All the animals in the world came off Noah's Ark. ALL OF THEM. Be sure to remind people of the Truth with this auto sticker:
(From the ever-so-subtle parody site Objective: Ministries)
Ideas for logos or symbols for atheists have been floating around for a while. For a while I had been somewhat of a fan of the simple circle. But yesterday PZ linked to an old post of his wherein folks brainstormed symbol ideas, and I fell in love with a new symbol: a circle containing a five-pointed asterisk.
The pansy has long been the symbol of freethought, originally being used in the literature of the American Secular Union in the late 1800s. The reasoning behind the pansy being the symbol of freethought lies in both the flower's name and appearance. The pansy derives its name from the French word pensée, which means "thought"; it was so named because the flower resembles a human face, and in the month of August it nods forward as if deep in thought.As PZ points out, the asterisk bears a bit of a connection to the five-petaled pansy.
The Sand Dollar: hooray for echinoderms! Not only are they just plain cool, but a number of metaphors could be drawn to the sea. Besides, if Christians can try to co-opt the sand dollar as a symbol, then why can't we? (And we'd do it without sounding like a third-rate greeting card.)
The Footnote: the great strength of the thinking tradition is our ability to cite our sources.
The Star: a recognition that we are but a pale blue dot in the universe.
The Vitruvian Man: a bit of a stretch perhaps, but to me the encircled asterisk is reminiscent of Leonardo's famous drawing and the cultural break from the stiflingly religious mindset of the Middle Ages.
The Neuron: even more of a stretch, but I see dendrites, or perhaps synaptic buds.
Any other ideas as to what the asterisk & circle might relate to?
PZ was right not to try to pick a "winner" on his thread. It's really about reaching critical mass in public opinion, not waiting for official decrees from authority figures. So I'm doing my part by throwing my chips in with my current symbol of choice.
To help display the symbol, I've been playing around with some preliminary flag designs. (I just think flags are neat, and fun to design.) The idea is to have an elegant means of displaying the symbol, something more than just slapping it on a bare background. Here's my current design (though by no means set in stone):
In one of my first posts (or at least so Aaron tells me - I'd forgotten all about it) I promised to spend a little time explaining why Buddhism is, contrary to prevailing opinion, a religion. Since this gives me an opportunity to get back to my primary academic interest (and since Aaron tricked me into answering this question for another purpose altogether earlier today) I thought now might be a good time to say a few words on the issue.
The mistaken impression that Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion dates from the "discovery" of Buddhism by the west. The misunderstandings that happened in this first encounter have characterized the west's understanding of Buddhism to this day.
As I have been taught, there were two major ways that Buddhism entered the western world. First, Wesleyan missionaries (whose names escape me) were sent to Sri Lanka in the Victorian Era to do what missionaries do best - wreak havoc. In order to wreak the most havoc, though, they needed to understand how the religion worked that they were trying to destroy. So, as any good Victorian Xtian would, they asked to see the Buddhist scriptures. The Buddhist monks let them do it, but they were puzzled, because the idea that a religion was contained in books was completely foreign to them. Yes, they had a vibrant scriptural tradition - one whose size makes the Bible look like a footnote - but it played an entirely different role for them. Buddhist scriptures were, first and foremost, holy objects: they were chanted (often in languages that none of the chanters understood) as part of all kinds of rituals; the tomes themselves were used as objects of prophylactic magic, their real, written words having effects completely unrelated to their semantic meanings. Now, when the Wesleyan missionaries translated these documents, they discovered the theological and philosophical musings of incredibly sophisticated thinkers (on par with and surpassing St. Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Tillich in importance) - but in doing so they completely neglected to notice what these texts actually meant to the people who kept them. And thus they carried this mistaken impression of the soul of Buddhism to the west.
Roundabout the same time, the heirs of the enlightenment in Europe - the deists, some romantics, and above all the Orientalists - in short, anyone who had had enough with stodgy monotheistic religion with its commandments and guilt, began to turn to the East in search of an alternative. How convenient that they found there precisely what they were looking for! A religion that had no real gods, no harsh commandments, no covenants - just the perfection of enlightenment reasoning (Hermann Hesse, I'm looking at you). What more could the disillusioned Victorian ask for? For entirely different reasons, the community of the faithless, like the missionaries, found precisely what they expected to see in Buddhism and left the rest. I might also add that the exact same thing happened in the 1960s in America, when a class of people with a similar sense of disillusionment rediscovered the religions of India and China as a way to find spirituality without religion. This is why you can hear a sitar playing in the background of Norwegian Wood, and why armies of soccer moms do Tai-Chi in the living room once junior's been packed off to school. But regardless of whether this cultural exchange was a good thing or a bad thing, the point is that every time the west has become interested in Buddhism, we've gotten it wrong.
I can't begin to list here all the ways that Buddhism is a religion. There are gods. Lots of gods. Amounts of gods that put the Romans to shame. They have a very colorful hell (actually, there's about eight of them). Many sects have a redeemer figure who comes at the moment of death to transport the believer's soul to paradise (Amitabha); many believe in the Messaianic Buddha of the Future who will come at the end of time to restore Buddhist teaching to a hellacious world (Maitreya). They have an all-compassionate, all-powerful savior figure who hears and answers all prayers (Avalokteshvara), and in China at least this god has become female (Guan-yin) and very closely resembles the Virgin Mary of Catholic belief. There are rituals up the wazoo - explicitly magical rituals that follow the universal do-ut-des pattern of religious exchange: I will honor the deity (or his statue or his relics) with a gift (of incense, food, prayers, liquor, money, etc) so that he will be inclined to do something nice for me. And the list goes on and on.
And don't dare say that this is merely Mahayana Buddhism (the main Buddhism of China), and that the "purer" form of Indian Hinayana Buddhism (and its East Asian progeny: Zen) has none of this religious mumbo-jumbo. Because it does. Lots of it. There is an active relic cult in Ceylon; talismanic magic is pervasive in all legitimate Buddhist communities (and by legitimate I am excluding those started by westerners based on a false understanding of Buddhism), and so on. If we take the example of Buddhist insight meditation (like Zen) as representative of all Buddhism everywhere and for all time, we are commiting as grave a fallacy as if we decided that one single monastery (or even a whole order) of contemplative Catholic monks were representative of all of Christendom, or that the skeptico-deist philosophy of Spinoza were an accurate picture of Judaism. The fact remains that the vast majority of Buddhists since the foundation of the Sangha in about 600bce have never once practiced meditation. They were active participants in a religion that posited gods, that had active temples, that sought converts, that believed in magic, that spoke prayers, and that made sacrificial offerings to various deities. Buddhism is and always has been a religion in every sense that counts.
EDIT: For anybody interested in the surprisingly religious character of earliest Theravada (/Hinayana) Buddhism, I cannot recommend strongly enough the book "Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India" by Gregory Schopen. It is the first, best, and clearest explanation of precisely the issues I've been dealing with above.
And for the reader with entirely too much time on his hands, I'm providing a link to a short paper I once wrote on the subject: The Paradox of Presence: Reassessing the Role of Relics in Theravada Buddhism.
PZ Myers gave a talk Sunday entitled "There Are No Ghosts in Your Brain: Materialist Explanations for the Mind and Religious Belief." If I lived in Minnesota, I totally would have been there. (Maybe I should have tried to convince my brother to take a day off from bear-wrangling and go in my place, though he might not have appreciated it as much.)
Anyway, everyone's favorite logically-challenged creationist neurosurgeon has taken it upon himself to offer PZ some advice on giving future talks. Never mind the fact that Egnor didn't attend PZ's talk.
Egnor, as usual, just makes one bad point after another. It's painful to read, I won't even bother linking it. But I would like to address two particular points that stood out.
First, Egnor revisits one of his recent favorite inane points:
Although you can’t expect a whole lot of real skepticism from atheist ‘skeptics’, there may be a few in the audience who aren’t gullible enough to accept the assertion that ‘religion is an evolved adaptation’ without noting the obvious corollary: ‘atheism is an evolved adaptation’.
Um, no. A while back he tried that same trick on evolutionary psychology, noting that evolutionary psychologists like to look at the origins of religious belief, but never the origins of evolutionary psychology. Egnor, of course, has never hinted at what his idea of the origins of a materialist worldview would be, or what relevance it would have to such a worldview's credibility. He's just trying to launch a smear campaign, discarding an evolutionary account of religion as mere persecution of the faithful. He doesn't address the facts at all. He doesn't address a single claim made by evo psych; he just tries to write it off as mean and hypocritical.
But if Egnor really wants to know how atheism arose, here's the answer: reason. Human beings evolved a fantastic capacity for reason, and through that capacity we found that the religious beliefs shaped over generations by our cognitive biases didn't jibe with reality. It's as simple as that.
The other bit of idiocy I wanted to address:
Because you are promulgating 19th century materialist ideology, avoid any reference to quantum entanglement and the ‘observer effect’ in quantum mechanics. Material reality at the quantum level only sharpens into focus when it is observed by a mind. The implication is that the mind, in an important and fundamental way, is distinct from matter, and in fact is a prerequisite for discrete physical reality at the quantum level. The observer effect in quantum mechanics adds credence to the dualist theory of the mind. Don’t remind the audience.
Well, we can all rest easy knowing that, in addition to being inept in evolutionary biology and neuroscience, Egnor is a few credits shy of a quantum physics degree.
The "observer effect" to which Egnor alludes goes something like this: objects on the quantum scale tend to exist as wavelike probability distributions rather than discreet particles. However, when an observer looks at such an object, the object collapses into one of its available states. A favorite example is the double-slit experiment. Imagine a point light source projecting light through two parallel thin slits onto a screen. If the photons are acting like waves, then each photon-wave can pass through both slits at once, forming an interference pattern on the screen. However, if we set up a sensor to observe which slit the photon goes through, then it collapses into a photon-particle and can only pass through one slit or the other, and we end up with two bright blobs on the screen instead of the interference bands.
That's all well and good. But Egnor uses this phenomenon to suggest the observing mind has some magical wave-collapsing power, which is ridiculous. The photon in this instance collapses into a particle because of physical interaction with the observing mechanism. If we hook up our sensor to observe which slit the photon passes through, then we won't get an interference pattern, whether or not a human being looks at the results. The photon (or electron or atom or buckyball or what have you) doesn't give a damn about whether there's a grad student reading the output from the sensor; the photon only cares about the sensor itself. So unless Egnor wants to say our lab equipment has a mind of its own (wouldn't surprise me, given some of the stuff I've seen in the lab in my day), his argument for dualism from quantum physics is entirely, utterly wrong.
It'll be entertaining to see whether PZ decides to grace Egnor's "advice" with a response.
EDIT: PZ has responded. Apparently a video of the talk is on its way, so stay tuned for that.
FURTHER EDIT: Welcome, Pharyngula readers! Please enjoy your stay!
Taking a cue from the illustrious PZ Myers, I'd like to diversify a little bit, and write about something not directly atheism-related.
As you may or may not know, I occasionally contribute to SUGAA Headquarters, the collective blog of the Scientists United for the Global Advancement of Awesomeness (a pack within Ze Frank's ORG). I've tended to focus on evolution (specifically, debunking creationism) so far on this blog, but that's hardly where my interests begin and end. At Dartmouth, I majored in Biology (concentrating in neurobiology and genetics) with a minor in Physics (primarily electricity & magnetism), and I always keep my ear to the ground regarding developments in all the sciences. Even though grad school is still a year off and I'm not what you might call an expert in any field, I still love sharing what I've learned so far.
For instance, yesterday my fiancee found a cool video on YouTube, and it got me thinking about cognitive psychology.
Problem solving is one of the big questions still facing psychologists. How do we solve problems? And what gets in the way of our problem solving?
One of the big difficulties that people face in problem solving is called functional fixedness. Certain types of problems require that we think of a novel use for an object in order to obtain the solution. Functional fixedness gets in the way by latching on to what we know about an object's normal use and refusing to let us think of anything else. For the ultimate success story in overcoming functional fixedness, think of MacGyver. For him, practically nothing has a fixed mundane use; paper clips become lock picks or radio antennae, and chewing gum can defuse a bomb.
I just got word yesterday that my grandmother was in a car accident. It sounds like she's going to be all right, thank goodness. But times like these certainly make one feel powerless, to hear that a loved one is suffering and to be unable to do anything to help.
We human beings like to have control over things. I'd say much of what makes us human is our ability to control our environment: we went from foraging to agriculture, from hunting to domesticating livestock. And when we can't control something--be it because we don't understand, or because we don't have the power to act upon our understanding--we like to make up ways that we think might give us control. Our ancestors described the world in terms of gods and spirits because, though they didn't understand the world, their brains were predisposed to interacting with other people. Belief in the anthropomorphic supernatural gave them the sense that they could communicate with and thereby control an uncontrollable world.
Nowadays, our understanding of the world is better, and that has improved our control to a degree. For instance, we now know how to predict weather, as well as prevent and treat disease. But no matter how much we understand, much is still beyond our power to control; we can't control who gets sick, where hurricanes strike, or when accidents occur. So in our desire for control, some of us cling to those old misconceptions so well-tuned to our cognitive biases: we imagine that the world has a human intelligence, in the hopes that we can convince it to get us out of trouble.
We know that prayer doesn't work. We know that. We've used the two great pillars of the scientific method--separation of variables and statistical analysis--and we have seen time and again that prayer does not influence the outcome of anything. The only thing that the human mind has ever moved is the body to which it is connected.
It would be great if I could say a little incantation in Massachusetts and help heal my grandmother's broken ribs in Pennsylvania. But that's not the way the world works, and there's no way I can un-know that. Contrary to the popular adage, there are atheists in foxholes; we don't run crying to God just because we feel weak or frightened. But even if I could believe in God again, why would I want to?
Our ancestors thought that we could control the world via appeal to the supernatural. We have since learned that there are some things we just can't control, and that's intimidating. But we have also learned that there are some things we can control. It may be troubling to know that there's nothing I can do to help my grandmother heal, but I can take comfort in the fact that she's surrounded by medical professionals who can help her.
Who wouldn't trade all the imaginary power in the world for a little real power to help a loved one?
Today, Bill Dembski gives us a curious little look at his recent work:
We [Robert Marks and I] have also just finished a paper debunking the statistics of James Cameron et al. (go to www.jesusfamilytomb.org), who have claimed both in a documentary on the Discovery Channel and in a book titled The Jesus Family Tomb that the pattern of names in a tomb found outside Jerusalem matches names in Jesus’ family so closely that it is highly probable that this is in fact the family tomb of the New Testament Jesus. Since “Jesus son of Joseph” is buried there, this would indicate that Jesus himself is buried there. The implication that the Resurrection is a hoax is immediate.
. . .
Question: You think any of the skeptic societies might be interested in highlighting this work debunking the Jesus Family Tomb people? I’ll give 10 to 1 odds that they won’t. Indeed, how many skeptics now believe that we’ve found the tomb of Jesus? And to think that until just recently the skeptics didn’t even think that Jesus existed (go here).
Um, if no one's interested in Dembski's paper debunking the fuzzy math used in Cameron's documentary, it'll only be because it was already discredited dozens of times over before the documentary even hit the air. Is he really that detached from the scientific community?
Meanwhile, he gives this baffling tie-in to intelligent design:
This work is tangentially relevant to our discussions at UD about intelligent design because the Jesus Family Tomb people are claiming to show that small enough probabilities demonstrate that Jesus is buried outside Jerusalem. Prof. Marks and I show that the probabilities really aren’t that bad. In light of the probability arguments that keep being made for and against evolution — the most notable recent case being in Michael Behe’s Edge of Evolution — the arguments we make in our “Jesus Tomb Math” paper will have a familiar ring.
Okay, let's look at this. Cameron et. al. in "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" claim that the probability of finding these names in a tomb randomly is so small, that it must be the biblical Jesus' family. But Cameron's math is fundamentally flawed, which means his conclusions are without merit. Michael Behe in "The Edge of Evolution" claims that the probability of beneficial mutations occuring at random is so small, that complexity of life must be the result of intelligent design. But Behe's math is fundamentally flawed, which means...
... is Dembski trying to debunk Michael Behe?
One of the most irritating things I've found about being an entry-level skeptic without years of experience combating the cranks of the world is that stunningly brilliant debunking retorts don't roll off my tongue precisely when they do the most good. So often I find myself in a conversation with someone who is committing every logical fallacy in the book, and yet unable to muster much more than "um...I don't think that logic is sound" -- that is, until about 2am, when I sit bolt upright in bed and exclaim "true Scotsman fallacy with a side of ad hominem!!!" to the bogeyman in my closet.
Well, just the other day I scored a minor victory in that regard by actually coming up with the right thing to say at the proper moment, and so I thought it might be worthwhile - if only for my own sake - to start keeping a log of successful canned ripostes to be referred to when necessary.
So I was speaking to this older fellow - an otherwise fairly rational person, but nevertheless long time fan of the self-help genre - who said something along the lines of:
Well, you know...I've heard a lot over the years about how much control the mind really has over things. I mean, not just the placebo thing either - but having a certain frame of mind about things will really help to make those things come about. I know it's worked for me, and I hear people talk about it all the time.I really don't do him justice here: it sounds like feel-good empowerment garbage straight out of The Secret, and you're right to think so, but there was a tone in his voice that suggested that he felt it to be rather incredible too, but that since so many people are talking about it (the ability to judge the merit of information sources is a rare art that should be taught to more people) he's willing to at least entertain the possibility. Now, clearly, I'm not going to let this go without throwing my two cents in, which were roughly as follows.
Well, that's partially true. The placebo effect is one thing - the mind does have some influence on the biological processes of the body, although to what extent we're not sure. But if you're talking about the mind having an effect on real-world events outside of the body, you have to remember that it's not just a straight shot from glauben to sein; things don't just happen because you believe they're going to happen. The reason people can get away with pushing this argument is that a certain set of beliefs will often - but emphatically not always - translate into a certain set of actions, which in turn can help being about the desired circumstance. You can't think yourself rich, slim, or popular - but your belief that these are goals worthy of your unflagging commitment might cause you to take actions toward them. But if you forget about that middle step, then you'll keep sitting on the couch trying to think yourself rich, wondering why it didn't work, and then rushing out to buy the next best-selling self-help tome that feeds on your insecurity to help some sleazebag bullshit artist fulfill his own dreams of becoming a multi-billionaire. Belief can't do crap without actions to back it up.
Ok, well, perhaps I didn't collapse into such vitriolic vitriol at the end there, but I was thinking it.
I think the skeptical community could stand to pay more attention to the self-help industry -- because if my own personal experience is anything to judge by, then it really is crippling the soul of the nation. I just read a rather interesting book by Tom Tiede called Self-Help Nation: The Long Overdue, Entirely Justified, Delightfully Hostile Guide to the Snake-Oil Peddlers Who Are Sapping Our Nation's Soul. The beginning was delightfully nasty, but I have to say that Tiede degenerated in the last few chapters into a more generalized crotchety-old-man Jeremiad that was hard to get through (especially since, although this man is clearly a liberal, his old-mannishness made him sound like a conservative, throwing my world-categorization system all out of alignment). I will agree, then, with the statement of his subtitle; it really is a long-overdue and entirely justified 'up yours' to the unscrupulous dreck-peddlers who are emotionally crippling the nation's middle class and bleeding them dry -- but it could be done better. The community is already doing a number on that Chopra fellow, and for that I thank you - but we need to cast our nets wider. Dr. Phil, Norman Vincent Peale, Peter McWilliams, Rhonda Byrne, Patrick Snow, and the Chicken Soup people - ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.
A couple years ago, I received as a gift "The Journey to Wild Divine," a computer "game" that incorporates three finger sensors that relay biofeedback information to the program, letting you alter objects on the screen by laughing or slowing your breath. I had seen a review for Wild Divine in "Discover" magazine, and was immediately intrigued.
The "game" wasn't much to write home about, mostly a series of various meditation exercises. And I had a little trouble getting the biofeedback to work properly sometimes. All in all, though, I still thought it was a neat program, and I still wonder what else could be accomplished with accessible-to-the-public biofeedback technology.
But sadly, this cool technology was co-opted early on by the New Agey types, in particular woo-master Deepak Chopra. That kinda spoiled my excitement over the technological aspects.
It's been a long time since I've used Wild Divine. Maybe next time I go home I'll dig it out of storage and give it another shot, see if it has any redeeming value.
Gr. Stupid woo.
Does anyone know of a comparable program using biofeedback that isn't hopelessly entangled in pseudoscience?
William Dembski over at Uncommon Descent has a new strategy for improving the public image of intelligent design: blatantly misleading domain names.
In my previous post, I cited a Miami Herald article that refers to “The National Center for Science Education, a pro-science watchdog group.” For the real pro-science watchdog group, check out the following links:
That’s right. I own those domain names and they all refer back here. Let me encourage all contributors to this blog to use these domain names in referring to UD when they email Darwinists.
Someone should really tell Dembski that simply repeating something over and over does not make it so. Intelligent design is not science, and those who endorse it are not pro-science. And it doesn't even stop at intelligent design: UD is a bastion for everything anti-science, including global warming denialism, HIV/AIDS denialism, even Holocaust denialism.
Maybe Dembski's just mad that intelligent-design.net was taken. Or maybe he's smarter than we give him credit for, and he's just generating demand for those domains so he can sell them to someone like the NCSE at an inflated price.
"...And to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God and Jesus Christ who died on the cross for all of our sins and then rose on the third day, indivisible, with liberty and justice for most."
--Schoolchildren, "Moral Orel: Omnipresence"
A common piece of trivia invoked by those who would try to undermine separation of church and state, usually under the faulty premise that America is a "Christian nation," is our national motto: "In God We Trust." It's printed on our money, after all, so it must be true. America is, according to our pledge of allegiance, "one nation, under God." Always has been, always will be.
Except, no, it hasn't always been. And hopefully it won't always be.
Prior to the 1950s, the United States had no national motto. In 1782, three mottos were approved to adorn the Great Seal of the United States: "E Pluribus Unum" (from many, one) on the front, "Annuit Cœptis" (approves the things having been begun) and "Novus Ordo Seclorum" (new order of the ages) on the back. Both sides of the Great Seal can be found depicted on the back of the one dollar bill. But though these mottos were approved for the national seal, no act of legislation established a national motto. The phrase "In God We Trust" first started appearing on US currency in 1864, during the Civil War. But still, America had no national motto.
Fast forward to the 1950s. The Cold War was on, and McCarthyism was alive in the American consciousness. In 1954, following two years of lobbying for the change by the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic fraternal order), a sermon by Rev. George Docherty convinced President Eisenhower that "under God" should be added to the pledge of allegiance. Two years later, in 1956, "In God We Trust" was adopted as the national motto of the United States by act of Congress.
America was keen to define itself in polar opposition to the Soviets. They were evil; we were good. They had communism; we had capitalism. They had dictatorship; we had democracy. And--we thought--they were atheist; we were Christian. But here we drew the wrong dichotomy.
The problem with the Soviets was not that they denied God, but that the right of the people to free thought was replaced by subservience to the government. Americans confused belief in God with the right to hold that belief. By letting our fear of the enemy translate into government endorsement of a particular religious outlook, we were no better in that regard than the Commies.
The Cold War left us with two terrible threats to our future: an extensive nuclear arsenal, and fodder for the false conception that America is a Christian nation. And the latter may be more dangerous, because it has its finger on trigger of the former. For the good of ourselves and the world, we must disarm, restore separation of church and state by reopening the national motto and pledge of allegiance to all Americans, including those who do not believe in God.
President Eisenhower said, "These words ['under God'] will remind Americans that despite our great physical strength we must remain humble. They will help us to keep constantly in our minds and hearts the spiritual and moral principles which alone give dignity to man, and upon which our way of life is founded." But President Eisenhower was wrong. What makes Americans strong is not their humility before God, but their humility before each other. You and I may disagree on any number of levels (including religion), but as an American I remain humble, refusing to think myself more worthy of freedom than you. And all I ask in return is the same courtesy.