Sunday, August 31, 2008

Add Tim Pawlenty to the ID ("teach the controversy") list...

Sigh! The sorry state of politicians continues. Now we have the Republican Governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, who personally believes in ID and is a supporter of "teach the controversy" nonsense. This issue came up while talking about the creationist views of Sarah Palin (Its still not clear if she simply believes in ID nonsense or worse still, young earth creationism). But kudos to Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press this morning. He brought up the creationism issue quite early and pushed Pawlenty on the topic. Here is the video of the segment. The creationism question is about 13 minutes into the video.

Below is the transcript of the show. Here Brokaw is referring to Sarah Palin:

In the governor's race, she refused to be specific about her views on creationism vs. evolution, but as I understand it, she did say that she thought that the two subjects should be taught side by side in public schools. Do you think that's a good idea?

GOV. PAWLENTY: I saw her comments on it yesterday, and I thought they were appropriate, which is, you know, let's--if there are competing theories, and they are credible, her view of it was, according to comments in the newspaper, allow them all to be presented, or allow them both to be presented so students could be exposed to both, and--or more, and have a chance to be exposed to the, to the various theories and make up their own minds.

MR. BROKAW: In the vast scientific community, do you think that creationism has the same weight as evolution, and at a time in American education when we are in a crisis when it comes to science that there ought to be parallel tracks for creationism vs. evolution in the teaching?

GOV. PAWLENTY: In the scientific community, it seems like intelligent design is dismissed. Not entirely, there are a lot of scientists who would make the case that it is appropriate to be taught and appropriate to be demonstrated. But in terms of the curriculum in the schools, in Minnesota we've taken the approach that that's a local decision, but I know Senator Palin, or Governor Palin, has said intelligent design is something she thinks should be taught along with evolution in the schools, and I think that's appropriate from my standpoint.

MR. BROKAW: Given, given...

GOV. PAWLENTY: But I believe--my personal view is that's a local decision.

MR. BROKAW: Given equal weight.

GOV. PAWLENTY: At the local school board.

MR. BROKAW: And you would recommend it be given equal weight.

GOV. PAWLENTY: We've said in Minnesota, in my view this is a local decision. Intelligent design is something that in my view is a plausible and credible and something that I personally believe in; but more importantly, from an educational and scientific standpoint, it should be decided by local school boards, by--at the local school district level.

In case you missed it, this is Pawlenty's own view on ID: "Intelligent design is something that in my view is a plausible and credible and something that I personally believe in".

Good luck Minnesota!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Creationism back in election politics

It seems that McCain's VP pick, Sarah Palin, favors teach the controversy approach. This issue came up during her campaign for Alaskan governorship in 2006 (hat tip The Secular Outpost):

The volatile issue of teaching creation science in public schools popped up in the Alaska governor's race this week when Republican Sarah Palin said she thinks creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the state's public classrooms.

Palin was answering a question from the moderator near the conclusion of Wednesday night's televised debate on KAKM Channel 7 when she said, "Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both."

Palin said she thought there was value in discussing alternatives.

"It's OK to let kids know that there are theories out there," she said in the interview. "They gain information just by being in a discussion."

That was how she was brought up, she said. Her father was a public school science teacher.

"My dad did talk a lot about his theories of evolution," she said. "He would show us fossils and say, 'How old do you think these are?' "

Asked for her personal views on evolution, Palin said, "I believe we have a creator."

She would not say whether her belief also allowed her to accept the theory of evolution as fact.

"I'm not going to pretend I know how all this came to be," she said.


So the question now is if she is going to move away from this position or will this be considered as an asset to rally the conservative base (she also has a strong pro-life stance and is a member of the NRA). At least we now know that one of the questions in the VP debate will be about the teaching of evolution. Read the full story from Anchorage Daily News, whose traffic probably increased a million folds today.

Building a religion around evolution

Here is a Point of Inquiry interview with Revered Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World. It is an interesting interview, but I'm still not clear about the religious element of his religion. Mostly he is talking about applying science, in particular evolutionary psychology, to our understanding human actions. He also brings up the point of naturalizing various religious (in this case Christianity) doctrines based on modern scientific understanding. Ok, but why still call it a religion? This issue was also brought up in the interview also, but I'm not sure if it was addressed satisfactorily. I mean many of his points are completely reasonable, but why dress up these arguments in an overly religiously language. In any case, here is the description of the interview:
In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Michael Dowd reveals how his kind of Christianity is different from most others who would call themselves Christian, and argues that all religions are evolving in the direction of naturalism. He argues that evolution must be mythologized in order to save our species. He explains how he reinterprets orthodox Christian doctrines such as "personal salvation," "the centrality of the cross," and "original sin" in ways that are compatible with scientific ways of thinking, and recounts how understanding evolutionary brain science helps reinterpret certain notions of sexual "sin." He addresses the criticism that that there is no good reason to use religious language to speak about science and evolution. And he expresses why his evolution evangelism is so important: that evolution be embraced and that it would be able to "do its magic," listing the seven reasons how evolution can transform lives and change the world.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Vatican mulling a statue for Galileo - Is a sainthood next?

Ok, so the Vatican is not up to the Sainthood yet. However, it appears that it is indeed considering commissioning a statue of Galileo. Vatican has been trying to correct its idiotic mistake for the past 400 years and this is another step in that direction. Next year is the 400th anniversary of the first use of telescope by Galileo (no he didn't invent the telescope, but he was amongst the earliest users to point it to the night sky), and the statue is most likely timed for that (its also the International Year of Astronomy). A sainthood for Galileo, though, would really mend fences. Here is the article about Galileo's statue from WSJ (hat tip The Pew Forum):
Nearly 400 years after the Roman Inquisition condemned Galileo Galilei for insisting the Earth revolves around the sun, an anonymous donor to the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences has offered to foot the bill for a statue of the Italian astronomer.

Vatican officials had hoped to keep the statue project quiet, at least until it got beyond the planning stage. They feared its mystery benefactor -- a private company -- might get skittish. But word of the bequest leaked to the Italian press.

"I'm worried that we'll scare off the donor," says Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the academy of sciences. He won't comment on the identity or the motives of the donor.

Unfortunately, rest of the article is not very well written and presents a cliff notes (or from cliff notes) version of history, often skipping on important details. However, towards the end, it does highlight the dilemma of the Church regarding this issue:

Shortly after he became pope in 1978, John Paul II decided to try to correct things once and for all. He lamented that Galileo "had much to the hands of individuals and institutions within the church" and later convened a pontifical commission to re-examine Galileo's whole trial.

"We opened the secret Vatican archives and tried to understand everything we could about Galileo's position," recalls Cardinal Paul Poupard, who headed one of the commission's study groups. But after 12 years of intense study, the commission issued a wishy-washy report that blamed "certain persons" for hounding Galileo and steered clear of a full mea culpa.

The Vatican is even struggling with finding a suitable spot to put the statue. "That's kind of tough in the Vatican," says Nicola Cabibbo, a physics professor and the president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. "You've got a lot of art inside there already. Some of it from great masters. So where do you put a statue of Galileo?"

A Vatican-sanctioned statue, says Paolo Galluzzi, the head of the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, is just an attempt to hoodwink people into believing that the church has long since made its peace with the scientist.

"It's an effort to make him a symbol, an attempt to make Galileo one of the emblems of the church," says Mr. Galluzzi, whose museum houses two of Galileo's telescopes. "It's the church which needs rehabilitation on this case, not Galileo. He was right."

On the other side of the barricades, meanwhile, some Roman Catholics think the church has already done more than enough to make up with Galileo.

C'mon - they can do more. Saint Galileo would be great, with Saint Darwin and Saint Dawkins to follow. Read the full article here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A new angle on the whole Galileo Affair

Here is an example that highlights the excitement of discovery in history. The first biography of Galileo, written only 20 years after his death, has been (re)discovered, and it may alter our view of the whole Galileo Affair. However, the story of the lost biography itself is quite interesting and is definitely worth a read (hat tip Stranger Fruit):

Following Galileo's death, his apprentice, Vincenzo Viviani, collected Galileo's books and correspondences and announced his intention to write the definitive history of Galileo. Due to Viviani's privileged position, most other would-be biographers deferred to him. But by the 1660s, Viviani still had not written his promised masterpiece.

Enter Thomas Salusbury, an English historian who in 1664 published his Galilean oeuvre, Mathematical Collections and Translations. Composed of two volumes, the collection contained translations of Galileo's various discourses, letters, and the first book-length depiction of Galileo's life.

Then in 1666, the Great Fire of London swept through the city. The book trade in particular was badly hit; many publishing houses became piles of ashes overnight. In the inferno, all but a single copy of Salusbury's biography were lost. Salusbury died at about the same time—possibly in the fire, or maybe from the plague. By late 1666, Mrs. Susan Salusbury was a known widow.

But the book lived on. It passed through various hands before, in 1749, it wound up in the private library of George Parker, Second Earl of Macclesfield, a respected amateur astronomer. The 1830s marked the last time that the book was directly quoted. After that, the trail goes cold. Historians searched the Macclesfield library again and again, only to wind up empty-handed, and most were resigned to the fact that the book was lost.

In 2003, Richard Parker, the Ninth Earl of Macclesfield, was evicted from the family castle following a bitter property dispute with the castle's management company, whose shareholders included his own relatives. The 30-year family feud precipitating the eviction was based on, as the presiding judge put it, simple "palpable dislike." Upon his ousting, the Earl auctioned off the contents of the castle's three libraries.

Nick Wilding, an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, heard the libraries were up for auction and immediately called the Sotheby's representative in charge of the affair. Wilding asked him, doubtfully, if in the collection he had chanced across a particular title: Galilaeus Galilaeus His Life: In Five Books, by Thomas Salusbury. "To my surprise, he said, 'Why, yes, actually. I've got it right here,'" Wilding recalls. He hopped on the next plane to London.

Perusing the tattered tome at Sotheby's auction house, Wilding became the first person to study Salusbury's mysterious biography of Galileo in almost 200 years. Inside the timeworn document itself, Wilding discovered clues that allowed him to piece together its elusive, seemingly cursed history.

But the important question is about Salusbury's view of Galileo's trial:

Not that modern scholars give much credence to the traditional science-vs.-religion interpretation of the trial. Most Galilean researchers today agree that politics played a much bigger role than religious closed-mindedness, but there is spirited disagreement about the specifics. Some think the pope was angry at being parodied by Galileo's character Simplicius in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems­. Other scholars have suggested that church leaders felt Galileo had tricked them into granting him a license to write the book by not revealing its Copernican leanings. But "Salusbury's explanation is kind of refreshingly new," Wilding says.

Here is the main point:

It goes like this: In the middle of the Thirty Years' War between the Holy Roman Empire and almost every major power in Europe, tensions were high between Tuscany and Rome. The Tuscan Duke of Medici had refused to aid Rome in its war efforts against France. Pope Urban VIII decided to punish the Duke by arresting the Duke's personal friend, Galileo.

Whatever its motivation, the Roman court found Galileo guilty of heresy and placed him under house arrest. He spent the first five years of his sentence in a small house near Florence, where he continued to publish work on the science of motion, and the next—and last—four years of his life confined to another home in Florence closer to his doctors.

Salisbury, of course, can still be wrong. However, it is an interesting take, and it can certainly impact on the way we look at Galileo's trial:

"No other historian in the 350 years after the trial has ever proposed the theory" that the Pope persecuted Galileo to punish the Duke of Medici, Wilding says. Written only 20 years after Galileo's death, the newfound biography represents one of the earliest explanations for the trial ever recorded. "To me, it feels right," Wilding says. The idea "might provide some closure to a still-festering wound."

But Wilding admits that Salusbury himself could be projecting his own interpretations on the event. That's the view Galilean historian Paula Findlen, at Stanford University, takes. To her, the accuracy of Salusbury's claims is less interesting than the fact that Salusbury is claiming them at all. "It's interesting to see how people at that time, from outside Italy, are starting to reconstruct Galileo's life," Findlen says. It shows that people immediately recognized the importance of Galileo, of his works and of his trial. And not only did they grasp the significance, they also suspected that politics was at the root of the trial, even then. "Even if you disagree with Salusbury's interpretation, it reinforces the idea that people knew there was something deeply political about the whole thing."

This is very cool! Read the full article here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

And now for some Astrobiology Rap

The postings have been a bit slow lately, and I blame the spectacular Maine coast for that. But as you can see on the right, I have been really busy here.

In the mean time, here is Astrobiology Rap, continuing the trend set by brilliant Hotel Mauna Kea and Large Hadron Collider Rap (though, it seems that astronomers are getting a hang of it). But there is also a lot of good science in it. Here it is: (hat tip Dynamic of Cats)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Free-will and cheating

Now, I'm no fan of free-will (and I don't even get to decide that), but here is an interesting study on the effects of believing in free-will (or lack thereof):
In a clever new study, psychologists Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara tested this question by giving participants passages from The Astonishing Hypothesis, a popular science book by Francis Crick, a biochemist and Nobel laureate (as co-discoverer, with James Watson, of the DNA double helix). Half of the participants got a passage saying that there is no such thing as free will. The passage begins as follows: “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.”
The passage then goes on to talk about the neural basis of decisions and claims that “…although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.” The other participants got a passage that was similarly scientific-sounding, but it was about the importance of studying consciousness, with no mention of free will.

After reading the passages, all participants completed a survey on their belief in free will. Then comes the inspired part of the experiment. Participants were told to complete 20 arithmetic problems that would appear on the computer screen. But they were also told that when the question appeared, they needed to press the space bar, otherwise a computer glitch would make the answer appear on the screen, too. The participants were told that no one would know whether they pushed the space bar, but they were asked not to cheat.

The results were clear: those who read the anti-free will text cheated more often! (That is, they pressed the space bar less often than the other participants.) Moreover, the researchers found that the amount a participant cheated correlated with the extent to which they rejected free will in their survey responses.
Before we jump to conclusions:
Philosophers have raised questions about some elements of the study. For one thing, the anti-free will text presents a bleak worldview, and that alone might lead one to cheat more in such a context (“OMG, if I’m just a pack of neurons, I have much bigger things to worry about than behaving on this experiment!”). It might be that one would also find increased cheating if you gave people a passage arguing that all sentient life will ultimately be destroyed in the heat death of the universe.

On the other hand, the results fit with what some philosophers had predicted. The Western conception idea of free will seems bound up with our sense of moral responsibility, guilt for misdeeds and pride in accomplishment. We hold ourselves responsible precisely when we think that our actions come from free will. In this light, it’s not surprising that people behave less morally as they become skeptical of free will. Further, the Vohs and Schooler result fits with the idea that people will behave less responsibly if they regard their actions as beyond their control. If I think that there’s no point in trying to be good, then I’m less likely to try.
Read the full article here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dennett and problems with Gould's NOMA

Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magesteria (NOMA) is the most popular and perhaps the most criticized model of science & religion interaction. Of course, there are some serious problems with it - boundaries keep on changing, who gets to decide the boundaries, etc. However, NOMA has also been successfully used in making controversial ideas, like evolution, more acceptable to believers. Indeed, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) consistently use NOMA for dealing with evolution in public schools. But the problems are there. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Daniel Dennett, where he exposes some of these problems with NOMA and what this approach leaves for religion (not much):

S&S: What then of religion, or, more specifically, of the relationship between religion and science? Stephen Jay Gould speaks of "Non-Overlapping Magesteria," where the two realms of knowledge—or inquiry—stay within their own spheres, operating with mutual respect but maintaining a strict policy of non-interference. Is this possible, in your views? Is it even desirable?

Dennett: The problem with any proposed detente in which science and religion are ceded separate bailiwicks or "magisteria" is that, as some wag has put it, this amounts to rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which Caesar says God can have. The most recent attempt, by Gould, has not found much favor among the religious precisely because he proposes to leave them so little. Of course, I’m certainly not suggesting that he should have left them more.

There are no factual assertions that religion can reasonably claim as its own, off limits to science. Many who readily grant this have not considered its implications. It means, for instance, that there are no factual assertions about the origin of the universe or its future trajectory, or about historical events (floods, the parting of seas, burning bushes, etc.), about the goal or purpose of life, or about the existence of an afterlife and so on, that are off limits to science. After all, assertions about the purpose or function of organs, the lack of purpose or function of, say, pebbles or galaxies, and assertions about the physical impossibility of psychokinesis, clairvoyance, poltergeists, trance channeling, etc. are all within the purview of science; so are the parallel assertions that strike closer to the traditionally exempt dogmas of long-established religions. You can’t consistently accept that expert scientific testimony can convict a charlatan of faking miracle cures and then deny that the same testimony counts just as conclusively—"beyond a reasonable doubt"—against any factual claims of violations of physical law to be found in the Bible or other religious texts or traditions.

And not much in the realm of ethics either:

What does that leave for religion to talk about? Moral injunctions and declarations of love (and hate, unfortunately), and other ceremonial speech acts. The moral codes of all the major religions are a treasury of ethical wisdom, agreeing on core precepts, and disagreeing on others that are intuitively less compelling, both to those who honor them and those who don’t. The very fact that we agree that there are moral limits that trump any claim of religious freedom—we wouldn’t accept a religion that engaged in human sacrifice or slavery, for instance—shows that we do not cede to religion, to any religion, the final authority on moral injunctions.

Centuries of ethical research and reflection, by philosophers, political theorists, economists, and other secular thinkers have not yet achieved a consensus on any Grand Unified Theory of ethics, but there is a broad, stable consensus on how to conduct such an inquiry, how to resolve ethical quandaries, and how to deal with as-yet unresolved differences. Religion plays a major role as a source of possible injunctions and precepts, and as a rallying point for public appeal and organization, but it does not set the ground rules of ethical agreement and disagreement, and hence cannot claim ethics or morality as its particular province.

That leaves ceremonial speech acts as religion’s surviving domain. These play a huge role in stabilizing the attitudes and policies of those who participate in them, but the trouble is that ceremony without power does not appear to be a stable arrangement—and appearances here are all important.

Read the full interview here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Evolution of intelligence

Here is a good article on evolution of the human mind:

Of course, intelligence must emerge from the workings of the three-pound mass of wetware packed inside our skulls. Thus, researchers have tried to identify unique features of the human brain that could account for our superior intellectual abilities. But, anatomically, the human brain is very similar to that of other primates because humans and chimpanzees share an ancestor that walked the earth less than seven million years ago.

Accordingly, the human brain contains no highly conspicuous characteristics that might account for the species’ cleverness. For instance, scientists have failed to find a correlation between absolute or relative brain size and acumen among humans and other animal species. Neither have they been able to discern a parallel between wits and the size or existence of specific regions of the brain, excepting perhaps Broca’s area, which governs speech in people. The lack of an obvious structural correlate to human intellect jibes with the idea that our intelligence may not be wholly unique: studies are revealing that chimps, among various other species, possess a diversity of humanlike social and cognitive skills.

Nevertheless, researchers have found some microscopic clues to humanity’s aptitude. We have more neurons in our brain’s cerebral cortex (its outermost layer) than other mammals do. The insulation around nerves in the human brain is also thicker than that of other species, enabling the nerves to conduct signals more rapidly. Such biological subtleties, along with behavioral ones, suggest that human intelligence is best likened to an upgrade of the cognitive capacities of nonhuman primates rather than an exceptionally advanced form of cognition.

Read the full article here.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Episode 1: "The Genius of Charles Darwin"

I have been slow to get to it - but in case you haven't seen it, here is Richard Dawkins' The Genius of Charles Darwin. Its very well done, but Libby Purves in The Times, has objected to linking evolution with atheism in the documentary about Darwin. See that below the video.

Here is Libby's commentary on the episode:
Talking about evolution, he is terrific. But every few minutes he spoils it by announcing that natural selection means there is, categorically, no God. Not needed as wildlife designer - ergo, non-existent.

Professor Dawkins met a class of children, some of them indoctrinated by that crazily literal minority who think the world began 6,000 years ago on a divine drawing board. Instead of explaining natural selection and letting them work out that maybe the Creator works in more mysterious ways than the Genesis myth, he offered them a choice as stark as any bonkers tin-hut preacher from the Quivering Brethren shouting: “Repent or burn!”

Evolution or God - take your choice, kid! The moment one of them found an ammonite on the beach, Professor Dawkins demanded instant atheism. OK, he is provoked, as we all are, by nutters. But most believers are not creationists. Some are scientists.
and her main point:
Darwin shines; evolution is as marvellous as Dawkins says. But it is not fair to use Darwin's beautifully evolved brain to bang the drum for your private conviction that there is nothing out there. Nobody knows. Not really. Teaching children real science is one thing, making them choose God or evolution is another.
She raises an important point. But she couldn't resist taking a cheap shot at Dawkins:L
Stupid, too, in a Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. If you offer a choice between science on one hand and faith and tradition on the other, too many people will reject science. A subtle and well-evolved species like us can accept both ammonites and Alleluias. Live with it, Prof.
Of course, Dawkins responded, and here he is referring to the bit about school children in the documentary:
That is unjust, to the point of outright mendacity, and an insult to any professional educator. It was the creation-indoctrinated children themselves who made the leap: “Evolution = atheism”. I was scrupulously careful not to make that connection in the presence of the children, although I have made it elsewhere, spelling out the nuanced argument in The God Delusion.
And here is a sympathetic (and a lighter) view of the documentary in The Guardian: (hat tip Jim Wald)

Many people find bald, unvarnished truths so disturbing, they prefer to ram their heads in the sand and start dreaming at the first sign of scientific reality. The more contrary evidence mounts up, the harder they'll ignore it. And even the greatest, most widely-admired scientists can provoke this reaction. Take Darwin. Or rather, take The Genius Of Darwin (Mon, 8pm, C4), the latest documentary from professional God-hatin' Professor Yaffle impersonator Richard Dawkins, which sets out to calmly and lucidly explain a) Why Darwin was so ace, and b) Just how much evidence there is to support his findings.

Darwin's theory of evolution was simple, beautiful, majestic and awe-inspiring. But because it contradicts the allegorical babblings of a bunch of made-up old books, it's been under attack since day one. That's just tough luck for Darwin. If the Bible had contained a passage that claimed gravity is caused by God pulling objects toward the ground with magic invisible threads, we'd still be debating Newton with idiots too.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Impact of globalization on belief in hell

See globalization is not all evil. It may be responsible for the declining belief in hell, at least amongst Americans:

In a survey released this summer by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, just 59 percent of 35,000 respondents said they believe in a hell "where people who have led bad lives, and die without being sorry, are eternally punished."

That's down from the 71 percent who said they believed in hell in a 2001 Gallup survey. And it is lower than the 74 percent who said they believe in heaven in the recent Pew poll.

Skepticism about hell is growing even in evangelical churches and seminaries, says one theologian here, a bastion of conservative evangelicalism.

"In a pluralistic, post-modern world, students are having a more difficult time with (the idea of) people going to hell forever because they didn't believe the right thing," says Mike Wittmer, professor of systematic theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.

"That's the biggest question out there right now: `Would God send someone to hell if they were someone as good as me, but didn't believe what I believe?"'

It was easier to believe in hell 20 years ago when missionaries tried to convert people in far-flung places, Wittmer says. In today's global village, many live next to good, non-Christian neighbors and wonder why an all-powerful, loving God wouldn't eventually empty out hell, Wittmer says. one cannot show a causal relation from the available data - but the globalization hypothesis is certainly plausible. But not to worry, there is sufficient fuel available for hellfire:

Over at the Islamic Center and Mosque of West Michigan, Imam Sharif Sahibzada also listens for the devil's footsteps. Though faithfully following God, Sahibzada says he nevertheless fears hell.

"I don't know how I will end up," Sahibzada says following Friday prayers. "I have to show trust in God and his mercy all the time. Always Satan is circling and trying to misguide me."

He says Islam teaches those who reject God are condemned permanently to hell, where the Quran says they will be "fuel for Hellfire."

Believers who have totally surrendered to God will go directly to heaven. Those who have not totally followed God's commands must first go to hell and be punished according to their sins. God decides everyone's fate, including those who believe in God but reject the Prophet Muhammad, Sahibzada says.

Hmm...this Islamic center can use some serious globalization.

Read the full story here.

Apes are humans too...

Well...close enough. Anthropologist Barbara King has an opinion piece in Washington Times responding to an earlier article (by La Valle) against the Spanish efforts to grant human rights to apes (also see here and here):

La Valle argued that the Spanish Parliament should not award human rights to apes, as it is considering. He opened with a throwaway line about monkeys in the circus -- and made his first mistake. First of all, monkeys' bodies are smaller than those of apes, their thinking is less complex and they are more distantly related to humans. But a far more serious error was La Valle's assertion that apes are "irrational, amoral."

In an echo of 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes' dualism, La Valle invoked a strict dividing line between humans, who reason, and animals that rely on "instinctual, inherited knowledge of how to survive." It's clear that La Valle hasn't spent much time with apes lately -- or looking into any of the major findings by primate scientists over the past two or three decades. In expressing reasoning and empathy, Binti Jua was not unique; nor was her behavior an artifact of zoo life. Wild chimpanzees plan ahead and carry tools to work sites, where they crack open hard-shelled nuts with wood and stone hammers. They choose sides thoughtfully in ongoing competitions for status and reward friends' loyalties while exacting revenge on their enemies. When close companions suffer wounds or injuries, wild chimpanzees groom and care for them. (This compassion by chimpanzees, it must be said, is at times matched by their outright cruelty to each other. What species does that remind you of?)

Plus, these primates may provide crucial information about origins of morality and may be even religious thinking:

The apes that I have described, and many more that my fellow primatologists write about, are neither irrational nor amoral. The zoologist and ethologist Frans de Waal has argued that the origins of morality can be found in our primate cousins, and my own anthropological work suggests that the evolutionary roots of today's human religiosity can be found in the ape world.

Read the full article here. At the beginning of her article, she mentions an incident of a gorilla saving a human boy:

A toddler falls over a railing, 24 feet down, into the gorilla enclosure of the Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago. There he lies, unconscious, among seven apes, some with poundage and power exceeding that of an adult man. As one of them approaches the boy, onlookers tense. But Binti Jua, an 8-year-old female gorilla, picks up the boy, and, carrying him along with her own infant, gently hands him over to zoo staff.

Well here is a grainy video of the incident (with an overdramatized commentary and music), and the picture of Binti Jua and her daughter, Koola (from 1996):

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

An invitation to imagine and wonder...

An excellent opinion piece from Olivia Judson in today's NYT on reasons why we should study evolution. Her last point really stands out:
But for me, the most important thing about studying evolution is something less tangible. It’s that the endeavor contains a profound optimism. It means that when we encounter something in nature that is complicated or mysterious, such as the flagellum of a bacteria or the light made by a firefly, we don’t have to shrug our shoulders in bewilderment.

Instead, we can ask how it got to be that way. And if at first it seems so complicated that the evolutionary steps are hard to work out, we have an invitation to imagine, to play, to experiment and explore. To my mind, this only enhances the wonder.

Read the full article here.

An excellent review of Fuller's book on Intelligent Design

Well, this new book by Steve Fuller, Science v. Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution, may not hold much promise, but its review is certainly more informative (hat tip Stranger Fruit):
In the contemporary debate over creationism Steve Fuller is best known for his "expert" testimony at the 2005 Dover, Pennsylvania creationism trial during which he defended the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) creationism in science classes in public high schools in the United States. Fuller argued that much of Western science has its roots in traditional ID and, therefore, modern ID creationism belongs in science curricula. According to Fuller neither ID's proponents, let alone its scientific critics, truly appreciate its significance for the development of science: modern science is supposed to be fundamentally based on the idea of Intelligent Design. Fuller apparently thinks that this historical claim has the normative implication that science should continue to embrace ID. The book under review is an elaboration of these arguments though it also traipses, somewhat unsteadily, into the legal territory that was demarcated by Judge Jones' resounding rejection of ID's claim to be anything other than religious dogma masquerading as science.
And here is the rough assessment on his presentation of the Design issue:
Let me now turn from description to commentary. Fuller's analysis of the intellectual disputes over contemporary ID creationism is almost vacuous. The chapter on complexity does not even broach the many fairly sophisticated responses and rebuttals spurred by Behe's and Dembski's arguments (see Sarkar [2007] and Sober [2008] for an entry into this literature). It is less than clear that Fuller has deigned to familiarize himself with the intellectual terrain in which Behe and Dembski operate, let alone the arguments of their critics. ID creationists would serve themselves better by engaging a more competent defender. For readers seeking an introduction to the technical issues surrounding contemporary creationism, this book is useless.
In addition, there are serious problems with his history (read the review for a whole bunch of inaccuracies), but at least the reviewer found it entertaining:
These excursions into fancy allow me to end on a positive note: the lack of depth or insight in this book is more than compensated by the entertainment it provides, at least to a philosopher or historian of science. No one should begrudge us our simple pleasures. I'm happy to have read this book, and even more so not to have paid for it.
Ouch! Read the full review here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

No rest for Isaac Hayes' soul

Isaac Hayes died on Sunday. Yes, he was also a Scientologist and his death has brought afterlife concepts of Scientology into focus. It seems that his soul may be doing some interplanetary travels (if there really are no constraints, why settle for planets? What about interstellar or intergalactic travel?). Here is a blog-entry from Washington Post:

According to beliefs promoted by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the immortal soul -- or "thetan" -- passes from one body to the next through reincarnations over trillions of years. When a person dies, Hubbard said, the thetan goes to a landing station on Venus where it is programmed with lies about its past life and its next one.

Hubbard taught his followers to choose a location other than Venus. So here's hoping that Hayes, who died Sunday at age 65, chose to keep his immortal soul in Memphis where it belongs, and where he made me question my own suspicions about all Scientologists.

That Hayes was a Scientologist was known to everyone who ever visited South Park, the animated show for which Hayes was the voice of the soulful cafeteria worker Chef, a role he quit in 2006 after an episode mocked his religion and fellow Scientologist Tom Cruise.

And another article looking more deeply into the soul travels of Scientologists:

When a body dies, its thetan forgets the details of the former life, though painful and traumatic images known as engrams remain rooted in its unconscious. In order to move up the path of spiritual progression—known as the Bridge to Total Freedom—one must eradicate these psychic scars, which cause a person to act fearfully and irrationally. Once a Scientologist has purged them through the counseling process known as auditing, he or she is said to be "clear."

According to an avowed Scientology antagonist who claims, on her Web site, to present factual information typically omitted from church press materials, the official Scientology publication Celebrity announced that Hayes attained "clear" status around 2002, though it is not known whether he progressed onto the highest parts of the Bridge, the "operating thetan" levels. Details about what happens in these advanced stages remain closely guarded Scientology secrets, but at the very end of the process, thetans are supposed to gain power over the physical world; consequently, according to founder L. Ron Hubbard, they "feel no need of bodies," ending the cycle of birth and death and becoming pure, incorporeal souls.

Read the full article here. Yes, it all sounds quite bizarre. But are these really stranger than afterlife narratives of some mainstream religions? Body/soul resurrections, souls stuck in limbo, elaborate details of heaven and hell, judgement being pronounced, soul moving from one body to another, etc. Compared to these choices, I think Raelians' idea of being cloned after death on another world sounds much more believable (hey - I did say, out of all these choices).

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Leonardo da Vinci - An Arab?

Or at least he had Arab ancestors. The fascinating aspect about this is that not only can researchers find his fingerprints, but they can analyze them for ancestral lineage! [See - there is an upside to the Homeland Security's efforts to fingerprint all immigrants to the US - centuries from now, anthropologists will have a treasure trove].

(from Science, July 25, 2008)
Fingerprints on a painting from the studio of Leonardo da Vinci show the touch of the master himself--and confirm that the artist had Arab ancestors, Italian researchers say.

A team led by Luigi Capasso, an anthropologist at the Museum of Biomedical Sciences in Chieti, Italy, is using infrared light to study prints on The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine and La Madone de Laroque--paintings attributed to members of Leonardo's atelier in Amboise, France. The artist often used his fingers in place of brushes, diluting colors with saliva. But experts couldn't tell whether any of the fingerprints on the paintings were his.

The researchers have now matched one of the prints to a fingerprint on Lady with an Ermine, known to be by Leonardo. Some scholars say Leonardo's mother was an Arab slave, and Capasso and colleagues at the Museo Ideale in Vinci says their research confirms the artist's Middle Eastern origins. The print, from his left index finger, has a Y-shaped pattern shared by 60% of Middle Easterners, says Emiliano Carnieri, a paleontologist at the University of Palermo in Italy. Fingerprints, like blood group or skin color, can help determine a person's ancestral origins, Carnieri says.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Muslim metal headbangers versus the Islamists

Ok, so a bit of a tangent from Science & Religion, but there is an interesting new book out, Heavy Metal Islam, which talks about the popularity and cultural significance of heavy metal and rock in Muslim countries. The interesting observation is that these musicians are competing with the Islamists for the same crowd. This book has chapters on different countries, and Mark LeVine spends considerable time on the rock and metal scene in Pakistan. In fact he singles out Junoon and their brand of Sufi-rock (ha! yes, Sufi-rock) for shaping much of the current rock scene in the Muslim world. Junoon is in a semi-break-up mode (most of the music on the website now is by its founder and lead guitarist, Salman Ahmed, who also runs a sufi-rock website), but at its peak (mid-90's), it was very good and very creative. And yes, I did attend several of their concerts (both in Pakistan and in the US), including their first one in Karachi in...oh...I think in 1990. So, here is an article by the author of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, Mark LeVine:

Heavy metal has had a more powerful and controversial appeal than perhaps any other element of Western culture that has taken hold in the Muslim world. It might seem strange that a genre of music long associated with sex, drugs and even Satan worship should be popular in Muslim countries. But heavy metal can't be reduced to the "hair" or "glam" metal epitomized by one-time MTV staple bands such as Motley Crue or Quiet Riot. Instead, the much harsher sound of death, doom and other forms of extreme metal are winning a growing following across the Muslim world.

This is partly because the subjects these and other extreme metal bands deal with - death without meaning, the futility of violence, the corruption of power - correspond well to the issues confronting hundreds of millions of young Muslims today, the majority of whom live under authoritarian governments in societies torn by inequality, underdevelopment and various types of violent conflict.

And here is the connection with the Islamists:

The characteristics that make metal increasingly popular across the Muslim world are the same qualities that have long made Islamist movements popular as well. And in a region with the world's highest percentage of young people (in many countries more than half of the population is under 25 years old) there is a huge constituency for the kind of community and solidarity that both metal and Islamist movements offer. In Morocco, for example, only two groups could bring 100,000 people into the streets: the rock band Hoba Hoba Spirit and the semi-illegal social-political religious organization, the Justice and Spirituality movement.

Certainly, the region's various religious movements have a far larger base of support than rock, metal, hip-hop or other forms of pop music, despite pop music's rapidly growing fan base. But with festivals in Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Dubai attracting tens of thousands of fans, and a growing list of music video channels catering to the youth demographic (Pakistan alone has upwards of a dozen 24-hour video channels), there's no doubt that rock music is playing an increasingly important role in shaping the identities and attitudes of young people around the Muslim world.

and of course, many of the motivations are the same and they are competing for the same crowds:

Salman Ahmed, a Pakistani rock star and founder of the genre of "Sufi rock," agreed, explaining that one of the reasons he's received death threats from hardcore Islamists in his country is precisely that "we're competing for the same crowd." As important, however, is his revelation that many of the mullahs who publicly lash out at his group, Junoon, ask him for autographs and admit to knowing the words to his songs when no one else is around.

Most interesting, more than a few times, it has turned out that today's twenty- or thirty-something Islamists were yesterday's teenage metalheads. And the transition from one subculture to the other was often not as jarring as one might imagine; nor did it involve a move from the fantasy violence of extreme metal to the real violence of al- Qa'eda, as apparently occurred when a metalhead from Orange County, California named Adam Gadahn converted to Islam, joined al-Qa'eda and became the infamous "Azzam the American," appearing in numerous propaganda videos for the group.

At its base, a growing cadre of both metalheads and the progressive-minded young Islamists are searching for alternative yet authentic identities to those offered by sclerotic and autocratic regimes and a monochrome globalization.

Ultimately, the best exemplars of Middle Eastern metal and of activist Islam share many attributes: they look critically at their societies, refusing unquestioningly to buy into the myths and shibboleths put forward by political or spiritual leaders; they are positive and forward-thinking rather than nihilistic or based solely on resistance; they create bonds of community that stand against state-sponsored repression; and they reveal the diversity of contemporary Islam.

Read the full article here. And of course, here is a sample from Junoon (this is from a concert at Central Park in the late 90s, and the song is a reinterpretation of an old Sufi poem):

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

US still stuck on stem cells research

Here is an interview with Democratic Congresswoman, Diana DeGette, whose recent legislation supporting embryonic stem cells research was vetoed by Bush. I find this amusing as Malaysia, Turkey, Egypt, and even Iran have all given a go ahead to stem cells research. And as I recall, religion plays a pretty serious role in the politics of these countries. So why this stuck-up attitude on this issue in the US? The public opinion is indeed changing, and it is only a matter of time that it gets an official go ahead - but still this opposition is so idiotic. Diana DeGette has a new book out, Sex, Science and Stem Cells: Inside the Right Wing Assault on Reason and here are some snippets from her interview:

You make the case that the Bush administration has essentially gone against the will of the people with regard to stem cells.
I think President Bush was frankly unconcerned about what the public will was. He had a personal religious view and he felt strongly about that. So, he just stubbornly blazed ahead.

Something else that I talk about in the book—and I'm still shaking my head [about this]—is President Bush absolutely refused to meet with me and [Delaware Rep.] Mike Castle, my Republican sponsor, for the entire duration of the debate. I find that to be unbelievably inconsiderate, but also incurious on the president's part. Sometimes members of Congress will do a showy "Meet with me. Oh, he won't meet with me!" kind of a thing for window dressing. In this case, we really wanted the president to meet with us. We wanted to be able to look him in the eye and explain what our bill did. To this day, I am not sure he exactly understands what the bill did. But, he didn't care.

Are right wing legislators acting as agents for the religious right or are they acting of their own will?
I think some of the leaders behind these antiscience arguments really do believe these things. I think the vast majority are really making a political calculation, and I think the political calculation they're making is: "I don't want to anger the religious right, so I'll just go along with this because I think my constituents think this anyway."

I say on page 21 of the introduction: "What in god's name are these people doing? Why does the religious right try to limit scientific advances when they relate to human reproduction? I've come to believe that the most extreme (and, frequently, the most influential) right wing advocates seek a country that comports with their view of the Bible. If it was up to them, they would not only outlaw abortion altogether, but all forms of birth control except the rhythm method and abstinence."

I can't think of any other explanation why they would so thoroughly politicize every aspect of sex and reproduction. I think they want to have a society where it's really God's will whatever happens. That's all well and good within their own families; they can structure their family that way. But, when you're talking about public policy, it's a very big waste of money and it's very dangerous to public health. Teen pregnancy went up last year for the first time in many, many years.

Read the interview here.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Understanding female suicide bombers

Yesterday's NYT had an interesting piece on female suicide bombers. While many draw a straight link between religion and motivations for suicide bombings (yes, Sam Harris), the actual data is much more complicated. To add another layer, this article looks at the differences between motivations for male and female suicide bombers - but doesn't find any evidence of "uniquely feminine motivations driving women's attacks".

I have spent the last few years surveying all known female suicide attacks throughout the world since 1981 — incidents in Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, India, Lebanon, Pakistan, Russia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Uzbekistan. In order to determine these women’s motives, I compared the data with a database of all known suicide attacks over that period compiled by the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism.

This research led to a clear conclusion: the main motives and circumstances that drive female suicide attackers are quite similar to those that drive men. Still, investigating the dynamics governing female attackers not only helps to correct common misperceptions but also reveals important characteristics about suicide terrorism in general.

To begin with, there is simply no one demographic profile for female attackers. From the unmarried communists who first adopted suicide terrorism to expel Israeli troops from Lebanon in the 1980s, to the so-called Black Widows of Chechnya who commit suicide attacks after the combat deaths of their husbands, to the longtime adherents of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatist movement in Sri Lanka, the biographies of female suicide attackers reveal a wide variety of personal experiences and ideologies.

And about the connection with Islamic fundamentalism:

Blaming Islamic fundamentalism is also wrongheaded. More than 85 percent of female suicide terrorists since 1981 committed their attacks on behalf of secular organizations; many grew up in Christian and Hindu families. Further, Islamist groups commonly discourage and only grudgingly accept female suicide attackers. At the start of the second intifada in 2000, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, claimed: “A woman martyr is problematic for Muslim society. A man who recruits a woman is breaking Islamic law.” Hamas actually rejected Darin Abu Eisheh, the second Palestinian female attacker, who carried out her 2002 bombing on behalf of the secular Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

And for their motivations (which are not different for male motivations):

For one, 95 percent of female suicide attacks occurred within the context of a military campaign against foreign occupying forces, suggesting that, at a macro level, the main strategic logic is to create or maintain territorial sovereignty for their ethnic group. Correspondingly, the primary individual motivation for both male and female suicide bombers is a deep loyalty to their communities combined with a variety of personal grievances against enemy forces.

Read the full article here.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Movie: Encounters at the End of the World

If you get a chance, please go and see the new Werner Herzog film, Encounters at the End of the World. Its about people who live and work at an Antarctica research base. This movie is a wonderful depiction of Herzog's eccentric and peculiar vision and it touches on everything from the origin of life, aliens, the future of humans on Earth to the human desire to know and test its limits of endurance. Even religion - at one point he amusingly makes a comparison of the preparation of underwater divers to priests preparing for Mass, and the frozen underwater landscape underneath to a cathedral. The people he interview are all fascinating. It is not a standard Antarctica documentary, and as Herzog himself puts it, its certainly not about any "fluffy penguins" (though a penguin does feature in the most memorable and haunting scene of the film). Please, go and see it. Here is a review by Roger Ebert and the trailer for the film below.

Friday, August 01, 2008

An idiot's prayer for rain (on Obama)

Even if we grant for a moment that prayers work ( they really don't), would any self-respecting god really listen to this idiot's prayer? (hat tip Religion News Service)

More remarkably, he (Stuart Shepard of Focus on the Family) makes Governor of Georgia's prayer for rain last year, seem almost reasonable.
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