Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Atheist

Richard Dawkins is working on a new book, The God Delusion, which I look forward to reading. Some regard him as a bit harsh, "Darwin's Rottweiler"; he suggests, for example, that raising children in a religious tradition may be a form of abuse, that belief in god is no different than believing a teapot is orbiting mars, and describes the god of the old testament as a psychotic monster. He is a bit virulent, it's kind of amusing really how open and blatant he is about his disdain for religion, no pussy footing around, like Sam Harris (The End of Faith) claiming that anyone believing in god is psychotic.

But I think this is just what the doctor ordered, with anti-intellectual movements like intelligent design (ID) achieving success in thrusting their non-theories into the public and confusing otherwise intelligent people into thinking that ID is a legitimate challenge to the Theory of Evolution. It's not too tough I suppose, Evolution is initially very counter-intuitive, so a group with a vested interest in dethroning science (Discovery Institute) puts some lipstick on Creationism and repackages and promotes it as a "scientific theory" with the intent of creating the illusion that there is serious debate within the (legitimate) scientific community on the validity of Evolution Theory. To the point where political leaders, including our ever sharp-as-a-tack president, say that in "fairness" all points of view should be taught in biology classes at public school. Protesting scientists are made to look closed minded.

The scientific community perhaps blundered by even engaging in the discussion, ID should be treated like all other scientific challenges, let them submit their research and papers for peer review (there are virtually none.) Let them get in line behind all of the other variations and sub-theories of evolution competing in the free market of science, most of which aren't being taught in classrooms, because they haven't yet passed muster.

There is no serious debate within the scientific community over the validity of Evolution Theory. The finer points of the theory will be researched and debated endlessly, but there is virtual unanimous agreement that Evolution Theory as proposed by Darwin in 1859 together with nearly 150 years of ongoing research, experiments, and modifications, provide an overwhelmingly good framework for explaining how life emerged on earth (and probably everywhere else in the Universe for that matter.) The theory works, it is predictive, it is falsifiable, it is a proper scientific theory. ID is a negative "theory", a litany of criticisms of the prevailing theory (gaps in the fossil record), together with the notion that some biological features are "irreducibly complex" and could not have evolved, and that this is proof of an intelligent designer, about whom nothing can be known (that part in italics is part of the theory, not my editorial comment.) ID is a theory of personal incredulity - "I personally can't imagine how an eye could possibly have evolved, so, it must have been created by god." It explains nothing, it just pushes the problem back a notch - where did god come from. ID cannot, in principle, be disproved - this feature is an essential feature of a proper scientific theory.

I always wonder why there aren't ID theories about other scientific fields, Plate Tectonics, for instance - it's incredible, continents move? C'mon I can't imagine that. Or Einstein's Special and General Relativity - time moves slower for a body in motion? Space is curved? The universe is expanding? Are you on crack? Or Quantum Mechanics - an event here (measuring the spin of an electron) can have an instantaneous effect on a particle far far away? Yowza. I mean, there are lot of scientific theories, well established, tested, accepted, tried and true, which are intuitively far more bizarre than Evolution Theory. But of course, Evolution is the target because, apparently, it feels like a personal affront to some people's view of religion.

If there is any question of the motives of the purveyors of ID, here is an excerpt from the so called Wedge Document leaked from the Discovery Institue:

"The social consequences of materialism have been devastating. As symptoms, those consequences are certainly worth treating. However, we are convinced that in order to defeat materialism, we must cut it off at its source. That source is scientific materialism. This is precisely our strategy. If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a "wedge" that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points.... Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions."

There is it. So why do I get worked up about this, it feels like a personal affront. I've thought about why I care, and have come to the realization, from personal observation, that Science perhaps is my religion. The etymology of the word "religion", I read somewhere, has something to do with "connection". Religion connects us with and defines our place in the Universe. Science is what does it for me. To me, Science is merely the study and appreciation of the Universe as it is observed. If there is a Creator/God, it is His creation, it is awesome in the true sense of that word. I am thankful for existence and the body of subatomic particles which have coagulated into me for a brief time within the unimaginable expanse of space and time of the Universe, I am part it, part of the Universe's way of knowing itself. Deep, huh?

This week I learned that not only is the Universe expanding (not expanding within something, space itself is expanding.) but it is expanding at a rate much greater than the speed of light, so that large parts of the Universe will always be inaccessible to us because the light can never reach us. In fact, one estimate is that if the Universe were the size of the earth, then the accessible Universe would be about the size of a grain of sand.

And this. I learned that the most promising cosmological theories indicate that the mass of singularity, at the moment of the Big Bang amounted to the mass of anywhere from a spec of dust to about twenty pounds, in either case, stuffed into an area of billionths of a centimeter in volume. All that there is in our Universe started from a twenty pound point of matter, due to what's called the "inflationary" period of cosmological development which occupied the tiniest (billionths of a) fraction of a second after the Big Bang, in which energy (which is equivalent to mass) accumulated at an astounding rate due to the negative gravitational energy caused by "inflatons" which caused space to expand at a ridiculous rate. Wtf, this is almost incredible, it was hard enough to imagine all the stuff in our Universe stuffed into a singular point, but now to learn that it possibly started out with a paltry twenty pound and expanded from there. Awesome.

Or something like that. I have only the most precarious and superficial understanding of all this stuff. But enough that I appreciate its awesome-ness, blows me away. To me, reading, learning about this stuff is equivalent to worship. I sometimes like to imagine God looking down saying, now there's a guy who really appreciates my hard work.

Even though I personally don't understand all of science, I trust the scientific community to get it right, and to recognize its limitations, and to adjust/correct when it gets it wrong. Why? Because it's all driven by a very understandable human impulse, ego. Scientists are smarties, and like to show off, to other scientists. Everyone is out to prove their theories and/or disprove others, there is glory to be had in either. Image the glory to be bestowed upon the scientist to dethrone Darwin and the Theory of Evolution, they'd be the next Einstein. All it'd take is a fossil of a dog buried where only fossilized trilobites are to be found, Evolution would be history. But it hasn't happened, the evidence is not there.

All this said, I actually have a lot of respect for Religion, due no doubt in part to my religious upbringing, my father being a New Testament theologian and ordained minister (Baptist) and all. My personal view of Religion and belief in God is this. It's like herpes, once you have it, you can't get rid of it (I don't have herpes, thanks, God.) I was raised in a religious home, it's in my blood, I still pray, still feel there may be a God, but intellectually, I know it's pretty ridiculous, on the other hand, even the part of me that thinks God may exist still believes totally in Science, it's just that Science cannot answer the ultimate question - why. Why is there something instead of nothing? So officially I'm agnostic, which I always thought was the most logical stance, we just don't know, the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved, however, Dawkins, in an interview finds that a weak position, in that there are an infinite number of things that cannot be disproved, e.g. unicorns, werewolves, and teapots orbiting Mars, but we pay no mind to these since there is no good reason to believe they might exist. It's a good point.

One more thought before I end this ridiculous ramble which no one but me will read (and if you are reading this, you have to wonder, if maybe there isn't something more productive you should be doing with your time.) I've found that some people resent the Scientific outlook because it is "reductionist". Somehow, the idea that we can explain things in scientific terms somehow diminishes their value. I don't adhere to this belief. Just because science can explain (fairly) precisely, in intricate detail, at the molecular level, how the eyes and the mind work together to give us vision, does not take away from the fact that we can in fact see. Similarly, just because we can explain our origins, through Evolution Theory, does not diminish that fact the we are thinking, feeling human beings. Steven Pinker also makes the argument, which I love, because upon reflection it makes so much intuitive sense, that human morality is part of human nature, it is the product of evolution. It has survival value - if you treat other people like shit, you will probably be killed before long, before you can produce many offspring. Reciprocal altruism. It works. But, just because we can explain its origin, should not diminish its perceived and real value to us as human beings.

If "love" were ever to be "reduced" to a simple chemical reaction within the brain (which I've little doubt it will be, someday), so what, it doesn't mean we do not feel it. To me, the extra understanding, it only adds the the awe of it all. Reminds me of Richard Feynman, I saw him in an interview talking about something like how artists think they can appreciate the aesthetic beauty of a flower so much, but as a scientist, not only can he appreciate that beauty, but can also appreciate the biological complexity and beauty in that lower level domain.

Some fear the prospect that morality is a natural product of evolution undermines the religious basis of morality. Yes, it does, get over it. I have exactly the opposite view of these folks. Realizing that some significant measure of morality is built in, hardwired, into the the human mind, is comforting. It would be frightening to me to think that only those humans who happened to believe in and conform to certain specific religious ideas, were moral. It's much more comforting, and intuitively and scientifically acceptable that morality is human nature.

On Sunday, after Saturday's 5.2 mile tempo, ran 10.6 miles down the bike trail from Brewster toward Orleans and back, 10.6 miles total, first 8 not bad, then pretty much bonked, slogged the remainder, couldn't even finish the 11 I'd intended, hotter than I'd expected, went out too fast, and lounging on the beach in the sun/heat for over an hour beforehand didn't help, splits were: 7:07, 7:04, 6:45, 6:47, 6:41, 7:09, 7:01, 7:07, 7:24, 7:40. Longest run in 9 weeks, since the quad/adductor strain. Good news is no complaints from that faction. I've now developed a bit of a niggle on the left inside ankle just above the funny bone. Sore Monday walking (marched with J's Cub Scout troop in the Memorial Day parade).

Planned on rest yesterday, but by midday, surprisingly the ankle felt fine. After work ran 5 miles on the home Landice after work, 7:25 down to 6:35. Not too bad, no issues, finally! Rest today, don't push it bucko.


At 9:37 AM, Blogger Susan said...

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At 10:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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