Thanks Alanis

June 17, 2007

Alanis Morisette parodies the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps”:

If the song didn’t strike you as absurd the first time you heard it, this version makes you think about the inanity of the lyrics.

There’s Always an Alternative

June 11, 2007

If your standards are low enough.

I just spent a good hour looking at the website of Scholars for 9/11 Truth and Justice, largely because I came across a website talking about how great the ‘evidence’ is for a controlled demolition. After reading some of their ‘evidence’–which largely consists of a drip of pseudoscience here and a heavy coat of logically-indefensible theorizing there–and find myself slightly more educated about their arguments, and overwhelmingly unconvinced.

The most interesting thing for me is the similarity between the 9/11 Truth movement and Creationism/ Intelligent Design. Both of these are based on the idea that the status quo simply cannot be correct, largely because of personal incredulity. There’s no way I could have evolved from monkeys… There’s no way there’s a natural mechanism that would create X… There’s no way that those planes and/or fires could have brought down those buildings… And what they end up with an alternative theory that is less plausible than the mainstream one which is supported by evidence. This also seems to be similar to other forms of pseudoscience, like that of HIV-denialists.

Here’s an interesting example from the 9/11 site:

The word theory when used in the derisive sense of ‘conspiracy theory’ connotes detailed speculation unfounded in fact. However, a theory can stand apart from a detailed scenario explaning the means and methods behind observed events. For example, a theory of the controlled demolition of the Twin Towers can be proved simply by disproving its converse — that the Towers’ collapses were spontaneous. (emphasis added)

That last sentence is the interesting part. Of course, it’s bad logic, and bad theorizing. One should look for the more parsimonious theory–that which fits better with the available evidence. Even if one were able to disprove specific evidence for the official theories (which, judging by the evidence presented on the website, certainly hasn’t been done, but is assumed to have been done), that wouldn’t mean the alternative theory is more plausible. It’s reminiscent of the Wedge Strategy of the Intelligent Design movement:

The objective (of the wedge strategy) is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to ‘the truth’ of the Bible and then ‘the question of sin’ and finally ‘introduced to Jesus.’

Simply convince people that the main theory is either untrue or unpalatable, and then they’ll no other choice but to embrace the alternative conveniently offered at the moment of doubt. Moral for the day: If you see this strategy elsewhere, be wary.

Digital Ethnography

June 10, 2007

I like this. I don’t think it says anything new, but it’s certainly said in a neat way, and makes some connections you may not have made. Possibly with a pinch of naive optimist as well. And sweet music.

Dennett: The Reason-Driven Life

June 4, 2007

Daniel Dennett, a philosophy professor at Tufts, plays the friendly grandfather role well. I think it comes off much better than Dawkins’ British accent snipery.

In this video (from TED Talks), Dennett starts off by talking about how humans took an animal (the Aurochs?) and domesticated it over time to improve it, eventually leading to the modern cow. And from there he goes on to religion. His taltk came right after the one by Rick Warren (author of The Purpose-Driven Life), so some of the remarks flow from that. It’s worth watching, and more or less echoes his Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

The Age of the Impossibility of Disbelief

June 3, 2007


In her excellent book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong takes an interesting detour on the language of belief and doubt. She describes how the proliferation of religious choices may have made faith more difficult, not less:

Indeed, by the end of the sixteenth century, many people in Europe felt that religion had been gravely discredited. They were disgusted by the killing of Catholics by Protestants and Protestants by Catholics. Hundreds of people had died as martyrs for holding views that it was impossible to prove one way or the other. Sects preaching a bewildering variety of doctrines that were deemed essential for salvation had proliferated alarmingly. There was now too much theological choice: many felt paralyzed and distressed by the variety of religious interpretations on offer. Some may have felt that faith was becoming harder to achieve than ever.

So did people respond with atheism, or something else?

Yet in fact a full-blown atheism in the sense that we use the word today was impossible. As Lucien Febvre has shown in his classic book The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century, the conceptual difficulties in the way of a complete denial of God’s existence at this time were so great as to be insurmountable. From birth and baptism to death and burial in the churchyard, religion dominated the life of every single man and woman. Every activity of the day, which was punctuated with church bells summoning the faithful to prayer, was saturated with religious beliefs and institutions: they dominated professional and public life—even the guilds and the universities were religious organizations. As Febvre points out, God and religion were so ubiquitous that nobody at this stage thought to say “So our life, the whole of our life, is dominated by Christianity! How tiny is the area of our lives that is already secularized, compared to everything that is still governed, regulated and shaped by religion!”

I wonder, what dominates our own lives in such a way that we cannot realize? How shackled is our thinking by the commonplace? It’s a fascinating line of questioning.

Even if an exceptional man could have achieved the objectivity necessary to question the nature of religion and the existence of God, he would have found no support in either the philosophy or the science of his time. Until there had formed a body of coherent reasons, each of which was based on another cluster of scientific verifications, nobody could deny the existence of a God whose religion shaped and dominated the moral, emotional, aesthetic and political life of Europe. Without this support, such a denial could only be a personal whim or a passing impulse that was unworthy of serious consideration. As Febvre has shown, a vernacular language such as French lacked either the vocabulary or the syntax for skepticism. Such words as “absolute,” “relative,” “causality,” “concept,” and “intuition” were not yet in use. We should also remember that as yet no society in the world had eliminated religion, which was taken for granted.

So, what things enabled people to visualize a world without God, and develop a secular existence? And what things encouraged them along that path? I think the religious wars of Europe and, as Armstrong mentioned, the overwhelming variety of religions from which to choose, both made religion in general seem less desirable. I’m not enough of a philosopher to name pivotal events in that movement that made a secular worldview possible, but in the field of science, Darwin was certainly one of the key turning points. Here’s a quote from Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker:

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: “I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.” I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

But the question remains–what else is holding us back?

God as Meme

December 19, 2006


While I’ve already started two or three other books simultaneously (I’ve really got to quit that), Karen Armstrong’s A History of God is the first to really catch my attention this holiday break. Armstrong is a journalist and former Catholic nun. The latter didn’t work out too well for her. Lately she’s been writing numerous books on world religions, and A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is a New York Times bestseller. I decided it was worth buying when I read an admiringly introduced quote of hers in both a book by Sam Harris and by a Christian (although I don’t recall what book or blog that was in now). Also, I just read a nice piece over at Ethical Spectacle, with an interesting Personal History of God.

So how does Armstrong introduce her grand, far-reaching survey of religious history?

This book will not be a history of ineffable reality of God itself, which is beyond time and change, but a history of the way men and women have perceived him from Abraham to the present day. The human idea of God has a history, since it has always mean something slightly different to each group of people who have used it at various points of time. The idea of God formed in one generation by one set of human beings could be meaningless in another. Indeed, the statement “I believe in God” has no objective meaning, as such, but like any other statement only means something in context, when proclaimed by a particular community. Consequently there is no one unchanging idea contained in the word “God”; instead, the word contains a whole spectrum of meanings, some of which are contradictory or even mutually exclusive. Had the notion of God not had this flexibility, it would not have survived to become one of the great human ideas.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Speed of Meme

November 28, 2006


A blogger over at Acephalous is doing a pop science experiment to measure the speed of a meme. As a student of social science, I am dutifully linking to the original article. Besides duty, there’s the interesting educational opportunity (though I’m not convinced that the ‘experiment’ will yield any usable data other than increasing Acephalous’s traffic), and the fact that “acephalous” has to be one of the funniest blog titles I’ve seen so far.

If you don’t already know, a meme is a “unit of cultural information transferable from one mind to another.” The term was coined by Richard Dawkins (the famous evolutionary biologist who recently wrote the bestseller The God Delusion, which I still haven’t read) and is intended to be analagous to the gene, which is the unit of selection in biological evolution (at least according to most evolutionary biologists- I’m currently reading Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene on this very subject).

From Wikipedia:

“Richard Dawkins introduced the term after writing that evolution depended not on the particular chemical basis of genetics, but only on the existence of a self-replicating unit of transmission — in the case of biological evolution, the gene. For Dawkins, the meme exemplifies another self-replicating unit, and most importantly, one which he thought would prove useful in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution.”

(On a side note, the picture above illustrates the linkings between webpages, and is from a page with interesting illustrations of different types of networks.)

The most prolific memes are probably the ones we don’t even notice. And of course, the concept of memes has proven to be a rather prolific meme, likely due to its flexibility and broad application. Pretty much anyone can make some sort of point using the concept of memes. Like this post.

Strong vs. Weak Intelligent Design

October 18, 2006

I read an article on another blog (by D.C. Toedt) recently that to me really highlighted part of the “Intelligent Design” controversy. There has been and probably will continue to be a strong movement, especially in the South and Midwest, of Christians trying to get any alternative to Darwinian evolution taught in science classes. Because teaching a literalist or day/epoch version of the Genesis story and the closely connected “Creation Science” movement of the 80’s has been ruled either illegal or unconstitutional, conservative Christians have come up with Intelligent Design, a movement conveniently emasculated of Christian theology but still doing what is desired most by the creationist movement- denying that human life came about by evolution.

As I continue to study evolution, I’m convinced more and more that it is an extremely robust scientific theory that will likely never be overthrown. Evolution is continuously reinforced by new fossil discoveries (see the Smithsonian’s Human Origins project), molecular biology, and other fields. For example, scientists assembled phylogenetic trees trying to piece together the origins of various species long before DNA was understood. As scientists get more information from DNA, the phylogenetic trees have been confirmed with very little adaptation- for example, chimpanzees were thought to be the closest primate to humans before DNA was understood, and DNA studies have confirmed that they share 95-99% of their genes.

Toedt’s piece is illuminating in that it makes a distinction between arguments for ‘weak’ intelligent design and ‘strong’ Intelligent Design. The difference, in shorthand, is thus;

Strong Intelligent Design says evolution can not happen by physical means alone and therefore necessitates divine intervention. For example, Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, asserts that evolution has been well proven by the fossil record and phylogenetics, enough so that he believes in universal common descent (that all mammals have a common ancestor, etc.), but that if one wants to argue against evolution, they should stick to areas of biochemistry that haven’t been thoroughly explained yet. This sort of ‘God of the Gaps’ argument is irrationally, and (this is key) not a scientifically testable hypothesis.

Weak intelligent design says the overall complexity of the universe, and the fact that there is something instead of nothing, seems to intuitively point toward an ultimate cause. For obvious reasons, physical means (science) can’t be used to research the metaphysical (that which is outside the physical world), so assuming a metaphysical reason for a physical process gets in the way of understanding the physical process. I think I lean toward this one, just a bit.

Trying to keep evolution from being taught in schools is a holdover from fundamentalism that only makes Christians look ignorant (because the arguments largely play off the public’s ignorance of science), and ultimately interferes with trying to get people to follow the Christian ethic.