Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sound Off 02-14-09

In the spirit of the day, today's Sound Off is as follows:

What is love? From where does your definition of love derive?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Darwin Day, 2009

Hello All,

You may have noticed that we do not have any new material posted this morning. Our Darwin Day party was a blast, and we were up past our usual bedtimes. This was no usual party--it involved reading 150-year-old (and older) pericopae, interpretive art, and vocabulary words such as allele, Neaderthal, procession, and inbreeding (thank you Biggums).

We will probably not have our regular Sound Off feature or a post again until tomorrow morning. In the mean time, the following are a few pictures of the event.

Dar (short for "Darwin", our ferret) & Darwin Day ("DD") Cake

Philosobot Holding A Struggling Darwin

Dar (short for "Darling"), Biggums, and Huxley (our other ferret)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sound Off 02-12-09 (Darwin Day)

Today's question does not require any introduction other than that, in honor of Darwin Day, we think it fitting to ask the following:

How would the world be different today had Darwin not been born on February 12, 1809? How would science be different?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sound Off 02-11-09

Since many of the Daily Sound Off questions have elicited responses that are just short of essays, I thought I'd ask one today that can be answered in relatively few words:

What scientific or technological advance or invention would you like to see in your lifetime?

For example, would you hope for something remotely possible, like "the cure for cancer", or perhaps something out of the pages of science fiction like "a servant robot"?

Out of Africa

As we draw near to the bicentennial of the birthdays of both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, I, like Scriptulicious and Uruk, wanted to write something about the real implications of our knowledge of evolution, as contrasted with the mendacious and vituperative implications concocted by the likes of Ben Stein, who has alleged that social Darwinism follows necessarily from Darwinism. (See Stein's film Expelled for context, if you can do so without paying). While I certainly hope that everyone still feels outraged by the inhumanity of the Holocaust, Stein seems to me to lack such scruples when he opportunistically uses the memories of the victims of Nazi genocide as an emotive argument for rejecting evolution.

Never mind the fact that, even if social Darwinism necessarily followed from Darwinism, that would not prove that Darwinism isn't true. Such an argument, though valid, is unnecessary because, as it just so happens, there is no causal relationship between the two. Social Darwinism is a flagrant example of what we call the "is-ought fallacy", a faulty inference that, since something is a certain way, we therefore ought to be that certain way. It is a fallacy because we can not logically derive "ought" from "is". If a person observes a bird that is eating some red berries, he would be foolhardy to think that he ought to eat them as well; the red berries could easily be digestible for birds but poisonous to humans. Equally absurd is the suggestion that, since nature selects by a process of "survival of the fittest", humans must therefore model their social policies on the same theme.

Moreover, "survival of the fittest" (a term coined not by Darwin, but by Herbert Spencer) is not even regarded as an accurate description by modern biologists. Does Stein think that scientists have made no further inquiries into the subject of evolution in the 150 years since On the Origin of Species was written? Even if they had not, Darwin himself understood perfectly well that evolution by natural selection is a non-teleological process (that is, a non-goal oriented process). In other words, evolution does not work to bring about a super-species that is superior to all other species; fitness only refers to a species' ability to survive, not its inherent worth. Thus, Scriptulicious's pet ferrets are every bit as well-adapted, and therefore "fit", as Scriptulicious himself.

Finally, consider the following short film, and how every person, every race, every nationality on this planet has a common ancestry. There was actually an Adam and Eve, but the real Adam and Eve differ from their biblical counterparts greatly, indeed they never even knew each other. We inherit our mitochondrial DNA from our mothers, and we can trace markers in our mitochondrial DNA to a "mitochondrial Eve" who lived about 150,000 years ago in modern-day Africa. We inherit our y-chormosome DNA from our fathers, and we can trace markers in our y-chromosome DNA to a "y-chromosme Adam" who lived about 60,000 in Africa. These facts are coupled with archeological evidence of the rise of civilizations and with our knowledge of the historical climatological conditions that would have forced our earliest ancestors to migrate from the cradle of humanity. The multifarious faces of humanity arose as a single species, a single race, from out of Africa.

It is serendipitous, I think, that Lincoln and Darwin share their birthdates. At Gettysburg, Lincoln eloquently stated that "our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Thanks to Darwin, we now have a knowledge of evolution and genetics which prove this proposition of equality.


Monday, February 9, 2009

Sound Off 02-10-09

Yes, I skipped a day.

Scriptulicious was telling me a story about how Biggums was talking to a guy about his religious experiences (feeling a supernatural presence, somehow). Scrip can fill in the details, but apparently she asked the guy about people of other faiths who had such experiences; were their experiences real? He apparently replied that "the mind can play tricks on you". So, she asked how he knew his religious experiences weren't just his mind playing tricks on him, to which he replied that "it was a matter of faith".

Today's questions are for theists, or "recovering" theists, only:

Have you had a religious experience? How do you know it was authentic, and not a delusion? Is there any better answer than "it was a matter of faith"? Are the the religious experiences of people from other faiths valid?

(Don't miss Scrip's new post, which I just bumped down)

The Apostle Paul and Social Mobility

I have rather frequently encountered Christian apologists making the claim that evolution and atheism are the foundations of the institution of slavery in America. Though this claim more often relates to eugenics and social Darwinism, the backbone running through this claim relates to institutional racism specifically in the form of slavery. I disavow social Darwinism as a dogmatic belief system. It is not and never was based on empirical science nor the theory of evolution. It is most unfortunate that Christians are often the party to attempt to make the connection between social Darwinism and evolution because it is Christianity that has a clear historical connection with slavery and later ethnic injustices in America. Before Christians criticize social Darwinism, I think it meet that the Christian consider Paul's advice regarding slaves.

Paul states in I Corinthians 7:17-24 reads:

But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches. Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God. Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. Art thou called [being] a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use [it] rather. For he that is called in the Lord, [being] a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, [being] free, is Christ's servant. Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men. Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.

In I Corinthians 7, Paul attempts to dissuade the Corinthians from changing their social status regard to marriage, conversion (Gentiles becoming Jews), and slavery. Paul clarifies that his instructions regarding marriage relate to, "the present distress" (7:26) and so it can be implied that Paul's instructions are limited to the "distress" of his generation. Don't forget that Paul is the earliest writer of the New Testament corpus, and he expected Jesus to return in his lifetime. In the above pericope, Paul instructs his readers to "abide in his [social] calling." Though this passage does not entirely imply that it is wrong to consider buying or obtaining freedom, it does nothing to ameliorate the practice or station of slaves in his readers.

In Colossians 3:22, it is stated:

Servants, obey in all things [your] masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God.

Here the author of Colossians (a pseudo-Pauline reworking of Ephesians), maintains that the servant-slave must work for his master as though working for God. This instruction does nothing to address the status of slaves, and it became, in the Christian South, a basis of a code of slave ethics taught by the slave holder to the slave. A similar verse in the more-likely Pauline work of Ephesians 6:5 reiterates this theme.

Deuteronomy 23:15-16 offers the following imperative regarding a slave that escapes from a master:

Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, [even] among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.

It is interesting that despite the humanness of this passage that Paul in book of Philemon, returns the escaped slave Onesimus to his master. Paul here has an opportune moment to apply a biblical precept and demonstrate a biblical aversion to slavery. However, there is no such biblical aversion to slavery. Abolish was not served by Paul and his soft approach to slavery. His social ethics discourage social mobility and directly encourage the slave to stay where she is—serving the master as though serving God.

My Experience with Dawkins & Non-Belief

Dawkins first entered my library in the early spring of 2004 with the book The Blind Watchmaker. At the time I was in the midst of a crisis of faith regarding biblical depictions of the cosmos, the amassing examples of where the theory of evolution displayed more explanatory utility than various creation models, and the incongruence of the Bible and evolution. In reading creationist materials, Dawkins' name surfaced somewhat frequently as an example of an atheistic evolutionary perspective. I found him during one of my somewhat routine perusal of the science section in a local bookstore, and I brought him home.

The Blind Watchmaker was a mediocre read at the time. I recall attempting to read it cover-to-cover, but I found that it spent more time than I wanted on issues which I felt were peripheral to my concerns about the explanatory functions of evolutionary theory. If I were to read it again, I am sure that I would see it differently, but I recall putting it down not having found what I was looking for. In the April of 2004, Biggums and others may recall that I regained belief. I sent out a grand email apology to a number of congregants who used to meet at my house for Bible study and fellowship (including Biggums). In this email I explained that I had shown a lack of faith in God's character, and I apologized for the lack of ceremonial punctiliousness that this produced (e.g., I did not observe Passover on the correct timing). Bones of Contention and Buried Alive, both creationist books attempting to explain the evidences for human evolution, were on my immediate reading shelf, and I read them in fairly short intervals. The dishonesty and inability of the authors to place the evidence into a creationist model brought me right back to closet disbelief.

In the summer of 2004, I picked up Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale—probably my favorite of Dawkins. This book likely had the most influence on me of any of Dawkins' works. In it he presents case study after case study of present biota and their past analogues, and he places them within the context of the "molecules to man" path of evolution. Even though this work was not intended to inspire non-belief or atheism, I found this work to be particularly convincing. I must state, though, that Dawkins' contribution to my atheism is negligible.

I am not content knowing only one side of a debate. Tooting my own horn here a bit, I am very inquisitive and intellectually curious. I find a great deal of intellectual satisfaction and intrinsic reinforcement through understanding more than one angle of a debate (most people would too, if they tried it). If I had not had the experience that I have had in Christianity, Judaism, and, to a much lesser extent, Islam, I would not have found Dawkins' works to be convincing. My studies in religion have reinforced my intellectual curiosity; they have conditioned me to find intellectual satiation in constructively seeking coherence through confusion—the process of "not knowing" and yet studying until I find a cogent explanation or interpretive model. If I had read Dawkins without my background in religion and "creation science," I would not have been able to accept what he argues. I would have found that I needed to read and consider a lot of evidence from the angles of religion. Having already indoctrinated myself in many angles of religion, I had that, and Dawkins addressed many of these angles in salient way.

To further distance my non-belief from Dawkins, Dawkins was only one of hundreds if not thousands of books that have brought me to where I am today. The one book that has influenced me the most is, no doubt, the Bible. Next to the Bible, creationist literature is the second heftiest contribution to my non-belief. Third, I would ascribe a significant weight to liberal and critical biblical scholarship. The last category of influence might include Dawkins. This category would include the non-creationist science and philosophy literature that I have read. Dawkins is only one of maybe a dozen authors in this final category. Note, I have read much more conservative biblical scholarship and creation science in my life than liberal biblical scholarship or non-creation science.

I take a degree of offense to the role that many attribute to Dawkins in my atheism. I would more likely than not be an atheist today without Dawkins. He is a cherry on top, so to speak, but not the much-more-significant multi-layered cake and frosting which are beneath.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sound Off 02-08-09

Answer the question which applies to you:
  • (Atheists): What would it take to convince you that there is a God?
  • (Theists): What would it take to convince you that there is no God?