The mixed views of candidate Ron Paul

If anyone had any doubts that the US is ruled by a single pro-war, pro-business party, recent Congressional action should dispel them. It is clear that the wheels are already being oiled for starting a war with Iran, and the Democrats are complicit in this pre-war demagoguery, just as they were before the war with Iraq, when many voted for the Iraq war authorization resolution.
[Read more…]

The story of evolution-3: Natural selection and the age of the Earth

It is clear that many people find it hard to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. One reason is of course because it completely undermines the need to believe in a creator, making god superfluous when it comes to explaining the nature and diversity of life, and thus people may have a negative emotional reaction that prevents them from seeing the power of the theory. As I have discussed earlier, people are quite able to develop quite sophisticated reasons to believe what they want and reject what they dislike.
[Read more…]

Film reviews: Network and Matewan

Here are two more reviews of old films that are worth seeing.

Network (1976)

This film is a brutal satire on the TV news business and, sad as it is to say and even harder to believe, the kinds of attitudes it satirized in 1976 has only gotten far worse in the subsequent three decades.

Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky uses the story of Howard Beale, a network news anchor who has a mental breakdown when he is told that he is being fired because of his low ratings, to show what really drives TV news. When Beale starts saying the truth on air about how things really work in the news world and the contempt that the people in TV have for the intelligence of their viewers, he starts getting audience attention and his ratings start going up again. He starts to pick up steam by voicing the frustration and sense of powerlessness that people feel.

The people in the entertainment division of the network see the chance to gain huge ratings by converting the news into a kind of entertainment, complete with segments involving soothsayers and the like, the whole thing showcased by Beale, now nicknamed ‘the mad prophet of the airwaves’, ranting on some topic, as can be seen in this clip, where he denounces the dangerous control that TV has on the minds of the public.

(Nowadays, nowhere is this film’s critique of how ‘news’ has become trivialized more apparent than in the ridiculous amount of coverage given to Paris Hilton. The best commentary on the media frenzy about the non-event that was her recent jailing was that given by Tommy Chong in an interview with Stephen Colbert.)
The film is immensely helped by the performances of two wonderful actors (William Holden and Peter Finch) in the twilight of their careers, aided by two other fine actors Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall who were at their peak. Finch won an Academy Award for his performance but died before he could accept it.

Although Chayevsky a tendency has sometimes to give his characters (especially the one played by Holden) set-piece speeches on life and love and death that give the film a somewhat stagey-look, his writing is so good that he gets away with it. There are some interesting side-plots involving urban guerrilla chic and radical black activists of that time. The film shows how, in the end, everyone is corrupted by the allure of fame and money that TV exposure brings, and are willing to be manipulated by the TV executives to achieve that goal.

Network is one of those films that I saw when it first came out and is still good after all these years. It is a film that has become a cultural touchstone, with the line “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” familiar to people who may not know from where it originated.

Matewan (1987)

Matewan is another fine film by independent filmmaker John Sayles. It is based on the true story of the struggle of coal miners in the West Virginia town of Matewan to obtain better condition by forming a union, and the fierce attempts by the mine owners and their thugs and goons to prevent it. Seeing films like this makes me appreciate so much more the efforts of the early efforts at unionization, fought by workers and their families at great cost and danger to themselves, which now give us the kinds of working conditions and safety that we take for granted.

Sayles’s first film was The Return of the Secausus Seven (1980), the story of a group of high school friends who reunite for a vacation ten years after graduation. It was shot on a low budget with an unknown and almost amateur cast. The much better-known The Big Chill (1983), which has almost the same story, looks like an unacknowledged remake of Sayles’s film.

Sayles has since gone on to make more commercially successful films (you can see a list of the films he as made here) and has been able to attract better known actors along the way, with some of them, such as Chris Cooper and David Strathairn, appearing repeatedly.

Sayles epitomizes the true independent. Many filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh who began as independents went the big budget Hollywood route after they achieved commercial success. Sayles refuses to do so. Even after he has shown himself to be a critical and commercially successful filmmaker, he refuses to seek funding from the big studios because they would require him to relinquish control over the final product. He says:

I want to direct films that no one else is going to make. I know if I don’t make them, I’m never going to see them. Of course, I hope some people will want to see my movies as well, but I won’t pander to the public. I won’t try to second guess what a Hollywood studio would like to see in a low-budget film, so that they will hire me the next time around. I know I will always do better work if I do projects in which I really believe. And if I never get to direct again, I will have made some movies I can feel proud of.

Sayles is very good at capturing the mood of a time and an event, and does not shrink away from showing the politics of race and class. For him, what a film says is more important than how it looks. As he said, “I’m interested in the stuff I do being seen as widely as possible but I’m not interested enough to lie. . .[A movie] may not look the way we’d like it to look or sound the way we’d like it to sound or get seen by as many people as we’d like to have see it but at least it will say the stuff we want it to say.”

The story of evolution-2: The lack of evidence for perfect design

In the first post in this series, I showed with the example of a soap spray nozzle how natural design could come up with systems whose intricacy and complexity is such that it was superior to the efforts of intelligent human designers. But what about the argument that a god-like designer would be able to come up with an even better nozzle design? It is true that if we allow for the existence of such a designer, we could get the best possible design for a nozzle. The catch is that assuming that god is a perfect designer opens up a whole set of new problems, not the least of which is why if god is so powerful he would need any kind of nozzle at all and not simply create any kind of spray he/she needed.
[Read more…]

Film reviews: Hearts and Minds and Medium Cool

Film reviews are usually about films that have been newly released. Since I am almost never the first to see any film, my reviews deal with very old but good or interesting films that people may have not seen the first time around but can do so now, thanks to the easy availability tapes and DVDs. I see these reviews as pointing out films to those who may not know what they are missing.

Here are reviews of two old films that I saw recently that dealt with the time during the Vietnam war.
[Read more…]

The story of evolution-1: The power of natural selection

We are rapidly approaching 2009, a year that marks a major scientific milestone that is going to be commemorated worldwide. It is both the 150th anniversary of the publication of the landmark book On the Origin of Species that outlined the theory of evolution by natural selection, and the 200th anniversary of the birth of its author Charles Darwin.

Darwin’s theory represents arguably one of the most, if not the most, profound scientific advances of all time, ranking well up with those scientific revolutions associated with the names of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein. And yet it is widely misunderstood, or more appropriately, under-understood because most discussions of it remain on too high a level of generality, enabling critics to make statements about the theory that are not valid but yet seem plausible.

In order to create a better awareness of what the theory involves, today I will begin an occasional series of posts that looks at the details of the theory, including the mathematics that underlies it and which was developed later by people like J. B. S. Haldane, Sewall Wright, and R. A. Fisher.
[Read more…]

Guest post by Corbin Covault

My two posts on Taking offense and Taking offense (revisited) generated a lively discussion in the comments. One of the responses covered many of the issues raised by those who disagreed with some or all of my remarks and I felt that it should reach a wider readership so I asked the author to write it as a guest post. While it is a little longer than my own posts, I think readers will find that it provides an interesting perspective.

So what follows is Corbin’s guest post:

Thank you for your very thoughtful response to comments by myself and others regarding your post on taking offense. Indeed you tend to present very thoughtful remarks on your blog which is why I like to read it, and this most recent post is one of your most thoughtful. Your point on the tendency of conflation between plausibility and worthiness is particularly well taken.

Having said this and having reflected further on the issue, I would still say that you should not have been surprised to learn that some religious believers would find your comparison of belief in god to belief in the Easter Bunny offensive. But I should emphasize here at the start that I did not mean to imply in my previous comment that I myself found the comparison between god and the Easter bunny or whatever offensive. And even if I did, I probably not have “taken offense” at what was said.

An aside: I suppose it’s a level of degree: I mentioned before that I find many of Ann Coulter’s assertions offensive, but I do not “take offense” as she is so uniformly outrageous that it seems actively responding to what she says might serve no purpose. I also have number of friends and colleagues who by temperament may tend to say or do “offensive” things but since I otherwise value or respect the relationships for various reasons, its better to simply ignore the offense. In contrast, I recently found myself “taking offense” at some of our local Democratic congresspersons who failed to vote no on the war funding bill. In this case my offense took the form of phone calls, email and letters to the editor making known my unhappiness that they voted in apparent opposition to their stated commitments to end the war as soon as possible.

Anyway, I am saying that since you brought the topic of taking offense up, it seems quite natural to me that some people would find your comparison between god and childhood fictitious characters offensive. And as I said, I found Kathy’s points rather compelling for the reasons I stated earlier.

Upon further reflection, I realize part of the issue has to do with what I might call my natural tendency to try to put myself in the “other person’s shoes” on both sides of any discussion. If one side indicates that something expressed is “offensive” then this might be an indication that the other side appears not to have sufficient empathy for the alternate point of view.

I realize that an “apparent lack of empathy” for an opposing viewpoint is hardly a basis for evaluating the validity of a rational argument. But from a practical point of view in the context of persuasion and possible consensus building, it seems that some of the most effective discussions between opposing viewpoints result when a real effort is made by both sides to see the situation from an honest point of view of the other side. Of course the strength of arguments comes into the discussion as well, but I will say, based on my experience, that if there is not at least some level of willingness to “honor the viewpoint” of the other side, then all of the arguments in the world, no matter how rational, will fall on deaf ears. And if one side or the other “takes offense” then perhaps — maybe — this might be an indication that someone, somewhere is not really living up to this ideal of trying to be empathetic with the other side at some level.

Of course, I am not suggesting that trying to “avoid offense” is worthwhile in every scenario. If one is attempting to argue against what is perceived as a very dangerous idea, or if one is trying to counter an argument made by someone who at the onset demonstrates a propensity for demonizing those with opposing views then perhaps taking the empathetic tack might not get too far. As you indicated, perhaps there is not much value in worrying too much about whether Dick Cheney is offended by something. But I will contend that if one’s purpose is to engage in a dialog with individuals or groups who have an opposing point of view, but with whom you otherwise might respect and are trying to persuade to your own point of view, then raising arguments that might be construed as offensive — even if such an offense might be deemed irrational — might not be the best tactic, practically speaking.

I also recognize that there is a difference between the “public realm” of discourse and debate (which seems to be more “rough and tumble”) and the private or pseudo-private realm within (for example) families and organizations where a need for empathy might be much more motivated between people who have to be in close proximity to each other in some sense.

I suppose a “blog” lives mostly in the “public sphere” sort of….

Yes, I agree very strongly with your general point that it is not “fair” for people with religious ideas to expect to be insulated from any kind of criticism (rhetorical devices as you put it) even if the device is relatively harsh. I agree that any set of ideas, in a free and pluralistic society, is fair game for public scrutiny.

But I could also argue that making arguments with harsh rhetorical devices might not always be the best way to make arguments in any sphere of discourse. I can think of two or three columnists, for example, that actively promote political views that I substantially agree with but who do so with such venom for any opposing view that I am embarrassed. Perhaps one might excuse such a confrontational approach in the sciences, since ultimately any particular viewpoint will be resolved not by the emotional strength of an argument but by experimental verification. But in the political (and religious) arenas, there is no experimentalist to resolve the argument about competing theories.

It’s not obvious to me that the way to find the best ideas in any given arena is always to subject them to withering rhetorical attacks to test their survivability. And one could argue that the use of harsh rhetorical devices might be as unhelpful for moving forward a rational discussion of the issues in the political and policy arenas as it may be becoming within the religious spheres. This is not to say that there is not a time and a place for the expression of objection, protest and complaint within a political arena, for example. But it seems to me that such activity all by itself is not the equivalent of making rational arguments. And it is my belief that if the rationale for an argument is sound, it should not depend so sensitively on a need to be expressed in the context of harsher rhetorical devices. And it might even be the case that the argument can be made more effectively if it is make empathetically. It’s an issue of persuasion.

As an example in the political arena, one might argue that the Greensboro sit-ins did much more to persuade white Americans of the validity of civil rights demands than did any number of protest marches. So I am not saying that atheists do not have the right to make harsh public criticisms of religion. They certainly enjoy that right and religious people do not really have any basis to ask for special protection from such criticism. I am just saying that using harsh rhetorical devices might not always be the best idea if you want people to listen thoughtfully to what you are saying. So yes, as you say, that ship has sailed, but perhaps not everyone ought to hop on it.

Indeed, I might suggest that the fair complaint about of some of the writings of the “new atheists” is not so much that the arguments are “disrespectful” but that they are sometimes rather non-empathetic to the opposing point of view. Some of the writing seems to be developed with the aim of simply tearing down a viewpoint rather than persuading people to change their minds. Again, this has nothing to do with the rationality or validity of the argument, but if the argument comes across in a certain way it may not “convert” fence-sitters or others. Indeed if the tone is perceived as too strident then you risk turning people off to your argument, logical or not.

For example, I personally cannot read much of what Sam Harris writes….not because his arguments are unsound (although there are several arguments he makes that I do not agree with) but because much of his writing is so uniformly unsympathetic to any opposing view. For example, in your quote of Sam Harris where he says: “[Atheism] is simply an admission of the obvious…” This comes across as rather arrogant and to just this extent it’s sort of offensive — or at least irritating. “Obvious”? Obvious to whom? To many people the word obvious implies something that “anyone but a simpleton”, anyone who has any rational ability at all, would readily agree to. In fact, by such a definition, atheism appears to be rather non-obvious. I know this is not the intended meaning. I know that Harris really means “obvious in the context of following the rational implication of adopting a purely scientific perspective on all things.” But he doesn’t put it that way, exactly. Instead he gives the impression of impatience and self-righteousness. I suspect that this particular wording of his argument here would only be appealing to someone who already shares this point of view.

I can think of one other example of this kind of thing. Some years ago I was involved in a class that dealt with the issue of scientifically assessing pseudo-scientific claims. It was a class for non-science majors, and one of the books on the reading list was The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Darkness by Carl Sagan. From my point of view this was an excellent book for this course that went right to the heart of several keys issues that I hoped the students would be addressing in the class. However, I was surprised by an outpouring of rather strong negative feedback about the book that I was getting from a large number of students in the class. Students felt that the writing was “arrogant”, “condescending” and uncompelling — “annoying to read” — this from students who were otherwise apparently quite open in a general way to looking and considering ideas about how to scientifically approach pseudo-scientific claims.

The problem was not that Sagan’s message was wrong or unsound — the problem was that it did not reach students where they were at. It turned students off. The point here is that in this context, at least, even to the extent that the scientific message was presented with what I thought was a reasonable tone, students turned away from what they perceived to be a “harsh argument” even when ultimately they found similar arguments quite compelling when presented in a different context.

Okay now finally, I would like to articulate one last reflection related to the atheism arguments you have made. Specifically, it seems like your whole case for atheism rests on the central premise that one should “take a scientific approach to every aspect of life.” You contend that atheism is not in-and-of-itself a philosophy, but I do not understand how a decision to “take a scientific approach to every aspect of life” is not itself a “philosophy”. Maybe I am misunderstanding your use of the word.

Indeed, if I narrow the issue further, it still seems like the application of science is a “philosophy”. If you say something as restricted even as “the best way to understand the physical universe is to apply the scientific approach” isn’t this a “philosophy”? Don’t we even call our experts “doctors of philosophy”? I will agree that it is a mighty powerful and effective philosophy but I do not see how it is not a philosophy. I do not see how science itself can be justified “scientifically”. We apply science to the physical world and we discover “it works”. Are you contending that science can be used to self-justify itself?

Likewise, when you make the argument that the “scientific approach should be applied to every aspect of life” are you not extrapolating at some level? I will concede that if one grants that such an approach should be taken, then what I will call a “strong atheism” is the logical rational conclusion. But I am not sure that rationality itself compels such an extrapolation. And while you might argue that the reason religious believers resist such an extrapolation is because they are extremely motivated to defend their beliefs, there have been and continue to be several prominent atheists who have also argued that it is not scientifically justified — or particular helpful for the cause of science — for atheistic scientists to make such an extrapolations. For example such an ardent defender of the scientific point of view as Lawrence Krauss has argued that science itself should not be used to dispute untestable religious claims. You may not agree with his conclusions but you also cannot attribute his opinion to a strong desire to defend his personal religious beliefs.

To my mind part of the issue is to what end is such an extrapolation being applied. What is the aim of extrapolating the very successful approach of science to arenas where science has not so clearly applied itself as successfully? What is the desired outcome?

It seems to me that the purpose of the application of science to the physical universe is the understanding of the underlying nature of physical reality — that is to determine what is and is not objectively true.

But I think the case can be made that there are topics and issues where we might be properly motivated by considerations that have nothing specifically to do with whether something is objectively true or not. There are issues worth contemplating that are not related to anything really existing or not. I suspect this is the case for many people with regards to religious issues. This gets back to the “plausibility” vs. “worthiness” issue. I suspect that for some religious people — especially those that might fall more into the “liberal” end of the spectrum — the issue of whether there is evidence for god’s existence has much less relevance than the issue of the value that the religious experience provides.

Indeed, you have mentioned and promised to address the issue of the “net good vs. evil” issue of religion in the world, and I think this is quite a tricky knot to tackle, but for many people, I suspect further that the motivation to adopt a religious perspective has less to do with the net world social value of religion and much more to do with the perceived value of that perspective to the individual, and this value is the central issue in making the decision to adopt the religious perspective. In other words it’s a personal choice that is based on the attractiveness of the experience rather than on whether some particular claims are being made and if they are true or not.

I would also argue that this kind of value can be defended, even if the defense is not based on a “rational argument” as to whether some claim is true or not. As you have admitted before, we all have “irrational” viewpoints on a number of things. But I think that perhaps one can argue that this irrationality does not automatically reduce the value of the viewpoint. If one assumes that some perspective provides value for the individual, then this can be a “reasonable” basis for that individual deciding to adopting the perspective, even if the perspective cannot be judged to be “rational”.

For example, last night I went to a baseball game. I had a great time (despite the fact that the home team lost) and I would go again. But I cannot see any way to justify my attendance at the game from a scientific point of view. Why did I go? Because it was appealing to go. Why did I cheer for the home team? Certainly not because I have some illusion that they are objectively more deserving of my support and praise relative to their opponents. Rather, I cheered the home team because the ritual of sport is constructed this way and because by investing myself in the outcome I become more engaged in the game and find it more rewarding. When the game ends, and the home team loses, however, I am quite content to put aside the ritual and recognize that the value of ritual is simply the emotional reward of the game itself. I do not carry my investment in the home team around with me from day-to-day. I am not a “sports fundamentalist”.

Similarly, suppose a student is considering a life in pursuit of a career as a concert musician. I am thinking that such a decision would be difficult to defend on the basis of a scientific argument. The basis for making such a decision is not whether or not something objectively exists (except perhaps, musical ability). The issue is whether the pursuit of such a career is seen as worthwhile.

It’s further worth remarking that just because neither baseball nor music can be justified scientifically does not mean that either of these enterprises is intellectually valueless.

Nor are these activities free to operate in a way that contradicts or ignores the constraints imposed by the laws of science. Physics governs baseballs and oboes. But physics does not define the home-run. Physics does not define an “impressive” concerto. People do this.

In the same way, then, I think, that there can be particular religious perspectives (liberal ones, I would think) that can make a case for themselves for particular individuals based not on assertions of belief regarding the existence of god, but on the value that these religious perspectives can provide — a value that is more comparable to the value of a game of baseball or the value of a life committed to musical excellence than it is to the value of determining the age of a rock or the charge on a quark. In my opinion, if such a religious perspective is constructed in a manner such that its claims are not inconsistent with the demonstrated laws of science then it may be defended as “worthy” in this context. The example I mentioned before, where the traditions are interpreted metaphorically, not literally, and where the emphasis in on the artistic interpretation of the narrative — and not on any objective claims of belief about the physical or meta-physical nature of god — seems like one example of such an acceptable construct.

Finally, I would note that with such a liberal religious perspective, there is no claim on any kind of “literal truth”. Such a viewpoint rather explicitly recognizes that the narratives from one tradition may be more or less attractive and worthwhile, varying from person-to-person and from culture-to-culture. In other words, the liberal tradition embraces an ecumenical perspective where a diversity of religious viewpoints and traditions by others are accepted and even celebrated.

Solving social problems the Confucian way

In writing my thoughts about Confucianism (here and here), one thing that struck me was the strong influence that its “Doctrine of the Mean” has, even down to this day. This is reflected in the “Chinese preference for negotiation, mediation, and the “middle man” as against resorting to rigid, impersonal statutes. Until recently, legal action has been regarded as something of a disgrace, a confession of human failure in the ability to work things out by compromises that typically involve family and associates. Figures are not available for China, but in the mid-1980s Japan in ratio to its population had one lawyer for every twenty-four in the United States.” (Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, p.191) [Read more…]


The final religion that rounds out the major eastern religions is Taoism. Like Confucianism, it too is a rough contemporary of Buddhism. Its founder is named as Lao Tzu who is said to have been born around 604 BCE, which makes him the earliest of the three founders, but it is not clear if there ever really was such a person, or whether he was a later recreation to provide a single author for the book Tao Te Ching which translates as The Way and its Power and lays out the basic philosophy of Taoism. Huston Smith in his book The World’s Religions says that scholars do not think that the book was written by a single person although the coherence of the book suggests at least a strong single influence in shaping it. It is believed that the book took its final form around 250 BCE.
[Read more…]

The essence of Confucianism

In the previous post, I briefly described the political and social crisis that China faced in Confucius’ time due to the gradual breakdown in social order due to the erosion of a sense of tradition and custom and sense of propriety. Confucius was dissatisfied with the two opposite responses that were being suggested to deal with the problem. The Realists approach was to use force to create order, exploiting the ability of the ruler to deal out rewards and punishments. The Mohists said that you had to teach people to love all equally. Confucius felt that to ignore the special affection that one felt for one’s own family was unrealistic. In this he was prescient in that modern evolutionary theory argues that natural selection does indeed result in one having special feelings to those to whom one is related, with the feelings getting stronger the closer the people are related.
[Read more…]