In Rocks and Mud

For some folks, pondering our origins in rock and mud leaves them cold — gazing at celestial bodies arouses only emptiness.

And yet through science, I have come to feel a sense of transcendence — through science I have come to know beauty (even comfort) in rocks, mud, and celestial bodies. By understanding the vast and wonderful complexity of not only ourselves but of an orchid or a dung beetle, by coming to terms with the kind of beings that we are, by taking into consideration the millions-of-years of struggle that has lead up to the actual and particular beings sitting here today — I have realized our profound and inescapable connectedness. Consider that under my skin lies the implicit history of my entire biological, social, and pre-conscious past. The mechanics of my mitochondria, the heredity of my ribosomes — they tick with the history of the earth, history is in my veins.

My DNA carries the footprints of squid — or pre-squid, pre-t-rex, pre-chimpanzee. The social hierarchies of dogs and horses, the predatory prowess of the big cats, the preening and pretentious displays of wealth as practiced in the mating ritual of the Bower Bird — all these impulses and pasts are (maybe only in trace amounts) under my skin and behind my every thought. Each of my emotions is the result of eons of fine-tuning, my altruism and my hatred are useful to “nature” and to me in some, perhaps mysterious, way. My survival, my success depends on the right combination of sympathy and pride, of self-consciousness and desire.

In the explanatory framework of science I have found a kind of “spiritual” comfort, because in the explanatory framework of science I have found real and fundamental oneness — and more, very good reasons for why I am the way that I am. My quirks and insecurities, my sensitivities and aggressiveness, my tenderness and my denial — it all makes such good sense when I consider where it is I came from and how it is I got here.

Would not any wandering “religious” seeker, deep in the desert of human loneliness and alienation, yearning for connection in a disconnected world, deep in the abyss of the consumerism of our materially-motivated society — would not that seeker be grateful to know and to understand from where that loneliness has come — that why, without a healthy social structure, without love and compassion in our lives, no amount of cash or new clothes will ever create real happiness. Would not the knowledge of who we are and a thoughtful understanding of our past be a glass of cool water to such a wandering seeker? To know why we yearn to transcend the boundaries of our bodies and to connect with the oneness of the living world? That knowledge is not to be found in holy books or religious hocus pocus, it comes from astronomy and physics, from biology and sociology, from anthropology and evolutionary psychology. We must get dirty with scientific facts, to dig into the complexity and history of our evolving consciousness, if we are ever to feel more whole, more complete than we presently do.

Contrary to religion, science has this on its side: predictive success. Unlike the declarations of preachers and gurus, of pastors and mystics — we have good reasons to believe the revelations of science. It has earned our trust, and when we have found science to be false or inaccurate, it has revised itself — it has accommodated itself to what is, not to what it has been told to be. And yet, for many folks, pondering our origins in rock and mud leaves them cold — gazing at celestial bodies arouses only emptiness.


What Open-Mindedness Is and Is Not

A couple folks have sent me a link this video recently… so i thought I’d re-post it here… and, yeah, this dude is spot on…

My “Blind Faith” in Science

 I am accused of having all sorts of faiths and religions. Not believing in God is one of my religions (they say)  counting the things I see, hear, and taste as evidence is among my faiths. Opining the divisive nature of Holy Books is a further article in my faith-pantheon — being willing to express that opinion is my zealous religiosity. Defending unbelievers’ rights to advertise their views makes me an intrusive and righteous missionary — criticizing the dangerous beliefs of others casts me as an agent of intolerance and a fanatic for my faith.    

Interestingly, these accusations come from those who openly have (and feel free to express) their faith in God — that is, from people who have religion. Now I don’t want to make too much of this, but I do wonder, why do minds prepared and conditioned to think religiously find in all other minds religious thinking? The response to a belief about the non-existence of God? Religion they say. An opinion about the role of religious belief in a modern society? That’s nothing more than a faith position.

And here’s the topper — they say these things to denigrate the unbelieving view. It is as if they are saying, “Your position is a load of crap because it’s just like mine.”

Er… what?!

But okay, I hear ya…  I mean, we’re talking about positions that are (at least for the moment) pretty darn unprovable. Sure, God could step-up and kill the debate should He, in His eternal wisdom, choose to do so — but then, that’s difficult to do if you don’t exist…  I mean, not for God of course — He could prove His existence while not actually existing, He is, after all, God 

Anyway, my point is that they can call my unbelief in God “faith” — that’s cool, but can’t we just stop there? Do believers really need to stretch the term faith to include what is (and ought to be) the antithesis of faith? Do they have to render in faith-terms the discoveries and successes of science? More and more I see references to the “Church of Darwinism” or the “Temples of Science.” Not only do religious folks wish to categorize any belief statement as faith, but also those statements that are grounded in the most rigorously and fully-tested discoveries of science.

Why does this way of viewing science persist? In my opinion it stems primarily from peoples’ lack of awareness as to how science “is done.” It is not obvious to people that a free-market of ideas goes on in science (for grant money, for status, for fame). As in other fields of human endeavor, scientists are working to be first — they often treat fellow scientists as foes and are competitive even among those with whom they are in agreement There is no monolithic “science” — it is a profession whose participants have distinct and various personalities, ethics, motivations, desires, etc…

But from the perspective of regular people (non-experts, non-professionals) it is difficult to know where to put one’s trust — especially with all this competition and non-aligning motivations that crowd the laboratory (and the newsroom) of science. Meanwhile the language and ideas of the professionals have become so specialized (and will only become more so) that even those who wish to untangle the “truth” can become hopelessly lost without the guide of a PhD. In other words, the folks who believe in “science” may know no more about a given topic than folks who have blind faith in their religion — adding to this quandary, sometimes science gets things wrong.

Yet key and fundamental differences separate science and religion. First, when science does get it wrong, it works to get it right — even when it gets it right, it works to getting it righter. Science never sleeps — science, as a foundational principle, is never satisfied. Furthermore, upheavals and overthrows in science, though common in media headlines, are rather rare. The achievements of science are more like a camera further ratcheting down its lens — bringing things (most often called reality) into a sharper and tighter focus. Newton’s theory of gravity worked for the level of clarity the science of his day was able to achieve. Einstein’s theory replaced Newton’s — the focus was tightened — but Newton’s math is still “right” for the kinds of objects he was working with.

The kind of trust that many have in science and scientific achievement is deserved in a way that cannot be paralleled by religion. Every day we enjoy the fruits of science, that is, technology. We know that science has proved itself — modern medicine has doubled our life-expectancy, we’ve got plasma TV and robot-vacuums, we can communicate anytime and everywhere (though we sometimes wish to be out of touch), we can fly across the ocean doing open-heart surgery on cloned sheep — we have the proof of millions of technological advancements that science, generally, makes accurate predictions and give us the ability to gain (at least some) control over our lives and the things in it…

So what of the original question — is this faith?

It seems to me that faith (as I have stated elsewhere) is belief in something without or in-spite-of evidence. While I call what we have in science trust — that is, belief based on past evidence of success. Science has been successful at making predictions and understanding our world far more than Priests, Shaman, Rabbis, Ministers, or Witch Doctors ever have. One may reply, however, that no scientist can give comfort to a dying woman or a man searching for his “spiritual” center. I disagree.

A scientific understanding of the world does not include merely wires and machinery. It includes psychiatry and psychology, sociology and anthropology. It includes an understanding of how biology impacts our moods and thoughts — and it includes therapies to affect them. I really and truly find comfort in understanding my evolutionary past and the effects of environment on young children — that is, why I feel how I feel, why morals become dilemmas, and why emotions give my life meaning. Understanding the history behind the being that I am helps me to be more complete, and it helps me to be more patient and understanding of others. I am almost certain that I fear death no more than the most eager martyr for Islam or Christian hungry to be with Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. 

Trust in science is not faith because science gives us a reason to trust it, and it is not blind because it lets us see, should we look. Science produces for us, whether we comprehend the technicalities or we just “accept” them. Science does not lurk behind vestments, and the only truths it hides are those I am not willing to work toward understanding. We should not have blind faith in science — nor in anything, and though I cannot evaluate every claim made in every field of study, I don’t need to. I can see the results of our efforts, I enjoy them every day, and not see those successes takes the kind of blindness one usually finds only in religion.


Knowing without Thinking

Although it may not be a full and clear description of  an unconscious passion such as “love” — this article, Our Unconscious Brain Makes The Best Decisions Possible, highlights something I’ve touched on a few times recently, that science is a big tent. So often I hear people imply a scientific worldview disregards emotions or unconscious cues (read “intuition”) — it doesn’t. They insist there are “other ways of knowing” — but as I always respond, if we’re talking about emotional responses or unconscious intuitions, then, yeah, it may not be logical, but it sure as hell can be explained by science. Of course they usually mean faith as a “way to know”… but I think they’re a bit confused about what they really mean…

Those soft aspects of our lives, those seemingly unexplainable and fleeting insights we sometimes have — they are in the purview of our scientific quest. And yes, the language of science may seems to miss the “best parts” of such experiences… but to my mind that simply means we need better science writers…

UPDATE: Oh, and this was interesting too… Scientists discover true love

News of the Obvious: Teens like getting it on

The Washington Post reports: Premarital Abstinence Pledges Ineffective.

Despite the demise of bands like Warrant and Poison, teens like getting it on, no matter who they promise they won’t — and they’re not always safe about it:

The new analysis of data from a large federal survey found that more than half of youths became sexually active before marriage regardless of whether they had taken a “virginity pledge,” but that the percentage who took precautions against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases was 10 points lower for pledgers than for non-pledgers.

I’ve known for a long time that the only way to make abstinence work is to lock the teenager in your basement. Which reminds me, this will have to be a short piece as I have to take more Papa John’s and Fanta down to the basement. (Teens also eat a lot!)

Some other gems from the article:

“Previous studies would compare a mixture of apples and oranges,” Rosenbaum said. “I tried to pull out the apples and compare only the apples to other apples.”

Well, Dr Rosenbaum, we all know the kind of trouble that apples have been credited with starting.

This somewhat good news, that it may take more than a simple pledge to keep teens in the know about sex and its consequences received a befuddling reaction from the National Abstinence Education Association:

“Abstinence education programs provide accurate information on the level of protection offered through the typical use of condoms and contraception,” she [Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association ] said. “Students understand that while condoms may reduce the risk of infection and/or pregnancy, they do not remove the risk.”

The message here would seem to be that abstinence is best prevention, because if you can’t start the car, you can’t crash it. But if you’re going to drive, fuck the seatbelts because they’re not 100% foolproof.

Journey to the Edge of the Universe with Brain Skarpowsky

An apt title I suppose since some of you have no doubt been wondering: Where is Brain Skarpowsky? Did Yeiser take him out? Is he being vetted by the Obama cabinet selection team? Has he indeed fallen off the edge of the universe…an update then….

Post election, I suffered something akin to burnout/withdrawal; media deprivation based delirium tremens. Ty has fared much better, but his tolerance has no doubt been built up by dealing with the lingering “Gulf War Syndrome” that will some day haunt his dreams. This coincided in a very rough way with Mrs. Skarpowsky asexually budding for a second time, bringing total chaos to the Skarpowsky “household.” My brain has simply not been able to function in a manner consistent with logging into a computer, opening a browser, and taking in information. Let alone, spitting information back. In between fits of sleep, I rock gently in the corner, hoping that the magical TV box will light up with Sarah Palin’s cackling image (where has the MILF media coverage gone to? Back to Angelina supposedly). 

By the dim light of my iPhone, I have been able to keep up with some transmissions of news of the outside. But as great as the screen is, the most I can muster is an arched eyebrow or two before  I squint, cry a little, and eventually fall back asleep. Thoughts are like familiar faces passed in haste on a crowded subway–they look familiar, but for the life of me, I could not possibly put a name to a face or even make sure the subject went before the verb. 

But then tonight, what comes on the TV: Journey to the Edge of the Universe. An HD show, displaying all sorts of nooks and crannies of the outer reaches of our universe (is it really ours?). Awe inspiring, navel-gaze-inducing scenes of this thing, this universe. The pictures are cool, but the narration is only something that could be swallowed whole by a mouth breather. First off, the narrator, if it isn’t actually him, certainly sounds like Alec Baldwin. Worse he sounds like the guy who did Alex Baldwin’s voice in Team America: World Police. This is an indictment in and of itself. The Democrats/Obama has/have won. Alec (or his sound-alike), go fall off the edge of the universe — your voice is not needed. 

In between talking about how gases combine and stars are born or collapse, Alec goes on to tell us that, not only is the universe scientific, but it is actually an artist. I almost elbowed Mrs. Skarpowsky in the ribs, but she was asleep and doesn’t get enough chances for that these days. I decided to spit my coffee out and run to the computer instead. The universe is an artist???? Sentimentally this is an attractive thought and it makes you want to go pull the bong out of the garage and see if you can synch up Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” to the show. But it is an utter fucking crap thought (Megan, your comments of late have inspired this one). Well if the universe is an artist… who is the artist? Is it a he/she? Does he know the watchmaker? Did it design intelligently? Maybe it is just artistic design, instead of intelligent design. (A slightly more appealing thought, but no more intellectually rigorous). If only Douglas Adams had been around to proof the script. The universe? What can you say about it? It simply is. Scientists can tell us where the hydrogen and dairy creamer is, how deep it could appear to be, which way it’s shrinking or growing, make educated guesses about where the matter is. But in no way can you in good conscience try to pass off the overlaying of poetry and science as fact in a show that purports to be scientific. It is a bad and dare I say dangerous thinking. Because once you’ve seen another little Skarpowsky come squiggling wet, screaming, and naked out of the womb, you really can’t claim to have any answers as to the artistic structure of the universe. 

Is this terribly important? Well, No. But you get back on the horse one step at a time.

Science as a New Cultural Tradition

I was watching Richard Dawkins dialog with Aubrey Manning (approx. 50 minutes long) the other day and some of the points they discussed made me think.

Many of the traditions we practice have religious orgins, which of course needn’t be bad in itself. Obviously, tradition and ritual have a place in building solidarity and socializing individuals. However, it seems to me that the question many ask in an increasingly secular world is what will we have instead? As Manning points out, science is a human activity which has value in itself. It not only gives opportunity for wounder but also invokes both emotions of joy and dispare.

No science is too hard to understand, at least not on a principial level. One problem is that the papers submited for peer review obscure science from lay persons. Yes, there is a point to using certain kinds science-speak; however, scientists should be obliged to not only help us understand, but also to intrigue us and to appreciate their knowledge. Those school books with nothing but formulas and constants don’t do the job.

And this is why I recommend these videos. It is a Berkeley course called Physics for future presidents by Richard A. Muller. The emphisis is on concepts and an idea of magnitudes instead of formulas and specific numbers. In my mind it should have the title “Physics for Everyone,” and while it’s alot to watch (26 episodes of ~1 hour each) I consider it a duty.

Science is also an enterprise in which we all partake. Our current advancement in technology and welfare comes from science. We only need to take the example of penicillin. Before its discovery far more diseases ran rampant through our populations. Now one may say that science of medicine represents a moral good, whereas the science of physics does not. Yet I believe there is a moral component in simply getting closer to truth. In other words science should, indeed must, be central to a modern tradition.

In his book Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins wrote the following: “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.” We should celebrate our opportunity to be here, taking part in the world. Our means of celebrating should be through understanding — that is to say, through science.