Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Of the air for a while....

I will be heading for Egypt tomorrow for a rather less-than-restful (but intriguing) holiday with my beautiful wife starting in Cairo, then crusing the Nile... As an Egyptology buff, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I can't pass up.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Faith and Science

In my last blog on the MySpace version, I had the following comment:

"None of this can ever be proven. So what must you have in your theorys? FAITH. You really have no evidence of transitonal fossils, Have not found the missing link between human and ape....."

My rebuttal was scathing, and rightfully so. First, Science does not deal in proof. Never has, never will. Science is about explaining observations, coming up with a provisional explanation which explains the data. As to this person's assertion that there are no transitional fossils, that's baloney. Go to any museum of natural history and you will see (literally) tons of them. There are many lineages which have demonstrated the progression to new forms. The development of the horse, dinosaurs to birds, the whale from land to sea mammal, and many others have been clearly delineated. Indeed, Evolutionary Theory predicted that such intermediary forms existed and where they would be found in the fossil record. This is the ultimate test of any theory and in this the Theory of Natural Selection has been astoundingly successful. The human evolutionary lineage is also remarkably fleshed out, despite this person's belief. It is very difficult to find such fossils, though we have and continue to add to our knowledge when a new fossil is found.

This commentor also ignores (or is perhaps unaware of) the fact that while the fossil record is of great interest in the verification of Evolution, it is not all that important. Darwin did not have fossils to work from when he wrote his great opus, the 'Origin of Species'. He was using comparative morphology. Just as important has been the development of molecular genetic techniques to look at and even time branching in the phylogenetic tree. Using the molecular clock, for instance, molecular genetics has shown that champanzees and man have a common ancestry which split some six million years ago. All of this data fits together elegantly. When you have different techniques from completely different areas fitting together like that you know you have a very robust theory.
Could the Theory of Natural Selection be wrong? Yep. What is the likelihood of it being wrong? About the same as a tornado going through a junkyard and spontaneously assembling a 747. ToE is correct far beyond any doubt, let alone reasonable doubt. Any protestations by those that take the a literal interpretation of the Bible are simply the weak, desperate cries of those drowning in a sea of the untruths they seem incapable of divesting themselves of.

But I did say one thing in response that was incorrect: that there is no faith in Science. As Sam Harris has pointed out, there is faith at some level in Science. But this kind of faith can not be equated with religious faith. Let's take a look at a couple of examples to illustrate this point. Let's say that I want something from a department store and I need it by this evening, but I have no time to go out and get it. So, I ask a reliable friend to take some of my hard earned cash and buy it for me. I certainly would not ask a complete stranger to do this, so why do I ask my friend? Simple. This friend has a track record of doing similar things for me. This is faith. I have faith that my friend will accomplish the task that he/she has agreed to do.

Now, let's take a look at the second example. Let's say the manual for my SVT Focus says that my car can fly. Truly fly long distances, not just when going over hilly terrain. But it also says that it will only do this when there is no one in the car, and no one is looking. Any reasonable person would be skeptical about this, wouldn't they? But if you take a literal interpretation of the manual, you would say that it does. Why? Because it says so right in the manual, of course! The correctly skeptical person would require evidence that the manual is correct, but a literal interpretationist does not. Is this literal interpretation faith? Absolutely not. It is BLIND FAITH, a completely different animal. It is belief without substance, and is therefore totally unreliable. Can blind faith ever be correct? Sure it can. By accident. But look at the number of faiths in the world today, which falls in the thousands. Let's say that one is correct. Even if you are a believer you have only a small chance of being right. Those odds drop vastly farther when dead religions are included in the calculation.

There is a vast difference in the type of faith that is in Science from that which Believers hold. In fact, we have confidence in Theories (note the use of 'T' here) because they explain observations, make testable predictions, and are falsifiable. Faith is more about the methodologies used in Science, not in the actual theories themselves. Blind faith can be correct only by accident, and is NEVER right.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Damn. Now why didn't I think of this?

I was watching the news this morning and saw that some enterprising Canuck has come up with a new invention for those pesky Tim Horton's 'Roll up the rim' cups. For those not familiar with (or worse, not blessed with a local franchise of) Tim Horton's, this is a rather successful Canadian coffee/donut place (which has since expanded to include lunch menu items) and is now owned by Wendy's international division. Tim Horton's is even responsible for the term "double-double" (two creams, two sugars) which appears as an entry in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. The coffee is good. (Starbucks sucks!)

Anyway, Tim Horton's periodically has a contest whereby you look under the rolled rim of the paper cup to see if you have won a prize. This contest has become hugely popular, to the point where problems with littering and even a lawsuit over who should get the prize after someone threw away a vehicle-winning cup that was picked up by someone else (which I'm sure did nothing to hurt their sales).

The problem with this contest is that the rims of the cups are difficult to roll up. People break nails and Tim Horton's has asked that people (like me) not use their teeth to find out if they have won. (Damned if I didn't lose again this morning.) So this inventor has come up with a device that slips over the rim and when you pull on it automatically rolls the rim of the cup up. For $2 a pop, and the likelihood of the contest's continuing reappearance for years to come, will likely make this guy a lot of dough.


Monday, April 2, 2007

Just 'beatiful'....

Religious processes never cease to amaze me. Say a few words in Latin (which nobody understands anymore) and sprinkle a bit of water (holy or not, it's just water…) and your soul is cleansed. Sound glib? I don't think so. Heck, I have yet to see even the slightest evidence in favor of the existence of the soul. Holy water is just good ol' H2O.

Take for instance the current beatification and canonization of the late Pope John Paul II. Since John Paul can not be considered a martyr (though this was almost the case), it must be shown that a miracle has taken place by his intercession. These days this miracle almost always takes the form of a disease. Catholicism, with all its saints (that are really lesser deities), makes the hierarchy of Hinduism looks simple.

So, what was John Paul's miracle? "John Paul's cause has been bolstered by the testimony of a French nun, Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre, who says she was cured of Parkinson's disease after she and her fellow sisters prayed to the late pope." Wow. Why do I remain unimpressed? First, how was her Parkinson's diagnosed? There are similar paroxymal dyskinesias which can undergo spontaneous remission that can easily be mistaken for Parkinson's. Even if the diagnosis was correct, temporary or (more rarely) permanent remission is not unknown.

Statistically speaking, if you have a large body of believers that are afflicted with Parkinson's disease that pray to John Paul (and I'm sure there are more than a few), some of them will show signs of a recovery. This is hardly miraculous, though the person afflicted might feel that way, and not incompatible with the known course of the disease. Certainly, the prayer to the specific individual has not been shown to be causal and is mere happenstance. But the Church needs to be seen to go through the motions to make those clamoring for John Paul's deification happy.

Miracles are getting scarcer, aren't they? Is it because God isn't granting them as much? Or is it that there are fewer individuals with the required purity of heart? How about this one- Miracles are scarcer because they don't happen. What people long ago took to be miracles simply have natural explanations. Back in the days of Jesus if you didn't perform miracles you were nothing. Miracles were indeed commonly claimed back then, and not just by Jesus. Today we are better educated and the supernatural is failing more and more to be a satisfyingly explanation for anything. People are taught to think more critically (with the exception of those religious zealots of the American bible belt) and analyze events more deeply. As Martin Luther once remarked, "Faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding." Why? Because reason, sense and understanding lead to the truth: "there is no spoon".

As an outsider looking in, this so-called miracle just doesn't cut it. The lack of a connection between cause and effect of this nun's prayer makes it look ridiculous and at best over-reaching, but not to the truly faithful. This suspension of reason is what all religions, even those I might call more moderate, have in common. You have a brain, people. Use it!

I just wonder what Karol Józef Wojtyla would think of all this.