Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Some Thoughts on the Creationist Movement

I saw the Maryland Intelligent Design trial reenactment on PBS the other night, curious to see what I might glean from hearing the testimony of all the participants, both laymen and experts.

What happened was very interesting. I have always been puzzled about why in the world the Creationists would attack Darwin directly when they have always had, from their point of view, the perfect capping argument: “Darwin? Evolution? Yes, isn’t it amazing how God set up that whole process for Darwin to find?” Of course, to get there you would have to get by the fact that God wrote the Bible himself, word for word – apparently in English – just for King James I… and included some handy genealogical tables that conclude that the Earth was created some 6,007 years ago, on October 23rd at 9:00AM. But this should be an easy task for any capable preacher – perhaps God was writing in ‘angel time’, I think that’s 1,000 years to the ‘day’ quoted in the Bible, that should get them within the ballpark. That actually works out to 2,192,555,000 regular years – close enough for evolution.

But as the program wore on, listening to ignoramuses and pet ‘experts’ on the side of the angels and to earnest and exasperated scientists on the reality side, I began to think I was seeing something deeper.
This isn’t just about self-righteous religious outrage that intellectuals are denying the word of God – this is outright hatred of science and, by proxy, hatred of thought itself. They have a blind assumption that they can babble on and on and eventually, because of the number of words they have spoken, win the argument.

They are not interested in placing Creationism or Intelligent Design alongside Evolution theory – they want to replace Evolution altogether. And, in fact, they want to end all scientific inquiry, they are no different from the Taleban.

Mitt Romney tries to brand secularism as just another religious sect (like Mormonism, one supposes). Huckabee immediately starts trotting his anti-christ rhetoric. They cannot see the world in any other way than that of endless war of (their) one true faith against all the apostates, heretics and pagans everywhere.

This all brings up the very legitimate questions: “So, what makes Darwin and by extension, all of science, different from creationism and by extension, all of religion?” and “Why do you think science is better?”

To answer this I’m going to refer a few times to a remarkable book by Dr. Len Smolin, a theoretical physicist, called “The Trouble with Physics”. In his book Dr. Smolin undertakes to explain the major theories and schisms in the post-Einsteinian world of physics. Along the way he discovered that he had to explore beyond the boundaries of his discipline and ask very broad questions, like: “What is science?” “How do we ‘do’ science?”. The answers he found are illuminating and somewhat unexpected, chief among them is this statement: “Science is a collection of crafts and practices that serve to uncover truth.”

I really like this statement for what it does not say and for what it implies. What it does not say is that: science is the formalized, intellectual tower of learning, populated with lofty beings of surpassing intelligence looking down upon the feeble-minded masses and, from time to time, bestowing the fruits of their knowledge upon us - as the demagogues would have us believe.

No, science is still pretty much what it was when it developed into its present form during the Enlightenment. And what Dr. Smolin’s statement implies is that science is done by people, very smart people, but people nonetheless, who are subject to the same frailties as the rest of us: passion, vanity, jealousy, altruism, honesty, dishonesty – but all engaged in a transparent enterprise that seeks to uncover truth.

The second great statement that Dr. Smolin makes is that scientists are part of an ethical community that comes to its decisions by cooperation and consensus. Ostensibly, religions are ethical communities as well but are ordered in hierarchical fashion, that is, decisions are made at the top and applied downward by fiat.

This illustrates what I think is the difference between science and its antagonists:
Science seeks to reveal truth, through questioning, testing and proving.

Religion seeks to gain submission to already revealed ‘truth’ which admits of no questioning, no testing and offers no proof.
The difference is profound, unbridgeable and final. No religionist can ever admit to the validity of science and no one of science can ever submit to the tyranny of religion.

This is not to say that religion has no place in the world, although that is an argument which can (and I would) make, what I do say is that religion has no place in science. The religious imperative to enforce orthodoxy and crush dissent is antithetical to the existence of science at its core.

More benignly, I would say the leap of faith religion requires of its adherents changes the believer’s a prioris so that they are incapable of critical thought on the subject. As it stands, I have no quarrel with anyone’s religious opinion – so long as they do not try to impose it on me.

Flag Burn Me

Flag Burn Me

I watched him come closer

step by step

in hallowed tradition

as the sky fell

I didn’t want his gift

proffered in honor

buried below the ground

I took it still

burning my hands

I clasped it close to me

“Burn,” I thought,

“Burn me too.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

An open letter to Senator Obama:

Dear Senator Obama:

I'm very upset by recent statements you have made about funding education by "postponing" elements of the space program. Let me tell you why this is a very ill-advised position.

1. It makes you look like an idiot.

If you do indeed postpone Orion by five years, you have effectively killed it. The project will lose its knowledgeable personnel, its production schedule will be canceled and there will then be no replacement for the 40 year old shuttle fleet. The Russians (and perhaps by then, the Chinese) will be the only nations with manned access to the ISS and to space.

2. It makes you look like an idiot.

The entire space program soaks up about 0.15 % of the federal budget, the DoD currently consumes about 31% of the federal budget (when you include the costs of our several wars). As president you could extract the entire NASA budget from the DoD budget and they wouldn’t even know it was gone, it’s a rounding error. In addition, the space program is the only government program in our nation’s history which can be shown to have paid for itself – in terms of fiscal and medical benefits derived from cutting edge technology which NASA either invented or sponsored.

3. It makes you look like an idiot.

Every self-serving, tub-thumping, ill-informed, moronic, blowhard political hack in the past fifty years has attacked NASA to herd the ‘proles’ to his side. By pandering to the Luddite, anti-intellectualism rampant in American society, they hope to send a message to the masses: “I’m one of you, I hate smart people too.” This is certainly not hopeful, nor audacious, it’s just old-time political quackery.

4. It makes you look like an idiot.

American education isn’t just about “readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic” so you can go out and make great gobs of money. There must be goals – great ones, dreams far larger than rolling up a nice, fat 401K. In order to meld us together as a nation, we need aspirations that demand greatness from us. Young people need to see that there is opportunity to actually accomplish their dreams and a purpose larger than earning a living.

Fools and madmen use our fear to conjure threats, precipitate useless wars and make cowards of us all. Do not be this kind of politician, we have more than enough already.

Leaders address the best that is in us, qualities we didn’t know we had and demand that we rise to meet those expectations because we can rise and we can create something new, beautiful and bold.

The space program represents those qualities of aspiration, expectation and accomplishment that we must embrace as a nation if we are to prosper and live long.

The choice you currently espouse leads, inevitably, downward, stifling creativity and handing the future to others. It is also intellectually lazy and can easily be shown to be massively counterproductive both economically and scientifically - and, it makes you look like an idiot.

You still have the chance to reverse yourself and reject the foolish counsel that proposes to cut off our future in order to make political points with fools.

It’s your choice as to what company you will keep – what will you do?


Craig Della Penna