Thursday, August 26, 2010

Tea Parties Costing Republicans Seats?

So suggests Jeremy Pierce at Parablemania.

From what I've heard and read of the Tea Party, while they obviously have some (very?) conservative leanings, one thing I've heard out of many tea partiers or those sympathetic to them is that they don't want to be "the guys who help the Republican win just because he's a Republican". In fact, there seems to be a heavy feeling of being anti-incumbent, period, rather than just anti-Democrat. It wasn't like Bush or the Republican house and senate did a bang-up job when they were in power - not exactly the era of small government, that. (The SCOTUS appointments were the best things to come out of Bush's presidency, and that involved a near revolt by the Republican base.)

Coming from PA, I recall how many times Republicans were told how important it was to support Arlen Specter, to turn a blind eye towards any problems that anyone may have with his policies or his voting record, on the grounds that he was the Republican incumbent and Republicans support Republicans no matter what. It turned out Specter himself wasn't too keen on that advice, because he bailed on the party the moment that seemed like the best move for his political fortunes. Of course there was also Jim Jeffords and all manner of other incidents.

I suppose what I'm getting at is, even if it were true that Tea Partiers are costing the Republicans seats (On the whole, I doubt it, but you never know), I think the response of many would be "So what?" Should they vote for the candidate they dislike purely to get a Republican in office? Better yet, why regard it as a failure of the Tea Party as opposed to a failure of the Republicans themselves? If a given candidates' actions or political leanings result in the base abandoning him, is it the base's fault or the candidate's fault?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Los Angeles' 578 Million Dollar School.

All for the children, of course.

From the article:

"There's no more of the old, windowless cinderblock schools of the '70s where kids felt, 'Oh, back to jail,'" said Joe Agron, editor-in-chief of American School & University, a school construction journal. "Districts want a showpiece for the community, a really impressive environment for learning."

I wonder what he means by those "districts" that want these things. People living in the area? Elected officials? Teachers? Construction workers?

Of course, not everyone is impressed.

"New buildings are nice, but when they're run by the same people who've given us a 50 percent dropout rate, they're a big waste of taxpayer money," said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution who sits on the California Board of Education. "Parents aren't fooled."

Parents aren't fooled? Back to the "who makes up this district" question. Maybe the parents really are fooled. Maybe they think an impressive building will yield smarter students. Or maybe they don't really care too much about whether the students' educations will benefit from this, and are more concerned about a showpiece for the community and really impressive environments.

Still, all I can do is shrug at the display. It's like trying to combat obesity by purchasing a ten thousand dollar art deco refrigerator complete with a diamond encrusted crisper. "Look at that thing! You can tell I'm really serious about dieting by how much money I spend making sure my food is kept in a luxurious, modern environment."

Mind you, I'm sure a lot of rationalizations can come in. "Environment and aesthetics are important! They encourage focus and..!" etc, etc. But at the end of the day, it just seems so damn cargo cultist to me. Food and money not falling from the skies? Well, clearly we need to build an even *better* fake landing strip. Let's make sure that guy speaking into immaculately crafted bamboo radio puts his heart into it!

Superstition is alive and well in Los Angeles.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

More Islamic News!

Saudis considering paralyzing man who paralyzed another man!

Some comments in brief.

* I notice that no one is saying that the man in question isn't guilty of what he's accused of, nor that his actions were accidental. So frankly, this is a hard case to work up much emotional sympathy for. Intellectual? Oh, absolutely. But emotional? Nah. I think many people in the civilized, progressive, whatever-other-nice-word West - if they or a loved one were injured this way - would, even if secretly, approve of such a penalty. Especially since blood money remains an option.

It doesn't justify the Saudis, but it's a point that has to be mentioned.

* Human rights groups are appalled of course. But then, who are these human rights groups and why should I give a **** what they think? What makes a person a "human rights" advocate as opposed to - pardon my language - some ******* with an opinion? Last I checked, Amnesty International considered abortion a "human right". If I oppose them, am I a human rights advocate? And if anyone with a conflicting opinion is a human rights advocate, why bother with the label? Because it sounds good?

I guess what I'm saying here is "human rights groups" can go **** themselves, at least in the abstract sense.

* "No hospital will cut this man’s spinal cord. Any doctor who did could find himself in court,' said a senior Saudi journalist, who did not wish to be named." Oh, that's precious. You need a doctor to cut a man's spinal cord? I'm pretty sure the defendant in question isn't Doogie Howser. You just need one steel-hearted guy with good aim and a guarantee of no liability.

* "Extremist ideology." "Ultra-conservative." "Bizarre religious decrees." How come words like this rarely hit the mainstream press whenever Peter Singer crawls out of the ivory tower that serves as his lair? Why is his song and dance inevitably portrayed as "provocative thought" or "questioning popular ideas" and so on? Why aren't abortion proponents accused of clinging to "ultra-conservative, classical pagan ideology" that viewed children as property of their parents or their country? It's not as if abortion was some new idea no one ever heard of before the 1970s.

But, there you go. Incidentally, a momentary glance at the comments section of that page shows quite a lot of civilized "western" people talking about what a great law the Saudis have. You gotta admit, it'd make Court TV one hell of a lot more interesting.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Obama Muslim Polls!

White House says Obama is obvious a Christian and he prays daily!

Now, I've never been onboard with the whole 'Obama is a muslim!' thing. But, what stands out to me is that the defense of "Obama is obviously a Christian. I mean he prays daily!" seems bizarre. The implication is... what, muslims don't pray?

I'm waiting for Newsmax or Freerepublic to add in their own details. Namely affirming that, yes, Obama does pray daily. Three times a day. Facing Mecca.

Deism: Advantage Theism, or Advantage Atheism?

One thing that always tickles me about modern atheists is their attempt to 'count' deists in the atheist column. I think part of the appeal comes from there having been a number of deists who were highly critical of Christianity - Voltaire, Paine, etc. And since - let's face it - modern atheists tend to be concerned with Christianity first and foremost, I think two things go on: A "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" attitude, and a kind of wishful thinking of "he was probably just an atheist but pretended to be a deist so people would listen to him" move.

Of course, the most well-known deist in modern times is Anthony Flew, who admittedly shook things up in a major way - primarily because Flew didn't transition from Christianity or any other religion to deism, but from atheism to deism. Worse, he claimed (and given his deism, he could not help but claim) that this was not only a result of the arguments he was exposed to, but that the types of arguments that persuaded him were 'natural', even scientific: Natural law in the universe, DNA and the origin of life, etc being prominent.

What interests me most about Flew's conversion is that it establishes something that I always lament more apologists and believers in general fail to appreciate or take advantage of: The realization that deism can and does function as a kind of two-way bridge between atheism and Christianity. Instead the perspective is that deism is a kind of one-way slide - namely, a deist is a Christian or muslim or, etc, whose faith has fallen. It's easy to make that mistake, since the sort of deism freshest in people's minds is the deism of the enlightenment, where pretty much everyone started out as a Christian and thus any change in belief would have to go 'away' from Christianity. But I maintain that it is a mistake, and that apologists in general should view deism as something worth arguing for, one more tool in the apologetics array.

The funny thing is, as near as I can tell, most atheists would rather choke than fight deism. No less a rabid atheist than Jerry Coyne flat out concedes that deism is compatible with science, Dawkins himself once made a concession in a debate with an ID proponent that sounded an awful lot like him finding deism reasonable (he backed off, but not before the damage was done and a number of internet atheists suddenly came out of the closet as either being deists or deism-sympathetic.) In other words, strangely enough, there seems to be one type of God most atheists aren't willing to talk about.

One anecdote I have is about a time an internet atheist approached me wanting to engage in a public forum debate over the existence of God. I agreed (this was back before I realized how useless internet arguments really are), and when he started to rattle off on criticisms of the Old Testament, etc, I informed him that while I was Catholic, that wasn't the discussion I agreed to: I was there to defend the existence of God, period, and therefore all I had to defend was deism. The result? He flipped out and immediately refused to engage me at all unless I defended Christianity specifically - he flat-out refused to argue against deism. Now, let's point out the obvious here: The sort of people who love to debate on the internet, who out and out challenge people to a debate, don't shut up very easily. Forum/blog warriors who walk around challenging people to debate tend not to drop opportunities to run at the mouth. So to see someone cut and run - not even mid-stream, to do so before the argument even began - was enlightening to me.

The dirty little secret is that once that minimal deistic God is seen as reasonable to believe in - and I maintain that this is ridiculously easy for an unbiased observer to be persuaded to - 99% of the atheist's position is dead in the water, and 90% of Christianity's case is made. But sadly, this just doesn't get discussed by apologists, who seem to want to talk about mere deism as minimally as possible. Even Bill Craig, a fantastic philosopher and debater and whose arguments are compatible with deism, never really develops this line fully. Instead he seems to want to run past that mere God, or mere deism/theism, as fast as possible and get back to the topic of Christianity.

Either way, some philosophers and writers do dwell on this point to a degree. Aquinas himself via the Five Ways, Edward Feser's The Last Superstition (It's fun to watch critics react to TLS as a Christian book, when Ed stresses in it that if it establishes anything, it establishes mere classical theism), arguably the Intelligent Design movement is merely deistic or only broadly theist formally, etc. But I'd like to see more along these lines, precisely because A) Deism is more reasonable than atheism is or could ever hope to be, B) I am convinced that deism creates a bridge that would take on more irreligious towards Catholicism, and C) I think the reaction of many atheists alone would be worth the price of admission.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Interesting Side-Effect

Possible side-effect of "limiting homosexuality" found in a new drug?

For anyone who thinks having homosexual urges is very, very important, don't worry: Bio-ethicists shall do their best to ensure that no one takes this or any other drug in order to ensure their child is lacking such urges. That will be considered completely unethical. Besides, taking out children with unwanted traits is the abortion industry's turf.

Mind you, I'm skeptical of all of this. I just find it funny. Gallows humor and all.

Edit: To make the point as blunt as possible: While there being a "gay gene" is fantasy (and morally, beside the point), that there may be some biological and environmental factors that go into influencing a person's sexual urges and preferences is more reasonable. But the cost of identifying those will be - surprise - most people who choose to have children noting those factors, and doing their best to minimize them. After all, while the bio-ethicist may stubbornly insist "homosexuality (or homosexual inclinations) is not an illness to be cured!!!", a matching idea is that a child - particular one still in the womb - is pretty much the personal property of the woman in question. At the end of the day, those proclamations inform a public piety far more than a private one.

If the option is on the table to help ensure a child - possibly the only child in a family - have as least the likelihood to be gay as possible, what do you think most families will do? Answer: They will tell anyone listening and who they are afraid they may offend "I would love my child no matter what their sexual preference they were!" and then do their damndest to make sure their boy likes girls or their girl likes boys. The funny thing is, they may not admit it in public, but it hardly matters. It's a modern, liberal piety - like the gun control advocate who has a pistol in their nightstand because "It's different, my neighborhood is dangerous!"

Those most looking forward to the Brave New World are likely not going to enjoy how it actually plays out. And, on the flipside, some of those currently decrying it may end up grinning and saying, "You know, this could actually be more positive than I expected."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Atheists & The Fake Concession.

If you've watching a lot of internet atheists discussing God or Christianity, you've probably seen this move employed at one point or another:

"Look, I'd be more than happy to believe in God! I would change my mind immediately if the evidence were simply there. If God spelled out "I exist" with the stars in the sky, I'd believe. If a 900 foot Jesus appeared outside my window, I'd believe. If some powerful angel appeared, really seemed to be an angel, and claimed to be a messenger from God Himself, I'd believe. Supposedly God has performed miracles, and all of these would be easy for Him to accomplish, so why not do any of these if He really wants me to believe in Him?"

Now, there's a lot going wrong with this kind of claim, but I want to focus on one problem in particular: This is typically going to be a skeptic for whom, on any other related question (Christ's resurrection, healing miracles, the hard problem of consciousness, the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of information, etc), they will continuously play two different cards: The "logically possible non-miraculous and/or non-intentional explanation for the issue in question" card (Christ had a twin! The universe just got lucky! We live in a multiverse and things like that happen now and then! Etc), and the "we have no answer for that now but eventually we will" card (Cosmology awaits its Darwin! Consciousness will be shown to be totally physical some day! That miracle will be explained in time! etc).

But that opens them up to the charge that, between their imagination (X happened and a lot of luck was involved!) and their delays (promissory materialism), they've placed themselves in a dogmatic position for which any contrary evidence or experience will simply be explained away. In other words, "evidence", empirical or otherwise, doesn't mean diddly to them due to their prior commitments.

Hence the reply of, "That's not true! Why, I'd be willing to believe if (listed, particular) miracles happened!"

But here's the problem: The examples of miracles given always, in principle, could be explained away in the same manner the atheist explains away any other report of miracle or evidence of God. It's not as if "luck" or "deception by a non-God agent" or "delusion" or "I don't know, but we'll have an explanation eventually" can't be deployed to explain away even the miracles the atheist says would convince him. The distinction is arbitrary - what was a God of the Gaps argument in all other cases becomes, inexplicably, a theoretically compelling argument for the same atheist.

And the inclusion of these arbitrary exceptions are supposed to serve as demonstrations that the atheist isn't dogmatic after all. Because hey, you can't be accused of dogmatism if you can name something, anything, that would change your mind, right?

Naturally, I find "I would just believe if..." claims like this to be utterly insincere. But, psychoanalyzing someone in a discussion is almost always going to be a dead end.

So, my reply to claims like this tends to be as follows: Point out that the "miracles/evidences that would make me believe" are subject to the exact same criticisms and dismissals the atheist deploys against current miracle claims or evidences for God, and thus constitute utterly arbitrary exceptions. But if an arbitrary exception to the atheistic/skeptical norm constitutes a valid and reasonable justification to believe in God, *then far and away most skeptical arguments against miracles-as-proof-of-God, natural revelation of God, and otherwise die on the spot*. If arbitrary exceptions to the norm are permissible and reasonable, then citing anything from the Miracle of the Sun to fine-tuning to the mere existence of coded language in the natural world (Perry Marshall's DNA argument) to otherwise work just as well. The only difference is that the atheist's arbitrary exception concerns miracles and evidences they don't believe have happened yet, and other people's arbitrary exceptions concerns miracles and evidences they do believe have happened.

Of course, the atheist still has some options open: Retreat into utter dogmatism (Okay, fine, no miracles or evidences could EVER compel a reasonable person to believe in God!), sacrifice the very idea of atheist apologetics (Alright, reasonable people can come to vastly different opinions on this subject, ergo theism and religious belief are not enemies of reason, ergo the evangelical atheist project is dead in the water), plea for more time (There's a response here, I'm sure of it, I just don't know what it is yet!), etc. But trying to salvage the specific, subjective preference of miracles is going to be nigh impossible while at the same time holding onto the favored skeptical moves.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Universe is Information! And other gems.

Vlatko Vedral says the universe is information.

Thankfully the article is very blunt: Information, not particles, is the ultimate building block.

Of course, Vedral isn't the first physicist to take this line, and whenever they do the Intelligent Design people smile and nod their heads. And the Aristo-Thomists, I take it, yawn and say "Information is fundamental? What else is new."

Vedral himself seems to give this a kind of anti-religious spin, regarding humans as 'just atoms' (But what do you think atoms are, Vedral?), and there's always the God-as-complex canard (Cue the classical theists' arguments, and cue the ID proponents pointing out that if the universe is information/computational, it implies a programmer.) Apparently in his book he tries to connect all this to a kind of hinduism, and that idea that "information comes from nothing! it just happens according to the laws of physics!" Of course, then we ask where the laws come from and... well, we're right back to pure act and God after all, it seems.

I find it all interesting, anyway, because it backs up some suspicions of mine: That the New Atheists (remember them? they're kinda absent nowadays) are a red herring, as is materialism of the kind we've seen before. No, the future for naturalists and naturalism is... Intelligent Design. Paganism, or unusual kinds of theism. Materialism, as we know it, died a long time ago.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Frank Tipler on Science!

From the blog entry in question:

Immediately after his definition of science, Feynman wrote: “When someone says, ‘Science teaches such and such,’ he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn’t teach anything; experience teaches it. If they say to you, ‘Science has shown such and such,’ you should ask, ‘How does science show it? How did the scientists find out? How? What? Where?’ It should not be ‘science has shown.’ And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments (but be patient and listen to all the evidence) to judge whether a sensible conclusion has been arrived at.”

And I say, Amen. Notice that “you” is the average person. You have the right to hear the evidence, and you have the right to judge whether the evidence supports the conclusion. We now use the phrase “scientific consensus,” or “peer review,” rather than “science has shown.” By whatever name, the idea is balderdash. Feynman was absolutely correct.

When was the last time you heard a scientist - an academic - say those words? That *you* have the right to judge whether the evidence supports a conclusion that is supposedly from "science"? That there is no "science says", there are just conclusions of scientists, and that you not only are able to question them - but you *should* if you think you have reason to?

Or have you heard that you should holster your opinion and just accept what scientists - better yet, "the consensus" - has to say on any particular topic? That if you disagree, that's more a defect on your part than anything, and something you should get past. Not by understanding why you're wrong, mind you - that's considered quite unlikely. Scientists and academics don't want your understanding. They want your loyalty. In fact, they think they deserve it. They would explain why, but that would require understanding psychology, philosophy, and other subjects that you - pitiable layman - can't hope to grasp.

Funny how that works.

Science Turns Authoritarian!

At least, that's the suggestion from this investigation.

From the article:

In the past, scientists were generally neutral on questions of what to do. Instead, they just told people what they found, such as “we have discovered that smoking vastly increases your risk of lung cancer” or “we have discovered that some people will have adverse health effects from consuming high levels of salt.” Or “we have found that obesity increases your risk of coronary heart disease.” Those were simply neutral observations that people could find empowering, useful, interesting, etc., but did not place demands on them. In fact, this kind of objectivity was the entire basis for trusting scientific claims.

But along the way, an assortment of publicity-seeking, and often socially activist, scientists stopped saying, “Here are our findings. Read it and believe.” Instead, activist scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen, heads of quasi-scientific governmental organizations such as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, editors of major scientific journals, and heads of the various national scientific academies are more inclined to say, “Here are our findings, and those findings say that you must change your life in this way, that way, or the other way.”

I'm skeptical that this is some recent turn. In fact, I suspect the prime difference between now and in the past is that now scientists attempt to lecture the laity directly, whereas before their lectures were aimed at political leaders and other in the right social circles.

If science wants to redeem itself and regain its place with the public’s affection, scientists need to come out every time some politician says, “The science says we must…” and reply, “Science only tells us what is. It does not, and can never tell us what we should or must do.” If they say that often enough, and loudly enough, they might be able to reclaim the mantle of objectivity that they’ve given up over the last 40 years by letting themselves become the regulatory state’s ultimate appeal to authority. Hey, you know, perhaps Biba has something there—maybe science does need better PR!

Of course, left aside here is that science isn't all that great at "telling us what is" either, at least in some respects. Actually, anthropomorphizing "science" in general tends to be something I'm wary of. Science doesn't say a word. Scientists do. Human beings examine and extrapolate data. They make models. And, they also exaggerate, misrepresent, misunderstand, rely on consensus, etc at times too.

Sadly, I suspect many scientists would view the suggestions in the article as pointless. After all, what's the point of having a great reputation if you can't do anything with it? What's the point of being respected for knowledge if you don't cash out that reputation in the form of political and social currency?

Recursive Theism and Atheism!

I once got in an argument (back when I still did arguments) with an atheist over whether or not our universe was designed. He took the tack that if our universe was designed, then (wait for it) who designed the designer? And if the designer was designed, who designed him?

And so on, and so on.

Now, I'm aware of the classical theist responses to this - about a necessary being, about that which begins to exist versus that which is eternal, etc. But I was arguing this from a kind of Intelligent Design "heavy on the empirical observation primarily" perspective, and leaving most theology aside. So my response was simple: Sure, those are valid questions. Maybe there's an infinite change of designers, maybe the chain terminates somewhere for one reason or another.

But that question is moot for the atheist. If the inference is that our universe is designed, suggesting that there is perhaps an infinite number of designers doesn't make atheism more credible: A single designer responsible for our universe is enough to clear atheism from the table. An infinite number of designers each designing each other's universes doesn't change that.

Granted, this doesn't get one terribly close to the God of Christianity. Ed Feser would say that it doesn't get one even a step closer to that God (at least, not to the God of classical theism.) But I think there's value in the general ID/deistic approach, though it's often mishandled by its loudest advocates.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

GEDs for 13 Year Olds.

Just to sweeten the pot that was my previous post, I want to throw out some suggestions I'd have for reforming education.

* Allow 13+ year olds to take their GED, with or without parental consent, and utterly without consent of their teachers. If a child has the knowledge and personal dedication sufficient to acquire the necessary skills to pass a well-tuned GED at a young age, more power to them. And every new school semester, all students should be informed of this opportunity clearly and immediately.

* All universities receiving public funds should be required to make all class materials (Lectures, lecture notes, course outlines, reading assignments and references, class assignments, etc) available to the public, free of charge, and available online.

* All universities receiving public funds should be required to institute certification options for the majority of their classes, and all classes at the 400+ level, with certain exceptions for particularly sensitive professions (Medical).

* The diploma system should be overhauled and largely phased out, replaced with certifications and aptitude tests on a class by class basis. No more "majors" or "minors" or degree programs for most subjects: Classes are a la carte, with the only prerequisites coming in the form of certification and testing.

I know I'm not exactly taking a popular position here. Hell, it would spell the end for the university system as we know it. But it would be vastly preferable to the travesty that is modern adult education.

Crude, the Post-Academic.

I'm not sure when my respect for academics took a nosedive. My respect specifically for scientists and science... that loss I can recall with greater clarity, and I'll write about it someday. But for academics? That's a question lost to me. It could be I never had much respect for them - I don't remember being beholden to the teachers at my (Catholic) high school. I certainly didn't have much reverence for them when I attended a (Public, state) university, where the manipulation and politicization was more striking.

Whatever the case, the short story is I'm an academic skeptic. When I read a newspaper article and I see words like "(PersonName), a professor of sociology at (University), had this to say:", my gut reaction is "Well, here comes some weak bullshit." For "sociology", you can swap in just about any soft science or liberal arts degree you wish. Or, if the question is one set in the sphere of the soft sciences or liberal arts, a professor in any field whatsoever.

That's not to say there aren't certain academics I hold in esteem, or that I dismiss what they say simply because they're academics. It's just that I rate their view on the same level as "Some random guy on the street who has probably read a few books on the subject in question", rather than "An authoritative voice". I'm not that impressed by consensus on these subjects either - if the majority of philosophers of ethics were to decide tomorrow that it's ethical to steal from people with six figure or higher incomes, my response wouldn't be to argue with them, or to seek out some philosophers in the minority who agree with me. I'm quite capable of saying "Those guys are a bunch of fuckwits" all by my lonesome.

Let me put it this way. You've heard of post-modernism? Well, I'm a post-academic. Where the Enlightenment sought to remove power (secular and intellectual) from certain traditional sources (The Church, the nobility, etc), I'm all in favor of removing power and authority from professors and members of academia in general. In fact, I'd like to see quite a lot of them fired and replaced by a combination of certifications and autodidactic habit.

I'm not mounting any arguments against academic authority or credentials or what have you here. I'm just saying where I'm coming from, in part because I now and then get the feeling that most people feel they need to fight fire with fire - or in this case, academics with academics. "Did sociologist or economist or psychologist or philosopher X say Y about subject Z? Well, now *I* need to go find a sociologist or economist or psychologist or philosopher who will say A about Z!" As far as I'm concerned, that simply feeds the problem. Instead of fighting over who controls these individuals and these institutions, they should be made as irrelevant as possible.

That's not to say there aren't numerous philosophers or academics I hold in esteem, even if I disagree with them on this or that subject. But that esteem for those individuals in no way trumps my dislike for the system, culture, and structures in question.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Errors? What Errors?

A Nature Magazine page, explaining one of the standard causes of mutations in evolution.

Let's go down the list, see what problems I can turn up. I warn you: This is me arguably at my most monotonous.

Let's start right with the first question.

Cells employ an arsenal of editing mechanisms to correct mistakes made during DNA replication.

See, this is a line that wouldn't so much as bother a Young Earth Creationist, much less most full-blown Theistic Evolutionists. What is there to find objectionable?

Well, I don't know if I'd call it objectionable. But there's something odd going on with this language. Let's go piece by piece.

* "Cells employ an arsenal of editing mechanisms". Hey look, it's teleological language! Right in Nature! Now, those of you who have found my blog know I have zero problem with teleology. In fact, I think it's impossible to eliminate while still fully and adequately describing nature - chalk me up for the fifth way and all that. All that's important here is to notice that arguably the biggest science journal around, right on their homepage, is quite happy to make with the teleological language without qualification. Cells employ various programs towards an end.

Let's move on.

* "to correct mistakes made during DNA replication." And here's where the problem comes in. Mistakes? What mistakes are being made?

Now, I know what the immediate response is. "Well, the cell is trying to make a perfect copy during DNA replication, and it's failing to. Those are mistakes!" But, why is it assumed that a perfect copy, every time, is the goal of the cell - or of anything else?

There's another response. "Well, most of the time those errors are harmful to the organism!" While "harmful" is a loaded word, that still leads me to say: Fine, let's accept that for the sake of argument. Why is it assumed that the goal of the cell is to avoid all harm?

Let's skip down to the bottom of the page to illustrate why I find something disturbing and wrong with this rendition of cellular functions. Those of you who lean TE or see evolution as teleological may know where I'm going with this already.

Here we go, with some emphasis added: Of course, not all mutations are "bad." But, because so many mutations can cause cancer, DNA repair is obviously a crucially important property of eukaryotic cells. However, too much of a good thing can be dangerous. If DNA repair were perfect and no mutations ever accumulated, there would be no genetic variation—and this variation serves as the raw material for evolution. Successful organisms have thus evolved the means to repair their DNA efficiently but not too efficiently, leaving just enough genetic variability for evolution to continue.

Well there we go. If every replication were utterly perfect, it would be disastrous for life. No way to fill a new niche. No way to adapt at the biological level. It turns out some amount of "errors" are essential - at least if you want impart direction and development to life. But that speaks against regarding these changes in transcription as errors.

And there lies a major problem. How does evolution start to sound if an aspect of the process so fundamental to it is no longer described as "error" or "mistake" or "accident", but is instead recognized and treated as purposeful, essential, and evolution "working as intended"? And before it's pointed out that teleological language is supposedly verboten, note that the page in question is loaded with teleology anyway - it's doubtful they could scrub it all if they wanted to, but if so, "Error" and "Mistake" would have to be scrubbed too. It's just a different flavor of teleology, after all.

As I said, I'm focusing on something monotonous here, so monotonous that even the most critical ID proponents - who constantly (and with some justification) wage war against Junk DNA - tend to overlook. But I think this sort of re-evaluation of evolution and evolutionary language is key and essential. It's almost a kind of poisoning the well, trying to paint evolution in so negative a light that certain people would rather choke than consider it as teleology revealed.

Stupid Atheist Tricks!

Have you ever seen this one?

"Atheists have no beliefs about God! In fact atheism is entirely about the LACK of certain beliefs! That's it!"

And then immediately, by the same person, maybe even the next sentence...

"Atheists believe in the importance of (insert various moral / ethical / laudatory traits here)!"

A related move is this: "Being an atheist doesn't mean you can't be moral! You can value honesty! Or compassion!"

Which leads me to ask, "Can you value killing hookers and making a parka out of their skin? Is that compatible with atheism too?"

I imagine that works better if you're wearing an apron and a hockey mask at the time.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Fast Thoughts on Buddhism!

Just finished scanning over a comments thread on another site, where Buddhism came up.

I admit, I've always had trouble taking Buddhism too seriously. Partly because it seems that Buddhism doesn't take itself too seriously, and the Buddhists I've run into don't take Buddhism seriously.

There's a few aspects to that. First, Buddhists in general seem allergic to definitive statements or rational discourse, to the point where their whole religion seems very fideistic. I've run into very little in the way of defending or even explaining buddhism philosophically, etc, certainly in a definitive manner. Oh sure, there are some core principles - the four noble truths, the eightfold path. But beyond that?

For instance, I've heard - repeatedly - that Buddhism is an atheistic religion or philosophy. That's far from apparent, even after setting aside all the small-g god / Buddha / boddhisatvas. Apparently Buddha had a bone to pick with Hinduism, but didn't lay down a teaching about God's existence or non-existence, regarding the question as a distraction. Belief in some kind of theistic ultimate ground of being is not only possible, but it shows up in some Buddhist schools and Buddhist thought.

But hey, that's besides the point, right? Buddha just regarded those questions as distractions. Buddhism focuses on important things, the matter at hand - enlightenment, extinguishing the self! But then you're going to find that there's wide disagreement over what this damn "self" or "no-self" is. Which I suppose is fine, since you can also expect to be told "There is no self, and there is no no-self." As usual, the Buddha didn't seem too concerned with making this question clear, and again that helps to explain the various traditions. It isn't like this is a minor question either, since the issue of self is central to the entire philosophy and approach.

And this is all just as well, since the earliest Buddhist scriptures are dated to roundabout the first century AD. And when did Buddha live? Roundabout 600 to 400 BC. So take all the various hyper-skeptical views you see people subject Christianity to and multiply it by ten or so. And it's not like you can say "Well, Buddha's word for word teachings aren't important. Buddhists have experienced what he taught for themselves!", because there's disagreements between various Buddhists over some damn essential issues.

I'm not mounting anything approaching a serious argument against Buddhism here, and I'm being very damn cursory as I give my impressions of what I've read about it. And I'll say right away that Buddhism, in terms of moral teachings, has quite a lot in common with Christianity. There's a lot of common ground there. But it seems like, more than any other major religion, Buddhism does not even attempt to provide a rational argument for or defense of itself. It's almost purely a matter of accepting it at face value and committing without argument to one of a number of views that fall under its banner.