31 August 2013

The silliness of being an audiophile

Apologies for the drought of late; as mentioned not too long ago, I've had a lot of other stuff going on with starting my own business, and it's hard to make time for blogging about religion. I also find myself caring less and less about religion and apologetic arguments. It's played out, man. The religious side lost the science debate, the philosophy debate, and the social debate a long time ago, and it's done. Religious affiliation is shriveling and will continue to do so. Given all that, it's been hard for me to care about writing yet another post on epistemology or the theological implications of theoretical physics.

But y'know, back when I first started this blog, I had changed the name from The Apostasy to The A-Unicornist precisely because I wanted it to be more broad. So I want to tackle something completely different: being an "audiophile". It's been on my brain a bit because I recently bought a new subwoofer, and wading through subwoofer reviews from self-proclaimed experts is a daunting and exhausting process.

Years ago (like, 2001) I had some cheap Sony speakers, and I decided it was time for an upgrade. I had never been impressed with satellite speaker systems, so I had already decided that rather than buy a surround system for five or six hundred dollars, I'd buy some really nice bookshelf speakers and add to my system as I could afford it. I headed to Ultimate Electronics (remember them?), who had a really posh speaker room. I sampled tons of speakers.  After much careful listening to some of my favorite music, I decided I really liked the Boston Acoustic CR85s. They were $400 for the pair. I still have them today, and I still think they sound fantastic.

Around 2008 or so, I could finally afford a halfway decent subwoofer. So I went to Best Buy, who was just introducing the whole Magnolia Home Theater thing. Again, I sampled lots of subwoofers. The one that stood out was the Mirage Omni S8, which despite being small (8", as the name implies) it was plenty powerful and to my ears seemed more detailed than some subs that cost over a grand that I also sampled. It served me well for many years, and then it died. Repairs would have been time consuming and expensive, so I figured I'd just go ahead and upgrade.

I bought a Klipsch Sub-12, which I've also found out is discontinued – which probably explains the steal of a deal I got. I spent the afternoon today calibrating it with my Bostons, and it sounds superb. I'm very pleased with the sub, and although my setup is still only a 2.1 system it really gives me that feeling of being in a theater when I watch movies because the sound is just so full, clear and detailed.

Wading through speaker reviews, you get a lot of people who swear up and down their hearing is better than yours. Or that they can calibrate a speaker system just-so and make it sound oh-so-amazing, or that this speaker had this minute quality that this other speaker lacked.

Now, here's the thing. Certainly not all speakers are created equal. How it sounds will depend on your room, your receiver, the positioning of the speakers, and the calibration of the system. Those are all perfectly legitimate things to think about when you're setting up a home theater. But with most products, quality tends to taper off significantly at a certain point. You may be paying more for rarity, boutique-brand prestige, country of manufacture, or the materials and construction methods more than the final practical quality of the product. If you're an audiophile though, that won't stop you from perceiving your experience as exceptional.

Confirmation bias is a nasty bitch. I'm reminded of a story I heard on a guitar forum some time ago in which a guy who owned a vintage Gibson Epiphone used to tell his friends it was just a regular, modern imported Epiphone. They'd shrug it off – "Yeah, it's alright." But if he told them what it really was, they'd swear it was the most amazing instrument they'd played and heard. Mythbusters did an episode on the taste of water, in which they rigged a restaurant with menu of high-dollar "imported" bottle water. Guests smiled and swore they could taste subtle differences between the waters, but the gag is that all the bottles were filled by the Mythbusters guys with the same garden hose. The mind is very good at experiencing what it expects to experience.

Why should we expect audio equipment to be any different? Could you really tell subtle differences between phase range or crossover frequencies, if you were blindfolded? Of course audiophiles would swear they could, but it's exceedingly unlikely. Could you accurately guess how much a subwoofer costs just by listening to it? Audiophiles have their own technical vernacular too, but they're also big on subjective listening. And just as with any such subjective 'test', you can expect a lot of meaningless gobbledygook. Take this snippet from a review of $1,000 ear buds from CNET (emphasis mine):
The JH 13 Pro's resolution of fine detail is extraordinary, drums sound more realistic than I've heard from any other type of headphone. The JH 13 Pro is "fast," cymbals' shimmer and sparkle the way they do in real life, and when a drummer whacks his sticks against the drums' metal rims, the sound is more realistic. Dynamic oomph and slam are the best I've heard from an in-ear headphone.
Now, don't get me wrong; if I had bought the speakers I have now when they each first hit the market, it'd be about $1000 for a 2.1 system. That ain't cheap, but as I said, it really does sound fantastic. There's no question that there is a variance in quality, and that a $50 pair of speakers likely will not match a $400 pair. But the best way to find speakers you like isn't to listen to some nerd who thinks he has superhuman hearing, or to confuse yourself with technical specifications, or to fuss over price tags and worry that you won't be able to afford something great; it's just to listen to the speakers for yourself – preferably in your home, where you'll use them.

15 August 2013

Three years after "elevatorgate"

Hard to believe the whole mess was three long years ago. But, here's a video about it that I think glosses over some important details:

I think it was fine for Watson to suggest that men ought to be conscientious of their surroundings when asking a woman out. It's important to note that Elevator Guy did not say anything rude or overtly sexual, nor did he touch her or refuse to take "no" for an answer – he just left. Nonetheless, there's a chance that he could have turned out to be Creepy Molester Guy and he ought to have been aware of how his surroundings might make a woman feel.

Where Watson tripped up was when she said, "it creeps me out when guys sexualize me like that". Let's revisit this: she was asked out for coffee after a trip to the bar. By that logic, any time a man ever asks out a woman, no matter how innocuously, he is "sexualizing" her. I'm not sure what else she could mean by "sexualize", since the rejected fellow just quietly left after she declined his invitation. She never accused him of touching her inappropriately or saying anything vulgar or suggestive.

Sure, the vulgar and threatening comments are uncalled for, but it's not as though Youtube comments are representative of the skeptical community as a whole, or the discourse that occurs at conferences. Besides, there's an old saying on the internet: don't feed the trolls. When Watson gets upset about the trolls' comments, she's just giving them the undeserved attention they're after.

My feelings on the whole issue were summed up in a comment on the above video, which I'll paraphrase: Some have called Rebecca Watson a professional victim. I only know that three years later, she's still retelling the horrible story about the time she was asked out for coffee after a trip to the bar.

13 August 2013

Lawrence Krauss reams William Lane Craig

 In case you needed more hard proof that WLC is a lying schmuck, this ought to do the trick:

I don't think any commentary is necessary.

11 August 2013

The three pillars of morality – and why God isn't one of them

In The God Argument (which I've almost finished), A.C. Grayling describes the theism-atheism debate as being comprised of three related but distinct arguments:
  1. The metaphysical – what exists and what doesn't
  2. The place of religion in society
  3. The grounding of moral norms
I think that's a pretty fair summation. I've spent a fair bit of time on this blog talking about the first argument (or rather group of arguments), and a little bit talking about the second – although certainly not on the scale of someplace like Friendly Atheist, which is almost solely devoted to secularist issues. But the third has always been close to my heart, perhaps even more so than the metaphysical arguments. I did a series on morality some time ago, but I haven't touched on the topic too much recently. I've been reflecting on it quite a bit though, and I think it's time I share my thoughts. I don't know how much of what I'm about to argue is new for me, but as with all arguments I've made a concerted effort to understand things in their simplest terms. So, what I'm about to present is the slightly abridged version of my current thoughts on the moral argument (the long form will have to wait for the book I may or may not ever finish).

The three pillars of morality

It's my firm belief that moral theory, by itself, is rather useless. Since morality encompasses behavioral proscriptions for human societies, any moral theory worth considering must actually be pragmatic. It's fine to wax abstractly about imaginary or implausible scenarios, but any functional moral system must be grounded in objective facts about the human experience. I think this is the kind of "objective morality" that Sam Harris describes – not some sort of abstraction that somehow transcends human existence (like the moral nature of a god), but ideas grounded in scientific facts about who we are and how we function as a society (or rather, as a collection of societies). So with that in mind, these are the three facts I think must underpin any functional system of moral norms:

1. We are self-interested

It is a fact of human nature that the overwhelming majority of us are concerned for our own survival and well-being. There may be nihilists (probably many more in principle than in practice) who are cavalier regarding their own well-being and don't care whether they live or die or whether they live free of unnecessary suffering and in relative happiness. But I think that such people are so utterly rare, if they even exist at all, as to be utterly insignificant in the grand moral scheme. For morality is concerned with how a society functions through interpersonal relationships and cooperation, and self-interest is a prerequisite to even have a society in the first place. After all, the whole point of living in a society is that doing so confers incalculable benefits on its members, in exchange for certain responsibilities. If we didn't care about having those benefits, we'd just go in the woods and live by ourselves (assuming, if we were truly nihilists, that we'd even bother to live at all).

Though I'll discuss the point more later, it's worth digressing a bit now to point out that theistic concepts of morality similarly cannot function without taking our self-interested nature as a basic fact. After all, it doesn't do much good to entice someone with the reward of eternal paradise or threaten them with eternal torment if they have no regard for their own happiness and well-being. So the fact that self-interest is a basic reality of the human experience is one that should not be in the slightest dispute.

2. We are interdependent

I'll reiterate what I wrote above: the whole point of living in a society is that doing so confers incalculable benefits on its members, in exchange for certain responsibilities. It shouldn't take much of an imagination to start thinking of the innumerable ways that living in a society benefits us over living along in nature. From modern food, medicine, and shelter to recreation, transportation and communication, the benefits of living in a society are immeasurable. But society is too vague a word; a more accurate description is cooperative social hierarchy. 

Cooperative because of our interdependence – literally ever aspect of our survival and well-being depends to one degree or another on other people. Think just for a moment of the computer on which you are reading this post, and the immeasurable hours and cooperation that went into its manufacturing. From the mining of the raw materials, research and development of the product, to manufacturing and world-wide distribution – and going all the way back to the contributions in physics (particularly quantum mechanics) and engineering that made computing possible in the first place – it's positively mind-boggling how such an innocuous and everyday device is so utterly dependent on human cooperation on a truly incomprehensible scale. You can repeat this type of process for virtually anything that you own. Even if you chopped down the tree yourself to make your back yard fence, chances are you didn't make your own axe from iron ore you mined in your back yard.

Social because, quite obviously, cooperation requires interaction. And interaction must be governed by certain rules. The benefits of society come at cost: we have to play the game. We get angry at people who exploit the kindness of others, including state and federal aid programs, precisely because we recognize that we each have a responsibility to contribute to the society from which we benefit. If we all took the path of those few leaches and simply tried to exploit others' goodwill, soon enough there'd be no more goodwill left to exploit. Being self-interested as we are, we would have no interest in contributing to a society in which we got little or nothing back. Is it any wonder, for example, that African-American slaves rebelled, tried to escape their 'owners', and could only be kept subservient under the harshest of conditions and threats? This desire for fairness stems from the two facts that we are both self-interested and interdependent.

Hierarchy because we are not equal. I don't mean that in the sense of legal equality, but in the sense that our abilities and intellect vary wildly and we are not all capable of contributing to society to the same degree or in the same way. We all recognize that certain roles are difficult to fill, and individuals cannot be easily substituted. Mothers cannot be swapped out like fast-food workers given the complex nature of parent-child relationships; theoretical physicists require a degree of specialized knowledge that is difficult to attain without an exceptional aptitude for mathematics, logic, and abstract thinking. Even physical labor can be highly specialized, with everyone from machinists to construction workers requiring varying degrees of training and physical fitness. This principle extends as well into arts and entertainment, which we value because they contribute to our enjoyment of leisure even though they don't directly contribute to our well-being.

This cooperative social hierarchy encompasses the fact of our interdependence which, like our self-interest, is an undeniable fact of the human condition. It should already be apparent how these two facts interact to evolve moral norms, but there is still one more fact to consider.

3. We are empathetic

There are a small number of people who, due literally to abnormalities in the brain, lack the ability to empathize with others – sociopaths and those with severe autism, for example. But, not unlike the imaginary nihilist, those individuals comprise only a very small – as in negligibly small – portion of society, such that we really need not concern ourselves with them when discussing a pragmatic system of morality. The overwhelming majority of human beings have a deep sense of empathy imbued by millions of years of evolution. The primatologist Frans de Waal's research on empathetic behavior in primates is highly illustrative of the primal nature of this powerful emotion. It shows that it's not only in our nature to be self-interested, but to form bonds with others as well.

While moral thought is generally discussed in rational terms, cognitive scientists have known for a long time that moral behavior itself is often highly irrational. If we see a toddler wandering around in the middle of busy street, we do not pause to ponder the cost-benefit analysis of rushing into the street to save them. Likewise, a mother's powerful bond with her newborn baby isn't born out of a detached, rational assessment of the child's familial and societal worth but of a powerful empathetic bond governed by primitive regions of the brain dominated by emotion.

But while empathy itself is not rational, it's not difficult to see why empathy is such a powerful force in social evolution. Certainly it confers immeasurable benefits on a society for it to protect the young and to form strong interpersonal bonds. It may seem counter-intuitive for a society to protect weak or injured members, but there are two explanations. One is that, like virtually everything in evolution, that something confers a benefit doesn't mean it was selected for that benefit. For example, sexual lust has obvious benefits for our reproduction; it certainly stands to reason that animals with a strong desire to mate are more likely to do so than animals with only a very weak desire to mate. Sexual pleasure is an obvious benefit that reinforces pair-bonds and/or may simply just be for a flight of visceral pleasure, but those are likely just side effects of the selective evolutionary process. Similarly, empathy may have been selected for because it has powerful effects on caring for and protecting the young while helping individuals form close, reciprocal relationships. Empathy for the infirmed may be an indirect result of natural selection. The second, and related, explanation is that because we are in a hierarchy of unequal members, empathy for the infirmed may have indirect payoffs. A member that is physically weak may contribute to society in other invaluable ways – through intellect, through interpersonal mediation, etc.

There are still those who are simply incapable of ever contributing to society, such as mentally and physically dependent elderly persons, or the severely mentally disabled. (Keep in mind that I'm referring to a certain degree of severity in loss of function, such as advanced Alzheimer's; I'd never suggest that the elderly or mentally disabled cannot contribute to society – nothing could be farther from the truth!) Yet our innate human empathy takes us beyond a purely rational scope of moral behavior by allowing us to see the humanity in them. We recognize that although they may be incapable of forming normal relationships or contributing to society at large, they are not willfully exploiting the goodwill of others. They've arrived at their unfortunate circumstances through no fault of their own, and we thus while we may say that we rationally recognize that they ought to be afforded as much autonomy and the best quality of life we can provide – for surely it's not difficult to imagine ourselves or someone we love ending up in just such a circumstance – empathy, not reason, is the real engine that drives our treatment of the disabled.

Empathy is the engine that drives all these behaviors, and the biological fact of its existence is integral for understanding a functional system of morality.

Why God is irrelevant to morality

These three facts about the human condition form the pillars that are required for any functional system of morality to exist. I say required because, as in the earlier example, even theistic forms of morality must implicitly acknowledge these facts in order to be functional. The problem with theistic morality, though, is that it introduces an extra metaphysical claim about reality which, it claims, can transcend any of the above facts. If God so commands it, then women must be covered in shrouds and stripped of many of their most basic human rights. If God so commands it, entire rivaling cultures can be righteously wiped out through warfare and conquest.

It's ironic that theists often claim that "without God, anything is permissible", because it is the opposite that is true. The elephant in the room, of course, is that no one has direct, objective, and independently verifiable access to the mind of God. Instead, God's commands and decrees are filtered through fallible human minds who may or may not have gotten the message quite right. This means that contrary to the Genesis scripture, God is made in the image of man. This isn't idle speculation or provocation, either – it's backed by science. Studies have shown that believers ascribe qualities to God that reinforce beliefs and biases they already have [1]. It's not merely unlikely, but virtually inconceivable that a pious devotee of religion will have a radical change of heart on a key moral issue through nothing but prayer in which they attempt to listen to God's instruction. After all, if God's instruction were that easy to hear, there wouldn't be so much bickering over His purported decrees to begin with.

But the broader issue of morality is even more devastating to the case for a divine moral arbiter. Let's take, for example, the popular Christian commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself". There are two possibilities here: one is that God has no particular reason for issuing this commandment; it is wholly arbitrary and it is not our place to question it, only to obey. In that case, 'morality' is determined not by any faculty of reason but by mere obedience under threat of punishment or promise of reward. But it's trivially true that the moral "rightness" of any action is irrespective of reward and punishment. Tyrants may coerce people into horrible acts of cruelty under threat of torture or the murder of their loved ones, but that doesn't justify those actions. Morality based on this sort of Pavlovian reward and punishment is hardly morality at all; it treats humans as children incapable of rational inquiry. For many believers though, from Ray Comfort to Fred Phelps to William Lane Craig, this infantile view of morality is integral to their theology.

But imagine instead that God's commands aren't arbitrary – that God actually has good, rational reasons for commanding them. I think this is how most believers want to conceptualize God, even if they think – ironically – that God's reasons are ineffable (the problem for the theist is that 'ineffable' is functionally indistinguishable from 'arbitrary'). But regardless, let's imagine that God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves not as some sort of test but because that is a moral norm that will lead to a mutually beneficial relationship to all – that God wants what is best for us. If that's the case, why can we not reason that we ought to live that way? After all, what does that commandment fundamentally do if not recognize that we are both self-interested and interdependent? And if such commands can be arrived at by reason alone – as they can be if we begin by acknowledging those facts – then God's 'commands' have become utterly impotent. We don't need to be commanded, like naive children, to love our neighbors as ourselves; we can arrive through such a moral proscription through reason alone. This relegates God to a superficial role, not unlike the figurehead monarchs of modern-day secular England.

For all these reasons, God simply cannot be the basis for any functional system of moral norms. The very idea that God is the arbiter of morality is flatly contradictory to what morality is and how it functions. Instead, we begin by acknowledging basic facts about the human condition and from there, we form rules and norms which govern our actions and reprimand those who exploit others. Accordingly, such a moral system maintains a certain degree of pliability, which theists – in their naive adherence to a childlike view of morality – find repulsive. The basic concepts of fairness and empathy are deeply embedded in any sustainable moral system, but the needs and interests of society can and do change over time, requiring us to revisit moral norms by pondering and discussing how to best live in this cooperative social hierarchy. Religion merely sours the discussion when its dogmatic adherents claim to have the One Right Way to which all of the rest of society must conform, with no justification other than transparently impotent appeals to an ineffable deity. 

Broader issues

I mentioned at the start that this is the abridged version of my thoughts on this discussion, which might seem a tad ironic given the length of this post. But there are other topics for discussion, stemming from this one, that I don't have the space to address here. Many of these are the sort of trite 'gotcha' canards that theists employ in a feeble attempt to trip up non-believers: "What if Hitler had won?" "What about Stalin and Mao?" "What about when people cooperate to hurt others?" But while I don't have the space for indulging all of these in this post, the tools for answering those questions are all here and frankly, it can only be through a failure of critical thought that one cannot arrive at the answers.

There is a name for the kind of morality that I am advocating. It's not new, and it predates the major world religions and appears independently of them in cultures across the globe and throughout time: I'm talking of course about humanism. I've outlined what I think are the basic pillars of humanism, but there is a great deal more to discuss. Fortunately, thinkers from Confucius to Cicero to A.C. Grayling have written extensively on these concepts, so I can at least for now take a bow and with that say that in my experience at least, those who dismiss humanism in favor of a naive theistic are almost always astoundingly ignorant of humanism and the writings that have elucidated its conceptual underpinnings over the centuries. But from minds who revere childlike subservience over free inquiry and reason, I'd expect nothing less. 

A new direction for the A-Unicornist

I was away in Houston this weekend, and it gave me some time to think about the blog – where it is, and what direction I'd like it to go. I've commented in the past that I often grow weary of metaphysical a/theistic debates, and I don't want them to dominate the blog. But it's an obvious fact that those discussions do interest me, so there's no reason to stop doing them altogether. I would, however, like to devote a bit more space to talking about science, morality, secularism and other issues instead of retreading tired apologetic arguments that have long been shown to be impotent.

Posting frequency is another issue. With my recent change in careers, I simply don't have the time or inclination to post as often as I'd like to. I have to maintain a blog for my personal training website (it's a key marketing tool), and I'll be maintaining a second one for my forthcoming guitar-teaching website. That's a lot of blogging. As much as I like writing, doing it out of sheer necessity does sap some of my motivation to blog here not because I don't have things I want to talk about but because I just want to spend my free time doing other things that are more important to me. Add to that the fact that I often get involved in discussions in comment sections (both here and elsewhere), and blogging can sneak up on me as a massive time-drain. Frankly, I'd rather be practicing guitar.

With that in mind, my tentative plan is to shoot for one essay a week. But the tradeoff is that I'll spend the week drafting these essays, so that when they're finally published they ought to be pretty damn meaty. I'm also making a concerted effort to get more reading done (my back-reading list is shamefully long), so hopefully when I have something to talk about it'll be more interesting. Of course I can't and won't rule out that I might post more if I have the time and inclination, but one nice substantive essay a week seems like a reasonable minimum.

I enjoy writing immensely and I want to keep it going. I just have to make a few adjustment to make sure that it's sustainable. After all, nothing kills blog readership faster than sporadic posting. Consistency is vital, even if it's not daily. I think that with the right balance, this will be a positive move for the blog. I like honing in on one topic and going into lots of detail, and having a full week to draft and edit a post will be a boon in that regard. Think quality over quantity.

As always, thanks for reading. I may not have the readership of a Jerry Coyne or a PZ Myers or even a Randal Rauser, but I nonetheless have a loyal and engaged readership and for that I am incredibly grateful. I hope the forthcoming shift in direction will strengthen that readership by making the blog both more reliably timely and more substantive.

06 August 2013

Should you bother with the science rebels?

Ol' Randal Rauser – never a dull moment with this guy. His recent essay details his reading of the 2010 book What Darwin Got Wrong, a book by a cognitive scientist (Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini) and a philosopher (Jerry Fodor) which caused a bit of a ruckus on its release and was panned, hard, by a spate of evolutionary biologists. But the book was latched onto by the intelligent design movement because the authors a) reject natural selection, and b) they're atheists. Randal is an intelligent design creationist, so, y'know, do the math.

I haven't read the book because, well, I can't think of any reason why I should. Randal Rauser disagrees with me, and had these sharp words for me:

See if you'd actually read the book you'd know that their arguments are drawn extensively from the biological literature.
But why bother when you've already outsourced your thinking to other chosen authorities.
Some "free thinker" you are.
Debates within the scientific community are nothing new, and this raises an interesting and possibly important question: is it enough to concede to the scientific consensus, or should we laypersons concern ourselves with internal scientific debates and/or the opinions of the marginal few who claim to have an argument (or a set of arguments) that will overthrow the scientific status quo?

The problem I have with reading a book like What Darwin Got Wrong is that, like Randal himself admits, the language is very technical and likely eludes lay-readership. When you don't quite grasp the nuances of what someone is talking about, it's easy to be fooled into thinking that they're really saying something profound.

I have, for example, read on various physics forums and blogs and number of lengthy dissertations by armchair physicists who claim to have solved the mystery of a quantum theory of gravity. Considering that this apparently eludes all academic physicists, that's a pretty big deal. But reading these dissertations, I cannot possibly decipher all the technical language and equations. It'd be easy to think that these people might be on to something. But the truth is that the scientific consensus exists for good reasons. With that in mind, I'd like to visit Randal's comment about my "chosen authorities".

Chosen authorities

My "chosen authorities", as Randal sneered, are working scientists who have extensive specialized education in their field of expertise, who actively pursue research, and whose ideas have been vetted by other scientists with similar credentials and experience. If you want to learn about cosmology, you could always go to the Leadership University website and read one of William Lane Craig's dissertations on the Hawking-Hartle No Boundary Proposal. But Craig isn't a physicist; he's a theologian. Would it not be vastly wiser to learn about cosmology from Hawking himself, or his many colleagues and peers at prestigious academic institutions all over the world who have advanced degrees in physics and do research in the field? People like Brian Greene, Brian Cox, Lisa Randall, Alan Guth, Sean Carroll, and Alexander Vilenkin? You'd be a fool to think that a theologian would make for a better source of such specialized knowledge than the experts trained and working in the field.

But here's the rub: let's say William Lane Craig, who fancies himself to be quite the sophisticated philosopher, really has some remarkable ideas about physics that could turn the field on its head. That's great! But you, the layperson, is not who Craig should be talking to; he should be talking to those experts in the field and having his ideas vetted just as they have. Focusing on the layperson is just a way to avoid proper academic discourse and gather a following of the well-meaning but ignorant village folk who lack the proper training to see through his charlatanism.

Randal's criticism of me is no different. Sure, I'm entirely open to the possibility that these two gents have an idea so profound that it's going to usurp 150 years of empirical research and undo the unifying theory of all modern biology. I just don't think it's very likely that if anyone is going to do that, it's going to be a philosopher and a cognitive scientist. But if their ideas are worth considering, they ought to be able to pursue research demonstrating it to be sound, such that their profound idea can be vetted by the scientific community at large. As it stands, it appears (from my reading of the discussions surrounding the book) that all they've done is construct hackneyed arguments rooted in their ignorance of the field.

Fans like Randal rail against the "Darwinian fundamentalists" who apparently refuse to consider their field usurped, but Randal fails to appreciate both the gravity of the situation and the hubris of the unqualified authors. The beauty of science is that, because ideas must be tested (and repeatedly so), the truth will win out, sooner or later. If these authors are truly sitting on a diamond, the scientific community (which is vastly broader than the few bloggers and authors who engage directly with the authors) will have no choice but to listen – the integrity of their research will depend on it. But given the authors' absence of the appropriate pedigree and the resounding criticism from working evolutionary biologists, it appears to be yet another case of a well-meaning but misguided fool, just like the armchair physicists on blogs and forums, thinking that a revolution in science is waiting on the cusp of their brilliance. I haven't closed my mind to the possibility they are right; I just think it's incredibly unlikely, and certainly not worth my limited free time to spend indulging a discussion that's better left to the experts.


The book What Darwin Got Wrong was essentially a more fleshed out version of an article entitled Why Pigs Don't Have Wings, which Fodor published in the London Review of Books. The article was met with fierce criticism (just scroll down), but that didn't faze Fodor in the slightest, and as Randal mentions even the book is now being published with responses to some of the early criticisms. The response of Fodor and Piattelli, parroted faithfully by Randal in his blog, is that these critics never even addressed the real argument. Quoth Randal:
Those without a solid background in both the philosophy of science and contemporary Darwinism will find it a difficult book (count me in that camp). I am placated, however, by the fact that many highly intelligent critics of the book failed to grapple with the argument. The appendix to the new edition has an extended reply to various errant criticisms by luminaries like Douglas Futuyama and Jerry Coyne.
Now, whatever you may think about the particular views of Dan Dennett, Jerry Coyne, Michael Ruse, Philip Kitcher and all the other distinguished critics who have utterly lampooned this book, we should all at least agree that they are very intelligent fellows. So, I wonder which is more likely – that this sophisticated and nuanced argument was simply so much so that it went over the heads of these gentleman who didn't simply express a disagreement but actually failed to comprehend and engage the core argument... or, that the ideas in the book are ill-formed and poorly articulated, and the authors are just resorting to semantics and goalpost-shifting to wriggle out of their embarrassing conundrum? The first review of the book on Amazon is telling:
And the chapter on natural selection itself? Nowhere was a clear statement of what natural selection actually is in the first place. In fact, it doesn't seem like they understand what it really is.

05 August 2013

On the ethics of eating animals

Disclaimer: I'm an omnivore. There are few things I love as much as a tender filet or ribeye grilled to a perfect medium-rare.

You may have caught the news: after $300,000 worth of research, scientists have created the world's first lab-grown burger and submitted it to taste testers. The verdict? Not bad, it seems. The texture of meat is there, but there was literally no fat whatsoever in the meat, which contributed to a lack of flavor; scientists, however, say that is an easy fix.

Finally, meat that a vegan could eat. Except, given that vegans and vegetarians are such a small segment of the population, if this is going to be a viable product over the long-term, they're gonna have to make it appeal to meat-eaters. It's also going to have to be cheaper and easier to manufacture than cattle. So, while it's a nice idea and certainly uber-cool science, it'll be many years – maybe even decades – before anything like this is commonplace in our supermarkets.

But clearly, the big boon to lab-created meat is the total lack of animal suffering. I'm a meat eater and an animal lover, which has certainly pushed me to consider veganism on more than one occasion given that I'm well aware of the abuses that animals suffer in our overcrowded factory farms.

So why aren't I a vegetarian? Well, it's because I don't think there's anything wrong with eating animals. What I think is wrong is the environmentally unsustainable and frequently unethical practices of raising animals in factory farms. Factory farms can certainly give you a shock that might propel you toward giving up meat, but I think that the problem of factory farming is a fundamentally distinct issue from whether it's ethical to eat meat, and unfortunately that distinction is often lost in my conversations with my vegan friends.

Back in olden times, animal farming was a mutually beneficial relationship. A cow would fertilize soil, keep pastures from overgrowing, provide milk, and then it was slaughtered for meat before the ravages of nature would take their toll. Say what you want about the sometimes messy slaughtering in factory farms – it's undeniable that we're much more efficient at killing things than nature is. A cow in a factory farm, most of the time, dies a quick and mostly painless death. In nature, a cow would die of exposure, disease, predation, or starvation. That's why I don't think that in principle, there is anything wrong with slaughtering an animal and using it for food (and whatever else).

It's still possible to have that mutually beneficial relationship with animals, but factory farms do it wrong. However, we perpetuate factory farming through artificial means, such as corn and soy subsidies. Last year, there was a corn shortage due to drought. Produce prices didn't rise this year, but – as predicted – meat prices did. Livestock don't naturally feed on corn and soy, and those products have to be subsidized to sustain the low cost of producing meat through factory farms. If our government invested in sustainable farming instead, the factory farming model would eventually become obsolete.

As a consumer, I think it's possible to have the meat without the guilt. You can purchase grass-fed beef and chicken that is certified by the Human Farm Animal Care. You can reduce your overall meat consumption (and let's face it – you need more veggies anyway) without eliminating it entirely. And, we can continue to advocate our local, state and national government to invest in sustainable agriculture.

04 August 2013

"Christ died for the ungodly"

I was driving home from work yesterday and I noticed a sign posted outside a church I pass every day: "Christ died for the ungodly". I thought about that for a bit, and for the life of me I cannot figure out what on earth that is supposed to actually mean.

Sure, it sounds profound. God loves you so much that he sacrificed himself for you. Or maybe, God loves you so much that he sent his only son to die for you. But closer examination reveals how utterly vacuous and nonsensical the whole concept really is, which really cuts to the core of how ridiculous Christian theology actually is.

The first question to ask is what it even means to say that Christ "died". If Christ is God, it doesn't make much sense to say that God can die. But if God can't die, there can't be any sacrifice. So perhaps the Christian would say that Christ's bodily form died. But that trivializes the very definition of death, and even according to Christian theology (since everyone experiences bodily death), that wouldn't be anything particularly remarkable. Plus, most of us don't get up after three days and fly up to Heaven in front of a crowd of people (remember, Heaven is up in the sky!). For most, bodily death is, ya know, more of a permanent kind of thing. All that makes the idea of Christ's "death" rather trivial.

The second question is what, exactly, Christ is sacrificing, and to whom. Himself? But if Christ is also God, then God is sacrificing himself to himself. Huh?

The third question is, how does the act of Christ dying on the cross provide atonement for humanity's sins? What's the process here? Is it just that God has a weird blood lust and, after getting tired of goats and calves, decided that only his own blood contained enough magic whatever to be sufficient for him to forgive sin, so he made himself a body and temporarily killed it? Why this whole bizarre system of blood atonement at all? If God is omnipotent, doesn't he set the criteria for what is sufficient for human atonement? Why not, I dunno, burn a bunch of crops instead of kill things?

In other words, it's not entirely clear on how Christ 'dying', if you can even call it that, actually does anything for the 'ungodly'. The book of Hebrews, which was instrumental in my deconversion, attempts to patch all that nonsense together. Essentially, old timey Jews were required to sacrifice animals to Yahweh in a ceremony carried out by a high priest. Yahweh for some reason decided that this wasn't good enough, even though it was his idea in the first place. He promised a 'messiah', which turned out to be himself. Because he was without sin, he was the perfect sacrifice and the perfect high priest. So he sacrificed himself to himself, and that somehow gave him carte blanche to forgive sins when people acknowledge his 'sacrifice' (if you can call it that), which he apparently did not have before for some reason.

Makes perfect sense. That's why, despite all the quasi-academic posturing of people like William Lane Craig, Randal Rauser, Alvin Plantiga and Ed Feser spouting sophisticated-sounding philosophical arguments, when you get to the core of what they actually believe it's so ridiculous that you understand why they spend so much more time on the sophisticated-sounding philosophy: it distracts people from the inanity of what Christianity really is.

02 August 2013

A really, really huge picture of Andromeda

The National Astronomical Observatory of Japan's Subaru Telescope (got all that?) is a telescope with some apparently whiz-bang telescope technology that allows it to take some really spectacularly detailed images.

I've always been fascinated by Andromeda, and not just because our galaxy is going to collide with it in 4.5 billion years, but because it's our nearest spiral galaxy (there are lots of dwarf galaxies that are closer) and it's easy to get the sense that we have some neighbors there who aren't unlike ourselves.

But the scale is just impossible for the human mind to even fathom. Andromeda lies 14,696,563,432,959,020,000 miles from Earth. Yes... you didn't attempt to say that number. It also contains more than double the number of stars estimated to be in the Milky Way – around a trillion.

When you first blow up the picture, it seems like you're looking at a cloud of dust. Only on close inspection does it sink in that you're looking at billions and billions of stars. And then to imagine that billions of them could be hosts to planets, and it's hard to think we're alone in the universe. It's similar to the effect that Stephane Guisard's zoomable photo of the galactic center has, though given the vast distance involved there isn't as much detail in the Andromeda pic. Still... awe inspiring, without a doubt.

 Click the image to go to the massive full-sized version:

Also, the telescope that took this picture is 870-megapixels, which it turns out is way more than the totally sweet digital camera I recently bought.