of that person. But the amount of incorrect knowledge is greater for those we know best than for those we don't know very much at all, because there are more expectations that we can get wrong about our intimate acquaintances. In the end, none of us is real. We are only a collection of schemata living in a virtual reality of our own making.

No Racist is Perfect

We are all imperfect racists, although some of us are closer to perfection than others. Let's all just admit that nobody is really color blind when it comes to racial-ethnic-gender-religious stereotyping. It isn't that we want to judge individuals on the basis of the social categories they fall into, but our minds just seem built to make sweeping generalizations. And we just hate to admit it. It is politically incorrect to bring up such stereotyping. We feel uncomfortable when it happens, and we often condemn those who make us uncomfortable.

What is really wrong with racial stereotyping? We see what is wrong most clearly when the stereotype is a negative one: Women are prone to hysterical behavior. Blacks aren't intelligent. Asians can't drive. We don't see quite as much harm in positive stereotypes: Christians are more moral. Women are sensitive and sympathetic. Blacks are good athletes and musicians. Asians are better at math and science. What racism does is it blinds us to the reality of individual behavior. We see a black kid get a bad grade, and it confirms our expectations. We see an Asian kid get a bad grade, and it happens in spite of our expectations. Given the choice of which kid to tutor, we might prefer to pick the one that our stereotype tells us is more likely to succeed. Given a choice between a clumsy black and a clumsy Asian for the team, we might prefer to put more coaching effort into the black kid.

Our behavior is guided by our expectations. That is what is wrong with racial stereotyping. And we are all racists to the extent that we let our expectations be guided by such stereotyping. Nowhere is stereotyping more evident than in political races. In a very racially mixed state such as New York, it is not uncommon to treat certain political offices as belonging to people of one group or another. We call it "balancing the ticket", and we simply expect voters to support the candidate of their particular ethnic group. We marvel at the fact that a black man or a woman can even presume to run for the presidency. (Still no atheists for dogcatcher, though.)

Now let me turn to some thoughts on the Reverend Wright controversy. Never mind the fact that his career as a preacher has been reduced to a few seconds of angry hyperbole--probably among the worst things he has ever said in the midst of a rant from the pulpit. Never mind the fact that white Republicans and Democrats have solicited the support of racist, homophobic preachers and gotten a relative pass from the press. Barack Obama is the black presidential candidate who specializes in not being too black to attract white voters. Until Reverend Wright came along, it was nearly impossible to oppose Obama on racial grounds, although the press has endlessly asked the question of whether white voters were ready for a black president. But Wright handed people a handy excuse to comment on his race again. It wasn't that Obama was black, because very few people are going to admit to being prejudiced against blacks. But Wright makes a wonderful proxy argument. We don't expect blacks, the stereotypical victims of racism, to themselves be racist, and we don't forgive them as easily for lapses into racially-tinged rhetoric.

Is the hysteria over Wright only racism? Well, he did work himself up in one sermon (when Obama was not present) into damning America. But much has been made about his "Black Liberation" style of preaching, and that certainly calls up whatever racial divisions exist in our minds. The uproar got so bad that Barack Obama was forced to give one of the best speeches on race in America that anyone has heard in a long time. He passionately denounced Wright's words without denouncing Wright. Some think he was courageous to do that, and others think he was foolish. I think he was just trying desperately not to lose himself to the temptation of letting the quest for power corrupt him completely, a struggle that he may find harder and harder to win as time goes on. But the damage is already done. Wright will now become a safe way for people to publicly oppose Obama without publicly endorsing racism. It isn't perfect racism, but none of us are perfect racists.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Why we have faith, and why we lose it

This is a little essay that I've published in some discussion forums, so I thought I would republish it here.

A question that fascinates many of us is why so many of us have religious faith and why some of us come to lose it. It is my opinion that theism--any belief in a god or gods--is driven by the utility of the belief or what it does for us. What needs does it fulfill? The answer to the question, then, is whether or not we think that the belief is doing its job properly.

As far as I can tell, belief in a god does two things. It explains things to us, and it empowers us. Belief in a god helps us to understand why we exist, how we got here, and why things are the way they are. But it may be even more important to us that gods make us stronger. They offer us a chance to achieve immortality (a central theme of the oldest religious epic, the Gilgamesh story). They perform miraculous cures and bring good weather. They take our side in wars, and they justify our violence against our enemies. It is no random fact that the German Wehrmacht had "Gott mit uns" (God with us) on their belt buckles. Most Christians believe that God supports their political goals and moral attitudes (although they tend to see it as themselves supporting God's political goals and moral attitudes). I cannot think of anything beyond these two purposes that a god may have, but I welcome suggestions. I see the companionship that people get from communication with God as a kind of empowerment, but maybe one could see that as a third reason to sustain belief.

When atheists argue with Christians, it seems that the debate centers primarily around how good a job God does at explaining things. That is why the debate over evolution is so important. Darwin's theory does much to undercut the need to explain biological (and physical) complexity as a divine artifact. Although most Christians have probably given up a literal belief in the Genesis story of creationism, God still seems to explain the mystery of the origin of the universe and the principal reason why evolution seems to have worked to create human beings. God simply guided evolution in their minds. But is God's explanatory value more important than his ability to empower us? I think not.

Most 18th and 19th century religious skeptics in the West tended to be deists, not pure atheists, but Darwinism helped to change that demographic--to create what Dawkins has called the "intellectually fulfilled atheist". In reading biographies of such religious skeptics as Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain (both probably deists) and Charles Darwin (a confirmed atheist), I have been struck by the fact that the tipping point from faith to lack of faith in their lives came after the deaths of loved ones. God failed to be there when they needed him. Before that point, they questioned the usefulness of God in explaining reality, but they could buy the fact that he might have played some role in setting things up. It was the utter failure of their God to prevent horror and tragedy that drove them away from religion.

Darwin was a particularly interesting case, because he claimed not to have really embraced atheism until around the age of 40 (from David Quammen's The Reluctant Mr. Darwin). That was after his father's death and shortly before the tragic death of his treasured young daughter. Lincoln's and Twain's lack of faith hardened similarly after the loss of children. It is ironic, because people of faith quite often find themselves becoming more religious after such tragedies, not less. The experience of tragedy is like a wedge in that it drives people who possess and lack faith further away from each other. After the 9/11 tragedy, the churches in the US filled up, but so did the number of people asking (or explaining) why God had abandoned us.

So I want to end this little essay by saying how I think it affects the debate between theists and atheists. If one is trying to develop a persuasive case for or against belief in a god, the more important of God's two functions--explanation and empowerment--is empowerment. The feeling that God doesn't explain things well may weaken faith, but it is the realization that he fails to help us that makes a real difference in the end. We have to look elsewhere for the strength to get through life's worst tragedies, and that is something which many (perhaps most) of us find too horrible to contemplate.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hillary Clinton Meets Mr. Kim

Back in the 60's, I was a member of the Ohio State judo team. I was not a very good player, but I used to love the idea of the "Gentle Way", which required one to analyze and use the opponent's aggression to defeat him. During free practice (randori), we attempted to push, drag, and pull the other player, trying to find an angle of attack. One of my favorite senseis was Mr. Kim, a former member of South Korea's Olympics judo team and a sandan (3rd degree black belt). He never moved around. He just stood there and let others push and pull at him, which might make him move a couple of steps. Trying to attack him was like trying to pull down a brick wall. He would just wait, or mirror your steps like a graceful dance partner. And then it would be over. He saw his opening, waited for an attack, and performed a coup de grace in the blink of an eye. His opponent would crash down with the boom of his arm beat hitting the mat.

Watching the Cleveland debate last night between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, I couldn't help but think of Obama as Mr. Kim. Most of the time, he sat there playing with his pen, writing the occasional note (or doodle) and appearing to listen attentively. Occasionally, he would hear something, smile a little, look at the moderator, and raise a finger. She felt he had not rejected the antisemite, Louis Farrakhan, forcefully enough? Fine. He conceded her point and used the word "reject". She mocked his inspirational style at a political rally? Great performance. He thought it was funny and effective. He wanted to bomb Pakistan without consulting its government? Not really. He just would act on actionable intelligence against Al Qaeda, which Bush had just done the week before. At the end of the debate, Obama lavished praise on her record and her candidacy, and then he went on to say why he thought his presidency would be better.

Of all the traits I admire in Obama's character, I admire the most his ability to empathize with an opponent and turn it to his advantage. He comes off as self-effacing, polite, and determined. He studies his opponents carefully, identifies a weak point in their movements, and throws them to the mat without much apparent effort. I don't suppose that he will always be the winner in his encounters with skillful opponents, but he understands the "gentle way" of fighting. He is the Mr. Kim of politics. I wonder how he will fare against Vladimir Putin, who is an avid judo player.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Barack Obama for Supreme Court Justice

In reading Barack Obama's book The Audacity of Hope, I was struck by how well he fit the stereotype of a politician. He is a waffler. He sees both sides of issues. He empathizes with conservatives and liberals. Having taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago Law School for 10 years before being elected to Congress, he knows the Constitution backwards and forwards, and he sees the flaws in the men who wrote it, many of them slave owners. He understands the concept of strict constructionists, who want to see the document as an absolute template that can only be interpreted by rigid adherence to original intent, but he also sees it as a "living document", whose authors could not possibly have anticipated free speech in the context of a society with telephones, televisions, and computers, or gun ownership in the context of modern assault rifles. Barack Obama is a very complex man with a keen sense of what America is really about. He would make a president, I hope, much in the style of Abraham Lincoln--that consummate Republican liberal who kept looking for and discarding solutions to insoluble problems.

So I was thinking about where his career ought to end up, whether he gains the presidency or not. I would like to see him in the office of the presidency for the next 8 years--years that will see me rapidly approach the end of my life. I have a feeling that there won't ever be another president quite like him in the White House. Not while I'm alive, anyway. But whether he wins or loses the nomination, he strikes me more as someone who ought to be on the Supreme Court. He isn't really a liberal or a conservative. He is a pragmatist who understands the contradictions that pull Americans apart and together. Hopefully, he will be a president. Whether or not he is, I hope that some future president considers him for nomination as a justice on the Supreme Court.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Raucus Caucus in Washington

I hate caucuses, but I enjoy participating in them. What I mean is that they are a lousy way of picking a candidate for public office. Political parties use them to solicit donations and sign up campaign workers, so they are good for parties. But they involve too few people in the process, and they seem to produce skewed results--not always electing the most reasonable or electable candidates. What makes them fun is the interaction with other voters and the chance to debate the issues at a grass roots level.

The Democratic party in my home state of Washington was forced to accept a primary system a few years ago by popular referendum. Failing to win the popular vote, Democratic and Republican party officials went to court to get the primaries nullified. The courts agreed, and Washington therefore has tax-supported primaries that only the Democratic party ignores. The Republican party was more sensible about it. They decided to assign half their delegates to the choice made by the primary. Hence, I had to attend a caucus on February 9 in order to elect my choice--Barack Obama. On February 19, I will still vote in the primary, even if it is just a beauty contest. I prefer a primary, and I resent the state Democratic party for thumbing its nose at the voters.

Anyway, I showed up on February 5 and got myself elected as a precinct delegate for Obama. My wife and I arrived 10 minutes early, but we could barely squeeze in the door. The organizers seemed to have only a hazy idea of how to plan for a large turnout. My caucus was moved into an overflow room in the school where it was taking place. A young man volunteered to lead the caucus, but he had never been to one before. So a few of us older members had to kibbutz. We divided into 3 groups--Obama supporters, Hillary supporters, and undecided. The Hillary supporters were only a third of the caucus, so they got 2 of our 6 delegates.

After sitting in a circle, nobody in any of the groups had a clear idea of how to proceed, so most people, having already declared their candidate, went home. It was a very inefficient way to do what could have been done more efficiently with a primary. The remaining Obama and Hillary supporters converged on the undecideds to make their case. There was a lot of shouting back and forth until people settled down to taking turns. Some interesting pitches were made, and several got rounds of applause. Two of the most memorable were from independents. One was an Asian immigrant who admitted that he had always voted Republican, but he was there because he liked Obama. The other was the young son of Iraqi parents. He made an impassioned plea for Obama because of what he said was happening to his family in Iraq. The Obama and Hillary supporters made their case, mine being that Hillary's experience would count for less against McCain than Obama's charisma.

Monday, January 14, 2008

We Have All Experienced Death

We know what death is like. We have all experienced it. Well, maybe that is the wrong way of putting it, because death is lack of experience. It is a period of time that goes by in the physical world when our consciousness does not exist. Such a period occurred up until the time we were born. Such a period recurs every night when we go to sleep, although it is interrupted by periods of limited consciousness called dreams. If we have ever experienced general anesthesia for a surgical operation, then we have experienced death. At one moment, we are conscious of our surroundings. In the next, our consciousness comes back in the recovery room.

Almost all religions give us hope that we will not die--that our periodically interrupted consciousness will go on forever. Christians and Muslims believe that their consciousness will continue in the afterlife, perhaps in eternal bliss, perhaps in eternal pain. Whether interrupted or not--do people sleep in heaven?--it will continue beyond the death of the sun and beyond the death of the universe. To give up religion is to give up so much, but it is especially to give up that illusion of perpetual survival.

It is a conceit of religious faith that minds, like bodies, are a kind of persistent substance. Spiritualists used to characterize the former as protoplasm and the latter as ectoplasm. In so many religions, it is what we refer to as the soul. If the soul is anything different from a mind, I don't know what it is. Souls appear to have consciousness or self-awareness, and consciousness is made up of experiences--emotions, moods, perceptions, memories, reasoning. Yet a part of us knows that this isn't really true. Minds are fully dependent on functioning brains for their existence. As long as our brains remain healthy and functional, our minds will continue to experience periods of lucidity and awareness. When the brain dies, the physical machine that continually generates the mind goes away.

So, can brainless minds exist? We know that consciousness itself goes in and out during our lives, and the condition of our brain seems to control it. If we drink alcohol, our state of consciousness is altered. Our sense of judgment changes. We may even lose consciousness. Nowadays, we can take pills to deaden pain, put us to sleep, wake us up, suppress our illnesses, control our moods, and even turn madness into sanity. Diseases such as alzheimers and dementia eat away at the physical substance of the brain and, with it, the immaterial quality of thought. We see living people lose their memories and their grip on reality. Is it restored by God when we go to heaven?

They say that no one knows what happens when we die. Nobody has ever come back to talk about it. Or maybe you are one who believes that Jesus came back to talk about it. Maybe you believe that ghosts come back. I do not. We all know what happens when our brain is destroyed. We have all experienced death.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Dawkins vs McGrath Uncut

The preeminent atheist in the world today is Richard Dawkins. The media and his critics tend to depict him as an angry polemicist, and that is an easy impression to get from the sound bytes that have come to be associated with him. But it is also possible to see a very different side of him under more relaxed circumstances.

Dawkins has been featured in a TV documentary entitled "The Root of All Evil?" He has publicly criticized the title, which he did not want, but the producers would only consent to the addition of the question mark. And this is precisely the problem. He is not as radical or as polemical as the side that gets filtered through to the public. The media want him to be an extremist. He has insisted that it is just plain stupid to think that anything, let alone religion, is the root of all evil.

What I want to do here is call your attention to an online interview between Dawkins and Alister McGrath, an evangelical theologian who had criticized Dawkin's The God Delusion in Dawkin's God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. The video of the interview is long and uncut. It lasts well over an hour. However, if you have ever seen one of my favorite movies, Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre, then you will definitely be interested in this conversation. I would recommend Louis Malle's film over this, obviously, but the Dawkins-McGrath exchange is well worth it for anyone who has been in dialogs and debates between Christians and atheists on the internet. This video covers many of the same themes and arguments, but it is done with style, grace, and intelligence. For me, Dawkins was the clear winner in the discussion, but I suspect that my Christian friends will have the opposite impression. It is an excellent example of how the dialogue between Christians and atheists ought to be carried out.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Barack Obama and Religion

I don't normally like to hear candidates talk about religion, and that includes Democrats, whom I usually much prefer over Republicans. Of all the Republican candidates, Huckabee strikes me as the most likable, but I feel very uncomfortable about his strong religious views. And his policy positions, of course, turn me off completely. Still, I think that he would probably be the strongest candidate that Republicans could field in the general election.

On the Democratic side, I've been leaning to Edwards because of his stands on big business and government. I don't oppose Clinton, but she tends to be more polarizing than her competitors. So I think that she would have a tougher time gaining public support for her programs. I see Obama as the one with the greatest skills as an orator among all candidates, including Republicans. I like him a lot, but I'm not yet certain what kind of policies he would try to implement as President.

I thought it appropriate to bring up the issue of Obama's views on religion, which I think most Americans are ignorant of. I was pointed to this speech from his web site. It is a long speech--maybe 40 minutes--so I only intended to listen to a little of it. I ended up listening to the whole thing. There is one big difference between his speech on religion and the things (mostly sound bytes) that I have heard from all other candidates. He is the only speaker who seems to be able to talk about religion and not make me feel uncomfortable. Like his African-Americanism, he doesn't flaunt his religious faith, but he doesn't run away from it.

I'm an atheist, and I know that there is a religious test for public office in the minds of most Americans. I see many candidates on the right and the left as exploiting religious faith for political gain. I hate it when religion comes up in political debates and we see candidates (mostly Democrats) squirming and trying to come up with coded language that won't displease anybody. It was refreshing to listen to Obama, because he seems to have genuine feelings about religion, but he also seems to get what America is about.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Mr. Darwin's Reluctant Bombshell

Most people do not understand precisely what it was that Darwin did when he published his famous The Origin of Species. He was working against the established scientific "theory" of the time, which was known as "Natural Theology". Natural Theology assumed that species had been specially created by God and were immutable. Although they could hover around a kind of idealized form, two different species were assumed not to have had a common ancestor.

Darwin did not come up with the idea of common descent, transmutation of the species, or inheritance. All of that had been "discovered" by others and was already in the public record as hypothetical challenges to "Natural Theology". He did not discover genetics, the mechanism by which animals inherit characteristics. He did not rely primarily on the fossil record, which was nowhere near as complete in the mid-19th century as it is now. Natural Theology had its critics and competitors, but it represented the standard theory of most scientists of that time. Darwin was only one of the challengers, and he laid low for most of his life, preferring to delay publication of what he knew would be a scientific bombshell. But what was his bombshell? His conclusions of transmutation of species and common descent were already out there.

The single greatest insight of Darwin's work was the mechanism of natural selection, which was not itself a totally new idea. Humans had known about artificial selection since almost the beginning of recorded history. The Bible even explained how it worked. People took advantage of natural variation within a species and heritability of traits to create desirable enhancements in animals and plants. It could have been possible to mount a religious theory of transmutation and common descent by taking "natural selection" as God's artificial breeding program. And this seems to be what most people today actually believe evolution is about today--God's special breeding program to evolve humans from the "lower animals".

Darwin's bombshell was his argument that evolution was unguided by intelligent design. His mode of discovery was not just to examine the fossil record, which most people nowadays see as definitive proof of evolution. Rather, Darwin looked at biogeological diversity. He looked at living species that were closely related, and he noticed coincidental patterns in the diversity. Like species tended to cluster together geographically and temporally. Their differences tended to take advantage of the differences in climate and other external factors. The idea of common descent explained this skewed pattern of diversity, and natural selection explained why the differences took the shape that they did.

It was Thomas Malthus who really inspired Darwin. Malthus had pointed out that all species tended to produce more members of a species than could possibly survive in an environmental niche, and population pressure acted like a "wedge" to drive out competing species. Darwin put Malthus's insight together with natural biogeological diversity, and he had his "eureka" epiphany. And he sat on the idea for many years before publishing. He made his real reputation studying natural diversity in barnacles, of all things. For 9 years, Darwin did nothing but study barnacles. He made is initial reputation as the Barnacle Bill of biology. And it was the intraspecies variation that fueled his insight and his interest, because he knew that this was behind the Malthusian mechanism.

Evolution theory exploded into controversy, but it was not universally accepted overnight. Scientists, especially devoutly religious scientists, fought it bitterly for decades afterwards. The opposition still rears up in the so-called "scientific theory" of Intelligent Design. But the clinchers for evolution theory came after Darwin introduced natural selection. The fossil record continued to confirm the expectations that Darwin set scientists up with, and the completely independent discovery of genetics clinched the deal beyond all reasonable doubt. When DNA was discovered, evolution theory was no longer strictly in need of corroboration, but the corroboration has never stopped in well over a century of denial and opposition by very passionate, intelligent deniers. It is a tribute to Darwin's intellect that so many people still find it so difficult to accept the truth of his discovery. Natural selection has no goal and no direction. It just acts as a filter to pass through traits that allow the descendants of living organisms to adjust to environmental change.

Source: David Quammen. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.