Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Off-Topic: Ahmed Rashid on Fresh Air

Here is an excellent Fresh Air interview with Ahmed Rashid on the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is very good and he certainly knows a lot about Taliban (he was writing about them way before 2001). Here he lays out the complexities quite nicely. At the mid-way point, he makes an interesting point about US missile strikes in the Pakistani tribal areas: he says that because these strikes have been successful in taking out some key targets, many of the Taliban leaders are now moving into the settled areas of Pakistan, including major cities.

Oh boy. So will there be a US missile strike, say on Peshawar or Quetta? This is something that the US must be evaluating. This is not so far-fetched either - but it will likely stir up nationalism that may end up serving the Taliban.

However, its good to see that Ahmed Rashid is optimistic about the direction of Obama policies. Lets hope he is right about the direction of the new policies. Here is Rashid's new book, Descent into Chaos.

Monday, November 24, 2008

In Pakistan next week

I'm planning on going to Pakistan next week for a short visit. I'm going there after about a year and a half - and it seems that things have...hmm...worsened a bit over there. But it will be good to have some feel for how people are viewing the current situation in the tribal areas. I am spending most of my time in Rawalpindi/Islamabad, but I will be in Karachi on Dec 4-5th. If you are in Pakistan and interested in a talk on science and religion, I will be giving a talk at the physics department of Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) in Islamabad on Dec 2nd. The title is Science, Religion and the Search for our Origins. I will also be giving this talk in Karachi on December 4th at The Second Floor at 7pm.

On the current situation in Pakistan, yesterday's NYT had an excellent op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristoff about education efforts in Pakistan's tribal areas. Here is his video report (it gives a nice idea of the schools) and here is the part of the column that focuses on education:

Fourth, let’s focus on education. One reason the country is such a mess today is that half of all Pakistanis are illiterate.

In the southern Punjab a couple of days ago, I dropped in on a rural elementary school where only one teacher had bothered to show up that day. He was teaching the entire student body under a tree, in part because the school doesn’t have desks for the first three grades.

One happy note: I visited a school run by a California-based aid group, Developments in Literacy, which represents a successful American effort to fight extremism. DIL is financed largely by Pakistani-Americans trying to “give back,” and it runs 150 schools in rural Pakistan, teaching girls in particular.

Tauseef Hyat, the Islamabad-based executive director of DIL, notes that originally the plan was to operate just primary schools, but then a group of 11-year-old girls threatened to go on hunger strike unless DIL helped them continue their education in high school. Ms. Hyat caved, and some of those girls are now studying to become doctors.

Mr. Obama should make his first presidential trip to Pakistan — and stop at a DIL school to remind Pakistan’s army and elites that their greatest enemy isn’t India but illiteracy.
What an excellent effort by DIL. Read the full article here and here is the website of DIL.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Remains identified - Copernicus

Finally, found Copernicus!
Researchers said Thursday they have identified the remains of Nicolaus Copernicus by comparing DNA from a skeleton and hair retrieved from one of the 16th-century astronomer's books. The findings could put an end to centuries of speculation about the exact resting spot of Copernicus, a priest and astronomer whose theories identified the Sun, not the Earth, as the center of the universe.

Polish archaeologist Jerzy Gassowski told a news conference that forensic facial reconstruction of the skull, missing the lower jaw, his team found in 2005 buried in a Roman Catholic Cathedral in Frombork, Poland, bears striking resemblance to existing portraits of Copernicus.

The reconstruction shows a broken nose and other features that resemble a self-portrait of Copernicus, and the skull bears a cut mark above the left eye that corresponds with a scar shown in the painting.

Moreover, the skull belonged to a man aged around 70 — Copernicus's age when he died in 1543.

"In our opinion, our work led us to the discovery of Copernicus's remains but a grain of doubt remained," Gassowski said.

So, in the next stage, Swedish genetics expert Marie Allen analyzed DNA from a vertebrae, a tooth and femur bone and matched and compared it to that taken from two hairs retrieved from a book that the 16th-century Polish astronomer owned, which is kept at a library of Sweden's Uppsala University where Allen works.
But Julianne at Cosmic Variance asks a more relevant follow-up question:

While exercises like this are of historical interest, to me they’ve always raised the question as to when a set of remains becomes fair game for mucking about. If you were to dig up poor great aunt Edna, extract her skull, and sent it off to a lab in Sweden, you might be looked upon as being disrespectful or worse. But, digging about to find the remains of Copernicus is apparently completely OK, and was actually ordered by the local Catholic bishop. So when does this happen? Is there something like the copyright system where the right to be outraged by disturbance of a grave expires after a certain number of years? Is it more like radioactivity of the soul, where the connection to something sacred fades with an e-folding time?

It’s certainly a culturally loaded question as well. Locally, a set of 9000 year old remains found in the Pacific Northwest were the subject of dispute. Local tribes claimed Kennewick Man as one of their ancestors, and requested that the remains be given back to the Umatilla tribe for reburial. Scientists, on the other hand, wanted to continue to study the remains, and argued that testing showed that the skeleton was unlikely to have actually been a member of one of the tribes. There are on-going law suits to repatriate native american skeletons to their tribes. So obviously different cultures have different standards for when it’s acceptable to study their dead, and Copernicus lost out.

Hey - don't assume what Copernicus wanted. May be he enjoyed being dug out - it may have gotten a bit boring being under the Earth since the 16th century.

Read the full story here.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A monument for the soul from 8th century BC

Soul without the body. Here is a story about the discovery of a monument from 8th century BC dedicated to a soul in residence:
In a mountainous kingdom in what is now southeastern Turkey, there lived in the eighth century B.C. a royal official, Kuttamuwa, who oversaw the completion of an inscribed stone monument, or stele, to be erected upon his death. The words instructed mourners to commemorate his life and afterlife with feasts “for my soul that is in this stele.”

University of Chicago archaeologists who made the discovery last summer in ruins of a walled city near the Syrian border said the stele provided the first written evidence that the people in this region held to the religious concept of the soul apart from the body. By contrast, Semitic contemporaries, including the Israelites, believed that the body and soul were inseparable, which for them made cremation unthinkable, as noted in the Bible.

Circumstantial evidence, archaeologists said, indicated that the people at Sam’al, the ancient city, practiced cremation. The site is known today as Zincirli (pronounced ZIN-jeer-lee).

Other scholars said the find could lead to important insights into the dynamics of cultural contact and exchange in the borderlands of antiquity where Indo-European and Semitic people interacted in the Iron Age.

“Normally, in the Semitic cultures, the soul of a person, their vital essence, adheres to the bones of the deceased,” said David Schloen, an archaeologist at the university’s Oriental Institute and director of the excavations. “But here we have a culture that believed the soul is not in the corpse but has been transferred to the mortuary stone.”

A translation of the inscription by Dennis Pardee, a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization at Chicago, reads in part: “I, Kuttamuwa, servant of [the king] Panamuwa, am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living. I placed it in an eternal chamber [?] and established a feast at this chamber: a bull for [the god] Hadad, a ram for [the god] Shamash and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.”
And with roasted duck, their afterlife doesn't seem so bad:
In addition to the writing, a pictorial scene chiseled into the well-preserved stele depicts the culture’s view of the afterlife. A bearded man wearing a tasseled cap, presumably Kuttamuwa, raises a cup of wine and sits before a table laden with food, bread and roast duck in a stone bowl.
Read the full story here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Paul Davies at Hampshire College on Thursday

As part of our Hampshire College lecture series on Science & Religion, we will have Dr. Paul Davies as our speaker on Thursday, November 20th. 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.

Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion Presents

Origin of the Laws of Physics
Dr. Paul Davies

Thursday, November 20, 2008
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College

Orthodox science treats the laws of physics as timeless, immutable and universal mathematical relationships that were imprinted on the universe from birth. The origin and form of the laws is considered to be beyond the scope of science. Recently, however, some physicists and cosmologists have puzzled that the laws of physics seem to be weirdly well-suited for life, in the sense that even small changes would not permit the existence of living organisms and hence observers. One attempt to explain this “fine tuning” of the laws is to invoke a multiverse of universes, each with its own laws. In my lecture I shall critically examine the multiverse theory, and other responses to the enigma of our “Goldilocks universe.”

Dr. Paul 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, How to Build a Time Machine, and Cosmic Jackpot.
Upcoming lecture:

* Dr. John Haught, Thursday, February 26, 2009

For more information on the Lecture Series, please visit

Monday, November 17, 2008

Can atheists be nice?

Here is an excellent article by Paul Bloom on what makes us behave nicely to others. No - its not religion - and atheists can be nice too:
Arguments about the merits of religions are often battled out with reference to history, by comparing the sins of theists and atheists. (I see your Crusades and raise you Stalin!) But a more promising approach is to look at empirical research that directly addresses the effects of religion on how people behave.

In a review published in Science last month, psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff discuss several experiments that lean pro-Schlessinger. In one of their own studies, they primed half the participants with a spirituality-themed word jumble (including the words divine and God) and gave the other half the same task with nonspiritual words. Then, they gave all the participants $10 each and told them that they could either keep it or share their cash reward with another (anonymous) subject. Ultimately, the spiritual-jumble group parted with more than twice as much money as the control. Norenzayan and Shariff suggest that this lopsided outcome is the result of an evolutionary imperative to care about one's reputation. If you think about God, you believe someone is watching. This argument is bolstered by other research that they review showing that people are more generous and less likely to cheat when others are around. More surprisingly, people also behave better when exposed to posters with eyes on them.

Maybe, then, religious people are nicer because they believe that they are never alone. If so, you would expect to find the positive influence of religion outside the laboratory. And, indeed, there is evidence within the United States for a correlation between religion and what might broadly be called "niceness."

Ah...but the US is the odd ball:

It is at this point that the "We need God to be good" case falls apart. Countries worthy of consideration aren't those like North Korea and China, where religion is savagely repressed, but those in which people freely choose atheism. In his new book, Society Without God, Phil Zuckerman looks at the Danes and the Swedes—probably the most godless people on Earth. They don't go to church or pray in the privacy of their own homes; they don't believe in God or heaven or hell. But, by any reasonable standard, they're nice to one another. They have a famously expansive welfare and health care service. They have a strong commitment to social equality. And—even without belief in a God looming over them—they murder and rape one another significantly less frequently than Americans do.

Denmark and Sweden aren't exceptions. A 2005 study by Gregory Paul looking at 18 democracies found that the more atheist societies tended to have relatively low murder and suicide rates and relatively low incidence of abortion and teen pregnancy.

Here is the resolution:

The first step to solving this conundrum is to unpack the different components of religion. In my own work, I have argued that all humans, even young children, tacitly hold some supernatural beliefs, most notably the dualistic view that bodies and minds are distinct. (Most Americans who describe themselves as atheists, for instance, nonetheless believe that their souls will survive the death of their bodies.) Other aspects of religion vary across cultures and across individuals within cultures. There are factual beliefs, such as the idea that there exists a single god that performs miracles, and moral beliefs, like the conviction that abortion is murder. There are religious practices, such as the sacrament or the lighting of Sabbath candles. And there is the community that a religion brings with it—the people who are part of your church, synagogue, or mosque.

The positive effect of religion in the real world, to my mind, is tied to this last, community component—rather than a belief in constant surveillance by a higher power. Humans are social beings, and we are happier, and better, when connected to others. This is the moral of sociologist Robert Putnam's work on American life. In Bowling Alone, he argues that voluntary association with other people is integral to a fulfilled and productive existence—it makes us "smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy."

The Danes and the Swedes, despite being godless, have strong communities. In fact, Zuckerman points out that most Danes and Swedes identify themselves as Christian. They get married in church, have their babies baptized, give some of their income to the church, and feel attached to their religious community—they just don't believe in God. Zuckerman suggests that Scandinavian Christians are a lot like American Jews, who are also highly secularized in belief and practice, have strong communal feelings, and tend to be well-behaved.

I think this is an excellent point. I've had many (ok - may be several) conversations with Muslims, both in Pakistan and in the US, who are very happy to be identified as cultural Muslims - but feel that they get pushed out of the community for the lack of overt piety. Perhaps Paul Bloom can be invited to give some public lectures.

Read the full article here.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Naturalistic worldview and the ethics of eating meat

Oh boy - here is an excellent Point of Inquiry interview, Vegetarianism and Secular Ethics, with philosopher, Peter Singer - and he is quite convincing about the case for adopting vegetarianism The best thing about the interview is his discussion of religion regarding some of these ethical questions. At one point he also talks about the early Christian ideas of "personhood" and how it related to the doctrine of Trinity. Good stuff!

Now, I will be in Pakistan next month during Eid ul Adha - the Muslim festival of animal sacrifice (I think its around Dec 8th). The last time I was there for Eid al Adha was at least 15 years ago. I do vividly remember some of the goat sacrifices while growing up, but I think it will be hard to stomach it this time. But I'm not a vegetarian - so yes, my position regarding this is definitely inconsistent.

If you have 25 minutes, do check out this interview - its totally worth it. Also - you can check out the first part, Ethics in the age of Darwin.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Jihadists on the couch

I guess inspired by Tony Soprano. Here is an article about Deprogramming Jihadists and it talks about Saudi efforts to rehabilitate extremists. While this appears to be a positive move, the problem still lies with the Saudi education system (even in Islamic schools in England) and a black & white worldview:
Jilani’s students, who range in age from 18 to 36, are part of a generation brought up on heroic tales of Saudi fighters who left home to fight alongside the mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the 1980s and who helped to force the Soviets to withdraw from the country. The Saudi state was essentially built on the concept of jihad, which King Abdul Aziz al-Saud used to knit disparate tribal groups into a single nation. The word means “struggle” and in Islamic law usually refers to armed conflict with non-Muslims in defense of the global Islamic community. Saudi schools teach a version of world history that emphasizes repeated battles between Muslims and nonbelieving enemies. Whether to Afghanistan in the 1980s or present-day Iraq, Saudi Arabia has exported more jihadist volunteers than any other country; 15 of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 were Saudis.
And what do you need for stability? a job, a car, and a wife (ok..but what about potential ex-jihadi husbands for women who have done nothing wrong):
(t)he new program also addresses the psychological needs and emotional weaknesses that have led many young men to jihad in the first place. It tries to give frustrated and disaffected young men the trappings of stability — a job, a car, possibly a wife. Though international human rights groups continue to sound the alarm about Saudi Arabia’s habit of detaining suspects without charging them and of punishing certain crimes with floggings and amputations, these young men seem to have become the subjects of a continuing experiment in counterterrorism as a kind of social work.
hmm..why does it remind me a little of 1984? But here is the bit about therapy:

Though it might seem out of place in a society whose religion proscribes the representation of animal or human forms, art therapy is practiced. Awad al-Yami, who studied the subject at Penn State, leads the classes, and chalk drawings by former jihadists decorate the walls of his classroom. Although the sketches — mostly ornate Arabic calligraphy and depictions of flowers — do not especially suggest that demons are being wrestled with, art therapy helps inmates to examine the consequences of their actions, Yami says. “I ask them, ‘If you blow up a car, what will happen?’ The paper gives them a safe place to express some destructive emotions.”

Most prisoners complete the program within two months. Upon release, each former jihadist is required to sign a pledge that he has forsaken extremist sympathies; the head of his family must sign as well. Some also receive a car (often a Toyota) and aid from the Interior Ministry in renting a home. Social workers assist former jihadists and their families in making post-release plans for education, employment and, usually, marriage. “Getting married stabilizes a man’s personality,” Hadlaq says. “He thinks more about a long term future and less about himself and his anger.”
Ok. But how about opening up the society a bit - and may be they won't have to buy off jihadists like this. Read the full article here.

Colloquium about Mauna Kea controvery at Yale

I have been working with Tracy Leavelle at Creighton University on the controversy over telescopes on top of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. This topic adds variety to the usual science and religion debates. I will be giving a colloquium on this controversy at Yale astronomy department this coming Thursday (11/13) at 2pm. If you are in the area and are interested in the talk, here is the title and the abstract:

Colliding Cosmologies on top of Mauna Kea

In recent times, science & religion have often been framed either as in conflict (much popularized by John Draper and Andrew White in the late 19th century) or as Stephen Jay Gould’s two separate but non-overlapping Magestaria (NOMA). Such discussions usually center on world religions (mostly of Abrahamic tradition) and on the authority to explain questions about our origins. The controversy over telescopes on Mauna Kea, however, is a departure from these standard narratives. The conflict, instead, pitches astronomers who need the mountain-top to better understand the nature of the cosmos, against an indigenous culture, whose cosmology and origin mythology are intimately linked to the top of the mountain – deemed so sacred that only priests are allowed to go to the top. The acceptance of one perspective necessarily comes at the cost of another. There have been ongoing negotiations between the major stakeholders – but how do we put value on science and culture/religion? What is the cost of compromise – both for astronomers and for the native Hawaiians? I will present an analysis of the conflict and place it in the larger context of contemporary science & religion debates.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Science & Religion at Film & History conference

Last weekend I attended the Film & History conference on Film & Science: Fiction, Documentary and Beyond. The range of topics was enormous - from bioethics in films to cinematic extraterrestrials to several sessions on Doctor Who (and at the conference banquet, for some reason I ended up on a table full of Doctor Who experts/fanatics - and no I have never watched a full episode. Apparently the new series is very good). Issues of science & religion interaction, of course, came up in several sessions. Here are a few places that I found interesting:

Everett Hamner from Western Illinois University gave a fantastic talk on probing science & religion interactions through films. While he touched on films like Twelve Monkeys, 2001, Blade Runner etc, he spent most of his time analyzing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (you should definitely check it out if you haven't seen it). For example he talked about the film as an approach to the tension between predestination and free-will (when the protagonist - played by Jim Carrey - feels that he is powerless against the those that are erasing his memories). I actually ended up having a long chat with him afterwards about the possibility of developing a course on science & religion through film and about a research collaboration dealing with the analysis of creationist films.

Another interesting talk was by Tom Prasch from Washburn University. He talked about the use and full acceptance of evolutionary principles in movies like the X-Men, Blade, and Underworld and on TV shows like Heroes. Far from any objections to the theory, the plot in all these films is driven by mutations and evolutionary principles (ok - so they may exaggerate a bit - but still..). His point is that at a time when the teaching of evolution is under siege in schools, these movies are doing a fine job of promoting evolution as a sound and accepted science (hmm...movies doing a better job than schools...).

Then there were talks on post 9/11 disaster films (such as the new War of the Worlds - yes, even though it was terrible) and the depiction of religion in them. One really interesting session was Film and the Apollo Era: Moon Madness - Anxiety, Conspiracy and Spectacle. One of the speakers in the session, Matt Hersch, talked about the depiction of astronauts in fictional films from 1968-1980. The story in these movies was usually driven by breakdowns of astronauts due to stress - something that did not happen to actual Apollo astronauts. So where is the science & religion connection? Well, one of the movies he talked about was The Ninth Configuration. I haven't seen it - but it is about an astronaut who starts questioning his faith under stress. Interestingly, this astronaut character first appeared briefly in The Exorcist, and this whole movie is an expansion of that character. From some of the stills he showed, this movie has some surreal imagery and looks fascinating. Has any one seen this film here? Matt also mentioned that many of the Apollo astronauts (real astronauts - not the fictional ones) actually became more religious, including one Apollo 15 astronaut James Irwin, who later founded a Christian ministry and spent his post Apollo years looking for the Noah's ark. Oh boy...I will try to avoid any lunar jokes at this time.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Monday, November 03, 2008

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Science, faith and Descartes

Here is a NYT review of a new book, Descartes' Bones by Russell Shorto. It provides another example of the complexity of science & religion interactions:
The religious quarrels in which Descartes’s ideas embroiled both himself and his followers are too numerous to count, ranging from the character of transubstantiation in the Eucharist to the possibility that the animal kingdom might exhibit something other than the Bible’s apparent “fixity of the species.” Most of these disputes concern, in one way or another, the challenge posed by the new mechanistic science to classical notions of nature and its ends — that is, to the teleology inherited from Aristotle and codified by churchmen. But, as Shorto em­phasizes, there was another side to Descartes’s project. The philosopher thought he had succeeded not in overturning the true faith but in protecting it from the crumbling edifice of ancient natural science. His mind/body distinction, Shorto notes, has long been invoked in defense of “an eternal realm of thought, belief and ideals that can’t be touched by the prying fingers of science.”

Whether Shorto himself falls into this camp is hard to say, but he offers welcome sympathy to those of us who would like to see today’s discussion of the relationship between science and religion placed on a more civil, informed footing. It is a mistake, he writes, to think that the Enlightenment “set reason firmly against faith and the two have ever since been locked in a death struggle.” Radicals among the trailblazing modern thinkers were more than equally matched by moderates who believed that “reason would function alongside faith to increase human happiness and life span, end disease, reduce suffering of all kinds and give people greater power over nature and greater freedom in their lives.” If the founders of the modern sensibility could bridge this divide, perhaps we can, too.
Ok, so the review is written by the chief external affairs officer of the Templeton Foundation - and the last sentence fits into the Foundation's framework. Whether we agree with this particular sentiment or not, it is important to point out these historical examples to illustrate the varieties of science and religion interactions. The book looks good. Read the full review here.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

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