Showing posts with label science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science. Show all posts

One Step Closer To Making Life In The Lab

From (requires login), "RNA world easier to make": Ingenious chemistry shows how nucleotides may have formed in the primordial soup. Here's a link from "Wired" that is freely accessible "Life’s First Spark Re-Created in the Laboratory"

What kind of science needs a lawyer?

Over at Uncommon Descent, Denyse O' Leary demonstrates the "lean into it" response to her cognitive dissonance. In this post, she lays out her case for why the Intelligent Design movement is winning. Such is her grasp of matters under discussion in the quote she provides, that she offers retorts like this:
Not only should spontaneous generation be true if they are right, but so should magic, Magic, after all, is simply another name for sudden self-organization.

That’s right folks - just toss the bedclothes into the air and they’ll come down in a perfect mitred-corner bed. Just toss whatever into the stew pot, sans cookbook, and you’ll evolve a gourmet dinner. How generations could have come and gone, and no one ever noticed that before is beyond me.

Ahem. Beyond her.... yes, indeed.

Anyway, commenter "Tom Riddle", lavishing in being as yet undetected by the high-trigger banninator over by the esteemed moderators at UD, points to this story as a counterfactual in the first comment of the thread:

Report: Judge Says University Can Deny Course Credit to Christian Graduates Taught With Creationism Texts

That story probably merits a post of it's own, come to think of it. Here's O'Leary's reponse to having this pointed out:

Actually, Darwinism is the only supposedly scientific theory I have ever heard of that always seems to need a legal defense fund - and thrives simply by expelling opposition. That is a reliable mark of falsehood.

Skipping over the rich opportunities presented by the irony in her remarks (ever wonder why UD only has the "choir" in the comment stream?), it's maybe worth pointing out that Galileo would have done well to have high-powered counsel and fantastically deep pockets, and his offense was heliocentric astronomy (er, maybe we should say "impertinence" and "arrogance" about having the facts and observations right over the Emperor's courtiers, in anticipation of the kinds of quibbles D'Souza is wont to offer as apologetics on this). And Galileo's discovery was only a scrape on the elbow of Christian theology.

The ideas of Charles Darwin are no disproof for Christianity. Christianity survives on its unfalsifiability, and as a long time theistic evolutionist, I say that evolution has a lot to recommend it beyond just avoiding the head-in-the-sand obstinance of creationism. If Christianity has a nominally respectable theodicy, it is one that includes the "open theology" elements implied by an embrace of evolution. Even so, Darwin's ideas are arrows aimed at all the crucial organs of Christianity, and is the threat of this "dangerous idea" that puts evolution in the front lines of the culture wars. Whereas Galileo simply bumped man off his exalted pedestal at the "center" of the cosmos, Darwin didn't disprove God, but instead made him largely superfluous in terms of creation and the development of life on Earth. For an ideology that is perfectly immune to falsification, superfluity is as about as threatening a prospect as Christianity can expect to face.

Darwin thus becomes the enemy of theism, as it provides a framework that holds out the promise of reducing theism to a remote kind of deism. Evolution does not, and cannot provide account for the provenance of the physical law, and the universe itself, but given the laws and emergent properties of the developing universe that spring forth from them, "formed from the dust" just gets the nod of parsimony over the hand of God, as God as sculptor, tinkerer, biological hobbyist isn't needed to explain the diversity and dynamics of all the life we see around us.

That puts science, science that embraces the core of Darwin's dangerous idea, in danger itself. In providing the framework that eliminates a major "gap" where God was historically posited, atheistic and deistic paradigms achieved a level of robust coherence they had not before.

And the Church is not amused.

Gone are the days when the pope could have Darwin placed under house arrest. Indeed, to its credit, Rome has managed to reform its thinking on science and biology since the days of Bellarmine. Problems abound still, but you will not find the foolish dogmatism and dishonest wholesale dismissals of the evidence for evolution coming from the Vatican. Nashville is the new Rome. And while the Christian Right has nothing like the temporal power enjoyed by the great inquisitors, as a bloc they remain enormously powerful in America, waning now, but still wielding tremendous power in political and relgious vectors of American culture.

This calls for talented and intrepid lawyers.

Indeed, the rule of law is the triumph of secular principles over religious ones in the public sphere. If science is to remain science, loyal to its methodology and heuristics, it needs protection. When you follow the evidence for evidence's sake, it will eventually lead you across heavily guarded religious boundaries, and inquiry will be stifled and thwarted if its not supported by the law. Moreover it's the very best and most powerful scientific theories that will need the best legal counsel, the deepest pockets for its legal defense fund. For it is these theories that reach the deepest, and provide the most profound explanations and insights into the most compelling questions man has, and which religion has always jealously guarded as it's "God given turf". Darwin's simple idea, that all living things are connected by heredity into a unified "tree of life" is the most profound answer science has ever provided to mankind. It's not even an anti-religious idea, but one that sends much established dogma, much received wisdom teetering on the edge of irrelevancy.

Darwin understood this. He agonized over the dislocating implications of his simple conclusion. More than 150 years later, with the compelling confirmation of genetics for the hypothesis he drew from fossils and keen, careful observations in his journeys, his "dangerous idea" is much more dangerous to principalities of long standing than it has ever been. The church universal, or at least that part that sides with dogma over against the interlocking array of mutually supporting lines of evidence that is modern biology (and physics), will not concede to the facts without a fight. Happily, a "fight" in our society usually means a war of words, funds, votes and legal maneuvers. Better than bullets and flaming stakes, I say. But it is still a pitched battle, and the front lines are places where lawyers and lawmakers make a big difference.

Darwin's ideas are big, profound, sweeping ideas. They don't disprove God, but they do tend to marginalize him, and for much of the established religous culture, that's just as bad, and possibly worse. The better Darwin's ideas prove to be, the more lawyers and active defending they will need by the friends of science, a circumstance exactly opposite of what O'Leary supposes to be the case.


Framing Science and Atheism for the Public

A bit of a bomb has gone off in the blogosphere. I refrained from posting earlier on the precursor -- the "framing" debate sparked by a Science article and discussed at length here -- but I think there are sufficient disparate issues at play here to tie together into one coherent argument. My argument is simple: people are talking past each other because of a lack of focus. Now, the same issue hit the WaPo, and the blogosphere is buzzin' again.

The larger issue is fundamentalist religion, plain and simple. In Chris Mooney's own words,
In the Post, we focus on one of the most obvious examples of badly framing the defense of evolution--tying it to criticism of religion. Richard Dawkins is the most prominent example in this regard, and we single him out accordingly. I want to emphasize that I grew up on Dawkins' books; they really helped me figure out who I am. But nevertheless, over the past several years I've grown increasingly convinced that his is emphatically not the way to make many Americans (people very different from me) more accepting of science.
It isn't only defenders of science who feel the way Mooney and Nisbet do -- humanists and freethinkers have recently decried "angry atheists who hold down our movement".
While some progressive Christians maintain that Christ was divine, they nevertheless manage to agree with us on principles of human rights, reason and science. If we refuse to build alliances with people who do not agree with us on every single issue, we will never be strong enough to stand up to the Religious Right.
The media, by its nature, interviews figures whose views are diametrically opposed. News has morphed into entertainment, and the masses cry for gladiators of words and ideas to step into the ring and let mental blood. Sophisticated viewpoints don't conform to soundbytes. Therefore, why waste a perfectly good 30-second interview on an atheist who refuses to call names and instead wants to discuss transcendental arguments for a god's existence?

When Elaine Pagels was interviewed by Salon, we see this common theme resurface:
What do you make of the recent claim by the atheist Richard Dawkins that the existence of God is itself a scientific question? If you accept the idea that God intervenes in the physical world, don't there have to be physical mechanisms for that to happen? Therefore, doesn't this become a question for science?

Well, Dawkins loves to play village atheist. He's such a rationalist that the God that he's debunking is not one that most of the people I study would recognize. I mean, is there some great big person up there who made the universe out of dirt? Probably not.

Are you saying that part of the problem here is the notion of a personal God? Has that become an old-fashioned view of religion?

I'm not so sure of that. I think the sense of actual contact with God is one that many people have experienced. But I guess it's a question of what kind of God one has in mind.

So when you think about the God that you believe in, how would you describe that God?

Well, I've learned from the texts I work on that there really aren't words to describe God. You spoke earlier about a transcendent reality. I think it's certainly true that these are not just fictions that we arbitrarily invent.

Certainly many people talk about God as an ineffable presence. But if you try to explain what transcendence is, can you put that into words and explain what it means?

People have put it into words, but the words are usually metaphors or poems or hymns. Even the word "God" is a metaphor, or "the son of God," or "Father." They're all simply images for some other order of reality.
I own two of Pagels' books. I respect her scholarship greatly, but she seems to have missed a very large point: Dawkins (and Harris) are aiming for exactly the sort of god that is most dangerous to believe in, and the one that the overwhelming majority of anti-scientific anti-gay bigots cling to. Dawkins doesn't put the intelligentsia in his sights because they are not the ones whose stance against science has led to the current stem cell veto, and the battles over teaching sound biology. These Christian academics instead resort to, *gasp*, reasonable and long discourses.

She mentioned Dawkins as "village atheist," and this same term was reserved for him by Novak in his recent "Lonely Atheists of the Global Village." Novak is no dummy, and I commented a month ago that I was looking forward to reading this. In fact, I enjoyed reading this article, and then a couple more, especially his response to Heather McDonald's article in TAS in November. The exchange was typical of the sort of dialectic that doesn't make newspaper headlines and can't seem to find its way into a split-screen on FauxNews. It was complex and engaging to someone who honestly wants to learn.

Some Christians have already commented on Novak's new article, but without in-depth analysis. I agree with both he and Pagels on some of their criticisms regarding the shallow treatments given god(s) by Dawkins and Harris, as I've said previously, but Novak, especially, seems to dismiss Dennett very lightly, which I find telling. Those who try to lump Dennett in with Dawkins and Harris are those who haven't read the books. His critiques are philosophical and scientific in nature, not polemical, and not directed at any one particular religion.

There is a tension between the god of the philosophers and the god of the layman, and I think it has always been there. When I say that I'm an atheist, for example, I don't mean towards an abstract concept of "the grounding of existence" or "the nexus of causality" or "the first cause". While the "tri-omni" god is beyond my capacity to believe or findreasonable, these rather abstruse theological ideas I constantly engage my faculties in contemplation of -- I am a freethinker, after all. While I'm an atheist towards Yahweh, and Zeus, and Thor...etc., and while I think there are adequate responses to many philosophical arguments for theism, I find some of them lacking, especially with respect to cosmology and those along moral lines (not that I find the religious alternatives on the latter subject any more coherent). There are a lot of atheists who completely disregard philosophical arguments for a god's existence, and think that the Todd Friels of the world represent the best of intellectual Christianity. That's unfortunate.

I agree completely with PZ and Larry Moran that atheists and scientists must continue to criticize superstition and fantastical thinking in order to preserve scientific knowledge in our culture. If we muzzled our "angry" and "militant" voices, then the angry, militant fundamentalist Christians and Jews and Muslims would gladly step into the void. They would love nothing more. And I agree with them that appeasement has not worked. These people believe any ground-giving to science is "compromise," punishable by brimstone. But the question I want to ask is whether we should consider religious liberals and moderates our friends, and refrain from insulting them, as PZ thoughtlessly does to Ken Miller in that latest response.

The sorts of people that we need Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for are the Falwells of our culture: the unthinking lynch-mobs whose readiness to rapture lauds them (they're showing 'great faith!') in ignoring the perils facing our grandchildren. The sorts of people who use deceit and fraud and millions of dollars to erode our civil liberties into their vision of theocracy and oppose sound science education because their small brains can't encompass the theologians' alternatives, or Gould's NOMA.

I also agree with Elaine Pagels and Michael Novak -- we cannot paint religion with such a broad brush as to attack all forms of religiosity and call names and hold to the old, insulting phraseologies ("reality-based community" and "I live by reason" are tacit insults). We must remind ourselves that there are voices of reason in the religious community, no matter how silly we feel some of their views are. And the Pagels of the world are those we atheists and we scientists need to sit down and have more discussion with. If that happened, there would be a great deal more respect on each side of the fence.

While Pagels (and intellectuals like her) are focused on getting the fundies to grow their brains a little to encompass the more sophisticated aspects of theology, and PZ et al on getting the fundies to stop their anti-scientific crusades, perhaps they could realize that 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'. Perhaps more honest discussion between the "evangelical", "uppity", "angry" and "militant" atheists and liberal/moderate Christians would yield a rich reward in finding the assistance we can afford each other in reaching mutual goals.

I want to "frame" science and atheism together, because that's my perspective. But I want to hear every possible (logical) framing as well -- I also want to hear and have heard Elaine Pagels' view of evolution from a theologian's perspective. Am I saying I want her teaching biology courses? Of course not. I want her views heard in the same media mine are, and PZ's, and Dawkins --in the 'sphere, or the MSM. The creationist hordes need to have their stupid false dichotomy (my version of Christianity or atheism) irreparably damaged by the critical words of god-believing theologians. The demagogues like Falwell and Pat "Midas Touch" Robertson hold sway over the sheep precisely because of the false picture they present --that their own views of God are the only/most valid. When more Christians see that the huge majority of scholarly Christians are moderate or liberal in their theological views, and especially towards Genesis (sometimes they find this out with much chagrin), perhaps more credence will be given to evolutionary biology, and this would be a win for "both sides". Or perhaps no change will be affected.

Let's face it: we're both minorities and we're both intellectually-centered. Our common enemy is the anti-intellectual, theocratically-wet-dreaming, rampantly superstitious Christian/Muslim/Jewish right that work tirelessly to render America into Jesus' Iran -- replete with a new "creation-based science" and the conversion of our secular institutions into "godly" ones. They're a huge voter bloc, well-organized and well-funded.

We need all the friends we can make in our "coalition of the unwilling" -- those quite unwilling to participate in theocracy or pseudoscience at our species' own peril.

Prayer, Healing, and the God of the Gaps

Christians will assert that the “God of the gaps” epistemology doesn’t adequately describe their knowledge about God and his activity, since God is not just known in the gaps of our knowledge. But consider how science has filled in the gaps when it comes to prayer and healing.

When ancient people prayed for their “daily bread,” they did so because crops could sometimes fail in their local area, or a hunter may fail to bag a deer. Such disasters as these things could produce hunger, and possible starvation. Do Christians today have the same fervor when they pray for their “daily bread” as ancient Christians did? Many Christians in the industrialized West don't even pray before every meal, especially when they eat at a McDonald's. Many if not most all of the Christians in the industrialized West, take their food pretty much for granted.

When Christians are very sick, they will take a prescribed pill from the doctor and be confident they'll get better, even if they do pray. But in the ancient times when someone got very sick they could die. Christians in the ancient past had no choice but to depend almost completely upon God's help here. Are Christians saying they wrestle with God over sickness in prayer like the Christian people of old did? Or is their confidence more in the results of science and medicine, than in God? I know the answer. They just haven't admitted it yet.

As science helps Christians with their daily meals and with healing, they believe in prayer and in God’s help less and less, and they believe in science more and more. Say it isn’t so!

Is Heaven the Sky?

Dr. Robert M. Price and Reginald Finley Sr. put out this video. There's the text version you can read too, on a good site. An excellent read on an issue that set me down the road to becoming an atheist.

Is Heaven the Sky?

Science, Religion and Biblical Christianity

I do not believe there is any mutually agreed upon scientific experiment that can either prove or disprove God's existence. So we'll be stuck with religious believers until humanity on planet earth is extinguished by the ever expanding sun. However, science makes some kinds of religious beliefs implausible.

Because modern science is objective in its results, religious people have been trying to harmonize their faith with scientific facts since the days of Galileo.

So this process leaves believers always trying to catch up to objective scientific facts, and it's here where I find several things in the Bible are outmoded, like a six day creation; the fall of a single pair of human beings in the Garden of Eden; that God sends hurricanes, tornado's, floods and fires because of human sins; that some people will be punished in an everlasting hell in the bowels of the earth, while others will have an eternal reward in the sky located just above the moon. Also outmoded is demon possession as an explanation for epilepsy, the practice of slavery, the inferior status of women, the supposed sacrificial atonement of Jesus, along with Biblical miracles, including, but not limited to, an incarnate God born of a virgin, a resurrection from the dead, an ascension into heaven (again located just above the moon), and a physical return from that same heaven.

Modern science makes implausible that kind of Biblical faith. No wonder Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote a book calling on Christianity to change or die! But the watered down version of Spong doesn't inspire many people, and it is so at odds with early Christianity that it surprises me he still wants to call his faith "Christian."