Sunday, August 30, 2009

Big Bang in 2 minutes

Here is a (very) short but cool primer on big bang:



This is an excellent example of the way scientists talk about origins. There is a definite acknowledgment of what we don't know (i.e. "before" the big bang) but then a listing of possibilities. Note that these are possibilities - not certainties. But then scientists are happy to live with unknowns - as that is where hot scientific questions thrive. Ideas of an oscillatory universe, multiverses or Brane-cosmology may all turn out to wrong or one of these may turn out to be correct. However, the verdict on these will only come from testing predictions - not from any theology or a particular religion. The only possible role for God in nature (if any) would have to be a theoretical "first cause" located at the end of an infinite regression of causes: we cannot ascribe "first cause" to big bang - as there may be a natural explanation behind it (and there already are several candidates). But we cannot ascribe a "first cause" to what is behind big bang, as there may be natural explanations behind those, and we me may uncover those sometime in the future. History of science tells us that even when we label a problem "unknowable" - it gets resolved with time. Origin of the Earth was once considered such a problem - so was the origin of the solar system. Both origins are very well understood today. I wouldn't bet against us figuring out the conditions that existed "before" the big bang.

Also see this earlier post Multiverse theory: Leave it to science.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A.Q. Khan's plagiarism

Before I get to the plagiarism issue, check out Pervez Hoodbhoy on "For the 64th Time: No More Nuclear War" - A Roundtable Discussion on Disarmament (Hoodboy's segment starts about 38 minutes in).

Now, I hate dealing with cases of plagiarism. Unfortunately it happens - and then we have to report students to their academic advisor and sometimes even to the relevant dean. But what to do when plagiarism involves a nuclear scientist? Not just any nuclear scientist - but a scientist who is either considered a hero or a pariah nuclear proliferator. Well...meet A.Q. Khan - considered by many as the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb. Here is a letter from Pakistan's The News (tip from 3quarksdaily):
Monday, August 24, 2009
This is with reference to Dr A Q Khan’s column “Science of computers — part I” which appeared in your pages on Aug 19.

1. Dr Khan writes: “The computer is an essential part of 21st century life. Computer science is a fast-moving subject that gives rise to a range of interesting and often challenging problems. The implementation of today’s complex computer systems requires the skills of a knowledgeable and versatile computer scientist. Artificial intelligence — the study of intelligent behaviour — is having an increasing reference on computer system design. Distributed systems, networks and the internet are now central to the study of computing, presenting both technical and social challenges.”

Now compare this to the first paragraph of Undergraduate Prospectus 2009, University of Sussex(www.sussex.ac.uk/units/publications/ugrad2009/subjects/computing):

“Computing is an essential part of 21st-century life, and is an exceptionally fast-moving subject that gives rise to a range of interesting and challenging problems. The implementation of today’s complex computing systems, networks and multimedia systems requires the skills of knowledgeable and versatile computer scientists. Computer networks and the internet are now central to the study of computing and information technology, presenting both technical and social challenges. Artificial intelligence (AI) — the study of intelligent behaviour — is having an increasing influence on computer system design.”

2. Dr Khan writes: “How do we understand, reason, plan, cooperate, converse, read and communicate? What are the roles of language and logic? What is the structure of the brain? How does vision work? These are all questions as fundamental as the sub-atomic structure of matter. These are also questions where the science of computing plays an important role in our attempts to provide answers. The computer scientist can expect to come face-to-face with problems of great depth and complexity and, together with scientists, engineers and experts in other fields, may help to solve them. Computing is not just about the big questions; it is also about engineering-making things work. Computing is unique in offering both the challenge of science and the satisfaction of engineering.”

Now compare this to the first paragraph of Imperial College London website (www3.imperial.ac.uk/engineering/teaching/exploringengineering/computing): “How do we understand, reason, plan, cooperate, converse, read and communicate? What are the roles of language and logic? What is the structure of the brain? How does vision work? These are questions as fundamental, in their own way, as questions about the sub-atomic structure of matter. They are also questions where the science of computing plays an important role in our attempts to provide answers. The computer scientist can expect to come face-to-face with problems of great depth and complexity and, together with scientists, engineers and experts in other fields, may help to disentangle them. But computing is not just about the big questions it is also about engineering-making things work. Computing is unique in offering both the challenge of a science and the satisfaction of engineering.”

3. Furthermore, Dr Khan writes: “Computer science is an inter-disciplinary subject. It is firmly rooted in engineering and mathematics, with links to linguistics, psychology and other fields. Computer science is concerned with constructing hardware and software systems, digital electronics, compiler design, programming languages, operation systems, networks and graphics. Theoretical computer science addresses fundamental issues: the motion of computable function, proving the correctness of hardware and software and the theory of communicating system.

Again the University of Cambridge website (www.cam.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/courses/compsci) contains the following text: (First paragraph) “Computer science is interdisciplinary. It is firmly rooted in engineering and mathematics, with links to linguistics, psychology and other fields. [...] (Second paragraph) Practical computer science is concerned with constructing hardware and software systems: digital electronics, compiler design, programming languages, operating systems, networks and graphics. Theoretical computer science addresses fundamental issues: the notion of computable function, proving the correctness of hardware and software, the theory of communicating systems.”

4. The second half of Dr Khan’s article (paragraph 7 onwards) can be found in ACM’s Computing Curricula 2009. Although he credits ACM but doesn’t clarify that he is directly copying sentences from a document. Also, in the beginning of his piece he does acknowledge one of his former colleagues, an Engineer Nasim Khan, for input for the article — however, it is not clear whether this input is the reason for the apparent plagiarism.

Fahad Rafique Dogar

PhD student, Carnegie Mellon University

Pittsburgh, PA, US
Wow! It is easy to draw a parallel between this case and Khan's acquisition of nuclear secrets from the Netherlands. But it would be an unfair comparison, as the nuclear issue has a complicated political dimension. The plagiarism case, on the other hand, reflects more on his ideals and his personality. If Hampshire gave grades, he would have received an F (and expelled after a second offense).

Good job Fahad!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sharia-compliant superheroes

Why do I get a distinct feeling that this is not exactly Watchmen? In any case, here are The 99: Muslim superheroes and superheroines:
They are fighting for truth, justice and the Islamic way and are heading for your living room — prepare to say salaam to the world’s first Muslim superheroes.
...

The story follows a group of preternaturally gifted Muslims: The 99, each with a superpower that mirrors one of the 99 attributes of Allah.

The cast includes Jabbar, a Saudi Arabian Hulk-type figure with an improbable physique, and Darr the Afflicter, a paraplegic American who can manipulate nerve endings with his mind to trigger pain. There is also a character in a burka — Batina the Hidden.

Hmm...ok. By the way, also check out an earlier post about an artist who was painting superheroines in hijab. Now it is totally possible that this series (or perhaps a competitor) may provide an interesting commentary about the current economic and social conditions in the Muslim world. I haven't seen/read these comics - so can't tell their focus. I doubt if the creator of the comics will play with any theological themes - but it seems that ideal role models is the central theme (yup - there goes most of the interesting story lines...):

The resulting franchise — a blend of fact, classic “kapow”-style action and Dan Brown-esque hokum — has proved a hit from Morocco to Indonesia and was branded recently one of the top 20 trends sweeping the world by Forbes magazine.

Beneath the rollicking storylines, however, there is a serious subtext. The man behind The 99 is Dr Naif al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti who was a clinical psychologist previously.

Dr al-Mutawa said that the idea came to him while he was riding in a black cab in London from Edgware Road to Harrods, but its seed was sown years before when he worked at the survivors of political torture unit in Bellevue Hospital, New York. Many of the young men he treated were Iraqis who had fled after being tortured under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“It hit me that the stories I was hearing were from men who grew up believing that their leader, Saddam, was a hero, a role model — only to one day be tortured by him,” Dr al-Mutawa said. “I decided the Arab world needed better role models.”

Read the full story here (also you can see some graphics as well as an interview with The 99 creator here). By the way, you know this story is big when it shows up even on the celeb gossip site, perezhilton.com (and yes, the source of the perezhilton tip shall remain anonymous :) ). Intriguingly, DC comics has also jumped in - and some of their superheroes/heroines, are expected to meet The 99. I think there is room for some fascinating discussion between the burka-clad Batina and Wonder Woman (hmm...definitely not in burka) - first set in Afghanistan and then in France.

On a related note, if you are interested in comics as well as well-written books, check out Michael Chabon's phenomenal The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Galileo on Google

Very cool! Google is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first public demonstration of his telescope (August 25, 1609). If you want to know where he did that, check out this post: Hanging out with Galileo - Venice. By the way, you can also get a replica of Galileo's telescope (Galileoscope) here - for only $15.

Darwin corn maze in Massachusetts

If you live in the New England area, here is a perfect way to get lost in Chuck's "long scruffy beard". Here is Mike's Maze's celebration of Darwin's bicentennial (tip from primate, Kate Wellspring):
But what really makes Darwin a great subject for a corn maze isn't his contentious and polemic scientific dissertations, it's his LONG SCRUFFY BEARD! His tangle of whiskers is the perfect pretext for a bewildering array of maze trails.

Our maze game is inspired by Darwin's famous quote "I love fools' experiments. I am always making them." Mazegoers will be challenged to identify and classify all living vertebrates and more. Because that's too easy they will also make their own close observations from images of biological curiosities found in the natural history collections of Amherst College and Greenfield Community College. And wait! There's more. They will need to naturally select the right trails in and out of Chuck's curly chin cilia. We expect no complaints this year that the maze and the game are too easy!
Pretty Cool! I aim to be in the beard some time in September. Here are directions to Mike's Maze.

Monday, August 24, 2009

David Attenborough in a different light (and color)

An entertaining look at David Attenborough and Darwin's finches. Enjoy.


By the way, here is the real clip from David Attenborough's episode on Darwin and the tree of life.

Sand and imagination

Here is a review from last week's Nature of a fascinating book about sand (yes - sand!): Sand - A journey through science and imagination by geologist Michael Welland (its American title is a bit bland: Sand: The never-ending story) Apart from the regular bit about the physics of sand etc. this is the bit that caught my attention:
Welland asks how sand grains have helped humans to conceive the Universe and the infinite. He begins with Archimedes who, in the third century BC, calculated that 1063 grains of sand would fill the Universe to the outermost sphere of the fixed stars.
Now this is pretty cool - though we now know that the universe is a waaaaay bigger than that. But, of course, this provides me with a perfect excuse to bring Sagan's Cosmos in:
A handful of sand contains about 10,000 grains, more than the number of stars we can see with the naked eye on a clear night. But the number of stars we can see is only the tiniest fraction of the number of stars that are. What we see at night is the merest smattering of the nearest stars. Meanwhile the Cosmos is rich beyond measure: the total number of stars in the universe is greater than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.
(check here for more specific sand grains - star numbers estimates. Apparently the two are close in the observable universe. Oh and a handful of sand actually contains 100,000 grains).

Ok - back to the book - which apparently lives up to its bit about imagination:

A personal epilogue provides the reader with a genuine mystery. In 1922, the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt yielded a famous necklace with a scarab beetle carved from a glowing, yellow-green, gem-like material, which its discoverer Howard Carter did not recognize. In the 1990s, the material was shown to be a unique silica glass, 28 million years old and 98% pure, from a particular part of the Libyan desert.

Welland travels to this desolate spot and cherishes the glassy samples he finds glittering on the dunes. But, he muses, what could have produced heat that was intense enough to fuse silica? A strike from a meteorite or lightning can be ruled out because of the lack of visible impact craters or hollow fulgurite tubes, respectively. He speculates that the cause might have been an air burst from the impact of an asteroid with the atmosphere, similar to that at Tunguska in Siberia, Russia, in 1908.
This is fascinating. Even if it turns out to be wrong, I like the out of box thinking here.

With irresistible ideas such as this, Welland provides an appealing blend of science and the imagination, worthy of the famous vision of the poet William Blake: "To see a world in a grain of sand".

Very cool.

Ontological argument via cartoon

Our friend Nathan Schneider has a blog entry on NYT on the Ontological argument for the existence of God. He explains it well - and even adds a helpful cartoon (drawn by Nathan himself):
A proof for God’s existence came to Anselm in the dark of early morning, under the solemn sound of psalms, echoing against the stone walls of the church. It was the year 1077, at the monastery of Bec in what is now northern France.
...

All the other proofs he knew depended on observations about the world: the order of nature and the physics of cause and effect. Anselm, instead, gunned straight for the dream of the Greek philosophers: a God of pure, abstract reason, a secret God of the inner life, which the wise can recognize everywhere they go, sufficient onto itself. Aristotle called it the self-thinking thought.

The proof, which would come to be called the ontological argument, purports to demonstrate the existence of God from ideas alone: the concept of a God that doesn’t exist wouldn’t be much of a God. A true concept of God, “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived,” would have to be a God that exists. Therefore, God exists.



Yes - it does seem like a sleight of hand. However, Nathan points out correctly what Anselm was really trying to do:

The whole thing dissolved away, along with the sense of certainty. I started to remember the echo of Kant’s devastating complaint against Anselm: existence is not a predicate. God seemed to disappear. But I read on. I was reminded it wasn’t God’s existence that plagued Anselm — of that, he had no doubt — it was the phrasing. Modern arguments and evangelists and New Atheists have duped us into thinking that the interesting question is whether God exists; no, what mattered for Anselm was how we think about God and about one another.
I think this last point is central: for a 12th century monk, of course, existence of God is really not in question. A 21st century frame (heck - or even a 17th/18th century frame) thus looses some of the original meaning and the purpose of the argument (by the way, there were critiques of Anselm's argument even during his own life time - so don't think that all of his contemporaries - also believers in God - were simply blown away by his logic).

Read the full article here. By the way, if you want to learn more about the Ontological argument, check out the link in this earlier post: God and Philosophers I: The Ontological Argument.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Sympathy for mediums

Here is a news story about Japan loosing a shamanistic tradition, itako. Now, I usually find psychics and mediums reprehensible (one of the best South Park episodes dismantled John Edward, The Biggest Douche in the Universe). Most psychics are charlatans - the rest are at best, deluded. However, I find sympathy for itako - not for the validity of their claims, but rather for the loss of a tradition they represent - and the niche they fill in a society. I may feel different about all this if I knew that people were sinking their fortune with them and making important life-decisions based on spirit communications (which probably is still happening). But then what about astrology? I don't think I will feel much sympathy for the loss of astrologers in a society - but then again, it may depend on the context. In any case, I find this case interesting and here is the story from today's NYT:

MOUNT OSORE, Japan — Its name means the Mountain of Horror, which seems an apt description for this sacred Buddhist site inside the crater of a dormant volcano. The weather-beaten temple here is surrounded by a lifeless lake and a wasteland of naked rock reeking of sulfur that conjures images of Buddhist hell.

But during the mountain’s twice annual religious festivals, visitors come by the busload to line up before a row of small tents in a corner of the temple. Within are the “itako” — elderly, often blind women who hold séance-like ceremonies that customers hope will allow them to commune with spirits of the dead.

These spiritual mediums seem out of place in a hyper-modern nation better known for bullet trains and hybrid cars. Found only in peripheral areas like this volcano on the far northern tip of Japan’s main island, and only dimly known to most Japanese, the itako are among the last remaining adherents to ancient shamanistic beliefs that predate Buddhism and modern forms of Shintoism, Japan’s two main religions, historians say.

They have survived government efforts to stamp them out, as well as the continuing disdain of many Japanese, who look down on them as charlatans who trade in superstition. Even the deputy abbot at Bodai-ji, Mount Osore’s temple, said the itako were not connected to the temple, which he said only tolerates their presence.

Now, however, even these last remaining itako are vanishing. Only four graying itako appeared at Mt. Osore’s weeklong summer festival this year, three having died of old age in the last year. Worse, the only practicing medium younger than retirement age — 40-year-old Keiko Himukai, known among believers as the last itako — stopped coming this year for health reasons.

“We can see a very ancient flame dying out before our eyes,” Ms. Himukai said in a separate interview. “But traditions have to change with the times.”

Junichi Tonosaki, a historian in the prefectural museum in Aomori, where Mount Osore is located, said the number of itako had fallen from about 20 a decade ago. He said they began gathering at Mount Osore in the last century as their numbers began to dwindle, to make it easier for customers to find them. The volcano’s 1,200-year-old temple is believed by many here to be a gathering point for souls of the dead before Buddhist reincarnation.

And here is an interesting bit: this was perhaps the only profession available for the blind:
Mr. Tonosaki and other historians say itako and other shamanistic mediums were common across Japan in medieval times, when this was often the only occupation available for the blind. But they were suppressed in the late 19th century, as Japan built a modern nation. In recent times, they have survived only on the geographic margins, in rural northern Japan and on the southern island of Okinawa.
Read the full story here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Robert Wright on Colbert

Enjoy!
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Robert Wright
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care Protests


In case you are wondering what does he mean by "some sort of purpose" in the universe, perhaps this response may shed some light (Wright's write-up is in response to a review by Jerry Coyne):
My beliefs about God

Coyne writes, “Wright suggests that the moral sentiments themselves may have come from an evolutionary process guided by God.” And: “Wright makes a really remarkable claim, a metaphysical one, that this whole process is driven by God.”

Guided by God? Driven by God? Here’s what my book says (p. 448):

“This book’s account of the moral direction of history has been a materialist account. We’ve explained the expansion of the moral imagination as an outgrowth of expanding social organization, which is itself an outgrowth of technological evolution, which itself grows naturally out of the human brain, which itself grew naturally out of the primordial ooze via biological evolution. There’s no mystical force that has to enter the system to explain this, and there’s no need to look for one.” And (on p. 401): “We can explain the complex functionality of organisms without positing a god. The explanation is natural selection.”

In other words, if there’s a God involved, it’s a God of a deistic sort, who set the whole system, including natural selection, in motion and then kept his paws off. The process would be “guided” by God, and “driven” by God, in the sense that every Ford is “guided” and “driven” by Henry Ford.

Moreover, I’m agnostic on the question of whether there’s even a deistic sort of God. But, you may ask, if I’m agnostic, then how can Coyne quote me saying things like this: “God was so wise that he set up a world in which the rational pursuit of self-interest leads people to wisdom.”?

Answer: By taking that quote out of context. That passage characterizes not my view, but the theology implicit in the Hebrew wisdom literature. To fully appreciate how negligent a reviewer would have to be to miss this fact, I recommend reading the quote in context. It’s in the final paragraph of this passage.

If faced with these misrepresentations of my views, Coyne’s alibi might be that at the end of his review he sets the record straight by noting (indeed, complaining) that I don’t profess to know whether any god exists. And, indeed, the closing paragraphs of his review do contain a refreshingly accurate portrayal of my position. But how does Coyne reconcile this portrayal with his earlier assertion that God’s existence is a “claim” that I make?

Read Wright's full response here and Coyne's review here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Galileo in the service of Islam

Galileo stays as the poster child for science & religion conflict model. This despite of a strong effort by historians of science to bring to attention the political, cultural, and social aspects of the Galileo Affair - and the fact that Galileo himself was religious, that there were many in the Catholic Church that supported his position, and that his prickly personality had gained him several enemies within the Church (for more science & religion misconceptions, check out this fantastic book, Galileo goes to jail and other myths about science & religion, edited by Ronald Numbers).

But what I find amusing is the use of Galileo misconceptions not in science vs religion debates - but rather by Muslims to present Islam as a superior religion to Christianity. The template goes as follows:
a) Galileo was persecuted by Christians
b) Christians didn't accept Galileo's ideas because Christianity is a corrupted doctrine
c) this caused the tension between science & religion
c) Islam is a scientific religion - thus it has no problem with Galileo or with science
d) Galileo was (of course) right - hence Islam is better than Christianity

There are numerous forums where Muslims make similar arguments (for example, see Dr. Israr Ahmed making this argument at the end of Q&A). But I like the following example as it includes not only Galileo but several other popular ideas that use and misuse science. Intriguingly, this response is part of the rejection of biological evolution:

Thing is, Darwin’s culture was of the Christian West which had persecuted people like Galileo in the past who observed the physical universe was different from the flawed teaching/understandings of the Christian church at the time. The WEST then began to develop a strained relationship with Science.

But with Islam it was different. Muslims in Cordoba/Andalucía the Maghreb embraced science – naturally. If man hadn’t yet corrupted Divine Revelation then how could science contradict religion. It was the Muslims who translated the Greek works which eventually seeded the European Renaissance which the West tries to hijack as being independent of the Muslims. Europe was in the dark ages while Islam was embraced and lifted the people from Jahilliah to success from what’s now known as Spain to parts of China.

So Islam NEVER had a problem with Science. But the European tension with science once again hijacked Science as it’s own and in effect ‘exported’ this tension to Islam when Europeans talked about Science as if it was something that rested solely in their hands.

Eventually, Europeans used science for horrific means: ways to kill and injure people: biological diseases, poison gas, nuclear weapons with an eye to plundering the resources from other countries (like Malaysian tin) without thought for the environment or without much thought for the indigenous people. The Muslims had already largely reached a level of development that was satisfactory and more in tune with the earth so it appeared the Muslims might have stalled.

I have heard these arguments many times before (and some statements in here are even somewhat correct - such as the Muslim contribution to medieval intellectual thought). But the last sentence is new to me: the linking of Muslim lack of scientific development with a concern for the environment. While the Islam and science harmony narrative was shaped in the 19th century by Muslim reformers like Afghani, this particular post-hoc environmental innovation seems to be a 21st century response.

As for Galileo, he must be twisting in his grave at Santa Croce (minus his finger - a post about his tomb coming up) by the way Muslims are dragging his name 367 years after his death - both against Christianity and against an established idea of science.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Ninth Configuration

I had a chance to watch The Ninth Configuration (1980) on DVD a few days a ago (thanks to Matthew Hersch for pointing out the film in his talk at the Film & History conference in Chicago last year). The movie is written and directed by William Peter Blatty - who also wrote The Exorcist and ... A Shot in the Dark (the hilarious Pink Panther sequel!). The Ninth Configuration is indeed strange and may not be everybody's cup of tea. However, it deals head-on with issues dealing with the existence of God. One of the main characters in the movie is an Apollo astronaut - who aborted his mission to the Moon - and is now undergoing treatment for insanity. The reason why he aborted the mission plays a crucial role in the film - including this phenomenal image on the right (don't worry, this is not a spoiler. This image is on the cover of the DVD). The movie is not set on the Moon - nor is it about space. However, there is a short sequence which ends with this haunting image of a lunar crucifixion. I'm not going to say more than this. If for nothing else, the movie is worth seeing for this phenomenal sequence. If this doesn't do it for you, check out this very accurate description by English film critic, Mark Kermode, who describes the film as
a breathtaking cocktail of philosophy, eye-popping visuals, jaw-dropping pretentiousness, rib-tickling humour and heart-stopping action. From exotically hallucinogenic visions of a lunar crucifixion to the claustrophobic realism of a bar-room brawl, via such twisted vignettes as Robert Loggia karaoking to Al Jolson and Moses Gunn in Superman drag (don't ask), Blatty directs like a man with no understanding of, or interest in, the supposed limits of mainstream movie-making. The result is a work of matchless madness which divides audiences as spectacularly as the waves of the Red Sea, a cult classic that continues to provoke either apostolic devotion or baffled dismissal 20 years on.
In addition, Blatty considers the movie as a sequel to the Exorcist. The astronaut in The Ninth Configuration makes a brief appearance in The Exorcist. If it is a sequel, it is a sequel based on theme not on story.

In any case, check it out. It may be hard to find - I had to order it from a seller on Amazon.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Religious embrace of technology

Well...even the Pope is now on Facebook. Here is an interesting article that talks about the historic relation between religion and technology (or more on the embrace of technology by religions). It starts with the Pope:

"Employ these new technologies to make the Gospel known, so that the Good News of God’s infinite love for all people will resound in new ways across our increasingly technological world!"

These could have been the words of Johannes Gutenberg or Billy Graham. In fact, they belong to the current pope, Benedict XVI. He spoke them last month in anticipation of World Social Communication Day, an annual event intended to spread the Good News of God’s infinite love using mass media outlets. The message this year was mostly for the kids: “Young people in particular, I appeal to you: Bear witness to your faith through the digital world!”

Catholics aren’t the only Christians connecting on the Web. When it was created in 2007, GodTube — an alternative to YouTube created for Christians and since renamed tangle — was the fastest-growing website in the U.S. Two years later, it’s just one of millions of such sites where people of Christian faith can find each other, date, discuss scripture, promote business, and debate the effects of technology on believers. There’s christiananswers.net and biblegateway.com, which lets you search Bible passages in over 100 languages (Always wanted to say “The Lord is my Shepherd” in Tagalog?), the rather moderate jesusfreak.com, christian.com, .net, .org…. You get the idea.

But no surprise here. This is helpful in social connectivity and proselytizing.
That Christians have so eagerly embraced the Internet is no surprise. It is at the heart of Christianity to use whatever means necessary to extend the community of believers. This includes technology. “The fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them…for that is not what they do,” the philosopher Stanley Fish recently wrote in The New York Times. Likewise, technology doesn’t have to be based on faith to be at its service. The word of God will be spread to all nations of the world before the world ends. It’s right there in Matthew 24:14. Though Isaiah 44:9-20 tells Christians not to worship the devices humans make to ease the struggle of life, it doesn’t say Christians can’t keep working both toward perfection and better tools with which to achieve it. The Internet makes proselytizing easier. I think Paul would have been pleased as punch to find an Internet café in Antioch. And that is what technology has always provided — techniques for making the things you want to do in life less hard.
Interestingly, the article also includes Noah's ark and his vineyard as examples of technology for the service of religion:
According to the Torah, it was Noah who would relieve men of blood, sweat and tears with techne. He was like a Jewish Prometheus. “This one will bring us rest (Noah means ‘rest’) from our work and the toil of our hands," Genesis 5:29 states, meaning that God created Noah for this specific purpose, to teach people how to improve the tools they use to till the soil. This had been the dilemma of humanity since that little incident in Eden — out of paradise and into the desert. Noah would usher in a new age of prosperity, where people could more easily use the Earth for their benefit. Of course, the new age wouldn’t come until 600 years and one really big flood later. The point is that, for the Jews, man’s first great technological accomplishment was the Ark that gave the world a fresh start. Furthering the case that God gave people the power of technology to improve life, we skip to the next part of the story, Genesis 9:20-21, in which the second great technological feat of Noah was to build himself a vineyard, make some wine, get drunk, and pass out nude. L’Chaim! For a contemporary nod to Judaism’s marriage of technology and alcohol, you can visit the kosher speakeasy behind the Temple Beit Israel, the Second Life Synagogue.
And of course, several religious requirements for Muslims (direction to Mecca, daily prayer times, lunar calendar) drove developments not only in astronomy and spherical trigonometry, but also in technology required for navigation, etc:

And speaking of boats, Islamic doctrine has long inspired technological advancement in shipbuilding, navigation, and a wide number of other fields. Muhammed al-Idrisi, the 12th-century Andalusian scholar and cartographer, created some of the most useful and startlingly accurate maps of the ancient world. And there was the polymath al-Biruni who, excelling in many areas of applied and theoretical science—contributed greatly to the fields of geography and mapmaking; he established, for example, the technique of measuring the Earth using three coordinates to define a point in three-dimensional space. Using advanced techniques to chart the distances between cities was a particular specialty. His estimated radius of the Earth wasn’t ‘discovered’ by the West until the 16th century.

With detailed trade routes and meticulously tracked mariner’s charts, one might argue that it was simply intellectual curiosity or the thirst for empire that drove these innovations. Yet an important chapter in the Koran — Surah 22, which proclaims that “the people shall observe Hajj pilgrimage” — offers another theory. Travel wasn’t always so easy. First of all, you had to know where Mecca was in relationship to where you were. A well-charted map, then, was essential to fulfilling the basic requirements of the faith. Second, you had to get there, so you needed good navigational equipment. Muslims invented all kinds of compasses, clocks, and astrolabes, including the compass dial, which was the world’s version of GPS for centuries. Its inventor, Ibn al-Shatir, developed it initially not just to help find the direction of Mecca, but to help track the times of the Salah prayers (the ones that are performed five times a day) at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

This is all well and good. But it would have been nice if the article also included at least some examples where the same religions thwart (and have thwarted) adoption of new technology - especially when it comes to medical innovations (the last paragraph briefly touches on that - but doesn't provide any examples). Thus, the interesting question is not that religions happily adopt technology - that is obvious - but rather what kind of technologies make religions particularly eager to accept or reject them. The article is interesting - but it gives a skewed vision of religion and technology relationship.

Read the full article here. Also see these posts Halo 3 around some Churches and Recharging soul points: new religious video games.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Darwin and Asa Gray on stage

I think the correspondence between Darwin and Asa Gray should get more attention. It is an excellent example of a civilized intellectual discourse over the implications of evolution for religion. Here is a review of Re: Design by Craig Baxter, a play based the correspondence between the two men (from Science, Aug 7, 2009). But it starts with this fantastic quote from Darwin:
I am conscious that I am in an utterly hopeless muddle. I cannot think that the world, as we see it, is the result of chance; & yet I cannot look at each separate thing as the result of Design.

–Charles Darwin to Asa Gray, 26 Nov. 1860

The American botanist Asa Gray was one of the first people in whom Darwin confided his theory on the origin of species; Darwin even discussed his doubts with Gray. Now, archived letters between the two have been brought back to life in Craig Baxter's play Re:Design, which tracks the intersection of their lives and their science. The playwright constructed most of the piece with quotes taken verbatim from the prolific correspondence between the two scientists. He has stitched them into a compelling story that traces the growth of Darwin's theories and his friendship with Gray. Baxter notes that "[Gray] made Darwin's ideas acceptable to the religious side in the States. He was very significant in the spread of [evolutionary] ideas to that continent."
The play was written in 2007 as part of the Darwin Correspondence Project. This gotta be a big project. When I visited the Down House, there was a mention at the exhibit that Darwin wrote over 14,000 letters during his lifetime. And trust me - those letters were not similar to 2-line e-mails (or tweats - for the hip blog readers). Rather, he took time to write those letters - and his correspondence with Asa Gray is a fantastic example:
The friendship and obvious warmth between the protagonists is the play's most touching aspect. Despite their differences, Darwin and Gray always manage to find common ground. Baxter found their relationship inspirational, because they did not come to loggerheads over evolution versus religion—an all-too-often polarizing topic. He hopes that their example can teach us much about "how intellectual debate can be."
You can learn more about the Darwin Correspondence Project here and about the play here. Read the full review here (you may need subscription to read it).

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Chris Smither singing "Origin of species"

No - he is not singing the book, but Chris Smither is indeed talking about origin of species (tip from a Simple Prop). A nice mixture of science & religion in a little over three minutes (see lyrics here). Actually this song is played quite a bit on our local (fantastic) radio station, 93.9 - The River (If you are not familiar with the station, check it out. You may find an interesting mix of music here).

Here is Chris Smither:


Well...we can all find support for his version of Intelligent Design. By the way, this song was included among the 100 best songs of 2006 by Rolling Stone.

Flying rabbis blowing prayers in the wind

Here is one way of fighting Swine flu (oh sorry, I mean "Mexico flu" or H1N1, if you are offended by swine):

A group of rabbis and Jewish mystics have taken to the skies over Israel, praying and blowing ceremonial horns in a plane to ward off swine flu.

About 50 religious leaders circled over the country on Monday, chanting prayers and blowing horns, called shofars.

The flight's aim was "to stop the pandemic so people will stop dying from it," Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri was quoted as saying in Yedioth Aharanot newspaper.

No seriously. They spent money on this prayer flight? I hope they don't end up with a shortage of flu vaccine. But more importantly, do they realize that these prayers will be carried away via atmospheric currents - and may end up precipitating over the Mediterranean Ocean - protecting only a few fish? Perhaps, they could have stayed on the ground and used fans (not the adoring kind) and loud speakers to spread the prayer and cleanse the place of H1N1 - at the same time saving the money for something that actually works - vaccines.

By the way, this flying bit is still way less insane than what Marianne Williamson had suggested in the Huffington Post.

Read the full story here. Also see this short video of these flying Rabbis (by the way, why does one need an announcement telephone for a prayer? Shouldn't it be medium free? Just asking...).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Is evolution killing all the health-care grannies??

The health care debate is getting completely insane. But I'm glad that we still have things to laugh about. For example, here is an idiotic article in Washington Times, Getting Rid of Granny, that brings in evolution to the debate:

The bottom line is not the bottom line. It is something far more profound. Our decisions regarding who will get help and who won't are more than about bean-counting bureaucrats deciding if your drugs or operation will cost more than you are contributing to the U.S. Treasury.

The secular left claims we are evolutionary accidents who managed to crawl out of the slime and by "natural selection" stand erect and over millions of years outsmart our ancestors, the apes. If that is your belief, then you probably think health care should be rationed. Why spend lots of money to improve -- or save -- the life of someone who evolved from slime and has no special significance other than the "accident" of becoming human? Policies flow from such a philosophy, though the average secularist probably wouldn't put it in such stark terms. Stark, or not, isn't this the inevitable progression of seeing humanity as maybe complex, but nothing special?

No need to comment on this kind of idiocy - but this particular article does make me wonder about human intelligence. Oh - and once again, no apes are not our ancestors - but humans and apes had a common ancestor 5-7 million years ago.

If you really have to, you can read the full article here.

By the way, just this past Sunday there was a review of a book about the conservation efforts of Theodore Roosevelt: The Wilderness Warrior - Theodore Roosevelt and the crusade for America. Interestingly, evolution played a major role in the development of his ideas for the conservation of nature (must be at the expense of killing some grannies...):
By the time he took over the presidency after McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Roosevelt was primed for environmental action. He created the National Wildlife Refuge System and made the United States Forest Service and the Biological Survey progressive and energetic agents for wildlife and habitat protection.
...
Brinkley refers often to Roosevelt’s Darwinism. Roosevelt certainly saw himself as a disciple of Darwin, but Brinkley sometimes uses Darwinism as if it were synonymous with environmentalism — as if to acknowledge the interconnectedness of human beings and animals is to conclude that both must be saved together. What is scarcely explored is how peculiarly American Roosevelt’s Darwinism was, combining a belief in natural selection with the intuition that God made the world and that human beings — especially Americans — were inevitably stewards of it. Brinkley quotes Roosevelt writing a year before his death: “Thank Heaven I sat at the feet of Darwin and Huxley.” Roosevelt was not being ironic; he could thank God for Darwin. Just as he could be a hunter and a conservationist; indeed the two activities encouraged each other.
Read the full review here. You can also read an excerpt from chapter one here: The education of a Darwinian Naturalist.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Medical ethics in space

It is great that NASA now has a chief of bioethics. As humans start having a permanent presence in space and start thinking about a mission to Mars (yes, yes - we have to go!!), we have to get ready to face difficult ethical questions and perhaps to think in ways we are not used to. Here is an interview with NASA's chief of bioethics, Paul Root Wolpe:

Q. MOST BIOETHICISTS WORK IN HOSPITALS. HOW IS THE NASA JOB DIFFERENT?

A. In an earth-based medical situation, the priority is the health and well-being of the patient. On a spaceship, that has to be balanced with the health and well-being of the other crew members and the success of the mission itself. Ethics in space are more of a balancing act. You need to weigh a series of priorities and figure out which is paramount.

Imagine you had a severely injured astronaut on the surface of Mars — or a dead body. American soldiers will put themselves at great risk to retrieve a dead body. On Mars, you have a different situation. You might be endangering the entire mission by trying to retrieve the body. In that case, you might recommend that it be left behind, even if that is against our ethical traditions.

Or what do you do if someone has a psychotic episode while in space?

I’ve written that there has to be medication and restraints on the craft. If you have to restrain the person for a long period of time, you have to do it. You can’t thank the person for their service to the country and put them out into space. You can’t medicate them to insensibility for a year and a half. You have to find a reasonable way to manage the situation.

For a mission to Mars, lasting at least a year and a half, astronauts will definitely encounter difficult medical questions. I think there is plenty of room for an excellent screenplay to explore some of these issues. Anyone? Anyone?

And then here is an answer that brings up religion directly:

Q. WHAT WAS THE MOST UNUSUAL QUESTION NASA HAS POSED TO YOU?

A. It wasn’t an ethical question, it was a religious one. My father, the late Gerald Wolpe, was a rabbi, as are two of my brothers. There had been an Israeli on the crew of the Columbia shuttle. After it broke up, NASA wanted to know about Jewish religious standards in regard to gathering and interring remains. NASA teams were recovering pieces of bodies on the ground in Texas and Louisiana, much of it unidentifiable. And NASA wanted to know if the Israeli government would want only Ilan Ramon’s flesh returned to it because, if so, NASA would have to do genotyping of every piece of tissue. That would take months.

I told them there were countervailing values. In Judaism you bury the body as soon as possible. I didn’t think the Israelis would want to have months and months pass.

I’ve since heard that a lot of the tissue buried in the various graves of these astronauts was unidentified. There’s something touching that some of what is buried in each of their resting places is tissue from all of them.

This actually made me think of Sagan's bit on us all being ultimately made up of star-stuff. Recycled matter recycling again.

Read the full interview here.

John Waters on Fresh Air

Yes, this is still tangentially related to the blog. Fresh Air has a fascinating interview with John Waters (I actually don't think a non-fascinating John Waters interview is even possible). In any case, he has a recent book out on people who have inspired him (for various reasons), and one of the persons is Leslie Van Houten. She is one of the followers of Charles Manson, and is serving a life sentence for her participation in the murders in 1969.

John Waters is a very smart guy despite being (aptly) introduced as director of "tasteless movies". It is interesting how he sees his humor and art with what the Manson gang did. But what caught my attention was the role that millenarianism played in the minds of Charles Manson's followers. They truly believed that the world was coming to an end - and that Manson was the perfect leader for them - hence they offered their complete allegiance to him.

These end-of-times cults just keep rearing their heads. I'm currently listening to lectures on The Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics, and Witches in the Western Tradition by Teofilo F. Ruiz. He traces the roots of the apocalyptic thinking all the way back to the Persian/Iranian concepts of time and the endless struggle between good and evil. In the Epic of Gilgamesh (written at least 2000 BCE and the source for several stories in the Book of Genesis), time was cyclical and repetitive. However, around 1500 BCE (though this date is disputed and 11th/10th century BCE is more widely accepted), Zoroaster taught of good and evil in Avesta - and the fight between them that leads to the end of time it self. Thus, time is linear here. It is this notion of time that the monotheistic traditions have adopted - thus they have a definite beginning and an end. The followers of these religions are now waiting for their own ultimate end-of-time victory.

The appeal for such an idea is obvious - all bets are off when it is the battle for the end of time in a literal sense. We also see modern twists to it - like the mass-suicides committed by the members of Heaven's Gate in 1997 and the silliness associated with 2012, when Mayan calendar, just like a speedometer, turns over all zeroes. Hopefully, other than some bad Hollywood films, we won't see much Heaven's Gate like craziness in the year 2012. Too bad - Manson and his followers didn't use films as an outlet for their madness.

(By the way, while we are on the topic, also check out this earlier post on Newton's calculation of the apocalypse).

In any case, listen to John Waters interview here. Here is the description of the show:

Forty years ago, in August 1969, Charles Manson and his cult of followers gained national attention when they embarked on a brutal murder spree in California.

Film director John Waters was one of those fascinated with the murders. In 1985, while working on a Rolling Stone article about Manson, Waters contacted Leslie Van Houten, a Manson follower who was serving a life sentence for her participation in the killing of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca. Van Houten, who was 19 at the time of the crime, declined the interview request, but she and the director struck up a friendship.

Waters devotes a chapter to Van Houten in his upcoming book Role Models, about people who have inspired him. He argues that Van Houten, who now takes full responsibility for her part in the murders and has led an exemplary life in prison, deserves to be released on parole.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Not allowed to drive - but can have breast implants

Yes, women are (still) not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and (still) can't vote in municipal elections (well...there is no general election). But, cosmetic surgery - mmeh. This seems to be the reaction of the clergy as Saudi Arabia is seeing a boom in cosmetic surgery (tip from Science and Religion Today):

Previously rare in Saudi Arabia, there are now about 35 plastic surgery centers in the capital city of Riyadh.

A recent study of the trend indicated that liposuction, breast augmentations and nose jobs were the most popular procedures among women, and that hair implants and nose jobs were most popular among men, as reported by the Associated Press.

For Saudi women, who are required to cover most of their bodies under robes and veils, many see nothing unusual about undergoing plastic surgery even though the results are largely covered up.

Sarah, 28, said in an interview with the Associated Press that underneath their robes, many Saudi women have trendy haircuts and designer clothing that they show off at women’s gatherings, in front of their husbands, or on trips overseas.

"We attend a lot of private occasions, and we also travel," Sarah told the Associated Press. She did not want to provide her last name, in an effort to preserve her privacy.

By the way, in case you are wondering how many surgeries she is considering:

Sarah said she is considering having 22 surgeries herself, including a breast lift, a procedure to pad her rear, and another that would change her down-turned lips into a more traditional smile.

She also expressed interest in having her lips done to resemble those of Lebanese singer Haifa Wehbe, and other procedures for her nose.

And what is the opinion of the clerics? Well...they seem to be quite flexible. After all, this is not as offensive as...wait for the horror...the sight of a woman in a driving seat! Ok...so what do the clerics say:

In fact, the country’s cosmetic practices are causing clerics to contend with new questions about the intersection of beauty and faith: Does the Islamic faith allow for various cosmetic surgeries, such as nose jobs, breast implants or liposuction?

Sheik Mohammed al-Nujaimi, a Saudi cleric, uses guidelines that were reached in a meeting between plastic surgeons and clergymen three years ago to determine which procedures religion allows.

"I get calls from many, many women asking about cosmetic procedures," al-Nujaimi told the Associated Press. "The presentations we got from the doctors made me better equipped to give them guidance."

The meeting between the clerics and surgeons three years ago attempted to reconcile whether certain cosmetic procedures are in conflict with the Islamic belief that God’s creation should not be tampered with.

The outcome was that procedures intended to reverse damage or disfigurement from an accident, or procedures that enhance or fix features that cause a person grief, are considered acceptable. Procedures or surgeries that would change a "perfect nose" to more resemble the shape of a celebrity’s nose, are generally frowned upon.

I'm glad that these clerics are so sensitive to a person's grief. Yup - every things is ok, as long as women don't demand actual rights.

Read the full story here.

Plato on Wonder

I have just started reading Richard Holmes' Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science and it is an absolute pleasure. Right off the bat, he links scientific passion to wonder and brings up this fantastic quote from Plato:

In Wonder all Philosophy began: in Wonder it ends...But the first Wonder is the Offspring of Ignorance; the last is the Parent of Adoration.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

"New Scientist" opinion piece on Miracles

New Scientist has an opinion piece on miracles by Hugh McLachlan. It is a bit strange as it either states the obvious or provide examples that do not make the case. You can read the full article here, but let me just focus on the second half - when he explicitly brings up science:

Dawkins, however, does. In The God Delusion, he asks: "Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth? Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide it, this is still a strictly scientific question with a definite answer in principle: yes or no."

I think there is a lot of truth here. Even so, what Dawkins says does not completely settle the matter, far less settle it in favour of atheism. Suppose the correct answer is: no, Jesus did not have a human father. This would no more establish the truth of religion than the opposite falsifies it. If Jesus was born of a virgin, it does not follow that a law of nature was violated. To say "if A, then B" is not to say that there will be a B only if there is an A.

But if a central claim of the religion is that Jesus did not have a human father and it turns out he did - doesn't it undermine this particular religion? Am I missing something here? Yes, there are ways around it - such as a metaphorical interpretation, etc. But then the fuzziness comes in at the nature of the claim rather than what we actually find.

But wait. He gives a follow-up example:
For instance, human clones could be born of virgins - without violating a universal law. In the Humean sense of a violation of a law of nature, virgin births and the examples of "miracles" that Dawkins gives are not, if they occurred, necessarily violations of natural laws. They are uncommon, possibly astonishing, but as Hume himself said when he was defending suicide, all that occurs is natural, whether or not it occurs frequently.
Well...that is true. But I'm sure Dawkins will not be surprised today from virgin births via various reproductive techniques. The question is of a virgin birth 2000 years ago - without the possibility of these artificial techniques. For example, the news of a person flying at 30,000 feet 2000 years ago would be considered a miracle (i.e. violation of a laws of nature). Just because we have airplanes today that fly routinely at 30,000 feet - without violating any natural laws - doesn't make the ancient claim any more believable (or possible).

Lets move on:
As for the link between believing in God and believing in miracles, people may believe in God without believing in miracles in any sense of the term. Similarly, people may be scientifically minded and yet ask and give answers to non-scientific questions.
Ok...stating the obvious here...

Consider the Azande, an African tribe whose members believe all deaths and misfortunes are caused by either witchcraft or sorcery. Suppose a falling branch kills someone. On one level, the tribe accepts a scientific account of the incident in terms of, say, the effect of termites on wood. But on another level, they ask why did it come about that the particular person happened to be standing under the tree when the branch happened to fall?

We are unlikely to ask that particular question, and unlikely to accept their particular explanation, but it is not at all clear why we should say that questions of that sort are inappropriate. There is no apparent clash with science or hostility to it, as the British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard, who studied the Azande, was keen to stress.

It depends on the context. Sure, it seems that here he is separating out the "how" and the "why" questions. Of course, there is no clash with science as long as the "how" question is in the domain of science. Problems creep in when there are competing "how" answers - and then science has turned out to be far more successful in answering those questions than any other method.

People might accept a scientific account of why a particular event occurred, yet ask similar sorts of questions about why there are particular juxtapositions of occurrences. Much of this speculation and theorising will be baseless, but there seems no justification for saying all such thinking is nonsensical. By analogy: most conspiracy theories are groundless, but not all of them are.

So some people might think of "miracles" as particular juxtapositions of events, each of which has a correct and acceptable scientific explanation. This might be nonsensical, but it would be interesting to discover wherein the nonsense lies. We should be open not only to possible observations and experiences that might dislodge some of our accepted theories but to thoughts and ways of thinking that may challenge our notion of what acceptable theories and explanations can be like.
But of course, this is how science progresses. Scientists don't simply dismiss weird results either as "miracles" or as impossibilities. Instead, they look for explanations within the natural world (for example, the counter-intuitive result of an accelerating universe and dark energy). From this perspective, of course, it is interesting to find where the "nonsense lies". However, look at an alternative case: In the 16th century England, astrology used to predict fires (cities used to have horoscopes), weather, as well as fate of the royal family and of other individuals. The juxtaposition of stars and events has to do with our ability to detect patterns where none exist. This was a way to get an illusion of control in an unpredictable world. Sure, now we know that astrology is total crap. City fires are rare these days and no one looks at stars for weather predictions - because we understand the physics of the atmosphere much better now. But what to do when people still believe in astrology - when they hold off crucial medical procedures because of the position of stars? Should we make an effort to find an alternative set of theories when we already have perfectly valid explanations? When should we finally bring in Occam's razor?

The problem here is that Hugh McLachlan doesn't provide us with any serious examples. It would have been nice to grapple with some cases that have enough complications to give his ideas a serious thought.

Read the full article here.

An art lesson: Comparing Caravaggio and Rembrandt

Judith and Holofernes by Caravaggio

What a fantastic way to appreciate paintings and learn about their context: an online side-by-side comparison of Caravaggio and Rembrandt (tip from Open Culture):
Two heavyweights of the 17th-century art world juxtaposed: The Italian Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio(1571-1610), and the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). For the first time ever the paintings of these two artists are presented side by side: a unique opportunity to compare different aspects of their work and their lives.
The site is indeed quite remarkable. Go to the opening page - and click on "watch the comparisons", and then go to any of the paintings. A menu-driven (written) commentary takes you through the different aspects of their respective paintings and presents a comparison. If you can't go through all of the paintings, check these three for comparison: The Blinding of Samson/Judith and Holofernes; The denial of St. Peters/The betrayal of Christ; Abraham's sacrifice (they both did this one). The last two are also slightly related to two recent posts: Cosmology in the Gospel of Judas and "Oh God said to Abraham...", respectively.

Take your time and enjoy!

Friday, August 07, 2009

Dr. Israr Ahmed on Evolution

Dr. Israr Ahmed was perhaps the most influential religious figure in Pakistan in the 1980s - thanks to his popular TV show Al-Huda. Originally, a disciple of Maududi, Israr Ahmed split from Jamaat-e-Islami and formed his own group, Tanzeem-e-Islami. In the spectrum of Ulema conservatism, he is certainly to the right. While his influence is much diminished, he is still an important religious figure in Pakistan.

So what does he have to say about biological evolution? As usual, there is much confusion. At first, it appears that he seems to be ok with evolution. For example, he divides the world into a matter world and a spiritual world, and allows evolution to be the governing process in the former. In fact, in his 1996 book, The Objective and Goal of Muhammad’s Prophethood, he explicitly mentions Darwin by name:
Darwin, too, was not entirely wrong in asserting that human biological evolution which is a fact in respect to the natural development of the earthly or animal part of the brain.
This statement has a whiff of 19th century science discourse ("animal part of the brain"), but this seems to suggest that he may be ok even with human evolution. However, Dr. Israr Ahmed also addressed the topic in considerably more detail in a 2004 lecture on Human Personality and 2 forms of Knowledge as part of televised Round Table with Dr. Israr Ahmed. It is here that his confusion becomes apparent. Initially, he appears to give explicit support to the idea of evolution:
Our animal existence includes life – and it has come from the clay and the crust of the Earth through a very long, very long, very long process of evolution. But our spirits, human spirits, are not from clay or sand.
In fact, he goes as far as to include human evolution:
From the interaction of water and clay started the life on this planet. From a single cell to the most evolved Homo sapiens. It might have taken millions of years…but then Allah…selected one Homo sapiens and blew into him the spirit…Now we have a human being.
Here is the video of this part of his lecture (yes, for your convenience, it is in English). Look for evolution comments around 10 minutes into the video and specifically about human evolution at around 24:00:


Taken these statements together, they seem to endorse an Islamic version of theistic evolution: God worked through the process of evolution to create the diversity we seen on Earth and a “spirit” is injected by Allah into a hominid species and that makes it a human and a conscious being. However, at the end of the lecture when asked specifically about natural selection as the process of evolution, Israr Ahmed rejects it completely and endorses a view that is closer to the special creation of individual species:
I do believe in evolution but not in Darwinian evolution. Evolution is something else and the mode through which it has taken place is something else. The struggle for existence, and the survival of the fittest, and natural selection – this is wrong. At every change of species, we need another “kun” from God.
The last statement brings him closer to the more traditional creationism: God independently created all species. Similarly, his stated objections to evolution, such as “it is only a theory’, appear to have been borrowed from creationist literature as well. His primary objection, though, is related to the origins of morality. According to Israr Ahmed, Muslims reject Darwinian evolution because of its focus solely on the animal being – thus losing any foundation for morality. Hey - he didn't check out the essay by Frans de Waal on the cognitive continuum between animals and humans.

Here is the video of the Q&A session (the question about natural selection comes at 1:31):


Actually, some of the questions seem to be quite reasonable. But his answers mostly highlight confusion. And then there is a bizarre exchange about science & religion towards the end (around 42:50). Ian Markham from the Hartford Seminary was giving him a soft ball by crediting religion for the rise of science (the search for order in nature, etc). But Dr. Israr rejects this idea and then goes on to make sweeping assertions about Europe's historically anti-science attitude - supporting the classic conflict thesis between science & religion. Here it seems that the people asking questions are familiar with recent science & religion debates in the West and they are trying to get a unified stance from religions, whereas, Dr. Israr is looking at it from Islam vs the West prism. For him, Muslims transferred the scientific knowledge to Europe and then Europe screwed up with its anti-science attitude (he especially mentions the papal authority). A few minutes later he takes the stance that science and religion exist side-by-side - and there is no conflict (i.e. non-overlapping magisteria). But then, why did he reject natural selection in the first place?

Aaah....my head is spinning from so many contradictory statements within the same session. On the other hand, this simply is the state of discourse over evolution amongst most contemporary Muslim scholars. They have not really given a serious thought to the subject - and all we get are responses based on popular misconceptions about the theory.

Also see:
Ghamidi on Islam and evolution
The evolution of Harun Yahya's "Atlas of Creation"
Zakir Naik's rant against evolution
Yusuf Estes' ignorance and hilarity combo about evolution
Maududi on evolution
"Islamtoday" on evolution

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Hanging out with Galileo - Venice

This summer has been a fantastic history of science lesson for me. I visited Darwin's Down house and Oxford, followed by Venice (see this bit about the Peter Greenaway exhibit) and Florence. Galileo, of course, looms large over Florence and fittingly, there was a large exhibit in the city dedicated not only to him but also the human quest to make sense of the universe (more on the exhibit later). But Venice has its own bit of history with Galileo. From the top of St. Mark's Campanile, Galileo first demonstrated the power of his newly built telescope to the Doge of Venice, Leonardo Donato, in August 1609 (yup - exactly 400 years ago) and to the Senate of Venice (right). The telescope was not pointed to the sky - but to the distant ships, churches, and the markets. The military implications were clear (especially for a maritime city like Venice) and the Doge was suitably impressed. As a result of this demonstration, Galileo was named professor to the University of Padua.

Venice and St. Mark's campanile at the time of sunset.














Here is a close-up of the campanile (above-left). The tower was built in 1173 to serve as a light house and its present appearance dates back to the early 16th century. However, the original tower collapsed in 1902 - but was rebuilt to its original form ten years later. There are five bells in the tower - each bell with a different purpose. For example, one of the bells tolled the start and the end of the working day, whereas another warned of an execution. Similarly, one of the bells was dedicated to summon senators to the Doge's palace. I took the picture of one of the bells (above-right) - hoping that this is the execution bell.

In case you are wondering about the views from the Campanile, here are three images (below) taken from the top of the tower (also, the picture of the tiny island of San Giorgio Maggiore on the Peter Greenaway post was taken from the top):


I also had a chance to give a lecture about Galileo to a Venetian cat. The telescope bit went quite well (below-left) but I began to loose my audience (below-right) when I started talking about Galileo's theory of tides.