Sunday, November 27, 2011

If You Just Believe

I love watching Christmas movies and I love listening to Christmas music. It gives me a nice warm and fuzzy feeling of wintertime coziness. But there is a theme running through many holiday movies and songs that, although is intended to raise the spirit, might not be the best message to send to children, or to anyone for that matter. The theme is to "just believe" and somehow everything will work out.

In Josh Groban's song, Believe, it ends with the refrain, "if you just believe" sung repeatedly. The Christmas movie, Polar Express, is dedicated to strengthening a childhood belief in Santa Claus. In Miracle on 34th Street, a young Natalie Wood chants lightly "I believe, I believe. It's stupid but I believe," with the hope that believing will somehow make a difference. In the movie, it apparently does. The list of movies and music that stress that believing works miracles is almost endless. But it must be remembered that holiday entertainment is not always reflective of real life.

I taught my kids about Santa Claus, too. Like most parents of young children, mine grew up believing in the jolly old man. While I don't think it is necessarily an unhealthy tradition, sometimes the message can carry over into adulthood, but with a different focus of faith. Although children stop believing in Santa somewhere around age 8 or so, most kids in the world continue to be fed false information about other things they can believe in. They go to church or Sunday School where they learn that, in order to live forever in heaven, they must believe in another unseen entity, God. But, unlike with Santa Claus, God offers no tangible rewards in exchange for belief. Whereas kids hear about Santa mostly during December, they hear about God or Jesus throughout the year. By the time they are adults, some may not even question whether or not a belief in God is based on anything plausible. Belief in God may or may not be a strong part of their lives, but when asked, they always answer in the affirmative, "Yes, of course I believe in God."

But look back over all of human history. Look what people have accomplished. Suppose you were placed in charge of building a pyramid, like one of those in Egypt. Could you do it? Could you direct the building of a modern skyscraper? Could you design and build a rocket ship that would send people into outer space? Could you design the plans and calculate the trajectory of a space probe that could be launched from Earth, sent in orbit around the sun, kick off the gravitational field of two or three planets, and settle into a circular orbit around a moon of Saturn? Could you design a microchip that tells a car engine how to regulate itself? Could you build a car?

Humans have learned, on their own, how to do all these things, most of which are simply taken for granted. But no one person could begin to do them all. We learn from doing, and we learn from mimicking ourselves. We stand on the backs of giants who came before us, and we become taller giants. We have learned to feed six billion people on earth with our agriculture. We have learned how to communicate instantly on a global scale. We can go from one place on Earth to almost any other place on Earth within one day. When you think about human accomplishment, it's amazing what we people have learned to do.

And through all that accomplishment, God has not lifted one finger to help us. We did it all on our own. Some people believe in God; some do not. Some may have thought God was helping, but others accomplish the same thing without such a thought. We are what we are and we can do what we do because humans have evolved to be that way. God had nothing to do with it. In fact, a blind faith in God or gods has done nothing but hold us back throughout history. One can only wonder how advanced society would be if a belief in God had not entered into our psyche. We would likely be centuries ahead of where we are now in discovery and scientific progress. But thanks to the stifling effect of religion, humankind has been held back. Johannes Kepler refused to publish his book on planetary orbits until he was on his death bed for fear of repercussions from the Church. Galileo was placed under house arrest and forced to recant his discoveries. The perfectly valid scientific theory of evolution is under attack by Christian conservatives who actually believe that the world is 6,000 years old. Blind faith does nothing but hold us back. It might give some of us momentary comfort, but so can meditation.

In this season of enhanced faith, go ahead and enjoy the movies, music, and TV programs that cater to our fancies. Just remember, when the season is over, the only real faith we should have is faith in each other, and in the human race.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The End of Science?

A few months ago, researchers in Europe thought they had discovered particles called neutrinos going faster than light, something that is impossible according to Einstein and every other physicist working in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The notion that nothing moves faster than light is the underlying principle of physics and one that is put to use in technology every day. So obviously, the researchers had to be given a do-over. So they refined their measurements, sent the neutrinos outward through hundreds of miles of rock to their detectors in another country, confident that their earlier experiment would be verified. And, much to the amazement of the skeptics, they got the same results. Their neutrinos did appear to be moving slightly faster than the speed of light.

Of course, that is not the final word on the matter - nowhere near it. In science, experimental results must be corroborated by other scientists working in different laboratories. This is especially true if the initial results run contrary to expectations. So are the neutrinos really moving faster than light or did the good folks at CERN, where the experiment took place, overlook something? The next few years will probably reveal a definitive answer on that. But there's a larger question lurking in the background. If, indeed, it is eventually discovered that the CERN researchers were correct that some neutrinos do move faster than light, then does that new fact open a gash in science itself. Does it mean that science can no longer be trusted? Could it mean that other scientific theories are also incredibly wrong, even the theory of evolution? Will it herald the end of science?

Obviously, those who are already naysayers with regard to scientific facts will have a field day with the discovery. They will not only ask those tough questions about the fallibility of science, they will answer them. Their answers will be that, no, science cannot always be trusted, that science does not have all the answers, and more importantly, doing science may not even be the best way to find the answers. And, unfortunately, the lay public will eat this stuff up. The average American's knowledge of how science works leaves much to be desired, so the more sure-sounding answers of the religious fundamentalists are easier to swallow. Most Americans are not fundamentalists, but with the feeble public relations initiatives coming from the scientific community, the tiger in the room will be the voice of the religious right.

Has science suffered a major blow, especially if the particle physicists at CERN are right after all? The resounding answer is no. The process of science is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. Let's compare: In a situation where the religious conservatives are shown absolute and corroborated proof that one of their religious theories is wrong, say that the earth is only 6,000 years old, would they, A) accept the answer and change their theory to comply with the new data, B) ask for even more corroboration before deciding to change their theory, or C) reject the proof and stand firmly behind their old, discredited theory? Well, the answer, of course, is C. I know this because that is not a hypothetical situation. It has already happened.

But with science, even before anything is corroborated by independent research, when something unexpected is discovered, it makes world headlines. Instead of being distraught, most scientists are eager to find out what's going on. And, instead of throwing out the results, shoving them under a rock, or rationalizing them away, they embrace the results that seem to disconfirm long-held principles and attempt to explain them within the methods that science uses for discovery. As the science deniers will often say, science is sometimes wrong. But without the acceptance that sometimes science gets it wrong, science could not progress. It would be stuck in the mud with no chance of making real progress, much like conservative religion.

And another important point that will be overlooked by the religious zealots is that even if it is proved that some neutrinos can travel faster than light, it doesn't mean that the old theory of light is completely wrong. It just means it is wrong in certain, special circumstances. Did we throw out all of Newton's laws of motion when Einstein came along and reinvented physics? Of course we didn't. Newton's laws are still the mainstay of most physics textbooks. They work, all the time, within the parameters of everyday life, or even within all conceivable circumstances outside the very fast or very large. When quantum mechanics came along and showed that it was impossible to measure the exact position and the exact momentum of a particle at the same time, did that mean we could no longer use ballistics to calculate the trajectory of a missile or a football in play? Obviously it did not. It just meant that physicists, working under very special circumstances that deal with the incredibly small, had to start thinking differently about subatomic particles.

Unlike religion, science has no dogma. Granted, sometimes an individual scientist will hold an almost dogmatic view of a pet hypothesis. A famous example of that is Einstein. For the first half of his life Einstein made brilliant discoveries that changed physics forever. But during the last half of his life he worked doggedly to disprove quantum theory. He could not reconcile in his own mind the implications of quantum physics, so he spent the last years of his life looking for a theory of everything that did not include quantum physics. He would have died a miserable failure had it not been for his earlier brilliance. But even someone as popular, brilliant, and persuasive as Einstein couldn't stop scientific progress with dogmatic ideas. Physics moved on and left Einstein behind.

So even if it is proved that some neutrinos can travel faster than light it doesn't mean that your GPS will suddenly stop working. The science that went into making that GPS work is still valid. But under very special circumstances that so far has not affected our daily lives, physicists might have to revise their predictions based on the speed of light. And in the same way, it doesn't mean that the theory of evolution might be wrong. It has nothing at all to do with evolution, but since evolution is also a part of science, those who already deny evolution will make the connection. Evolution, like the theories of physics, is also a scientific theory. And as such, it is always open to scientific scrutiny. No scientist worth his salt will say that the theory of evolution is set in stone and cannot be revised. But what is exceedingly unlikely is for everything that has already been proved about evolution to turn out to be wrong. Just like the speed of light is a constant when it comes to our everyday world, regardless of the CERN discoveries, it will remain a fact that all living organisms on Earth have a common ancestor. Every species, including humans, has evolved into what it is today. And, in practical terms, that's as much a fact of science as the speed of light.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Debating a Christian Apologist

I have been debating via e-mail with a Christian apologist called VL Vawter. It has so far been stimulating and engaging. Our responses to each other have been rather long and thorough, so I have decided to include them here as PDF files. They have not been edited for public consumption.

I started the conversation with a short essay refuting several key doctrinal claims within Christianity and, in fact, providing some reasons why I do not believe in God at all, let alone the Christian God. VL replied with a detailed, 88-page response. I then replied to VL with a 26-page rebuttal. I have not included my original essay since VL quotes from it extensively in his reply. Included are his reply and my rebuttal to that.

Our conversation has not ended as he has told me he plans to reply to my rebuttal essay. When he does, I will post that here. Please feel free to comment freely on either essay.

VL - Why Christianity
VL - Why Christianity (Part 2)

My Reply

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Obama Should Offer Campaign Deal on Jobs Bill

Once again the Republicans in the Senate have obstructed a bill that would create thousands of jobs across the country. The bill is part of Pres. Obama's American Jobs Act that was already shot down in the Senate, so the president decided to send it through piecemeal.

When 100 percent of Senate Republicans vote down a bill that will create jobs and is paid for, it only means what at least half of all Americans, according to one poll, already know and what everybody ought to know, that Republicans don't care about jobs; they only care about getting Obama out of office. They want him out so badly that they are willing to throw the economy under a bus to do it. Well, their plans may backfire. America is on to them.

Here's an idea. Since Republicans want Obama out of office so badly, Obama should make them a deal: Pass the American Jobs Act intact or with only minor adjustments and he will not campaign at all for reelection, not for himself and not for any other Democrat. If the Republicans accept his offer, then America wins because we'll have a job-creating bill passed. Obama keeps his promise not to campaign, but he gets reelected anyway because voters know the truth about why he is not campaigning. If the Republicans reject his offer, Obama wins in 2012 anyway because he not only gets to campaign, but the current status quo of Republican recalcitrance will continue and voters will hold them accountable for turning down a deal that would have created jobs. And it will show voters that the president is putting country before politics by offering to put a moratorium on his reelection campaign.

Sure there's some risk; anything can happen in a year. So the president should wait until sometime early next year to make his offer. But it would create a win-win situation for the president and a no-win situation for the Republicans.