Saturday, January 30, 2010

Things Past, Things Pats, and Things Concerning the Future

My alarm was set for 5:00 am, but I was up before then and preparing to leave for Amherst. I was pretty nervous about my German language translation exam. The past few days had been rough: my practice tests didn't go well. I felt like I did not know enough vocabulary. I also thought I had a ways to go to master German syntax generally. I had even considered calling my friend Steve, who would be administering the exam, and delaying the test. However, I felt that it was too late to back off, so I went ahead.

I left the house at 6:00 am and headed west. Although I had brought several CDs, I couldn't stand to have anything playing on the ride up. I simply talked to myself, trying to keep up my pep, hoping to run through my strategy enough so that I'd be able to execute well in the mere hour I had to translate 250 words of modern German into reasonably sensible English.

I drove Route 2 into the Athol area and then headed south toward Amherst. The sun had come up by the time I arrived, and I appreciated getting to see the sun come up over some valley as I started to get into the area that had been my home so long ago.

When I got into Amherst, on Main Street and past Amherst college, everything suddenly seemed familiar to me. I went down the road and got onto Sunset Avenue, where the old house was. It looked just the same as when I lived there. I then went into Amherst center and had a bagel at Bruegger's. My plan had been to relax at Bruegger's, have some food and coffee, and study until it was time to leave for the test.

Then Bill Belichik, head coach of the New England Patriots, walked in. I recognized him instantly. I thought this was very exciting. After discreetly watching him order food and pay, I watched him get into his car and drive off. Then I called my wife to tell her.

Studying didn't go so well. I hadn't expected to be so happy to be back in Amherst. I left Bruegger's and drove to campus. I walked around, noting the place where I once met my first serious girlfriend, the place where I had taken so many of my classes, the library, the building where I learned Swedish, the building where I almost got into serious trouble, the building where I heard Louis Farrakhan speak, and others. What I felt while I was on campus again was deep and maybe even mysterious to me. I tried remembering what it felt like when I was 18 to be walking on these grounds. What would I have been thinking about? Sex, I supposed....

I made it to my friend Steve's house exactly on time. We said hello and caught up a little bit. Then I started on the exam. Before the time started, I chose one of the German passages that Steve had selected for me. My choice was a section on Early Middle High German literature. Soon after I had begun, I felt like I was in distress. The typeface and typesetting were so close that I couldn't easily identify difficult words and then insert glosses. Hyphenated line breaks gave me issues, too. The passage had long sentences and parenthetical inserts, which made it very hard for me to locate the main verb and start deeciphering sentences to be put into English. Oh, and there were so many words I did not know.

I did actually consider at one point that things were going so horribly that I should get up and terminate the exam. I felt overwhelmed and overloaded. Worst of all, I wasn't sure what to do about it. I decided to press on and just fail. At least I would have given it a shot. If I failed, I would probably have given up on finishing the dissertation. There was no way I could put Steve, my family, and me through the stress and inconvenience of my having to re-take an exam that I had had seven months to prepare for the first time.

I finished translating the passage. I was sullen and dispirited. I didn't proof it at all. I handed it to Steve, who saw that I was unhappy about the test. He generously offered to have me take another exam with one of the other texts, but I declined. My fate with this one test would be as it should be.

We reviewed a bit of my text, since I was worried about my penmanship. Wonder of wonders: Steve thought the translation was OK! We moved away from the review and talked about other things. Steve didn't know that UMass was my alma mater or the story behind my becoming unable to finish the first dissertation topic. We talked about folks we knew and ideas we shared. He's a great guy, that Steve: he has nice things to say - substantial things - about everyone, and he's sincere. When I left Steve's house, I felt like there was a decent chance I could pass the exam. I would know for sure in 24-48 hours, Steve had said.

I made it home by 2:15 pm. After a bite to eat and some time with the wife and kids, I went up to the computer because I wanted to post that I'd seen Bill Belichik up close and personal. There in my inbox was the note telling me and my dissertation director that I had taken and passed the translation exam. I was stunned at how soon the decision came in, but the explanation was clear: a few minor mistakes in syntax and word-forms but rated at a 96%.

I was too tired then - I'm too tired now - to appreciate this success properly. But it was a great feeling to say I stood in, took the test, kept on when things got rough, and made it through as a winner. This test was one important but early milestone in a long road that I must travel. On I go.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Evolving Robots

Yep. That's right. Scientists have used evolution to make robots. As blogger Bryan at Imaging Geek explains:
And not just any robots - robots that walk, hunt each other, evolve their shape, and which are even altruistic - a distinctly mammalian trait. All of that was evolved; starting with nothing more than a collection of parts and a simple mutation/selection algorith.
What's more, the study teaches us about evolution, to wit:
  1. Small mutations can lead to very rapid changes in form/behaviour. All of the behaviours appeared quite quickly in these experiments - usually a functioning behaviour/structure would appear in a few dozen generations, and after 100 or so generations the behaviour/structure would be highly defined.
  2. Once a behaviour/trait is formed, it is optimised very rapidly.
  3. Very simple systems (in this case consisting of a few hundred parts - compared to the thousands to tens-of-thousands of genes in living organisms) can be moulded by evolution into extremely complex beings, capable of complex - even cooperative - behaviours.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What Is the Probability of God?

When I hear arguments from theists about how improbable evolution is (often they mean how improbable abiogenesis is), I wonder if it's at all appropriate to consider God's existence in terms of probability and improbability. Besides, to anti-atheists evolution is like God in the atheist "religion," and they talk all the time about probability.

Of course, to the philosophers the God everyone believes in is a necessary being. That is, if God exists, he must exist. There's no possible world where God exists but where he didn't need to.

But I don't think this is the end of the discussion because God's necessity is hypothetical. It's a convention of thought used to make it possible to go on with the discussion. So, if we can table the necessity idea I'd like to present a syllogism that is very - if not fatally - flawed, but that can perhaps serve as a thought-starter for more and better ideas.
1. According to traditional Jewish thought, God is utterly unique.*

2. Something unique is rare, unusual, and/or distinctive.

3. Something rare, unusual, and/or distinctive is improbable.**

4. God is the single most rare, unusual and distinctive being possible.

5. Therefore, God is more improbable than any other being or occurrence.
Why is the reasoning suspect? Because to assign a probability to some event or being, there needs to be some real data that establishes base rates. Without actual data and base rates, we're just guessing and assigning the probability in terms of what subjectively seems surprising.

The more I look at the syllogism, the less I like it. (1) needs to be unpacked, and (4) gets into the realm of ontological arguments. But I am not really interested in constructing a perfectly solid formal proof so much as trying to support the idea that physical processes leading to the emergence of life on Earth should be no less surprising or believable than the existence of God.

Perhaps another approach is to ask why it should at all be believable that the universe comes from a god or "intelligent designer."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Standards Trio, "Prism," 1985

A dandy video of Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette performing "Prism" in Tokyo, 1985.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Theory of Evolution Evolves!

This is an interesting article from The Scientist that covers some of the many important directions being pursued by evolutionary researchers.

Friday, January 15, 2010

It's My Birthday!

As a present to myself, I am sharing a YouTube video of the great "European Quartet" of Keith Jarrett performing "Spiral Dance."

Forty Lessons for Forty Years

[double happiness]

Today is my fortieth birthday. I'm not certain that I can define how I feel about having been around for what seems a really long time. Yet I feel young, and I feel like I'm still learning and growing as a person. Nevertheless, in my life I have gained some knowledge that I would like to share with others.

In compiling a list of forty lessons, I felt it was important for me to state each lesson in my own way. Thus, I did not consult the internet or any books for great thoughts to include. Everything in the list below is original to me, with maybe two or so exceptions that I'm sure filtered in from other sources.

I also sought to be as honest as possible. Unless I'm fooling myself, each statement tells how I truly feel about the subject at this moment. Perhaps this leads to some contradictions and inconsistencies, but if so it will all have to be worked out later.
Activity: Doing something always feels better than doing nothing.

Altruism: Helping someone demands investment of actual work, not just good thoughts.

Being outside: We’re supposed to have homes and shelters. We’re entitled to be fascinated by technology and the hobbies of culture. Yet, we’re meant to be outside, and spending regular time as part of the world feels right because it is right.

Cleanliness: A clean space is not an imposition of the self on one’s environment; it’s a contract between an individual and the environment.

Coffee: To me, coffee is the best thing ever to be made from the Earth.

Commitment: If you make a promise, you have to keep it.

Creativity: Originality emerges from doing what needs to be done.

Effort: It’s always possible to try harder.

Family: Quality time with family wins over everything else. Really.

Fortitude: Most people are tougher than they think.

God: The idea of God is intricate and profound but ultimately unreal, while self-styled priests and prophets are all-too-real.

Growing Older: It’s sometimes painful and at rare times saddening, but it's always an adventure.

Happiness: Happiness is neither a secret nor a product. It’s actually nothing more than mutual sharing.

Hardship: The only way to return from difficult times is to know and to cultivate those elements that are currently good, strong, and working.

Honesty: Speaking truthfully is always good, but knowing truth is very difficult and should never be taken lightly.

Illness: Everyone falls ill at some point or another. The only choice in the matter is what medicines to employ in response.

Laughter: Positive laughter is an acid that burns through all the crap of culture and ultimately leaves only happy people standing.

Liberty: Individual liberty is the very highest social value. Every important political moment centers on the fate of one person’s rights.

Love: Love is a living thing, always developing and changing, always becoming something more or different than it was before. The way it grows is what amazes.

Marriage: Marriage is easy. Life comes up with some interesting setbacks and challenges sometimes, but being married is not any kind of burden. Instead, it is the starting point for overcoming adversity.

Meals: A meal is the greatest thing, the symbol of what we are really here for.

Misfortune: Nothing about hunger, poverty, illness, or suffering is noble or desirable.

Money: Money is not a bad thing. The idea that it’s the root of all evil is a lie designed to distract attention from the people and institutions who are actually committing wickedness.

Morality: Thinking about how to define good and evil, and investigating the assumptions behind each definition – our own definitions as well as others’ – is the single most important intellectual activity we can undertake.

Music: Listening doesn’t have to be passive or one-way.

Nutrition: Eating wisely concerns physical health, mental well-being, personal morality, and understanding of what the universe is.

Opinions: The only sacred responsibility we have is to develop ideas that are uniquely and wholly our own.

Organization: A desk is organized. So is a house or an essay for school. And so is a life. But with a life, the organization is by things one does. One should therefore do things that follow logically from things done before. And one should do things that have the potential to lead elsewhere.

Parenting: The really surprising thing about my children – which I never expected or else which I had suppressed until it dawned on me – is how much I need them. Once they each arrived and established their special places in my mind and in my heart, I needed to be able to see them, sit with them, play with them, talk and sing with them, and care for them.

Politics: The political game that includes our U.S. offices, candidates, media, lobbies, business interests, grass-roots supporters and polarized spectators is highly unhealthy and will, I worry, prove very destructive before this system gets righted.

Potential: Potential can be an unfair and unnecessary burden to place upon oneself or upon another. It’s important to know that we can do more, accomplish more, and achieve more. Yet, it’s equally important not to define – and therefore limit – what one should do, in what way, and in what time frame.

Reading: Reading is a privilege and ought to be enjoyed as such.

Reality: Life and the universe are better than the stories we make up about them.

Religion: Religious institutions serve mainly as theaters, where everyone pays to participate in continuing a self-styled and communally vetted myth. Because this myth is more socially and psychically productive, it does not need to conform to truth.

Risks: Taking calculated, educated risks is necessary and good. As one cannot be ashamed by failing in an informed risk, so too can one find no greater exhilaration than succeeding in a deliberate venture of chance.

Self-doubt: A little self-doubt has value if it motivates positive action as a response.

Sex: Sex isn’t what parents or friends say. It isn’t what one can find in movies or on the internet. Sex doesn’t say anything about a person and it doesn’t tell anyone about love or intimacy. Sex is always and only about whatever two people mean to each other.

Success: Most everything worthwhile requires people working together.

Television: TV finally does nothing for one who wants to accomplish something serious.

Work/Job: Work and fun are often the same thing.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Know Your Godless Heathen Positions

A brief glossary of important terms to know.

Two Blog Posts on Debunking Postmodernism

Over at Rationally Speaking, here and here. The comments are especially interesting.

By the way, I don't think it's irrelevant to point out that Julia Galef, the writer of the two articles linked above, is HOT! (I'm a married spud, I'm a married spud....)

Man and Video Game Character Wed (Plus, Sex with Robots)

Apparently, this is not a joke. The man in the video, Sal9000, sets up a real wedding to marry Nene Anegasaki, a character in a game called Love Plus.

As a textuist, this odd event raises a host of questions. What, for example, would we say about a person marrying the figure of the Mona Lisa? What of a person who marries Ophelia from Hamlet? What of a person who falls in love with Otter from the movie Animal House?

On the surface it all seems a little ridiculous, yet this wedding seems to mark a (temporary? representative?) of the (imaginary?) boundary between fantasy and reality, between the fictional world and the real world, between the text and life. As my parenthetical questions indicate, while we may conventionally distinguish between our real world and that world of the game/painting/movie/text, sometimes that distinction gets violated and we're left to wonder whether the convention is inaccurate, whether the distinction is unstable, or whether the distinction is porous by nature.

Speaking of the integration of fantasy and reality, a recent story suggests that by 2011, people will be able to have sex with robots. Great sex.

All of this also casts an interesting light over recent social wrangles with the definition of "marriage." Consider also the potential ramifications in areas of insurance, health care, death benefits, and so on.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Atheist Blogroll

I am happy to report that Textuality has been added to The Atheist Blogroll! You can see the blogroll in my sidebar.

The Atheist Blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world.

If any of you out there you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Biblical Translation: Why It Matters

I have said before that the Old Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures are different texts because the Old Testament is already rendered throughout as a translation that prefigures Jesus. People don't simply open the Old Testament and on their own start seeing Jesus parallels. Rather, the Old Testament has been translated with Christology in mind and the resulting text is available expressly to support Christian theological interpretations.

To illustrate this point, let's look at two different translations. Here is a traditional Jewish version in English of Genesis 1:1-16, from the site:
1. In the beginning of God's creation of the heavens and the earth. 2. Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water. 3. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 4. And God saw the light that it was good, and God separated between the light and between the darkness. 5. And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night, and it was evening and it was morning, one day. 6. And God said, "Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, and let it be a separation between water and water." 7. And God made the expanse and it separated between the water that was below the expanse and the water that was above the expanse, and it was so. 8. And God called the expanse Heaven, and it was evening, and it was morning, a second day. 9. And God said, "Let the water that is beneath the heavens gather into one place, and let the dry land appear," and it was so. 10. And God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters He called seas, and God saw that it was good. 11. And God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, seed yielding herbs and fruit trees producing fruit according to its kind in which its seed is found, on the earth," and it was so. 12. And the earth gave forth vegetation, seed yielding herbs according to its kind, and trees producing fruit, in which its seed is found, according to its kind, and God saw that it was good. 13. And it was evening, and it was morning, a third day. 14. And God said, "Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens, to separate between the day and between the night, and they shall be for signs and for appointed seasons and for days and years. 15. And they shall be for luminaries in the expanse of the heavens to shed light upon the earth." And it was so. 16. And God made the two great luminaries: the great luminary to rule the day and the lesser luminary to rule the night, and the stars.
Here is the same passage, but in the Old Testament. I have chosen to use the New International Version (NIV):
1. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2. Now the earth was [a] formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 3. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 4. God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5. God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. 6. And God said, "Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water." 7. So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. 8. God called the expanse "sky." And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day. 9. And God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear." And it was so. 10. God called the dry ground "land," and the gathered waters he called "seas." And God saw that it was good. 11. Then God said, "Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds." And it was so. 12. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13. And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day. 14. And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, 15. and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth." And it was so. 16. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.
There are many differences between these two translations, and the differences go well beyond minor variations or shading in word and sense.

In Verse 2, for example, the traditional Jewish translation does not capitalize the 's' in 'spirit of God.' I suggest that the NIV capitalizes the 's' to foreshadow a concept such as the 'Holy Ghost.' I have seen another Jewish translation, however, that gives "Divine Presence." I have also seen one that uses "wind." It's very interesting because each word/phrase offers a slightly different connotation about God and the nature of God.

In Verse 8, the Chabad version capitalizes 'Heaven' while the NIV gives instead 'sky.' This discrepancy makes for very divergent readings, with the Chabad account establishing Heaven as the domain of god and the NIV associating the sky with our world down here. The NIV verse has our world rather distanced from the creator, with aligns nicely with Christian theology, generally speaking. Many Christian translations do use heaven, though, in capitalized or uncapitalized forms. The point still stands, though: the diction here reflects attitudes toward the topography of the divine universe.

Let's look now at Verse 16. The NIV makes a separate sentence of the clause dealing with stars. Notice how their change to light rather than luminary makes the sun and moon more instrumental than in the Chabad version, where they are almost like living governors. The traditional Jewish text is ambiguous, but might suggest the moon somehow rules the night and the stars. The NIV seeks to clarify, but I guess it also prefers a separate sentence for the stars because otherwise the moon ruling the stars seems odd against our modern knowledge about the moon and stars. This may, in fact, be a weak point, but I think that there is "supposed" to be a continuity in the description of the creation of the two luminaries and the stars. They are all made together, in one gesture. The NIV version breaks that up, for whatever reason.

Finally, notice all of the "and" words at the beginnings of the Chabad verses. When they are removed from the NIV, it's not just a matter of making the text contemporary. The NIV move alters the continuity and style of the text.

Bear in mind that we are only looking here at 16 little verses - and doing so in a superficial way - that we would expect to have far more agreement than there actually is. This is why I press the points that translation matters and that frames matter.

Let me add here a note on biblical translation generally. According to Dr. Joel Hoffman, author of And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning, Bible translators can make three big mistakes. One: working from etymology, which doesn't really tell what a word means. Two: working from the internal structure of the words. Three: making use of cognate languages. The problem with these three mistakes is that they miss out on the context and connotations that would have been understood by people closest to the original generations of the sources. Very often, a modern reader uses a contemporary frame that makes textual context and connotations much different for a modern Jew or modern Christian than for a Jew just after the period of the Babylonian Exile or for a first or second century Christian.

This, therefore, is why I insist that a Christian Old Testament is a different text from the Hebrew Scriptures. Now, can there be multiple texts of the Old Testament? Yes, there can. I say that the NIV and the King James Version are different texts. The same principle applies to the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet, I would also posit that the Old Testament and Hebrew Scriptures name two different "families" of text. They are two different families because they derive from two different interpretive frames.

These points relate to arguments I have made before on interpretation and religion-as-interpretation. As I see it, modern religions are interpretations promoting themselves and always referring back to themselves. Why is this important? Because the personal wonders we often ascribe to religion are often the product of practicing a religious interpretation and not the result of the religion’s status as truth or falsehood.

The religious frame is like an organism struggling to survive. It does so as a church, a text, a ritual. Most any religion-oriented social construct exists to establish, reinforce, and perpetuate the frame of interpretation. Whether the frame is a faithful approximation of reality is hardly the point. In fact, it's totally incidental.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The New Atheism: It's Our Time

Russell Blackford has a new essay pinpointing what's new in the so-called New Atheism. Blackford is promoting the new collection of essays he co-edited with Udo Schüklenk, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists.

According to Blackford, the New Atheists have emerged at a historical moment when growing numbers of people want religious teachings examined rationally. For far too long, particularly in America, religion has enjoyed a privileged position, with its claims and dogmas enjoying a status that protects them from being questioned and that dismisses the questioner.

Even while some New Atheists have become quasi-celebrities, we see that religious opponents rarely deal directly or rigorously with the arguments of the New Atheists, preferring instead to engage in character assassination and to forge rabbit trails of mythical New Atheist incivility, hostility, and "fundamentalism."

Without a doubt. the New Atheists have discarded the "live and let live" presumption that formerly characterized relations between the believing and un-believing public. This is a good thing, too.

But why the abandonment of the detente? Because in the post-9/11 world it's become all too clear that the push of religion and religious teachings is to assume authority in the public sphere; religion in America is not about seeking simply to worship in peace. Blackford describes the situation aptly:
For a start, a revived Christian philosophy is well entrenched within Anglo-American philosophy of religion. More importantly, perhaps, religious organisations and leaders continue to exert social power. All too often, they seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including choices about how we die. At various times, religious lobbies have opposed a vast range of beneficial, or at least essentially harmless, activities and innovations. Even now, one religion or another opposes abortion rights; most contraceptive technologies; stem-cell and therapeutic cloning research; physician-assisted suicide; and a wide range of sexual conduct involving consenting adults. We still see intense activism from the religious lobbies of all Western democracies, and even in relatively secular countries, such as the UK and Australia, governments pander blatantly to Christian moral concerns.

The situation is far worse in the US, where religious conservatives regrouped with dramatic success during the 1970s and 1980s, establishing well-financed networks, think tanks, and even their own so-called universities. Slick attempts are made to undermine public trust in science where it contradicts the literal Genesis narrative; a rampant dominionist movement wants to establish an American theocracy; the recent Bush administration took the country some considerable way down that path; and the election of a relatively liberal president has produced hysteria on the religious right (polling shows that many American conservatives now believe that Barack Obama is the Antichrist). American religiosity is real, and there is nothing subtle or liberal-minded about its most popular forms.

Meanwhile, we are confronted every day by the horrors of political Islam, with its ambitions to extend sharia law universally and its ugly violations of human rights wherever it actually has power. Many critics of religion were radicalised by the traumatic events of 9/11 when thousands of people were murdered by terrorists. Islam doubtless has moderate and even liberal manifestations, but prominent, politicised forms of Islam take a hard line against secularism, modernity, and all forms of liberal thought.
We have ample reason to contest religion's claims to pronounce authoritatively on matters of ultimate truth and moral correctness, and we have a social obligation to voice such challenges. What's more, as Blackford notes, given the enormous issues that face us both as members of a world community and as individuals - issues from climate change to end-of-life decisions - we urgently need to understand who claims to have authority and knowledge, and upon what grounds exactly:
The current debate about the truth-claims, moral authority, and social value of religion is very timely. It reflects the cold fact that the struggle of ideas is far from over, and that this is, after all, a good time to subject religions and all their claims to sceptical scrutiny. Those of us who do not believe have more than enough reason to dispute the unwarranted prestige enjoyed by the many variations of orthodox Abrahamic theism (and, indeed, all other religious systems). The time has come, once again, when critiques of theistic religion must be put strongly, clearly, openly, and unremittingly. What’s new about the New Atheism is its restoration of some balance – that, and the sheer number of people who have come to the same realisation.
To me, the New Atheist phenomenon has been about placing critical thinking and argumentation in the center of the public sphere. I take heart that so many people are engaging in dialogue, challenging claims, identifying logical fallacies, and making arguments. This is good, and I suspect that the more people engage in reasoned scrutiny of other ideas and their own, them more people will arrive at Atheism.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Debunking Biocentrism

Over at Nirmukta, Vinod K. Wadhawan and Ajita Kamal have a must-read post that explains exactly what makes "biocentrism" nonsense. Biocentrism, according to Wikipedia, claims that "life creates the universe rather than the other way around."

I'm interested in biocentrism because on the surface it seems to make claims similar to social constructionism. Both assert that the universe is a human construction, a product of the interaction between mind and world.

However, biocentrism has a different messianic/eschatological trajectory than social constructionism. As I understand it, biocentrism promises heaven to its believers in the form of a holistic communion of science and supernaturalism.

Social constructionism is a radical form of skepticism. In its most extreme forms, it views science and supernaturalism on the same continuum - they're differing degrees of bullshit but not different in nature, as in one being objective and neutral and the other being subjective and ideological.

Fortunately, biocentrism and social constructionism can be successfully challenged in similar ways. The key is to distinguish experiential truth from objective reality. Experiential truths are subjective perceptions of pre-existing physical properties, as the experience of seeing color is the mind's "interpretation" of certain physical characteristics in light. Our vision, mind, and subjectivity don't create light but can (and do) arbitrarily attach cultural and social value to some general wavelengths.

The common mistake made by biocentrism and social constructionism is the naturalistic fallacy, which mistakes a representation of a phenomenon for a natural phenomenon. Our subjective experiences of color are not our minds creating light or its physical properties Biocentrism and social constructionism try to bring everything into the subjective, representational sphere.

Ironically, however, what both biocentrism and social constructionism seem to criticize is the opposite tendency: claiming that social, subjective things are natural. Social constructionist critiques of gender and race, for example, have rightly pointed out that often what are taken to be "natural" differences between people are based instead on cultural norms and the consensus of tradition. I think the idea of "marriage" is a decent enough example, although obviously imperfect. There's nothing natural about marriage, whether it be different-sex or same-sex.

Biocentrism seems to me an obvious scheme to use a legitimate postmodern critique and convert it into feel-good prescriptions that can be packaged and sold to a public with low self-esteem and plenty of spare cash. Social constructionism has actual intellectual value for demystifying seemingly timeless and normal cultural categories. It errs only when it seeks to collapse the world into subjectivity.

With the help of Wadhawan and Kamal, I think we can make a rather provocative reformulation of the oft-repeated post-structuralist tenet, "There is nothing outside the text." When we maintain the difference between experience and physical reality, and try to be clear (insofar as we can) about when one is collapsing into the other, we see that there is nothing inside the text. There's no objective truth we can pull from the text because all we have is our interpretive experience of it, which is subjective and unique to the reader's time, place and cultural context.

Related: See also the comments posted on Pharyngula.

Objectivity, Truth, and Spin

The World's Fair, which is part of the ScienceBlogs stable, has an interesting series on objectivity. Hmm. Well, maybe it's not about objectivity, or just about objectivity. It's also about art, truth, history, and historicizing. Other ideas and issues pop up along the way, but I think you can see why I find the series interesting.

Benjamin Cohen, the blogger, introduces the series by reflecting on his encounter with a 1992 article on the history of objectivity by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, "The Image of Objectivity," Representations 40: 81-128. Cohen tells us that he was shocked, and rightly so, by the idea that objectivity had (or could have) a history:
The mere fact that objectivity *has* a history is revealing. It's more typical that the timeless, ahuman connotation of "objectivity" renders it the precise sort of thing that does not change throughout history. Subjectivity certainly does, since people change. But objectivity would seem to be ahistorical.

It is not.
I find it encouraging to have a series like Cohen's on ScienceBlogs because I might think that this subject would send up red flags to those outside the humanities. The topic, the history of objectivity, might be regarded and prejudiced at the outset as "postmodern nonsense." After all, if objectivity has a history, then perhaps it is not itself objective. Perhaps objectivity is not real but is instead a mental construct subject to placement and use in any number of cultural discourses and institutions. Discourses on science, scientific method, journalism, and so on employ objectivity. Institutions such as government agencies, colleges and universities, various companies and more have particular applications of objectivity as part of their in-house processes.

But I'm throwing out a bit of a red herring in what I have just said. I am not actually asserting, and I do not read Cohen as asserting, that "objectivity is not real but is instead a mental construct." Yet without denying the existence of a real objective world, I would also like to posit the existence of a mental construct of objectivity, a concept that can and does get put to rhetorical use. I think that both Cohen and I are interested by the rhetorical uses to which concepts such as objectivity are put. The idea of objectivity becomes part of the spin, as in "we report, you decide."

Here's Cohen again, in his concluding remarks on the series:
One can produce an image and one can say what that image represents. But what it represents is no simple claim.

It is one thing to recognize the reality of nature, another thing to make claims about that reality. That's a shift. There is a space between the two. In that space lies all the work of science.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Atheism: No Apologies

In the past, I've used the first post of the new year to describe my resolutions. Usually, these resolutions involve fitness or parenthood or finances.

However, I am not going to write about resolutions this time. It's not that I don't have any resolutions; it's that the resolutions are the same as they always have been: love my family, work, environment, body, prospects for learning, opportunities for growth, and so on. Love them all, care for them all, face them all squarely and responsibly.

So what do I want to talk about? Atheism, of course.

At Atheist Revolution, the post on "Misunderstanding Atheism" provides an opportunity to clarify my personal stance on Atheism. Now, before I continue I can already hear some person, likely a religious person or sympathizer, getting up on hind legs to bark and bay, "You see? You atheists are complete relativists. You have no objective Truth to refer to and so every belief each one of you holds, every moral principle, is in fact a matter of personal opinion."

Let me remind such folks that religion does not confer morality. If there are objective moral truths, both belief in God and adherence to religion do a piss-poor job of communicating these truths and getting people to live by them. (These folks might also want to look at all the different denominations and variations within their objectively true religious belief.)

These folks should also review the following excerpt from philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God:
16. The Argument from Moral Truth
1. There exist objective moral truths. (Slavery and torture and genocide are not just distasteful to us, but are actually wrong.)

2. These objective moral truths are not grounded in the way the world is but rather in the way that the world ought to be. (Consider: should white-supremacists succeed, taking over the world and eliminating all who don't meet their criteria for being existence-worthy, their ideology still would be morally wrong. It would be true, under this hideous counterfactual, that the world ought not to be the way they have made it.)

3. The world itself — the way that it is, the laws of science that explain why it is that way — cannot account for the way that the world ought to be.

4. The only way to account for morality is that God established morality (from 2 and 3).

5. God exists.

FLAW 1: The major flaw of this argument is revealed in a powerful argument that Plato made famous in the Euthyphro. Reference to God does not help in the least to ground the objective truth of morality. The question is: why did God choose the moral rules he did? Did he have a reason justifying his choice that, say, giving alms to the poor is good, while genocide is wrong? Either he had a good reason or he didn't. If he did, then his reasons, whatever they are, can provide the grounding for moral truths for us, and God himself is redundant. And if he didn't have a good reason, then his choices are arbitrary—he could just as easily have gone the other way, making charity bad and genocide good—and we would have no reason to take his choices seriously. According to the Euthyphro argument, then, the Argument from Moral Truth is another example of The Fallacy of Passing the Buck. The hard work of moral philosophy consists in grounding morality in some version of the Golden Rule: that I cannot be committed to my own interests mattering in a way that yours do not just because I am me and you are not.

FLAW 2: Premise 4 is belied by the history of religion, which shows that the God from which people draw their morality (for example, the God of the Bible and the Koran) did not establish what we now recognize to be morality at all. The God of the Old Testament commanded people to keep slaves, slay their enemies, execute blasphemers and homosexuals, and commit many other heinous acts. Of course, our interpretation of which aspects of Biblical morality to take seriously has grown more sophisticated over time, and we read the Bible selectively and often metaphorically. But that is just the point: we must be consulting some standards of morality that do not come from God in order to judge which aspects of God's word to take literally and which aspects to ignore.

COMMENT: Some would question the first premise, and regard its assertion as a flaw of this argument. Slavery and torture and genocide are wrong by our lights, they would argue, and conflict with certain values we hold dear, such as freedom and happiness. But those are just subjective values, and it is obscure to say that statements that are consistent with those values are objectively true in the same way that mathematical or scientific statements can be true. But the argument is fatally flawed even if Premise 1 is granted. [Emphasis added]
But I digress.

Atheist Revolution is responding to an article that appeared in the Corvallis Gazette-Times (OR). That article's misunderstanding of atheism is the point of departure for Atheist Revolution - hereafter AR. AR begins to correct the misunderstanding by defining Atheism:
Atheism in no way insists that there are no gods. Atheism is a response to theism. The theist claims that some sort of god or gods exist; the atheist does not accept this claim as accurate. Theism is the belief that a god or gods exist. Atheism is the absence of, or lack of, agreement with this belief. To say that an atheist does not believe in gods is an accurate statement, however, to insist that an atheist believes that there are no gods is erroneous. Atheism does not entail the conviction that there are no gods. Moreover, atheism says nothing whatsoever about the presence or absence of various unknown or unexplained phenomena. And finally, while lack of "proof" is a justification some atheists will offer for their unwillingness to accept theism, it is certainly not the only one. Other atheists would argue that they cannot accept the theistic belief claim because the concept of god is logically incoherent or undefined.
Although I agree with much of what AR says, I disagree that "Atheism in no way insists that there are no gods." As I understand Atheism, it asserts that there probably are no gods. Now, I have modified my words a bit because I don't see Atheism as making any kind of 100% insistence. But my point is that Atheism makes a positive claim: there probably are no gods because, among other things, the proof of gods existing is entirely lacking and the concept of god alternates between logical incoherence and complete vagueness. So I think AR errs to say that "to insist that an atheist believes that there are no gods is erroneous."

I also have a quibble when AR says, "Atheism is a response to theism. The theist claims that some sort of god or gods exist; the atheist does not accept this claim as accurate." On the contrary, I view theism as a response to atheism (not capital-A atheism), not the other way around. Capital-A atheism may indeed be a response to modern forms of theism. Indeed, I think this is probably so. But the lowercase-A atheism grounding capital-A atheism is not after, a consequence of, or derivative of theism. But this is me stating an opinion, and not issuing a full-fledged argument based on specific data. My point is that I see Atheism as drawing from ideas and arguments that go well beyond personal awareness of and experience with modern religion and theology.

Atheism has something important to say about the world, our assumptions about the world, and the institutions we use to teach us about the world (including religion and science). Atheism's boldest assertions must be made publicly and without apology or dilution. My Atheism seeks to make these assertions in just this way.