Thursday, May 29, 2008

Quadrennial Milestone and Beyond....

It has now been a day over four years since I initially started this blog. I never had a cohesive strategy as to what direction the articles would flow, or the topics that would be covered. Along the way, just as is the case with any writer, I've been influenced and inspired by vastly different sources. Whether there were books I was reading, movies I was watching, conversations with people both supportive and detractive, or even moments that came out of sheer boredom, there have been countless extrinsic influences that have helped shaped these posts. Some, naturally, are a bit polemic and combative in tone (in the case with religion, spirituality, antiscience, etc.), others are more introspective, while the rest run the gamut from philosophical perspective to scientific understanding, and even the realm of language and grammar. Generally though, the common thread among these blogs is the importance of evidence, critical thinking, testing, reasoning, and ultimately using the scientific method towards achieving a cohesive picture of our place in the universe. Generally, it is possible to develop a comprehensive and fulfilling philosophy that is grounded in reality, and not within some imaginary realm.

From the general tone and direction of the last few months, it has become obvious to regular readers that there's more anger, frustration, fire, and some even call arrogance towards obtuse beliefs and ideas. It must be understood that coercing and indoctrinating an individual who remains ignorant of critical thinking is not difficult, but those who have developed the knowledge and understanding that only empirical processes can reveal are well suited towards navigating these complex lives we lead full of misleading and conflicting information. These topics are not meant to proselitize or convince others of their mistaken notions overnight. First, it is more of a personal catharsis towards developing a wholesome and realistic perspective in life. However, as is often the case when I debate my views, I'm labeled as a fundamentalist, no different then religious zealots out to convince others of their superiority. In fact, there's a law that relates to this illogic called "Blake's Law". It states that the longer a conversation between a believer and atheist lasts, it's almost 100% certain that the believer will call the atheist a fundamentalist. Fortunately, a response to this logical fallacy has already been alluded to by P.Z. Myers (an evolutionary/developmental biologist with one of the most popular science blogs online). His response is:
"The "new atheism" (I don't like that phrase, either) is about taking a core set of principles that have proven themselves powerful and useful in the scientific world — you've probably noticed that many of these uppity atheists are coming out of a scientific background — and insisting that they also apply to everything else people do. These principles are a reliance on natural causes and demanding explanations in terms of the real world, with a documentary chain of evidence, that anyone can examine. The virtues are critical thinking, flexibility, openness, verification, and evidence. The sins are dogma, faith, tradition, revelation, superstition, and the supernatural. There is no holy writ, and a central idea is that everything must be open to rational, evidence-based criticism — it's the opposite of fundamentalism."
Some people are happy living a fantasy and lying to themselves about the nature of the world, but others are curious creatures, investigative in nature, and generally enthused about the universe, reserving imagery and fantasy to realms that are fun in small doses or for amusement, but in normal daily practice, are useless. Every infant is an explorer, intrigued about the surroundings, and investigative in their nature. Once we reach a critical age, perhaps through our educational system, or rigid religious dogma, most of us lose our sense of wonder and fulfillment. We stop asking questions, and settle with substandard answers because we fear the truth.

However, atheists as a whole, although sharing the common bond of living in reality and functioning with a great deal of skepticism when faced with non-testable predictions, are often divided among many other topics. The philosophical views for example among atheists are ubiquitous, with some agnostic about the proper philosophy, while others seek to find philosophical satisfaction from obscure sources. One major disagreement I have with some atheists is the fact that they feel the word "atheist" carries too much negative connotative baggage, and therefor must be discarded for something more pleasant and friendly to the ear. The eminent biologist Richard Dawkins, among a few intellectuals have been pushing for the "brights movement". In this case, they want to relabel atheists as brights, and in doing so, hope that more come to embrace it. In my opinion, this relabeling seems too patronizing and condescending towards those who are ready to release their dogmatic faith-based beliefs. Another disagreement is on how to introduce these concepts to children. Their natural curiosity and imagination should not be limited, but at the same time, they must understand at an early age to be skeptical of certain beliefs may try to reinforce. In this instance, I believe raising children to embrace agnosticism is far more beneficial. A time may come when their perspective develops to the point where they choose to become atheist, but until that moment, they must be able to process the universe skeptically, but less rigidly. Christmas presents, and Easter egg scavager hunts should not be denied to children (after all, childhood has to remain fun and exciting), but they should be told that no matter how convincingly an adult tells them they know the truth, they must always maintain some skepticism. If a child asks if God is real, then a good response from this open perspective would be "to some people, they think God is real, while others, they aren't so sure, but nobody really knows the absolute truth. Anything you believe is equal to anyone else, but remember that the best way to investigate the world around you is through science." Ask any atheist, and their reply to children regarding this God question will be different. Here again, being an atheist doesn't necessarily mean we're all in agreement about everything. Unlike rigid political parties, we're happy to debate our differences, and perspective within a framework of reason, critical thinking, and the exchange of different opinions grounded within reality.

Ultimately, the future direction of this blog is up to the whims of reason, critical thinking, and the countless sources of information that help us maintain a grounded world view. True inspiration does not come from imaginary beings that mean something to someone and remain completely unknown to others, but to our inherent inquisitive human nature. It is our physical and cultural evolution that leads us to reach for goals and objectives far beyond our limited scope. It's the embrace of these ideals that will define our future.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Popularity Contrasts

Upon browsing through the Yahoo Top News Stories section, I happened to notice five very interesting articles under the Most Popular heading.

1) Pilots run out of fuel, pray, land near Jesus sign
2) Lost parrot tells veterinarian his address
3) Daughter of Christian music star killed by car
4) Federal court rules against military gays policy
5) Scientists discover "frogamander" fossil

As one glances through these topics, it's hard not to notice the vastly different stories that these articles contain. The first one involves light aircraft pilots who made an emergency landing and upon preying to God, happened to crash land safely next to a sign praising Jesus. Now it's understandable that during the stress of the event, and the likelihood that their perceived survival was slim, such a coincidence would seem like proof positive that the heavens somehow intervened to save these pilots. One question however is why do so many people praying for similar things end up dead, while these two survived? Some may say that perhaps they had a mission in life that wasn't accomplished, or that God operates mysteriously. Well, as is obvious from previous posts, that's a load of nonsense and justifiably used to convince oneself of their indoctrinated beliefs. The survival of these two pilots was a lucky accident, and they should feel like they won a royal flush in poker, but to assume that God made that possible is laughable at best.

The second story relates to a lost African Grey parrot in Japan that happened to know its own name and address, to the minute detail of the apartment number. What amazes me about the story is the temperment of the parrot. Initially, as it was brought in to a police station, it was silent, but after a few days of reduced stress, and a nurturing environment that had comforts such as food and water, the parrot was able to feel comfortable enough to speak. The fact that they display such differing characteristics and temperments between each other highlights their intelligence. One question that often comes up is the evolutionary advantage of such great mimicry. Why are African Grey parrots so much better at mimicking various sounds, as opposed to other parrots? What is special in their environment that allows the such an evolutionary adaptation? Finally, do their thought processes and vocal mimicries result from their gregarious social nature or sexual selection adaptability?

The third article is unfortunately the most tragic of all. Apparently the 5 year old daughter of a Christian music star was killed when she was accidentally run over by a car driven by her teenage brother. Naturally, the death, and subsequent trauma that this poor child must carry will be a burden upon this unfortunate family. Yet, where was their God to save the poor girl? Was he silent? Was he blind? I don't mean to lessen the tragedy or severity of this event, but was this girl's life any less sacred then the lives of the light aircraft pilots?

The fourth story represents a fragment of the constant battle that minority groups have fought throughout our history. As culture and society progress, groups that were previously mistreated have slowly become accepted and eventually ingrained in society. At one point in time, Native Americans, African-Americans, non land-owners, women, and recently homosexuals have been given negligible, if perhaps limited freedoms in American society. The story mimics the constant battles that each of these groups has had to face for acceptance. At the moment, non-believers such as atheists, agnostics, and others who have replaced irrational faith with evidence based reasoning have become targets for discrimination. Ultimately, as has always been the case, progress will prevail, and after a long drawn out battle of acceptance, groups that are discriminated will eventually become absorbed into the complex social fabric that will become the future. Yet, we are constantly reminded of liberty, equality, and justice for all, while those concepts are applied to a limited number of individuals and seem to always come with a limiting caveat.

Finally, on a more scientific-related article, recent fossil evidence has emerged that links the amphibian family lines of frogs and salamanders together. Evolutionary Biologists have long known that there was a common ancestor, or transitional species that at one point branched to form the respective amphibian families. The evidence is indicated through comparative anatomy, molecular clocks, and other such independent evidence. Finding the missing fossil that links the frog and salamander family together is vitally important in understanding how fossils evolve over time, and more specifically, how the amphibian family branched. It is amazing and literally ground-breaking discoveries like this that leads to our expanded knowledge and understanding of the world around us. No religion, no matter how well intentioned can ever answer questions as properly and beautifully as the scientific method can. The fact that a 290 million year old creature happened to die in favorable circumstances for fossilization, and that nearly a third of a billion years later, a creature with immense reasoning abilities managed to uncover it and trace its origins and subsequent species diversity is humbling and absolutely incredible. Here we are, as a highly intelligent and adaptable primate uncovering fossils of animals that highlights the origins and immense diversity of life on this little blue globe, placing more importance and emphasis to imaginary entities, instead of the awe inspiring physical world around us.

What links these five stories together, besides their popularity is that they involve our deepest seats of emotion. As one story attempts to solidify our faith, another highlights the tragedy of life, a third uncovers the battle for cultural awareness and progress , and finally two that highlight the wonderment of nature (fossils that unravel so many mysteries and animals that mimic our valuable traits). From highs to lows, from understanding to ignorance, these are the contrasting variables that describe our complex human behavior.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Perceived Arrogance

A common criticism often directed at my posts involves my supposed arrogance in elevating science and the scientific method above that of religion and spirituality. Many find it offensive for me to disrespect the personal and deeply held beliefs that they cherish so greatly. They feel that by choosing evidence, in contrast to personal belief, to formulate a philosophical perspective, I am limiting the possibilities around us. Apparently, just because there is no conclusive evidence to support various supernatural phenomenon, the fact that a distant possibility exists for their belief, I should choose to keep an open mind and accept any illogical and unsubstantiated view only because it happens to be unproven. This kind of limited thought is specifically the reason why I address these issues so often, and frequently fight with vigor for the allowance of reason and empirical evidence to dominate our thinking. It is possible for one to develop a well-rounded philosophy without having to divest their reasoning abilities into topics that have no factual basis in our world. Furthermore, as morality and ethics are not constrained and bound by religion, we should all have the freedom to recognize the importance that these beneficial human traits have outside of the dogmatic religious beliefs that have been indoctrinated into our minds. Once we recognize the importance of evidence, empirical thinking, and a strong foundation of data, we can be extremely successful in matters that are critical to our specie's and planet's survival. The future of our world is not connected in any way to the religious or spiritual beliefs of various people, but to the tireless work that we're willing to do improving both the environment and living conditions on this only planet that we've ever called home. No religion, no matter how tolerant, or coercive, has ever been able to usher in an age of progress and wisdom. In fact, progress was done in spite of the archaic and conservative notions that many religions display. As science has expanded our knowledge of the universe, the physical reality that religion allowed humanity to accept has become irrelevant. We now understand many of the mechanisms that are inherent in the processes that govern the laws of the universe, and subsequently our origins and behavior. We don't need religion anymore to give us physical models of the universe. Furthermore, as was mentioned before, we don't need religion to lead moral and ethical lives. The moral current that has evolved through our culture has done so, in spite of religion. We can pick and choose certain passages from various religious texts that appear relevant to the moral behavior of each generation, but cannot take the whole religious text as a moral code. In the Old Testament Bible for example, adultery was punishable by stoning the adulterer to death, and further, slavery, especially the indenture servitude of one's daughters was openly allowed and practiced. Few in this day and age would be willing to maintain many of the practices that were written and glorified in archaic times. So if morality, and physical descriptions are completely unnecessary products of religion in modern times, what other aspects might it provide humans? Well, as was covered in previous posts, comfort and ignorance may allow some people to maintain a rigid mentality when trying to break free of their indoctrinated bonds. Yet, should we be willing to maintain that some people need comfort and ignorance to survive properly in the world? Perhaps a select group of people really do need to lie to themselves, and allow themselves to be fooled into imaginary ideas involving voyeuristic beings claiming to be benevolent when in fact, their jealousy, guarded behavior, and limited rules of engagement constantly indicate their absurd nature.

As is typical, people will look at the harsh tone I have set towards religious views and maintain that I am still foolish and arrogant. They'll claim that not all religions are "bad" and that they do have their uses. Some apologists who are not religious themselves will further insist that these religious beliefs (or even the spiritual nonsense dominating the scene these days in the form of new-age ideas) are important for maintaining cultural continuity and a sense of self worth. Obviously, there may be some importance towards religious belief, but with the knowledge that we have accumulated in the last few centuries, few can deny the power of science over those religious myths.

As far as arrogance goes, I suppose that this stigma will remain with these posts as long as the tone remains as such. Yet, it's important to realize that every progressive thought is often met with arrogance when the masses have yet to embrace concepts that will eventually become widespread. There was a time in our not too distant past when many people believed slavery to be morally justifiable. A few however, dared to maintain that perhaps these African descendants were human beings after all. They did happen to bleed the same color, and although their external and cultural differences were obvious, they also laughed, cried, fought, worked, played and even died like any other human being. The brave individuals that first came forward to maintain this injustice were often harassed, attacked, and even killed for their beliefs. They were often looked upon as arrogant people of "enlightenment" who had read too many books and did not function in the "real world". Even closer to our current time, women were barred from voting because it was felt that they could not make a logical decision (often justified through Biblical passages -- the morality of their time). They viewed women as nothing more then child bearing and rearing cheap labor. It took generations of people, and countless individuals willing to stand up to their beliefs that women's votes also counted, before suffrage was declared universal. Looking at society now, many archaic beliefs will one day seem just as strange and unbelievable. Some of us, through determination, and perhaps a small masochistic streak, maintain our views in the face of so much opposition because we know them to be morally and ethically true. To summarize these views (which some deep ultra liberal, but will one day become the norm -- just as the most conservative view today is absolutely liberal and leftist compared to those 100 years ago), one must understand that there was no special creation involved in our evolution and present appearance on this planet. We ARE a cosmic accident, and although many have a difficult time accepting that, as religion's flame fades away, more and more minds will begin to understand the implications. If we are truly descended from Apes, and share a common biological bond with all the creatures of the Earth (as well as chemical and physical bond with the rest of the universe), then that means no human being is biologically more important than another. In essence, all human beings are an accident of the universe, and an accident of an evolutionary process that blindly moves in any arbitrary direction dictated by the selective pressures in the environment. No wonder this idea is so revolutionary and unsettling to many people. Their special status is suddenly questioned, and we become no different than any other entity in existence. Thinking along these lines often results in the mistaken impression that these views are extremist and no different than the fundamentalism of certain religions sects. However, these views are based on evidence, and if perpetuating the notion that evidence trumps everything else in explaining and understanding our universe, then perhaps an evidence extremist is not such a bad notion. Eventually, the tide will turn, and most people will come to realize the implications of our accidental nature. True arrogance results in our belief that we are superior to other entities such as ethnic groups, and even biological creatures. Our reasoning abilities however do give us a unique perspective on this planet. We have it within us to change this world, either for the better, or for the worse. Either we use our reasoning abilities to answer the mysteries of our universe, or we waste it on imaginary and supernatural phenomenon that exist only in the inventive minds of fearful, credulous individuals.

Einstein's Religion?

There's been a great deal of recent debate and controversy regarding Albert Einstein's views on religion and his personal beliefs on the subject. As a complex human being garnering such a great deal of interest from both academics and lay people alike, Einstein's beliefs are subject to wide speculation and an intrinsic need among many to fully understand his personal views. When one thinks of the quintessential scientist, their mental picture is often that of Einstein, his pipe, absent eyes, puffy white hair, and wrinkly forehead crinkled deep in thought. Therefore, those who support religion and spirituality often look at anything Einstein may have said that might tolerate their views, while others, opposing any form of religion and spirituality often look for evidence that Einstein was an atheist. Both camps feel that any shred of evidence that Einstein may have written, said, or somehow implied defending either view is valuable and groundbreaking. Lately, a lot of Einstein memorabilia has appeared on the market, and people's interest in him has never wavered. Of late, a letter was found in which Einstein fully dismisses religion as childish, and in particular, refers to the religion of his upbringing (Judaism) as nothing out of the ordinary when compared to other such childish religions. This naturally gives fuel and fodder to the atheist supporters of Einstein, and credibility to their arguments that he often invoked God as a metaphor, not an absolute.

Having described this phenomenon of treating Einstein as a valuable resource towards confirmation or denial of various claims, we must try to keep some perspective on these notions. Einstein was neither omnipotent, nor central towards universal insight. He was a human being gifted with abilities in physics, mathematics, simplification of complex laws, and of course, approachability. As all humans however, he was flawed in many ways; distant from his family, unfaithful to his wife, stubborn in his later years towards quantum theory, etc. What all this adds up to is that people deify him and subsequently project their beliefs on to him. Since they respect his position and achievements, they feel that his views are vastly superior to that of scientists in today's world. However, it must be understood that Einstein was neither a philosopher, or had the theoretical knowledge and wealth of the last 60 years to draw upon. His notions, though far advanced for his time, are now expanded upon and further understood. What was once his theories of general and special relativity have become well understood by many physicists, and they have further labored (just as Einstein did in his last 30 years) towards unifying these concepts of gravity with the other three fundamental forces (known as a Grand Unification Theory, or GUT). Although we're no closer at approaching unification, we have a much better understanding of relativity and yet, must realize that Einstein doesn't speak for all scientists or philosophies. People cannot use his views on religion as a justification for belief or disbelief. He was an important human being, but is now dead and gone. His beliefs, though important and relevant to him have been long buried along with his body. It doesn't matter what his religious views were, just as it shouldn't make a difference as to what Newton, Galileo, Darwin, and others believed. We should form our opinions based on this mountain of scientific evidence collected through the centuries regardless of the personal beliefs of those involved. Their scientific achievements are a totally different and far more important matter, but whether they believed that shooting ducks in a barrel filled with tomato sauce or running puppies over while riding intoxicated on morphine on a unicycle, was a fun method to pass the time, shouldn't matter.

Fear of Knowledge and "Elitism"

As long as human beings have been around, and probably even earlier (among hominids like Neanderthals and perhaps even Homo Erectus), it is well known that individuals possessing a great deal of knowledge are very important for the preservation and continuation of society. These individuals, which we now call experts have spent their lives studying phenomenon that has lead to novel methods of illumination and revelation. As human society has expanded, so has the role and importance of experts. During the initial stages of human civilization, certain individuals we now call Shaman, or witchdoctors were trusted to possess knowledge that was seen as critical towards the survival of a tribe or even society. They were often entrusted to have knowledge of the natural phenomenon that occurred around their limited world-view. They were often found working with the beliefs that made logical intuitive sense. Their understanding of botany, atmospheric phenomenon, and geological changes was extremely imaginative and elementary compared to what we now know, but in their time and place, they had the wisdom and know-how that individuals trusted for their survival. Perhaps their understanding was limited compared to our own, but they far exceeded their peers, and thus, were often consulted as "experts". As humans settled and civilization matured, new niches were created within society for new kinds of experts. Suddenly, there were priests, astrologers, blacksmiths, geographers, agronomists, animal husbandry practitioners, etc. These individuals occupied important positions in society and thus, were frequently consulted for advice and even philosophical insight. With the advent of science and the scientific method, there are countless niches that are being filled with individuals possessing specific knowledge. Even in the recent past, such as during the Enlightenment, many retained generalized knowledge across vastly different disciplines, but as our base of understanding expands, newer and more specific frontiers are discovered and subsequently occupied by very wise and learned individuals. As an analogy, one can think of an elephant and octopus. An elephant has a single trunk it uses in various different ways, whereas an octopus has 8 arms, with each able to undertake a specific task. Modern day society is very much like an hyper-octopus, with millions of arms each obtaining some specific insight and adding to a thorough understanding.

The recent progress that science and technology have provided to society cannot be underestimated. Through the countless work of millions of driven and wise individuals, a large base of knowledge has been established that continues to grow and add through refinements in the scientific method and developments based on that principle. Concurrently, as fields of expertise have expanded, certain other roles are slowly becoming relegated to the past. Blacksmiths, whose role cannot ever be understated in past society have largely disappeared, with only a few individuals practicing it for the sake of art or very specific niches. Similarly, one would expect the role of religious experts to disappear. As science expands and contradicts the mythical and imaginative stories that many religions are based on, the individuals practicing this nonsense should theoretically be relegated to the role of mythologists. Yet, we see a growing sense of dread for billions of people in the possible loss of these "experts". I have already tackled the reasons many are unable to uncoil this reality numbing python wrapped around their minds in previous posts, but it must be restated that through ignorance, need for comfort, seeking of authority, group thinking, and indoctrination the sense of wonder and reality about the universe is snuffed away. These people grasp at any possible link that although false, may give them a sense of ignorant and blissful inner peace. They purposely close their minds or of those who are willing to tread the fence, stop just before fully crossing into reality and rationalism by purporting to feel empty without their indoctrinated belief system. Ultimately, this fear of the unknown is reinforced and continuously indoctrinated throughout the believers' lives. The fear of having only one chance in life, only one shot on this planet as a biological organism, fragile, and readily influenced through any whim of the cosmos stops many in their tracts, and in fact, results in their hatred towards those who are unwilling to stop at an artificial line.

The ignorant individuals who have developed a sense of fear and mistrust of knowledge eventually deem those who possess those specific traits as a danger to society and view their behavior negatively. The label "elitist" is tossed around these days, by congressmen, media pundits, and even a would-be presidential candidate. The proverbial camelid back breaking straw was when Hillary Clinton referred to Barack Obama's higher education and impassioned, educated speeches as elitist. Suddenly, half the country decided that elitists were evil, snobbish, and didn't care about the working class. Yet, when one really looks at politicians, most of them are traditionally elitist. They have power, money, influence, and most important, view themselves as privileged when compared to the rest of Americans. These people in such lofty positions are all elitist. The scientists, educators, inventors, researchers, and the like are modern day experts, not the elite. These are people who are working hard to further society, and help humanity, while politicians bicker and cause hatred and division among the populace to further their own egotistical agendas. They set the stage for their children to continue in their footsteps, as in the case of the Bush family. These are the elite that the populace should fear, not the learned, and educated individuals. Knowledge is nothing to fear when taken ethically and responsibly but unfortunately, few will ever come to understand this concept. Society will continue to treat children who possess the drive and will to learn as nerds, geeks, dorks, bookworms, etc. It's no surprise that the average American would rather have a President in office that they could share a drink with, play monopoly with, shoot deer, treat them like children, and continually police and suppress their free thought with the public's blind acceptance and enthusiasm. It should further be understood that not all individuals are born with the personality traits conductive towards acquiring all forms of knowledge, but most every individual has certain latent talents and behavioral characteristics that can allow them to occupy certain important niches in society. The shame of having so many people turn their back against knowledge is that many of them can be instrumental in embracing the future, but because of ignorance, politics, and intimidation or fear, they will take the easy road and become resistant towards personal growth and development. When they do seem to embrace personal growth, it's often directed towards useless endeavors like religion or spirituality. It's no secret that religion's greatest fear is knowledge, thus the story of the forbidden fruit and clich├ęs like "ignorance is bliss". Yet, the knowledge is there to be ascertained and the possibilities are both gratifying and infinite. If stating these facts make me seem elitist, then be it so, but there's nothing negative about it.