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Jan 01 2008

The joy of free thinking

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

There is scarcely a week that does not pass without some interesting new scientific discovery about the nature of life. You open the newspaper and read of observations of light emitted by distant stars from the very edges of the known universe, light that must have been emitted almost at the very beginning, over ten billion years ago. Such research puts us in touch with our own cosmic beginnings.

Just recently there was the discovery of the fossils a possible new Hobbit-like people who lived in a remote island in the Indonesian archipelago about 18,000 years ago. Then there was the discovery in China of an almost perfectly preserved bowl of noodles that is about the 4,000 years old. Discoveries like these shed light on how evolution works and how human society evolved. And then the discovery of Tiktaalik, the 375-million year-old fossil that seems like an intermediary between sea and land animals.

Similarly, the discoveries that come from studies of DNA tell us a lot about where humans probably originated, how we are all related to one another and how, despite our common origins, the species spread over the Earth and diversified. The fact (according to the September 21, 2005 issue of The Washington Post) that we share nearly 99 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, lend further strong support (not that it needed it) to the evolutionary idea that chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestry. (The approximately one percent difference, according to The Daily Show, is what causes human beings to kill each other!)

I enjoy reading things like this because it reminds me of Charles Darwin’s central idea, that we are all linked together in one great biological evolutionary tree, with the various animal species being our cousins, and even seemingly insignificant things like worms and bacteria having common ancestors with us, however distantly in the past that might have happened. Some people may find the idea of being related to a monkey repulsive but I think it is fascinating. The ability of science to investigate, to find new relationships, to explore and conjecture and come up with answers to old questions as well as create new questions to investigate is one of its greatest qualities.

And for me, personally, being an atheist makes that joy completely unalloyed. Shafars (i.e., secularists, humanists, atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, and rationalists), as well as religious people who interpret their religious texts metaphorically and not literally, do not have any concerns when new headlines describing a new scientific discovery are reported in the news. They do not have to worry whether any new fact will contradict a deeply held religious belief. They do not have to worry about whether they need to reconcile the new information with any unchanging religious text.

On the other hand, the same news items that give us fascinating glimpses of scientific discoveries undoubtedly create fresh headaches for all religious people, and especially those whose beliefs are based on literal readings of religious texts, because each new discovery has to be explained away if it disagrees with some dogma. There are people who devote their entire lives to this kind of apologetics, to ensure that their religious beliefs are made compatible with science. The website Answers in Genesis, for example, is devoted to making Young-Earth creationism (YEC) credible. So it goes to great lengths to show that the earth is less that 10,000 years old, all the animals could have fitted into Noah’s Ark, and that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans.

One has to admire the tenacity of such people, their willingness to devote enormous amounts of time, sometimes their whole lives, to find support for a belief structure that is continuously under siege from new scientific discoveries. It must feel like trying to hold back the tide. (See this site which heroically tries to fit into a 10,000 year old universe model the astrophysical data received from light emitted by stars that are billions of light years away.)

Of course, scientific discoveries come too thick and fast for even the most determined religious apologists to keep up. So they tend to focus only on explaining away a few questions, the kinds of questions that the lay public is likely to be most concerned about, such as whether dinosaurs existed concurrently with humans, the ages of the universe and the Earth, whether the size of the Ark was sufficient to accommodate all the species, how Noah coped with the logistical problems of feeding all the animals and disposing of the waste, how Adam and Eve’s children could multiply without there already being other people around or indulging in incest, and so on.

But the rest of us don’t have to worry about any of that stuff and so can enjoy new scientific discoveries without any cares, and follow them wherever they lead. It is nice to know that one can throw wide open the windows of knowledge and let anything blow in, clearing out the cobwebs of old ideas and freshening up the recesses of the mind.

It is a wonderful and exhilarating feeling.

So for this new year, I wish all the readers of this blog the joys of free thinking. May your thoughts not be hobbled by superstitions ancient or modern.

POST SCRIPT: The 50 Most Loathsome People in America

I usually avoid reading all the lists of best, worst, etc. that come out this time of year, but this one is actually very good.

Here’s #29 on the list Dinesh D’Souza:

Charges: Wrote a book blaming 9/11 on — who else? — liberals, because if we didn’t live in a free society, then fundamentalists wouldn’t dislike us so. Even conservative nuts blasted D’Souza’s empathy for poor al Qaeda. Lately, he’s been engaging prominent atheists in debates, revealing himself to be a pseudointellectual ass, and then declaring victory. D’Souza’s master plan for attacking atheism is the ridiculous Pascal’s wager: Atheists could be wrong, and then they’d go to hell, but if the religious are wrong, then they suffer no ill effect — aside from living their lives in delusion, of course. And possibly going to someone else’s hell for believing the wrong religion. D’Souza seems to think that if he speaks more loudly and rapidly than his opponent, he is winning, but his arguments are weak and idiotic, and he never even attempts to truly debate the existence of any god, which is the ostensible point of these debates. Instead, he likes to compare body counts — Stalin and Mao killed more than the religious leaders of their time — rather than actually debate whether there is a God, or for that matter a Jesus. This, of course, is because there is no case to be made.

Exhibit A: “[Atheists] are God-haters… I don’t believe in unicorns, but then I haven’t written any books called The End of Unicorns, Unicorns are Not Great, or The Unicorn Delusion.” But what if everyone you met did believe in unicorns, and not only that, but worshiped a unicorn, held a book about unicorns to be the divine truth of the universe, invoked unicorns in political contexts, and speechified about how non-believers were indecent people waging a war on morality, which could only be predicated on the unquestioning belief in unicorns? Then, maybe, D’Souza would think about writing that book. But of course, that’s not really true, because if that was the world we lived in, then Dinesh D’Souza would believe in unicorns.

Sentence: Spanish inquisition.

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