Archive for June, 2008

Comparison of Science and Religion

June 14, 2008

This talk by Ron Herman actually proved to be an interesting one. A key topic revolved around Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis that religion and science are “non-overlapping magisteria,” something many humanists reject. The domains of metaphysical and natural philosophy began to diverge with the ancient Greeks; the dichotomy really crystallized with an 1874 book by John Draper, A History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. On the other hand there are “unifiers” who seek to bridge the gap, such as Francis Collins, the genomic scientist who writes about his Christian faith. But most religionists actually only accept one “magisterium.”
Herman stressed that science is not equivalent to just philosophizing, instead following a clearly defined protocol of applying reasoning to observed and experimentally derived facts in order to develop theories. Science, of course, does not rely on faith, which is an emotional commitment to a belief (in something that deserves no belief at all—FSR).
Herman: While both science and religion seek to explain the natural world, science—through a long history of hard work—has at this point succeeded in explaining almost everything we can think to ask. Religion—well! (An audience member commented that there is here an epistemological difference—does truth come from examination of the actual world, or from something imagined to be outside the world?) And, while it’s said that people who believe in both science and religion are “compartmentalizing,” Herman used the word “schizophrenic.”
Are both subject to error? Science, Herman said, does not claim infallibility; it’s religion that claims absolute truth (a little more humility might be in order for religious believers—FSR).
Is religion needed for societal reasons? There’s nothing religion does that isn’t provided by other elements of society. Secular ethics are more soundly based than anything religion offers.
Herman concluded that religion is “the greatest fraud in history.”

Award speeches by Porco, Pullman

June 14, 2008

To Carolyn Porco, Imaging Team Leader on the Cassini space mission to Saturn, the Isaac Asimov Science Award. Dr. Porco started in life seeking answers from religion. When that proved inadequate, she turned to look outward, to the heavens. Space exploration, she said, reflects humanity’s soaring imagination and refusal to accept boundaries; our will to explore, to learn, and to seek the answers to questions at the essence of existence.
One of the most dramatic images she showed us was of Saturn, from its other side, with, almost hidden within its rings, a tiny dot: Earth. And we, she said, are the big dreamers who produced that picture.
Matt Cherry presented the International Humanist Award to Philip Pullman, author of the book on which The Golden Compass was based, and many others. Matt characterized Pullman’s work as comprising the Book of Genesis with a happy ending: showing why eating the forbidden fruit is the start of wisdom.
Pullman, in talking about his writing, said that he is cautious about organizational affiliations because he doesn’t want to self-censor his work. He quoted Blake: “all deities reside in the human breast,” and “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.”
Pullman said that he writes according to his imagination rather than his conscience. He can imagine what it’s like to think religiously. The problem is not simply that it’s untrue (when children play “let’s pretend,” they know what it means), but that religions make claims to temporal authority and the power to impose their beliefs. A “self-amplifying resonance” sets in, driving belief systems toward extremes. Pullman cited the recent case of a young Iraqi girl who fell in love with a British soldier. Though she did no more than talk with the man, her father killed her. Arrested, he was soon released by police who congratulated him for doing the right thing. Her mother, who protested, and tried to leave her husband, also wound up dead.
But Pullman is no pessimist. He declared that if there was no purpose to the Universe before the advent of humanity, there is a purpose now. It’s the purpose of mankind, to preserve and increase the flourishing of consciousness.

Keynote Address by Christopher Hitchens

June 14, 2008

Christopher Hitchens is author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
[Prefatory comment: Hitchens was not the idol of this audience. In one prior session, a woman got up to gratuitously declare, “By the way, Christopher Hitchens has no ethics because he supports the Iraq War and torture.” And Jeff Noll in the SSA panel: “We should tell Christopher Hitchens he’s not welcome here because he recommends genocide in Iran.” And these are the sorts of people who think it’s inexcusable if Iraq war opponents are called “unpatriotic,” and they label President Bush “divisive.” Enough!!!]
In his talk, Hitchens sought to defend his book’s subtitle—religion really does poison everything—because it attacks us in our deepest integrity, as though we would not know right from wrong without some divine guidance, thus robbing us of our moral autonomy.
To serious questions, religion offers a totalitarian solution—a dictatatorship of God, which can even convict you of thought crime. Hitchens reckoned the most religious nation on Earth to be North Korea, where the President is actually a dead person, Kim Il-sung—a “necrocracy.” But under monotheistic totalitarianism, unlike in North Korea, you cannot escape even by dying.
Emancipating ourselves from religion is a matter of self-esteem. As to the idea that religion, even if false, makes people behave better, the Holyland is a refutation. The two-state solution, obvious to reasonable people, is vetoed by the “parties of God” on both sides.
Hitchens also talked about the movement in the US to teach “nonsense” (he refuses to call it “Intelligent Design”) in schools. He offered a counterproposal: that every tax-exempt church be required to give 50% of its time to teaching natural selection.
[PS: In this talk Hitchens advocated neither torture nor genocide.]

Final Comment

June 14, 2008

Many people today deny the idea of progress, deny that we have progressed or can progress, and see the world as in a terrible state, beset by problems and negative trends. But sitting in all these sessions, I was struck by the thought that almost nothing that was spoken in this entire conference could have been uttered in public a few hundred years ago. To be a humanist in the past was very lonely if not virtually impossible.
I am an optimist. I believe in progress. And I believe that a few hundred years from now, Mankind will look back upon the history of religion with a laugh and say, “What were those people thinking?”


June 9, 2008

[ Just returned from the World Humanist Congress and will post a report once I go through my notes. Believe me — it will NOT be a snooze! Some really juicy stuff to talk about. In the meantime, though, here’s some more red meat ]


   As an optimist, I hold with Churchill’s famous quote that “democracy is the worst system of government—except for all the others.” Our democratic system works well when competing interests do battle. But often there is an asymmetry of motivation between interests, and that can be a problem.


  It is exemplified by the recent $300+ billion bloated behemoth of a farm subsidy bill. It’s not merely a waste of money, it actually harms the public interest. It raises prices for consumers. It harms the environment, by distorting the market, promoting non-economic production and waste of resources. It robs the poor to pay the rich. It even hurts the poor in other countries, whose farmers can’t compete against subsidized U.S. products, which also undermines wider international trade negotiations, harming the entire world economy.


  How can such a travesty get enacted? Farm votes are important, but they’re a tiny minority. The bigger factor is the farm lobby and its bribery, I mean, campaign contributions. The farm bill benefits farmers in far greater degree than it hurts the individual citizen. So agribusinesses fight hard and there’s no other interest group with a sufficient stake to mount serious opposition. The average schmo is even bamboozled to assent in the name of helping the family farm, which we romanticize. In fact, it’s the big agribusinesses that do the heavy lobbying and Congressional vote-buying, and they make sure to get the lion’s share of the goodies—actually making it harder for smaller farms to compete and survive. And those big businesses get quite bang for their buck. For a few million in bri – er, campaign contributions, they buy federal handouts worth billions.


  It was this kind of pathology that the McCain-Feingold law attempted to combat. I didn’t think that was the right solution; but it did at least demonstrate McCain’s seriousness about confronting this monster issue.


  Barack Obama runs on the one-word mantra “change.” He purports to represent a new kind of politics, breaking out of the tired old Washington game. But, disappointingly, he voted for the farm bill. This shows that for Obama, “change” is an empty slogan. When it came to this really big test, Obama went with the old routine Washington game, kowtowing to the farm lobby and suborning its shameless rape of the public.


  John McCain, consistent with his whole career, denounced this farm bill and voted against it.


  The really jaw-dropping thing is that Obama nevertheless still postures as the reform candidate, indeed, the anti-lobbyist candidate, trying to tar McCain as the one who’s a phony on this, as the candidate somehow in bed with lobbyists.


  Actions speak louder than words. 

Book Review

June 4, 2008

[Note, my wife and I will be attending the Humanist Conference in Washington, DC, so there will not be any more blogging till next week]




         It may seem odd to review a book this old, but it was so hilarious I couldn’t resist. And it certainly fits the optimism theme.


         I picked this up at a used book sale, thinking Boorstin was a pretty good writer, and the title seemed intriguing. Turns out Boorstin thought just about everything in modern American culture was “pseudo.” But what really bugged him was that it was all so vulgarly democratic. This is the most arrogantly elitist book I ever read, and could have passed as a satiric parody of elitist snobbery.

         Boorstin, for example, hates art museums—because, he says, they present the works divorced from their authentic, intended context. What he means by “authentic context” is the palaces and mansions where only select rich people could enjoy the art. Letting the masses enjoy the art is not something he cares for.

         He hates movies—because they are, he says, inauthentic shadows of the books on which they are based. He actually acknowledges that movies are an art form different from books, and, indeed, they provide a more vivid and intense experience. But that very fact he decries, on the ground that it seduces people away from books. People like him read books; the vulgar masses go to films. So deplorable.

         Tourism he hates with a special venom. Authentic travel, as in the 18th century, is supposed to be difficult, uncomfortable, time-consuming, dangerous, and, of course, expensive. Travel, apparently, should only be for the truly intrepid (and rich). The modern tourist industry makes travel easy, efficient, comfortable, safe, and cheap, so that the great unwashed can have a good time. Isn’t that just plain deplorable? Boorstin thinks so; to him it’s disgusting pseudo-travel.

         And music. Yes, even music. He loathes recorded music. It’s not authentic and original. Real music should only be heard in a concert hall. Boorstin deplores that now you can buy a recording of Beethoven and listen to it over and over, to your heart’s content. What a terrible travesty! It’s just not genuine Beethoven, he says. Only the white tie and tails crowd should be entitled to enjoy music.

         On every page, where Boorstin wagged his scolding finger, mocking the vulgarity and inauthenticity of modern culture, I was laughing, at what he couldn’t bring himself to see: how splendid it is that nowadays the many are able to enjoy the kinds of things that, in the past, were the exclusive province of the pampered rich. Of course they don’t enjoy them in exactly the same way. They enjoy Rembrandts in art museums rather than by attending dinner parties of the nobility. And maybe that isn’t quite the same thing. Yet nevertheless it’s a darn good thing. The point is that people do enjoy all the things that Boorstin deplores. The whole point of life is to get more enjoyment and less pain. Why is Boorstin so unwilling to countenance giving the peasantry some of life’s pleasures?

         His book made me appreciate, all the more, how much American culture has been democratized, and how widely the good life is now enjoyed, compared to past epochs. This is the gigantic achievement of modern society.  

June 1, 2008

  Many thanks to all who viewed this new blog, and especially those who posted comments. The intelligence and eloquence of some was a nice surprise. In fact, I printed the comments out so I can study them with care!

  I decided to hold off posting something new while discussion of the previous entry remained active. For the future, there will probably be a new posting from me every several days.

  Now, for the sake of variety, below is some of the “red meat” I promised.


June 1, 2008

  Americans don’t like $4+ gas. I would like gas to be $5, $6, or even $7. I’m not joking.

  First: Many think gas prices are a big rip-off by price-gouging, greedy oil companies. That’s wrong. In reality, it’s mainly a matter of supply and demand. Demand has been growing faster than supply.

  When Exxon Mobil earned a record $40 billion profit last year, the word “obscene” was widely invoked. But rare was any mention of Exxon’s sales level: over $400 billion. So Exxon was making a great big dime on the dollar. Oh, and Exxon paid $30 billion in taxes. Not to mention the additional taxes its shareholders paid on their returns.

  Anyway, oil company bashers don’t seem to realize that around 90% of the world’s oil (and hence the price) is controlled not by private corporations but by governments.

  And those governments black with oil are often black in other regards: the Iranian mullahs, the authoritarian Putin regime of Russia, the phony populist Chavez of Venezuela, the blood soaked al-Bashir regime in Sudan, the Nigerian kleptocracy. When I fill up at the pump, it’s not oil companies I clench my teeth at—it’s those regimes. High oil prices are keeping all these bad guys in fat city.

  Oil wealth, for a nation, is not a blessing but a curse. It empowers the rulers rather than the people—who tend therefore to be less free, and poorer, than in other countries where circumstances impel them toward development of entrepreneurialism, industriousness, and accountable government. Those are the kind of countries we want to share the world with.

  That’s why I want a big gas tax, to raise prices at the pump—to create a huge incentive to reduce usage—which (because of supply-and-demand) will make the price at the well-head go down. We use so much oil because it’s (relatively) cheap. Make it costly, and the free market will do its thing. Pretty soon we’ll have cars getting 60 miles to the gallon, because the market will insist on it. And we’ll have more nukes and wind and solar power replacing oil-fired power plants.

  That’s good with regard to global warming. Climate change is a real problem. But I believe we can deal with it—not by shutting down our industrial economy and making people poorer—but by evolving it to use less fossil fuel, which can be done, and pushed along with proper economic incentives—like $7 gas.

  Europeans already pay gas taxes, and prices at the pump, at the levels I’m talking about.

  But, you say, you hate taxes? Me too! But the fact is, we’re already paying a big gas tax. We’re paying it to Chavez, Putin, Iran, and Sudan. I’d rather be paying it to our own government than to those creeps. Right now we’re just empowering troublemakers.

  And a $2 tax might, conceivably, ultimately reduce demand enough to pay for itself by knocking $2 off the cost of the gas itself. Oil’s price has doubled within a very short time; it could be halved by the same market forces working the other way. Admittedly, demand from rising nations like China is a bigger factor than U.S. consumption, and I’d hesitate to predict that anything we do will serve to reduce oil prices that much. However, if the U.S., once and for all, showed it is serious about reducing oil dependency, that would undoubtedly have a tremendous psychological impact on the market.

  But maybe it’s not rational optimism to imagine Americans going with my proposal.

  (Acknowledgement: author Thomas Friedman has been saying some of this stuff too.)