28 April 2008

On Epigraphs and Angel Wings

I am a fan of epigraphs. I have seen them used to great affect in novels I admire (American Psycho, for example.) And for my own novel--We, The Dreamers--I may have found a perfect choice.
We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another.
--- Lucretius.
Considering one of the central themes of the novel, and the larger work of which it is a part, is human solidarity (without need of anything to succeed but H. sapiens), and since there is an angel-wing motif in there (designed to evoke the idea of the angelic figure in Italian sonnets, not anything religious), the quote might fit very well.

The quote might also come off as too cheesy. The point of the inclusion would not be a sappy, romantic notion of "finding the one who completes you." The point is human solidarity, divorced of all other prerequisites.

Just for shits and giggles, I considered:
We may now summarize our characterization of authentic Being-towards-death as we have projected it existentially: anticipation reveals to Dasein its lostness in the they-self, and brings it face to face with the possibility of being itself, primarily unsupported by concernful solitude, but of being itself, rather, in an impassioned freedom towards death--a freedom which has been released from the Illusions of the "They", and which is factical, certain of itself, and anxious.
--- Heidegger
I don't think it would work very well, but for the record I think that sentence of Being and Time is absolutely incredible. I can honestly say it changed my life.

26 April 2008

The Fight of Words

In the battle against Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates, who together are part of the larger American traditional of anti-intellectualism, and the cult of ignorance that, as Isaac Asimov said, misunderstands democracy to mean "my ignorance is as good as your knowledge", we who stand with evidence and with reason must realize that we are not fighting enemies who will agree to our terms. We ask for evidence and they respond with ad hominem attacks. They create false dichotomies, and defend themselves by endlessly moving goal posts and asserting that there is no true scotsman. Their weapons are not facts--they have none--but words.

Reality is on our side. Pragmatism favors us overwhelmingly (ID does not enhance science's ability to do anything). But I for one desire a stronger, swifter victory. To quote Isaac Asimov again
Humanity has the stars in its future, and that future is too important to be lost under the burden of juvenile folly and ignorant superstition.
To accomplish this, we must recognize the linguistic nature of this battle, and we must equip ourselves accordingly.

Some language we cannot help. The false dichotomy drawn between "Fact" and "Theory" is simply a misunderstanding (or deliberate muddling) of otherwise clearly distinguishable scientific nomenclature. Fact is not a higher order of truth than theory. Fact is simply a piece of data. A Theory is an idea, generated and supported through repeated demonstration and testing, and forever buffeted by the storm of peer review. A Law, just to clarify, also does not trump a theory. It is not any truer. Rather, a law is a simple concept (relatively speaking) that can be expressed in a formula. Newton's law of motion (F=MA), the ideal gas law (PV=nRT). Theories have a larger scope and cannot be quantified into an equation. Aside from Evolution, notable theories (which are not laws) include: the Theory of Gravity, the Theory of Planetary Motion, the Theory of Electromagnetism, and so on. These facts should be common knowledge. That they are not testifies to the present inadequacies of our education system.

In other areas of language, we can make clear gains over our opponents. We need simply wake up. For example, we must cease using the word Worldview immediately. We must forever strike that hideous construction from our thoughts and name it anathema. We will do this because we understand the way the human mind works.

Some of my friends swear by IPods. Others by Zunes. If I call them both MP3 Players, I bestow some measure of equality on them. I place them on equal footing. And in response to this, both sides of the debate would protest and declare their side superior.

To call both modern science and Pastafarianism worldviews places them on equal standing to those not familiar with their intricacies. This particular case is obviously and intentionally absurd. But it is directly analogous to what happens when well-meaning scientists talk about the scientific worldview while the Discovery Institute speaks of the Intelligent Design worldview, and postmodern thinkers start to classify everything from Christianity to Astrology to Nihilism as worldviews. Equality is created where it does not belong. Irredemably foolish notions like "In the lab, my Christian worldview is as good as your science" start to make sense.

Let the IDiots and the Fundies talk about worldview all they wish. Let the postmoderns put more and more under its arms. But for us, who call ourselves rational and who place our trust in evidence, in reality, let us take a stand against nonsense and irrationality and refuse the label.

Science is not a worldview.

23 April 2008

Evolution Observed in the Wild

A common demand made of evolutionists is for evolution observed in the wild.

Here is a National Geographic Article that documents just that. Drastic change in a species within about 30 generations.

And here's PZ Myers' on the same research.

And here's Science Daily too.

Really cool stuff.

14 April 2008

Profiting on Falsity and Fallacy

A new film is due out soon. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed makes itself out to be a plea for academic freedom, a cry for the recognition of legitimate science. In actual execution, Expelled is yet another evolution-basher that attempts to legitimize the pseudoscience of intelligent design. And of course, like all pro-ID movies and books out there, it offers not one shred of evidence for ID.

Expelled's basic premise is that Darwinism has become the presiding dogma of academia and anyone opposed to it is disposed of (a la Inquisition). Michael Shermer, interviewed for the film, says he knows of no case where someone was fired or denied tenure for being pro-ID. In every case where a pro-ID professor was fired or denied tenure, it was for entirely legitimate reasons.

Expelled does more, however, than try to make the case for wronged scientists. With no degree of subtlety, the film attempts to link Darwinism with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. To draw lines of causality between the two is absurd in the highest degree. And to claim that the Holocaust could not have happened without Darwin is more idiotic still. Antisemitism is a long and established tradition, far out-dating Darwin.

In short, Expelled tries to make it appear like Nazi storm troopers wore belt-buckles that read "Darwin mit uns." In actual fact, they read "Gott mit uns." God with us.

On top of this, Expelled has blatantly stolen a video from a Harvard-based group. And it's supposed to be an all-around poorly-made film to boot.

I'm sure Michael Behe and William Dembsky will love.

Course, that should tell you all you need to know right there.

07 April 2008

The Problem with "Worldview"

It is a word whose construction I like. Worldview, derived from "view of the world", follows a trend I like. Much as in German (a language I love unashamedly) it is a simply constructed compound. It is similar to a word I did not come up with, but which I use in my writing and thus hope to win it acceptance: mindstate (i.e. "state of mind").

But the word worldview, like all words, is more than its construction. Worldview matters because of how it is used. And it is in some of these uses that I find a problem.

I am a freethinker. Unapologetically so. If you are ever going to see the world as it really is (or as close as human perception and faculties can facilitate) you must step outside your preconceived notions and inherited prejudices and opinions. An analogy: from the moment you were born your parents put a pair of goggles over your eyes. You have spent your life seeing the world through those goggles. They have colored your every experience. And that's fine. But. If you want to know what the world really is and how it really works, you have to take those goggles off. Moreover, you have to try looking through other sets of goggles and from the input create a composite image of the world (especially of the people who inhabit it).

Here the concept of worldview complicates matters. Worldview, as a notion, is is the result of a well-intended effort. In the vein of thinking (mis)labeled as post modernism, worldview is an attempt to understand that we all have lived different lives, we are characters in different, sometimes overlapping narratives, and we need to recognize and accept this aspect of our interactions if we are to begin to understand each other. To this end we categorize similar narratives under headings that we call worldviews. The problem arises when we make the mistake of assuming from this process that all these worldviews are equally legitimate, that they all have, more or less, the same justifications and qualifications. This is just not the case. Some worldviews are based on the world, on experience of the real thing. And many others are based, self-evidently, on fantasy, delusion, wish-thinking, and plenty of flawed logic. The danger of worldview as an idea is its power to place all points-of-view on a level playing field and thus destroy all standards of legitimacy and realism.

And because of this, people mistakenly think they really understand the world even though they've never taken off those goggles. Since it's all just a question of worldview, why does it really matter which ones you pick? And why does it matter how many lenses you've tried?

That is the problem with worldview.

02 April 2008

My Argument with Kant

Immanuel Kant is an extremely important philosopher, likely one of the most influential in the last 500 years. He brought together rationalism and empiricism, the two main streams of philosophy for 200 years before him, and forever changed modern philosophy. More specifically, Kant did much to articulate the separation between observer and subject, and his methodology (or bits of it) remained and remain foundational for most philosophy after him.

Another specific. Kant rejected the ontological argument for God, an argument going back at least to Aquinas and his Five Proofs for the existence of God and also as presented by Descartes in both his Meditations and his Method. Kant, however, did not go the way of Spinoza or Hume, but instead formulated a new argument for God. A moralistic argument.

It goes something like this.
(1)Reason has a sense of right and wrong.
(2)This sense holds within it the idea of justice.
(3)Justice is never attained or actualized in this world.
(4)Therefore, there must be a world after this and a perfect judge in that world who will make sure everyone earns his just rewards (and punishments)
There's nothing formally wrong this argument. Informally, however, I think there's plenty wrong to point out.

Premise (1) I won't deny. Human beings clearly have a moral sense. The origins of this sense, though not directly addressed by Kant, are an important issue. The evidence before us today points to a natural origin of morality. The evolutionary benefits of such a faculty are clearly demonstrable. And in our closest cousins, the great apes, we observe a similar faculty in operation. They work together in a community. (For more on the evolution of morality, I recommend Dawkins' The Selfish Gene.)

Premise (2) is also not a problem. The human mind has obviously constructed an idea, we generally call it "fairness", where good deeds are rewarded, wicked deed are punished. And I think we'd all agree with premise (3) that this idea is never actualized. Good people get hurt all the time. Bad people sometimes end up doing quite well for themselves. As all our parents probably told us a hundred times: Life isn't fair.

And Premise (4) is not necessarily flawed. If fairness must be achieved, I agree that there must another world wherein dwells a powerful judge. But what reason is there to think that fairness must be achieved? The ontological argument (which Kant was decidedly against) would say the idea must exist somewhere since we have the idea (living post-Kant, this probably strikes all of us as silly prima facie). But beyond the rejected ontological argument, there is no reason to assume that fairness must ever be actualized. There is only the self-centered, arrogant longing of human beings, who feel themselves unjustly wronged, for some form of ultimate vindication. "That kid stole my lunch money and got away with is. But some day God will make him pay."

I have to wonder if Kant's parents never told him that life isn't fair, or if, perhaps, Kant simply never listened.

There's another element at work here. For Kant, there must be a designer (and therefore, design) because that is the only explanation for the world that establishes not only why it is possible for the world to be as it is, but why it must be that way. Kant and others are not satisfied with explanations that establish only the possibility of the world being as we now see it. Obviously, they would have all sorts of problems with modern science. Evolutionary theory, for example, makes it very clear that homo sapiens are not a necessary result of evolution. Quite the opposite, any one species is statistically a very unlikely result. Had the first vertebrates died out millions of years ago, none of us would be here. It's the same story with languages. There is no reason why modern Midwest American English (my native tongue and dialect) needs to exist. Languages, like organisms, arise through blind natural processes.

I suppose it's comfortable and flattering to believe human beings are the pinnacle of evolution (or of God's/the gods' creation, if that's your cup of tea), but the evidence doesn't point in that direction. Such a conclusion is the result of hubris, not sound reason.