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Science 2008 – Part 1 December 23, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, science.
13 comments

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

JB003562

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

mri_signals

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

quantum

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!

biolumenation-zebra-fish1

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

enceladus1

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.

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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.
19 comments

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.
37 comments

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: ,
37 comments

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.
25 comments

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: ,
20 comments

”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.
4 comments

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.
32 comments

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: , ,
56 comments

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: , , ,
149 comments

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.