When rumors kill

In a series of previous posts (see here and here), I suggested that we should all be very skeptical of news reports that immediately follow any major news event because those early versions can turn out to be very wrong on the facts but succeed in leaving a highly misleading imprint on the minds of people.

In particular, I pointed out that governments and official sources often lie to reporters so that they can initially get favorable reactions and support for their actions, knowing that people tend to be reluctant to change their views later, even if the facts change. I gave as examples of such lies Reagan’s comments on the aftermath of the shooting of the Iranian Airbus airliner, Clinton’s justification for the bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory, and the British authorities’ initial version of the killing of the innocent Brazilian in the wake of the London bombings in July. And of course, we have the whole series of lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, which turns out to be one of the biggest and most reprehensible causes of the invasion of Iraq and the consequent debacle that is currently occurring in that country.
[Read more…]

Paley’s watch, Mount Rushmore, and other stories of intelligent design – 2

In the previous posting I described a popular IDC argument that things like watches and Mount Rushmore are obviously ‘designed’ objects and thus imply the existence of a designer. By analogy, it is asserted that certain biological systems are also supposed to bear the hallmarks of design and thus must require a designer (aka god) too.

This argument seems to be persuasive to many people because I repeatedly hear it various forms. The usual response to it by scientists is to argue that the appearance of biological design is only an illusion and that random mutation and natural selection are perfectly capable of producing the seemingly complex biological forms that seem to stymie the IDC people.

But there is a philosophical issue here as well and that is what I want to address. First of all, while we all supposedly can agree that a watch and Mount Rushmore could not have simply appeared without human action, how is it that we are so sure that this is the case that we can accede to it without argument? How is it that in these cases we can definitely identify them as designed objects and say that other things (like rocks) are not designed?
[Read more…]

Paley’s watch, Mount Rushmore, and other stories of intelligent design

One does not have to spend much time reading about intelligent design creationism (IDC) to come across the “Mount Rushmore” argument. IDC advocate William Dembski even begins an article with it as follows:

Intelligent design begins with a seemingly innocuous question: Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause? To see what’s at stake, consider Mount Rushmore. The evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design is direct—eyewitnesses saw the sculptor Gutzon Borglum spend the better part of his life designing and building this structure. But what if there were no direct evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design? What if humans went extinct and aliens, visiting the earth, discovered Mount Rushmore in substantially the same condition as it is now?
[Read more…]

It’s the Rael thing – 3

In two previous posts (here and here), I discussed how the Raelian theory of how life was far more comprehensive than that of intelligent design creationist theory. So all the arguments used by IDC (intelligent design creationist) advocates for inclusion of their theory in science curricula apply even more strongly to Raelian theory. Furthermore, while some might be able to dismiss the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a Johnny-come-lately competitor to IDC doctrine, that charge cannot be leveled against the Raelian model which has been around since the early 1970s and claims over 35,000 believers in over eighty five countries (according to Robert T. Pennock in his book Tower of Babel). So Raelism actually precedes the latest incarnation of intelligent design.

The belief structure of the Raelians is based upon messages sent to Earth from the extra-terrestrial Elohim race through Claude Vorilhon (a French journalist and race car enthusiast) who claims that he was twice contacted by aliens who came in flying saucers and revealed to him the story of how life originated on Earth. Vorilhon is called the “Guide of Guides” by his followers and adopted the name of Rael.

But is the Raelian theory of life science? In a series of earlier postings, I said that for a theory to be even considered as a candidate for science it had to meet two necessary conditions. One was that it had to be naturalistic (and by this I mean methodological naturalism and not philosophical or metaphysical or ontological naturalism) and the second was that it had to be predictive. The latter feature meant that the theory had to have some feature or mechanism that enabled it to be used to make predictions, because that was what made a theory useful to scientists.

I said that IDC failed on both counts, since it had the idea of an intelligent designer who was undetectable and could not be counted upon to act in predictably in a manner that could be tested by any sort of observations.

The Raelians are one step better than IDC theorists in that their theory is materialistic in that the designer who produced the seemingly designed biological species was not a supernatural deity but merely space aliens.

But the Raelian theory suffers from the fact that their theory is not predictive. There is nothing in their theory that enables scientists to do anything with it. All scientists can do is to wait around until the aliens decide to visit us again and show us their latest creations.

This is the problem with all theories that contain appeals to revelation, divine or otherwise. While they may be satisfying an emotional and spiritual need, and appeal to their faithful followers (and there is nothing wrong with that), they simply do not provide science with anything useful to work with.

The scientific community rejects the inclusion of Raelian and IDC theories within the family of scientific theories, not because they are inherently opposed to revelatory notions (after all, many scientists are religious), but because such types of theories have no applications.

The Raelian theory also just pushes the evolutionary question one step away. After all, how did the Elohim come about on their own planet? How did they become so advanced in their technology? Did they too evolve according to some Darwinian model? Or were they created by another alien race? According to the FAQ on their website, the Raelians were created by other extraterrestrials and so on, and that one day the people on Earth will similarly populate other planets. This is, of course, an infinite regression model, but not more difficult than the “who created god?” question posed to believers in a god. As long as you are only interested in how life came to be on Earth, the Raelian model “explains” it well.

But it would be interesting to see how IDC theorists respond to Raelian theory. If IDC theory is accepted by various school boards for inclusion in the school science curriculum because it “explains” some things that evolutionary theory cannot, then I do not see any grounds for rejecting Raelianism. In fact, using the IDC yardstick, Raelianism should actually replace IDC in schools because it “explains” everything that IDC does and some others things that IDC theory does not have ready explanations for, thus clealy being a better theory.

The Raelians have so far not been pushing for the inclusion of their ideas in science classes. But it would not surprise me if, if IDC people succeed in the court case currently underway in Dover, PA, they seize the opportunity to urge that their own program be included in science curricula too. (See here for a blog on the trial maintained by the ACLU which is challenging the Dover school board’s decision. Interestingly, Robert Pennock, whose book I have been quoting about the Raelians, testified yesterday.)

Coming soon to a courtroom near you, the case of Intelligent Design v. Raelianism….

POST SCRIPT: Update on the trial of “The St. Patrick’s Four”

In the trial of the antiwar protest group referred to in the post script of a previous posting, they were acquitted of the serious felony charge of conspiracy but were found guilty of misdemeanor charges of damage to property and trespassing.

It’s the Rael thing – 2

In an earlier post, I introduced the basic Raelian idea of how the various life forms on Earth were planted here after being created by the Elohim genetic engineers living on their distant planet. (See Robert T. Pennock’s excellent book Tower of Babel, pages 233-242.)

The Raelians have a pretty comprehensive theory that in the wealth of its details puts the IDC theory to shame. The Raelian explanations for many of the features of life are stunning in their simplicity and their explanatory power.

Take for example, the fact that many flowers and birds and animals have beautiful colors and scents and ornamental features that seem to serve no obvious functional purpose. Evolutionary theorists have to work hard to show how these features could arise from the small differential advantages they provided along their slow evolutionary trek to what we see now. (See Richard Dawkins’ book Climbing Mount Improbable, among others, for how some of these seemingly designed things came about according to Darwinian theory.)

IDC theory on the other hand simply sees biological sophistication and complexity as evidence for a designer, which is not really an explanation. But the Raelian explanation is far more straightforward. Their Elohim biological engineers worked closely with their artists to create not just functional organisms but also things of beauty. These artists were allowed in many instances to allow their creativity to run wild, even if in some cases form took precedence over function so that some birds, like peacocks, were barely able to fly but looked terrific. The spectacular plumage of some tropical birds can be attributed to a Raelian Jackson Pollock letting fly with the pigments.
[Read more…]

It’s the Rael thing

In earlier postings on the issue of so-called ‘intelligent design creationism’ (IDC) I said that supporters of IDC assert that methodological naturalism and the ability to make predictions, which are the characteristic features of scientific practice, should be abandoned and that what should be the deciding factor in evaluating competing theories is to see which one explains things ‘better.’ They then go on to claim that since natural selection has not provided convincing explanations of some biological systems, that means that those things are probably ‘designed’ by an ‘intelligent designer’. The main IDC spokesmen (and they all do seem to be men) are coy about identifying this designer but after exhaustive study I have discovered who they are referring to and I’ll share the secret with this blog’s readers: It is god.

I (and countless others) have written before about all the logical and evidentiary fallacies behind this argument. For starters, negative evidence against a scientific theory can never be considered as positive evidence in favor a competing theory because it is never the case that there are only two competing theories.

But here I want to take the IDC argument about using better ‘explanations’ as the yardstick for theory quality at face value and see where, if the IDC policy is accepted, it can lead. And one place it leads to is, interestingly enough, the Raelians.

Some of you may remember the Raelians. They received a huge amount of publicity in 2002 when one of their spokespersons announced that they had successfully cloned a human being, that the baby (named Eve) had been born on December 26, 2002, and that four other cloned babies were on the way. They said that the mother and baby identities would be revealed later. The media was all over the story at first but it petered out when no evidence was presented in support of this sensational announcement. It looks like the whole thing was an elaborate hoax.

At that time, having no other knowledge of the Raelians, I thought that they were just some publicity-seeking crackpot sect but in reading Robert T. Pennock’s excellent book Tower of Babel, I learned some interesting things about the Raelian religion and it is clear that they have the ‘best’ explanation of all for the source of life on Earth.

The Raelians agree with the IDC people’s argument that Darwin’s theory of evolution as descent with modification (using the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection) is wrong because life on Earth is too complex to have evolved that way and must have been designed. But unlike the IDC people, they not only know who did the designing but are not hesitant to proclaim the news. It is not god. It is extra-terrestrials.

According to the Raelians, on a distant planet there lived a highly advanced alien community called the Elohim that long ago had reached a stage of scientific and technical knowledge whereby they had developed powerful biological engineering techniques that enabled them to make living cells and to tinker and modify them. But naturally they were fearful about letting loose these experimental organisms into their own environment because of the harm they could do. So they looked for a lifeless planet that they could use as a field test laboratory for their genetic engineering and found one. That planet was the Earth. So they used our planet to create a home for all their creations so that they could safely see what worked and what didn’t, just like scientists do in their own labs.

They took the lifeless planet Earth and staring building life on it. Starting with creating simple cells, they proceeded to create seeds, grasses and other vegetation and progressed to create plankton, small fish, then larger fish, then dinosaurs, sea and land creatures, herbivores and carnivores before they tacked the big project, creating beings like themselves. Thus came homo sapiens. This, according to the Raelians, is how the Earth became populated with all the life forms we see around us.

I must say that I was completely fascinated by this scenario. It is too beautiful for words. The details of how the Raelians set about designing their creations are also fascinating and in the next posting I will show why this explanation for life on Earth is far ‘better’ than the one proposed by IDC advocates.

POST SCRIPT 1: Forum on Katrina

Case’s Share the Vision program is hosting an open forum on Katrina in which I will be a panelist. The program is at 4:15pm in the 1914 lounge of Thwing. For more details, see here

POST SCRIPT 2: Dover court case on ID

Yesterday was the opening day of the trial by eleven parents of the Dover PA school district challenging the school board’s decision to include ID as an alternative to evolution in science classes.

You can read about what happened on the opening day of the trial here.

Justice as fairness and limits to religion

In response to an earlier posting, Jake took issue with my assertion that a secular society in which religion stayed in the private sphere was least likely to create friction amongst different religious beliefs.

He invoked the first amendment to the US constitution to imply that it would be unconstitutional to prevent Christianity from the public sphere. He also made the argument that there seemed to be no good reason to even try to do so since Christianity in the US had always been benign and that it seemed wrong to restrict it to the private sphere out of a sense of fairness. He felt that there was nothing sacrosanct about ‘fairness’ that made it worth exalting to a position of a primary organizing principle for society. He said that “there is no law demanding that the majority make the minority feel like everything is fair? No, they [i.e. people who argue for a secular public sphere] religiously believe that fairness is the highest ideal.”

Constitutional provisions are important but applying them consistently has not been easy. For example, the First Amendment does not allow any and all religious practices. Polygamy amongst Mormons and the smoking of peyote among some Native American groups have both been disallowed even though both groups claimed a religious basis for their actions.

Christian Scientists also have faced restrictions on whether they can withhold medication from their children, but here the issue becomes more complicated because of the issue of the extent to which children should be subjected to their parents’ beliefs. It is not unreasonable to argue that children should not have to risk sickness and death because of the religious beliefs of their parents.

But polygamy and peyote smoking are acts involving freely consenting adults, the people that I assert should have the least restrictions on their behavior, but the state still seemed to find reasons for restricting such acts. Similarly, I am not sure what interest the state has in preventing, say, the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes or forcing people to use seat belts. I always wear my seat belt because it seems to me to be silly not to and I am fully convinced of its benefits. But when I was in a car with a colleague, someone whom I consider to be extremely sensible, he did not buckle up. When I asked him why, he said it was because he resented being forced to do something “for his own good.” If it was for his own good, he felt that he should be the one making the decision.

The First Amendment does not provide a blanket guarantee of religious freedom but draws lines concerning what religious groups can and cannot do. And it is deciding where to draw the lines that things can become messy. Saying that other religions have nothing to fear from Christianity does not completely address the issue because all it takes is one conflict somewhere for things to turn acrimonious. Suppose that a small community somewhere in the US happens to develop a Muslim majority. Would people be amenable to having the crescent symbol in city hall or to start meetings with a Muslim prayer facing Mecca?

My point is that as the US becomes more and more multi-religious, such scenarios become more and more likely. Allowing religion in the public sphere would result in a multitude of religious voices competing for space in it, and adjudicating those disputes is bound to be complicated and cause bad feeling. The alternative would be to grant one religion (obviously in the US it would be Christianity) special privileges in the public sphere not granted to others. It is not clear to me whether the US Supreme Court would decree that the First Amendment allows that but if it did, then the US becomes legally like Muslim countries that give a special place to Islam or like Sri Lanka in giving pride of place to Buddhism.

It is true that I elevate ‘justice as fairness’ to a primary organizing principle for structuring the institutions of society. In this, I agree with John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice where he argues that the desire for justice as fairness is an almost intuitive need of humans. Even little children, long before they are aware of abstract concepts such as liberty and freedom and even religion, have an understanding of fairness. “It’s not fair” is perhaps one of the most common complaints voiced by children. It is the one principle that is rigidly incorporated into all our games and sports.

Of course, how this principle of ‘justice as fairness’ manifests itself in concrete ways is something that needs to be worked out, and Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ suggests a procedural method although it is not always obvious how to apply this. (See here for an earlier posting on this and links to other posts.)

So we seem to have three options: (1) we have a secular state for the public sphere with wide religious freedom in the private sphere or (2) we have every religious belief having equal access to the public sphere or (3) we give access in the public sphere to only one religion.

Those who believe that one particular religious tradition is right and the others wrong, or that one religious tradition is inextricably identified with this country, most likely will support the third option. But given that religious beliefs are presumably freely chosen, it is not inconceivable that there could come a time in the future when, say, Islam is the majority religion in the US. Would the people currently supporting option three still hold to that position in that event?

My own position argues against assigning any specific religion pride of place in the public sphere, thus ruling out option three. This leaves me with options one or two. But I also feel that option two, while ‘fair’, is likely to be awkward in actual implementation since the question of what constitutes a legitimate religion is hard to adjudicate.

This leaves me thinking that only the first option, of having a secular public sphere and wide religious freedom in the private sphere, allows for harmonious co-existence.

POST SCRIPT: Massive antiwar rallies last weekend

Saturday, September 24 saw a massive antiwar rally in Washington DC and other cities around the world. Crowd estimates are notoriously unreliable but it seems like between 100,000 and 200,000 people turned up in Washington. See here for more articles and photos.

The pledge of allegiance and political divides

I love history because when one looks into the historical roots of current events, one uncovers all kinds of interesting bits of information. This is true about the pledge issue. In addition to the (by now) well-known fact that the phrase “under God” was not part of the original pledge at all and was only added in 1954 as part of the Cold War fight against “godless Communism,” there is an interesting history to the pledge that suggest that the people on either sides of the lines being drawn on this issue are not as predictable as one might expect. For example, it is now assumed that the people who oppose the inclusion of the phrase “under God” are “on the left” or “liberal” and that those who want it included are “on the right” or are “conservative,” whatever those labels might mean. But a little investigation shows that things are not so simple.

Gene Healy, Senior Editor of the libertarian Cato Institute pointed out after the 2002 ruling that the pledge exemplifies the kind of devotion to the state that conservatives should be wary of and he is puzzled by why they have rushed to defend it.

“It’s probably too much to ask politicians to reflect a little before they lunge for a political hot-button issue. But any conservatives so inclined should think about what they’re defending. What’s so conservative about the Pledge?

Very little, as it turns out. From its inception, in 1892, the Pledge has been a slavish ritual of devotion to the state, wholly inappropriate for a free people. It was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist pushed out of his post as a Baptist minister for delivering pulpit-pounding sermons on such topics as “Jesus the Socialist.”

Though no one can be legally compelled to salute the flag, encouraging the ritual smacks of promoting a quasi-religious genuflection to the state. That’s not surprising, given that the Pledge was designed by an avowed socialist to encourage greater regimentation of society.

Regardless of the legal merits of Newdow’s case – which rests on a rather ambitious interpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment clause – it’s ironic to see conservatives rally to such a questionable custom. Why do so many conservatives who, by and large, exalt the individual and the family above the state, endorse this ceremony of subordination to the government? Why do Christian conservatives say it’s important for schoolchildren to bow before a symbol of secular power? Indeed, why should conservatives support the Pledge at all, with or without “under God”?

The idea that the pledge is somehow neutral with respect to religion is addressed by one of the judges in the 2002 9th circuit verdict. From the website The Moderate Voice we find that Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote:

In the context of the Pledge, the statement that the United States is a nation “under God” is a profession of a religious belief, namely, a belief in monotheism. The recitation that ours is a nation “under God” is not a mere acknowledgment that many Americans believe in a deity. Nor is it merely descriptive of the undeniable historical significance of religion in the founding of the Republic. Rather, the phrase “one nation under God” in the context of the Pledge is normative. To recite the Pledge is not to describe the United States; instead, it is to swear allegiance to the values for which the flag stands: unity, indivisibility, liberty, justice, and – since 1954 – monotheism. A profession that we are a nation “under God” is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation “under Jesus,” a nation “under Vishnu,” a nation “under Zeus,” or a nation “under no god,” because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion. The school district’s practice of teacher-led recitation of the Pledge aims to inculcate in students a respect for the ideals set forth in the Pledge, including the religious values it incorporates.

The verdicts on issues like the pledge, the public display of the ten commandments, the burning of the flag, and school prayer will not affect the daily life of anybody in any noticeable way. But where people stand on this issue does say a lot about how they view their individual rights and liberties in relation to the rights of the state, and about their views of the relationship of the state with religion.

POST SCRIPT: The case for immediate withdrawal from Iraq

Tomorrow, Saturday, September 24 is the big antiwar march and rally in Washington DC. Tom Englehardt and Michael Schwartz make the case for immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

The Pledge of Allegiance back in the news

There seems to be no battles that the public and the media enjoy more than symbolic ones that have little or no effect on the actual lives of people. Among these are battles over the public display of the ten commandments, the burning of the flag, school prayer, and the inclusion of the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance.

And that last issue is back in the spotlight now that US District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton in California has held that including the phrase in the pledge does indeed make the reciting of the pledge in schools unconstitutional. A similar judgment was arrived at in 2002 and that earlier decision was upheld by the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Karlton said that he was bound by that precedent. That earlier case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which essentially punted by saying that the parent in that case (Michael Newdow who also acted as his own lawyer) did not have standing to file suit because he did not have legal custody of his daughter on whose behalf he was objecting to the phrase. Thus the Supreme Court avoided having to rule on the merits of the case.
[Read more…]