Monday, March 31, 2008

Hmm...MC Dawkins? Dawkinem?

You have to check this out! (tip from badastronomy)

Fantastic, yes! But which side is this video playing for - pro-science or pro-Intelligent Design?
It appears to me an equal opportunity satire in the tradition of JibJab. It has enough ID in it, that its probably not from the science camp, and it mentions enough creationism to be excluded from the Intelligent Design group (we won't even entertain the possibility of creationists here). But its mighty entertaining - especially with, philsopher, Dennett as a pimp(?). [In case you don't recognize the people, we have, ofcourse, Dawkins, PZ Myers. Darwin, Eugenie Scott, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, and the Machine].

Saturday, March 29, 2008

End of the world as we (don't) know it...

Two men have have filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Hawaii to stop work at the world's largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, located in Europe. They fear that the collider may produce something(s) that may result in the destruction of the Earth, or worse, the destruction of the entire universe. Apart from the nuttiness of these suggestions, my first reaction is: hmm...a particle accelerator that can destroy the entire universe must be very cool (I mean the universe is really really really big, and us, tiny humans, can cause the end of the universe consisting of over a hundred billion galaxies!). But what is going on with the lawsuit:

The world’s physicists have spent 14 years and $8 billion building the Large Hadron Collider, in which the colliding protons will recreate energies and conditions last seen a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Researchers will sift the debris from these primordial recreations for clues to the nature of mass and new forces and symmetries of nature.

But Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho contend that scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, have played down the chances that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a “strangelet” that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called “strange matter.” Their suit also says CERN has failed to provide an environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

And why have the lawsuit against a European collider in Hawaii?

Why should CERN, an organization of European nations based in Switzerland, even show up in a Hawaiian courtroom?

In an interview, Mr. Wagner said, “I don’t know if they’re going to show up.” CERN would have to voluntarily submit to the court’s jurisdiction, he said, adding that he and Mr. Sancho could have sued in France or Switzerland, but to save expenses they had added CERN to the docket here. He claimed that a restraining order on Fermilab and the Energy Department, which helps to supply and maintain the accelerator’s massive superconducting magnets, would shut down the project anyway.

James Gillies, head of communications at CERN, said the laboratory as of yet had no comment on the suit. “It’s hard to see how a district court in Hawaii has jurisdiction over an intergovernmental organization in Europe,” Mr. Gillies said.

Wait a minute. The entire Earth is at risk, and these guys are trying to save expenses!! On a more serious note, physicists do talk about a remote possibility of the production of tiny black holes (which have never been seen before), but still do not expect them to last long (again a process which never been observed):

The Large Hadron Collider is designed to fire up protons to energies of seven trillion electron volts before banging them together. Nothing, indeed, will happen in the CERN collider that does not happen 100,000 times a day from cosmic rays in the atmosphere, said Nima Arkani-Hamed, a particle theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

What is different, physicists admit, is that the fragments from cosmic rays will go shooting harmlessly through the Earth at nearly the speed of light, but anything created when the beams meet head-on in the collider will be born at rest relative to the laboratory and so will stick around and thus could create havoc.

The new worries are about black holes, which, according to some variants of string theory, could appear at the collider. That possibility, though a long shot, has been widely ballyhooed in many papers and popular articles in the last few years, but would they be dangerous?

According to a paper by the cosmologist Stephen Hawking in 1974, they would rapidly evaporate in a poof of radiation and elementary particles, and thus pose no threat. No one, though, has seen a black hole evaporate.

As a result, Mr. Wagner and Mr. Sancho contend in their complaint, black holes could really be stable, and a micro black hole created by the collider could grow, eventually swallowing the Earth.

But William Unruh, of the University of British Columbia, whose paper exploring the limits of Dr. Hawking’s radiation process was referenced on Mr. Wagner’s Web site, said they had missed his point. “Maybe physics really is so weird as to not have black holes evaporate,” he said. “But it would really, really have to be weird.”

Lisa Randall, a Harvard physicist whose work helped fuel the speculation about black holes at the collider, pointed out in a paper last year that black holes would probably not be produced at the collider after all, although other effects of so-called quantum gravity might appear.

As part of the safety assessment report, Dr. Mangano and Steve Giddings of the University of California, Santa Barbara, have been working intensely for the last few months on a paper exploring all the possibilities of these fearsome black holes. They think there are no problems but are reluctant to talk about their findings until they have been peer reviewed, Dr. Mangano said.

Dr. Arkani-Hamed said concerning worries about the death of the Earth or universe, “Neither has any merit.” He pointed out that because of the dice-throwing nature of quantum physics, there was some probability of almost anything happening. There is some minuscule probability, he said, “the Large Hadron Collider might make dragons that might eat us up.”

And here I actually side with the lawsuit - we know dragons are dangerous and can wreak havoc on the planet. Apart from all the silliness, the collider seems awesome and it should be able to address some fundamental questions of particle physics, and, among other things, may even find the elusive Higgs boson. Read the full story here. If you have time, also read this excellent Scientific American article on the Large Hadron Collider.

On a related note of doomsday, some members of a Russian doomsday cult have been living in a cave for the past five months. The members believe that the world is going to end in May of this year. Hmm...and what is the starting date for the Large Hadron Collider? Just a coincidence? :) In any case, seven members of the sect have come out of the cave recently and renewed efforts are underway to get the remaining members out. Read about their latest situation here.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ceremonial donkeys!

Ok..I can see cats being honored (after all they are our masters). May be dogs too. Heck, I can even see sheep being elevated to a higher level. But donkeys??? Well, it appears that at least one Egyptian King, 3000 years ago, had a strong affinity for the animal:

When archaeologists excavated brick tombs outside a ceremonial site for an early king of Egypt, they expected to find the remains of high officials who had been sacrificed to accompany the king in his posthumous travels.

Instead, they found donkeys.

No other animals have ever been found at such sites. Even at the tombs of the kings themselves, the only animals buried alongside were ones full of symbolism like lions.

But at this funerary complex, overlooking the ancient town of Abydos on the Nile about 300 miles south of Cairo, the archaeologists discovered the skeletons of 10 donkeys that had been buried as if they were high-ranking human officials.

“They were very surprised to find no humans and no funerary goods, and instead to find 10 donkeys,” said Fiona Marshall, a professor of archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis.

May be the King thought that his high ranking officials were really asses! (the researchers don't really discuss this possibility...). may be he respected the utility of these donkeys (and not his courtiers):

Donkeys probably made possible long-distance trade routes between the Egyptians and the Sumerians. A genetic study published in 2004 concluded that donkeys were domesticated in northeastern Africa 6,000 years ago or earlier, perhaps in response to a changing climate that dried a lush pre-Sahara into the Sahara. Donkeys were well suited for the task, requiring little water and able to subsist on meager vegetation. “It was the first transport off human backs,” Dr. Marshall said.

The bones of the Abydos donkeys, dating from around 3000 B.C., clearly showed wear from their burdens. At the major joints like shoulders and hips, the bone surfaces were roughened where the cartilage had worn down. Signs of arthritis were seen in areas where the heavy loads would have been carried.

“It’s the first definite evidence for their use as transport animals,” Dr. Marshall said.

But the animals were also in good health and apparently well taken care of, she said. There were no signs of feet or teeth problems. And the beasts were revered.

“This is a very high-status area where these donkeys were buried,” said Matthew D. Adams, a lecturer in Egyptian art and archaeology at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, a member of the team that excavated the graves and a co-author of the donkey article. “And they were buried just like courtiers that were associated with the king. That in itself is a statement on the importance of the donkey as a service animal at this time.”

Ok, I admit that I have been too biased against donkeys - but now I have a newfound respect for this useful but often misrepresented/misunderstood/miscast animal.

To change your perception, read the full story here. And if this doesn't convince you, please read about Monika, who recently retired after 19 years of carrying the character, Sancho Panza, in the Russian ballet, Don Quixote.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Lecture on March 28th - The dance of the fertile universe: Did God do it?

As part of Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion, Dr. George V. Coyne, the Director Emeritus of the Vatican Observatory, will give a lecture on The dance of the fertile universe: Did God do it? If you live in/near western Massachusetts, please join us at the lecture. As usual, we will also be recording the lecture and I will post the video when its available.
Here is the full announcement:
Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion Presents

The dance of the fertile universe: Did God do it?
George V. Coyne, S.J.

Friday, March 28, 2008
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College

Did we come about by chance or by necessity in the evolving universe? Did God make us? Can we conclude that there is Intelligent Design to the universe? To what extent can the natural sciences address these questions? As to chance or necessity the first thing to be said is that the problem is not formulated correctly. It is not just a question of chance or necessity because, first of all, it is both. Furthermore, there is a third element here that is very important. It is what we might call the 'fertility' of the universe. So the dance of the fertile universe is a ballet with three ballerinas: chance, necessity and fertility. What this means is that the universe is so fertile in offering the opportunity for the success of both chance and necessary processes that such a character of the universe must be included in the search for our origins in the universe. In this light I am going to try to present in broad strokes what I think is some of the best of our modern scientific understanding of the universe and then return to the questions above.

George V. Coyne, S.J. is a Jesuit Priest and an astronomer. He is Director Emeritus of the Vatican Observatory and Adjunct Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona. He is the author of Wayfarers in the Cosmos: The Human Quest for Meaning.

Upcoming lecture:
  • Lawrence Krauss, Thursday, October 23, 2008
About the Hampshire College Science & Religion Lecture Series:
This is the second year of a three-year lecture series that aims to bring together philosophers, theologians, historians and scientists to discuss topics in science & religion. The themes for the lecture series are as follows:

2006-2007: Nature, Belief & the Supernatural
2007-2008: A History of Conflict & Cooperation
2008-2009: A Matter of Origins & the Meaning of Life

For more information on the Lecture Series, please visit

Salman Hameed
Assistant Professor of Integrated Science & Humanities
Hampshire College

Laura Sizer
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Hampshire College

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Colbert, Noah's ark, and the Water exhibit

This is hilarious! Here is a clip from the Colbert Report on H2O=Life exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. The expression on the curator's face in this clip is awesome (especially when Colbert is trying to convince her about Noah's flood shaping the Grand canyon).

Sunday, March 23, 2008

PZ Myers, ID nonsense, and the larger context

If you follow any science blogs, you have probably heard about the expulsion of evolutionary biologist, P.Z. Myers from the special screening of Intelligent Design movie Expelled! (yes, yes, everyone has already noted the irony). And the fact that his guest, Richard Dawkins, managed to get in unnoticed. Heck, even the New York Times is tickled by it:

The movie the two scientists wanted to see was “Expelled,” whose online trailer asserts that people in academia who see evidence of supernatural intelligence in biological processes — an idea called “intelligent design” — have unfairly lost their jobs, been denied tenure or suffered other penalties as part of a scientific conspiracy to keep God out of the nation’s laboratories and classrooms.

Dr. Myers asserts that he was unfairly barred from the film, in which both he and Dr. Dawkins appear, and that Dr. Dawkins would have been, too, if people running the screening had realized who he was — a world leader in the field of evolutionary biology.

Read the full article here, and here is P.Z. Myers' take on this incident and the New York Times article.

But wait. Thanks to this electronic age, you can also see Dawkins and PZ Myers talking about the incident:

All of this is well and good. But what does it do to the larger issue of science & religion debate? From the segments I have seen of the film and what I have gathered from Ben Stein's interviews, there is not much of intellectual value in the movie. But the creators of the film would probably love some controversy. The coverage in national newspapers, even for something idiotic, will be welcoming. So its tricky to cover this issue.

On another related thread, Matthew Nisbet at Framing Science, is of the opinion that this PZ Myers Affair is really bad for science. He also refers to the following segment from the film:

Here is Nisbet on the clip:

If you haven't seen this clip yet, above is a preview of the central message on how "Big Science" views religion in the documentary Expelled. There's little work needed on the part of the producers, since the message is spelled out via the interviews provided by PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins.

Notice the very clear translation for audiences as to what supposedly establishment science believes:

A) Learning about science makes you an atheist, it "kills off" religious faith.

B) If we boost science literacy in society, it will lead to erosion of religion, as religion fades away, we will get more and more science, and less and less religion.

C) Religion is a fairy tale, similar to hobgoblins, a fantasy, and even evil.

The simplistic and unscientific claim that more knowledge leads to less religion might be the particular delusion of Dawkins, Myers, and many others, but it is by no means the official position of science, though they often implicitly claim to speak for science. Nor does it stand up to mounds of empirical evidence about the complex relationship between science literacy and public perceptions.

I think he is right about the problems associated with this position. In this particular instant, both scientists and creationists agree that evolutionary ideas necessarily lead to atheism - and this is a bad way to sell evolution (and this is an unscientific claims). However, Dawkins, Myers, and Atkins were mislead about the intentions of the film when they were interviewed. So they did not take the mantle of representing science themselves (at least in this instance). It is ok if they take this position on evolution - but I think other scientists who disagree with their interpretation should speak up about it. I have also been thinking about this problem for Muslim countries - as any link to atheism will lead to a rejection of evolution, without getting a fair hearing. For the time being, the emphasis should be on (methodological) naturalism - and leave atheism (philosophical naturalism) for open interpretation. But we should be prepared to say that philosophical naturalism is a matter of opinion/belief/interpretation, and not an empirical result. More on this later.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Religion (& Science) in the stories of Arthur C Clarke

Articles on Arthur C Clarke are pouring in. Here is another from New York Times that specifically looks at the religious angle of his stories and how he viewed the future of humanity.
“Absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral” were the instructions left by Arthur C. Clarke, who died on Wednesday at the age of 90. This may not have surprised anyone who knew that this science-fiction writer, fabulist, fantasist and deep-sea diver had long seen religion as a symptom of humanity’s “infancy,” something to be outgrown and overcome.

But his fervor is still jarring because when it comes to the scriptural texts of modern science fiction, and the astonishing generation of prophetic innovators who were his contemporaries — Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury — Mr. Clarke’s writings were the most biblical, the most prepared to amplify reason with mystical conviction, the most religious in the largest sense of religion: speculating about beginnings and endings, and how we get from one to the other.

Stanley Kubrick’s film of Mr. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” for example — a project developed with the author — is haunting not for its sci-fi imaginings of artificial intelligence and space-station engineering but for its evocation of humanity’s origins and its vision of a transcendent future embodied in a human fetus poised in space.

The article talks about several of his stories (such as The Nine Billions Names of God and Childhood's End) and then asks if his work is related to religion:

But acts of reason and scientific speculation are just the beginning of his imaginings. Reason alone is insufficient. Something else is required. For anyone who read Mr. Clarke in the 1960s and ’70s, when space exploration and scientific research had an extraordinary sheen, his science fiction made that enterprise even more thrilling by taking the longest and broadest view, in which the achievements of a few decades fit into a vision of epic proportions reaching millenniums into the future. It is no wonder that two generations of scientists were affected by his work.

For all his acclaimed forecasting ability, though, it is unclear whether Mr. Clarke knew precisely what he saw in that future. There is something cold in his vision, particularly when he imagines the evolutionary transformation of humanity. He leaves behind all the things that we recognize and know, and he doesn’t provide much guidance for how to live within the world we recognize and know. In that sense his work has little to do with religion.

Hmm... this seems to be focusing on a very narrow definition of religion. Many of Clarke's stories deal with competing narratives of origin stories, the role of religion/spirituality in the future or in an alien society with different norms, and with struggles of personal faith. In that sense, much of his work has to with religion. Heck, even his burial instructions give us a glimpse on how he wants us to live in the world we recognize and know. Fortunately, the article rescues itself with a better ending:

But overall religion is unavoidable. Mr. Clarke famously — and accurately — said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Perhaps any sufficiently sophisticated science fiction, at least in his case, is nearly indistinguishable from religion.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Arthur C Clarke - "The Star"

You must have heard by now that Arthur C Clarke died early Wednesday. There is a good obituary in today's New York Times and you can read it here (also see this article about Clarke's imagination and his predictions for the future). Many of his stories dealt with the issues of science, religion and the meaning of life. One of my favorite short stories is The Star. I don't want to give anything away - but, appropriately, its theme is connected to this blog. It is really short, and very well written. If you have ten minutes, please read the full story. Here is the beginning, and then you can follow this link.
The Star
Arthur C. Clarke

It is three thousand light-years to the Vatican. Once, I believed that space could have no power over faith, just as I believed the heavens declared the glory of God’s handwork. Now I have seen that handiwork, and my faith is sorely troubled. I stare at the crucifix that hangs on the cabin wall above the Mark VI Computer, and for the first time in my life I wonder if it is no more than an empty symbol.

I have told no one yet, but the truth cannot be concealed. The facts are there for all to read, recorded on the countless miles of magnetic tape and the thousands of photographs we are carrying back to Earth. Other scientists can interpret them as easily as I can, and I am not one who would condone that tampering with the truth which often gave my order a bad name in the olden days.

The crew were already sufficiently depressed: I wonder how they will take this ultimate irony. Few of them have any religious faith, yet they will not relish using this final weapon in their campaign against me—that private, good-natured, but fundamentally serious war which lasted all the way from Earth. It amused them to have a Jesuit as chief astrophysicist: Dr. Chandler, for instance, could never get over it. (Why are medical men such notorious atheists?) Sometimes he would meet me on the observation deck, where the lights are always low so that the stars shine with undiminished glory. He would come up to me in the gloom and stand staring out of the great oval port, while the heavens crawled slowly around us as the ship turned over and over with the residual spin we had never bothered to correct.

"Well, Father," he would say at last, "it goes on forever and forever, and perhaps Something made it. But how you can believe that Something has a special interest in us and our miserable little world—that just beats me." Then the argument would start, while the stars and nebulae would swing around us in silent, endless arcs beyond the flawlessly clear plastic of the observation port.

It was, I think, the apparent incongruity of my position that cause most amusement among the crew. In vain I pointed to my three papers in the Astrophysical Journal, my five in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. I would remind them that my order has long been famous for its scientific works. We may be few now, but ever since the eighteenth century we have made contributions to astronomy and geophysics out of all proportion to our numbers. Will my report on the Phoenix Nebula end our thousand years of history? It will end, I fear, much more than that.
Continue reading here.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Creationist nonsense in England

It is really difficult to write seriously about any Creationism controversies. The notion of a 6000 (or 10,000 or 12,000 - depends on your flavor of creationism) year old Earth is so idiotic that sometimes I feel that we should just let them teach it in schools and let them deal with contradictions that arise in astronomy, physics, geology, archeology, ecology, anthropology, history - oh and of course, biology and all of its related fields. Lets see how many parents will go along with this whole-scale modified curriculum nonsense? The reason for this rant: there is a news story about creationism (the young earth version!!??) making inroads in British schools:
After the Sunday service in Westminster Chapel, where worshipers were exhorted to wage "the culture war" in the World War II spirit of Sir Winston Churchill, cabbie James McLean delivered his verdict on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

"Evolution is a lie, and it's being taught in schools as fact, and it's leading our kids in the wrong direction," said McLean, chatting outside the chapel. "But now people like Ken Ham are tearing evolution to pieces."

Ken Ham is the founder of Answers in Genesis, a Kentucky-based organization that is part of an ambitious effort to bring creationist theory to Britain and the rest of Europe. McLean is one of a growing number of evangelicals embracing that message -- that the true history of the Earth is told in the Bible, not Darwin's "The Origin of Species."

Europeans have long viewed the conflict between evolutionists and creationists as primarily an American phenomenon, but it has recently jumped the Atlantic with skirmishes in Italy, Germany, Poland and, notably, Britain, where Darwin was born and where he published his 1859 classic.

Darwin's defenders are fighting back. In October, the 47-nation Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog, condemned all attempts to bring creationism into Europe's schools. Bible-based theories and "religious dogma" threaten to undercut sound educational practices, it charged.

Schools are increasingly a focal point in this battle for hearts and minds.

A British branch of Answers in Genesis, which shares a website with its American counterpart, has managed to introduce its creationist point of view into science classes at a number of state-supported schools in Britain, said Monty White, the group's chief executive.

"We do go into the schools about 10 to 20 times a year and we do get the students to question what they're being taught about evolution," said White, who founded the British branch seven years ago. "And we leave them a box of books for the library."
Ah, how nice of them. And of course they are driven by scientific curiosity:
But the budding fervor is part of a growing embrace of evangelical worship throughout much of Europe. Evangelicals say their ranks are swelling because of revulsion with the hedonism and materialism of modern society. At the same time, attendance at traditional churches is declining.

"People are looking for spirituality," White said in an interview at his office in Leicester, 90 miles north of London. "I think they are fed up with not finding true happiness. They find having a bigger car doesn't make them happy. They get drunk and the next morning they have a hangover. They take drugs but the drugs wear off. But what they find with Christianity is lasting."
Yes, once you know that God fooled everybody by making the earth and the Sun look older, the society will be cured of all of the ills. Oh...except they will also have to deal with Harun Yahya to duke it out for the Truth:
The trend goes beyond evangelical Christianity. Sanderson said the British government is taking over funding of about 100 Islamic schools even though they teach the Koranic version of creationism. He said the government fears imposing evolution theory on the curriculum lest it be branded as anti-Islamic.

The Council of Europe spoke up last fall after Harun Yahya, a prominent Muslim creationist in Turkey, tried to place his lavishly produced 600-page book, "The Atlas of Creation," in public schools in France, Switzerland, Belgium and Spain.
Also add Italy and Germany to the list:
Brasseur said recent skirmishes in Italy and Germany illustrate the creationists' tactics. She said Italian schools were ordered to stop teaching evolution when Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister, although the edict seems to have had little effect in practice. In Germany, she said, a state education minister briefly allowed creationism to be taught in biology class.

The rupture between theology and evolution in Europe is relatively recent. For many years people who held evangelical views also endorsed mainstream scientific theory, said Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia, a British-based, Christian-oriented research group. He said the split was imported from the United States in the last decade.

"There is a lot of American influence, and there are a lot of moral and political and financial resources flowing from the United States to here," he said. "Now you have more extreme religious groups trying to get a foothold."
What a depressing story! To be completely depressed, read the full article here. (tip from
To make you feel slightly better, here is Lewis Black on creationism:

Are the roots of New Atheism in monotheistic religions?

Here is a long article by British philosopher John Gray, critiquing the New Atheists. Apart from taking on the usual suspects (Dakwins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett), he adds, Martin Amis, Michel Onfray, and even Phillip Pullman to the list. His main point is that the evangelical atheism of Dawkins etal has far more in common with monotheistic religions, such as Christianity and Islam, than this movement properly acknowledges:
Zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam. Just as much as these religions, it is a project of universal conversion. Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things, and they are certain that one way of living - their own, suitably embellished - is right for everybody. To be sure, atheism need not be a missionary creed of this kind. It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion. It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human. Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion.
He later also took on the issue of liberalism:
Nowadays most atheists are avowed liberals. What they want - so they will tell you - is not an atheist regime, but a secular state in which religion has no role. They clearly believe that, in a state of this kind, religion will tend to decline. But America's secular constitution has not ensured a secular politics. Christian fundamentalism is more powerful in the US than in any other country, while it has very little influence in Britain, which has an established church. Contemporary critics of religion go much further than demanding disestablishment. It is clear that he wants to eliminate all traces of religion from public institutions. Awkwardly, many of the concepts he deploys - including the idea of religion itself - have been shaped by monotheism. Lying behind secular fundamentalism is a conception of history that derives from religion.
and on the notion of directional history and progress:

The problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable (in many versions, it does not). It is the belief that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society. Slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century, but it returned on a vast scale in nazism and communism, and still exists today. Torture was prohibited in international conventions after the second world war, only to be adopted as an instrument of policy by the world's pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century. Wealth has increased, but it has been repeatedly destroyed in wars and revolutions. People live longer and kill one another in larger numbers. Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.

Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it. This is what Nietzsche did when he developed his critique of Christianity in the late 19th century, but almost none of today's secular missionaries have followed his example. One need not be a great fan of Nietzsche to wonder why this is so. The reason, no doubt, is that he did not assume any connection between atheism and liberal values - on the contrary, he viewed liberal values as an offspring of Christianity and condemned them partly for that reason. In contrast, evangelical atheists have positioned themselves as defenders of liberal freedoms - rarely inquiring where these freedoms have come from, and never allowing that religion may have had a part in creating them.

The article is long and it takes on too many issues to properly comment on them here succinctly (a shorter article with tighter editing would have been more effective). But its definitely worth reading, even if you don't agree with the premise. Here is the full article, The Atheist Delusion. (tip from 3quarksdaily)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Templeton Prize for a priest-cosmologist

Tempers flare and emotions run high when the issue of Templeton Foundation is brought up before scientists. Are they trying to mix religion with science? Are they buying science to confirm their view of religion? Or are they helping science by financing under-funded science? We had to ask some of these questions ourselves for the organization of Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion. Ultimately we decided not to apply for their funds. The sentiment amongst our speakers has been decidedly mix - with half sympathetic towards the foundation and the other half passionately against it.

Whatever the case, the Templeton Foundation yesterday awarded their $1.6 million prize to a cosmologist priest:

The $1.6 million 2008 Templeton Prize, the richest award made to an individual by a philanthropic organization, was given Wednesday to Michael Heller, 72, a Polish Roman Catholic priest, cosmologist, and philosopher who has spent his life asking, and perhaps more impressively, answering, questions like “Does the universe need to have a cause?”

The John Templeton Foundation, which awards grants to encourage scientific discovery on the “big questions” in science and philosophy, commended Professor Heller, who is from Poland, for his extensive writings that have “evoked new and important consideration of some of humankind’s most profound concepts.”

But he has a more sophisticated understanding than the folks advocating Intelligent Design:

Much of Professor Heller’s career has been dedicated to reconciling the known scientific world with the unknowable dimensions of God.

In doing so, he has argued against a “God of the gaps” strategy for relating science and religion, a view that uses God to explain what science cannot.

Professor Heller said he believes, for example, that the religious objection to teaching evolution “is one of the greatest misunderstandings” because it “introduces a contradiction or opposition between God and chance.”

And why science & religion:

In a telephone interview, Professor Heller explained his affinity for the two fields: “I always wanted to do the most important things, and what can be more important than science and religion? Science gives us knowledge, and religion gives us meaning. Both are prerequisites of the decent existence.”

I cannot agree more - what can be more important than a blog on science & religion?? :)

The New Scientist blog has an interesting (and quite impartial) take on the Templeton Foundation:
The Templeton Foundation is a strange beast indeed. On the one hand, it is not officially committed to any particular religion, it does not support hack religious theories like intelligent design, it funds lots of fundamental theoretical physics that is not otherwise readily funded, and it doesn't explicitly interfere with or influence the scientific results of the various projects it funds.

On the other hand, the foundation's primary goal is to support science that in turn supports religion, to use science as a tool to promote a religious agenda. It's as if rather than fighting against science the way some religious factions - like creationists - do, they figure, we'll just buy science and use it for our own ends.

Consider this: when Sir John Templeton established the Templeton Prize in 1972 he stipulated that the monetary value should always be higher than that of the Nobel Prize -his way of saying that theology is more important than any other intellectual enterprise. Still, Sir John always seemed to be more of an eccentric billionaire than a dangerous force.
But I'm glad that this year's Templeton Prize winner, Michael Heller, provides one of the positive examples for the Foundation:
When I talked with Heller, my concerns were eased. Heller comes across as a contemplative, kind and brilliant man with an impressive intellectual range, flitting easily between talk of complex philosophical ideas and sophisticated mathematical physics. (I was intrigued that his current work is focused on ridding physics of the big bang singularity - despite the fact that many Catholics have latched on to the idea of the singularity as the space left for God and his creative power.)

He is the kind of physicist who is so awestruck by the mathematical order of the universe that he sees God lurking in equations. For him, science and religion are difficult to separate. And after talking with him I could understand why - Heller grew up in a family environment in which intellectualism and religion were deeply intertwined and in a political environment in which both were persecuted by the Communist regime in Poland. The point is, the Templeton Foundation's efforts to buy scientists might be dangerous. But Michael Heller certainly isn't.
Read the New Scientist story here, and the NYT story here.

By the way here is an exchange between Michael Shermer and Harold Kroto over the Templeton Foundation at beyond belief 2.0 (you need to see the ending of Kroto's talk and the beginning of Q&A to appreciate this exchange).

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Thou-shalt-not genetically experiment

It appears that genetic biologists are now sinners. The Vatican has updated its list of mortal sins - and it has added 7 more for the age of globalisation:
After 1,500 years the Vatican has brought the seven deadly sins up to date by adding seven new ones for the age of globalisation. The list, published yesterday in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, came as the Pope deplored the “decreasing sense of sin” in today’s “securalised world” and the falling numbers of Roman Catholics going to confession.

The Catholic Church divides sins into venial, or less serious, sins and mortal sins, which threaten the soul with eternal damnation unless absolved before death through confession and penitence.
To see if you are on the list, here are the new mortal sins:
  • Environmental pollution
  • Genetic manipulation
  • Accumulating excessive wealth
  • Inflicting poverty
  • Drug trafficking and consumption
  • Morally debatable experiments
  • Violation of fundamental rights of human nature
Alright, alright, I'll buy a hybrid next time. But being in the academia, I'm in no danger whatsoever of accumulating excessive wealth. Bill Gates, on the other hand, may be in trouble. But it appears that the boundary between science & religion is being squashed here and the magestaria are now indeed overlapping. So will this really deter any biologist or any scientists? I think the missing component is a list of associated punishments. Here is a list published in the Times article for the original seven mortal sins (I actually don't know the accuracy of the punishment list):
The original offences and their punishments
Pride Broken on the wheel
Envy Put in freezing water
Gluttony Forced to eat rats, toads, and snakes
Lust Smothered in fire and brimstone
Anger Dismembered alive
Greed Put in cauldrons of boiling oil
SlothThrown in snake pits
(what, no waterboarding??)
Hmm...but the new deadly sins only threaten the soul and eternal damnation. Well, I guess, most biologists will be fine with this deal.

This is another aggressive step of the current Pope dealing with a scientific issue. While its true that this may not effect scientists, it does give some indication of the Papal mood. Lets just hope that the Pope doesn't come out with an endorsement of Intelligent Design any time soon.

Read the full story here and here (BBC).

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, Hieronymus Bosch 1504 (Prado Museum, Madrid).

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Science vs Humanities in the European Renaissance

George Saliba's lecture at Hampshire College went very well, and I will post the video as soon as its available (most likely by the end of the month). Over dinner conversation, one thing really stood out for me and I thought I'll post it here. He was of the opinion that since European Renaissance was defined (and articulated) by humanists and not by scientists, it painted a skewed picture of scientific development of that era. From the literature perspective, Homer is as enjoyable today as he was in the 14th century, and as it was the case amongst the pre-Socratic Greeks. However, sciences don't work that way. As a scientist, you don't really care about some document if it was written a thousand years back. New instruments, observations, and models far superseded scientific texts written by the Greeko-Roman scientists over a thousand years ago. Thus there was a fundamental difference in how humanists were looking at the Greek culture and what scientists were doing. For example, European astronomers, up until the 15th/16th century, were looking for latest developments wherever they could find - and that was mostly in the Islamic lands. Of course, this demand diminished after the 16th century with the thorough maturation of science in Europe.

Humanists of the Renaissance period, in fact, often criticized scientists for adulterating Classical knowledge with Arabic/Islamic influences. Thus, the standard narrative of the Renaissance paints an erroneous picture that the Islamic interlude was merely a vessel for preserving and then passing out ancient Greeko-Roman science to the Europeans. Instead, there is no such thing as preserved Greek science. It had been thoroughly transformed during the intervening centuries and it was the new science that was of any use, not some preserved version of it. This may be common knowledge, but I think this distinction between humanists and scientists is really interesting.

It was included in his lecture, but here is a planetary model of Ibn-al-Shatir from 14th century. It is mathematically equivalent to the one used by Copernicus, nearly 200 years later. Of course, Shatir's model is still geocentric, but it eliminated the pesky problem of the equant. The genius of Copernicus did the rest as he took the gigantic step of removing the Earth from the center. Was Copernicus aware of Shatir's model or is it a coincidence that he used a very similar system? Ah...its not clear, but thats where (intellectual) fights break out. For Saliba's take on it, you can wait for the lecture video, or you can read his Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Dawkins on his religious upbringing

A softer side of Dawkins...

This is part of The Atheism Tapes with Jonathan Miller and you can purchase it from Secular Philosophy.

Getting tough on miracles

There is an intriguing op-ed piece in last Monday's New York Times. It is written by a Jesuit priest, James Martin, and he supports a recent directive by the Vatican asking for greater rigor in its saint-making process.
The Vatican’s new document says that some procedures had become “problematic.” As a result, local bishops are now instructed to exercise “greater sobriety and rigor” in determining which saints-to-be they send for approval to Rome. Candidates should not be promoted by small interest groups; rather, their reputation for holiness must be “spontaneous and not artificially procured.” Officials vetting the cases must be impartial, and not omit negative aspects of a person’s life. And the examination of the miracles required for canonization must make use of “all clinical and technical means.”
But...hmm...are we still talking about "miracles" in this age? Interestingly, miracles are now mostly confined to medical effects - one required for "beatification (when the person is declared “blessed”), and one more for canonization". Hurry-up - before biological sciences catches on this front also.

What are the standards for verifying miracles?
Even the standard for verifying miracles, arguably the aspect of the process that causes the most eye-rolling among agnostics and atheists, is famously strict. The Congregation draws on teams of doctors (not all of them Catholic) who assiduously rule out any other cause for a healing. Typically, the person cured will have prayed for the saint’s intercession. Any miracle must be instantaneous, permanent and medically verifiable. Those “cured” cannot simply have improved, cannot relapse and cannot have sought medical care (or at least must have given it up well before the miracle). Consequently, the verification process can take decades, as doctors monitor the stricken person’s progress.
So it will probably be limited to people who don't have health care - otherwise there would be some medical care in that direction.
Vatican standards for miracles are high not simply because the church is seeking irrefutable evidence of divine intervention, but because the church has much to lose if a miracle is later debunked.
Sounds good - but wrong century. Yes, this search for miracles played an important role in the development of science in the 17th/18th century. In order to find the place of divine intervention, one needed to find the regular course of nature. The harder the requirements for establishing a miracle, the better it was for natural science. But that was a few hundred years back. I think the Church is out of step in insisting on modern science to verify miracles - an unexplained event (be it in physics or biology) is simply an unexplained event. Perhaps, the Church can team up with James Randi. He has a million dollar challenge for anyone who can provide strong evidence for paranormal activity - and I think a divine intervention would qualify as a paranormal event. This would bring the standards up for miracle testings, and at the same time it will net the church a cool million.

The end of the article, I guess, sums it up:
The redoubled commitment to an impartial judging of a saint’s life demonstrates that the church does not “create” saints as much as it simply recognizes them. Likewise, its renewed reminders that, for the church, miracles are serious scientific business, may make it more difficult for agnostics and atheists to disbelieve.

And easier for believers to believe.

Hmm...perhaps only the latter. Read the full article here.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Lecture on March 6th: Islam and the Transformation of Greek Science

As part of Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion, Dr. George Saliba from Columbia University will give a lecture on Islam and the Transformation of Greek Science. If you live in/near western Massachusetts, please join us at the lecture. As usual, we will also be recording the lecture and I will post the video when its available.

Here is the full announcement:
Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion Presents

Islam and the Transformation of Greek Science
George Saliba

Thursday, March 6, 2008
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College

This illustrated talk examines the often repeated characterization of the role of Islamic science as preserving the Greek scientific legacy. It will demonstrate with concrete examples the extent to which Greek science had to be transformed in order to respond to ritual and cultural requirements of Islam, thus critiquing that science and eventually replacing it with a science that was more scientifically consistent. It was this transformed Islamic science that inspired later on the Renaissance scientists.

George Saliba
is Professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at Columbia University. He is the author of Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance and A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories during the Golden Age of Islam.

Upcoming lecture:
  • George V. Coyne, S.J., Friday, March 28, 2008
About the Hampshire College Science & Religion Lecture Series:
This is the second year of a three-year lecture series that aims to bring together philosophers, theologians, historians and scientists to discuss topics in science & religion. The themes for the lecture series are as follows:

2006-2007: Nature, Belief & the Supernatural
2007-2008: A History of Conflict & Cooperation
2008-2009: A Matter of Origins & the Meaning of Life

For more information on the Lecture Series, please visit

Salman Hameed
Assistant Professor of Integrated Science & Humanities
Hampshire College

Laura Sizer
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Hampshire College

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Matthew Nisbet on how to communicate about science & religion

Here is a Point of Inquiry interview with Matthew Nisbet on how to communicate about science & religion. Here is a description of his interview:
In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Nisbet highlights the recent AAAS panel he organized titled "Communicating Science in a Religious America." He details his ideas for the most effective strategies to engage the public about science issues, and debates whether the warfare metaphor of science versus religion undermines science education, and contrasts the approaches of leading scientists like Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson. Nisbet also explores why it might be advantageous for secularist activists to re-prioritize when it comes to working in coalition with the religious around certain issues of concern to the science-education community.
This question of approach is crucial. Overall, I do agree with him and this attitude becomes even more important when dealing with the more religious Muslim societies. He doesn't say it explicitly, but I think the line should be drawn at methodological naturalism - i.e. no inclusion of supernatural whatsoever in scientific matters. If a religion is unhappy with it, so be it. Check out the full podcast here.