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The God Chemical? (and I’m not dead) May 25, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, Faith, science.

However I’ll grant that depending on your definition of death you may be able to make a decent argument for whether I’ve been alive or not the past months.

Where has Valence been?  Unfortunately the answer is quite mundane and I’m tempted to make up a more interesting explanation than confess the truth… (I’ve been on a 3 month sabbatical meditating in Tibet?…The audible voice of Cthulhu answered all my questions but regrettably forbade me to share the deep meanings with you all?…I’ve actually been writing this entire time but Valence has been under attack from a Vatican conspiracy to hack dissenting media (help me Tom Hanks!)?) Unfortunately, to go with any of these I’d need to take down the whole bit above about pursuing truth.  Damn you, commitment to authenticity!

The simple answer is that my wife and I have been buying and remodeling a house over the past months.  I apologize that I never gave a “my blogging life is on hold message”.  The moment where I was going to start writing again was always just around the corner only to be postponed by this task or that.  Anyways, I won’t bore you with further excuses as much as I’ll simply beg your grace and jump back in the deep end.

The Science of Spirituality

Psilocybin3dYou thought I was joking about the deep end?  Recently NPR’s All Things Considered aired a 5 part series on the Science of Spirituality.  I want to discuss the first of their five parts (hopefully getting to the other four eventually): The God Chemical: Brain Chemistry And Mysticism. (Go ahead, listen, it’s only 7 minutes long)

The piece begins by dropping a bombshell of a question: Is God beyond the tools of science to even measure?  While I suspect they are going to spend the series exploring that question and we’ll have time o’plenty to thoroughly vet the issue in future posts I think it’s worth touching on briefly before getting into a discussion of brain chemistry.

It’s a popular platitude to claim that science and religion are looking at two completely different aspects of the world and denying that the results of scientific inquiry should change our faith.  There is some truth here but I think this line of thought is more than often misused to insulate peoples’ personal faiths from the light of critical thought instead of parsing out how we should be thinking about the “unknowable”.  It’s argued that ultimate questions about meaning and miracles can’t even be approached by science because science is rightfully limited to exploring strictly material explanations about the world (see NOMA).  True, in a very real sense science is agnostic on questions of spirituality.  Honest science can only answer “I don’t know” when presented with a question for which it has no evidence.  The spirit is defined as non-material and science is limited to the material after all so how could science ever inform our spirituality?

Two ideas here:

1. This would be well and fine if religious claims never crossed the material border.  However, many religious claims are specifically material (i.e. God created the earth or Jesus rose from the dead).  Further, I think it’s curious that the separation of religion and science is only touted when science is threatening an article of faith.  If perchance science suddenly found undeniable evidence for the biblical flood I doubt that believers would shrug their shoulders and dismiss the evidence, claiming that matters of faith shouldn’t be informed by science since they’re simply addressing separate issues altogether.

2. Science can still help us make informed and rational decisions even if it’s not ultimately “proving” or “disproving” spiritual questions.  If it is completely honest, science must respond “I don’t know” to the assertion that invisible Red Elves are controlling the weather.  This is a non-falsifiable claim.  Science just doesn’t know.  However, by providing an alternate consistent physical model for us to understand the weather that doesn’t need to invoke the jurisprudence of red elves, science allows us to dispense with an infinite number of non-falsifiable theories that have no pragmatic utility.  Let me make it clear that science is not disproving the existence of invisible red elves it’s just admitting that their presence is unnecessary to explain the weather patterns.

Okay, on to brain chemistry and drugs!  Being neither a neuropharmacologist nor much of a drug user my experience with hallucinogens is pretty thin.  This might be for the best on both counts even though I tried my hardest to also be invited to a peyote ceremony to research this post.  I did, however, read the study NPR referenced from John’s Hopkins titled “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance” performed by Roland Griffiths.  (The study is actually pretty short and readable for those tempted to click the link.)

The crux of the study is simply trying to answer the question “Can we reliably induce spiritual/mystic experiences?”  Since science often needs repeatable and consistent iterations of a test to get valid data it has had trouble addressing spirituality simply because of the sparse and often anecdotal nature of peoples experiences.  Many believers may live an entire lifetime of devotion based on one truly transformative experience.  Without the luck of having people in a brain scanner at that exact moment of epiphany science simply has no data to go on.

Now, it’s no secret that taking hallucinogens gives people mystical experiences.  From Navajo peyote use to the reference of Leary and the drug culture in the 60’s we are accustomed to stories of spiritual enlightenment associated with drug use.  However, is this drug induced mysticism similar to the natural emotions many report feeling during worship on a Sunday?  If there is significant physiological similarity what does this say about our assertion that we are ‘feeling God in the room’ instead of reacting to a chemical rush?

To be fair, Griffiths’ experiment was not aimed at answering the later questions but simply at first establishing under rigorous controls that mystic experiences could be reliably induced in so called “hallucinogen-naïve” subjects.  That is, he removed the bias of someone who considers peyote a sacrament or has a lifestyle based on LSD use by choosing subjects who were religious and had never used drugs before.

Before going any further I have to talk about the actual science just a little (without the aid of disco music this may not have same punch that NPR had).  The specific drug Griffiths studied was called psilocybin which is the active chemical in certain mushrooms.  Psilocybin works on the brain by mimicking the effects of a natural neurotransmitter called serotonin which the brain uses to send messages and is used in the control of appetite, mood and anger.  Psilocybin essentially looks like serotonin knocking at the door to a unsuspecting neuron but once inside delivers an entirely unexpected message causing the neurons to misbehave and the net effect is a trip.

When compared with the ‘placebo’ (which was Ritalin in this case, also physco-active in order to give a more relevant baseline to compare the relative mystical effects of one drug to another) psilocybin by far was reported to increase distance from ordinary reality, increase emotions like crying, joy and intense happiness and also increase peace and harmony.  The study is quoted as finding:

…the volunteers judged the meaningfulness of the experience to be similar, for example, to the birth of a first child or death of a parent. Thirty-three percent of the volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as being the single most spiritually significant experience of his or her life, with an additional 38% rating it to be among the top five most spiritually significant experiences. In written comments about their answers, the volunteers often described aspects of the experience related to a sense of unity without content (pure consciousness) and/or unity of all things. (Griffiths)

71% of the subjects reported their experience with psilocybin as one of the most significant spiritual moments of their entire lives.  That’s astounding to me.  The astounding part is not that they had a reaction to a drug it’s that they knew they were having a reaction to a drug and still felt spiritually connected to the supernatural.  The physical, artificial if you will, origins of this mystic incident just didn’t matter when it came time to interpret the ultimate meaning of their experience.  That is, even though they knew it was a purely physical response to a chemical they still walked away feeling as having communed with God.  I’d be terribly interested to know now what the long term significance of that moment has been in their lives.

The NPR piece concludes rather ambiguously (perhaps in an effort to tease us back next time) by quoting Griffiths:

Still, Griffiths says all the studies in the world can’t answer his central question about spirituality: “Why does that occur? Why has the human organism been engineered, if you will, for this experience?”

I see 3 options to explain this apparent “engineering” in humans:

  1. Calling our mystical experiences a communion with the supernatural is a mistake.  Our brain and therefore our reality is governed by a complex dance of chemicals which has been refined by eons of evolution.  When any part of this dance is altered we get a different reality.  When our serotonin receptors act up and we think we experience the euphoria (or fear) of meeting with God we are no more experiencing the supernatural than those tripping on psilocybin.
  2. God is just using the physical to interact with us.  Why wouldn’t he?  Just because we can artificially induce a spiritual reaction to a drug doesn’t mean that God isn’t the one naturally inducing this reaction under ‘normal’ circumstances.
  3. You can’t prove that the chemical pathway used by psilocybin is the same that was used in my spiritual experience.  Just because the effects may look the same doesn’t mean that my experience wasn’t truly supernatural.

What do you think?


Faith Healing and Neglect March 3, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Faith, Politics, Skepticism.

As I’ve said before I’m a bit of a podcast junky.  One of my favorites is called The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe which is, you guessed it, a podcast dedicated to what they brand as scientific skepticism.  A far cry from what many imagine skeptics to be (that is, cynical), these guys do a great job of both explaining current science issues and also debunking a lot of the paranormal claims out there, all with a secure rational basis and a humorous edge.  If you boast an inner nerd, or have ever dreamt of adopting one, this is the podcast for you.  It’s usually an hour long but they also provide short format discussions tackling just one topic at a time.  One of their recent topics has been nagging at me and I’d love to hear what you guys think.

Perhaps it’s my masochistic side which thinks it’s a good idea to poke at the hornet’s nest of faith healing.  Descriptions of children dying slow horrible deaths from neglect are never pretty and I suspect that no matter the diversity of religious convictions represented here at Valence most of us will naturally distance ourselves from such extremism.  I recognize that, for most believers, the kind of anti-medical stance defended by fringe groups like Christian Scientists or the Followers of Christ Church aren’t even an option.  Don’t worry, I’m not here to point fingers and make believers defend a faith healing position they themselves don’t even hold.  However, I also think it’s a mistake to just dismiss non-mainstream faiths as misguided without wrestling with the similarities and implications to our variety of faith.  There is a tough but valuable conversation to be had here which brings up two main questions for me:

One is political: What should the limits on religious freedom be in terms of protecting the innocent?

When the innocent are children and the protection is from wrongful death I think this question is pretty easy to answer but still not without its sticky points. In the clip above Steve Novella stated that:

…when you’re trying to balance the freedom of religion and the rights of a parent over their children with the duty to protect a child and to give at least the basic necessities of life, it’s a very thorny issue.  But I think that there is a general consensus that children should not be neglected to point of permanent harm or death, regardless of what the views of their parents are.

The definition of neglect is where things get sticky for me.  I truly think the parents in question were being as genuine as they knew how.  Allow me to try and put myself in their shoes for a second.  They felt like the most responsible thing to do for their child was to wait on an all powerful God to act.  They viewed a reliance on the human medicine as betrayal to God’s promises for supernatural healings.  To betray God as such would be neglect of a different kind.  They would be neglecting their child’s soul, which would be argued to be more important than this transient life anyways.  Their definition of neglect focuses on the eternal while our political definition of neglect focuses on physical health.  Do we as a society have the right or, even better, a responsibility to impose a secular and physical perspective of neglect on those who prioritize the supernatural?  I’d argue yes, but I’ll admit it does feel intrusive to say so.

Similar to laws barring polygamy and animal sacrifice I think the government does have the responsibility to severely restrict the religious practice of parents when they threaten the health of their children.  However, “protecting the innocent” line of thought isn’t limited to faith healing and wrongful death.  The move to limiting parents’ rights also has a related argument in the choice of parents not to vaccinate their children or an even tougher correlate in whether children have educational rights which should be protected from the misguided notions of their parents.  Who decides what’s misguided?  Well that’s the rub isn’t it?

The other question hits closer to home: What can we glean from the similarities and differences between “mainstream” Christianity and its cultish cousins?

(I don’t mean to be reductionist by too clearly delineating between mainstream and non-mainstream faiths.  I’d actually argue that there is a pretty well graded spectrum from typical evangelical faith all the way to extreme examples like the Followers of Christ Church.  However, I think it’s reasonable to address the majority of those who believe in supernatural healing while still trusting in medical science as a cohesive group.)

When ‘mainstream’ Christians ask for miracles what is the proper commitment to waiting for God to act?  One thing the Followers of Christ do not lack is investment in their faith.  The rest of us often have our cake and eat it too in that we’ll pray for a miracle but still see a doctor just in case.

If your feathers are getting ruffled by that last sentence I imagine you would argue that “God can work through doctors too” and that I shouldn’t “put God in a box” for what kind of miracles count as miraculous.  Why isn’t an elegant heart bypass by a skilled surgeon just as much evidence for God’s healing power as a pure faith healing?  This is a huge topic and a great question but I’ll say briefly now that I have a problem with this stance because it seems to dilute the definition of what is and what is not miraculous to the point of losing almost all meaning.  That is, God working vs God not working becomes a moot point when we fail to arbitrate what either looks like by claiming it all to be divine.

That said, I find my sickening gut reaction (our gut reaction?) to stories about watching children slowly die in the name of faith to be telling.  I think this reaction is indicative of a moral sense that it is wrong and selfish to prioritize one’s personal faith over the health and happiness of another human being.  I think this reaction is healthy even though it runs against the biblical grain.  That is, I’m not sure the Followers of Christ Church really misinterpreted the implication of stories like Abraham who is applauded for his willingness to sacrifice his son for faith’s sake.  Perhaps they followed the Biblical call to trust in God’s healing or to suffer as Christ suffered to its intended conclusion? That is, what if their interpretation is right and it’s the biblical imperative itself that is wrong, as born out in such stark relief with these children?  Could our innate reaction to distance ourselves from these extremist groups signal that we don’t actually believe such biblical imperatives to be moral in and of themselves?  I don’t think this is an unlikely scenario, but I suspect a few of you may have something to add.  What do you think?

Misquoting Jesus February 19, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, Faith, Skepticism.

misquoting-jesusIt’s easy to mistake the Bible for a Stephen King novel.  I’m tempted to try and construct an elaborate argument for how Misery was really an allegory for the obsessive tortured love that is the relationship between man and divinity.  Would Kathy Bates be God or mankind in that scenario? Luckily, I’m not going there.  Instead, the mistake we are prone to make isn’t a plot based one (at least not the mistake I want to discuss this week) but is in our assumption about the origin of the text itself.

What I mean is that as 21st century readers we are justified in assuming that when we order a book from Amazon, say Misery, we will receive a copy that exactly matches King’s original published version.  Barring the random typo, misprint or abridgement we are reading the exact thoughts of the author as they first appeared for print.  Further, if we ever discover a discrepancy between your version and my version of Misery we should be able to refer to the publisher’s original manuscript to settle the question of King’s true intent.  We have an unspoken connection with authors, endowed by the reliability of the printing press, which bolsters our confidence that we are reading accurate copies of text.

In Misquoting Jesus – The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why Bart Ehrman explains why it’s a mistake to treat the Bible with similar confidence.  Ehrman, a biblical scholar and chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, concentrates on the New Testament in this book and explores the history that separates our copy of the Bible from that originally penned by the early church.  In Misquoting Jesus he focuses exclusively on the changes made to scripture by scribes copying the text.  The premise here is simple but often overlooked by modern believers.  From the time the books of the New Testament were written in the 1st and 2nd century until the invention of the western printing press in 1439 every copy of the Bible had to be hand copied.  Ehrman argues that this roughly 1500 years of transcription has left us with “error-ridden” copies of text which have been heavily influenced by the social context, personal bias and often ineptitude of those who were doing the copying.

…we have thousands of copies of the New Testament in its original, Greek language, written over a period of centuries: these copies all differ from one another in ways great and small; most of these differences do not affect the meaning of the text, but other differences are significant – some of them slightly significant for understanding an author’s nuances, others of enormous significance affecting the interpretation of an entire passage, or even a book.

Ehrman gives a rather thorough genealogy of biblical manuscripts available to us today but the real fun lies in the methodology textual critics use to discern which copies best reflect the original.  Let’s look at an example where Ehrman argues that most Biblical scholars have it wrong, that is, where a commonly accepted verse is not original but instead was added by a scribe.

Sweating Blood?

The Gospel of Luke gives an account of Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives before being arrested and crucified (Luke 22:39-46) which contains a hotly debated passage (vv. 43-44), which was probably not penned by Luke but by a later scribe.  In it Jesus sweats blood (or sweats drops like blood) due to the agony of anticipating His impending death.

39Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.”

41He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed,

42“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

43An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

45When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow.

46“Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”

In this specific case the earliest and most reliable manuscripts do not generally include vv.43-44, however, the passage is widespread in the later manuscript tradition.  That is, there are more copies of manuscripts with the passage included but quantity certainly does not prove quality in this instance.

First off, the structure of the passage gives us an important clue.  If we were to omit vv.43-44 the passage forms what textual scholars refer to as a chiasmus (where the first section is related to the last, the second relates to next to last, etc.) with the focal point occurring right in the middle.  In the above passage the outer brackets (vs.40 and 46) are both instructions to the disciples to pray in order to avoid temptation. The next brackets include Jesus kneeling (vs. 42) and then conversely rising up (vs.45) and the pinnacle of the passage occurs with Jesus’ ultimate prayer of submission.

To understand the importance of vv43-44 breaking the chiastic structure we must also understand the overall theme of the Gospel of Luke.  Luke’s portrayal of Jesus is unique in that he goes to great lengths to always show Jesus in complete control of every situation, confident and calm.  This is proven by the many verses that Luke borrows from Mark’s (earlier) gospel but modifies to support his view that Jesus was imperturbable.  (Quick example: Mark has Jesus wailing in despair from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” while Luke changes the scene to read, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”)  Ehrman emphasizes that Luke has a specific purpose in slanting the story of Jesus’ crucifixion:

Luke’s Passion narrative, as has long been recognized, is a story of Jesus’ martyrdom, a martyrdom that functions, as do many others, to set an example to the faithful of how to remain firm in the face of death.  Luke’s martyrology shows that only prayer can prepare one to die.

So what happens when we inject the contested verses about Jesus sweating blood into the passage of Luke 22?  The entire moral of the chiasmus is destroyed.  Instead of focusing us on the calm sustaining power of prayer the passage focuses on such deep anguish that supernatural intervention is needed.  Earnest prayer does not bring comfort; instead Jesus’ despair deepens to the point of sweating blood.  Verses 43-44 not only interrupt a convenient literary structure they plainly undermine the entire character of Jesus that Luke is trying so hard to build.

The nail in the coffin is that three key words in the disputed verses (agony, sweat and drops) don’t occur anywhere else in the author’s vocabulary (neither in the Gospel of Luke nor in Acts).  “It appears that the account of Jesus’ “bloody sweat,” not found in our earliest and best manuscripts, is not original to Luke but is a scribal addition to the Gospel.”

But why would a scribe decide to insert such an odd verse into the passage in the first place?  Ehrman explains that often textual additions were used as ammunition in theological debates.  The early church was broiling with disagreement over who Jesus actually was.  We often lose sight that Christianity is not a homogenous set of beliefs and never was this truer than in the early church.  One group of early dissenters were the Christian Docetists who held that Jesus was purely a spirit and only seemed to have a material body.  In their context Jesus only appeared to suffer and appeared to die as God could not have, in reality, taken on human form.

Proto-orthodox church leaders who wanted to remove any textual support that benefited Docetists needed to address the Gospel of Luke specifically as it painted the most transcendently calm and ‘least human’ account of Jesus’ passion.  Second century apologist Justin Martyr shows his cards by explaining that the account of Jesus sweating blood showed “that the Father wished his Son really to undergo suffering for our sake” so that we “may not say that he, being the Son of God, did not feel what was happening to him and inflicted on him.”  Motivation for scribes to modify the text of Luke lies in their need to settle an argument over whether Christ really suffered or not.

This may seem relatively benign to us now, but we must also consider that similar arguments were raging over a wide range of topics from the role of women in leadership to a growing anti-Semitism through later centuries each leaving their own scar on the text through scribal modifications.  For those interested, here’s some other examples of verses that Ehrman notes were scribal additions to the Bible and not original: 1 John 5:7, John 8:7, John 8:11, Luke 22:20, Mark 16:17, Mark 16:18, John 5:4, Luke 24:12 and Luke 24:51.


Erhman only briefly discusses why books of the New Testament were canonized and avoids tackling whether the original texts themselves were an accurate description of Jesus’ life in the first place.  However, even without vetting these problems, Ehrman shows that there are serious impacts to faith due to the fact that the original text has been changed in thousands of ways by scribes.  One impact is to start treating the books as of the Bible as the very human books they are, shaded by biases and personalities, error prone and faulty.  Arguments over the divine inspiration of the original text become irrelevant because we don’t even have the originals.  The evangelical penchant towards a literal Christ narrative ought to be tempered by the fact that we are seeing Him not only through the faulty lens of the Gospel authors but also through the lens of every scribe whose hands those accounts passed through.

Darwin Does It February 11, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, science.
Tags: , , ,

darwinjpgThis week marks the culmination of our trifecta of evolution discussions here at Valence. February 12th is Darwin Day (his 200th birthday, except I don’t like counting dead peoples’ birthdays, do you?) and this year is the 150th anniversary of his release of On The Origin of Species.  The media is awash in Darwin controversy and I can’t help but weigh in.

I suppose statements like “evolution kicks ass” probably already gave away my opinion that the Theory of Evolution is not only good and sound science but also is the kind of idea that has literally revolutionized what it means to be human.  Therefore, I’ll stop beating the intelligent design horse this week and instead spend a bit of time exploring this character Darwin and his discerning idea called natural selection.

(Proceed with caution, the next bit may appear dry but it won’t hurt too bad, I promise.)

Simply put, natural selection recognizes that no two individuals of a species are exactly the same.  When competing for shared but limited resources (whether it be food or potential mates) one will have a slight advantage over the other by default.  Those individuals best equipped to reproduce in their natural environment will be those most likely to pass on those advantageous characteristics to their offspring.  Over many generations favored features statistically come to dominate the population.  If, perchance, a new adaptation were to better equip an individual to compete than that feature would eventually become pervasive in the population.

I confess, when looked at in hindsight Darwin’s theory of natural selection doesn’t appear to be so revolutionary.  Sounds like common sense.  Thomas Huxley is famously quoted as saying “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” when he heard of it.

The reason Darwin’s idea was so radical is that he defined a completely natural “pressure” that enables random physical change to accumulate in a species with the appearance of a defined direction (ie giraffes’ necks getting longer or human skin changing tone).  If two groups of the same species are separated and subjected to different pressures for long enough they accumulate different physical features and eventually will become different species.  Run the clock backwards and we find each species sharing some common branch point, a common ancestor.

The problem Darwin had is that his theory required a reliable mechanism by which parents could endow their offspring with inherited traits but also one that would randomly mutate from time to time to allow for variation in physical features that could be acted on by natural selection.  It wouldn’t be until the 1920’s when an obscure monk’s (Mendel’s)  experiments on peas would be rediscovered and kick-start genetics and even later in the 1950’s as DNA was discovered that Darwin would have his mechanism.

Darwin surely didn’t have all the details mechanisms exactly right but his overarching concepts have still held up surprising well.  Even so it’s really been the persistent research of the past 150 years building upon Darwin’s foundation which has solidified evolution as scientific reality.  This fact has some people saying we need to lose the fascination with Darwin and start paying more attention to the breadth of evolutionary research since his time.

The New York Times ran an essay this week by Carl Safina called “Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live” in which he essentially argues that by linking evolution with Darwin too tightly we give the false impression that this beautiful theory lives and dies by just one man alone.  Safina is really making PR appeal to the scientific community (which is interesting in a week dedicated to the celebration of Darwin’s contribution to science).  By seeking to downplay the importance of Darwin (and especially “isms” like Darwinism) he aims to highlight the last 150 years of research which he feels, if the public could understand, would not so flippantly be denied or ignored by so many.

…our understanding of how life works since Darwin won’t swim in the public pool of ideas until we kill the cult of Darwinism. Only when we fully acknowledge the subsequent century and a half of value added can we really appreciate both Darwin’s genius and the fact that evolution is life’s driving force, with or without Darwin.

I agree that we should never be deifying a historical figure like Darwin and that any perception that scientists ‘believe’ in the theory of evolution as a cult is seriously misguided.  The idea that evolution is “Darwin’s theory” betrays a deep misunderstanding of the depth confirming evidence found since the 1860’s and only by setting Darwin in the proper context do his advances actually carry the weight of genius instead of just myth.  But is celebrating Darwin’s achievements this week really as dangerous as Safina implies?

Safina correctly recognizes that the mid 1800’s were already broiling over with bits and pieces of the evolutionary puzzle (like common decent and inherited features) which were waiting to be put together into a unified theory.  Darwin didn’t invent all the components of evolution but instead recognized the mechanism by which evolution could occur, natural selection.  There is no doubt that had Darwin not thought of natural selection someone soon after him would.  In fact, in fear of being scooped by Alfred Russel Wallace, who outlined an almost identical theory, Darwin (after mulling over his theory for 20 years) was forced to publish The Origin before he actually felt ready.  Evolution “…was an idea whose time had come, with or without Darwin.”

However, I disagree with Safina that celebrating Darwin’s contribution to science is dangerous.  Evolutionary theory may have been inevitable with or without the historical character “Charles Darwin” but it would have certainly been impossible without a man (or woman) with the character traits that Darwin embodied.  His unique obsession with naturalism coupled with an absurd dedication to the tedious methodology of science equipped him to tackle a problem that no one before had been able solve.  In a way, celebrating Darwin is not elevating a man but instead is recognizing the fruits of the scientific process itself.

Respect for Darwin is as much for the disciplined and scientific way he addressed the problem as it is for the discovery itself. When we celebrate Darwin, we are not cheering for a man who got lucky one day, but for someone who represents many of what we consider scientific virtues: curiosity, rigor, discipline, meticulous observation, experiment, and intellectual courage. (PZ Myers, Pharyngula)

Darwin was writing and thinking at the height of the Victorian Era.  To call his ideas, which gave teeth to a material explanation of human existence, controversial would be a gross understatement considering the religious fervor of his time.  Hell, the religious fervor of our time is still pretty feverish.  I have to admit that I admire his resolve to chase truth down trails that he knew would not be popular.  But even more than his resolve was the tangible weight he carried to be cautious and meticulous with evidence before jumping to conclusions.  I want to think and process like that, with a burden for the utmost care and an open-mind to follow the evidence where it leads.  I still find that a cause worth celebrating.

Intelligent Design? February 4, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Faith, science, Skepticism.
Tags: , , , , ,

Last week, in order to discuss the strategy of ‘academic freedom’ which intelligent design proponents are hiding behind, I introduced the evolution vs. intelligent design (ID) debate briefly.  Apparently, judging by the lack of push-back I got in the comments, it is a fairly safe opinion to hold here at Valence that ID has no place in public schools and that evolution should be taught as the factual scientific theory it is.   A fantastic discussion of this exact discussion was on These Day KPBS on Tuesday; I’d definitely recommend giving it a listen.

That being said, I have had some extremely interesting conversations offline (thank you to those who e-mailed me this week) about the soundness of intelligent design.  I’d like to take to the time this week to explore the central tenants of ID a little further and explain why I believe they hold little to no merit.

While ID parades itself as a new modern scientific theory it is fundamentally just a restatement of the age old Teleological Argument for the existence of God put forth by thinkers as early as Aquinas and Cicero.  Simply put, there are components of the natural world which appear to be designed by their sheer complexity.  In the same way that the existence of a pocket watch implies that there exists a watchmaker, natural systems which appear designed imply the existence of an ultimate designer, that is God.

Here’s a rather humorous example of the argument from design (yes, this is serious):

By the way, I’m not trying to paint all believers with the same brush here.  Ray Comfort is arguably a poor representative for believers seeing as how he’s a… well an idiot.  Admittedly, there are design arguments that aren’t so embarrassing, though I’m not sure that at their heart they don’t struggle with the same logical fallacies.  By assuming it immediately follows that any system which appears designed must have a supernatural designer (a false dichotomy and a non sequitur) we ignore the possibility that natural causes may also affect systems to organize in complex or intricate ways.

In fact, natural causes do often result in complex and intricate systems without the intervention of a divine being.  Less controversial examples would be the self organization of snowflakes or diamonds and next week we’ll explore the grand-daddy of intricate systems resulting from natural causes, Darwinian Natural Selection.  Ohh, I can’t wait!

Intelligent design specifically looks to put a modern spin on the teleological argument by setting it the context of modern biology.  The buzz phrase that ID proponents have coined to describe biological systems which they insist must have been designed is irreducible complexity.   Irreducible complexity is the idea that any biological system which must be completely whole in an advanced intricate form in order to function could not have evolved since natural selection couldn’t operate on a more primitive and thus non-functional organ.

Like the fantastic and candid scientist he was, Darwin was actually the first to note that his theory of evolution by natural selection could be falsified by the existence of just one proven irreducibly complex system:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case. (On the Origin of Species)

The main advocates of ID (namely Michael Behe, William Dembski and Philip Johnson among others) claim that they have indeed found such cases that Darwin could not.  Perhaps the most popular example (and certainly the easiest to explain here at Valence) is the supposed irreducible complexity of the eye.

ID claims that if you remove any portion of the eye (ie the lens, cornea, the photo receptor cells or even the molecular proteins that trigger the neural relays to the brain) then the eye ceases to function.  Evolution implies that modern eyes are the result of modification from less complex eyes in our ancestors.  But if those less complex eyes weren’t functional, how did natural selection favor increased performance?  This seeming paradox is where ID insists that supernatural intervention is required.  To further bolster their claim that a designer is necessary they often cite the impossible odds of a complete system like the eye coming together by chance.  Anyone up for the proverbial tornadoes building 747’s or chimps typing Shakespeare?

As we’ll see next week, the example of the eye as irreducibly complex (and similar systems) and the appeal to impossible odds really betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of natural selection as a mechanism on the part of ID proponents.

Behe in Darwin’s Black Box focuses further attention on cellular (bacterial flagellum) and molecular (blood clotting cascade) examples which are a bit more advanced but still essentially the same claim.  For all you A students out there, quality discussion of each can be found here and here.

For the rest of us, let me just note that no irreducibly complex system proposed by ID has actually been shown to be irreducible.  In fact evolution researchers have thoroughly debunked each of ID’s concerns and ID has produced no recognized scientific research to back up their claims.  That is, there is absolutely no reputable argument about whether the eye (for example) is irreducibly complex.  It’s not.  Multiple researchers have time and again provided compelling evidence for the natural evolution of proposed irreducibly complex systems like the eye.

Behe himself, as he testified in Kitzmiller vs Dover, admitted that many of his initial critiques made in Darwin’s Black Box have been answered and that in the 20 years of ID research not one peer reviewed ID article has been published in a respected scientific journal.  (For you A+ students, NOVA did a great special on the Kitzmiller trial that I highly recommend.)

That being said, it is perfectly valid and probably even healthy for the scientific process to be challenged by the problems that IDers have noted.  Science thrives on challenges and grows by having people try to falsify its theories.  However, there is an intellectual dishonesty in clinging to those initial critiques of evolution after a preponderance of evidence has proven you wrong.  This kind of dogmatic persistence actually hinders scientific progress.

Bringing the issue back home.  What confounds me is, if ID research is so inflated and paper thin (which is the case I’m making), why does the majority of the religious community still hang our hat on their theories?  There are the few scientists like Ken Miller and Francis Collins who strive to reconcile an adherence to strict evolution with Christian faith but I think we can agree they are in the minority here in America.

For the most of us, we seem content to largely ignore the formidable case for evolution by concentrating on the fringe dissent that is ID, that is if we think about the evolution at all.   But is this really an honest treatment of the issue or is it a case where the religious community has subconsciously (or consciously for that matter) predetermined which research it will back based who is arguing for God?  If intelligent design is shown to be untenable, what are the responsible implications for our faith?

cdesign proponentsists January 29, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, Politics, science.
Tags: , , , , ,

The evolution ‘debate’ is certainly a can of worms but, with Darwin’s 200th birthday coming up next month and recent creationist battles in Louisiana on the news wire, it’s a can that’s due to be opened here at Valence.

Before we go too far, let me just be clear, evolution kicks ass.  Since Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 evidence ranging from such diverse disciplines as paleontology to genetics has consistently poured in to show that evolution is a robust natural explanation for the diversity of life on our planet.  I’ve paired the word ‘debate’ with evolution in quotes above because there is actually no scientific controversy over whether evolution is true.  (For a brief further explanation of my position you can read here and for a less brief but considerably more reputable discussion please check this out.)


That being said, there is certainly a debate between religious creationists (lately, thinly veiled as “Intelligent Design, ID, Proponents”) and reputable science.  Unfortunately, because ID proponents have little to contribute to the actual scientific community this debate is often waged over high school and middle school curricula instead of with actual research.  For IDers it’s much easier to slip creationism past the politics of school boards and state legislators than it is to deal honestly with scientific criticism.  A great summary of creationism’s tactics was in the January issue of Scientific American.

The effort to sneak religious overtones into the public school system by barring or seriously skewing the teaching of evolution is nothing new and has, as of yet, been unsuccessful thanks to our handy-dandy Establishment Clause (see Epperson v. Arkansas and Edwards v. Aguillard).  In fact, the entire ID movement was born out of the need to mask the religious overtones of creationism in order to side step the separation of church and state.  Luckily, even efforts as recent as 2005 to provide “alternative textbooks” in schools promoting ID have proven unsuccessful as the promotion of ID was equated with the promotion of religion (see Kitzmiller v. Dover).  After being so soundly thumped at Dover the ID community has been forced to retreat to their fallback strategy of lobbying for schools to simply “teach the controversy” about evolution by couching their arguments in the vocabulary of “academic freedom.”

It is this plea to academic freedom that I am most interested in discussing this week.  The strategy is so interesting because it appeals to an inherent sense of fairplay and debate that Americans go crazy for.  As soon as any argument seeks to silence its critics in order to remain valid all of our alarm bells go ringing.  One could ask, “If evolution is so secure than why try to shield our students from learning its pitfalls?  Why not teach the controversy and let the students decide?”  On the surface these appear to be strong and valid questions but ultimately I think they’re misrepresenting the science and twisting the purpose of education.

Here’s an example.  Louisiana took a small but important step back towards the dark ages last year with the unfortunate passing of the Louisiana Science Education Act.

On its face, the law looks innocuous: it directs the state board of education to “allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied,” which includes providing “support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied.” What’s not to like? Aren’t critical thinking, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion exactly what science education aims to promote? (SciAm Jan 09)

The bill is aimed at supporting and protecting teachers who want to teach ‘supplemental’ material about ‘controversial’ subjects.  Doesn’t sound too bad, right?  Wrong. Tellingly, the only ‘controversial’ subjects highlighted by the bill are “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning”.  Also, “…the bill was introduced at the behest of the Louisiana Family Forum, which seeks to “persuasively present biblical principles in the centers of influence on issues affecting the family through research, communication and networking.” (SciAm Jan 09)”

Further, shouldn’t science teachers already be fostering critical thinking skills and logical analysis?  Is there really a need for the Louisiana legislature to suddenly step in and encourage them to continue do so?  I don’t think so.  This bill is simply seeking a loophole to sneak creationism back into schools.

…it is clear why the Louisiana Science Education Act is pernicious: it tacitly encourages teachers and local school districts to miseducate students about evolution, whether by teaching creationism as a scientifically credible alternative or merely by misrepresenting evolution as scientifically controversial… Telling students that evolution is a theory in crisis is-to be blunt-a lie. (SciAm Jan 09)

But what of academic freedom?  Yes, teaching is about equipping your students with critical thinking skills but it’s also about pointing them to the best and most reliable sources of information available. Helping them up onto the proverbial shoulders of those giants they are supposed to be seeing from, if you will.

The simple fact is that evolution is not contested in any reputable scientific circles.  All of modern biology is built upon the stoutness of evolutionary theory.  Does academic freedom extend to lying to our students about the validity of scientific theories in order to be ‘fair’ to opposing views?  I think not, especially when those views are largely contrived and long ago debunked.  Why handicap our students with this kind of garbage?  ID’s request to teach creationism, or at least cast doubt on evolution, is tantamount to giving equal time to the Flat Earth Society in the physics classroom because they disagree with Newton.

Additionally, the appeal to ‘teach the controversy’ betrays a serious misunderstanding on the side of creationists as to how science actually works.  Science thrives on argument.  The strength of evolutionary theory (and any other well established scientific theory for that matter) is the tangible ways that it meets and answers questioners with actual evidence.  It’s the controversy and skeptical questions which keep us looking for evidence and which have ultimately strengthened evolution over the years.

The problem with the ID movement is not that they contest the validity of evolution but instead that once their theories have been refuted by evidence they consistently refuse to revise their ideas.  Dishonesty.  When they are no longer able to proffer their arguments in scientific circles they decide to take their case directly to high school students.  Talk about preying on the vulnerable.  A plea to academic freedom is used to excuse a lack of academic integrity.  Is this the educational standard we should be holding to?

Faithful Inauguration January 22, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Faith, Politics.
Tags: , ,

Candidates ReligionNestled comfortably, if not ironically, this week between Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the inauguration of President Barack Obama, your heart would have to be frozen solid with the tears of unicorns to not pause and take stock of our nation.  Hope is in the air after all.  I’ve even been reading A Testament of Hope – The Essential Writings and Speeches of MLK this week.

Come on; grant me a moment of sentiment, it won’t take too long.  Truth be told, despite the overblown media blitz, there’s a resonance at this moment in history that I think is worth pausing for.

The peaceful transfer of power that occurred on Tuesday still strikes me as deeply meaningful.  In many corners of the world, regime change isn’t even an option.  When it is, tyranny is often traded for tyranny and the oppressed poor who bleed to see change find themselves all the more abused.  To watch President Obama stand and address our nation without fear of a genocidal reprisal or violent riots is certainly a testament to the endurance of our Constitution and character.  Look at me, shedding a patriotic tear, and before even mentioning the fact that we just inaugurated our first black president!  Dang!

Don’t worry, despite every temptation, I’m not going to just wax poetic this week in ever rising chorus that crescendos with the droning masses O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma!  And aside from humming America the Beautiful incessantly (Ray Charles’ cover by the way… is there any other?) I have been doing some actual thinking.

What struck me as I read MLK and watched the inauguration ceremony is the undeniably important position granted to faith in America’s public discourse.  We offer invocations, benedictions, swear on bibles, plea for national blessing and even justify civil change by a personal God’s decrees.  The Judeo-Christian God is treated as a kind of grand marshal over seeing our public events and dialogues.

These events are so normal that they often go unnoticed or at least as a believer they had always seemed normal and fitting from my perspective.  But are they really fitting?  Why, as a secular government, do we reference faith so publicly?  Now, I’m not asking why any individual might have a personal belief or not.  I’m interested in exploring why we as a secular pluralistic society continue to reference one specific faith as almost a mascot.

These public gestures seem to be an outgrowth of the fact that Americans love faith for faith’s sake.  If not adequately evidenced by the way we positively fawn over belief, this is certainly shown by the outright hatred we reserve for unbelief.  Atheists are the most despised minority in our country.  Gallup poll after Gallup poll shows that American’s would be more likely to elect a believing homosexual or Muslim to the presidency before an atheist.

I suppose that it should be no surprise then that we demand proof of purchase at our inaugurations.  ‘We’ve elected you assuming you believe in our God so you better get your hand on that bible!’

I don’t mean to be trite here; I actually do see this as an important role of religion in the public sphere.  Like I argued in How We Believe, part of the role of religion at its origins may have been as a complex signaling mechanism that showed your community that ‘I am trustworthy.’  Reciprocal altruism may have been too hard to determine for each individual in large societies so we relied on a ‘higher power’ to parse out punishment and reward for us.  Religious traditions and customs give us an effective shortcut for determining who is trustworthy.

Additionaly, the advantage of having a common mythology that faith brings seems to be closely linked to the proof of purchase example.  For the majority of Americans religion is a culture we have been seeped in.  Whether we believe or not, most of us are fluent in biblical stories and values.  Their recitation at public events immediately links us by our common tradition.  As Rick Warren reads The Lord’s Prayer, we are called to focus on a familiar reference point together.  Even if the prayer is ineffectual the focus itself seems valuable.

Another benefit of faith displayed in public settings is the enduring hope that accompanies often irrational belief.  This may be faith’s strongest argument.  Time and again the causes most worth fighting for, whether they are civil rights in the 60’s or the abolition of child sex trafficking today, are the causes that seem most impossible. People of faith are often committed to pressing through the impossible even when every logical argument implores them to turn back.  Further, as a nation in crisis we are comforted by the thought that perhaps our destiny is not our own and that God will rescue us against all odds.  We try when it seems senseless to do so and by trying at all we improve our chances for success.

Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to “the judgments of the Lord.” Or King’s I Have a Dream speech without references to “all of God’s children.” Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.  (Obama – Call to Renewal Keynote Address)

That being said, the issue faith in the public sphere does have a down side.  Even subtle nods to faith like a simple invocation strangely color the way we approach leadership, social debate and civil responsibility.

If these gestures are a ‘proof of purchase’ that our public figures are to be trusted because their faith resembles our own we can get into serious trouble by subconsciously demanding ritual instead of actual performance.  Even worse, if we believe that God is keeping an eye on our government than we as citizens are apt not to.  President Obama is accountable to one boss only, the American people.  We must be vigilant in holding him to the highest standards of performance no matter what God he trusts in or submits to.  I would argue that we the people failed miserably in this responsibility over the past eight years with the Bush administration.  Too many of us gave Bush ‘the benefit of the doubt’ because of his devotion to Jesus and I think we are suffering mightily for his poor decisions now.

I’m also concerned with the certainty that accompanies faith.  For too many, faith equates to an unwavering confidence that their personal beliefs are “the Truth”, and can validate unjust action unto their fellow citizens in an effort to establish the ‘Kingdom of God’.  Yet the strength of our society is built on debate and compromise.  Rick Warren’s invocation may have given us a common tradition to focus on, but at what cost?  Warren is on the record as comparing homosexuals to pedophiles.  He fought hard to deny homosexuals the right to marry this past November.  His uncompromising convictions lead him to deny his fellow citizens rights.  Faith of this manner, publicly endorsed at an inauguration, can only weaken our government’s important claim to a secular plurality.

Lastly, while faith in a higher power can provide the motivation to endure in the face of staggering odds I’m not sure that it is faith that actually solves our problems.  It’s the difference between motivation and inspiration. Faith may motivate you to press ahead but it’s the inspiration of human ideas, action, protest and compromise that actually get the job done.  It may take faith to ride out our economic crisis but it’s going to take smart peoples’ hard work and ingenuity to actually fix it.  I fear that peppering our public ceremonies with grand declarations of faith can muddle this fact.

All in all I’m left seeing both positive and negative aspects to government sponsored acts of faith like invocations but I think the costs of such gestures are starting to outweigh their benefits.  What do you think?

Tough Question Indeed January 14, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Faith, Personal.

The beginning of each year at Coast Vineyard the pastor endeavors on a preaching series titled “Tough Questions” where he solicits questions from the congregation which are supposed to address the areas that faith is most challenging to live out in the real world.  Past flavors included: Should Christians legislate morality?  Does God work through other religions? Homosexual marriage?

Pastor Jamie sells this series as a conversation starter so I hope this week’s post will be exactly that.

How do I know God is there and that He cares for me when I don’t feel Him? was this week’s topic.  In all honesty I’m not a huge fan of the question itself.  It has two unstated major premises (both more interesting topics) which, when not seriously vetted, handicap this question from the outset.  If the first premise, ‘God is there’ and second ‘our feelings are a reliable way to detect Him’ are granted de facto, which I certainly don’t think they should be, than this question boils down to encouraging people to pursue God no matter what they’re feeling.  Not exactly the tough stuff of yesteryears.

In short, Jamie sought to reassure believer’s who aren’t feeling right that it’s extremely common for people of faith to go through a Dark Night of the Soul and that one need not worry.  God has proven himself faithful for many believers before in times of doubt including CS Lewis (reacting with anger and bewilderment towards God for the loss of his wife in A Grief Observed), Mother Teresa (whose personal letters reveal that she struggled immensely with the very existence of God) and even the coup de gras, Jesus himself (as he questioned God’s will before being crucified).  Their examples are an effective precedence which should help us to keep the faith even in times of feeling distant from the almighty.  Even more, we should have hope that our doubts will ultimately be assuaged because Jesus’ story is redemptive in that it did not end with his crucifixion but instead with his resurrection.

I count three key logical fallacies:

1. Card Stacking: Conveniently, all the examples were of believers who persisted in their faith even when they had serious doubts.  What about the many believers who have felt distant from God and subsequently rejected faith?  Stacking the deck in favor of faith with supportive examples skews what evidence is here to make it seem more normal for believers to seriously doubt and return to faith than may be justified.  What if the examples Jamie provided are exceptions and not the rule?  They’re certainly not encompassing a complete spectrum of people’s faith experiences.

2. Implied Tautology:  Closely related to card stacking is a tautology which implies that ‘genuine Christians submit to God even when they don’t feel him.’  This is a tautology because it automatically allows one to discount the testimonies or arguments of those who don’t submit or who reject faith because they are immediately labeled non-genuine Christians whose experiences should not inform those of true faith.

3. Unstated Premise:  Another unstated premise is that ‘doubt is dark’.   What if doubt and skepticism are healthy and fulfilling ways to pursue truth?  Using only examples where doubt is associated with emotional distress isn’t a fair characterization of many peoples’ experiences.  In fact, for many skeptics the opposite is true.

However, even if we limit our discussion to the examples above, it’s still not clear that someone like CS Lewis wasn’t actually closer to truth in his doubt despite the deep levels of sadness that initiated it.  Consider his example from another perspective.  Maybe it took the slow, grating, painful death of his wife to show him, even for the briefest of moments, that his faith in a loving, personal God was misplaced.  We characterize his doubt as a “dark night of the soul” because, from the Christian perspective, there was a dawn of faith and emotional contentment that followed.  However, this betrays that we’re linking Lewis’ grasp of truth to his relative happiness.  What if Lewis was happily in the dark from the moment of his conversion, only to be awaked briefly by such a staggering tragedy as his wife’s death, and then lulled back into darkness as his grief subsided?

All this to say that I found the question How do I know God is there and that He cares for me when I don’t feel Him? fatally biased and poorly argued to the point of removing any teeth from what could have been an interesting challenge for faith.

No, the real tough question for me this week was instead a personal one.  Through the disappointment in the sermon I couldn’t help but ask myself: What did you expect?  Are the above arguments about logical fallacies and unstated premises really fair standards to hold a community of faith to?

I’m really split on this issue.

On one hand I recognize that Coast is built on faith and not reason.  Faith that Jesus died and rose in order to reconcile us to a real and existent God.  Thus, the unstated premises I’ve taken issue with in Jamie’s sermon aren’t just arguments to be refuted, they’re articles of faith, and as such are not really up for serious discussion.  Could I really expect Jamie to ask a tough question that may end faith for some if it was answered honestly?  Is church about this kind of vulnerability?  No matter how much I think it should be, I have to recognize that there is a doctrine that binds the community together in an important way.  People are not showing up on Sundays to have their faith questioned but instead to have it encouraged.  Admittedly, this is a substantial responsibility that a pastor bears.

On the other hand, I hold that we should have a commitment to pursuing truth no matter what the consequences are or which venue we are in.  This is especially true for those we endow with leadership roles.  Further I would argue that a church setting, where peoples’ worldviews and metaphysics are being shaped in real time, is the place where we need the most clarity and where subtle logical fallacies can be the most dangerous.  I’ve argued before that if what we believe is true such a level of expectation and criticism should not be a threat.

What do you think?

How We Believe January 7, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Uncategorized.

how-we-believeSo I’ve put the holidays to good use and finished reading Michael Shermer’s book How We Believe: Science, Skepticism and the Search for God.  You may have noticed his quotes creeping into Valence over the past couple of months as one or two of his ideas stood out to me.  In How We Believe Shermer challenges us to consider that the origins and practices of belief themselves reveal a natural explanation for what many hold to be supernatural or paranormal experiences.  That is, understanding ‘how we believe’ is essential to correctly evaluating if ‘what we believe’ is true.

Refreshingly, Shermer treads the landmine littered battle ground that is the science-religion war by questioning faith without overtly attacking it.  That is, his experience as a fundamentalist Christian believer (he’s now a renowned skeptic and no longer a believer) enables him to speak with a subtle compassion towards faith while still illuminating the many ways it goes wrong.  Confronted by statistics showing that the vast majority of Americans maintain a belief in God and the paranormal, Shermer is interested in asking:

…why, in the most secular society in history, when God is supposedly dead, belief in Him has never been so high?

I suspect that many Christians would answer this question by assuming that belief in God is on the rise for the undemanding reason that God is simply a reality.  It’s logical for an ever increasing majority to recognize His existence, right?  In fact, this increasing majority of the faithful may even be seen as evidence for God’s existence itself. Thy kingdom come?

I’m not so sure.

Shermer sees ample evidence that the tendency towards mystical and supernatural beliefs is a product of our evolutionary origins instead of an actual measure of reality.  Humans are pattern seeking animals who have survived by our ability to connect causal relationships between events (ie. learning!).  However, our stunning ability to construct patterns from our environment has a down side in that we often find ourselves seeing patterns that aren’t real.

Just think, your brain is equipped to recognize and sort hundreds of faces in an instant (family, friends, enemies), however, it’s this same cognitive equipment that makes it easy for you to pick out faces or shapes from random patterns in clouds.  One is real, the other imagined.   The rub here is that there is such a strong evolutionary benefit to being right about our family’s faces that it’s worth the risk of being wrong about seeing faces in the clouds.  Extending this example a little deeper into the origins of religious belief, could it be that the benefit of, say, recognizing the real pattern of seasonal rains may have been worth the cost of also seeing an imagined pattern between them and our dances or sacrifices to deities?  Shermer argues yes:

We make…errors because we need to make…hits.  We have magical thinking and superstitions because we need critical thinking and pattern-seeking.  The two cannot be separated.  Magical thinking is a…necessary by-product of the evolved mechanism of causal thinking.

Add to our pattern seeking tendency strong communal involvement and an uncanny ability to mimic our elders and it’s not hard to imagine how full-fledged beliefs and superstitions can start to propagate through the generations.  In fact, Shermer outlines a natural progression from pattern-seeking to religion.

Humans may be well adept pattern-seekers but our information is useless in a social context unless we can communicate it.  Shermer thus notes that the first step towards religion from pattern-seeking is the act of storytelling.  Storytelling allows us to frame complex arguments or hide raw useful data in the context of easy to remember narratives.  We are often drawn to let our stories extend into symbolic communication which explain events in supernatural or extraordinary ways, that is, mythmaking.

Anthropologists studying modern hunter-gatherer societies, for example, have found that problems are often couched in the language of stories, myths, and other symbolic narratives, such as songs and poems.

The next component Shermer adds to the mix is morality which he asserts “most likely evolved in tiny bands of 100 to 200 people as a form of reciprocal altruism, or I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine.”  The problem is that keeping track, person by person, of who you can trust to reciprocate generosity or good deeds is nearly impossible in a society any larger than a couple hundred people.  As human society grew we needed a more general yet still reliable method for determining who deserved our trust.  As mythology and morality intersect, presto, we get religion.

Religion is a social institution that evolved as an integral mechanism of human culture to create and promote myths, to encourage altruism and reciprocal altruism, and to reveal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of the community.  That is to say, religion evolved as the social structure that enforced the rules of human interactions before there were such institutions as the state or such concepts as laws and rights.

Shermer argues that this entire transformation is knitted together by the strong idea, even if imagined, of God.

God is a pattern, an explanation for our universe, our world, and ourselves…  God is a myth, one of the most sublime and sacred myths ever constructed by the mythmaking animal.  God is the ultimate enforcer of the rules, the final arbiter of moral dilemmas, and the pinnacle object of commitment.  And God is the integrant of religion, the most elemental of all components that go into the making of the sacred…  People believe in God because we are pattern-seeking, storytelling, mythmaking, religious, moral animals.

Lest we try to separate ourselves from this humble heritage, Shermer includes examples of modern day beliefs that are actually ancient myths being replayed countless times over.  Most interesting is his evaluation of multiple messiah myths, including the Ghost Dance and Cargo Cults, and their striking similarity to the Jesus narrative.

I find myself really intrigued by what to make of this recycling of messiah myths (and Shermer’s similar treatment of apocalyptic myths).  Is it because we all supernaturally share a ‘God shaped hole’, a la Christian ethnocentrism, wherein all people unconsciously yearn for the Christian messiah specifically?  Or is it because there is a natural similarly evolved tendency to hope for miraculous rescue when in crisis or oppression which is common to the human animal?  In light of the compelling case Shermer makes for the natural origins of belief itself in How We Believe I have to admit that I tend toward the latter.

Science 2008 – Part 2 December 31, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, science.

Everybody have their water wings on?  It’s time to continue our swim through Valence’s Top 10 Science Stories of the Year!

5. Pica Pica Perception


This year researchers in Germany showed that the European Magpie (Pica pica) deserves to join the elite class of animals we consider to be self-aware.

A rudimentary “sense of self” is usually judged by testing if an animal can make the cognitive leap from seeing its reflection in a mirror as another animal to seeing its reflection as himself.  This mirror test is a simple but profound one.  Typically a small mark will be made on an animal in a spot that can only be seen in the mirror.  If the animal tries to remove the mark from itself purely by seeing its mirror image then this shows that it has constructed an abstract sense of self that can encompass an external image into its identity.  It’s much more tricky than it sounds and up till now only humans, great apes, bottle-nose dolphins and elephants have been shown to have this level of awareness.

That is, until we decided to test the Magpie.  This is the first non-mammal found showing signs of self-recognition.  Considering that the human evolutionary lineage diverged from birds roughly 300 million years ago this means that the ability to be self-aware has evolved separately in corvids and primates.  That is, drastically different brain structures are being evolved to serve very similar functions of self-awareness and social interaction.  Very cool stuff.

4. Smile, You’re an Exoplanet


In 2008 NASA verified that Hubble has taken its first ever picture of a planet outside of our solar system!  No that’s not the all seeing Sauron Eye of Mordor.  See that little non-descript blip in the square? That’s a picture of what has been dubbed planet Fomalhaut B after its parent star Fomalhaut.  It may not look like much but this picture is a huge leap forward in our ability to detect planets around other stars.

A short explanation of what exactly it is we’re looking at is probably in order:  since the star is millions of times brighter than the planet itself, Hubble had to mask the light of the star itself, which is why there is a big black spot in the middle of the picture.  Around the star is a ring of ‘protoplanetary debris‘ 21.5 billion miles across, and because of a gravitational anomaly in the ring, NASA scientists hypothesized back in 2004 that there may be a planet warping the ring’s shape.  And so they watched and waited.

Sure enough, exactly as hypothesized between 2004 and 2006 they observed an object moving with and orbiting Fomalhaut.  This year NASA has confirmed that this object is in fact a planet. Fomalhaut B is about the mass of Jupiter and is about 10 times the distance from its star as Saturn is from ours, orbiting Fomalhaut every 872-years.  This is such a incredible advance because up until now we only had evidence that exoplanets existed by watching the light from stars ‘wobble‘ as objects passed in front of them but we had never actually seen a planet itself.  While we already had a pretty good hunch that exoplanets were there this picture is incontrovertible evidence that our solar system is not alone.

3. Goodbye Bush, Welcome Obama!


What!? Number 3 is political?  How is this a science story?!? Well, before you get your chonies in a bunch, let’s not forget that science isn’t just obscure experiments where geeks like me get their jollies.  Science actually has real world implications for our safety, health, the environment, etc.  The way our society receives, interprets and reacts to scientific discoveries (i.e. public policy) has significant impacts for the future of both our nation and the world.  Unfortunately, the Bush administration couldn’t have been worse when it comes to scientific literacy and leadership.

Bush’s treatment of science was dismal beyond party lines.  Seth Shulman’s book Undermining Science outlines Bush’s war on science, “…the Bush administration has systematically misled Americans on a wide range of scientific issues affecting public health, foreign policy, and the environment by ignoring, suppressing, manipulating, or even distorting scientific research.”  He has prioritized political ideology over scientific facts in a dangerous trend that will set America back decades in the global market.  For a short list, he has been unwaveringly wrong on stem cell research, evolution, global warming and environmental protection.  Unfortunately, this looks like it may be a right-wing trend: the McCain/Palin ticket wasn’t much friendlier to science.

On the bright side, 2008 was the year of Obama and of much needed change which will hopefully restore scientific integrity to the federal government.  The early signs are good.  Obama’s team has already demonstrated an understanding of the issues far outshining Bush and has nominated actual scientists to contribute to his cabinet.  His answers to Science Debate 2008 were encouraging.  We’ll see what the next 4 years bring.

2. Large Hadron Collider


The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was completed this year.  Straddling the border between Switzerland and France 300 feet underground and 16 miles around it’s the largest, and possibly most complex, piece of machinery ever built, ever.  Without even knowing what it does this fact by itself is just cool.  Luckily, what it does only makes the LHC sexier.

The LHC is a particle collider, not the first of its kind, but definitely the biggest.  With carefully orchestrated magnetic fields it will accelerate two strings of protons up to 99.99% the speed of light in opposite directions and then…whaamo!  They smash them together.  The theory is actually pretty simple here: if you want to know what’s inside a particle that’s too small to dissect, you need to smash it apart.  If we want to know what the universe is made of at the smallest of scales (remember quantum mechanics?) the LHC will get us closest to the answer.

Some of the discoveries the LHC team is hoping for include the illusive Higgs Boson (a theoretical particle that could explain why mass itself exists), the source of Dark matter (undiscovered material literally knitting the universe itself together), the physics of the Big Bang and possibly even hidden dimensions!  Is anyone else getting goose bumps right now!?

There is one reason and one reason only that the LHC is not #1 on my list:  in early testing this year it broke.   Not to worry, things like this happen, especially with a machine that is juggling the most extreme temperatures, vacuums and speeds known to man.  Luckily the LHC will be back up and running in 2009 so we might get to revisit it with next year’s list!

For more pics of the LHC check this out.

1. Phoenix Mars Lander


Pulling into the number one position (by a nose) for Valence’s Top Science Story of 2008 is the Phoenix Mars Lander.  In a hugely successful mission, this May NASA landed a remarkable science lab on the Mars northern polar cap.  Now, just the act of getting anything safely to the surface of Mars automatically quadruples your cool points, but this lander was then able to dig, analyze, film and even listen once it got there.

What were we looking for on Mars?  Well, life of course!  Now we don’t have any expectations that we’ll be digging up any critters but we can sure look for the evidence of past life.  That is, water and organic compounds. From geological formations we suspect that the Martian surface was once a very wet place.  The Phoenix Lander was placed at the north pole of Mars because there was almost guaranteed to be sheets of ice just below the Martian soil.

On a mission that lasted months longer than the NASA scientists had expected the equipment to hold out, Phoenix did in fact find ice below the Martian soil in addition to finding clay and calcium carbonate (compounds that only form in liquid water when here on Earth).  Phoenix also observed for the first time humidity and snow in the Martian atmosphere.

As the Martian winter set in, Phoenix’s solar panels did eventually give out in September and now the lab sits frozen at the pole with little hope of ever being revived.  However, Phoenix did gather a ton of information that is just now being analyzed and as we start to really sift through the data in 2009 perhaps we’ll be able to start answering questions like: Why did Mars go dry? or Was there ever life on our neighbor? 

In any case, even though the Phoenix Lander literally only scratched the surface of the red planet, it was still a huge leap forward in understanding Mars!


All right Valencers, thus concludes Valence’s Top 10 Science Stories of the Year! Vote below for what you think was the best story (I’ve included Enceladus from the 10-6 list since it won last week’s poll).

Have a Happy New Year everyone!

Science 2008 – Part 1 December 23, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, science.

So I’m a sucker for year end lists.  Top ten movies of 2008? Can’t live without it.  Top 15 albums of the year?  Yes.  Top 25 pictures of the year?  Of course.  Top 5 new influential blogs dedicated to wrestling with faith, science and big questions started this year?  You tell me.

Considering my arguably obsessive compulsive penchant for categorizing the year’s events into a tidy and prioritized package, I can’t see any better way to bid adieu to 2008 than to give you Valence’s Top 10 Science Stories of the Year!

So sit back and let your imagination wander a bit.  It’s time for us all to brush up on not only the fundamentals of how the world works but also take time to glimpse the horizon where human knowledge is just beginning to push.  Reality is fascinating stuff.

10. Mammoth Genome Sequenced


To kick things off it’s everyone’s favorite visitor from the last ice age. The Woolly Mammoth made headlines this year, luckily not because Ray Romano was making another movie, but because researchers from Penn State were able to sequence the DNA of a mammoth, a species extinct now for 10,000 years.

A quick reminder:  DNA is the long (very long) molecule held in each cell of every living organism which literally contains the instructions for how to build the complete organism.  To sequence an animal’s DNA means that we’ve written out the pattern of ‘base pairs’ or letters that enable us to read the instructions piece by piece.  This is a monumental task considering the complete mammoth genome contains over 3 billion base-pairs!

The previous record for sequencing the DNA of an extinct species was less than 1% of the genome.  2008 was a year when we jumped miles beyond that record to be able to read almost the entire instruction book for putting a mammoth together.  The implications here range from the really cool (i.e. learning tons about mammoth and elephant evolution) to the really, really, really cool.  Staggering actually, when we consider that it may be soon possible to bring the mammoth back to life armed with a complete genome.

9. Mind Reading


Researchers in Kyoto, Japan have actually shown that by using an fMRI scan of patients’ brains they can predict what the patient is looking at.  In the above picture you can see the test patterns the patients were presented and the resulting pattern the computer was able to reconstruct. Pretty good.

The computer imaging works because the part of your brain that processes information from your eyes, the visual cortex, directly maps whatever falls on your retina to the brain.  By using an fMRI scan to evaluate the blood flow in the visual cortex, the researchers were able read this map and determine what the eyes were perceiving.

Admittedly, most news reports of this research were a bit overstated, claiming that we will soon be reading dreams or peoples thoughts, which isn’t quite warranted.  These images aren’t really reading peoples’ thoughts per se but instead evaluating how the visual cortex processes information.  The next step in my mind is to have people ‘imagine’ an image and see if we can similarly read the pattern. However, even with these limitations I’m still blown away by the serious strides we are making in unlocking the workings of arguably the most complex piece of machinery in the known universe, your brain!

8. Quantum Entanglement


Okay, so this one is probably going to be the toughest for me to write about.  Quantum mechanics is confounding.  Apparently this means we’re on the right track though: Niels Bohr is quoted as saying that, “For those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.”  If you’re not familiar with this branch of physics, quantum mechanics is the study of atomic and subatomic particles and forces.  At this scale the universe is frankly wacky and counterintuitive for us big lumbering humans.

This year Swiss physicists have demonstrated a well-established phenomenon in quantum mechanics called entanglement in a new and stunning way.  By sending a pair of photons via fiber optic cable from Geneva to two villages separated by 11 miles they were able to show that when one photon was observed the other changed instantaneously.  This essentially means that the photons are linked (or entangled) and able to influence each other without regard for the distance they are separated by.

These findings are radical because they challenge our very understanding of space and time itself.  For those who think science is dogmatic or rigid they need look no further than the research being done with quantum mechanics to see a revolution in human understanding in the making.  Breathtaking!

7. And the Nobel goes to GFP!


The Nobel Prize for Chemistry this year was awarded jointly to researchers who developed “green fluorescent protein” or GFP over the past 20 years.  What the heck is GFP? Well I’m glad you asked.

Many animals (a la fire flies and jellyfish) are able to emit light through biological processes, bioluminescence.  These researchers were able to isolate the specific protein which enabled cells to glow green in a specific jellyfish and insert it at will into other cells of other organisms.  Essentially, they modify the DNA of a cell so that whenever a particular function of that cell occurs it lights up like a Christmas tree.

Harnessing GFP goes well beyond enabling us to produce dramatic pictures (even though this aspect is pretty cool).  By the way, the picture above is of a embryonic zebra-fish with its neurons lit up.  They call it a ‘brainbow’!  GFP has also become an essential tool in studying biological process by its ability to tag and track individual cells as they mature, function and die.

6. Enceladus Intrigue


In 1997 we launched a probe named Cassini to the system surrounding Saturn.  It took seven years to cross interplanetary space and in 2004 it arrived to start studying Saturn and its moons.  One of the most surprising finds has been from a previously nondescript small icy moon named Enceladus.  In 2008 Cassini returned fantastic evidence that may just point us to the first discovery of extraterrestrial life.

What we’ve found on Enceladus is evidence of tectonic activity attested to by the relative lack of craters and the existence of deep fissures and cracks on the surface.  On what should be a frozen solid piece of rock we’ve instead discovered enough heat to drive geological activity.  Jets of powdery snow and water vapor are spewed miles into space from massive surface geysers.  Some of them spewed so far as to be forming some of Saturn’s rings.  What’s more, these ejections are chock-full of organic compounds.  The current theory is that Enceladus has a surface of ice sheets similar to tectonic plates which float on a deep mantle of liquid water.

What do we get when we combine energy + organic compounds + liquid water?  A very freaking fertile environment for life!  The possibility that beneath massive sheets of ice there might be lurking microbial life in a liquid sea which has arisen 750 million miles from Earth is awesome.  I’m almost at a loss for words…but don’t worry just almost.  By the way for some additional pics that kick ass check out this link.


Well that wraps it up for the first 5 stories.  Keep an eye out next week for the remaining stories that round out Valence’s Top 10 Science Stories of the Year!

Before I let you go, vote below for the story that you found most interesting:

On Motivation December 16, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, Faith, Skepticism.

Our discussion recently in I Must Be Dreaming of whether God speaks through dreams or not has brought up an interesting point that I want to explore further. Some commented that:

…those who don’t believe God will speak through dreams will probably never be spoken to or at least won’t hear Him. Some may, but that’s not the norm. It often requires the belief or hope first, then the result second. Why? Because God operates through faith. For those who need the proof first, I’m truly sorry I have nothing to offer here except that God is faithful to those who TRULY trust in Him.

(By the way, I’m not looking to pick on this specific commenter. Instead it seemed to me that this was a pretty consistent sentiment expressed across the board and I thought this was the most concise quote.)

 This is a great comment which I think we can agree has broad implications far beyond the issue of divine dreams.  There’s a strategy implied by faith which assumes that truth is most accessible to those willing to hope and trust.  “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”( Hebrews 11:1)

Further, I would agree that ‘believing before seeing’ certainly makes one more inclined to the supernatural but could this inclination lead us to believe things in error?  Does the strategy of ‘believing before seeing’ make for a good approach when pursuing truth?

To explore this question a bit deeper I want to reference a study by social psychologist Ziva Kunda with Princeton titled “The Case for Motivated Reasoning” in which she argues that:

There is considerable evidence that people are more likely to arrive at conclusions that they want [hope] to arrive at, but their ability to do so is constrained by their ability to construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these conclusions.

In short, Kunda argues that we all bias the ways we interpret evidence in order to arrive at the conclusions we most desire to be true.  However, we try to avoid the logical dissonance that arises if our desires are too far removed from reality so we will often feign objectivity by inventing, manipulating or wrongly remembering evidence in order to support our claim.  Ah, the pitfalls of human reason!

Kunda breaks the term ‘want’ into two classes of motivation.  When trying to determine truth one can either be motivated to arrive at an accurate conclusion or motivated to arrive at a particular, directional conclusion.   The difference between the two being that,

…accuracy goals lead to the use of those beliefs and strategies [ie. evidence] that are considered most appropriate, whereas directional goals lead to the use of those that are considered most likely to yield the desired conclusion.

That is, when motivated by accuracy goals we are more likely to prioritize arriving at conclusions which are factual regardless of our emotional investment in the answer.  Conversely, directional goals are those for which there is an emotional payoff in arriving at a specific conclusion and are the more error prone of the two motivations because we have a greater personal stake in skewing evidence to support our hopes.

I would argue that the faith issues at hand like dreams, healings and miracles are questions which fall into the directional goal class of motivation.

Directional motivations can skew our decisions and lead us to believe false claims in a number of subtle but important ways.  Thomas Gilovich in “How We Know What Isn’t So” summarizes some of these influences which commonly lead to errors.  Motivations will influence our beliefs by…

…skewing the kind of evidence we seek towards that which supports our claim.  We are likely to ask ourselves, “What evidence is there to support my belief?” which provides an initial bias away from any evidence which may contradict our belief.

…skewing the outside opinions we choose to consult.  We generally surround ourselves with people who believe very similar things to ourselves.  On the example of divine dreams, does it surprise anyone that by sharing these dreams at church or bible study that there is generally no challenge to their supernatural origin?

…skewing not only the kind of evidence we consider but also the amount.  Gilovich explains that, “When the initial evidence supports our preferences, we are generally satisfied and terminate our search; when the initial evidence is hostile, however, we often dig deeper, hoping to find more comforting information…By taking advantage of “optional stopping” in this way we dramatically increase our chances of finding satisfactory support for what we wish to be true.”

It seems that having a motivation to arrive at a directional conclusion like ‘God spoke to me through my dream’ or, dare I say, ‘Jesus was born of a virgin (Merry Christmas!)’ can seriously handicap our pursuit of truth by heavily skewing the evidence we consider.  In other words, the mere act of wanting our faith to be true almost removes any chance of actually being able to judge if it is true.

It is an unfortunate reality that the things we are most invested or motivated to believe are the very things we are the most prone to be wrong about and consequently the areas we must be most vigilant in guarding ourselves from bias.

Now I understand that we can never really remove motivation from our decision making.  None of us, especially not me, have any hope of being truly objective.  But perhaps we can mitigate the pitfalls of directional goal motivation if we are mindful of our hopes and effort to be motivated by accuracy instead.

That is, when we think God has spoken to us in a dream (or when considering whether someone’s testimony of a miraculous healing is true, etc.)  it is vital that we at least consider: “Could my belief be based on skewed evidence which is an artifact of my personal motivational bias instead of an actual interaction with the divine?  Is it possible that my hope is drastically inflating an otherwise benign natural phenomenon?”

The quote at the beginning of this post implied that asking these kinds of questions may disqualify those with the gumption to prode because they run counter to faith and trust.  But what does it say about a phenomenon, supernatural or otherwise, if it disappears when one looks critically at it?  Is the ‘truth’ of God’s interaction in these experiences so fragile that even cursory questions can keep us from recognizing it?

No, I hold that if truth is anything it is robust.  It doesn’t depend on our hopes or trust to reveal itself.  I’ve written before that “if our faith is true, in the cosmic sense of true, the everlasting and omnipotent brand of true, then it certainly should not be threatened by our prodding.”  Further, if propositions of faith (like divine dreams) disappear with critical investigation isn’t it more probable that evidence which initially supported them is an artifact of confused perception which, when corrected for by considering our motivations, should not be used to reasonably support belief?

Part of being personally vulnerable for me is being willing to admit when there is insufficient evidence to ground my beliefs and letting those things go which may have only stood on my hopes instead of reality.

Apply Yourself December 9, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Faith, Personal.

This week I thought I’d share a little more information about myself via an application my church has their volunteers who help with the worship ministry fill out.  A little back story: I’ve been helping run the sound system at my church for a while now and was recently asked to answer the following questions.

(By the way, this post is in no way a criticism of the application itself or of Coast in general.  While my answers may not be exactly conventional the application is certainly appropriate.  Even further than that, Coast’s response to me has been one of acceptance and grace even in doubt.  Therefore, I do want to preface sharing these thoughts by saying that I appreciate Coast’s uncanny welcoming of dissent and the space for me work out faith.)

Personal Relationship with Jesus (Describe how and when you came to know Jesus):

Bang! Right out of the gate huh?  The old go to answer that I’ve typically relied on is: “I was raised in a Christian home with devoted parents where, for as long as I can remember, I was always encouraged to involve Jesus in my life.  Therefore, I can’t pin-point a moment of conversion…He has just always been close.” But if we want to speak frankly this isn’t quite honest.

The truth is that for a long time I’ve been worshiping a vague incomplete construction of Jesus.  My image (and I would argue ‘our image’) was shielded by my refusal to engage glaring inconsistencies in the church’s portrait of Jesus.  Can I claim to ‘know’ Jesus without seriously vetting the problems with the Gospels (like conflicts between Matthew and Luke in the genealogy of Christ or why Mark doesn’t see fit to even mention the virgin birth)?  If I’m willing to admit that the Gospels aren’t inerrant (which by internal conflicts alone we can assume they are not) what does it mean to ‘know’ at least some false things about Jesus?

Now I suspect I’m twisting the way you meant ‘know’ and that you are really asking about when I ‘knew’ that Jesus is the resurrected son of God and that these historical snafus didn’t really matter in the long run.  I’m not there yet.

Understanding of Worship and Coast Vineyard worship philosophy (Describe your understanding of what worship is and what it is for):

Worship is about attention and pursuit.  We all worship many things with our committed action.  Things that vary from sex to friendship to food or yes even the divine.  At best our attention is fixed on that which is most mysterious in humble awe.  At worst our attention can be compulsive in expectation of vain reward.

However, I think you’re asking more about Coast’s worship cocktail (post modern evangelical served neat with a twist of multi-ethnicity?) .  All kidding aside, the tradition of holding service and gathering people in song is a great way of focusing community attention.  However, we need to be very careful with the responsibility endowed by a congregation when directing their worship lest we lead people to drink at mirages by dimming the lights and playing flawlessly.

Desire to be a Worshipper (Describe your experience with worship and the place of worship in your life):

I’ve played a lot of songs and bled on my guitar plenty.  Mostly I was trying to be authentic but at some point I realized I was trying too hard to force faith to feel a certain way.  Sweeping.  Worship at Coast is mostly a place of inner conflict for me these days.

For example: where once I found it really easy to let “God of wonders beyond our galaxy, You are Holy” roll off my tongue I now find myself wondering “Do we have any idea how vast and  beautiful the universe really is?”. Somehow it doesn’t feel right to make a blunt declaration about the galaxy and our place in it without seriously discussing black holes, relativity or the big bang and even further, how our view of divinity is or is not in contention with the real expanse of the universe.

Personal pursuing of God and integrity in personal life (Do you feel that you are spiritually ready to take on the responsibility that being in front of the congregation brings.  Explain.):

Well this fits nicely with the responsibility I was alluding to earlier, doesn’t it?  I believe I am more spiritually genuine and honest today than I have ever been before.  However, I don’t expect to be judged as such by my community.  I understand that my answers above look more like crisis when viewed on Sunday mornings.  So this question is really for you.  Am I spiritually ready to turn knobs from roughly half way back in the congregation?  Are you comfortable with serious doubt controlling your mix every other week?

Calling by God for Ministry (Explain why you believe that God has called you to minister to Coast specifically in the area of worship ministry):

I can’t say I’ve been called.  I have no supernatural revelation on which to base my service at Coast.  I do know that I value community and that helping out is an important part of investing in relationships to me.

Personal Journey in Multi-Ethnicity (What is your experience and/or journey in the area of multi-ethnicity either in your life personally and/or at Coast?):

I value multi-ethnicity because I believe it is one of our only tools in combating covert racism and xenophobia rampant in the church and American culture at large.  We all have a natural tendency to trust those who look and act most like us which has evolved through thousands of years of tribal group dynamics.

However, in a global world we can no longer trust these instincts to accurately inform us about who is most worthy of our friendship or compassion.  Only by systematic exposure to those who are different than us will we ever overcome inherent bias.  Forcing our community to sing uncomfortable songs or touch foreign skin tones helps us to be better global citizens by redefining the scope of our tribe.  What a beautiful goal.

I Must Be Dreaming December 3, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Faith, Skepticism.
Tags: ,

Before we jump into this week’s post a little back story on where I’m coming from will help.  I attend church in San Diego at a community called Coast Vineyard, pastored by Jamie and Michelle Wilson.  One of the things I appreciate most about Coast is that, from the top down, they welcome difficult questions and value discussion of the topics raised on Sundays.  In that vein I’d like to take Coast up on their invitation to engage in tough questions by providing some comments on this week’s sermon.

I know that some of the readers here at Valence also attend Coast but most do not so it’s probably prudent for me to start with a short summary of the topic at hand.  I don’t want to ‘assign homework’ here but if you’re interested you can listen to the entire sermon otherwise you’ll have to make due with the following:

Dream Interpretation and the ways that God supposedly speaks through dreams was the topic of Jamie’s sermon which was set in the context of the story of Joseph (specifically Genesis 40 and 41).  For those of you not familiar with the story of Joseph here’s the low down.  Joseph has been sold into slavery to Egypt by his brothers who are jealous of his coat of many colors (a gift from his father).  Sound familiar now?  In Egypt, after being wrongly accused of slipping the naughty to his master’s wife, Joseph finds himself in prison where he discovers a penchant for interpreting dreams.  News of this talent gets back to Pharaoh who just so happens to be having some trouble making sense of some dreams of his own.  He keeps dreaming of seven skinny cows eating seven fat cows and seven shriveled heads of grain swallowing up seven good heads. Freud would have a field day here. You know what?  We better let Donny Osmond bring it home…

Needless to say Pharaoh does find his man.  Joseph takes charge of Egypt’s agriculture and the famine is averted.  Yeah!

All kidding aside I do actually want to explore what this story has to tell us about the usefulness of dreams in our modern context.  Why am I so concerned about what seems like such a benign religious claim here?

Good question.  I’m not trying to nit-pick but I do take issue with the advice implied by Joseph’s story and Jamie’s sermon that we should be making life decisions for ourselves and others based on what is perhaps the most unreliable of all human experiences, dreams.  In fact, I would argue ‘divine dreams’ cease being benign quickly lest we start using them to sleuth out whether the old woman in our village is a witch or if we should quit our job.  Things can become very serious very fast.

I also suspect that it is precisely in such mysterious corners as dreams that we are the most likely to start invoking the divine in error.  Because the results and interpretations of dreams can be so ambiguous it is easy to assume supernatural intervention where there is none.

First, is the story of Joseph (or, as Jamie pointed out, the similar story of Daniel) credible evidence that God speaks through dreams?

I don’t think so.  It’s useful to keep in mind that the stories of Genesis, if not mythical in their totality, are the result of hundreds of years of oral tradition.  Once recorded these stories were subject to copying errors, reinterpretation and outright modification.  Further these were tales written by a people who spent extended time in exile or persecuted and so would have reasonable motivation to invent hopeful stories about how one of their own climbed to the highest ranks of politics.

It is certainly not surprising that the story of Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar so closely resembles Joseph’s assent to power considering the Jewish exile to Babylon.  Instead of providing evidence for God’s continued presence in our dreams, the similarities between Joseph and Daniel seem to show that the Jewish people found dream interpretation a convenient literary device for explaining an unlikely rise to power.

Even if these stories were accurately reported, I have to seriously question whether we should be trusting the cognitive explanations and weight ascribed to dreams from a prescientific people who had little to no conception of the brain’s activity.  The idea that dreams had cosmic significance was an understandable mistake made by a people who relied on outright magical interpretations of the world but a mistake nonetheless.  We need to think very seriously about dreams and their naturalistic origins before following them down this rabbit hole.

Is dream interpretation a reliable way to discern truth?

Maybe. I wouldn’t argue that dreams don’t have meaning at all.  Sure, dreams are commonly motivated by actual events in our lives and so they may very well indeed reflect the truth of our subconscious processing.  But this is certainly a material function of the brain and a far stretch from claiming that dreams have prophetic significance or their interpretation is a conduit for revealed knowledge.

The problem with retrospectively claiming revealed truth or direction from our dreams is that studies have shown dreams to be fluid and extremely malleable in our memories.  It is very common to connect concepts and events that may have been dreamt weeks apart into one cohesive tale; especially, if someone externally is providing an ‘interpretation’ that motivates you to agree or evokes an emotional response.

The very sad reality of human experience is that our personal memories are so acquiescent that they can rarely be trusted as credible evidence.  This commentary is doubly true of dreams.

Thomas Gilovich in his book How We Know What Isn’t So (The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life) puts it this way:

Dreams are particularly suspect…because their multi-faceted, kaleidoscopic nature makes them something of a ‘one size fits all’ premonition that is easy to fulfill.  Psychologist James Alcock cites intriguing evidence of the retrospective nature of many prophetic dreams: Those who claim to have such experiences report that their prophetic quality disappears after he has them record their dreams!

Therefore the evidence we have for supernatural dream interpretation claims seem inherently unreliable.  At best we have the reports from subjective personal experience which is anecdotal and subject to the pitfalls of memory and at worst we have mythical accounts which may have never happened at all.

Further, evidence for dream interpretation is probably not gathered evenly.  That is, we don’t hear about all the prophetic dreams that go unfulfilled, instead we only hear about the rare cases which appear confirmed.  The fact that we are only conscious of ‘positive hits’ can strongly and dangerously bias our perspective.

In conclusion, I know it is fruitless to try and ‘prove’ that God cannot speak through dreams and this certainly isn’t what I’m trying to accomplish here.  Divine dream interpretation is an unfalsifiable claim that cannot be disproved (similar to the Flying Red Elves) but I think it’s appropriate to lean on Carl Sagan a bit and assert that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” before investing in belief.

The claim that there is supernatural knowledge being imparted to people in their sleep by God is certainly extraordinary.  Do we similarly find the extraordinary accompanying evidence to validate belief here?  I don’t think so.  What do you think?

Choosing is a Bitch November 25, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Article Review.

I’m a podcast geek.  One of my favorites is called Radiolab out of public radio in New York, WNYC.  Radiolab is unique because they do a fantastic job of exploring science topics from multiple angles while making the show accessible, funny and interesting.  I really can’t recommend them enough.  Do yourself a favor and start listening to Radiolab if you don’t already.

Radiolab just released an episode titled “Choice” and as I listened to it this week I was struck by how perfectly it complements Antony’s post last week that reviewed Burton’s article on certainty.  The normal Radiolab episode is one hour (definitely worth listening to in its entirety) but to keep things manageable I’ve sliced a couple of segments off for discussion here at Valence.

So if you’re anything like me then this story plays serious havoc on your personal sense of identity.  We are a species who prides ourselves on our problem solving abilities.  Higher cognitive functions like language and logic are what we point to when faced with the question of what separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.  We are special because we reason.  It is then, admittedly, a tough pill to swallow to hear, “reason is pretty feeble part of the brain…it’s just one microchip in a big computer.”

The implication here is astounding.  We have far less control over the choices we make than we like to believe.  I would go so far as to say that we even need to rethink the f-word.  Kids, earmuffs please.  Freewill.  There, I said it.   How can we reconcile that our conscious reasoning selves can be utterly disabled by juggling a mere 7 numbers and still maintain that we have complete freewill over our decisions?  Life is far more complex than 7 numbers after all.

Think of the choices and distractions you are presented with at the grocery store alone: 17 whole grain varieties of cereal, now add on a budget to keep in mind, plus nutritional information, crying kids and underwear that is riding up.  Is your logic center overwhelmed yet?  Now tell me you are really choosing Cheerios and not just responding emotionally to brightly colored packaging or the warm feelings associated with eating them as a child.

I can’t help but extend this question to larger and larger and choices we make in life (beyond cereal).  Did I really choose my career?  How about my spouse?  How about my God?

One might ask, “Isn’t reacting with the emotional center in our brain still making a personal choice but just using non-logical criteria?  Is freewill really at stake?”  Well, I’m certainly not ready to completely throw out freewill here but I do think we seriously need to reconsider its limits.  Our brains construct a very elaborate experience out of chemistry and electricity and I suspect we have far less control over this experience than our common view of freewill admits.

Now some who have been skeptical of my advocacy for scientific logic (hey, doesn’t that make you skeptical too? I digress…) may use the ‘7 Numbers’ example to conclude that in fact my approach to looking for truth with a logical consideration of evidence is seriously handicapped.

At first blush I’ll admit there does seem to be a snag here but there is an important distinction between making immediate choices and searching for actual truth.  The emotional center of our brain is rightly coupled with instinct which is the result of millions of years of evolution.  We have emotional brain chemistry that is geared toward ensuring the survival of a prehistoric primate and not necessarily equipped to deal with the rigors of modern society or the need to carefully weigh evidence when searching for truth (and apparently our evolved logic centers only do so feebly!).

Choosing cake is an evolutionary ingrained response.  Sweet foods taste sweet because out in nature the sweetest foods are those that provided the best source of calories and it was to our survival advantage to stock up on high fat and calorie foods whenever we could find them.

Modern culture is a bit different though isn’t it?  We no longer need to go looking for high calorie foods and we certainly don’t have hunter/gatherer lifestyles that require us to stock up on fat at every opportunity in order to survive the winter.  Instead, we need to keep in mind the long-term implications of our choices as they relate to modern society.

Unfortunately, the emotional centers in our brains are still operating on prehistoric criteria for ensuring survival which cannot distinguish the actual truth of the situation from our instincts in the situation.  To discover the truth that eating too many saturated fats in cake may lead to obesity or that eating fruit today is part of a long-term nutritional plan for a healthier (even though more sedentary) life we need science and the logic centers in our brains, flawed as they may be.

Here’s another great example from Radiolab:

As we sense danger our emotional centers fire with an adrenaline jolt and a flight instinct without waiting around to consider the evidence of the situation.  Admittedly, our personal survival greatly benefits by acting as if as if the window will break even though the truth of the situation may be quite different.  Substitute a rustling the in tall grass that could be a stalking tiger and the consequences become even more dire. Reacting in fear becomes an immediate choice (absent of freewill mind you) which occurs without regard for actual truth. And rightly so in light of the consequence for choosing wrongly, namely being eaten or being crushed by a window.

But we should be careful not confuse the appropriateness of this emotional response in the situation for evidence as to the actual truth of the situation.  The rustling could have just as easily have been a rabbit and the sound of wind through a window is most surely benign.

Therefore, if we are really interested in truth I still maintain we need to rely on logic and evidence.  In fact, I would argue the entirety of the scientific method can really be boiled down to mankind’s effort to collectively compensate for the pitfalls associated with our rational centers competing with an overwhelming tide from our emotional centers.  Our instincts tell us that the sun is going around the earth; it is terribly counterintuitive to think otherwise.  To find out the truth of this situation mankind needed to search for objective evidence that was testable, predictive and repeatable.

For me this Radiolab episode and a book I’m reading right now (How We Believe by Michael Shermer) converge in a more tenuous discussion of faith.

Could it similarly be instinctive for humans to hold religious beliefs?  Might these beliefs be an understandable response in our situation (specifically a finite life with extremely limited knowledge of the universe) while not actually revealing the truth of our situation?  I’m interested to hear what you guys think.

Can We Do Without Certainty? November 18, 2008

Posted by Antony in Article Review, Essays, Skepticism.
Tags: ,

”The Certainty Epidemic” by Robert Burton is an article referenced in the comments section of “V for Vulnerable” that I’d like to discuss further.  I think the article touches on one of the central issues here at Valence: that is, how should we handle conviction – both our own and others’?

Here’s a brief summary of the article if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet: I take the central argument of this article to be that certainty is a feeling (that is, related to emotions) which originates in a different part of the brain from the rational cognitive processes. Burton accordingly calls certainty “the feeling of knowing” as opposed to “having knowledge” (which is the way we tend to think of it).

In the article, Burton presents what he sees as the everyday implications of this neurological discovery. Because rational thinking and feelings of certainty have different neural origins, Burton believes that we can analytically separate them and deal with them independently. Thus, a feeling of certainty is not evidence for or against the quality of knowledge, and vice versa, the quality of knowledge does not determine the intensity of feelings of certainty.

For Burton, putting certainty aside allows us to recognize two things: (1) All of our “I know” statements are actually “I believe” ones. Of course, he qualifies this, reminding the reader that not all “I believe” statements are equal; some are more probable than others. And (2) human beings need to become aware of our biology. As he states, “Our minds have their own agendas.” By which he means that some of our biological traits, such as the feeling of certainty, are ill-adapted for some of the demands of modern society.

– –

Okay, so I love-hate this article and I could nitpick just about every paragraph. But here I want to focus on the big picture problem I have with Burton’s line of argument: I think his separation of rational thinking from feelings is a problematic way of understanding humanity.

The advantages of being able to separate claims to knowledge from the feelings of knowing are obvious. Putting aside strong feelings of certainty makes us more vulnerable. When we deny ourselves the advantages of certainty when defending our beliefs, it makes us focus on the beliefs themselves (not our personal stake in them), which helps keep our minds open. And I totally agree; this is a good thing for us to be able to do.

My problem with Burton’s approach is that once he analytically separates the feeling of certainty from rational thought, he fails to bring them back together. Burton falls into a soft dualism: there are feelings and there is rational thought.

Certainty remains merely a feeling that may have had evolutionary advantages, but it’s now an obstacle to thinking clearly. On one hand, Burton is right – sometimes certainty should be put aside because it does prevent us from really investigating why we believe something. We take the feeling of certainty to mean that the case is closed, all the evidence is in, and the discussion is over. This can be seriously problematic, not only in social and political circumstances, but for our own internal checks and balances too. Certainty sometimes protects ill-founded beliefs from the self-scrutiny that would overturn them in favor of better-supported beliefs.

On the other hand, Burton is wrong to keep the feeling of certainty at arm’s length because it’s such an integral and unavoidable aspect of the way that human beings experience the world. This failure leads him to conclude that science is a ‘cold vision’ always at a disadvantage when faced with worldviews that offer ‘purpose.’ But the ‘cold vision’ is not science’s vision, it is Burton’s – a consequence of a method that keeps feeling and thought separate.

For Burton, this means that we today are faced with a choice between a cold, thinking answer (science) and a feeling-based answer that provides purpose (such as, religious belief). But this is a false choice because we as human beings are thinking and feeling animals, and so, our understanding of the world ought to be one that is both thinking and feeling.

This leaves me with two questions – one very specific and one very general:

(1) What role should the ‘feeling of knowing’ (certainty) play in evaluating my own beliefs? How about the beliefs of another person?

(2) To what extent is it fair to line up science with rational thinking and ‘purpose’ with feeling? Can the two be brought together?

Drum Roll Please November 17, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Uncategorized.

Everybody knows that newborn giraffes are up and walking around after like 2 hours after being born, right? Insane.

Well Valence has had 6 weeks to find it’s legs and like a doting mother (yes I am that comfortable with my feminine side) it’s time for me to let Valence walk on its own for a little while.

This is all to say that this week I will be surrendering the posting helm.  In Invitation I hinted that there would be an effort towards making Valence a multi-contributor brand of blog.  Granted, I envision that for the most part I will still be the main contributor for the foreseeable future but I also stick by my assertion that … “the value of our conversation is directly proportional to the diversity of opinions represented.”

In that light please welcome Antony as this week’s Valence poster!

Antony will be posting on a Salon article titled “The Certainty Epidemic” written by Robert Burton.  If you have time please check it out before he posts.

As you may guess I have some strong opinions on the article but I don’t want to preempt Antony’s post so you’ll have to wait for the comments section to hear them!

As an aside, since it will require a bit more reading to engage in the conversation, referencing an entire article is a bit of an experiment here at Valence but something I can see us doing now and again in the future. Let me know what you think of the format.

V for Vulnerable November 12, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Essays, Faith, Skepticism.

After what I consider to be a fairly emotional week last week I was planning on steering Valence towards a more light hearted topic.  Has anyone seen the Tijuana Mule video?  Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the discussion in the comments section has struck on an essential topic which I was planning on addressing eventually.  I suppose now is as good a time as ever to clarify what exactly I mean when I call Valence a place for vulnerability.

There are a couple of specific contexts that I want to highlight concerning vulnerability:

  • Being Vulnerable vs Being Safe
  • On Asking Questions Vulnerably

Being Vulnerable vs Being Safe

One of my most urgent hopes for Valence is that it would be a place where people are able to express their genuine ideas about any particular topic at hand without the threat of personal attacks or arguments ad hominem.  After all Valence is, in limited capacity, my effort to redefine my own belief system in the light of critique from a new community.  If anyone is leaving themselves open to attack it’s me so I would certainly prefer our discussions to be civil.

That being said we should not equate being vulnerable with being safe.  No argument is safe once we throw it out there and similarly here at Valence.  Arguments need strong evidence to cling to in this blustery world of ideas lest they be swept away.  Arguments are subject to rebuttal (possibly even strongly so) if we are vulnerable enough to listen.  We should not be surprised if arguments are labeled with strong words like silly, arrogant, biased or blind (all have been given to yours truly by the way).  It’s vital to keep in mind that recognizing a poor argument as such does not immediately defame the character of the person making the argument and is no cause for personal offence.  However, it is cause to better explain or defend your argument!

Where this issue of safety becomes sticky is when our arguments blend with personal experience and testimony.  Some amazing stories have been shared so far in the comments and I’m grateful for each of them.  I would never begin to question that peoples’ experiences with the divine have been transformative, sustaining and defining moments in their lives and I hope that more of us will be willing to share our own stories in the future.  These are unique windows into each others’ lives that are important in understanding how we all approach the world.  In that sense testimony is invaluable.

Conversely, once we begin to make authoritative arguments about the nature of truth based on our personal experiences we need to recognize that we have left the realm of just sharing personal history and opened ourselves up to rebuttal.  In this sense our testimonies are no longer safe and their value has different weight.  Once we make this subtle shift from sharing to arguing our testimonies inexorably become simple anecdotal evidence.

On Asking Questions Vulnerably

Early in the life of Valence one the first commenters enjoined me to ask:

“What am I looking for?” Make sure you are looking for what you want to find. If you are looking for God, you will find him. If you are looking for something else, you may find something else less valuable.

This is a really interesting premise and a perspective that I appreciate even though I ultimately disagree.  In fact, I’m not sure even the Bible supports this assertion.  Was Abraham ‘looking’ for God?  How about Jonah?  Moses was a murderer hiding out, Peter was fishing and Paul was on his way to quell a rebellious new cult when God supposedly met them.  Comparatively, I think I’m in a rather advantaged position for hearing from the divine if the divine so chooses to meet me.  That being said, I refuse to begin with the premise that the God of the Bible is the de facto answer when asking questions.  In fact I feel like this would be kind of dishonest.  Let me explain:

I posit a simple statement that seems obvious but is sometimes missed: Asking a question vulnerably implies that the answer is not predetermined nor is it limited to outcomes that would specifically affirm my already held beliefs.

I know, I know, I’m seriously flirting with losing all intellectual credibility by espousing such base platitudes but hear me out.  This aspect of vulnerability touches on a fundamental problem I have with faith as a form of knowledge.  Faith predetermines answers to questions without reliance on evidence and is rarely open to revising belief when new evidence is available.  To me it seems rather dishonest to feign vulnerability in asking a question if faith already has limited the answer set.

For example Christian friends have often supported my doubting “as long as it strengthens faith.”  Then why ask the question?  This advice seems disingenuous in that it limits the available answers and severely hinders our pursuit of truth.  If we are discussing the question “Is God loving?” but we limit the only valid answers to those that affirm a loving God are we really even asking a question?

Quick side note, to my dismay ‘skeptic’ has already begun to be used by some with a negative connotation in the comments section.  I guess this means I haven’t argued my point very well that skepticism is virtuous in its vulnerability.  Aside from my premise that we are all skeptical of outside prospective beliefs and it’s only our own that get special pleading I’d like to reinforce that I also believe skeptical to be synonymous with intellectual honesty on this point.

Vulnerability to me is putting aside the way I want the universe to work and committing to follow the evidence towards how the universe actually works all while trying to limit my emotional investment in the answer.  Is this dangerous for belief?  Sure, but honestly I’m more interested in truth than the certainty of belief.

If you challenge your belief tenets and end up as a nonbeliever, then apparently your faith was not all that sound to begin with and you have improved your thinking in the process.  If you question your religion but in the end retain your belief, you have lost nothing and gained a deeper understanding… -Michael Shermer “How We Believe”

Of Rights and Morality November 3, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Politics.
Tags: , ,

Election week!  For those of you getting into the groove of how Valence is working you’ve seen that we’ve been posting usually on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.  The trouble this week is that whatever I write is guaranteed to be old news come Tuesday night as it is certain to be swamped by election news.

So, instead of fighting it, I’ll embrace the election again this week.  However, I’m going to keep this post a bit short and just expand briefly on one of the ideas that seemed to draw a distinct divide in the comments section on the previous post concerning Prop 8.  Namely, the question of: How should our morality inform the way we vote?  Or, should we legislate our conscience?

Prop 8 seems to be a unique case for discussing morality and politics because it draws in such sharp contrast a religious opinion vs the state constitution on marriage.  I doubt we as voters often have the opportunity to so directly affect the rights of our fellow citizens.

I think much of the divide that has occurred in discussing Prop 8 stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of these civil rights and as such I’d like to widen the discussion to include rights in general (especially since Prop 8 will have been decided by the time most of us get around to commenting).

First a couple of quotes:

“It seems to me that the governing principle, especially in a plural community, cannot be moral rightness because the substance of what’s “morally right” is not shared by everyone in the community; and politics is about sharing the world with others – living together. In that case, what is “politically right” must use a different measure than one particular sense of morality.” -Antony (Comment #16, Calling out The Call)

“The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.” –Thomas Jefferson: Note in Destutt de Tracy, “Political Economy,” 1816. ME 14:465

(By the way, I don’t mean to flatter Antony by quoting him in the same breath as Jefferson.  I just think the ideas work well together.)

Here is how I understand rights and I’m certainly open to correction or expansion if I’m being too simplistic.  Rights at their simplest are protections against the infringement of each of our pursuits of life, liberty and happiness.  As long as our actions are not causing suffering or themselves limiting others’ “pursuit” than our actions are ideally protected.

Our constitution, however imperfectly formed or poorly executed in the past, has been built around the value that above all personal moral concerns there are rights that are inalienable and should be equitably distributed.  Our country is beautiful because we as a secular pluralistic society have chosen to value each others’ rights over our own conscience.

This act is radical in its implications because it essentially limits how far our personal sense of morality can affect change.  By drafting constitutions we’ve fenced in our individual power to let any one perspective of morality determine the laws we all must abide by.

Now, because of this value for rights our society has chosen to protect some actions that are distasteful and disgusting.  An example brought up in the comments is the free speech protection afforded to white supremacist groups.  I personally find these groups repugnant but I can’t argue that we should lower our collective value for free speech in order to silence them.

An interesting turn that has occurred in discussing Prop 8 is that some of those who feel that homosexuality is immoral assert that they would be betraying their personal sense of right and wrong (or even betraying God) by protecting gay rights.  I personally think this is a bit unfair because it adds far more weight to the issue on a personal level than necessary.  Let me explain.

My advocacy for the free speech rights of the KKK does not in any way mean that I condone their behavior.  All it means is that I value equal rights being extended to all of our citizens above and beyond what my conscience tells me about how wrong they are.  At the foundation of this argument is an admittedly selfish premise:

I value my rights.  If we weaken our commitment to the personal liberty of a few of our citizens we weaken the foundation of rights for all.

Extending the example, if I opposed free speech rights for the KKK then I really wouldn’t have much ground to stand on if someone else asserted that Valence needs to be censored because it incites doubt and offends their personal moral bearings.  It’s not too hard to insert whatever right is most important to each of us here.

By protecting the rights of the least or most eccentric or even the morally worst among us we protect all of our rights.

One last word on Prop 8.  Prop 8 is revoking a current right to marriage afforded to the gay community in order to define marriage by Judeo-Christian principles.  A no vote on Prop 8 does not indicate you condone homosexual behavior but instead a no vote on Prop 8 simply indicates that you value your personal rights enough to want to protect all of our rights.

That’s it for this week!  I hope everyone has a great election day.

Calling out The Call – [Prop 8] October 28, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Politics.
Tags: , , ,

First, I want to ask a favor.  Please take a minute and read the page A Note on Comments.  Even if you’ve never commented here at Valence before and don’t plan on ever commenting I’d still appreciate if everyone checked it out.  Go ahead…click it and meet me back here in 94.7 seconds..

Back?  Great.  As I write this post we are about eight days out from what I consider to be a monumental election day.  As such, I can’t resist taking a small break from our philosophically inclined discussion on skepticism, truth and evidence to talk about politics.  But don’t you worry Valencers, we’ll be back to probing the outer limits of faith and science soon.

I toyed with the idea of providing a comprehensive “Valence Voting Guide” for everyone to print out and take to the ballot box but thought better of it.  I may be a headstrong voter but I know this kind of conceit would probably only invite a strong right hook from everyone.  Instead I’d like to confine my discussion to one particular divisive proposition here in California:  Prop 8.

For those of you outside California here is the skinny on Prop 8.  Currently gay marriage is legal in California under the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution upheld by the State Supreme Court.  Titled “Eliminates Rights of Same-Sex Couples to Marry”, Prop 8 will amend the California Constitution to recognize marriage as strictly between a man and woman.  For more history you’ll have to read on at the link.

First, I’ll state that I unequivocally oppose Prop 8.  I hold that marriage is a civil right that should not be withheld from consenting partners in this country.  This is not a matter of whether homosexuality is in itself moral but instead a question of whether we should be denying equal treatment under the law based on sexual preference.   We should not.

Now, I know the following question is inevitable: “But do you think homosexuality is immoral and what about the biblical judgment on the subject?”

I’m not planning on spending much time on this but in anticipation of the question I do want to preemptively answer.  I do not consider homosexuality to be immoral and I think the biblical treatment of the subject is inconsistent at best and at worst is heavily biased by a homophobic cultural context that we should be striving to move beyond.

That being said, with this post I’m not particularly interested in addressing the morality of homosexuality itself (even though I anticipate this will be a hot topic in the comments section).  Instead I would like to question the morality of the current religious outcry in support of Prop 8 and ergo against the homosexual community itself.  Below is a promo video for “The Call” which is holding a rally here in San Diego on Nov. 1st.

Let me ask:

Is it moral to frame such a complex issue like gay marriage as the ultimate title bout between the very forces of Light vs. Darkness?  No.  Do I really need to remind us that these are people’s lives we are talking about?  Committed and loving lives which are strikingly similar in character to yours saving they are gay.  They are not the forces of darkness, they are not evil, they are not responsible for society’s decline and they are certainly not our enemies.  To paint this issue as one of light and darkness is insultingly simpleminded.  If we want to talk about darkness then let’s talk about slavery, torture, bigotry or poverty.  How is it that none of these genuine moral causes is significant enough to mobilize Christians “this November” to fill an entire stadium in protest?

Is it honest to assert that the sanctity of marriage is threatened by allowing homosexuals to participate?  No.  First, if the very fabric of our marriages stays intact only by excluding gay relationships then this is more an indictment of the security upon which our marriages are built than it is an accurate measure of a threat.  Second, the sanctity of my marriage is built on the love my wife and I have for each other and the commitment we have personally made, neither of which could ever be diminished by someone else’s relationship, gay or straight.  To assert otherwise is to claim that the very existence of gay marriage itself literally has the power to steal away our ability to be fulfilled in marriage.  It is misleading and dishonest to charge homosexuals with such a serious and yet unsubstantiated crime.

Is it right to characterize gay relationships as a flood from which God must protect us in his infinite mercy so much so that the very soul of our nation hangs in the balance?  No.  In fact this claim is startling in its hypocrisy.  The soul of our nation is one that thrives on equitable rights and religious freedom.  We have a secular state that is beautiful exactly because it seeks to provide rights to the least among us regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation.  The Call pretty clearly states that Prop 8 is a religious law at its heart which is meant to levy back the dangerous floodwaters of homosexuality.  The real flood I see here is a tide of religious fundamentalism which is trying to overwhelm our nation’s Establishment Clause and return us to a medieval theocratic state.

In conclusion, let me be clear that I’m not arguing that the Christians among us must revise their doctrine on homosexuality (even though I think they should).  I understand that I probably haven’t changed anybody’s mind on whether homosexuality is a sin.  Nevertheless, no matter what your personal verdict is on the morality of homosexuality, the Christian community’s response to gay marriage through The Call is inexcusable.

The response is unapologetically hateful, misleading, alienating, condemning and arrogant.  Where is the emulation of Jesus?  Where is the loving your neighbors, or removing the plank from your own eye, or feasting with those whom the religious elite label as sinners?  Are we this unaffected by the teachings of our own savior?  When asserting that this is an issue of light vs. darkness it is astounding to me with what stunning irony the majority of the Christian community has chosen the darkest of all positions.

For those Christians here at Valence I would like to add a special note.  You may be reading this and thinking, “Well that’s not me. I’m not going be at The Call. Don’t make the mistake of lumping all Christians together.”

Let me say this simply: silence on this issue indicts every one of us as complicit.  The gay community whom you claim to want to reach and love will only hear those speaking the loudest.  From every pulpit, street corner and water cooler available we should be denouncing the kind of homophobic reaction The Call represents.  Most of all we should be voting NO on Prop 8.

Truth and Evidence October 22, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Essays, Uncategorized.

This week I’d like to dwell just a little longer on this topic of skepticism and adequate evidence.  I know, nothing like beating a dead horse right?  Well, there are a couple of reasons I think it will be valuable to linger here just a little longer.

First, there were some great ideas and questions posed in the comments section of the last post that I would like to highlight/summarize.  Second, I realize I haven’t quite answered the question of what constitutes “adequate evidence” myself even though I was cracking the whip for everyone else to answer.  Mush skeptics, MUSH!

We ended the last post with my somewhat optimistic call for a consensus on what constitutes ‘adequate evidence’ for belief.

Like W. standing on the USS Abraham Lincoln I’d like to declare “Mission Accomplished!”  Okay, grant me a bit of sarcastic irony now and then.  While, we didn’t quite get to a unified consensus on the requirements for evidence I do think we made some great strides towards defining the issue better.

One issue that kept resurfacing was that people were very apprehensive about defining a ‘single standard’ for what constitutes adequate evidence for belief.  On this we seemed to agree: Truth just seems too slippery to nail down with one kind of evidence for all time.  One idea raised was that maybe there are different types of truth which each carry their own standard for what constitutes good evidence.

By my count there were 4 classes of truth posed.  I’ve taken the liberty to apply some titles:

  1. Objective Facts
  2. Subjective Experience
  3. Cultural Truth
  4. Untestable Truth

Each class of truth seems to require a somewhat unique approach to belief and evidence.  Let’s explore what makes them different in the context of a thought experiment yours truly shared: the color red.

Objective Facts

Objective facts are the kind of truth that most of us associate with scientific inquiry.  One commenter referred to this class as “concrete phenomena.”  I would expand that to include any claim that has physical effects and is falsifiable.*  In the context of red we can speak of a particular wavelength of light on the electromagnetic spectrum.

If I claimed objects that are red emit electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of about 650nm, what would adequate evidence for belief in this statement be?

Well, for most of us a quick visit to Wikipedia or a physics book would be enough evidence to satisfy us that this claim is true.  Pretty easy, huh?  We often rely on a specific type of evidence that I would call a consensus of scientific authority. This is important because not all of us can be experts on every topic that requires a verdict and it’s certainly appropriate to know when to trust those who are.

(A brief note here: blindly following authority can be dangerous which is why I included the operative word consensus.  Science operates on healthy debate which generally moves toward consensus.  Yes, rarely there is an Einstein or Galileo who comes along and revolutionizes scientific understanding but generally the fact that one PHD is willing to deny the effects of global warming is certainly is not adequate evidence to doubt its effects in the face of the rest of the scientific community.)

The critical characteristic of objective facts is that if anyone of us wanted to verify a truth before investing in belief we could personally test for evidence ourselves.  But how do we make sure the evidence we are getting from our test is good or adequate evidence?  We might institute simple rules like:

  1. Good evidence stays consistent even when we run the test over and over again.
  2. Good evidence stays consistent even when a different person altogether runs our test.
  3. Good evidence stays consistent even when the variables of our test are changed (A simple example of a variable would be whether we ran our test in San Diego or Moscow.)
  4. Good evidence would probably fit in the framework of already established science.  (Admittedly this isn’t always the case.  But if our test found evidence that overturns whole areas of expert understanding we had better be sure the evidence is ironclad.)
  5. Good evidence would be able to withstand others trying their hardest to disprove it.

Subjective Experience

The subjective experience of red is the human sensation of warmth, vibrancy or anger that each of us has in response to the color.  We turn a frequency of light into actual experience.  Admittedly, this type of truth is a bit harder to nail down than the objective fact of red photons.

Can we really prove that each of us is seeing the same color when looking at red objects?  Probably not.  However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t determine an adequate level of evidence that would allow us to infer an operational truth.

We may point to the evidence that the vast majority of humans think the color of oak leaves in fall is strikingly similar to the color of a stop sign.  We could also include the evidence that from human to human there is negligible difference in the way our eyes and brains are wired.  It is certainly reasonable to infer here that we all see red similarly.  Even for the colorblind man who may not be able to share this experience the evidence reported to him by the rest of us should be sufficient for belief in the color red.

Another quick note: A couple of commenters asked about the adequate evidence I would seek when trying to ‘prove’ the quality of my decision to marry my wife.  I would class marriage as a subjective experience type of truth (maybe even a cultural truth, see below) for which I cannot ‘prove’ truth.  However, the affection, commitment, interest and generosity Jess showed me is certainly still evidence which I observed and deemed adequate to invest in the belief that she in fact loved me and would make a great partner.

Just because truth as subjective experience may not be ultimately provable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be asking for adequate evidence from which we can infer an operational truth for a situation.

Cultural Truths

We could ask the question, “Do you believe it is good to paint your child’s nursery red?”  The answer to this question is a matter of belief in a cultural truth that is fairly fluid and open to a diversity of opinions.  In western cultures I think we would usually answer that no, blue and pastels are better for babies.  But we can’t necessarily say why and we would be hard pressed to ever prove this point.

Evidence for beliefs in cultural truths does exist but it’s extremely transitory and open for debate.  I would imagine evidence here could include studies of the effects of room color on child temperament or imagination or development, but still the moral question of what is ‘good’ temperament or ‘good’ development would still remain.

That being said there is an operational truth that cultures tend to agree on so evidence must exist which points in the direction of truth.  Even though it may not be conclusive, evidence can still be deemed adequate after the moral component of these types of questions have been vetted.

Untestable Truth

I would define untestable truths as those questions that we can conceive of but for which we currently do not have (or can never have) any evidence to help guide our belief.  Admittedly, it’s tough to stretch my red example this far but here is my best shot.  Examples of untestable truth would be something like:

Our entire universe is simply an elementary particle in an atom on a very large red apple. (Evidence can’t be gathered from outside our universe by definition.)


Flying red elves smart enough to evade all scientific detection control the weather and punish the Pacific Northeast with too much rain because they hate grunge music. (What sounds like an absurd statement, yes, but if the elves can avoid all detection then we can’t really disprove it, can we?)


There were exactly 34 species of red striped dinosaurs. (Not an absurd statement but effectively all the evidence has been destroyed.)

Many commenters asserted that belief was a matter of “personal desire”.  If there is a place for personal desire in determining truth and belief this is certainly it.  However, ideally I would argue we should remain agnostic (ie. indifferent) to propositions for which can have no evidence.  That is I think the appropriate response to mystery is, “I don’t know.”

However, probability and our ability to reason do play an important role here in that we can functionally rule out some untestable claims.  Example: There are simpler explanations for weather patterns which science uses to tackle observed phenomena naturally without invoking the existence of flying red elves.  Can I prove to you they don’t exist?  Nope.  However, is it probable and reasonable for me to assume flying red elves don’t exist?  I believe so.


*(text amended per comment #7 and #8 below)

On Skepticism October 14, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Skepticism.

I suppose before we go any further, I had better answer a fundamental question about myself. Why doubt? Some may see what I’m doing here as a gamble with the highest stakes. Why risk my everlasting soul on matters that are probably beyond human comprehension anyways? Like Pascal, why not be safe and take the sure bet, defaulting to faith? Why be skeptical?

First, I believe the term ‘skeptical’ has frankly gotten a bad wrap. It is so often wrongly equated with ‘cynical’.  Defaulting to blunt and clumsy denial of belief in general is the realm of the cynic, which, to me, reeks of bitterness and isolation. Skepticism really has no problem with the act of belief itself. However, skepticism does concern itself with the methods and tools which are appropriate to establish belief in the first place.

Simply stated, skepticism looks for adequate evidence before accepting a belief as true. ‘Adequate evidence’ is admittedly a slippery term that we may have to spend time in future blog posts parsing out. For now it’s sufficient to establish that there is a range of skepticism that we all fall into. We all look for evidence when making decisions; it’s just a question of how much evidence we require and of what quality. Like most things in life healthy skepticism is a balance between requiring too little evidence (gullibility) and demanding too much (blunt denial). Further, skepticism holds that all beliefs are open to modification, affirmation or even outright trashing as new evidence comes to light.

I would argue that, while the term ‘skeptical’ may still sound too abrasive for most of us to adopt outright, we are all still secretly skeptical at heart. Let me explain. Think of all the countless beliefs or faith traditions that you think are bunk. The beliefs which are available but rejected surely outnumber the scant few we actually invest in. Okay, now seriously, take a second and think of just one proposition out there in the world that you personally think is utter trash and hold on to that for me.

Whether it’s alien abductions or Joseph Smith’s golden plates or the claim that the Comet Hale-Bopp could have borne your soul to heaven’s gate with its 1997 passing, for these things most of us practice perfect skepticism and we do so easily. But let me ask, why do we find it so easy to dismiss these claims? Why didn’t more of us commit suicide back in 1997 as we heard the news reports about the Heaven’s Gate cult in order to join them on their ‘journey’? Why weren’t we also swayed?

The answer here is typically so obvious that it feels a bit elementary to even regurgitate for you. We just ‘knew’ they were wrong. Their claim about the spiritual implications of a comet ‘didn’t make enough sense’ to translate into such drastic action. These thoughts are so secondhand that they tend to pass unnoticed through our heads. Since we’re not even tempted to action by such wild cultish claims we don’t identify the rigorous test we subject these claims to. But there is an important underlying rational system here that each of us constantly taps into which is worth recognizing. We all have a filter for establishing truth which, for 95% of the propositions we hear, defaults to doubt before investing in belief. Let me rephrase that. For all those things we don’t already believe, scrutiny is inherently skeptical in that it starts at doubt and then sees if there is sufficient evidence to transition to belief. 

This system is beautiful in its simplicity. We are constantly protected from acting on dangerous new beliefs by an underlying skepticism which naturally seeks tangible evidence before getting us into too much trouble. There is a problem here though.

Here comes the wrench. While our filters typically work perfectly on all those outside beliefs, we can have a very hard time applying the same standards for ‘adequate evidence’ to beliefs that have already been accepted. That is, we all have the tendency to loosen the standards for what constitutes ‘adequate evidence’ when it’s our personal beliefs that are being scrutinized.

Admittedly, this evolved tendency to stop applying close scrutiny to already accepted beliefs is almost essential. For example, we can’t constantly be assuaged by doubt over whether bread satisfies hunger or not. Once this belief is established we need to move on and focus our attention on more critical matters of truth and existence. Important things. Like whether chocolate is truly an aphrodisiac. You know, critical matters of faith! Seriously though, the bounds each of us individually sets around what is functionally true and what is not (ie. what we believe and what we don’t) allow us to focus most of our critical resources outwards where they can do the most good. However, the healthiness of this natural tendency is dependent on one thing:

Those beliefs that have made their way inside the bounds of belief must in fact be true.

Unfortunately, beliefs can often be let inside our bounds and subsequently go unchecked in error. In fact, when it comes to larger matters of belief (at least larger than chocolate) I would argue that the very nature of faith and religion often demand a lower criteria for what constitutes appropriate evidence. We often believe on the advice of authority alone or because of a highly subjective personal experience or sometimes because we have incomplete information or we misinterpret data. The reasons we can positively “know” things that aren’t actually so is a big subject that I think may also be another topic worth returning to in a later post, for now let’s move on.

To compound the issue we tend to treat beliefs like possessions. Even our vocabulary for talking about the act of belief betrays how possessive we can be over faith. We talk of holding, adopting or even buying a belief. You may even now be saying, “I don’t buy all this crap, Casey. This blog sucks.” I hope not. Anyways, the personal nature of belief itself can insulate us from being critical in those most important monumental decisions of faith where our worldviews are shaped.

I posit that it is for those beliefs that we hold most dear that we need to apply the highest levels of skepticism. It is precisely because these accepted beliefs are those which daily drive our actions and decision-making that we need to maintain the utmost level of intentional questioning about their validity, being always careful to demand appropriate evidence. Unnatural and sometimes uncomfortable vigilance.

In regards to my own faith, this is where I have taken a step back and restarted. I don’t want to commit the hypocrisy of submitting my traditional Christian faith to less scrutiny than I would the Heaven’s Gate cult just because it’s already been allowed inside my bounds of belief. The level of what constitutes adequate evidence for belief should be the same for both claims.

Further, if those beliefs we have accepted on the authority of our pastors or the personal experiences we have while singing together are in fact true then they should be never be threatened by this form of skepticism. Truth cannot be damaged by investigation.  That which is transcendent by definition cannot be changed or affected by the healthy skepticism each of us practices for those ‘other’ 95% of propositions out there.

Okay, in conclusion, I was asked in the comments on the “Invitation” post which specific claims of Christianity I am skeptical about? In light of the way we’ve been discussing skepticism here I’d have to answer: All of them, but none of them more or less than I am about Islam and Heaven’s Gate or evolution and the existence of black holes. I’d like to redefine the question a bit if I can (which I know I can…oh the power of running the blog! Mua-ha-ha-ha!…). Instead, of asking which biblical claims I’m skeptical about it would really be more accurate to refocus the question on which claims have been believed or defended on inappropriate evidence. This is a fantastic question that unfortunately is meaningless unless we agree on what constitutes ‘appropriate or adequate evidence’ first. Let me then end this post by throwing the question back to you guys to see if we can work towards a consensus. How do you think we should define what constitutes ‘appropriate/adequate evidence’ for belief in general?