Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

11Sep/08Off

Doctrine: the Antithesis of Evolution and All Science

Dr. Jim West has implicitly claimed that because evolutionists often defend the theory of evolution so passionately and vociferously (or as he puts it, with "religious zeal"), then that must mean that evolution is "doctrine" [1. in this argument, I am only referring to the common usage of doctrine meaning "dogmatic system of beliefs" as opposed to the more innocuous "codified system of teachings". Of course evolution is a codified system of teachings. But it is a system that inherently acknowledges its own fallibility and tenuous nature]. (his post title: If It’s Not A Doctrine, Why Are People So Defensive?).

I hear this argument all the time, in multiple variations - claiming that because we defend evolution passionately, that means that evolution is "dogmatic" or "religious."

This is specious logic at best. I originally responded to his post in his own comment section, and I reproduce my thoughts here:

1) Just because someone is vociferous and passionate with any sort of claim, defense, proclamation, or simple statement, that does not have any bearing on its “religiosity”. Calling a passionate response “religious zeal” is simply an attempt to obfuscate the language and warp the debate.

2) Equating the passionate nature of a subject’s defense with anything concerning the nature of that subject is simple fallacious logic (i.e. what the hell does passion of a response have to do with whether or not it is doctrine?)

I will agree with the philosophical premise that ALL scientific knowledge is predicated on the prime assumption that sense relates to reality. Thankfully, simple pragmatism allows us to build science from the fact that it seems to work.

However, neither science nor evolution can be considered “doctrine” for the simple inherent acknowedgement within the scientific epistomology that it will always be possible that the prime assumption might be false. This is why science “fact” isn’t based on provability, but by falsifiability. Even the falsification of any scientific hypothesis is always considered inherently tentative. You cannot call something doctrine if that doctrine implicitly acknowledges its own fallibility.

(note: obviously in this argument, I am only referring to the common usage of doctrine meaning “dogmatic system of beliefs” as opposed to the more innocuous “codified system of teachings”. Of course evolution is a codified system of teachings. But it is a system that inherently acknowledges its own fallibility and tenuous nature.)

(Update: he has deleted my comments multiple times - maybe the word "hell" offended him? Or perhaps he couldn't argue?

Update 2: now they are online - apparently he doesn't like people to use pseudonyms. I guess I could have made up a name, but oh well - My name is easy enough to find.)

22Aug/08Off

Democrats, Religion, and Faith-Based Initiatives

Obama "loves" Jesus

Today in his Pharyngula blog, PZ Myers went off on Democrats for highlighting their commitment to religion and faith and the compassionate accomplishments faith-based groups can make in the world.

Let me first say that in essence, and in principle, I am in complete agreement with PZ. Liberals, progressives, and the Democratic party that we liberals, in general, vote for would serve in an ideal world as the pusher of the rational, scientific, and secular agenda. Instead, what we have seen with Barack Obama is a re-cooption of the Christian and evangelical vote – or at least an attempt to get those voters back – by reemphasizing the Democratic Parties Christian roots.

However, from purely a practical standpoint I think this is the only way we can ever hope to have our government even begin to govern in the progressive way we think it should. Before I expound upon this, I want to mention Obama’s Faith-Based Initiatives plan.

Obama’s Faith-Based Initiatives
When I first heard that Obama wanted to expand Bush’s Faith-based initiatives, I was initially disgusted – for about thirty seconds. The time of disgust was so short because I learned what he really wanted to do. I found out about it by listening to his speech. In it, what he basically says is that the Faith-Based Initiatives were never run properly – they were only a photo-op for Bush to continue to receive evangelical support. Obama, on the other hand wants to rebuild the initiaives. He wants to support compassionate work and community service that these religion-backed organizations claim to want to work for. That’s fine with me for this reason:

“I'm not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits. And I'm not saying that they're somehow better at lifting people up. What I'm saying is that we all have to work together – Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim; believer and non-believer alike – to meet the challenges of the 21st century…

…First, if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we'll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work.”

He’s essentially tearing down the faith-based initiatives and instead building secular-based initiatives, with the religious folks doing the work. Works for me. Personally, I could care less what your beliefs are if your focusing on helping others, regardless of their own faiths. If religion must exist – that’s the direction that I think it needs to focus its efforts. Personally, I think this was a genius move on Obama’s part for the reasons below.

Democratic Christianity
Based on everything I’ve read of Obama, I don’t believe that he is in reality a Christian. Everything about him (except what he actually says on the subject) screams agnostic. But he knows that this is a Christian nation (about 75%). You CANNOT get elected President if you are not Christian or at least deeply religious. So he has spent years crafting his Christian beliefs, developing his Jesus cred. And I’m glad he did.

Only by reclaiming the Christian vote can progressives ever hope to reshape this country. Thus, by highlighting the commitment and accomplishments of the Faithful within the Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention, the Party may yet recapture those religious votes (or at least a small proportion of them).

Once we get more progressives in place, we can fix this fucked up educational system we have (No Child Left Behind? Don’t even get me started). Only by actually getting rational-minded people into office can we hope to erase the anti-intellectual blanket that has fallen over this country. It may be slow – or it may not happen at all – but you can be guaranteed that the Republican party cares not an ounce about education on true science, intellectualism, and reason.

Thus, the Democrats must, at minimum, act Christian. They must, as Obama has done many many times, proclaim that they have accepted Jesus Christ into a personal relationship. Some may believe it – others may do it for political reasons. But there is no doubt that this is absolutely necessary.

It would be nice to maintain my principles and say “no – we should not put faith and religion on a pedestal – we must not even allow it place within our politics.” But I feel this is naive (Note: I do NOT mean to imply that PZ Myers is naive - we absolutely NEED people like PZ in this world and in this debate - He understands all this much better than I, I'm sure. But he honorably sticks to his principles). Most adults in this country are too indoctrinated to ever be swayed with rhetoric. Most don’t even know what science really is. Consider the fact that somewhere between 50 to 70% of this country believes God had a direct hand in our own creation (depending on the poll), while a reciprocal percentage believes in evolution. Do you really expect that any of these people will vote for a self-proclaimed atheist?

This is obviously not a new argument. Everyone knows (everyone who cares anyway) that every President we’ve had has been Christian (at least in the public eye). Our only hope is to get our people into office by whatever means necessary, and hope we can train the next generation to use their brains properly.

Side Note: Some Christians may read my argument and say "Oh, so Democrats are only fake Christian." To that I would respond that to a large degree, most of the truly Christian Democrats I know walk alot closer to the line Jesus walked than most Republicans I know. Just take our Commander in Chief for example. I don't believe for one femtosecond that he was ever "born again". He, and every other publicly visible Christian in his administration act about as far from the actual teachings of Christ that you can get. How many people have died in Iraq now? Somewhere between 30,000 and 150,000? Oh that's right - according to Gen. Tommy Franks this administration doesn't "do body counts." And it is a well known fact that Karl Rove orchestrated his "brilliant" scheme to get the religious right behind Bush. This is why Democrats should continue with the course they are on with regards to religion. Bush and Rove already proved that Christian voters, by and large, are incredibly gullible.

Really?

You thought Bush was a leader Jesus would vote for?

17Aug/08Off

Carnival of the Godless #98

C. L. Hanson over at Letters From a Broad: The Adventures of a Friendly Ex-Mormon Atheist Mom Living in France Switzerland (I love that title) has composed the 98th biweekly edition of Carnival of the Godless, a blog carnival containing a myriad links to thoughts on atheism or tangentially related topics. This edition is particularly well done, and contains hours worth of edifying reading and links to make your brain cells hurt.

Graciously included in this latest edition is my own previous post, Hope in the Black Void of the Unknowable, in which I muse on whether we really want every human on earth to see the Universe and ourselves as science sees us, namely "no more than blips of energy in an inconsequential cosmic blink."

Check it out, and if you have your own musings on issues relating to an absence of God, go to Carnival of the Godless and find out which blog is hosting the latest edition and submit your stuff to them.

5Aug/08Off

NPR This I Believe: Hope in the Black Void of the Unknowable

Update: This essay can now be found on the NPR "This I Believe" website.

Recently, I wrote an essay for This I Believe, an NPR radio series that asks Americans to answer this simple question. My essay has not yet been reviewed; however I doubt my chances of getting selected on the radio program. It is a bit too impersonal, too “what I don’t believe,” and not nearly as eloquent as many of the best essays (for the absolute best – see below mine). My essay is actually a shorter and reworked version of another essay I wrote on the same subject.

Note: If you find that you believe in something strongly and have a story to tell around that belief, I highly recommend you submit your own essay to NPR This I Believe.

This I Believe: Hope in the Black Void of the Unknowable

As a scientist studying the development of the brain and as a student of all scientific knowledge, I find it highly probable that all life and human experience is devoid of inherent meaning or purpose. The Universe seems nothing more than an enormous cosmic accident – an accident that will be corrected in due course as the Universe and its inhabitants are eventually destroyed in an equally pointless cataclysm. At least this is the view of my Universe as seen through the eyes of empiricism, the only eyes through which I know how to look. My morals, my accomplishments, my feelings and thoughts, and my connections to others and to the world in which I live are apparently no more than blips of energy in an inconsequential cosmic blink. However, underlying all of my knowledge and all of science I hold one major faith, one prime assumption. This is the assumption that my senses and experiences are relating real information about reality. That I am not merely in “The Matrix.” There is simply no philosophical workaround to this argument – it is impossible for me to absolutely know anything.

Thus, I cannot conclude anything definitively about my ultimate creator. I cannot absolutely believe in anything. I can only think from within the pragmatic view of science – that my senses work and my experiences along with the collected experiences of my brethren explain my reality better than any other means of purported knowledge. I can only decide to educate my future children about where we as a species come from, though I cannot guess where we may be going. I must make them understand that our science, our knowledge, is the closest thing to an explanation of our Universe we will likely ever have. However, just as importantly, I must admit where this knowledge can never reach, and allow that place to be inhabited with hope – a hope that maybe, just maybe, in that dark void of unknowability lies a meaning to my existence, a meaning I can never know or comprehend.

I must make them understand that although the fables passed down from our ancestors are no longer useful as a defining belief, the true possibilities of our meaning and our worth may be infinitely larger than I ever imagined. I believe that if we take into consideration the grandness of nature, the mind-boggling array of galaxies in our Universe, and the insanely complex biology and chemistry within ourselves, the unknowable creation of our Universe will seem only that much bigger and infinitely more awe-inspiring. I have seen but a glimpse of this awe in the intricate networks of neurons speaking to each other in unintelligible chemical languages, and I can almost fathom an entity setting it all in motion with a mere equation.

Almost.

As the philosopher Karl Popper once said, “Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.” I believe that it is in this infinite ignorance where my only hope for greater cosmic meaning may lie.

The Best "This I Believe" Essay Ever:
NPR This I Believe: I Am Evolution

by Holly Dunsworth, a physical anthropologist at Penn State.

I believe evolution. It's easy. It's my life. I'm a paleoanthropologist. I study fossils of humans, apes and monkeys, and I teach college students about their place in nature.

Of course I believe evolution.

But that is different from believing in evolution.

To believe in something takes faith, trust, effort, strength. I need none of these things to believe evolution. It just is. My health is better because of medical research based on evolution. My genetic code is practically the same as a chimpanzee's. My bipedal feet walk on an earth full of fossil missing links. And when my feet tire, those fossils fuel my car.

To believe in something also implies hope. Hope of happiness, reward, forgiveness, eternal life. There is no hope wrapped up in my belief. Unless you count the hope that one day I'll discover the most beautifully complete fossil human skeleton ever found, with a label attached saying exactly what species it belonged to, what food it ate, how much it hunted, if it could speak, if it could laugh, if it could love and if it could throw a curveball. But this fantasy is not why I believe evolution — as if evolution is something I hope comes true.

After all the backyard bone collecting I did as a child, I managed to carve out a career where I get to ask the ultimate question on a daily basis: "Where did I come from and how?"

If our beliefs are important enough, we live our lives in service to them. That's how I feel about evolution. My role as a female Homo sapiens is to return each summer to Kenya, dig up fossils, and piece together our evolutionary history. Scanning the ground for weeks, hoping to find a single molar, or gouging out the side of a hill, one bucket of dirt at a time, I'm always in search of answers to questions shared by the whole human species. The experience deepens my understanding not just about what drives my life, but all our lives, where we came from. And the deeper I go, the more I understand that everything is connected. A bullfrog to a gorilla, a hummingbird to me, to you.

My belief is not immutable. It is constantly evolving with accumulating evidence, new knowledge and breakthrough discoveries. For example, within my lifetime, our history has expanded from being rooted 3 million years ago with the famous Lucy skeleton, to actually beginning over 6 million years ago with a cranium from Chad. The metamorphic nature of my belief is not at all like a traditional religious one; it's more like seeing is believing.

So I believe evolution.

I feel it. I breathe it. I listen to evolution, I observe it and I do evolution. I write, study, analyze, scrutinize and collect evolution. I am evolution.

Amazing, no? If you enjoyed this beautiful and poignant essay, I highly recommend you read the interview with Holly Dunsworth on the excellent Forms Most Beautiful blog (one of my favorite blogs on the internets).

1Aug/08Off

Hope in the Black Void of the Unknowable

All life and human experience is devoid of meaning. The Universe is nothing more than an enormous cosmic accident. It is an accident that will be corrected in due course, as the Universe and its inhabitants are fated to be destroyed in an equally pointless cataclysm of some kind or another - whether it be through a Universal collapse to a singularity or a dissipation of all energy in an entropic heat death. At least this is the view of our Universe as seen through the eyes of empiricism. Is it really any wonder then that 40-50% of the American public, depending on which poll you’re looking at, prefers the idea of creationism to the theory of evolution? Our morals, our accomplishments, our feelings and thoughts, our connections to others and to the world in which we live – all the things we as a species hold dear – are apparently no more than blips of energy in an inconsequential cosmic blink.

Yet this is the Universe that we face if we look at it only through the lenses of logic and reason. How much blame can we really place on our Earthly brothers and sisters for rejecting such a worldview? No doubt, within certain psyches such a view might inevitably lead to depression, apathy, and a callousness toward humankind and existence. Do we as scientists wish for every other person on this planet to truly see and understand our world through sensory perception and evidential experience alone?

The media is currently awash with the pontifications of atheist personalities such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, both of which claim that faith and religion are the downfall of humanity and the yoke holding us back from true existential accomplishment. According to them, if only people could truly understand the awe and wonder brought forth by an intimate inspection of existence, from the microscopic to the astronomical – if only they could see that faith is unnecessary – the world would reach a new height of enlightenment and elevated existence. I believe their motives are noble, and I find the essence of their arguments to be true – that is until they cross the line of reason into their own forms of faith. For both of these now famous authors have fallen into the pitfalls of their own arrogance. Through one word alone they have both done a disservice to the endeavors of science, while providing fodder for those who wish to remain blind to the forces of nature. The word is “atheism.”

The error is a small one, yet profoundly significant in its effects. Both men claim to be atheists. Their position is that there is no God. There is no evidence for a God and even entertaining the notion of one is foolishness. Perhaps it is. However, neither of them seem to grasp, or at least to express their understanding, that underlying all knowledge and all science is one major faith, one assumption. This is the assumption that our senses and experiences are relating real information about reality. That we are not merely in “The Matrix.” There is simply no philosophical workaround to this argument – it is impossible to absolutely know anything. Thus, even if science can tell us exactly how the Big Bang began, we can never know what if anything came before that moment or whether it was orchestrated by some deistic entity. So by definition, any scientist who claims to shape all of his or her worldviews around empiricism and logic, must declare themselves agnostic: the view that the existence of a God is unknown or unknowable. Or they should at least qualify themselves as “agnostic atheists”, which takes a more probabilistic view claiming that there is no evidence for or against a God, but that the Universe as we know it seems to suggest that there is not one.

I agree with the supposition that all orthodox religions and dogma as we know them are farce. The genesis stories throughout the religious world have been disproved as far as it is possible to do so, given the above inherent unknowability of all knowledge and the limitations of our ability to measure history. Evolution is not even a debate within the world of science. Every month it seems a new “transition fossil” is found to plug another hole in the fossil record. A steady stream of hominid fossils have traced our own evolution back about seven million years, and 85 million years for all primates. The only debates of this are micro-debates about which species begat which. As for the fossil record, one must understand that by its very nature, every time we fill one hole, two more arise on either side of it. Our understanding of molecular biology and genetics has only cemented our theories of evolution and natural selection. Natural evolution is irrefutable, insofar as the above prime assumption is acknowledged. The world is not a paltry six thousand years old. The Earth and the solar system we inhabit all formed about four and a half billion years ago, over nine billion year after the formation of the Universe itself as we know it. Thus, I agree with the self-branded atheists that it is foolishness to believe that a single man and a woman talked to a demonic snake six thousand years ago and bred to yield our current population. This story, along with all other religious dogmas, appear to be nothing more than fables – parables that helped us once cope with and explain our own existence.

But that brings us back to the original question: do we really want all of humanity to live as if our existence is a meaningless accident? It is my view that we in the science community should embrace the idea, from a philosophical standpoint, that there very well may be an unknowable entity – Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” - that crafted the laws of physics as we know them, that set the ball in motion. We can never even attempt to discover what underlies the laws of our system, for we are within the system, a part of the system, are the system. I personally have no problem admitting that this existence is likely as ethereal and meaningless as a flake of dead skin. However I am not so sure that I have faith that the rest of humanity could cope with such a prospect. Perhaps this is arrogance on my part. The evidence, though, seems to support my lack of faith in human mental well-being: how many of the worlds problems and crimes are caused by individuals feeling lost and unimportant in this world?

Thus, I suggest that we push our science, which is everyone’s science, as strongly as we can. We must educate our children about where we as a species come from. We must make them understand that we use science because it is the only proven method of obtaining anything close to actual knowledge about our Universe and existence. However, just as importantly, we must admit where our knowledge cannot reach, and allow that place to be inhabited with hope – a hope that maybe, just maybe, in that dark void of unknowability lies a meaning to our existence, a meaning we can never know or understand. We must make them understand that although the fables passed down from our ancestors are untrue and no longer useful as a defining belief, the true possibilities of our meaning and our worth may be infinitely larger than they ever imagined. I believe that if we take into consideration the grandness of nature, the mind-boggling array of galaxies in our Universe, and the insanely complex biology and chemistry within ourselves, the unknowable creation of our Universe will seem only that much bigger and infinitely more awe-inspiring. As the philosopher Karl Popper once said, “Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.” It is in this infinite ignorance where our only hope for greater meaning may lie.