Dan Dennett at AAI 2007

I’ve posted his more recent talk at 2009 already, but this one is equally excellent. I especially love the bit past the halfway point where he discusses the erosion of the Yahweh concept over the past thousand years. This is why I’ve adopted the tactic of demanding of theists who proselytize to me, exactly which god they believe in. And the whole “belief in belief in god” is terribly enlightening as well — I’m certain more than one of my readers that still believe in a god, actually merely believe that belief in god is a good thing.

How to make a Manufactroversy

Jealous of the anti-vaccination brigade, the anti-LHC “black hole” kooks, the “9/11 Truthers”, the Birthers, Creationists, Flat-Earthers, and/or just about anyone else who’s created a movement that flies in the face of rationality, science, and the evidence? Here’s a quick and easy four-step guide on how to create a scientific controversy, fabricated from whole cloth; and another, more in-depth guide on how to build an anti-vax-like movement.

Each of these methods can be adapted to fit the tactics used by the various movements I’ve listed above. It’s simple — all you have to do is to a) know the truth, and b) lie your ass off about it. Alternatively, if you’re not a cynical fuck that’s just out to destroy something good, you could convince yourself that your pet cause must absolutely be true and your viewpoint must absolutely be correct, then pore through all available evidence looking for the merest shred of evidence that your conclusions (which are also your first principles) might be plausible, under any configuration of the variables, no matter how unlikely. Or, you could merely look for any evidence that casts doubt on the scientifically derived conclusions, no matter how flimsy, and cast the whole “argument” (which, I reiterate, you’ve created from thin air) as a dichotomy between the science and your fear-mongering.

Oh, and when the science disproves your implausible or impossible scenarios, blame something vague that can’t be pinned down, like “toxins” or something to do with quantum mechanics. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Birther queen Orly Taitz to be visited by Repo Man

Not this guy either.

Over at Dispatches, Ed Brayton covers the schadenfreude-filled news that Orly Taitz, the last harpy to harp on the mistaken idea that Obama might be an evil voodoo priest version of the Manchurian Candidate from Kenya, has been ordered by Judge Clay Land to pay the court $20,000 USD in sanctions.

To make matters [worse / more hilarious], when Taitz refused to pay up, the good judge sent her to collections (PDF). If she doesn’t pay up, she’s soon going to get a visit from the repo man. No, not Emilio Estevez. And not that guy in the picture I inserted into this post, either.

At least, probably not. I have no idea what either of them are doing these days. Collections for the government would certainly be a step up from either one’s careers as they stand presently.

Christopher Hitchens on Nidal Malik Hasan

The Army Major that went suicide-bomber and shot up Fort Hood recently has had a lot of coverage lately, especially regarding his being a Muslim and his obviously unbalanced mental state. It wasn’t merely his being a Muslim that caused him to flip into holy warrior mode — it was his communication with radical Anwar al-Awlaki, and his enthusiasm for al-Qaida’s tactics in this holy war.

That, combined with the correct casting of Bush’s wars as, essentially, holy wars. Even despite their original purpose, being wars for oil (or at least, that’s how they were presented, that they would “pay for themselves” with the oil America would then control), they have devolved into “Good Christian America vs Bad Islamic [whoever]“. And this is a problem — a major one — insofar as it is a pissing contest between the Holy Roman Empire and the Heathens Across the Sea, to see whose imaginary friend is better. Never mind that their imaginary friends are supposedly the same Abrahamic god Yahweh and that “God” and “Allah” are merely different languages’ titles for the same deity.

Christopher Hitchens breaks down all the facts in the Hasan case and proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Hasan’s diseased mind proved fertile grounds for the radical flavor of Islam that infected and flourished and ultimately flowered in Hasan’s murder-suicide. I only lament that in the course of this article, Hitchens does not realize that his robust support for Bush’s wars is actually encouragement of the continuation of holy wars of religion vs religion.

So, ultimately, yes, Major Hasan was a radical Muslim. While “Allahu Akbar” is not by necessity a warcry, any more than “Jesus help me” is a war cry, in the case of radical Islam it apparently is used as such. Radical Islam, because it is so focused on suicide-bombings and suicide-murder sprees, needs to be ended. It’s fairly obvious that the radicals have to use these tactics, because they do not have access to the same level of resources as the “Christian” Americans do — they do not have a standing army, they do not have well-trained soldiers, they do not have bases but instead caves and hideouts. They are fighting a guerilla war because it’s all they can do.

But at the same time as radical Islam needs to be ended for these reasons, so to does every belief in an imaginary higher power that leads directly to violence against our fellow humans. Without Islam and Christianity, this war wouldn’t be happening. Other religions might step in to fill the gap, and other wars waged, but if you were to eliminate religion altogether, then maybe wars would be fought not over whose imaginary friend is better, but rather who has access to the Earth’s resources — surely another horrible reason to go to war, but one that at least has a little more sense behind it, since resources are real things, and your imaginary personal deity is assuredly not.

Who’s sick?

Hard to concentrate, honestly, these past two days, while I’ve been hacking up a lung — horrible little cold I’ve got going on here. I’ve had about enough concentration to do barely enough to do what needed doing as far as keeping work functional (easier now with fewer network-related responsibilities, granted, though my newer responsibilities have their own share of challenges). I made clam chowder, via the excellent Cooking for Engineers website, and ate it all save for a bowl yesterday and today. Didn’t do terribly much else though — stayed home and whined on Facebook / Twitter, mostly.

I did, however, just watch the new Doctor Who special, Waters of Mars. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, and terrifying, at the same time. Suffice it to say, a Time Lord “victorious” is something horribly, horribly wrong — like an ascension to godhood. I won’t spoil it, if you haven’t seen it. While the sci-fi itself was a smidge predictable, the story it told was quintessential Doctor, and much better than any of the other David Tennant specials. I look forward to the 2009 Christmas special The End of Time, especially given the revelation in the teaser as to who “knocks four times”. And yeah, if you didn’t already guess, you’ll kick yourself.

I ought to head back to bed. Maybe a shower and a shave first… if I feel slightly human come tomorrow, I’ve got a full day at work of catching-up on the hands-on stuff I can’t do remotely.

I object.

I object, specifically, to the abuse of parliamentary minutiae to silence women attempting to speak up about how funding medically-indicated abortion procedures directly benefits women’s health in the great health care reform debate going on in the states.

Discussion about this at ThinkProgress and at Greg Laden’s blog. Go register your objections there.

Government-approved woo in Canada

This may affect only Ontario at the moment, but Bill 139, which has undergone two readings and is poised for a third, looks as though it’s poised to pass. This bill would allow naturopaths the ability to prescribe drugs in much the same way that science-based health practitioners do presently.

[t]he Ontario government is poised to give another type of magician — the naturopath — prescribing rights, despite the reams of evidence discrediting their approach to patient health. It’s a move that legitimizes a well-meaning but baseless profession, and puts patients at significant risk.

Surely I much be exaggerating, right? After all, naturopaths practice “natural healing”, and nature is good, isn’t it? Unfortunately for patients, no evidence exists to suggest that naturopaths are capable primary care providers. Naturopathy is a fundamentally flawed idea – and a government blessing only entrenches and magnifies the health risks to Canadians.

This is a travesty. I know some folks believe naturopathy has some value — of course natural products have some effects, since almost all the medicine we’ve found thus far, are derived from such natural products and the scientific testing necessary to determine what exactly effects such products have. But you know what you call alternative medicine that works? You call it… medicine.

The above link has a list of ways you can combat this encroachment of magic into the realm of scientifically derived medical knowledge. If you’re a Canuck, please, at least take time to drop a quick e-mail to the contacts listed — especially if you live in Ontario.

Altruism may be hard-wired

A particularly pernicious point of contention in innumerable theological conversations involves whether morality can exist outside the framework of a creator acting as a lawgiver. Well, coincidentally enough, science has answered that question back in 2007. Neuroscientists have performed experiments to determine where morality — specifically in this case, altruism — works within the human brain. It turns out, the same region responsible for “basic selfish urges” like the desire for food and sex. That’s right folks, altruism is selfish. Atheists and evolutionary biologists have argued for a long time that social structures like the ones we enjoy stem directly from the evolutionary advantage of being altruistic, and some have even postulated that supporting one’s society is a selfish action — because it increases the likelihood that society will support you back.

The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.

Their 2006 finding that unselfishness can feel good lends scientific support to the admonitions of spiritual leaders such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, “For it is in giving that we receive.” But it is also a dramatic example of the way neuroscience has begun to elbow its way into discussions about morality and has opened up a new window on what it means to be good.

Grafman and others are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass. The results — many of them published just in recent months — are showing, unexpectedly, that many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.

Not terribly unexpected to me. Nor likely many of the folks that have been suggesting as much for years. This is only an unexpected result if you think humans are somehow exceptional, or if you think we’re the creation of some all-powerful deity.

Interestingly, such experiments show some signs of such morality mice.

No one can say whether giraffes and lions experience moral qualms in the same way people do because no one has been inside a giraffe’s head, but it is known that animals can sacrifice their own interests: One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.

And this despite, to my knowledge, there never having been a Mouse Jesus.

Something else that’s been suggested, tangentially related to this, is that empathy — the ability for humans to construct mental images of what others are experiencing, and thus to construct mental images of other people period (and sometimes with little more to go on than the word of another), could have led directly to the ability for humans to conceptualize a creator deity. Consider also that humans are hard-wired to detect agency whether there is something there or not — e.g. to try to determine the cause of the bush rustling nearby, whether it rustling because of a predator, or because the wind is picking up. This fact, combined with the altruism that’s hard-wired in us, could easily lead to hypothesizing that a person created everything you see, and that that person is in actuality an omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent being, and suggesting that those morals that you have innately actually come from laws handed down by this being a long time ago.

That doesn’t mean such a creature exists. Just that we might be hard-wired to think that this is so, for the same reasons we’re hard-wired toward other superstitious behaviours. We will, hopefully, eventually outgrow the concept of a creator deity, just as we’ve outgrown the idea of witches, or causal relationships between crushing spiders and sudden rain showers, or stepping on cracks actually breaking one’s mother’s back, or hot women blowing on dice resulting in rolling sevens.

That’d be nice, wouldn’t it? Humanity growing up and taking responsibility for their moral choices, instead of ascribing agency willy-nilly, and believing, fatalistically, that nothing they do can destroy this planet, this one and only support system that we humans rely upon… that’s the stuff of fairy tales.

Does Jesus Save Aliens?

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Apparently this question is putting many Christian sects into a tizzy. Given Christianity’s Earth-centric views, and species-centric doctrine, if we discovered that, say, dolphins were intelligent and sapient, or if we discovered alien life from another planet, would they be “saved”? Would they have their own Alien Christ to preach to them the gospel? Or would every sapient creature in the universe — save humans that believe in Jesus — burn in the pits of hell for eternity?

The Vatican does not have an official position on alien life forms, but a number of its scientists have spoken out on the issue. Father Jose Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory told the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, that the possibility of “brother extraterrestrials” was not incompatible with Catholic theology.

William Stroeger, an astrophysicist at the Vatican Observatory Research Group and a Jesuit priest, agreed: “There might be fundamentalists for whom the two things are incompatible but mainline congregations – Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists – would not have a problem with this,” he said.

Stroeger pointed out that the Catechism introduced after the second Vatican council states that there can be no conflict between science and religion. “If there’s a contradiction it means that we haven’t understood or interpreted one of them correctly,” he said.

Go on, guess which one he means.