Thursday, October 30, 2008

Film and Science conference in Chicago

I'm in Chicago for the next couple of days for Film & History conference on the topic of Film & Science: Fictions, Documentaries and Beyond. It looks interesting and has talks on a broad range of topics. I'm participating in a panel tomorrow (fri) on Darwin & the Evolution/"Intelligent Design" aftermath and I will be talking about creationist documentaries in the Muslim world. You can take a look at the full program here (pdf).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Death and Religion

Death is certainly one issue that brings into focus the larger questions of life. I had earlier posted views on death from an atheistic perspective from Sagan, Weinberg, and more recently on a book by Julian Barnes. For balance, here is a recent Fresh Air interview with Unitarian minister, Forrest Church (hmm....a Unitarian may not really count either. In any case, a great name for a Minister). This is a good interview and I certainly like his brighter approach (more akin to Sagan). There is an interesting comment at the end when he says that although he had accepted death, his wife reminded him that there are other people in his life too - and he should think of them too.

Listen to the interview here [20 mins long].

Here is Rev. Forrest Church's bio:
Unitarian minister Forrest Church was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer last February. He has written and edited over 20 books since 1985. His latest, Love and Death, is a memoir that confronts the prospect of death and, in the process, offers readers a meditation on the end of life.

Forrest Church is Minister of Public Theology of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City. He served as Senior Minister until late 2006 and is widely regarded as a leader of liberal religious thought.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Dawkins shreds Harun Yahya's Atlas of Creation

Here is a video of Dawkins talking about the Harun Yahya's Atlas of Creation for the first 20 minutes. The remaining 20 minutes are devoted to Q&A and you see a good exchange on the topic of Islamic creationism. It is also great to see Pervez Hoodbhoy mentioned couple of times in the session and an acknowledgement of his efforts for the popularization of science in Pakistan.

Couple of comments on the Q&A. At one point Dawkins wonders if evolution is taught in schools in the Muslim world. I know that schools in Pakistan, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria definitely include evolution - and I'm pretty sure that Malaysia and Indonesia do too. Yes, teachers often teach it in a bad way (as one of the audience member commented here), but I look at the glass half-full - at least evolution is included in the textbooks and taught as a fact (at least in Pakistan, it also shows up in the 12th grade final exam). Though, to be fair, human evolution is often excluded.

At another point, Dawkins acknowledges that both the Anglican and the Catholic Churches accept evolution - but he sees a difficult path for Muslims as, according to him, they interpret the Qur'an literally. In reality, however, it is more complicated. In contrast to the creation stories in Genesis, the matters of origin and creation are quite vague in the Qur'an. As a result there is much maneuvering room even for literalists (and Young Earth Creationism is already completely absent in the Muslim world). There may be other reasons behind opposition to evolution, but a literal interpretation is not a major factor. Instead, I think, an unnecessary emphasis on evolution-atheism link by many scientists may be the biggest barrier.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Shia-Sunni war over websites

Here is an interesting news item that talks about hacking wars between Sunnis and Shias (and also by extension between the Iranians and the Arabs). Apparently it has intensified since last September. Intelligence agencies of many countries have been playing (and preparing) for cyber-warfare. So this may simply be an internet skirmish (hey - it beats the actual bombs). On the other hand, this may be a sign of deteriorating relations between Iran and some of the Arab countries:

The cyberassaults temporarily defaced websites of prominent Muslim clerics, including those of Iraqi Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the late Sunni mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz Abdullah bin Baz.

More recently, Shiite hackers attacked the website of Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned channel based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. For hours, site visitors were redirected to a page where, beneath an image of a burning Israeli flag, large red letters in English and Arabic declared: "Serious Warning. If attacks on Shia WebSites Continue, none of your WebSites Will be SAFE."

Middle East experts say that this online psychological battle should be seen in the context of Sunni dismay over what they see as Iran's strategic gains in Arab nations, especially Iraq.

Although it's hard to show any direct connection in the cloaked world of Web sabotage, the interreligious hacking really took off after prominent Sunni cleric Yousef al-Qaradawi called Shiites "heretics" and accused them of trying to "invade" Sunni communities in a Sept. 9 interview.

His remarks were "a green light" for Sunnis to go on the offensive against Shiite sites, says Ali Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Gulf Institute, a Saudi opposition think tank.

A couple of weeks later, an Iranian news agency claimed that 300 Shiite websites had been defaced by Wahhabis, as the austere Sunni Muslims in Saudi Arabia are known, including that of Mr. Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric.

Then came attacks on scores of Sunni websites. Shiite hackers often left the same calling card: a face painted with the colors of the Iranian flag, and a map of the Arabian Gulf labeled "The Persian Gulf."

Hmm...welcome to the global community - Now we can smoothly transfer our ideological hatred to the web. But wait - there was a truce during the last Eid:
During the religious holiday of Eid-al-Fitr that marks the end of Ramadan, some of the hackers, apparently Shiite, offered a truce of sorts on a Web page featuring a bouquet of flowers and two clasped hands. The olive branch did not last long.
Ok - so there is still some sense humor there (or at least I am interpreting it as a light moment).

Read the full story here (it also talks about the hacking of Al-Qaeeda websites last September 10th). By the way, the image with post is from the US Department of Justice Kids page. Seriously, can't trust anyone under 10!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A fantastic tool for learning (and teaching) about archaeology

Couple of weeks back I met Ron Simkins, Professor of Theology and Classical & Near Eastern Studies at Creighton University in Omaha. He has developed an excellent site for archaeology, The Virtual World Project. It gives you a 360 degrees panoramic virtual tour of several archaeological sites in Jordan and Israel, and also some in Greece Turkey. You get a true sense of the site and what is around - with airfares like today, this is the best way to "go" to some of these places. A few sites also have an audio commentary - for example, check out the Qasr Bshir site in Jordan and listen to the commentary on the main gate of the castellum. I'm sure this is how we will be exploring Mars in the near future.

Check out the teaching guide here (at bottom left) and the related blog. Here is a brief description of the project:

The Virtual World Project presents interactive virtual tours of the ancient world in order to aid in the teaching and study of antiquity. The Virtual World Project has three primary goals:

  1. Pedagogical: Provide a resource for scholars and teachers across a variety of disciplines related to the ancient world
  2. Technological: Create interactive virtual tours of the ancient world using the best available computer technologies
  3. Conservational: Provide a visual database of the material remains of the ancient world as they presently exist

The Virtual World Project is an ongoing project that is updated continuously. The primary focus of the project is the Levant. To date, many sites in Israel and Jordan have been photographed and implemented in the project. Sites in Syria are planned in the future. A few sites in Greece and Turkey were the first sites photographed for the project in 2002. These sites are included in the project as Legacy Sites, though the project’s focus is elsewhere.

Lawrence Krauss at Hampshire College on Thursday

As part of our Hampshire College lecture series on Science & Religion, we will have Dr. Lawrence Krauss as our speaker on Thursday, October 23rd. If you are in the area please join us for the talk. Otherwise, you can watch the video of the lecture that I will try to post here in a couple of weeks. His abstract for the talk is below - but we are going a bit high tech in publicity. Here is a short clip for the lecture (thanks to Kevin Cline and Andrew Hart for creating the clip in a short period of time and to David Jonathan Ross for the poster above - and for all the other posters of our series):

Here is the information for the talk:
Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion Presents

Science & Religion: Two Ships in the Night
Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss

Thursday, October 23, 2008
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College

At best , science and religion have very little to do with one another. At worst, they are completely incompatible. And what little connection between the two even in the best of cases involves a one-way street. Science may enrich faith, but not vice versa. Dr. Krauss will discuss modern misunderstandings of this limited connection, coming both from science as well as religion, as well as modern abuses that demean both science and faith. The origin and evolution of the universe will serve as a good (or bad) example.

Dr. Lawrence M Krauss is Foundation Professor and Director of the Origins Initiative, Co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative, School of Earth and Space Exploration, BEYOND Center, and Department of Physics at Arizona State University.

He is the author of The Physics of Star Trek, Atom: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth... and Beyond and Hiding in the Mirror: The Mysterious Allure of Extra-Dimensions from Plato to String Theory and Beyond.

Upcoming lecture:

* Dr. Paul Davies, Thursday, November 20, 2008

For more information on the Lecture Series, please visit

Monday, October 20, 2008

Documentary about Abdus Salam

There is a fantastic effort underway to make a documentary about Abdus Salam. He won the 1979 Nobel prize in physics (along with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg) for his work on the unification of electromagnetic and weak forces. Coming out of rural Pakistan, his life story is phenomenal (read his Nobel biography here). I attended one of his talks in the late 1980s in Karachi and I still remember the excitement of talking with him for a few minutes after his lecture. It is truly wonderful that an excellent team of people is in charge of making his documentary. The director, Sabiha Sumar, has already made her mark with fiction and non-fiction films. I saw her film "Khamosh Pani" (Silent Waters) couple of years ago and it is very good and was well received by the critics - heck even the Village Voice liked it. One of the executive producers for the Salam documentary is Zakir Thaver. I've interacted with him for another project and I can safely say that he has the requisite energy to see this ambitious project through to the finish.

Check out information about the film here. However, please also consider making a donation for the project - however small or large. The target for the filmmakers is $500,000 - a modest budget for such an ambitious undertaking. Good luck to the filmmakers and I'm looking forward to the documentary.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The planet of reason

Here is NYT review of Anathem by Neal Stephenson - and it deals with themes linked to science & religion:
Set in a world that is similar but not identical to our own, “Anathem” imagines a modern-day monastic order whose members have pledged to live their lives without computers or electronic technology. Having long ago set aside such un­answerable questions as “Does God exist?” these alternative Augustines are free to contemplate issues of math, physics and philosophy; depending on the order they belong to, they are allowed to visit the outside world as much as once a year or as little as once a millennium. (Needless to say, only those members of the latter group with good timing and health care will get to enjoy this benefit.)
and perhaps not too surprisingly, violent disagreements still persist (ok - so not really Vulcan...):
This world has its own Socrates and Plato (a pair of classical philosophers named Thelenes and Protas, who challenged a troupe of freelance rhetoricians similar to the sophists) and equivalents of basic principles like Occam’s razor, the Pythagorean theorem and the parable of the cave presented in Plato’s “Republic,” as if to show that such ideas are so fundamental to intellectual development they must arise in any thinking society, regardless of its history.

Whether you are able to keep track of the differences between these factions (there’s a helpful glossary at the back of the book for dopes like me), it doesn’t obscure Stephenson’s larger point, perhaps the most resonant and consequential in all of “Anathem”: the absence of religion does not prevent passionate and violent disagreements over theoretical matters; such conflagrations can occur even in societies that hold rational thought as their highest virtue. So far, so good, but here comes the heresy.

Eventually, Erasmas spies what he thinks is an alien ship in the sky, leading to his dismissal from his monastery and finally setting the plot of “Anathem” in motion. While his narrator is engaged in his wanderings, Stephenson amuses himself with other interpretations of worship: a faith based on an ancient craftsman and his vision of a triangle in the heavens, and another structured around the unlikely trinity of a condemned man, a magistrate and an innocent girl.
Looks like an interesting book - but a lukewarm reception from the reviewer:
And my reluctant conclusion is that “Anathem” spends so much time engaged in copying, in conjuring up alternative formulations of our real-world science and religion, that it forgets to come up with much that is new or true.
This may still be good enough for people who are interested in issues surrounding science & religion interactions. Read the full review here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Taking care of dualism

Here is a book review from Science of What Science Offers to Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture by Edward Slingerland (you may need access to Science to read the full review).
To describe his project, Edward Slingerland could hardly have chosen a more direct title than What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture. Coming from an academic career in Asian studies and theology (as a nonbeliever), Slingerland (a co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture at the University of British Columbia) prepared by spending the past five years reading widely and deeply in cognitive neurosciences and the philosophy of science. Although he mainly focuses on consciousness, his overall task is to address the befuddled dualism that still dominates most of our intellectual disciplines.

Slingerland's central theme is that everything human has evolved in the interests of the materiality of the body. He identifies objectivist realism and postmodern relativity, both insufficiently attentive to the body, as the major epistemologies to be swept away, followed by the dualism of body and soul. For Slingerland, the presiding genii behind such a cleansing are George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, with heavier debts to Johnson [whose terse summary of embodiment in (1) appeared too late for Slingerland to reference]. They view all thought and human behavior as generated by the body and expressed as conceptual metaphors that translate physical categories (such as forward, backward, up, and down) into abstract categories (such as progress, benightedness, divinity, immorality). These body-driven metaphors, Slingerland writes, are a "set of limitations on human cognition, constraining human conceptions of entities, categories, causation, physics, psychology, biology, and other humanly relevant domains."
And sure enough, he addresses the issue of self, consciousness, and dualism head-on:

Our million billion synapses produce a "person" with the illusion of a self. Slingerland holds that "we are robots designed to be constitutionally incapable of experiencing ourselves and other conspecifics as robots." Our innate and overactive theory of mind (that other people, like ourselves, have "intentions") projects agency onto everything--in the past, even onto stones and trees. The "hard problem" for philosophy of consciousness (to use David Chalmers's phrase) remains: what are thoughts, cogitations, thinkers, qualia? Chalmers's solution, alas, swept away Cartesian dualism only to sneak his own magic spook, conscious experience (for him, on par with mass, charge, and space-time), in through the back door (2, 3).

Slingerland starts with Darwin and eventually follows Daniel Dennett so far as to agree that consciousness can be done full justice through third-person descriptions that require no mysterious, unaccounted-for, nonmaterial, first-person entity as substrate. Thus the famous "Mary," who intellectually knows everything there is to know about color despite having been sequestered for life in a color-free lab, will recognize red the first time she steps outside (4). And Thomas Nagel's famous bats don't know anything about bathood that we can't figure out for ourselves from observation (5). No first-person construct, no locus of consciousness, need be invoked.

The next step, if you want to go so far (the jury is out), is to eliminate consciousness altogether, because there's nothing for it to do that can't be done without it. And with it, you need a spook to keep the show on the road. Choose your insoluble problem: eliminate consciousness altogether as superfluous or explain it (if there's really a you who makes such choices). Slingerland prefers the first option.

Here is his conclusion regarding the mind-body dualism:
His conclusion, which I can hardly do justice to here, is relatively satisfying. He notes that although we don't have great difficulty knowing that Earth revolves around the Sun while feeling that the Sun is rising and setting (Dennett's favorite example of folk psychology), "no cognitively undamaged human being can help acting like and at some level really feeling that he or she is free"--however nonsensical the notion of agencyless free will (i.e., "choices" without a self to make them). Still, once the corrosive acid of Darwinism [to use Dennett's figure from (6)] has resolved the body-mind dualism into body alone, some but not most of us are able "to view human beings simultaneously under two descriptions: as physical systems and as persons."
Oh boy - here is free-will again. I like Dennett's analogy here - and I'm quite happy to have just an illusion of control. I think it is great how Slingerland wants to bring developments in cognitive science (and other related areas) into the humanities. Here is a link to the book.

"Yazidis" in the Iraqi religious mix...

Regarding Iraq, we usually hear about the Shia's, the Sunnis and the Kurds. Here is a NYT article about a small religious sect, the Yazidis and they are caught between the power struggle between the Kurds and some Sunni groups:
The people here are Yazidis, adherents of an ancient religion with roots in Zoroastrianism. Iraqi and American officials pinned responsibility for the bombings on Sunni Arab extremists, who consider the Yazidis devil worshipers.
From what little I know about the this group, their roots are more complicated than just Zoroastrianism. Here is a description of their religion from an earlier Reuters article:
- The Yazidi religion is a syncretic combination of Zoroastrian, Manichaean, Jewish, Nestorian Christian and Islam.

-- The Yazidi themselves are thought to be descended from supporters of the Umayyad caliph Yazid I.


-- They believe that they were created quite separately from the rest of mankind, not even being descended from Adam, and they have kept themselves strictly segregated from the people among whom they live.

-- Yazidis are antidualists; they deny the existence of evil and therefore also reject sin, the devil, and hell.

-- The Yazidi relate that, when the devil repented of his sin of pride before God, he was pardoned and replaced in his previous position as chief of the angels; this has often resulted in Yazidis being described as devil worshippers.

-- Sheikh Adi, the chief Yazidi saint, was a 12th century Muslim mystic whom the Yazidi believe to have achieved divinity through metempsychosis.


-- The Yazidi religious centre and object of the annual pilgrimage is the tomb of Sheikh Adi, located at a former Christian monastery in a town north of Mosul.

An intriguing mix of beliefs and an interesting view of being created separately from other humans. In any case, they face some serious challenges:

With tensions between Yazidis and Sunni Arabs growing, even Yazidis who bristle under the Kurdish presence say they would vote to join the Kurdish region in a referendum, if only for the security.

There is a further problem, though. The Sinjar area is separated from Kurdistan by a vast stretch of land occupied by Arab tribes that maintain friendly relationships with the Kurds but have no intention of joining Kurdistan.

The near impossibility of attaching the Sinjar area to Iraqi Kurdistan has prompted some local Yazidis — as well as some American military officials — to suspect that the Kurds are using these areas as leverage, a bargaining chip for political negotiations over the status of Kirkuk. Kurdish officials deny that this is the case, insisting that a popular referendum is the only way to redress Mr. Hussein’s demographic manipulation.

All of which leaves the largely peaceful Yazidis of Qahtaniya in the all-too-familiar position for Iraqi minorities of existing between two antagonistic forces. As the 2007 bombings made horrifyingly clear, that can be an extremely dangerous place to be.
Now their numbers are small - and even without violence, there is a good chance that this religion may more or less disappear soon. How should we feel about it? Many adherents will most likely be assimilated into another religion. But should we lament the loss (of diversity/culture) or celebrate the demise of a (another?) religion (ala Dawkins, Harris et al.)? As much as I want the world to be free of magical and supernatural beliefs, I do feel a sense of loss here.

Read the full article here.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Parrots and the Divine

Here is an interesting essay on parrots from the NYT Book Review (hat tip Olga Gershenson). It has some fascinating connections to religion. For instance, here is a story of Apsethos the Libyan - and an excellent advertisement for the skeptics movement:
Gardner’s plot is spectacularly convoluted, though perhaps less strange than the tale of Apsethos the Libyan, which was apparently believed by several historians in classical times. Apsethos taught a flock of caged parrots to say, “Apsethos is a god,” and then released them all over the country in the hope that gullible folk would believe them. This ruse was allegedly foiled by a wily Greek who recaptured some of them and taught them to recite instead, “Apsethos compelled us to say that he is a god.”
And if this doesn't satisfy you, how about the story of a giant parrot welcoming you to paradise:
The most celebrated parrot in 19th-century literature was itself apparently mistaken for God. This is Loulou, in Flaubert’s story “A Simple Heart” — which was partly inspired by a newspaper report of a man driven mad by unrequited love, who lived alone with a parrot that he came to regard as holy. Loulou’s owner, Félicité, is a pious and very unfortunate servant whose only consolation is her adored bird, which she somehow connects with the Holy Spirit. Flaubert describes how, on her deathbed, Félicité seems to see the heavens open to reveal a gigantic Loulou welcoming her up to paradise.
I know about cats as gods - but now I have a new found respect for parrots. Read this fascinating history of fictional and non-fictional parrots.

Religion and the Enlightenment?

Here is a review of The Religious Enlightenment Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna by David Sorkin. The book argues that the Enlightenment was not just a secular phenomenon, but it also shaped religion of the 18th century (and from the title it appears that it did so in a very multiculti way):

But contrary to this “secular master narrative,” he argues, “the Enlightenment was not only compatible with religious belief,” it actually generated new formulations of that belief.

Such theological formulations were no less an essential part of Enlightenment thought, he insists, than the deist, materialist or antireligious ideas often identified with it and regularly wheeled into the front lines of today’s cultural and political wars.

In “The Religious Enlightenment,” a book published in August by Princeton University Press, Dr. Sorkin aims at nothing less than “to revise our understanding of the Enlightenment.”

Building on recent scholarship highlighting the ideological and geographical diversity of 18th century thought, Dr. Sorkin posits a specifically religious Enlightenment that not only shared characteristics across confessional lines as well as national borders — hence his book’s subtitle, “Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna”— but also “may have had more influential adherents and exerted more power in its day than either the moderate or the radical version of the Enlightenment.”

Leading thinkers of this religious Enlightenment, he explains, sought a “reasonable” faith that was answerable to contemporary science and philosophy, and not grounded merely on dogmatic authority, pure emotion or fascination with the miraculous.

And to achieve this, it relied on the principle of "accommodation":

These thinkers agreed with deists that there was a kind of “natural religion,” basic truths about God and morality accessible to reasoning people. Natural religion was not a rival or alternative, however, to revealed religion. It was a prelude, a necessary but insufficient foundation for belief. Without a further belief resting on revelation, reason was likely to end in skepticism and immorality.

To interpret this revelation, a.k.a., the Bible, leaders of the religious Enlightenment generally employed the principle of “accommodation”: the conviction that God had “accommodated” humanity’s limited understanding by using language, imagery and stories suited to particular ages and cultures. The transcendent truths of sacred texts had to be extracted from what was historically conditioned.

It seems that it lies closer to deism in the spectrum of beliefs (or unbeliefs..).

The French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath not only destroyed the religious Enlightenment in practice; it also created, as Dr. Sorkin notes, a “religious-secular dichotomy” that condemned this side of the Enlightenment to historical obscurity.

Rescuing it from that obscurity, he insists, is of much more than academic interest.

“The twenty-first century has begun with seemingly unbridgeable chasms between secularism and believers,” Dr. Sorkin writes. “One step in averting such a parlous situation is to recover the notion of an Enlightenment spectrum that, by including the religious Enlightenment, complicates our understanding of belief’s critical and abiding role in modern culture.”

Some interesting points - but I don't think it really compels me to pick up the book. Read the full review here.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Science and Religion lecture series at Hampshire College 2008-09

Laura Sizer and I have been running a science & religion lecture series at Hampshire College. This is the third year and we have a fantastic line-up of speakers. In addition, we have just launched a new website for the lecture series (you can watch videos of past lectures here). The theme for this year is Origins and the Meaning of Life. We have two cosmologists in the fall semester and our spring 2009 lectures are also part of worldwide Darwin celebrations: 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species. If you are in the area (or are planning to visit New England), please join us at the lectures. Here are the lecture dates and bios of our speakers:

Hampshire College Science & Religion lecture dates 2008-09

Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss
Thursday, October 23rd, 2008
5:30pm, FPH, Main Lecture Hall

Dr. Krauss is Foundation Professor and Director of the Origins Initiative, Co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative, School of Earth and Space Exploration, Beyond Center, and Department of Physics at Arizona State University. He is the author of The Physics of Star Trek, Atom: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth... and Beyond, Quintessence: The Mystery of the Missing Mass, and Hiding in the Mirror: The Mysterious Allure of Extra-Dimensions from Plato to String Theory and Beyond.

Dr. Paul Davies
Thursday, November 20th, 2008
5:30pm, FPH, Main Lecture Hall

Dr. Davies is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and astrobiologist at Arizona State University, where he established BEYOND: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science. He is the author of The Mind of God: The scientific basis for a rational world, How to build a Time Machine, and The Cosmic Jackpot: Why our universe is just right for life.

Dr. John F. Haught
Thursday, February 26th, 2009
5:30pm, FPH, Main Lecture Hall

Dr. Haught is Senior Fellow in Science & Religion at the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University. He was formerly Chair and Professor in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University. He is the author of several books including Deeper Than Darwin: The Prospect for Religion in the Age of Evolution, God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, and God and the New Atheism: A critical response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens.

Dr. Philip Kitcher
Thursday, April 2nd, 2009
5:30pm, FPH, Main Lecture Hall

Dr. Kitcher is John Dewey Professor of Philosophy and James Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University. He is the author of Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism, In Mendel's Mirror: Philosophical reflections on biology, and Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design and the Future of Faith.

For more information on the Lecture Series please visit

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

A more nuanced article on Pakistan

The topic of Pakistan is now a regular feature in the Presidential campaign. Here is an excellent article by Robert Kaplan that addresses questions beyond the bombing of high value targets inside Pakistan. It is a sobering analysis and worth thinking about:
Indeed, after seven years of war in the region, it’s time to ask a very impolite set of questions: If we did, by chance, capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, would Afghanistan still matter? Would there be public support for sending more American troops to stabilize a country that has rarely in its history enjoyed strong central government and that abuts a tribal area in Pakistan that neither the British nor the Pakistanis have ever been able to control? Is the war in Afghanistan, deep down, anything more than a manhunt for a handful of individuals? And if it is, how do we define victory there?

After all, Afghanistan is not the only ungovernable space with an Islamic setting around the world that can provide a base for terrorists who want to attack the United States. The world is full of them: from Somalia to the southern Philippines to the Indonesian archipelago. Better, perhaps, not to be tied down with thousands of troops in one or two places, and instead use sophisticated, high-tech covert means to hunt down hostile groups wherever they crop up. The problem with Osama bin Laden, one could argue, was not that he had a haven in Afghanistan in the 1990s but that he was not pursued there with sufficient vigor.

So, here’s my answer: In fact, Afghanistan is more than a manhunt, and it does matter, for reasons that have not been fully fleshed out by policy makers or the military.

Here he is on Pakistan and he brings up this crucial point of not treating the Taliban as a monolithic entity or worse, making it synonymous with Al-Qaeda:

Yet Pakistan is salvageable: it has an expanding urban middle class, and recent elections have by and large seen the defeat of religious extremists in favor of moderates. Pakistan’s future may hinge on the degree to which the United States can work with the Pakistani military to keep the Taliban rebellion from expanding not only throughout Afghanistan, but into Pakistan’s own cities as well.

Paradoxically, that will mean making deals with some Taliban groups against others. For the Taliban are not a monolithic organization, but bands of ornery Pashtun backwoodsmen who have been cut out of the power base in Afghanistan by an increasingly corrupt and ineffectual government in Kabul. They are not Al Qaeda: they lack a well-defined worldview and some are susceptible to political entreaties. But if our drone air strikes are not accompanied by nation-building steps like constructing roads and water wells, we will fail and Pakistan will be further destabilized.

A failure in Afghanistan that destabilized Pakistan would do India no favors. Indeed, Pakistan would not go quietly into history. Sindhi and Baluchi separatists talk openly of an alliance with India if Pakistan unravels. But India, while its intelligence services now and then stoke Baluchi separatism, is terrified of such a development.

In the end, victory in Afghanistan can be defined by achieving the kind of security there that existed in the 1960s, when King Zahir Shah controlled the major cities and the roads connecting them, and a relative peace reigned. Even under a weak central government, Afghanistan could finally achieve economic salvation: the construction of a web of energy pipelines that have been envisioned for years connecting Central Asia with the Indian Ocean. These might run, for example, from the natural gas fields of Turkmenistan down through Afghanistan and into the dense population zones of Pakistan and India, with terminals at ports like Gwadar in Pakistani Baluchistan and Surat in the Indian state of Gujarat.

Well..paradoxically, this search for a stable government was the genesis of the Taliban movement. Pakistan created/backed the Taliban in search of a group that can end the civil war that raged in Afghanistan after the US packed up its tents and left at the end of the Cold war. And every thing went right after that...right? Still, some sort of order is immediately needed in Afghanistan.

In other words, in Afghanistan we are not simply trying to save a country, but to give a whole region a new kind of prosperity and stability, united rather than divided by energy needs, that would be implicitly pro-American.

Indeed, a main reason the Pakistanis have been hesitant to work with us in the tribal areas is their fear that a manhunt is all we care about, rather than the region’s long-term prospects. The Pakistanis take note of our burgeoning strategic partnership with India, even as they believe that India’s recent opening of several consulates in Afghanistan is aimed at helping Baluchi separatists weaken Pakistan.

Consequently, they feel squeezed, and on the brink of being deserted by us once we track down Al Qaeda’s leading figures. Afghanistan is a strategic rear base that India and Pakistan are now fighting over; both countries fear chaos there and desperately want us to calm it.

What the Pentagon calls the “long war” is the defining geopolitical issue of our time, and Afghanistan is at its heart. The fate of Eurasia hangs in the balance.

Hmm...ok. Now we can all sleep tight - everything is just fine. Too bad Afghanistan is not visible from Alaska - otherwise we would have all the solutions already. Read the full article here.

As an aside, check out this New Yorker fictional story set in Pakistan: A Spoiled Man by Daniyal Mueenuddin. It nicely provides a slice of the culture - but in some ways it also reminded me of the story of Job.

Science & Religion conference in Amsterdam

If you reside in Europe or are going to be there in December, here is a conference to think about: Science and Religion: The Meaning of Life. The speakers include Bas Haring, Bert Theunissen, David Linden, Jan van Hooff, Cees Dekker, Dick Swaab and Alister McGrath. I will be in Pakistan at the time - but here is a chance to answer some big questions.

Jasper Winkel is organizing this and he was also behind the 2007 conference, Brains, Technology and the Future and you can find videos of those sessions at this website under Extras.

Monday, October 06, 2008

NYT review of "Nothing to be frightened of"

I'm back from my trip from Omaha and LA (more on that later) - but here is a note about a book review. Just last week I had commented on Weinberg's view of life in the absence of God and contrasted it with Sagan's more upbeat outlook. On cue, yesterday's NYT has a review of a new book, Nothing to be frightened of by Julian Barnes, and his views fall somewhere in the middle of Weinberg and Sagan spectrum.
“I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him,” the book begins. Julian Barnes, an atheist turned agnostic, has decided at the age of 62 to address his fear of death — why should an agnostic fear death who has no faith in an afterlife? How can you be frightened of Nothing? On this simple question Barnes has hung an elegant memoir and meditation, a deep seismic tremor of a book that keeps rumbling and grumbling in the mind for weeks thereafter.
The Christian religion has lasted because it is a “beautiful lie, . . . a tragedy with a happy ending,” and yet he misses the sense of purpose and belief that he finds in the Mozart Requiem, the paintings of Donatello — “I miss the God that inspired Italian painting and French stained glass, German music and English chapter houses, and those tumbledown heaps of stone on Celtic headlands which were once symbolic beacons in the darkness and the storm.” Barnes is not comforted by the contemporary religion of therapy, the “secular modern heaven of self-­fulfilment: the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, . . . the accumulation of sexual exploits, the visits to the gym, the consumption of culture. It all adds up to happiness, doesn’t it — doesn’t it? This is our chosen myth.”
But for the alternative, Barnes seems to be closer to Weinberg than Sagan, and finds little solace in science:

So Barnes turns toward the strict regime of science and here is little comfort indeed. We are all dying. Even the sun is dying. Homo sapiens is evolving toward some species that won’t care about us whatsoever and our art and literature and scholarship will fall into utter oblivion. Every author will eventually become an unread author. And then humanity will die out and beetles will rule the world. A man can fear his own death but what is he anyway? Simply a mass of neurons. The brain is a lump of meat and the soul is merely “a story the brain tells itself.” Individuality is an illusion. Scientists find no physical evidence of “self” — it is something we’ve talked ourselves into. We do not produce thoughts, thoughts produce us. “The ‘I’ of which we are so fond properly exists only in grammar.” Stripped of the Christian narrative, we gaze out on a landscape that, while fascinating, offers nothing that one could call Hope. (Barnes refers to “American hopefulness” with particular disdain.)

“There is no separation between ‘us’ and the universe.” We are simply matter, stuff. “Individualism — the triumph of free-thinking artists and scientists — has led to a state of self-awareness in which we can now view ourselves as units of genetic obedience.”

Aah...but this is Sagan used the same facts to create a positive narrative. Yes, Sun will eventually die, but some of its material will be used in creating new stars and new life. Indeed, there is no separation between "us" and the universe, but again, that is all the more reason to celebrate our intimate connection with the universe. Where Sagan finds comfort in the story of the unfolding universe, Barnes, being a novelist, finds hope in the human drama:

All true so far as it goes, perhaps, but so what? Barnes is a novelist and what gives this book life and keeps the reader happily churning forward is his affection for the people who wander in and out, Grandma Scoltock in her hand-knitted cardigan reading The Daily Worker and cheering on Mao Zedong,while Grandpa watched “Songs of Praise” on television, did woodwork and raised dahlias, and killed chickens with a green metal machine screwed to the doorjam that wrung their necks. The older brother who teaches philosophy, keeps llamas and likes to wear knee breeches, buckle shoes, a brocade waistcoat. We may only be units of genetic obedience, but we do love to look at each ­other. Barnes tells us he keeps in a drawer his parents’ stuff, all of it, their scrapbooks, ration cards, cricket score cards, Christmas card lists, certificates of Perfect Attendance, a photo album of 1913 entitled “Scenes From Highways & Byways,” old postcards (“We arrived here safely, and, except for the ham sandwiches, we were satisfied with the journey”). The simple-minded reader savors this sweet lozenge of a detail. We don’t deny the inevitability of extinction, but we can’t help being fond of that postcard.

Looks like a fantastic read. Garrison Keillor certainly thinks so:

I don’t know how this book will do in our hopeful country, with the author’s bleak face on the cover, but I will say a prayer for retail success. It is a beautiful and funny book, still booming in my head.

Read the full review here.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Sagan and Reagan

Matthew Nisbet at Framing Science asks whether Sagan and Reagan were the dominant public communicators of the 1980s:

Were Ronald Reagan and Carl Sagan the dominant communicators of the 1980s? Watching this past week the PBS American Experience biopic on Reagan reinforced in my mind the parallels between the president and the astronomer that I have mentioned at this blog before and during Q&A at talks.

The Great Communicator and the Showman for Science coined the dominant metaphors of the 1980s, Reagan referring to the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire" and Sagan re-casting the strategic arms race in terms of "nuclear winter."

It is clear from Sagan's writings and his biography that he really did not like Reagan and at one point also refused a dinner invitation at the White House - and from their positions, we can see why. But Nisbet brings up a good point about their attitude towards religion:

Both also understood the need to reach out to religious publics to achieve strategic goals. Reagan, a believer in biblical Armageddon, gave his famous "evil empire" speech to a meeting of Evangelical leaders, calling on them to "speak out" in their churches against a nuclear freeze.

The atheist Sagan, in advocating his "nuclear winter" hypothesis, traveled with a delegation of scientists to the Vatican to give a research briefing for Pope John Paul, who subsequently issued a statement against nuclear build-up. Based on the meeting's success, Sagan came away convinced of the need to emphasize the common goals between scientists and religious publics in solving world problems. Later he would use the same strategy in calling attention to global warming.

Today, E.O. Wilson is playing Sagan's role and is reaching out to Evangelicals on the common stance on climate change and on the preservation of biodiversity.

Read the full post here (it includes a clip from the Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech).

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

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