Friday, March 19, 2010

Quote of the Week

"It has often and confidently been asserted, that man's origin can never be known: Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."

- Charles Darwin, from the introduction of The Descent of Man

Friday, March 12, 2010

Quote of the Week

"I had no need of that hypothesis."

- Pierre-Simon Laplace, explaining to Napoleon why he did not mention God in his book of astronomy.

They Chose...Poorly

Constance McMillen, a senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School, just wanted to go to the prom with her significant other. What makes Ms. McMillen's desire slightly unusual is that her significant other is also a woman. Plus, McMillen wanted to wear a tuxedo instead of the usual gown. That's nice, you might think, but what's the big deal? I agree. This shouldn't be newsworthy. Oh wait...Itawamba Agricultural High School is in rural Mississippi. Uh-oh.

Naturally, the school immediately denied McMillen's request to dress in a tux and take someone of the same sex as a date, saying it was against the rules. Then the ACLU became involved and tried informally to encourage the school administrators to rethink their position. In response, the school took the most reasonable route possible: they cancelled prom...for everyone. Their reason?

"Due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events, the Itawamba County School District has decided to not host a prom at Itawamba Agricultural High School this year."

The district school board also said that their decision took "into consideration the education, safety and well-being of our students."

Of course, the school wasn't shy about who caused this decision, and now McMillen is in the uncomfortable position of being the one "responsible" for ruining that class's senior year. Now the ACLU is formally suing the school district for infringement of McMillen's free speech.

I know this is in rural Mississippi, so it's not exactly the most progressive of lands, but how does this make any sense? Sure, some parents would have definitely been outraged with the open display of "the gay" in their precious, God-fearing community, but does that mean the entire senior class has to suffer? Wouldn't it have been far easier on everyone if the school just turned a blind eye to the whole thing? The night would have passed with a few snide remarks from students and perhaps a handful of angry phone calls from parents that following Monday, but then everyone would forget about it and move on with their lives. Instead, the school has made sure no one will forget about it, and the district will now have to pay a fortune in legal fees, all in an attempt to preserve the fiction that gays don't exist.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why Science Cannot Measure Morality (but it has nothing to do with God)

On my post about homeschooling textbooks, mlwj left a comment that raised some important point that I intended to address before long. Might as well do so now. Here's mljw's comment in full:

"Science can only deal with the natural. If you can't test it and observe it, then you can't do any science on it. End of story." [quoted from my original post]

I really don't mean to be snarky, but can you prove that statement scientifically? Is that proposition testable and observable?

Would you admit that there are some things you know which aren't testable and observable? How about your moral sense that someone, somewhere, is doing something you believe he should stop doing no matter what his biologically determined brain cells are telling him? Do you have that sense? Could you agree that it is evidence that at least suggests that you ought to believe human life is more than natural?

Did you read Stanley Fish's blog post a few weeks ago at the NY Times?

Fish is obviously not a conservative Christian theist, but I believe his thinking is incisive.

The Bible says in Paul's letter to the Romans that creation testifies to His existence and power. I pray that you will acknowledge this.

First off, being snarky in return, no, I cannot prove that statement scientifically because science never "proves" anything. It only allows us to draw conclusions which either support or falsify a hypothesis.

But yes, I will certainly agree there are things which are not testable or observable. Morality is an excellent example. I say that not because morality is a supernatural property of the universe, but because there's no such thing as morality. I posit that what we conceptualize as morality springs from a far more basic explanation: instinctual empathy.

As a social species, we need empathy to survive, otherwise we would be incapable of working with and living in close proximity to each other. The same holds true for other social animals such as lions or orcas. They show caring towards and a willingness to work with others in their social group, which gives them obvious advantages over their competitors and makes it easier for them to reproduce. I suppose you could argue that these animals are bound by the supernatural and absolute moral laws of the universe, but I find evolution to be a much simpler and more likely explanation.

Now apply the same logic to humans. We call people "good" if they contribute to the overall well being of the social group. Additionally, our brains have evolved an instinctual and automatic feeling of guilt when we detract from the well being of our society. Because this reaction kicks in without conscious thought only after our cognitive functions interpret outside stimuli revealing our transgressions, that feeling of guilt obviously comes from within the brain. You could claim that is comes from the nature of your "soul". However, I feel the more convincing argument is that social creatures with such a response hardwired into their brains would be more successful because they know to seek forgiveness, thereby keeping their place in the society.

In contrast, look at what happens to those who break with our expected norms of empathy and guilt, leading them to harm others and show no remorse for doing so. These transgressors become shunned, imprisoned, or executed by the social group. It makes sense that only those humans who exhibit sufficient empathy and a sense of guilt would be able to reproduce consistently within such an environment, thereby making antisocial behavioral traits less common within the population, which in turn makes constructive behavior more common. In addition, this rise of commonality creates the appearance of "universal" moral beliefs.

Furthermore, we do see occasional mutations where individuals do not display any sort of empathy. We call them sociopaths, and we can actually measure their lack of empathy through fMRI scans because the part of the brain which normally controls empathy shows very little activity compared to normal brains.

To put it simply, our brains have evolved to be empathetic because it allows us to interact constructively with each other. Without it, we cannot function as a society and we would live more like mountain lions, roaming our territories alone, only meeting to mate. Our obvious physical limitations make survival in such a situation unlikely at best. Therefore, like bears hibernating for the winter or sea turtles knowing when to return to their mating grounds, our empathy is an instinct essential to human survival and reproduction.

So where does that leave morality? Just because I'm fairly certain sociopaths have no control over their antisocial impulses, does that mean they shouldn't be held accountable for their actions? Of course not. But that brings us back to science's role in such decisions, which is quite minor because science is a tool, nothing more, nothing less. Used properly, it can tell us how the universe works and why things came to be through naturalistic reasoning. However, it cannot tell us what to do with that information. That's up to us. For example, science can tell us about the potential energy locked within subatomic bonds, but we decide if we want to use it to produce electricity or make nuclear weapons. Similarly, just because science can tell us that a sociopath has little control over his antisocial actions, that doesn't tell us what we should do with the sociopath. That's where philosophy comes into play, which we base upon our instinctual sense of empathy. Even then, our empathy varies. Some prefer revenge, seeking execution for the sociopath. Others advocate finding a way to alter his brain, thereby curing his lack of empathy.

Now, when you boil them down, religions are just philosophies which attempt to tell people how to live within a society. Every religious person will tell you that those proscriptions come from a god or gods because, deep down, we all "know" right from wrong. Sure, most of us feel that urge to be constructive, but is that because God did it or because we've evolved the instincts for it? I lean towards the latter.

Does that mean I think morality has no place? Absolutely not. First, I like to be constructive and contribute to society and treat others well. Just because I know it's simply my instincts talking doesn't mean I'm disinclined to follow them. That's the great thing about understanding why we feel the way we do. We can chose to follow those instincts that make us feel good and help others while also choosing to resist the other instincts which are harmful, even when it might make us feel good. For example, we all feel some degree of prejudice towards others. However, if we know that's a product of our ingrained instincts and competitiveness, we can resist it and refuse to yield to our base emotions. Religion attempts to do the same thing, but it adds artificial constructs such as God, Satan, and Hell as enforcement mechanisms while claiming absolute truth. I see no need to bring extra complexity to the explanation, and I certainly won't claim absolute truth. Frankly, I feel absolute truth is beyond our means to comprehend.

Also, I appreciate the link to Stanley Fish's column because I had not seen that before. While I understand what he's saying, and I agree with him to an extent, I feel the religious foundations he appeals to are simply man-made philosophies as I outlined above. However, there are secular philosophies which can provide the same basis for argument. Sure, secular philosophies don't make claims to absolute truth, but I think the religious claims of such are fundamentally wrong because religion is an unscientific attempt to codify and explain, in the case of morality, an evolved survival mechanism.

As for the last point, I'll acknowledge God's role in creation when He gives me sound evidence to do so. Until then, I have no need for that hypothesis.

I have a post from 2007 addressing some of these topics here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Yeah, That's About Right...

It's funny because it's true:

Like always, The Onion is spot on.

I never watch cable news anymore because I can't stand the constant sensationalizing and whoring for ratings. It's like yellow journalism all over again (not that I ever experienced it, of course, but you know what I mean).

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Yet More Evidence Creationism Isn't Science

Last Saturday, the AP carried an article highlighting the limited teaching materials secular parents encounter when homeschooling their children. Because the vast majority of parents who prefer homeschooling are evangelical Christians, they're who the market caters towards. The article focused on the fact that the two bestselling biology textbooks explicitly reject evolution in favor of creationism.

While that certainly makes it tough for secular homeschoolers, I'd rather focus on a passage from the "History of Life" Chapter from one the bestsellers, "Biology: Third Edition" by Bob Jones University Press:

Christian worldview ... is the only correct view of reality; anyone who rejects it will not only fail to reach heaven but also fail to see the world as it truly is.

Two things really get to me about this passage. First, in a book supposedly about about science, the book immediately closes itself off to any sort of science. You can't declare your view the only valid one, and wave off the rest. If that were the case, then we'd still believe the Earth is flat and witches caused cancer. I know the creationists would respond that naturalists do the same for those who don't accept evolution, but they'd be wrong. If a viable alternative to evolution arose, it would receive plenty of consideration. Creationism had its shot, and it's still found severely lacking any sort of merit. That's why it's completely dismissed by actual scientists today. Furthermore, you won't see a legitimate science textbook claiming naturalism is the only correct worldview. It will say that science can only deal with the natural. If you can't test it and observe it, then you can't do any science on it. End of story.

Second, this is a biology book geared towards middle schoolers that features threats of hell. Right there, the author gave up rational argument in favor of fearmongering. Kind of clever really. They're basically saying, "You have to believe what's in this book or you'll be tortured forever." Way to succeed on the merit of your arguments.

When the AP asked about that passage, university spokesman Brian Scoles said the sentence made it into the book because of an editing error and will be removed from future editions.

Yeah, right...editing error. Because that's not at all what you meant or what you believe. Right here is just another piece of evidence that creationism is not science. Even the university realizes the need to cover up an honest disclosure.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Pseudonym Change

Just so you know, I've dropped the "Lord" from my screen name. I'm still the same blogger, but I just figured my online gaming screen name wasn't as appropriate for this venue since it felt slightly juvenile. Besides, most of you know me as "J-Bar" anyway. That is all...

Friday, March 5, 2010

Quote of the Week

"Wikipedia is so liberal when it comes to reading articles on 'The existence of God' or on 'Intelligent Design'. Too bad they cover more of the objections to these arguments rather than the proponents of these arguments."

- The Facebook status update of an extremely conservative Christian acquaintance

My response: perhaps the "liberal" objections are far more thoroughly developed. Saying "God just did it" doesn't require much explanation.

This Is What Militant Looks Like

I've complained before about Christians regularly calling atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris "militant", and I've also restrained from applying the same charge back towards Christians. However, I don't think I'm out of line when I call Repent Amarillo a gang of militant Christians. Just take a look at their website (fair warning: be ready for annoying music, sound effects, and excessive graphics that scream, "I'm trying too hard to impress you with my web design skills!").

Judging from the images (the above image is the site's header), you'd think they're a full blown military outfit with humvees, helicopters, and self-propelled artillery. They even call themselves the "Special Forces of spiritual warfare". Don't be fooled. They're little more than a small band of thugs who run around in black shirts and camouflage pants terrorizing those they dislike. Their leader, David Grisham, is a security guard for the Pantex nuclear facility, but he becomes a "pastor" in his spare time who cares far too much about the private activities of others.

The Texas Observer was the first (that I'm aware of) to highlight the group's activities. Apparently, Amarillo is an extremely conservative and Christian city to begin with, but Repent Amarillo fancies itself as the city's enforcers of Christian law. Nevermind what the US Constitution says. Anyway, Repent Amarillo regularly shows up at gatherings and businesses they find disagreeable, which includes the usual Christian gripe list. From their website:

1. Gay pride events.
2. Earth worship events such as “Earth Day”
3. Pro-abortion events or places such as Planned Parenthood
4. Breast cancer events such as “Race for the Cure” to illuminate the link between abortion and breast cancer.
5. Opening day of public schools to reach out to students.
6. Spring break events.
7. Demonically based concerts.
8. Halloween events.
9. Other events that may arise that the ministry feels called to confront.


1. Sexually oriented businesses such as pornography shops, strip joints, and XXX-rated theaters.
2. Idolatry locations such as palm readers, false religions, and witchcraft. Many of the smaller missions listed above may be just prayer oriented missions for tearing down demonic strongholds or they may involve more aggressive use of soldiers and prayer warriors. Some other missions occasionally employed may be “undercover operations” where the groups show up together but are not publicly visible together to effect the outcome of a public meeting such as city commissioners meetings, etc.

Their tactics include harassing private citizens at the above locations and calling the police to report infractions, no matter how mundane. Over the last year, they've became downright frightening with a local swingers' club. They would wait outside in the parking lot with cameras, blaring Christian music, and harassing the swingers when they left. The gangs members would also take down license plate numbers and retrieve the swingers' personal information, which they would then use for a personal smear campaign. In a conservative town like Amarillo, the swingers have lost their jobs and become ostracized from society. David Graham says he's only doing it to save the swingers' souls and drive the devil from Amarillo. Listen David, if you want these people to become Christians, you're doing it wrong.

Now they've set their sights on the favorite target of Christian nutjobs: the gays. Repent Amarillo recently managed to block the showing of Bent, a play about the persecution of homosexuals within Nazi Germany. Um...yeah. When you find yourself trying to cover up some of the more egregious activities of the Nazis, you should really rethink your position.

Many others have already commented on this group, and the usual title for them has been the "Texas Taliban". I can't think of a better way to describe them. They already act like the morality police within several Muslim countries. Thank science they don't have the force of law behind them too. Let's make sure it stays that way.

You can read what others have said about Repent Amarillo here, here, and here.