Archive for April, 2011

Bart Ehrman on the Bible

April 11, 2011

Dr. Bart Ehrman was given the Religious Liberty Award. He was introduced by Jennifer Bardi, Editor of The Humanist magazine. (Avid followers of this blog may remember her from my March 8 posting. Yes, I did bump into her in the hall during the conference. She knew who I was. And yes, this too was a perfectly cordial encounter.)

Ehrman is yet another of those who started out as a gung-ho fundamentalist studying for the ministry. He was an expert casuist in explaining away Biblical discrepancies, and wrote a 35 page paper trying to rationalize why a person referred to in one of its books had a different name in another, but he finally realized it was just a mistake. A little thing – unless you consider the Bible the inerrant word of God.

But what finally really blew him off course was the problem of suffering – how could there be a benevolent all-powerful God? Ehrman realized Christianity’s attempts to answer this killer question just didn’t make any sense. He came to see his fundamentalist past as oppressive and harmful.

The rest of his life has been spent writing books making people aware of the problems with the Bible. Starting with the fact that we don’t even have the original Bible, long since lost and reconstructed in the early centuries. And some of it even constitutes what Ehrman labels forgeries – portions plainly written by people who were not who they claimed to be in the text.


Pinker, Goldstein, Spinoza, Oscar Wilde, the Confraternity of the Fatherless, and Epistemological Perversion

April 11, 2011

The AHA’s Humanist of the Year Award was presented to Rebecca Goldstein. She has a Ph.D in philosophy, having studied under Thomas Nagel (of “what is it like to be a bat” fame). Her latest book is Thirty-six Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. That last part is important. (The novel does include an appendix setting forth the 36 arguments – and their refutation.)

Goldstein and Pinker

Goldstein was introduced by Steven Pinker, her husband, author of The Blank Slate and other seminal intellectual blockbusters. (The two greatly admired each other long before they ever met.) Pinker noted that Goldstein writes “novels of ideas,” something that doesn’t usually work out too well, with robotic characters (he mentioned Ayn Rand). But Goldstein, he said, has revolutionized the genre, showing that the ideas that engage philosophers are those that matter in people’s lives.

[A personal note: at the end, I introduced myself to Steven Pinker, and thanked him for having bought my book, The Case for Rational Optimism. “A WONDERFUL BOOK!” he exclaimed, adding that he’ll be citing it in his own next book. That was about as close as I’ll ever get to entering Heaven.]

Goldstein noted that in growing up, her inability to believe felt like a moral failing (though she didn’t try very hard.) She invoked Oscar Wilde, who wrote that he’d like to found “an order for those who cannot believe” – a “confraternity of the fatherless.”

She characterized religion as reflecting a notion that the groundlessness of the belief leaves one free to embrace it on faith, as some sort of triumph. But this, she said, is an epistemological perversion; bad grounds are bad grounds, and there is nothing heroic in such a belief. What’s heroic is to abjure it.

Spinoza -- Was it the hairdo that really attracted her to him and Pinker?

This led her to Benedict Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher, who sowed the seeds for The Enlightenment. He dreamed of detaching us from the irrational beliefs of our heritage – centered on the idea that one was lucky to have been born in the right group. (Thus, the Jews’ “covenant with God,” and again the Christian concept that “we’re going to Heaven and others aren’t.”) Spinoza wanted us to instead converge on the same rational beliefs, so that the importance of contingencies of birth would wither away. Those are not important, he believed; rather, it’s the ideas we struggle toward.

Spinoza was excommunicated by his Jewish congregation. He was considered dangerous because he showed that God isn’t needed for morality, it’s grounded in human nature. Goldstein called him a “radical secularist.”

And, she concluded, there is no supernatural force that will right the world’s wrongs – it’s up to us – the “confraternity of the fatherless” – acting as full grown-ups – to do it ourselves.



“No More War: The Human Potential for Peace”

April 11, 2011

Dr. Judith Hand is a scientist, novelist, and self-dubbed “peace ethologist.” Frankly, I sat down for her program with a very skeptical attitude. I have no use for the “Let’s Abolish War” trope, which is no help in coming to grips with the very difficult moral challenges that human conflict presents us with.

Dr. Hand started by asking people to raise their hands if they believe we can end war. Of course I didn’t raise my hand.

And then she surprised me. Instead of presenting the usual empty pacifist pieties, she proceeded to an excellent analysis of human biological and cultural evolution, dissecting why war happens and, importantly, why it’s in fact happening less and less. (Her arguments were indeed extremely similar to those in my own chapter discussing war and why it’s on the wane; in fact, she hit on some nuances that I missed. My short summary here doesn’t do justice to the depth of her presentation.)

While Dr. Hand did talk some about the evolutionary basis for aggression, she spent more time emphasizing why humans evolved to be cooperative, empathetic and even altruistic. No other animal is so good at grasping what others want, why they want it, and why it’s usually a good idea to help them. And even in endeavors where aggression is important – hunting and, yes, war – cooperation is also highly important.

Dr. Hand also emphasized alloparental care. This refers to child care by people other than the actual parents. While other primates engage in this, humans do it more than any other creature. Cooperative breeders like this, she said, are faster breeders. This would have been important for survival in our early very difficult environmental conditions. Again, the alloparental model gives a big boost to empathetic and cooperative impulses.

She also talked about the evolution of a shared sense of fairness, justice, and morality, referring to experimental evidence that monkeys understand and act upon concepts of fairness. But these traits are most highly developed in humans.

So – why war? Dr. Hand cited evidence that war has rarely occurred in “simple” nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, and only arises when people settle down, with a rich food source, developing hierarchies and political systems – creating a new environment very different from what prevailed throughout most of our evolutionary history.

It’s true that men and women differ, but “aggressiveness” per se is not the main issue. The two genders have very different reproductive priorities. For a woman, having a child is very expensive in time, resources, and risk; so she wants a peaceful environment of social stability, compromise and accommodation with others. Men don’t invest as heavily in individual young, and their “selfish gene” biological imperative is to impregnate as many females as possible. This leads to the quest for dominance and status. However, Dr. Hand said, this doesn’t mean alpha males necessarily love war and killing; most in fact have an abhorrence of killing; but she said it’s a small minority of “hyper-alpha” males, maybe 10% — the Hitlers of the world. (I’d actually put the percentage far lower.)

What does the foregoing mean, in modern culture? One crucial feature of modernity is a rising democratization. I have argued at length that democratization is the key to curbing war, as truly democratic societies do not give each other reasons for war. And this effect is magnified with a rising role for women in societal decision making. In general, it was only in the last century that women even got the vote and began to move into positions of authority. Put that together with the paragraph above, and the upshot is obvious.

But it’s not only the admixture of the female mentality that has changed the prevailing cultural weather. The Enlightenment, the rise of the scientific method, has encouraged more and more people to think for themselves and to think differently. This has accelerated in our own time, with the advent of the Internet and other communications media, binding the world together.

Some say, “nothing ever changes.” But, in fact, the biggest reason why the human animal was such a success in the natural selection game is that creature’s plasticity, the ability to change when circumstances change. We are living in a world very different from past epochs. We are changing and progressing, in a grand virtuous circle.


Judy Norsigian, Humanist Heroine Award

April 11, 2011

Judy Norsigian is Executive Director and a founder, in 1971, of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. Forty years does deserve recognition. The BWHBC was responsible for disseminating Our Bodies, Ourselves, a landmark in promoting women’s health, helping women to understand their biology, and liberating them from past cultural norms that were repressive.

Norsigian was introduced by Stephanie Downs Hughes, who said that the book was one of the biggest contributions to the world that the Left has made. I agree that it was a big contribution; but why is this “Left”?

Norsigian’s speech covered a gamut of current issues relevant to women’s health: the increasing role of pharmacology; increasing sexualization of young girls; surrogate motherhood, egg donation, and related issues; and the “medicalization” of female sexuality, including the hunt for a female equivalent of Viagra and the marketing of drugs (which don’t even exist yet) to treat “female sexual dysfunction” (i.e., lower than average libido) as a form of illness. And, she said, the number one health issue for many women in the world is violence.

I mentioned at the outset that not everything said at the conference was to my liking. An example was Ms. Norsigian’s statement that “unlike the U.S.,” Nepal has progressed a lot in women’s health rights. America isn’t perfect, but some on the left seem to wear negativity toward the U.S. as a badge of honor. Nepal has indeed made a lot of progress; but I daresay the average American woman is better off than her Nepali counterpart.


Candace Gingrich-Jones, LGBT Humanist Pride Award

April 11, 2011

Yes. She’s Newt’s sister. Also author of a 1996 memoir, Accidental Activist.

Gingrich-Jones held ignorance and religion to be the main obstacles to marriage equality. Many Americans have a “gut reaction” against gay marriage, which kind of freaks them out. However, she said, marriage doesn’t actually have much to do with religion – rather, it’s really about loving couples making families and taking care of each other. But she acknowledged that as the issue has been aired through ongoing dialog, the old ingrained prejudice is dissolving, and today a majority of Americans say gay marriage should be legal.


Unintelligent Design – Why evolution explains the human body and “intelligent design” does not

April 11, 2011

Dr. Abby Hafer is a zoologist and anatomist. She (figuratively) took a jackhammer to “intelligent design,” focusing on five aspects of human anatomy. In each case she showed not only how the design is not optimal, but how better design would be perfectly possible and in fact is seen in other animals.

TESTICLES – They have to hang outside the body because the body’s temperature is too high for sperm production. Putting such a valuable organ in such a vulnerable position is bad design. Cold blooded animals don’t have this problem; their testicles are tucked safely inside.

Dr. Hafer explained that good enough is the design standard in evolution by natural selection. That is, the design need only be good enough to get the animal to reproduce. Testicles meet this unambitious criterion – most men don’t lose their balls before using them. In contrast, the design standard for an intelligent (indeed, infallible) designer should be far higher (especially, one might add, if this particular designed creature is in his image.) But maybe he flunked Design School.

BABY CROWNING – A human baby has to realllllly squeeze through the birth canal. This often kills the baby, the mother, or both. Why are we built like this? Because walking upright favors narrow hips, while being smart favors big heads. Women’s hips are just barely wide enough to enable birthing big-headed babies. Usually. Good enough. Barely.

Might a better design solution have been possible? Sure – kangaroos! They have it easy. The Creator must have liked them better than humans.

CHOKING: Our air passages and food passages interconnect with sometimes fatal results. Other animals have separate passages and cannot choke to death on food.

THE EYE: Ah, the favorite of anti-evolutionists: “irreducible complexity” — “what good is an incomplete eye?”

A lot of good, actually. Dr. Hafer showed many examples of creatures with much more primitive light-sensitive organs which still provide them with survival advantages.

Meantime, the human eye is not so great after all. That screw-up designer of ours inexplicably put the wiring in front of the light-sensitive parts, blocking some of the light, and also bunched the optic nerve fibers to cause a blind spot. The result is that we can’t see well in dim light, and our brains must do a lot of “photoshop” type work to collate and make sense of the images, with resulting loss of information. Animals like squids have much better eye design. (And wouldn’t an intelligent design include a third eye in back of our heads?)

THE APPENDIX: The killer argument. And the killer organ – literally. The appendix has no function – and sometimes kills its bearer. It once had a function (in rabbits it’s useful for digesting wood; as evidenced in my home’s woodwork, from when my daughter had rabbits) – and it remains as a vestigial organ because evolution hasn’t had enough time to get rid of it. If you were designing a human being from scratch, you certainly would not include an appendix. This is really bad design.

The stock answer to all this, the last redoubt of the “intelligent design” adherent, is to say, “Well, that’s the way God wants it.” If you want to believe that, fine. But it’s not science!


Steve Wozniak

April 11, 2011

Steve Wozniak received the Isaac Asimov Science Award. Together with Steve Jobs, in 1976, he transformed the world by making the computer something ordinary people could use.

He posited that happiness is the goal of life. His formula for happiness is F-cubed – food, fun, and friends. And maybe there is a fourth F.

Wozniak’s portrait of religion: “I will be with my group. All other groups are wrong.” But, he said, his own thoughts are good for him, maybe yours are good for you, and there’s no need for argument.

He had a lot more to say. Too much, actually. I hate to end on a down note, but alas Steve seemed in love with the sound of his voice, and his speech was rambling and themeless. After almost forty minutes, the woman scientist sitting next to me and rolling her eyes leaned over and whispered, “If I ever win an award, I’ll remember this for what not to do.” Having a long drive home, we ducked out shortly thereafter.


Bamboo Capitalism

April 2, 2011

Free market capitalism’s advocates are often dismissed nowadays with a one-word crusher: China.

China demonstrates that it’s not free-market capitalism that delivers the goods. Just look at the economic troubles of the free-market West – while China’s economy continues to grow by leaps and bounds – an economy of state capitalism, where government controls everything. Thus it’s really government, not private enterprise, that delivers.

Or so the argument goes.

Photo by The Economist, 2011

Actually, it’s 100% backwards. China does, of course, have a repressive, authoritarian political system. But, according to The Economist (see its important March 12 editorial and article about China’s “bamboo capitalism”), 70% of its GDP is produced by enterprises that are not majority owned by the state, over 90% of its businesses are private, and very little of their financing appears to come from state-owned banks.

Moreover, all these businesses are subject to practically no governmental oversight or regulation. This was also the clear picture conveyed in Peter Hessler’s book, Country Driving, about his travels around China, with a close look at factories in Zhejiang, the same region profiled by The Economist. Both portray a veritable wild west of almost pure laissez-faire capitalism, far more of an “unfettered” market than even capitalism’s most zealous Western advocates (like me) would endorse.

In comparison, government oversight and interference in the workings of markets loom hugely larger in the supposedly free market Western countries like the U.S. Is it possible that the financial/economic difficulties we’ve experienced – unreplicated in China – are because our mixed (mixed-up?) system with a big governmental role just doesn’t work as well as a more purely free market like China’s?

But doesn’t such free-wheeling free enterprise make for problems, abuses, rip-offs, and human tragedies? Whoa, does it ever. Inequality? Yes, that too. But the impact of all these downsides is simply overwhelmed by the wealth creation effect. When you grow GDP by around 10% annually, thereby doubling national wealth about every seven years, as China has been doing, the positive effects on human well-being are so enormous that they surely more than compensate for the undeniable problems that unrestrained capitalism entails. That’s the real lesson from China.

It’s a testament to what human beings can accomplish if simply left free to get on with it. The Economist says that “Zhejiang’s greatest contribution to its citizens – and ultimately to China’s economic resurgence – was to provide them with nothing and to cut them off from outside help.”

The magazine concludes that “China has surged forward mainly where the state has stood back. ‘Capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ works because of the capitalism, not the characteristics.”