Saturday, November 25, 2006

Crazy Old Aunts

Now isn't this about the silliest thing you've ever heard:

According to reports, Carolyn Porco, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, CO said this at a recent conference for atheist scientists:

"We should let the success of the religious formula guide us. Let's teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome - and even comforting - than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know."

She said this while displaying a picture taken by the Cassini spacecraft of Saturn and its glowing rings eclipsing the Sun, revealing in the shadow a barely noticeable speck - our Earth.

This specimen of materialistic fatuity was delivered at a conference at La Jolla, CA the theme of which was "Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival." The proceedings rapidly escalated into an "intellectual free-for-all" as reported by George Johnson at The New York Times.

It seems that it was the usual suspects at this donnybrook who were throwing most of the low blows:

A presentation by Joan Roughgarden, a Stanford University biologist, on using biblical metaphor to ease her fellow Christians into accepting evolution (a mutation is "a mustard seed of DNA") was dismissed by Dr. [Richard] Dawkins as "bad poetry," while his own take-no-prisoners approach (religious education is "brainwashing" and "child abuse") was condemned by the anthropologist Melvin J. Konner, [who assured the atheistic faithful that he himself had "not a flicker" of religious faith], as simplistic and uninformed.

After enduring two days of talks in which the Templeton Foundation came under the gun as smudging the line between science and faith, Charles L. Harper Jr., its senior vice president, lashed back, denouncing what he called "pop conflict books" like Dr. Dawkins's "God Delusion," as "commercialized ideological scientism" - promoting for profit the philosophy that science has a monopoly on truth.

That brought an angry rejoinder from Richard P. Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, who said his own book, "Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine," was written to counter "garbage research" financed by Templeton on, for example, the healing effects of prayer.

With atheists and agnostics outnumbering the faithful ... one speaker after another called on their colleagues to be less timid in challenging teachings about nature based only on scripture and belief. "The core of science is not a mathematical model; it is intellectual honesty," said Sam Harris, a doctoral student in neuroscience and the author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation.

"Every religion is making claims about the way the world is," he said. "These are claims about the divine origin of certain books, about the virgin birth of certain people, about the survival of the human personality after death. These claims purport to be about reality."

By shying away from questioning people's deeply felt beliefs, even the skeptics, Mr. Harris said, are providing safe harbor for ideas that are at best mistaken and at worst dangerous. "I don't know how many more engineers and architects need to fly planes into our buildings before we realize that this is not merely a matter of lack of education or economic despair," he said.

What?! In order to flay religion he has to travel all the way to the madrassas of Saudi Arabia where the 9/11 terrorists were weaned to obtain his illustrations. This is a marvelous example of a straw man argument - find the most dastardly examples of religious people you can and then present them as if they were typical of all religious people. Is this what Mr. Harris has in mind when he refers above to "intellectual honesty"?

Then Francisco Ayala inadvertantly let the cat out of the bag. He tacitly acknowledged that people need to believe their lives are meaningful and although scientific naturalists bravely insist that an unimaginably vast ocean of nothingness is nevertheless a wondrous and meaning-laden place, the fact is that there's no meaning in Prof. Porco's universe. There's no meaning, value, hope, or purpose if we're all alone on a tiny speck adrift in a near infinite sea of matter and energy:

"There are six billion people in the world," said Francisco J. Ayala, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Roman Catholic priest. "If we think that we are going to persuade them to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming - it is like believing in the fairy godmother."

"People need to find meaning and purpose in life," he said. "I don't think we want to take that away from them."

In other words, if people really understood the metaphysical implications of Darwinism they'd be in despair, but Dr. Krauss wants to leave them an "out". It's still possible to believe in God, he helpfully assures the audience:

"Science does not make it impossible to believe in God," Dr. Krauss insisted. "We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it."

But Captain Ahab Dawkins will have none of it:

That was just the kind of accommodating attitude that drove Dr. Dawkins up the wall. "I am utterly fed up with the respect that we - all of us, including the secular among us - are brainwashed into bestowing on religion," he said. "Children are systematically taught that there is a higher kind of knowledge which comes from faith, which comes from revelation, which comes from scripture, which comes from tradition, and that it is the equal if not the superior of knowledge that comes from real evidence."

It would be interesting to learn what real evidence there is for God's non-existence. I hope he wasn't referring to the "evidence" he alludes to in his book The God Delusion which is about as insubstantial an argument against God's existence as has ever been put to print.

By the third day, the arguments had become so heated that Dr. Konner was reminded of "a den of vipers."

"With a few notable exceptions," he said, "the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?"

Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, said. "Something fundamental is going on in people's minds when they confront things they don't understand." "Science is a philosophy of discovery; intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance,"

And this is an admission of ignorance by Dr. Tyson. He's evidently unaware that intelligent design is not a claim about what we don't know, it's a claim about what we do know. What we know is that complex specified information is the product always of an intelligent agent. To the extent we find CSI in the biological or physical universe it is more reasonable to infer, IDers maintain, that it is the result of intelligence than that it is the result of blind, mechanical processes.

Before he left to fly back home to Austin, Dr. Weinberg seemed to soften for a moment, describing religion a bit fondly as a crazy old aunt.

"She tells lies, and she stirs up all sorts of mischief and she's getting on, and she may not have that much life left in her, but she was beautiful once," he lamented. "When she's gone, we may miss her."

Dr. Dawkins wasn't buying it. "I won't miss her at all," he said. "Not a scrap. Not a smidgen."

Talk about a crazy old aunt.

Big Trees and Satellite Photos

If you enjoy the beauty of old, massive trees, as I do, then this site, passed along by our friend Byron at Hearts and Minds Bookstore is for you. In the left margin you'll find links to state registers for the largest trees of each species in each state. There's also information on "tree hunting", an activity in which people search out record trees in their states. It's pretty neat.

Another amazing site recommended to me by my student Hannah is Google Earth. The site allows you to navigate the globe from the perspective of a satellite and zoom in on any part of the planet you wish. The resolution of the satellite photos is best in urban areas, but it's impressive wherever you choose to zoom down. Unfortunately, the software has to be downloaded, which takes a while, but maybe the computer literate readers will be able to figure out how to just download Google Earth without having to download all the other stuff that comes with it.


Another Myth About Religion

Julie Ponzi at No Left Turns links to this piece by Dinesh D'Souza writing on the myth that religion has been responsible for more wars and death than any other force in history. D'Souza explains that the myth is not supported by the historical facts which, indeed, point in quite the opposite direction.

Ponzi then goes on to relate this amusing story:

This reminds me of a time sitting in one of the required (but not so interesting or rigorous) courses I took in graduate school. The professor, who was a nice man but not the most engaging teacher, made the point in passing that more people had died in the name of religion than anything else in the history of the world. It sort of woke up the room for one brief shining moment. The lefties in the class became engaged as they finally heard a claim being staked--something that was not milquetoast from their point of view. I looked around the room at some of my like-minded friends and we prepared to go to battle. But we overlooked one of our more quiet friends who usually sat in the back of the room and rarely made comments in class. To our amazement, he slowly raised his hand. When called upon he asked the following question, "What religion, exactly, were Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot working to advance?" And then he put his hand down, put his head down, and went back to reading whatever it was that he brought with him to pass the time. There was stunned silence in the room.

Read D'Souza's piece. It really is quite good, and the lesson it contains needs to be learned by believers and unbelievers alike.

It needs to be borne in mind that unless there is a transcendent moral authority to impose moral obligation upon us there is no compelling reason, absolutely none, why anyone should not simply adopt a might-makes-right ethic. It is almost inevitable that in states which are officially and formally atheistic might-makes-right will be the unofficial policy of the government, and any government which adopts this standard will almost inevitably devolve into tyranny, war, and mass killings. This is the lesson of the twentieth century and the lesson which historian Paul Johnson hammers home repeatedly and insistantly in his wonderful history, titled Modern Times, of the century in which materialistic atheism reached its high water mark.