The Language of Abortion

July 5, 2007

Fred Thompson

And again (with a little more detail)

Interesting how this will play out for the uber-conservatives I know who support him.

Here’s one with a (compassionate) quote from Barack Obama, made by a conservative Christian (enjoy the music from Jaws especially):

The amount of in-fighting between Christians on the issue of abortion can be truly vicious. This sort of clip reminds me again and again how Obama’s worldview is closer to my own than to the majority of self-proclaimed Christians I know.

Rudy Giuliani on public funding for abortion (you can bet this one will end up in campaign ads for pro-life Republicans if it hasn’t already!):

And finally, Hillary‘s response on reducing the number of abortions (with some odd sidetracking, like saying ‘the free market has failed’–wtf?, but overall good):


Heteroflexuality

June 28, 2007

Over at Friendly Atheist, Hemant posted this billboard from a Christian group:

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Of course, it’s an “ex-gay ministry”‘s you-can-change-being-gay billboard that’s been Photoshopped to make a rather hilarious point. And the church wasn’t happy with the comparison. That sparked some discussion on Hemant’s blog. Here’s an example of one of the comments:

That’s just not right. What’s worse is, they try to perpetuate that idea that homosexuals can change.

Well, I agree that it’s not right. But I think the discussion of whether people who identify as homosexuals at one point of their lives do so out of pure genetic determinism or pure personal choice is tainted by social norms; the politically-correct views of the accepting left and the it’s-really-hard-to-find-a-hermeneutic-to-get-out-of-this-one views on the Christian right. So, I wrote a rather long comment, and I didn’t want it to just get buried, so I gave it a nice new home here on my friendly blog:

I think it’s important to consider the issue of choosing sexual orientation. It’s very politically incorrect to say these days that (any) people choose their sexual orientation, but let’s talk this through. Hear me out please (no pun intended). First, no one has found a single gene that causes homosexuality in a simple Mendelian way (although many, like Dean Hamer, have tried). Much research needs to be done, but the most you can say is that there is a genetic predisposition. Having a predisposition for something–let’s say liking cheetos–is not synonymous with being “born that way.” However, there can also be a tremendous influence on a developing fetus from its chemical environment during pregnancy, and this is one very likely way in which a predisposition for one sexual orientation develops.

That said, there are most certainly a number of people whose predominant sexual orientation from birth is homosexual, with no desire for the opposite gender. A much larger proportion of a population is predominantly heterosexual, with no desire for the same gender. There does exist a group in the middle though–many of whom choose to identify as bisexuals–whose orientation is more fluid. What exactly influences these people to identify as homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual? You can bet that their personal developmental psychology plays a role, as well as social norms. Many of these ‘flexible’ people may choose to identify with a group that is not discriminated against (heterosexuals) due to outside pressure. I would bet this is where many of the “conversion” stories come from. A biologically informed opinion would include the factoid that many traits are determined by a complex interaction of genes, developmental environment (pre- and post-natal), social norms, and personal choices.

So, it’s important to recognize that sexuality, for a significant portion of the population, is much more fluid than many people would care to admit. So a Christian ministry can certainly hope to ‘convert’ some people (which is all the more reason to resist such “ministries” that cause people emotional harm). Quoting another comment:

I’m pretty sure he missed the real meaning, it’s not really that Asians don’t choose to be Asian, it’s that there’s nothing wrong with being Asian in the first place.

And that’s exactly what the response should be. It is much easier to respond “I was born this way,” but it’s simply not true for everyone. It’s harder to argue that “because the Bible says so doesn’t make it wrong,” but that seems to really be at the root of all this. Thoughts?


Defending Witchcraft

June 27, 2007

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Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, which I generally enjoyed (though I have some rather strong reservations about many specific arguments), has finally arisen to defend witchcraft against its skeptics. Sort of.

In an article in the Huffington Post, Harris paints a hilarious picture.. First, imagine that you live in a country, around 500 years ago, where ~95% of the people believe in witchcraft.

Imagine being among the tiny percentage of people — the 5 percent, or 10 percent at most — who think that a belief in witchcraft is nothing more than a malignant fantasy…You argue further that a belief in magic offers false hope of benefits that are best sought elsewhere… If your name is Sam Harris, you may produce two fatuous volumes entitled The End of Magic and Letter to a Wiccan Nation. Daniel Dennett would then grapple helplessly with the origins of sorcery in his aptly named, Breaking the Spell. Richard Dawkins — whose bias against witches, warlocks, and even alchemists has long been known — will follow these books with an arrogant screed entitled, The Witch Delusion.

So, what would the reviews from the witches and sorcerers look like? Harris takes a few reviews of his and other prominent atheists’ books and replaces key words: “God” with “the Devil,” “religion” with “witchcraft,” etc. One of the results:

“The danger is that the aggression and hostility to [magic] in all its forms… deters engagement with the really interesting questions that have emerged recently in the science/[necromancy] debate. The durability and near universality of [witchcraft] is one of the most enduring conundrums of evolutionary thinking… Does [spell-casting] still have an important role in human wellbeing? … If [sorcery] declines, what gaps does it leave in the functioning of individuals and social groups?… I suspect the New [Skeptics] are in danger of a spectacular failure. With little understanding and even less sympathy of why people increasingly use [the evil eye] in political contexts, they’ve missed the proverbial elephant in the room. These increasingly hysterical books may boost the pension… but one suspects that they are going to do very little to challenge the appeal of a phenomenon they loathe too much to understand.” –Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian

(Via Friendly Atheist)


Quote Mining

June 22, 2007

I really should be working on a research project. But I’m not.

Just came across this great piece on Behe’s misleading quote-mining in the End of Evolution–the first thing that really struck me about the book. The misrepresentations are really oustanding.

Also, this blog has an excellent list of reviews/ criticisms of Behe’s new ‘work.’ Cheers.


Let Freedom Ring?

June 12, 2007

I am not a patriot. I dislike nationalism in all its forms, and I hold no extraordinary allegiance to my country of birth. I see no more reason to fight for the economic gain of those who share my nationality at the expense of others as I do to fight for my Caucasian ethnicity.

I do however hold allegiance to certain principles–freedom and justice being primary among them–that I believe are worthwhile. To the extent that America is in line with those principles, or at least better than some other countries, I love America. To the extent that America falls short, I am an irrepressible critic. Principle stands higher than country, and it seems that most of the wars in the world have followed when country stands higher than principle.

Truthdig has a piece on Bush’s (positive) reception in Albania, at the same time as a report was released by the Council of Europe on America’s secret prisons. From the report:

What was previously just a set of allegations is now proven: large numbers of people have been abducted from various locations across the world and transferred to countries where they have been persecuted and where it is known that torture is common practice. Others have been held in arbitrary detention, without any precise charges leveled against them and without any judicial oversight. … Still others have simply disappeared for indefinite periods and have been held in secret prisons, including in member states of the Council of Europe.

So, how should we judge President Bush? They say history will judge him… Who knows, maybe later Americans will retain their penchant for preemptive war and laud Bush as a hero for setting a precedent. That’s not an America that I look forward to. One thing I can certainly say now is that the abuses of freedom and human rights that were often justified in our foreign policy by utilitarian calculations (civil war in Guatemala or elsewhere is better than a Communist takeover) have been thrown front and center by George Bush. From TruthDig:

We will remember that long after it was clear that Guantanamo was doing serious harm to our nation’s reputation in the world—on Sunday, Bush’s former secretary of state, Colin Powell, called for the place to be shut down “this afternoon”—Bush stubbornly kept it open.

Let the scandals of today pass. Certain things will stick in our minds much longer:

We will remember Alberto Gonzales not for his hapless stewardship of the Justice Department or the firings of those U.S. attorneys—well, actually, we will remember him for those things—but we’ll also remember that when he was White House counsel he dutifully provided legalistic justification for subjecting prisoners to treatment that international agreements clearly define as torture.

And, one last note on the Council of Europe report:

Marty [the author of the report] makes this point in his report. “We are fully aware of the seriousness of the terrorist threat and the danger it poses to our societies,” he writes. “However, we believe that the end does not justify the means in this area.” Resorting to “abuse and illegal acts,” he says, “actually amounts to a resounding failure of our system and plays right into the hands of the criminals who seek to destroy our societies through terror.”

If America is a beacon for freedom, justice, and human rights, then she is worthy of praise. If she is a den of selfish, aggressive foreign policy and a hunger for economic gain with no question of its consequences, then she is not. Most Americans don’t really care about numbers killed that much. In truth, American forces have killed (whether purposefully or accidentally) many more civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere then died on 9/11 in New York. The conflagration begun by our military belligerency has arguably resulted in the deaths of more civilians than the continuation of Saddam’s murderous regime would have.

We, as Americans, normally accept these numbers not because we like death, but because we believe the American government is fighting for something that is true, noble, and just: American forces are fighting to preserve the American way of life. If America is not just in its treatment of enemies, are we fighting for justice, or for blind self-preservation?

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The Kite Runner

June 5, 2007

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My parents gave me a copy of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner for Christmas, and it’s a tribute to the crazily-high-busy-ness quotient of the past semester that I just now got to it.

Hosseini immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan and became a physician, a profession he only gave up after the success of his novels. The Kite Runner is his first novel, and runs in a sort of parallel to his own life. Amir, the main character, grows up in Afghanistan and ends up fleeing to the U.S. during that country’s decades of violence.

The Kite Runner is one of those excellent books where fiction may give one a better introduction to a reality that nonfiction ever could. The characters are imaginary, but in a sense they are very real, telling stories about their country’s history, its culture, its religion, its prejudices, and its wars. Amir is an upper-class Pashtun who has a conflicted friendship with Hassan, the son of his father’s Hazara servant. Much of the book centers on Amir’s guilt over an incident from his childhood and his struggle to redeem himself.

It’s not perfect though. At times I thought the coincidences–such as in meeting the same characters repeatedly, unexpectedly–veered away from realism. The book could have used a few more characters not vital to the plot to flesh it out, but this doesn’t interfere too much. If you want to know more about Afghanistan, The Kite Runner is probably an excellent first book to draw you into a world that is otherwise utterly foreign. And maybe reading it will help humanize the people of Afghanistan, in a way that Americans desperately need.


Those evil teachers…

March 21, 2007

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Read the tragic story here.


Shooting the Messenger

January 20, 2007

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Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was shot and killed in broad daylight on a street in Istanbul. Dink had been outspoken about the Ottoman genocide of Armenians at the start of the 20th century. While this may seem like ancient history to present-minded Americans, it plays heavily into regional politics in Turkey and Armenia. Many Turks think the killings were a justifiable part of a civil war, while Armenians see it as genocide (most non-Turkish sources I’ve read agree with the latter).

Being a prominent journalist about an unpopular issue is never an easy task. But in some places the messenger is more likely to get shot than in others. For example, I don’t think Anderson Cooper has gotten many death threats lately. (However, this may be a symptom of how any prominent journalist–especially American ones–pander to the system. If you’re not getting death threats or hate mail, your work might not be that important…)

So how big of a deal is calling the killing of Armenians genocide in Turkey? Evidently it’s illegal to insult the Turkish state (in America it’s mostly legal, just unpopular). From CNN:

Described as a “well-known commentator on Armenian affairs,” Dink had been called into court a number of times on allegations of “insulting” the Turkish state in his writing.

And apparently Dink isn’t the first Turkish journalist to be targeted for unpopular beliefs:

Joel Campagna, Mideast program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said, “Like dozens of other Turkish journalists, Hrant Dink has faced political persecution because of his work. Now it appears he’s paid the ultimate price for it.”

Campagna said that Turkey “must ensure that this crime does not go unpunished like other cases in the past and that those responsible for his murder are brought to justice.”

He said that over the last 15 years, 18 Turkish journalists have been killed — making the country the eighth deadliest in the world for journalists in that period. He said many of the deaths took place in the early 1990s, at the peak of the Kurdish separatist insurgency.

Unlike Anna Politkovskaya, who was likely assassinated by the Russian government itself (for criticism of atrocities in Russia’s war on Chechnya), Dink’s death is more likely that of an Islamist or Turkish ultra-nationalist extremist (the assassin reportedly shouted “I shot the infidel”), categories which can often become blurred, but the Turkish government is anything but blameless for the overall situation:

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, told CNN that the case is the “product of the environment that the Turkish government has created” — its persistent denial that the killings of the Armenians last century did not amount to genocide.

How Turkey handles this event, along with its relations with the Kurds, will also inevitably tie into Turkey’s desire to join the European Union. But while this killing raises political questions, it also brings me to a more philosophical inquiry.

Is there really a right to free speech? Do people inherently have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Where do any of these rights come from? In the idealistic sense the answer may be yes, we have these rights, but many authors on human rights (Farmer ‘s Pathologies of Power comes to mind) would be the first to admit that they can’t “prove” rights. Nobody truly possessed a right to freedom of speech or freedom of religion until people decided that they had those rights, declared them, and made them a reality.

A right can exist as an ideal that has no real correspondence to actual conditions, but over time the ideal may come closer to realization. Our freedom of speech is still imperfect, but there are arguably more people in the world today who can speak freely than ever before. There will always be people and governments who will shoot the messenger, but if we shed light on and punish those who violate the right to speech, we may move closer to the ideal, if only incrementally. In the same sense, I hold that people have a right to health care–a right that is inseparable from our right to life–but recognize that this right is less realized in America than any other wealthy nation. The act of smoothing over the edges between the ideal and the reality is the whole pursuit of social justice.

Update: A suspect has been arrested in the case.


The Epitomal Transhumanist

January 19, 2007

This video of Ray Kurzweil (about 23 minutes long) is an excerpt from an annual seminar called TED Talks (for Technology, Entertainment and Design) that features leaders from a variety of fields. While most of the talks seem to focus on society or technology, the perspectives are quite broad: Al Gore, Rick Warren, Daniel Dennett, Bono, and Richard Dawkins have all graced its stage in recent years.

Ray Kurzweil is a prominent transhumanist, and has one of the most optimistic views of technology possible. One of his more recent books is The Singularity is Near, which describes his view that not only is the eventual surpassing of humanity by artificial intelligence inevitable, it is also nearer than we think. In Kurzweil’s view this process will include the merging of our own personal consciousness with the advanced capabilities of computers to eventually be able to process more quickly, analyze more astutely, retrieve data more accurately, and so on. In Kurzweil’s view, what truly distinguishes homo sapiens is not our current biological status, history, or accomplishments, but our impetus to transcend our limitations. Technology merely offers us a new vehicle for our transcendence.

Regardless of whether you embrace his views wholeheartedly (they seem a bit optimistic even for me) or you feel a shiver of terror or silent mockery slipping down your Luddite spine, Kurzweil’s thought should be examined because of his influence. He’s a successful inventor and author, and a prominent figure among futurists and transhumanists. Here’s a summary of sorts of Kurzweil’s TED talk:

Can we predict the future? While certain specifics of technological progress are very hard to predict, overall trends are predictable, and they’re also exponential. Growth in one technology enables and promotes growth in another technology. 50 years to adopt telephones, 8 years to adopt cell phones. TV took decades, but new technologies- like the internet- have taken off much faster.

Kurzweil then makes an analogy to biological evolution. The evolution of genetic material (DNA/RNA) took billions of years, but once certain genes were in place (or the common “tool-kit,” as evo-devo would put it) more rapid (~10 million years) change, like the Cambrian “explosion” (a term that is disliked in many circles) can occur. But as the first technology-creating species, our culture has allowed us to “evolve” on a level that is exponential in comparison to biological evolution (which is one reason we have a hard time understanding evolutionary time scales).

It took tens of thousands of years to develop agriculture, then thousands to move to more centralized forms of government (those two are arguably related, but the direction of causality is disputed), civilization led to quicker technological development, etc. The last 500 years of technological growth were incredible, but the last century has been even more impressive- bringing us widely available automobiles, radios, TVs, airplanes, medical technology, computers, Internet, not to mention space flight and an incredible plethora of new weapons systems with which to butcher each other.

This emphasis on technological development as an exponential process is a major theme of Kurzweil’s work. But, he points out, people always begin doubting when exponential growth for future technology is predicted. This growth is a result of

“worldwide chaotic behavior.. You would think it would be a very erratic process, yet you have a very smooth outcome… Just as we can’t predict what one molecule in a gas will do- it’s hopeless to predict a single molecule- yet we can predict the properties of the whole gas using thermodynamics very accurately. It’s the same thing here- we can’t predict any particular product, but the result of this whole worldwide chaotic, unpredictable activity of competition in the evolutionary process of technology is very predictable, and we can predict these trends very far into the future.”

Kurzweil also talks about the suboptimal nature of much human biology (so much for perfect design). For example, our metabolism, which leads us to hold onto every calorie, is a throwback to our hunter-gatherer days and is something that we might like to modify to prevent obesity in developed nations. And another problem, which seems to be Kurzweil’s main fascination: “Long life spans (as in more than 30) weren’t selected for.”

While some of his examples are sketchier than others, the idea of an engineered erythrocyte (red blood cell) that could increase oxygen capacity greatly is particular interesting. In my view, Kurzweil has a tendency to exaggerate about some possibilities, but then again, exponential growth will always appear as an exaggeration to those in a linear-growth mindset.

I think more important than any individual predictions about technological progress that Kurzweil makes (like reverse-engineering the brain by 2020), his main point stands: the progress of technology throughout history has been accelerating. The main question tends to be whether we’ll be able to harness these technologies to make life more certain, more pleasurable, more equitable, more eco-friendly, and more connected (and therefore more meaningful on some level) or to just wipe each other off the planet.