Nov 28, 2009

Celebrating Charles Darwin and the Human Thirst for Knowledge

This year is a special one when it comes to celebrating our quest for knowledge by marking the 200th year of Charles Darwin's birthday and the 150th year of his seminal work on evolution--the theory that explains the mechanism by which we are here today. Most of the world in 1859 was not very scientific, which makes Darwin's discovery even more remarkable. His theory of evolution has been ferociously attacked since the day Origins was published. I could understand those who didn't have the benefit of an education in science or anything else, but to deny one of the strongest scientific theories we have today is rather incredulous.

Once, briefly, I accepted biologist Stephen Jay Gould's notion of "non
overlapping magisteria," that is, science and religion address different domains, and, therefore, claims made by these magisteria cannot be reconciled nor should they be compared. Not so, I contend today. Denying evolution, for example, is based on religious claims--a priori statements that cannot be subject to evidence or reason. This is crazy! Claims about reality must be evaluated. Religion and science both make such claims.

Think about it. They want to subject scientific theories to scrutiny by throwing some verses from ancient books at them. Darwin investigated, observed, collected evidence, established a theory that could predict, and as scientific theories go, there's a way to disprove it. Yet, disproving a strong theory must be done with evidence and reason. Darwin's basic theory of evolution has been confirmed by several other branches of science--unknown to the h
umans in the 19th century. Now, we have religious fanatics who refute this because they believe a book that was written a few thousand years ago is the absolute truth. They want to believe what ever suits their needs--and placing humans at the center of creation (of the whole universe) must feel good. What an arrogance!

The worst part of this is that they want to spread their ignorance through the public education system! Oh, and they have this expensive but utterly stupendous creation museum... where they show the Biblical version of evolution. This version has vegetarian dinos strolling around with humans. Since the courts have declared that creationism is not science, they try to label their religious doctrine as "intelligent design." Fortunately their trick hasn't worked... in most states. In some state schools, creationism is considered as an alternative theory to evolution--you know, for balance. Or, as our former president GW Bush said, "the jury is still out", teach both sides to a story. Like, teach alchemy to balance chemistry, astrology to astronomy, magic crystals to medicine.

I don't remember when I had my epiphany of reason and how I escaped with my curiosity intact, but I realized early on that education was how to better understand my own self, the human condition, and the cosmos. Alas, the more you know, the more you realize there more unknowns. Yet, the journey continues. Actually, reality is far more exciting, like the hidden colors in the visible light that are revealed by refraction! Why should there be a supernatural realm?

There's got to be a need of some sort that makes so many humans disregard reason and science. If they don't know any better, they may have a good excuse, but if they live in an advanced society they have no excuse. The powerful dictates of a culture inculcated by religion make strong shackles of the mind. By looking at US politics, one might say that ..devolution is also possible. On the other hand, our knowledge is increasing at an accelerated pace--much like the galaxies are speeding apart at an increasing rate.. ..well, except that the bigger Andromeda galaxy is heading our way on a collision course with the Milkyway.

On a more positive note, the average life of a species is about 2 million years, so by the law of probabilities, the human species may have a few more years of life left. You wouldn't know it by looking at the abundant life around us, but the Earth is a deadly place--indeed many forces in the universe are hostile to life. Some 98% of all species that ever appeared on this blue planet have been extinct. Most life is brutish, painful, fearful, anxious, poor, and short. Pain and suffering has been a constant. Some design, heh? And, if this was a laboratory to do testing on live specimens, it would have been shut down in any self-respecting society or under a moral entity.

What has elevated humanity is our ability to think, to reason, to be creative--more so than other species. We have choices to make; we can even create our own choices including our destination. But, perhaps the most amazing thing is the journey itself and the process by which we move through spacetime.

Sarah Palin Should Run for US President in 2012, and 2016

I thought of giving you my review of Sarah's book, Going Rogue, but I opted for this video of her admirers instead.

Nov 17, 2009

The Meaning of Education and the Timidity of Certain Minds

What is that You Want to Know?

It doesn't happen that often--maybe because students don't care to say anything about it--but occasionally someone in class would argue that some comments/discussions about certain belief systems are offensive and disrespectful. The other day, a student said, "I don't pay thousands of dollars to have my beliefs insulted." Presumably she meant that certain topics should be off limits because she's uncomfortable with anything that may undermine her sacred beliefs. She pays thousands of dollars to get an education--in my opinion, education means more than vocational skills--but is she interested in paying for an education that sharpens critical skills? How about, the value of arriving at a conclusion after examining the facts and weighing the validity of the arguments?

The piece of paper a university awards should mean that the title holder has critical skills, can analyze, can amend, construct reasonable arguments, connect the relevant dots, and, yes, maintain a curious mind. How about learning something that may be outside one's comfort zone? Is this valuable?

Now, on the question of respect. As a principle it's a good one: respect every individual's human dignity; respect their rights; respect their claims to own conscience and opinion. But, why should their beliefs be granted automatic respect? Yet, denying automatic respect to a point of view does not mean people don't have the right to have whatever opinion they deem appropriate or their right to express it. Simply put, I do not recognize any right of de facto respect. Opinions, theories, belief systems should be evaluated on their merits. How can anyone demand that such be afforded sacred status? What's sacred for me may be laughable to you, and I'm OK with that! So, should you!

To take it a step further, if you claim sanctity for your beliefs, it may be an indication of weakness. Instead of having the force of arguments to defend your views, you rely on censorship for protection. I realize that many people don't want to be challenged so they seek supporting views only. Of course, this is their right. Of course, it's their right to feel any way they want. They can create filters and avoid places that present challenges. However, they should be prepared to have their views tested when they enter an institution where intellectual pursuits involve critical examination of ideas and beliefs.

How do we know things? Seriously, how do we know if something is true & valid? Maybe I should ask instead, do we care to know?

If we do, then the scientific method is the best tool we have to understand and accumulate precious knowledge! This involves open discussion, challenges, reason, evidence, review, and a way to amend.

I'm naturally suspicious of claims of divine revelation. I don't think profound knowledge or truths should be revealed only in secret and to a very few people. Especially when such statements can't be put to a test or subject it to an intellectual challenge. As someone claims the right not to be offended, I claim the right to free speech and rational thought. Above all, I claim the right to be human!

And, that's my theory!

Nov 5, 2009

Teabaggers, Faux News, Loons, and Republicans Who Promote Lies & Ignorance

Today (Nov. 12, 2009), several members of Congress, including this loon Michele Bachmann, and conservatives from all necks of the woods are descending on Washington DC to "scare Congress" into scrapping the health care reform. I think this video will give you an idea of what those "teabaggers" are and what they want. Sadly, this is the kind of crap promoted by Fox Network and other conservatives--who have taken control of the Republican party.

Sometimes, the best way to debunk stupid arguments is to give more publicity to those who make them!

Nov 4, 2009

Some Thoughts on this Off-year Election of 2009

I spent last night following the election results. The most interesting outcomes were the 23rd Congressional District in upstate New York, and the referendum in Maine about same-sex marriage. Obviously, I kept checking the numbers from New Jersey; they looked bad for Corzine the moment the polls closed. So, now the Garden State has a Republican for governor. It's been a very tough year for executives, regardless of their political stripes. The Dems had more seats to defend, therefore more to lose--and they did.

I don't th
ink this off-year election can be used as a barometer for the 2010 midterm elections, when the whole House (435) and 1/3 of the US Senate are up for re-election. There will be more serious messages then about Obama's performance, the Dem leadership in Congress, and the shape of the Republican party.

In Washington State, the voters re-affirmed the legal protections & rights the legislature had given to same-sex couples. They don't call it "marriage" but it's close. I don't think it's far when most blue states will move more aggressively in a progressive direction, and it won't be long before we look back and wonder why the hell we didn't move faster--as we look back today and shake our heads in disbelief that states prohibited cross-racial marriages.

However, I think two results from this election have lots to tell us. First, the repealing of the same-sex marriage law in Maine by a small margin. I'm disappointed but there's good news here. The northeast is moving in a progressive direction. Almost half of those who voted are OK with giving same legal rights to homosexuals. In a few years, there will be a solid majority (at least on this progressive issue) in Maine. Students at the University of ME voted overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the same-sex law. One campus registered 81% support! As older generations expire, the country moves in a more progressive direction. And, this is the problem the Republican party is having nowadays. They're purging the moderates in their midst. When one GOP moderate (through his/her own devices) manages to win public office in the Northeast, the party claims victory. But, it's not the victory that comes out of the conservative ideology and the Republican party's platform.

The GOP seems to be trapped in the southern strategy--which worked for a generation or two, but not anymore. The Republican party is not a national party any more. A governor and a mayor here and there don't make a national party. If, for example, the blue state of NJ wanted the Republicans in charge, they would have thrown out the big Dem majority in the state legislature. They did not. In addition, those Republicans who manage to get elected in the Northeast are rather moderate. The Dem incumbent screws up (especially in a very tough economic environment of today) and the voters replace him with a moderate Republican.

The 23rd CD in NY showed us that the moderate Republicans are the most endangered species. When president Obama chose an upstate moderate Republican to be the Secretary of the Army, the NYS GOP picked another moderate Republican to run in the special election. But, wait, the conservative movement is controlled today by the most extreme, most conservative elements. Thus, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin [do I need to mention more names?] went out of their way to promote one of their own in the 23rd CD. The result was a Dem winning the district. He is the first Dem to represent the district since the 1800s!

Now, I'm not saying the Dem will hold this CD, but this race shows who's in control of the Republican party. It shows the direction is going into. I like it. They think that their ideology or policies [what policies besides "NO" have they proposed since they lost power?!!] aren't the problem. It's the party and the moderates who are responsible for the big defeats in the span of 2 elections, 2006-2008.

There are no Republicans represented in the House of Congress from the six states that comprise New England! Throw in New York state's 29 seats and you get only 2 Repubs. Actually, the Congressional Dems added 2 more seats in yesterday's special election.

On the other hand, I don't have the illusion the country is truly as progressive as some of us would prefer--even though the majority holds progressive ideas on many social issues. These days, we collectively are re-evaluating the role of the government. What is it that the government can do for us? Isn't, after all, our government? Did you see the recently released Prosperity Index?
It's very interesting.

Here are the indexes:

  • Economic Fundamentals – a growing, sound economy that provides opportunities for wealth creation
  • Entrepreneurship and Innovation – an environment friendly to new enterprises and the commercialization of new ideas
  • Democratic Institutions – transparent and accountable governing institutions that promote economic growth
  • Education – an accessible, high-quality educational system that fosters human development
  • Health – the physical well-being of the populace
  • Safety and Security – a safe environment in which people can pursue opportunity
  • Governance – an honest and effective government that preserves order and encourages productive citizenship
  • Personal Freedom – the degree to which individuals can choose the course of their lives
  • Social Capital – trustworthiness in relationships and strong communities.
The US ranks 9th.