Sunday, May 27, 2007

Do Science and Religion Overlap?

The late agnostic and paleontologist, Steven Jay Gould, postulated the Nonoverlapping Magisteria or simply “NOMA” to explain the relationship between science and religion.

Religion and science, from an epistemic standpoint, are in conflict. Scientists, individually and as a community, make observations. From those observations they postulate hypotheses to explain the observations and predict future observations. The more correct predictions, the more weight a hypothesis gains. After some time, it becomes a theory. A single observation can refute a theory, so even the most solid science is tentative and self-correcting. This is a simplification of the way science works. Philosophers of science have toiled with other concepts unnecessary to delve into here.

Religion assumes a set of highly specific, sometimes contradictory, dogmas. Most often the religious dogmas are “justified” either by appealing to personal feelings or presupposed scripture.

This is where NOMA comes in. It says that science deals with the world of “facts” while religion deals with “values” (assuming the fact-value distinction). So, science takes on its usual role and religion takes on a role similar to ethics. The problem is that religion does overlap, quite a bit, with scientific matters.

Genesis One describes an origin of the world that is mutually exclusive with the well-established scientific theories of geology and biology. Unless there’s a radical paradigm shift in science (which I doubt), there’s no way these two ideas can be reconciled.

NOMA advocates (more than likely, Christians) may take the Modernist interpretation of the Bible and say that, except for a crucial few stories, most of it is just God’s metaphorical way of giving us moral truths. Such hermeneutics are unhistorical.

None of the gospels ever hinted that the bible was meant to be taken figuratively, nor do any records indicate that the early churchmen took this view. It was thyears after e Bible was written that this ad hoc way of reconciling the Bible and science (or its predecessor, Natural Philosophy) came about, thanks to Saint Augustine.

NOMA is offers little insight into the relationship between science and religion, not to mention that it’s unoriginal. Obviously made to reconcile religion and science, it carries little force to those not already sold on the premise. It wasn’t Gould’s greatest idea.

Monday, May 14, 2007

I’m Supporting Doer

A week away from the election, and I’ve only commented once on it! Being a Manitoba blogger I really ought to give more commentary.

In his two terms as Premier, Doer’s made some progress. The MTS Centre, with a reduced seating capacity of 15,000, was added while he’s been Premier. The renovated “Millennium Library”, added under Doer’s watch, has stimulated a fair bit of intellectual culture in Winnipeg.

The 2004 employment rate in Manitoba was optimal. Doer’s kept the NDP’s connection to organized labour in tacked, something every Dipper should do (pace Bob Rae). Manitoba Hydro didn’t go down the toilet of privatization under his watch.

Doer’s won my support for the simple reason he’s running on tuition rebates. These 60% tuition rebates will be awarded to graduates who stay in the province. This’ll inhibit youth leaving the province, something Manitoba toils with.

The fact Doer plans to expand on the arts, downtown, and library is just icing to the cake.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

State Secularism

Government decisions should look at the worldly effects of policies, coupled with evaluating them based on secular, consensus-based ethics. Specific government offices shouldn’t issue statements supporting a single religion. This view is state secularism.

This doesn’t say that specific politicians can’t act on ethical precepts which originated from their own religion. It merely says that the text of Private Members Bills (or any other government document, for that matter) should be entirely secular.

Key to an understanding of secularism is the difference between our private lives and public functions. Any Canadian Citizen ought to and (usually) does have the right to voice his or her ideas outside their job. Citizens can engage in any religious activity or meet in any religious institution outside of their job. These are acceptable instances of religious involvement in our private lives.

Senators, parliamentarians, and political organizers, however, shouldn’t provoke religious fervour while doing their jobs (public functions). Provoking such fervour can only cause division and instability, especially in a religiously pluralistic nation like Canada. This may very well be the reason for our de facto secularism.

Canada needs to revise its legal documents, especially the Preamble to the Constitution, to establish de jure secularism. Such secularism would inhibit any politician basing public policy on religion.

Now, enter the NDP Faith and Social Justice Caucus. It’s been pointed out, by liberal Muslim and social democrat Tarek Fatah, that this caucus could be a doorway for those who oppose the NDP’s unifying policy of social progressivism. Coupled with the fact that such a caucus is inherently divisive and based on a very personal matter, Fatah presents good reason to avoid such a caucus.

Religion is a highly private and personal matter and should stay that way.

Storytelling and Advertisement

CBC Radio One hosted O'Reilly and the Age of Persuasion, by Terry O’Reilly (not the more notable Bill O’Reilly). Basically, Terry O’Reilly talks about how storytelling, in addition to being entertaining as fiction, can also convey information.

He explores a bit of the history of advertising, noting how early advertisements were bland price listings. He explores the (in the United Kingdom) famous J.R. Hartley ad. O’Reilly finishes by predicting that storytelling will become an ever increasing part of the advertising world, replacing gimmicks.

Storytelling is being applied in literature, with the new genre of “Creative Nonfiction”. There’s some weak evidence to support O’Reilly’s prediction. It’s true in this case, at least (the ads very moronic, I known).

Nevertheless, I’d have to say that these new “storytelling ads” will be coupled with the annoying gimmicks and disinformation most ads already contain. This is better propaganda, for sure.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Encylopedia of Life

The “Encylopedia of Life” project has begun. It’s a pretty interesting concept, and if achieved, I think could very well prove to be the Periodic Table of Biology.

This ingenious plan is to store online profiles of every named species (currently 1.8 million) on a single database. It’ll be a wiki-style online encyclopaedia. Sustaining the encyclopaedia will cost lots of money, for sure, and will require lots of cooperation between biologists across the globe. The enormous effort is, nevertheless, worth it.

The internet can be a (near) universally accessible tool for biologists. If information on every known species is kept and updated based on new discoveries, you can very well bet that taxonomy will become manageable once and for all.

This situation can be thought of analogous to chemistry in the late nineteenth century. The periodic table of elements summarized all the known facts of a given element, with this simple, organized tool the science of chemistry was manageable and knowledge of chemistry flowed nicely into the public and high school curriculums.

Imagine how useful and fun such an encylopedia could be if integrated into high school biology.

Ethical Government isn’t necessarily a Theocracy

Luke Landtroop, over at his weblog “Confederate Hobbit”, makes the claim all “true” governments are theocracies (ruled by god) or at least teleocracies (the only definition I could find is a government “dedicated to achieving a certain propositional end”, so I’ll ignore the phrase).

Landtroop starts off by noting that “theocracy” is commonly defined as a government ruled by clerics claiming to have authority granted to them from the divine. Landtroop claims this is undesirable. Landtroop proceeds to argue that if we look at theocracy’s “real” meaning, ruled by god, we’ll find out that all “true” governments are theocracies.

From the start, I see an epistemic problem. How do we distinguish between a government ruled by those claiming to have authority from the divine and government which is actually ruled by the divine?

Landtroop then goes on to say that government is based on the assumption of right and wrong, the right should be helped and the wrong punished.

From that, Landtroop goes on to make a bunch of unnecessary assumptions concerning ethical conventionalism (the claim ethics is the result of human convention). For one thing, he claims that “if men believe this, they wouldn't bother erecting government at all because it would have no legitimate claim to authority.”

How Landtroop deduces that I don’t know. From “there’s no absolute morality” it doesn’t follow that “men [I’d prefer the term ‘people’] wouldn’t bother erecting government because they have not legitimate claim to authority”. Many people “bother to erect governments” without a “legitimate claim to authority”.

Many people can establish liberal representative democracies based on their arational compassionate impulses, with no need for some platonic source of authority. The government, of course, can also derive its authority or power from the will of the consented. Contractualism or the ‘protectionist theory of the state’, as Popper calls it, explains where the “legitimate authority” of the state comes from without reference to the divine.

Landtroop, no doubt because of his own lack of imagination, adds that “revelation” or “ something which does not revolt against man's natural sense of what is right and good, but will extend and refine it” is needed for moral authority.

Tied in with Landtroop’s word play is the assumption a “transcendent” morality is needed to give the state authority and that “transcendent” morality can’t come from the human condition, because the human condition could only support an “arbitrary morality”.

Landtroop seems to think that this “transcendent” or ever-lasting morality can only come from god as divine command theory says. Landtroop doesn’t seem to realize many non-naturalist ethical theories posit some sort of platonic realm, where “transcendent morals” exist. One can be an atheist and ethical non-naturalist, hence defeating Landtroop’s claim that government with “legitimate”, “transcendent”, or “true” authority must be theocratic.

It seems that Landtroop’s whole argument rests on his own lack of imagination.

Work Hours

Bertrand Russell, in his title essay In Praise of Idleness, claims that work (defined as “moving around bits of matter at or near earth’s surface”) if far too often idolized. Russell argues (he was writing in 1935, but this still applies) that machines have enabled us to work less and keep up a decent standard of living. Instead, according to Russell, machines have been used to make us overwork.

Howard Woodhouse, a coordinator for the University of Saskatchewan, gives a new introduction to the book In Praise of Idleness (which contains the essay of the same name). Woodhouse modifies Russell’s definition of work to “moving bits of information around at or near Earth’s surface” to capture the essence of Russell’s argument and apply it to the present day. Woodhouse reiterates Russell’s claim, saying that new information technology was supposed to give use more leisure time, but instead has been used to aid overworking by monitoring our work hours closely.

Rabble columnist Jerry West has written a mean-spirited article against business and government officials who’re against a $10 minimum wage and corporate taxes for extending public services. West makes some good points nonetheless.

West makes note of the increasing gap between rich and poor, as well as how we’ve been working longer as the gap’s increased. Technology, it turns out, didn’t give us more leisure time as those of the 1950s predicted.

While I don’t support Russell’s Utopian prospect of a four-hour work day, I do believe a 35 hour work week is practicable.

France initiated a 35 hour work week. The effect on the economy, I’d say, is negligible. At first, unemployment fell and the economy grow, latter things returned to normal.

The benefit of leisure and family time are the main reasons we should peruse a 35-hour work week, not because of any specific economic goals. Staffing essential public services, like hospitals, must be planned before hand of course, to avoid a fiasco like the one in France.

Working single parents would benefit most, but all of us could use a little more leisure to peruse our interests. Coupled with a public education that encouraged scholarly pursuits for their own shake (as Russell suggested in 1935), a 35 hour work week would result in an enlightened public.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Return of the Jets?

As we all know, it’s election time in Manitoba. The usual smear ads from all parties are out. As is an election promise: to bring back the Winnipeg Jets.

The Winnipeg Jets were sold to Phoenix in 1996. Winnipeg’s population just couldn’t sustain an NHL team. At the time, the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba was unwilling to fund the Jets. Now, Progressive Conservative leader Hugh McFadyen wants the Jets back to “keep young people in the province”.

NDP Premier Gary Doer also plans to bring back the Jets if elected.

Despite being a diehard dipper, both federally and provincially, I’d say only the Liberals are willing to go against the popularity of this plan and examine it rationally.

The New MTS Centre is ill-equipped to house an NHL franchise. It’s smaller than the original stadium, with only 15,000 seats.

Bringing back a sports team doesn’t seem to be the best way to keep the youth in the province. Investing more in the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba, for a time, would bring in more young people. Also, having medical students sign a contract where their tuition would be subsidized if they stayed in the province as a doctor would solve both Manitoba’s doctor shortage and keep the youth (that are medical students) in the province.

All and all, this is needlessly investing time in an impracticable but emotionally appealing idea.

Saturday, May 05, 2007


Bertrand Russell, in the book In Praise of Idleness, advocates the creation of a Federal World Government contrasted with the “irrational cult of the nation”*. Such a view is obviously utopian, yet holds some validity.

If one adopts a humanitarian perspective, supports universal human rights, then one must accept the necessity of international institutions. Karl Popper, in The Open Society, posits a view more moderate than Russell’s. It’s practicable, according to Popper, to create international institutions whose purpose is thwarting crime on a world scale.

Such practices are already in the making. The UN, imperfect as it may be, has undoubtedly prevented many disasters via its role as a mediator.

It’s desirable, in terms of stability, to give the UN more authority. Many wars are caused by bad negotiations, which would be inhibited by a neutral mediator like the UN.

Assuming the UN is structured adeptly for protecting human rights, granting it more authority in rights related matters is wise. The UN could embargo violators of human rights, or, if the nation becomes too aggressive, even form multilateral forces to take it out.

It is well known pollution, child labour, or social injustice results from unregulated free trade. Protectionism, denying full foreign market benefits to third world producers, is equally bad. The only compromise seems to have international trade regulated by an international institution, one whose authority extends beyond national boundaries. This would ensure fair trade.

Lastly, I don’t support giving international institutions absolute power. The day-to-day running and non-rights related issues of a nation should be left to the national government. I’d also like to see more democracy in international institutions, perhaps even the election of ambassadors to the UN.

Internationalism, in the modest (multilateralist) form I advocate, doesn’t oppose patriotism (admiration of one’s nation). It accepts that specific people may find the ideals or customs of their nation admirable and is compatible with liberal nationalism.

But, all nations, under the internationalism I advocate, mustn’t violate human rights or engage in acts of aggression.

*The quote is an approximation.

Warrior Societies and Women

An odd fact about ancient militarist societies is that most had a high status of women. In Sparta, for instance, girls and boys had a similar education, whereas in the non-militaristic Athens there was a rigid divide between male and female education.

Women in the Mongol Empire could divorce, own property, and fight in the military. Some were even prominent members of the elite. Compared to the rest of Eurasia, such a high status was extraordinary.

In Europe, arguably the most infamous warrior society, the Vikings, gave women the right to divorce.

These militaristic societies weren’t pillars of humanitarianism. Cultural and religious differences weren’t tolerated (except in the Mongol Empire’s case, though that was more due to necessity than preference). They were closed and authoritarian societies (Sparta was even fascistic).

Why then, compared to the more humanitarian Athens or Persia, did these societies give such a high status to woman? A sociology undergraduate gave a reason so obvious that I should’ve thought of it.

When the men were warring, the women maintained the homestead. This authority lasted even after the war.

Using a more recent example, the status of western women greatly increased during World War II, because women were needed to do the jobs male workers (now soldiers) had previously done.

It’s interesting to think, had the worst wars not occurred would women still have as high a status in society as they now do? I think so, partially because their status in North America decreased somewhat in the 1950s and surged later on.

Still, it’s odd to think violent war and militarism, the opposite of humanitarianism, can be responsible for one of humanitarianism’s chief objectives.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Daniel Tammet

Daniel Tammet is an amazing Briton, for many reasons. He’s a polyglot, having a mastery of several languages. He’s even invented a new one. Furthermore, Tammet can solve even the most complicated mathematical problems.

He’s a high-functioning autistic savant. An epileptic fit, at age three, altered his brain, causing synaesthesia. He can visualize words and numbers. This process allows him to solve complex mathematical problems; despite the fact high-functioning autistics are generally poor at “abstract” thinking.

Neuroscientists are interested in Tammet because he could be the key to unlocking “savant abilities”. It’s even been hypothesized that we all posses such savant potential and that it only takes the right event (i.e. brain alteration from an epileptic fit) to actualize them.

When I first heard of Tammet (I was casually searching through Wikipedia articles to find his) I wondered if he held any implications for the philosophy of mind. He does.

Tammet shows us that Qualia (“subjective experiences” like colour) do serve a function, hence aren’t epiphenomenal. This is so because, if it weren’t for his “qualitative experiences” of numbers, he couldn’t perform the calculations he does.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Intellectual Freedom

I was going to write a post about the ideal of intellectual freedom. I’d argue that it’s essential to any representative democracy, where there exists a free exchange of ideas.

It’s necessary because, while at first sight, some ideas may seem disgusting or inappropriate, we must always keep a rational and impartial perspective. This perspective would help us effectively dismiss such ideas, if they really were so absurd or repugnant.

Disallowing the expression of such ideas gives their originators a “persecution” veil, and would generate sympathy. So, if we really wanted to expose such ideas, suppression isn’t the answer. It backfires.

Of course, what ideas are “really bad” or “dangerous” can get arbitrary. Debate in an open society and higher education can very well be inhibited by suppressing disliked ideas.

That was what I planned to say. Of course, I’d add some concrete examples. Like how Bertrand Russell, a competent and excellent teacher, was prohibited from teaching at New York City College because religious organizers hated his ideas. So, the New York City College lost a potentially good professor, who’d bring prestige and over-qualification to the college.

Peter Singer, as well, would be another example. Had he been prohibited, like Russell, from teaching, critical debate and dialogue would have been stifled.

I’d go on to espouse the Canadian Library Association’s Statement on Intellectual Freedom. I’d be particularly pleased with how it mandates libraries to uphold intellectual freedom.

Then I thought some would say it’s either too abstract or that the examples were too historical. Then I found this lovely recent event.

Cary-Grove High School Student, Lee, was arrested for penning a violent-themed essay. The English teacher, Nora Capron, found it disturbing. Police chief, Ron Delelio, won’t release the essay. That’s a lovely way to avoid critical analysis, keep the public ignorant of the cause of the whole controversy.

Fortunately, bits and pieces of the essay are in this article. It’s an awfully distasteful essay, especially considering it was written in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting.

The whole case, nonetheless, reeks of conflicts of interest. It’s hardly surprising that the teacher was more disturbed with Lee’s essay, which criticizes her, than say Jameson Emling’s violent essay, which didn’t reference the teacher.

This brings me back to intellectual freedom. Our own dislike is just that, a taste we have. Ideas aren’t actions and there is no good reason to suppress the expression of them. We may argue against them or call certain expressive writings “disgusting” and explain why. But prohibiting them is getting onto a slippery slope, both ethically and constitutionally.*

* By constitutionally, I’m referring to the constitutions of Canada, the United States and most Western European Nations. All the constitutions of these countries contain provisions protecting freedom of expression, which make the suppression of ideas slippery at best.

First Nations Civilization

It’s far too common, even among the learned, to view the indigenous peoples of North America as uncivilized primitives. The prejudice that when England established its settlement, Jamestown, the indigenous were destined for demise is common. This could be because much of standard US history is based on European sources.

Nevertheless, new findings are overturning these prejudices. In the May 2007 edition of National Geographic, a lovely article (Jamestown Revisited) bears testament to this. It turns out that, before the English came, Virginia was already “settled”. The indigenous Powhatan Confederacy, numbering 15,000 in the region, had both foresight and knowledge (combined, these equal “civilization” according to Bertrand Russell, in the essay Western Civilization).

Common prejudice tells us that indigenous of North America were simple-minded hunter-gatherers. They didn’t think to alter the land or store food, which is characteristic of civilizations. This, of course, is false. The Powhatan Confederacy burned the undergrowth of the Virginian forests to keep them open and managed the land wisely to grow crops.

On the other hand, Colonists had a tough time in Virginia. Unlike the indigenous people, they were unaccustomed to the land and too stubborn to modify their ways. Hundreds of colonists died and it took many to be shipped in from England to sustain the colony.

Only by spreading malaria to the Americas could the colonists prevail against the indigenous.

I’m not a cultural relativist, I’ll admit, Renaissance English (and European in general) culture did have some objectively better aspects than the First Nations culture. For one thing, they had the wheel and writing. Writing was the key to rational, public discourse. Without it, I can only imagine the sorry state of affairs the world would be in. European culture did focus more on rationality than First Nations culture.

But First Nations surpassed the Europeans in their ability to substantially cultivate the land, contrasted with the naïve and destructive practices of European Agriculture at the time.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Celebrity and Athlete Worship

Link edited on May 6, 2007.

For the past little while I’ve been reading In Praise of Idleness, a collection of Bertrand Russell’s social topic essays. It was first published in 1935, and what strikes me is how much of what he said still applies to present day North America, especially the US, though we Canucks have picked up some of these habits.

The habits I’m speaking of are overvaluing athletes and celebrities, while undervaluing intellectuals. Russell notes, in the tenth essay of his book, Modern Homogeneity, how the scientific community is viewed as elitist for its requirement of professional training, yet such elitism is common and lauded when it comes to athletes. This trend has been noticed by professors to the present day.

The enormous salaries of athletes, second only to business administrators, are testaments to this undue worship. Sports, rather than a new idea or discovery, are almost always the topic of conversation in most households.

Of course, along with sports, accompanies gossip over the trivial details of celebrities’ lives. The majority of youth, rather than reading about history or science, waste countless hours going over the trivialities of celebrities’ lives.

If the majority of youth spent as much time keeping up to date on science or current affairs as they do following celebrities’ lives or the scores of sports, we’d have informed and competent future voters.

To sum up, celebrity and athlete worship generally encourages anti-intellectualism, through its overemphasis on personalities as opposed to ideas.

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