The End is Nigh

Tags

, , ,

December 21st, 2012 proved to be less…cataclysmic than many claimed.    Theologians have predicted our demise only to wake up the next morning with egg on their face.  There is a rich history of Millennarism dating back thousands of years.  Perhaps the earliest form of Millennarism dates back to Zoroastrianism in an obscure Avestan text that asserts “Saoshyant makes the creatures again pure, and the resurrection and future existence occur”, referring to a divinely-instigated catastrophe that wipes out life on Earth.  Millennialism is the uniquely Christian form of millennarism, which asserts that society undergoes destruction every thousand years.  This belief is derived primarily from the Book of Revelation 20:1–6.  But adherents of certain denominations of religions like Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are more likely to hold the belief that the world is going to end than others.  Our cultural software plays a role in how likely it is that we think the end is coming.  

Lest we assume that this mindset has fallen by the wayside, most evangelical Christians not only believe that the world will end with the second coming of Jesus Christ, but that it will end within their lifetime.  Such a worldview is dangerous because it tends to focus fundamentalist practitioners less on the problems going on in the world and more on the anticipated gains of the afterlife.  By design, a religion is a culture meant to operate without evidence to support its claims, and in fact, it thrives in the absence of evidence.  Combine that with the fervency in which practitioners are instructed to approach the Bible, and there is a dangerous situation here, indeed.  Not only are true believers kept from examining their own beliefs for logical flaws in their own reasoning, but the greater they put their belief in those logical flaws, the more devout they revered as in their community.  The instruction of one’s spiritual leaders is to be accepted uncritically and followed unquestioningly.  Religion is uniquely capable of cutting one’s break lines to reality because the evidence that one’s faith is true only comes to believers after they die.  When no amount of evidence will change the devout’s beliefs and when their own beliefs are not dependent on evidence either, there will always be a dangerous outcome, no matter what beliefs the devout may actually hold.

Theologians aren’t the only people to predict doomsday and come up short.  It seems that people from all walks of life are prone to making errors in judgement.  There is a biological basis for this handicap in humans.  Our brains have have molded by evolution and thus have faced evolutionary pressure to make decisions as parsimoniously as possible.  Complex brains run heuristics, or shortcuts, in order to make decisions quickly on as little information as possible, oftentimes while inadvertently sacrificing accuracy.  Also, our brains tend to remove any constant stimulus from our awareness; we tend to assume environmental conditions are static. This would have allowed our ancestors to be especially observant to any major changes in our surroundings.  Unfortunately, it also means that incremental changes go unnoticed.  And our brains make snap decisions that aren’t always right.  One example of this handicap are optical illusions.  Our brains either ignore certain pieces of data or fill in gaps of information with fabricated information that’s not really there.  The optical illusion below consists of 12 pink dots in front of a field of gray.  One by one the pink dots are covered up and then revealed in a clockwise sequence.  But what happens when the viewer stares at the plus symbol in the center as the dots go around and around?

If your eyes follow the movement of the rotating pink dot, the dots will remain only one color, pink. However if you stare at the black ” +” in the center, the moving dots turn to green.

It seems as though it’s human nature to read into things that may or may not be there.  Evidence suggests that this predisposition is hardwired into us; it stands to reason that in a primeval environment most vertebrates have been concerned with attacks from predators.  It’s conceivable that most organisms have a fight-or-flight response because a predator spotted in the middle of the night would give them only seconds to respond or risk getting eaten, and it’s advantageous to be able to react quickly.  But fight-or-flight responses were built up in us by the trial-and-error of natural selection, and they are imperfect, at best.  So the fight-or-flight response would make a creature vulnerable to false positives and false negatives.  A false negative means that a threat to that organism was missed (usually with deleterious results).  A false positive, therefore, occurs when an organism mistakenly reacts to a perceived threat when in fact no such threat exists.  Obviously, a false negative would be much more detrimental to one’s health than a false positive (any wounds to one’s pride would certainly heal…).  So evolution has hardwired us to be more sensitive of false negatives than false positives.  This results in an overactive brain that constantly looks for patterns in the environment, constantly searching for patterns that may or may not be there.  And this is the evolutionary basis for superstitious or magical thinking; our hardware betrays us.

The Long Now

Tags

Earlier, I discussed how faulty the human brain can be on account of its evolutionary origin and the role of natural selection in the development of the brain.  But the role of culture cannot be overlooked, either.  In particular, doomsday prophecies, especially those derived from Biblical knowledge, have invariably come up short.  There is just no way to find the expiration date on our society by checking scripture.  But that doesn’t mean that our society is going to last forever.  We may not know when the last call on our civilization is coming or how it’s all going to end, but we can brace ourselves against the certainty that if we wait long enough, the survival rate of any society is zero.  So if we don’t know when or where or how our way of life will come to an end, how do we protect ourselves from the final blow?  Some scientists have weighed in on the likelihood of many doomsday scenarios, and have calculated the probability that any one situation will result in the end of the world.  While we may not know how the world is going to end, we can know what is necessary to our continued survival on this planet and assess how vulnerable those assets are to changes in our environment.  For instance, humans draw everything they need from the ecology around them.  In order to assure our continued survival, we need to take care of the natural world and preserve the biodiversity of life on this planet.  We also need to preserve our culture and knowledge for future generations to benefit from and build off of our legacy.

The Georgia Guidestones are a monument meant to endure through the end of days.  Inscribed on the granite face of these pillars are commandments for other civilizations to heed when life as we know it no longer exists.  The commandments range from the practical such affirming the need to balance personal rights with social duties, to the bizarre call to unite humanity with a living new language, to the downright disturbing demand to cap humanity’s population below 5.5 billion and to guide reproduction wisely.  Little is know about why its benefactor erected the monolith; Robert C. Christian came to Elbert County, Georgia in June 1979 and commissioned Elberton Granite Finishing Company President Joe Fendley to quarry a massive block of granite out of which he and a group of “loyal Americans” could construct a 6 meter tall, 110 metric ton astronomical instrument.  Inscribed on its granite blocks is a list of commandments written out in twelve languages.  When word began to spread that this enigmatic man was funding such a bizarre project in rural Georgia, it attracted the ire of nearby religious groups whilst simultaneously attracting Wiccans to pilgrimage to the site.  No living person, except for Wyatt Martin, a confidante of R.C. Christian, knows the true purpose of the Georgia Guidestones, leading many to speculate about its mystical purpose or sinister purpose.  Like Christian, many doomsday preppers have taken steps to address Armageddon, stocking up on canned food items and gasoline to make it through the end of days.  But are governments prepared for our collapse?  If so, what steps have we taken to ensure we can rebuild our civilization after the fall?

The Svalbard Seed Vault in Norway is a heavily-fortified bank that houses the potential of our world’s botanical diversity.  It was started by conservationist Cary Fowler working with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR),  the Norwegian government, the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen) and financial support from governments around the world. Built deep into the permafrost of the Norwegian snow, the natural freezer-like conditions of the surrounding geology will help keep the plants suspended in hibernation if the electricity fails.  Across the ocean, the Millennium Seed Bank Project coordinated by the Royal Botanic Gardens has also cataloged the biodiversity of the plant kingdom.  Working with the United Nations as part of the Millennium Development Goals, the Millennium Seed Bank Project is the largest ex-situ conservation project in the world.  Researchers at the Royal Botanical Gardens predict that between 60,000 and 100,000 plant species are faced with the threat of extinction, which accounts for about a quarter of all plant species.  To date, the Millennium Seed Bank Project has preserved the seeds of 10% of all dryland plant species known to science, with the goal of reaching 20% of all dryland plant species by the year 2025.  Should climate change or any other unforeseen global catastrophe spell extinction for our rarest and most delicate plant species, the Svalbard Seed Vault and the Millennium Seed Bank Project assures that we will have samples to repopulate the world when the damage is mediated.

This nondescript building houses one of the greatest stockpile of genetic information on the planet.

This nondescript building houses one of the greatest stockpile of genetic information on the planet.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman has pondered the end of the world.  In a recent presentation that he gave during a Long Now Foundation conference, Eagleman highlights six ways that we can help avert disaster before they strike, how to build more resilient systems that can withstand disasters when it strikes, and how to rebuild systems after disaster strikes to ensure that loss is minimized.  Eagleman highlights the importance of the internet to our continued survival and warns that the internet is especially vulnerable in the 21st Century to assaults from cyber-terrorists.  Computer viruses aren’t the only concern; outbreaks can become full-blown epidemics if the contagion can pass from one human being to another, therefore, the internet can be used to identify areas where diseases are spreading and on-line tools like skype or WebMD can diagnose patients without ever making them come in contact other human beings and spreading the contagion.  Furthermore, the internet can be used to transmit emergency warnings to ensure a rapid response to natural disasters.  The internet can be used as a lifeline to unbiased information in countries ruled by a despotic dictator; it can also be used to organize citizens against tyrants and foment a revolution, as the world saw in the Arab Uprisings of 2011.  The internet can provide us with several ways to disaster-proof our society, but only if we take steps to disaster-proof our internet.  Not only do we need to archive information in case the internet goes down but we need to archive information about how to rebuild the internet.

One Person’s Religion is Another Person’s Cult

Tags

, ,

With no evidence to support their claims, those preaching the end of days rely not on reason or rationality to persuade their followers into believing their claims, but often they rely on charisma and fear to keep their disciples in line.  They teach a doctrine that emphasizes obedience and servitude, and enforce a high degree of power-distance between those who lead the organization and those who follow it.  Reportedly, most people join a cult after becoming disillusioned with mainstream religion.  And curiously, many people renew their fervent belief in the prophecy after it has been debunked.  Leon Festinger explained this phenomenon as part of a coping mechanism called cognition dissonance reduction, a form of rationalization.  Research shows that most cult leaders are highly intelligent and narcissistic individuals with delusions of grandeur who are highly successful at attracting followers, either by appealing to a divine source of power, and relying on animal magnetism.

480937_10151490001850155_1113520766_n

More often than not, questioning or criticizing the dogma or claims of the cult leader is disparaged, at best.  When individuals do see the light of reason or become disillusioned with the cult leader, they are often prevented from making any attempt to escape.  Indeed, escape is seldom possible since physical barriers like walls can keep followers in; and keep outsiders from encroaching.  Those who attempt to flee and fail can be become stigmatized in their community, discouraging others from attempting to flee, also.  Sadly, dissent and criticism is often what is most needed in order to prevent acts of terror, either perpetrated by the cult leader onto their followers, or perpetrated by the cult followers onto others.  The Heaven’s Gate cult is a disturbing example what can happen when cults of cult suicide; in 1997, dozens of people within this cult killed themselves en-masse at the arrival of Haley’s comet in the night sky, believing it was a sign that the world was going to end.  The Jonestown massacre in 1978 was another example of mass suicide; Jim Jones, the eponymous leader of the cult in Guyana, called upon his followers to drink Flavor-aid laced with cyanide and barbiturates after a government inspection of his jungle compound turned violent, killing a cameraman, a photographer, a journalist, and a U.S. Congressman leading the investigation.

Combined with a belief that the end is nigh, cults can end up deadly for anyone on the inside or outside who become involved.  Destructive cults refer to groups whose members injure or kill other members of their own group or others.  A destructive cult is a authoritarian regime with a person or group of people that have total control.  It also tends to use deception in recruiting new members, especially people are not told up front what the group is, what the group actually believes or what will be expected of them if they become members.  The violent tendencies of destructive cults can be classified into two general categories; defensive violence and offensive violence.   Defensive violence is utilized by cults to defend a compound that was created specifically to eliminate contact with the mainstream society.  Offensive violence, on the other hand, is violence waged outside of the compound against mainstream society.  In 1995, members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo carried out a sarin gas attack of offensive violence in a Tokyo subway in an attempt to kill the judges presiding on a legal dispute that was anticipated to indict their compatriots.  The U.S., the E.U. and other governments of the world have since designated their dangerous religion as a terrorist organization.

Especially when doomsday prophecies fail to come true, some leaders take it upon themselves to incite violent insurrection in a self-fulfilling prophecy.  A reform movement that began within the Seventh-day Adventist Church called the Branch Dravidian espoused the belief that the second coming of Jesus Christ was imminent.  When founder Florence Houteff announced that Jesus Christ was coming in a matter of days back in 1959, members sold their possessions and assembled at the Mount Carmel Center ranch.  When Jesus didn’t show up, Houteff lost control of the sect.  In the years following her fall from grace, the sect split into two competing groups that fought for control over their sect; in an on-going feud with rival George Roden, David Koresh began stockpiling illegal weapons until he and his followers began to attract attention from the ATF. Federal law enforcement agents from the ATF and the FBI raided the Mount Carmel Center ranch in February 1993.  In the pursuing 51 days, several federal agents and dozens of cult members died in the conflict along with David Koresh who died in an inferno that broke out in the compound.

Violence is not always the end result for cult leaders and their followers; some cults collapse under the weight of reality.  The Democratic Workers Party in California was a political cult led by Marlene Dixon, founded in 1974.  The group participated in labor rallies, produced political pamphlets and sponsored campaigns aimed at forwarding socialist causes.  By 1986, though Dixon was considering leaving the cult to form a think tank in Washington D.C., her alcoholism and paranoia alienating her followers to the point where members began leaving the organization.  When Dixon left the United States to tour Eastern Europe, members assembled to vote her out of power as the  General Secretary, and to dissolve the party.  More recently, Harold Camping’s cult of personality ended just as inexplicably and without bloodshed.  But that doesn’t mean that on one was harmed; the children of parents duped into giving their money to that charlatan were hurt the most.  Dragged out of school, uprooted from their lives, and now destitute with their unemployed parents, those children suffered for the mistakes that their parents made.  Oftentimes, we forget about the damage that can be done to the children of parents in these cults.  The First Amendment seems woefully inadequate to protect us in cases like these when the rights to religion, not to mention children, are abused.

The Responsibility For Our Lives Is Ours And Ours Alone

Tags

, , , , ,

In the third and final installation of the Humanist Manifesto blog posts, humanists returned in 2003 to once again re-establish a humanist lifestance for the twenty-first century.  The previous iteration included prohibitions on nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction.  The former manifesto curiously called for the establishment of a world court that would arbitrate crimes against humanity; the International Criminal Court in the Hague was established in 2002 as just such a global tribunal to address war crimes.

The twenty-first century witnessed the rise of a disturbing new malevolent force on the planet that would be particularly challenging for the humanism; the emergence of suicide bombers and the global war on terror.  Perhaps most disturbingly to humanists were the tactics used by some to wreak havoc on as wide of a scale as possible.  Suicide bombers represent a grotesque use of the teachings of Islam, and a violent departure from how religion supposedly serves to further morality.  Motivated by an idiosyncratic view of the Koran, radical sects of Islam direct their followers to kill themselves in the service of Allah, with the expectation that they will be rewarded for psychopathic behavior in the afterlife promised in their scripture.  While as a whole Muslims are not responsible for the lives lost in a terrorist act, the community has not done enough to decry the acts of terror carried out in the name of their religion, nor have other people, of faith or without, done enough to drive home the distinction between those who worship peacefully and those who use religion as a weapon.  A truncated manifesto serves us no good against jihadists if it cannot even identify who the bad guys are.  While previous manifestos did little to halt the rise of fascism or the decline of the environment, this most recent manifesto was especially toothless.

Indeed, Maddy Erken admits in a speech given for the AHA, “We don’t believe that our new manifesto will sway (the unsympathetic) our way…We also seek to live in harmony with those who disagree with us, accepting them as fellow citizens and being accepted by them in return.”  But this notion is patently absurd.  In a world where a very vocal minority decidedly do not want to tolerate the tenets of humanism, nonetheless respect the rights of humanists to pursue their own views, this manifesto downplays the reality of the situation.  In accommodating “differing yet humane views”, without elaborating on the definition of humane, the AHA runs the risk of tolerating intolerance.  By allowing these radical sects of Islam to hide behind the shield of religious tolerance through the freedom of religion, it serves to only exacerbate the problem by implying that faiths are morally indistinguishable and functionally equivalent.  They are not.  We must attack faiths that do not affirm the intrinsic worth of human beings.  Belief systems that demand their followers to be nothing more than bomb delivery systems or relegated to a sub-human status on the basis of their sex must be targeted and decried for what they are; disgusting throwbacks from an ancient world and unacceptable, unconscionable in our modern era.  As Sam Harris wrote, “…Those who object to any attack upon the religion of Islam as “racist” or as a symptom of “Islamophobia” display a nauseating insensitivity to the subjugation of women throughout the Muslim world…”  There needs to be a distinction made between any attack on Islam and culturally insensitive attacks.

As long as one practices their faith in a peaceful, law-abiding way, no one should fear persecution from their government for what they believe.  And while I may not agree with Muslims on most tenets of their faith, I can recognize that their freedom of religion should be respected.  Also, I must make it clear that while I disagree with those who follow Islam on matters of epistomology, I do not hold that Islam is inferior to other faiths.  I believe that an intense rivalry exists between all faiths precisely because it is impossible to evaluate the claims of any religion without evidence to support their scriptural claims.  Hence there are so many faiths in the world and they are all perfectly competitive with one another.  It makes no difference to me how someone chooses to worship their God, as long as they respect the separation of church and state in society to allow for a neutral ground on with which all people are free to pray or not, if they so choose to.  But derogatory terms like Islamist bandied about by media outlets paint too broad of a brush on a diverse religion with over a billion-and-a-half followers.  Islamist has been morphed from a term that means someone who believes the state is best organized along the teachings in the Koran into a term for just about any Muslim who criticizes the U.S.  This labeling is unproductive and racist to boot; a critique of mainstream Islam should focus on ideas, not people.  Ideas must be challenged critically from time to time because the nature of reality can change and we must make sure that our assumptions are still valid.  Also, ideas are important because they inform our behaviors.  Just as we must challenge the egregious tenets of Islam that are not based on reason, we must challenge those who discriminate against Muslims solely on the basis of where they’re from or from the preconceived notions about what those people believe.

And I think that this is where humanists stand on even ground with Muslims; both groups face an unfair share of hostility and suspicion from other groups in America.  While these groups may sharply disagree on theological discussions of Islam, perhaps they share criticisms of Christianity.  The potential for this relationship depends on whether both parties can offer reasoned and respectful criticism as well as accept constructive criticism from the other party.The American Humanist Association isn’t the only organization that set out to frame humanism in a positive light, though.  Other organizations are encouraged to emulate their Manifestos and to formulate their own ideas about what it means to be a humanist.  And while the AHA fell short of asserting a stance against those who preach dogmas that subjugate others, other organizations have assumed a more hard-line approach against fanaticism and expounded on the function of humanism as the vanguard against religious extremism in the twenty-first century.  Namely, the Council for Secular Humanism has explicitly addressed the issue of universal human rights in their 2000 manifesto and has called for a a Planetary Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, which embodies a commitment to the well-being of humanity as a whole.  And Paul Kurtz of the International Academy of Humanism affirms in the Humanist Manifesto 2000: A Call for a New Planetary Humanism,”the need to respect the dignity and worth of all persons in the world community.”  These are the manifestos that we need to extol.

Spiritual But Not Religious

Tags

, ,

I tend to view those who identify under the banner of “spiritual-but-not-religious” (SBNR) with the same skepticism that I give to the claims made on late night infomercials for supposedly “magic” products.  (Are you tired of obeying a higher authority because it keeps you from indulging in your desires?  Had enough of paying homage to time-honored rituals or traditions?  Do you feel like your beliefs are too special to identify you with any established organized religion?  There’s a way to hold onto your need to tell people what to think without being obligated to join a life-affirming community!  Why not try spirituality!)  Truly, this label seemed to me like the worst of all possible worlds.  There’s no sense of shared history if you’re the only one in on your beliefs.  And spirituality still entails a cavalcade of cognitive distortions and unhelpful thought patterns, yet it’s seemingly impossible to challenge or think critically about the harmful aspect’s of one’s spirituality when someone’s beliefs are often fluid, contradictory, and idiosyncratic.

Of the religiously unaffiliated, the vast majority seem to identify as nothing in particular. These Spiritual But Not Religious folks may still believe in God or a higher power, but likely don’t follow the tenets of any one spiritual tradition.

Indeed, the SBNR also seem to suffer higher levels of mental illness and substance abuse, according to a recent study in the British Journal of Psychiatry.  Past academic studies in the United States have come to similar conclusions, said Tanya Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist and the Watkins University professor at Stanford University.  Most academic research about religion and well-being, said Luhrmann, concludes that religion is good for one’s health.  According to Luhrmann, organized religion provides three outlets that benefit churchgoers’ well-being: social support, attachment to a loving God and the organized practice of prayer.  But I challenge whether these three outlets are really so essential; especially the latter two of the three.  There is no denying that some people derive great joy from their churchgoing experience.  I do not intend to refute the fact that some people like going to church.  Nor do I intend to argue that some people enjoy the act of prayer.  Or that such happiness contributes to one’s well-being.  I will argue, that religion is not the only way to achieve a high standard of well-being, nor is it the best means of achieving it.

Certainly, there is something to be said about the health benefits to social interaction.  Scientific studies can back up the claim that social interaction is essential to combating the aging process and a supportive network of family and friends can extend the longevity of one’s life by years.  Not just by providing care to the elderly when they become infirm, interaction with family and friends seems to inoculate people from mental health issues and contributes to the emotional resiliency of an individual as they age.  Where I challenge this first claim is that churches are not the only place one can receive social support.  A more subjective, self-reported measure, namely “religiosity,” has shown an interesting age-related difference: In a 12-year follow-up study (Kraut, Melamed, Gofer, & Froom, 2004), religiosity was associated with lower adjusted mortality for younger respondents and with higher adjusted mortality for a 55-year or older cohort, as compared with nonreligious respondents.  One can find social support in just about any venue.  Churches are convenient because they offer a predictable routine for devotees every Sunday.  But so does a group of friends meeting up for happy hour.  Or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  Or a myriad of other situations.  Churches do not have a monopoly on boosting one’s well-being, and so the SBNR crowd that shun church attendance need not suffer for lack of a devout clique.

Perhaps most objectionable of the three outlets is the second claim that one needs an omnipotent invisible friend to stay healthy.  It seems obvious to point out that the populations with the highest standards of living are also the most atheistic.  Living completely unattached from God has not slowed them down one bit.  And besides, even those who regularly pray to God don’t necessarily view Him as loving.  Many Christians may feel attachment to a stern God, one who condemns homosexuality and women speaking up in church.  Others may see the deist God, an absentee parent; He said “Let there be light”, and then disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.  I don’t think evidence would show that people who believe in one version of God over the other have a statistically significant higher standard of well-being because of their belief in a loving God as opposed to a vengeful one.

Finally, the power of intercessory prayer has been cast into doubt many, many, many times as a medical treatment option.  Faith alone cannot heal people.  At best it can provide a placebo effect.  At worst it can provide false hope to a dying patient.  To say that prayer treatment is no better than the placebo effect is to say that the effects of faith are indistinguishable from providing no treatment at all.  Prayer is not essential to living a spiritually fulfilled life.  Eastern religions can provide people with a spiritual outlet that does not require organized prayer to a benevolent God.  It seems that prayer merely provides a practitioner with a reliable and familiar ritual.  The act of praying reduces stress; who one prays to or how they choose to do it does not imbibe people with any benefit.  One could improve their well-being by praying to just about anything,not just a loving God.  Nor is prayer the only way to reduce stress and improve well-being.  Scientific studies have confirmed that yoga and meditation can have a positive effect on one’s health and well-being, and yet neither one requires prayer to an omnipotent deity.  Even regular acupuncture can be used to improve one’s well-being by treating symptoms of depression.

None of Luhrmann’s claims seem to ring true so far.  What is it about faith that imbues followers with a better well-being?  I contend that the benefits of organized religion come about through entitlement and one’s station in life.  There are studies to confirm that how one’s society views them can have a tangible impact on their health and well-being.  The religious are living longer because their self-esteem isn’t being bashed into the ground on account of their faith as much as the the SBNR crowd or the irreligious.  They are privileged in our society because Christians are not ridiculed for their faith in the U.S. like other religious groups are.  Slowly, though, I have come to take a different view of the spiritually-inclined.  Their life expectancy takes a hit for their faith.  I would have more tolerance for the devout if scientific evidence pointed to a trend between religiosity and a diminished life expectancy.  Overall, the SBNR folks are alright by me, I guess.  They tend to eschew megachurches and disagree with a literalist interpretation of the Bible.  And while they are no more inclined to reason or rationality than anyone else on the street, they also tend to avoid proselyting their faith, too.

 

Non-adaptationism

Tags

, , ,

Biology is built on the assumption that the most fit organisms survive and past on their successful adaptations to future generations.  But adaptationism isn’t the whole story.  There are many examples of inheritable traits that persist without conferring any success to the organism.  Non-adaptationist thinking is important because it offers a nuanced understanding of evolution.  It can also explain traits we see in some organisms that can’t be explained by adaptations.  Some adaptations are vestiges of an earlier time when the trait would have been essential to that organism’s continued survival.  When conditions changed, the trait was no longer essential, but nor was it detrimental.  Far from refuting the theory of evolution by natural selection, evidence of non-adaptationism strongly vindicates the power of mutation, migration, and genetic drift to drive evolution.

Some traits are just a chance product of random mutation and while they don’t confer any selective advantage, they don’t appear to hinder an organism’s survival either.  These traits just happen to have persisted onto the present because earlier lineages never got rid of them and it propagated onward into the present purely by serendipity.  There was no clear advantage in keeping that trait around but there was no strong selection against individuals with it.  These random mutations can help scientists track the evolutionary history of a clade this these mutations are so unique to a species; any groups with that trait can almost certainly be traced to a lineage with a common ancestor.  These traits are called parochial traits because they are isolated within a one very specific lineage and haven’t popped up anywhere else.  (See convergent evolution…)  The color of red blood cells are an example of a non-adapationist trait.  Hemoglobin happens to turn red when it binds to oxygen.  The color red isn’t the trait that’s being strongly selected for in blood; it’s the ability to carry oxygen that determines how fit an organism is.  Red is merely correlative to the ability to hold oxygen.  The redder blood is, the more oxygen is binding to hemoglobin in the blood, and the more efficient respiration is in that organism.

Notothenioidei heart

As the result of genetic drift, mutations in an organism’s genome can accumulate over time.  Some genetic variation present in populations does not affect fitness one way or another, but it can be used as a marker to track the evolution of populations.  If a parochial trait gets passed on to future lineages, biologists can track its history based on fossil records and DNA evidence.  In Sean Carroll’s The Making of the Fittest, Carroll highlights a prime example of non-adaptationist thinking; the bloodless icefish of the Antarctic.  Members of the suborder Notothenioidei have transparent blood, almost entirely devoid of the red blood cells that make up 40% of the volume of human blood.    The graphic below shows that the myoglobin protein that makes heart muscle red is missing in some clades of icefish, too.  Curiously, this gene seems to have been deleted or deactivated four times in the fossil record.  Each mutation provides exactly the same effect; no myoglobin.  Where the mutation responsible for deactivating the gene that codes for Mb protein mutated doesn’t make any difference.  There is no advantage to the gene breaking in any one spot over any other.  What matters is that because this common gene to the different icefish families mutated on different occasions, we can start a family tree for the icefish by organizing each species based on whether or not they have myoglobin and if not, which mutation caused that gene to deactivate.  Notothenioidei isn’t the only clade with antifreeze glycoproteins, or AFGPs.  Eelpouts are another Antarctic fish that make use of AFGPs.  But eelpouts are separated from icefish by millions of years of evolution.  They utilize a completely different antifreeze protein to keep their blood flowing and research suggests that the eelpout’s antifreeze proteins come from a mutated sialic acid synthase gene.  Scientists are able to track the evolution of traits using molecular and genetic testing techniques in order to come up with a phylogenetic tree.

Let’s return to our example of icefish.  Exaptations are mutations that are later co-opted for a different use than how the adaptation was initially being used.  Carroll reveals that in extreme cold environments, red blood cells are a hindrance, making the more viscous blood rich in erythrocytes harder to pump.  And apparently under such frigid conditions, seawater has a much higher capacity to hold unto dissolved oxygen and the icefish can take in the oxygen directly through their plasma without the need for the hemoglobin molecule that performs that function at room temperature in red-blooded organisms.  These icefish thrive in extreme cold temperatures because their genes for the production of red blood cells were jettisoned.  Normally, if the genes responsible for the production of red blood cells mutate even by one base pair, just about any random mutation would spell disaster for the organism.  But because red blood cells aren’t as important in antarctic water (and can even be deleterious!), mutations in the genes that code for the production of red blood cells aren’t so deleterious for the icefish, and mutations can pile up until those genes are riddles with errors.

Red blood cells not only transport oxygen through the circulatory system, they also also to suppress the freezing point of blood.  If blood were just plasma, it would freeze around zero degrees Celsius and doom the organism.  Icefish have maneuvered their way around this with a curious re-purposing of an already-established adaptation.  Originally utilized to break down food in the intestines, an extra copy of a pancreatic trypsinogen gene could also serve the icefish by producing a glycoprotein in the gut that prevents ice crystals from forming in water at or below its freezing point.  Even more curiously, icefish further benefited from the extra digestive enzyme gene that manufactured antifreeze in their gut when that glycoprotein ended up in the blood by first travelling through the liver, which ultimately keeps their translucent blood from freezing over.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Nazi Kerfuffler

Tags

, , , , , ,

“Hitler was an atheist!”, many conservatives Christians have cried, “look at what the atheist religion leads to: the Holocaust!”  On more than occasion, I have heard that claim trumpeted from members of the religious right who also believe that free market capitalism is the work of Jesus Christ and God favors the middle country in the North American continent over every other possible place on Earth.  While I’m not going to dignify the latter claims that Christianity has an official stance in comparative economic policy or geography, I would like to explore the reality of the claims that Hitler was an atheist.  When Hitler rose to be the Supreme Chancellor of Germany, one of his first acts in 1933 was to dismantle the Freethinker clubs in Germany and ban atheism from the Fatherland.  To understand the rise of Nazism in Germany, one must take into account the role that Christianity played in legitimizing the National Socialist Party.

Adolf Hitler was most definitely not an atheist.  Raised a Roman Catholic, Hitler was a devout Christian.  But he wasn’t a Christian in the same sense that Pope Pius XII was a Christian; Hitler worshiped in a very idiosyncratic faith called Positive Christianity.  His Christianity was portrayed Jesus as a fighter, one who allowed himself to be nailed to the cross because he chose defeat over compromise with the Jews.  Repeatedly, he made claims that Jesus’ teachings were about his struggle against Jews (and appears to have overlooked the fact that Jesus was Jewish…).  Arguably, Hitler’s religious ideology can be thought of as a racial dialectic.  Hitler saw the arc of human history as a struggle between opposing races; the Jews versus the rest of Humanity.  In Mein Kampf, Hitler makes dehumanizing remarks against the Jewish people, comparing them to venomous snakes, or more often, rats and other vermin.  His religious convictions dictated that to fulfill his duty to God, he was to annihilate the Jews.  Again, writing in Mein Kampf, Hitler declares, “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

"God With Us" inscribed on  a standard-issue Nazi officer belt buckle

“God With Us” inscribed on a standard-issue Nazi officer belt buckle. Clearly, if Adolf Hitler were atheist, he wouldn’t have embraced such religious messaging in the military.

The Holocaust represents perhaps one of the greatest black marks on Christianity; not only did the Catholic Church fail prevent the Holocaust of seven million Jews, but prominent members within the Catholic Church gave legitimacy to Hitler’s Reich.  In 1933, a treaty between Nazi Germany and Vatican City called the Reichskonkordat was signed by then Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli (who later became Pope Pius XII), Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen on behalf of Pope Pius XI and President Paul von Hindenburg.  The treaty outlined among other provisions that, “the clergy and the religious will be forbidden to be members of political parties or to be active on their behalf”, effectively dissolving the Catholic Center Party that opposed the National Socialist Party and effectively silencing German bishops from any future criticism of the Reich.  While it can be argued that open opposition against Hitler would have perhaps endangered the lives of many Catholics and Jews and that the called the Reichskonkordat insulated the Church from the barbarism of National Socialism, there are examples of Christian groups within Germany that defied the Reich.

In the midst of Hitler’s pogroms against racial, religious, ethnic, and other minority groups, a Lutheran minister by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer helped to establish a resistance.  Living in Germany during the Nazi Reich, Bonhoeffer sympathized with Jews in his community, but ultimately saw the need to convert them to Christianity as of higher importance than exterminating them.  He also believed that, in time, Jews would convert to Christianity and leave their outmoded faith in the Torah behind if faced with an existential threat.  When he saw that Hitler had no intention of letting Jews live, whether or not they expressed a desire to convert to Christianity, Bonhoeffer began to voice his opposition to the Reich and the Fuhrer.  Bonhoeffer grew into an ardent opponent of the Nazi state and joined the Confessing Church that arose in Germany after the National Socialist Party took over the German Protestant Church.  After playing part in a botched assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to prison where he watched his conspirators become executed before he himself was killed in 1945.  During his time in prison, Bonhoeffer wrote of a religionless Christianity, designed for a more reasoned world that had finally “come of age”.  In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer outlines what a religionless Christianity would look like; a faith freed from ritual, dogma and the institutions that enforce them.

Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer’s work is incomplete.  The last years of his life were spent in prison and so oftentimes the intended meaning of his writing is unclear; this requires the interpretation of his words.  Drawing on the work of Karl Barth, he believed that religion was a human activity that speculated about the divine and could only approximate truth.  Barth said that only the forgiving presence of God can give religion reality, and that can be found only in Jesus Christ.  One interpretation of his phrase religionless Christianity means a Christianity stripped of clergy, rites, holy things, beliefs, and morality.  All that would remain of a religionless Christianity would be intercessionary prayer and righteous action.  Bonhoeffer highlighted praying for others as an important action all Christians must do.  But rather than calling on God to make the changes they want to see in the world, Bonhoeffer believed that prayers should ask God for empowerment so that we can be the ones who make change in the world.   His prison letters mention his notion of the church in a “world come of age”, where human beings no longer use God-in-the-Gaps arguments to justify the existence of God.  In such a world, Christians would be called to suffer as Christ did on Earth and only by taking part in society and working to fix the political, social, and economic systems in our society do Christians achieve righteous action.

Bonhoeffer calls for churches to give up their wealth and property in the service of society and to suffer on Earth as Christ did.  I am a big fan of removing churches’ tax-exempt status, especially headed by ministers who lobby their congregation on political issues outside of their church.  I also especially like the idea of giving up on the God in the Gaps arguments that float around.  Truly, these are awful arguments that lose their credibility as science chips away at human ignorance (but they do make for great memes).  Along with other Neo-orthodox thinkers, Bonhoeffer recognized that the Bible was decidedly not inerrant and that God was so transcendent that scripture could adequately express the nature of God; only direct revelation could do that.  Where I tend to disagree with the Neo-orthodox thinking of Bonhoeffer (besides on the question of the existence of God…) is the insistence that revelation trumps reason as a way of knowing.  I also can’t let Bonhoeffer off the hook for his anti-Semitic tendencies, but compared with the Nazis I can confidently say that Bonhoeffer was definitely the lesser of two evils.

We Are Responsible For What We Are And For What We Will Be

Tags

, , , ,

Continuing from a previous post, The first Humanist Manifesto attracted a lot of controversy in 1933 after it was published in The New Humanist.  In 1973, American Humanists assembled once again to write an updated version of the Humanist Manifesto.  Mortified by the rise of fascism and the danger of nationalism, Humanists sought to write a new set of affirmations that addressed the brutality witnessed in the twentieth century in the name of the -isms that plague the world.  The first manifesto, however inspirational, wasn’t very realistic.  The second manifesto proved that it takes more than a set of affirmations to combat dangerous indoctrination and the signatories of the second Humanist Manifesto were more explicit in their goals this time around to uphold universal human rights.  While the first Humanist Manifesto included a prescription for left-wing anarchism, the second manifesto took a more neutral approach, instead focusing on the freedom of information and the necessity of access to education for all.  Far from calling for the world to embrace any one particular political or religious ideology as the road to a better world, the humanist lifestance affirms that humans should have the potential to pursue their own spiritual and personal development as they see fit.  Chiefly, the humanist manifesto demanded the universal right for every human being to reach their spiritual, emotional, creative, and intellectual potential.

The Humanist Manifesto II takes shots at organized religion as well as other institutions, and rightly so.  “Traditional religions are surely not the only obstacles to human progress…” as it is noted that, “Other ideologies also impede human advance.” The Humanist Manifesto is not an ideology, nor is it an atheist religion as some believe; it is no more than a creed, the consensus of opinion on what humanists believe.  The second manifesto also outlined the need for moral education, especially in regards to the state’s attitudes about the sexual orientation of individuals.  Signers called to an end to all forms of sexual oppression, and the right of consenting adults to pursue whatever lifestyle they so desire, “short of mindless permissiveness or unbridled promiscuity”.  Perhaps the most controversial passage called for the right to birth control, abortion, and divorce to be recognized.  Access to education free of ideological indoctrination was considered imperative.  In that regard, humanists oppose the dogmatism of traditional faiths.  Humanists recognize that we can only be certain of knowledge acquired in our naturalistic universe and they reject claims of a supernatural afterlife.

What separates the secular humanist lifestance from religion or an ideology is that a life stance emphasizes a focus on what is of ultimate importance.  A lifestance is different from a world view or a belief system because it can pertain to both religions and alternatives to religion.  A lifestance is meant to guide people in how to give things value.  In its simplest definition it is a cogent belief that guides our morality in practice.  Lifestances differ by what intrinsic values they hold and by what they as express is the meaning of life.  The humanist lifestance differs from a religion in that there are no sacred ideas or institutions and while humanists hold values that they may consider of utmost importance, there is no divine source of that value.  Humanists value free inquiry and the ability to seek their own answers to the existential questions about the meaning of life.  “The preciousness and dignity of the individual person is a central humanist value.”  With no divine lawgiver to guide our morality and give our lives meaning, humanists find value in their relationships with other human beings and morality is to be derived from observations of the nature of reality, not from a vengeful God that metes out punishment to those who never learned to call God the right name.  And this refusal to kowtow to the logic of religious thinking tends to piss people off.

For years, signatories like John Dewey were denounced as the sole cause of America’s moral decline.  Critics have been known to misinterpret the affirmations within the Manifesto unintentionally, or at times deliberately take the affirmations out of context to manipulate meaning of the affirmations within the Manifesto.  Such critics like Max Rafferty were indeed hostile to the humanist vision.  Rafferty was a conservative educator who insisted on a traditional education; rote memorization of facts, multiplication tables and a Biblically-supported understanding of history and science.  Perhaps Rafferty’s biggest objection to humanism was that he saw it as the root of all evil; he attributed societal decay in the 1970s and 1980s as a direct impact of creeping humanism in America.  More recent examples of hostility to Humanism can be found in David Noebel and Timothy LaHaye’s book Mind Siege: The Battle for Truth in the New Millennium.  LaHaye is perhaps best known as a co-author in the Left Behind series.  Noebel and LaHaye argue that humanists are behind a conspiracy to “turn America into an amoral, humanist country, ripe for merger into a one-world socialist state”, claiming that there is a coordinated attempt by “2,000 other colleges and universities” to undermine “the moral fabric of America”.

Secular humanists don’t believe that their affirmations are Absolute Truth.  On the contrary, they believe that all beliefs should be examined and continually questioned, so that new ideas can be developed when old ideas are proven false and should be abandoned.  They value religious tolerance, religious pluralism, and open-mindedness towards other faiths.  Humanists are staunch supporters of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state as laid out in the U.S. Constitution.  These rights protect people of faith and support the freedom of those with nonreligious beliefs.  Therefore, secular humanists would actually oppose the exclusive teaching of their lifestance in schools or the government because that would violate the neutrality of a secular society and the rights of religious believers.  Secular humanists believe for a society to support many differing religious and philosophical views should be as open to debate as political beliefs are now.  Far from advocating for a one-world socialist state or imposing a mandatory humanist religion in schools or government, secular humanists aim for neutrality, not hegemony.

Set in Stone

Tags

, , , ,

There are a great too many people who believe that the marvels of the ancient world were created by aliens or Gods.  Fueled by authors like Erich von Däniken or the inane programming on the History channel, there seems to be a popular misconception that scientists cannot explain how these wonders of the Ancient world could have been created, hence the need for supernatural explanations.  There also seems to be a very profound disdain for the scientific prowess of the civilizations that came before us.  As W. T. Wallington can attest, even a rudimentary understanding of mathematics and physics, if properly applied, can move massive stone blocks without the need for modern tools and machinery.  If one man is able to lift a massive stone block into a vertical position in his own backyard using a few pieces of wood and a garden hose, it is conceivable that ancient civilizations could have used similar methods to erect the familiar megaliths that survive today.  Even the large stone idols on Easter Island could be made without magic; a dedicated crew with ropes could accomplish that feat without the aid of cranes or other modern tools. The fact that marvels like Stonehenge survive to this day is a testament to the ingenuity and skill of our ancestors.

I want to elaborate something here; I do not believe in a declensionist view of world history where ancient societies lived in Utopian civilizations unrivaled by the poverty- and crime-ridden polluted cities of today.  Ancient civilizations did achieve a remarkable level of social organization and technological achievement for their time.  But they were not as technologically sophisticated as our modern society.  There is no comparison between societies of a thousand years ago and the modern world today.  The level of material comfort, especially in the more developed countries, enjoyed in the 21st Century today is unprecedented.  Our planet in the digital age is arguably more culturally complex than the world our ancestors lived in.  Particularly when one looks at it in the context of population demographics, even if one only looks back on the last one hundred years.  In the year 1900 there were 1.6 billion people living on Earth.  The average life expectancy for someone in the United States during this time was about 47 years old.  One hundred years later, the world population was 6.1 billion and the average life expectancy in the U.S. was about 77 years old.  And with so many people alive today, our society has become as commensurately more organized to handle the complexities of modern life.  We have made more technological progress as a species with in the last century than perhaps in all of human history.  Human culture has been around for about 50,000 years yet it has changed more in the last 250 years than it has in the last 50,000 years preceding the modern era.  That change has been overwhelmingly for the better.  And clearly not the work of benevolent aliens!

To question the technological acumen of societies in the past is to abandon reason.  If one believes it is more likely that aliens or Gods built the Wonders of the Ancient World than it is that human beings discovered the rudimentary geometry and algebra needed to construct chevrons, pylons and aqueducts, then a profound abuse of logic has occurred.  Take, for instance, the claims of Scott Alan Roberts in his asinine work The Rise and Fall of the Nephilim: The Untold Story of Fallen Angels, Giants on the Earth, and Their Extraterrestrial Origins.  In his most recent book, Scotty Roberts makes the claim that not only have humans been visited by extraterrestrials, but that alien-human races comprise the bulk of the world’s myths, legends, religions, and superstitions.  Religion too is just an homage to our ancient alien lovers, since our own ancient (human) ancestors couldn’t distinguish the different between a sufficiently advanced technology and magic a la Arthur C. Clarke.  In fact, the entirety of Robert’s canon seems to be boiled down into two basic tenets that his readers seem to accept; 1) if you can’t explain it then it is magic, and 2)you can’t prove I’m wrong, so I’m right.

This distortion of our past is damaging because it prevents us from understanding the people and societies that came before us.  It denies us access to our identity and our heritage; where we come from, what that culture looked like and how it evolved into ours, what our ancestors had to endure so that we could be alive today.  It robs us of our history and the need to make sense of our origins if generations of human accomplishment are bastardized into the mantra of so-called alien expert bushy-haired Giorgio A. Tsoukalos’ catchphrase “aliens”.  Charlatans like Roberts and Tsoukalos are masterful artists but their works lack substance and rob us of meaning.  These tall tales about angels and aliens only prove how gullible people are and how willing they are to believe something without sufficient evidence to support it.  I’m sorry to say that folks like Roberts aren’t solely responsible; there are many publications like his magazine Intrepid, a marvelous work of fiction that masquerades as fact, on magazines racks all over the country.  The problem with magazines like the Intrepid is not so much that its readers are ignorant, which I highly doubt is the issue here, but perhaps that they are not critical thinkers.  They might lack the skills needed to assess arguments and be able to ascertain whether those claims are supported by the evidence presented.  Scientific literacy especially is an important skill in modern society because our lives depend on our ability to navigate in a world built by math and science.

It’s now common knowledge that viruses are unaffected by antibiotics and that vaccines work by injecting a weaker form of the germ into our blood stream to build resistance.  Most people know not to mix ammonia and bleach when cleaning their bathtub.  Most people are able to recognize that cells phones do not cause cancer but exposure to the Sun can.  The scientific breakthroughs that have allowed us to live longer, healthier lives were discovered only because society recognized the importance of scientific literacy.  Generations of scientists contributed to the pursuit of knowledge that led to advancements in the field of medicine, physics, chemistry, biology, and economics.  In order to make informed decisions about our health, our money, and our lives, people need to be scientifically literate.  Being scientifically literate means more than being able to interpret scientific data.  It also requires one to have an understanding of the scientific method.  Because science is more than just a body of knowledge; it’s also a ruthlessly practical process that allows us to gather new information and the verify the information that we already know.  If more people had the tools to discern fact from fiction using the scientific method, magazines like the Intrepid might not even exist.  That’s because when hared-brained theories about angels and aliens coming to Earth do not stand up to scrutiny or critical thinking.  Above all, science is demonstrably true; it does not require us to take on faith that the claims of a author made in a grab for fame and fortune are true.  We can go out in the field or the laboratory and test it.  Because when scientists make claims without hard evidence to back them up, there is no justification for holding any of those claims true.  If critical thinking were a cornerstone of our society, more people could challenge the wild assertions of pseudo-scientists and impostors, or at least stop giving credence to garbage.

A Science of Morality

Tags

, , ,

A curious thing happened as I was reading a blog post from Thony Christie’s blog Renaissance Mathematics; I became inclined to agree with the author as I read more only to only to abruptly and vehemently disagree with the author’s conclusion.  In the post, “Humanity’s interest in the so-called pseudosciences has not always been bad for science”, the author delved into how pseudoscience has been a boon for science as a whole; for instance, while alchemy and astrology may not have panned out, they did lead us down the road to more productive avenues of research.  Alchemy led to the development of the mortar and pestle and other measurement tools one would find in a chemistry lab.  And astrology gave us the earliest observatories that enabled the future discovery of planets.  Crossing the line into what isn’t scientific helps us to define what science is.  Exploration is indeed a part of the scientific endeavor, but it comes with risks.  One could find themselves persona non grata in the scientific community if their hunches don’t pan out.

Stepping outside of established science can be rewarding, as our author points out, because we can discover new avenues of research.  But this does not mean that pseudoscience is a worthwhile endeavor nor that adherence to the rational is tantamount to dogmatism, however.  Fortuitous outcomes breed mistakes and stepping outside of the realm of what is practical, empirical, pragmatic, or falsifiable means that we risk relying on unreliable information.  Not to mention basing our view of reality on unreliable information can be counterproductive and risky.  Skepticism towards nonscientific claims is warranted as a precaution at least until we can verify the evidence through some kind of rational means.  But this means that if a scientist steps out on a limb they are taking a calculated risk with their career.  It also means that fraudulent claims can be kept in check before they can do too much harm.  We must guard ourselves against pseudoscientific claims.

There are many examples of pseudoscientific claims that have done more good than harm.  Chiropractic manipulation is not, as a rule, pseudoscience, but when practitioners espouse a belief that a vital force in the spine is responsible for healing ailments in the body and that aligning the spine is certain ways releases an innate intelligence, we have stepped outside of evidence-based medicine.  Using a chiropractor solely for a mechanical problem is not necessarily harmful, but seeking a chiropractor to heal a metaphysical ailment can result in life-threatening unnecessary complications such as brain hemorrhagingartery dissection, or myelopathy. The irrational can be deadly.  But I am not here to argue that an adherence to rationality means scientists are extolling the gospel of scientism.  Instead, I am here to argue as Susan Haack did that there are indeed many rational tools of inquiry that are verifiable. These tools are diverse and ever-evolving.  Scientism is a pejorative term for an over-reliance on the scientific method.  Critics will decry something as scientism when they believe the use of the scientific method is elitist or discriminatory against other ways of knowing.

For instance, C.S. Lewis wrote his Space Trilogy decrying what he perceived to be the overwhelming scientism in Western society in the twentieth century.  Lewis weaves the story of how an amoral scientist named Professor Weston kidnaps a handicapped child  to serve as a human sacrifice to appease an alien society on Mars; when he is thwarted in his attempt to murder an innocent boy, he instead kidnaps the protagonist Elwin Ransom, who had unwittingly wandered onto his estate.  As the story progresses, Weston starts out as a devious atheist, foil to our pious Ransom, but slowly becomes morphed into a Liberal Christian; which is worse than an atheist, we are to believe.  Weston explains to Ransom by the third book in the trilogy that he is now a profoundly spiritual person; he no longer pursues the lofty goal of humanity’s hegemony among the stars by way of human sacrifice.  Now he merely seeks to spread human spirituality.  And if he has to enslave or exterminate alien races to assure that more people have a sense of the divine, then his ends justify his means.  Weston trades his myopic belief in rationality for the myopic belief in Christianity spirituality.  Lewis seems to imply that science is a religion just like Christianity is, albeit in a bastardized form.

Lewis’ hyper-rationalist Weston is, in effect, Christie’s straw man argument.  Granted, our blogger isn’t going about this in as heavy-handed a way as Lewis did, yet the premise here is arguably the same.  But the concept of scientism that scientists worship at the altar of science and bristle with indignation at the thought of one questioning the validity of their work is a caricature.  Christie makes the claim that there are limitations to rationality, and pursuing avenues that might not appear to be fruitful can sometimes ultimately pay off.  I agree.  But I do not think that irrationality should be lauded or even pardoned because of the potential for serendipity.  Arguably, Weston’s amoral actions are the exact opposite of scientism because to behave amorally is to behave in such a way without any rational system to guide one’s behavior.  That is why we must explore rational ways to understand morality.  Morality involves study of human behaviors and brain states, which we know can be studied in social psychology and neurology   Science can study systems of morality rationally and offer objective answers to moral questions without invoking God.  Indeed, if science is to live up to the expectations of its proponents, or at least dispel the criticisms of its naysayers, then it must tackle problems of morality in a rational way.  The moral sciences must be cultivated in order to develop objective moral values; if the moral claims of the spiritually-inclined cannot be tested, then they cannot be studied objectively, and they cannot be found to be true or false.

Science is not a hindrance to morality; it can actually inform our understanding of right and wrong.  Sam Harris gives an analogy to explain how science can be used to inform our moral values without deferring to the supposedly objective moral values of theistic religions.  The science is morality is indeed a verdant field of future research, but only if scientists can recognize that logic and reason can indeed inform our moral values.  Logic is the name that we give to our brain’s ability to process information, in this case, in the form of claims about morality; this is analogous to digestion being the name that we give our stomach’s ability to process food.  There is no law to logic just as there is no law to digestion.  We can, however, use science to come up with a list of nutritional needs.  We can determine whether one’s diet is “good” or “bad” based on how well it meets the nutritional requirements of a human being.  And just as there are no perfect foods, there are no perfect moral values.  Similarly, we can come up with a list of  spiritual needs that are “good” or “bad” based on how well they nourish our well-being.  So moral claims could be tested and vindicated or falsified.  We would likely find from this scientific study of religious morality that every religion espouses a unique mix of adaptive and maladaptive values.  Therefore, we can surmise that values are really statements about human well-being.  From there we could compare how religions support the well-being of human beings.  Some religions would undoubtedly be found to be better for our well-being than others.  Granted it can be hard to nail down just exactly what we mean from words like “good” or “bad”, but it’s not an impossible endeavor.  Even if we found that all religions were equally good at nourishing human beings, this would be a worthwhile result.  Perhaps it would alleviate sectarian violence around the world if followers knew all religions were unambiguously proven to be equally good.  Or bad.