We Apologize for the Inconvenience

Apologetics vs. Epistemology

Once you’ve seen through something, it’s pretty much impossible to ever take it seriously again, and I “saw through” Evangelical Christianity about 25 years ago. It took me the rest of the 90’s to realize I didn’t need religion at all, but the core distinctives of evangelical belief — the exclusive salvationism, the claim that Jesus is the only/best/unique/a particularly useful way to God, the claim that Christianity has a vitally unique insight into ethics, or really that Christians had any better clue than anyone else what God was up to — were gone or crumbling fast. And with them went my regard for Christian apologetics.

Now there’s nothing wrong with “apologetics” per se — any opinion or school of thought implicitly comes with an apologetic, a defense: here are the reasons we think P is true, there are rebuttals to commonly-made criticisms. About the only position that doesn’t come with an apologetic is “I believe in my heart that P is true”, and even that carries the implied (and lousy) apologetic that deep feelings constitute evidence (if you don’t assert that much, then all you’re really saying is “I pretend that P is true because it makes me happy to think so”). However, all human knowledge is in principle defeasible, i.e. it might turn out to be wrong. So apologetics has a limit: ultimately, it must be subservient to the search for truth; thus it must recognize a limit. There must be a point at which an apologetic admits defeat and grants that the thing it is defending has been falsified.

That makes the existence of apologetics as a discipline, and “apologist” as an occupation — something you can even get an academic credential in, from a certain kind of institution — a bit problematic. By the nature of the job, the apologist is not a philosopher or scientist, endeavoring to analyze ideas dispassionately to get at the truth of the world. While he might (and ought to) be constrained by material facts and the rules of logic, his fundamental aim is different: to argue for a position already taken as true. This is taken for granted in evangelical circles, being justified by the Pauline example of “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (example here). It’s a feature, not a bug.

Given that job description, it’s not surprising that in many cases, facts and logic fall by the wayside. As an example of such, I offer the entirety of “creation science”, including its offspring Intelligent Design. So now, whenever I run across one of these professional Christian apologists, I have a lot of trouble seeing them as arguing in good faith. This is not an exchange of ideas and arguments in which one side may convince the other: it’s a sales pitch, and if I turn out to be too hard a sell (which, having previously tried the product and found it unsatisfactory, I very much am), the salesperson will just move on to another prospect.  Or to use a different analogy: the apologist is a defense attorney trying to cast their client in the best possible light. To be sure, most apologists are no doubt sincere enough as individuals, but the system is set up to be dishonest. And sure enough, when I read or hear one of these people, it’s always a variant of some spiel I’ve heard before, and now find at best silly.

Robert J. Sawyer: Calculating a Fallacious Mean

Critique of Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God. (Tor, 2000; Audible audiobook, 2008)

In the author’s intro to the 2008 Audible edition, Sawyer accuses science of having reacted to the creation/evolution controversy by “developing a siege mentality”, of “behaving like fundamentalist religion, with unassailable texts and received wisdom, with dogma instead of rationality”. Calculating God was intended as his own contribution to the public debate. The novel, Sawyer reports, was hated only by those coming from”extremist positions — either young-earth creationists or knee-jerk Darwin-was-perfect scientists”1.  However, “those in-between, those who like to think, those with open minds have enjoyed Calculating God“.

That’s three red flags right there: the Dogmatic Darwinist (beloved straw foe of every creationist, ever), the Argument to Moderation, and the appeal to open mindedness. However, there are no specifics given here, so lets let him lay out his argument….

Warning: Spoilers galore below.

The Story

The aliens land, and one of them — a quasi-arachnoid being called Hollus — shows up at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto asking to look over the fossil collection. He (who later turns out to be she) is researching mass extinctions, and bears the remarkable news that her own home world (a planet of Beta Hydrae, 370ly from us) experienced mass extinctions at the same time as Earth, as did the planet of the only other sentient species they know of (from Delta Pavonis, 20ly from Earth). Along the way, she informs the protagonist, paleontologist Tom Jericho, matter-of-factly that of course the scientists of Beta Hydrae III believe in God — he’s been proven to exist, and now the job of science is to figure out exactly how he created the universe. Ooookaaaay, and how do they know this? asks the atheist Jericho. What follows is largely the standard argument that the universe is finely tuned to support life. We even get a soliloquy on the Special Properties of Water. This being science fiction, Sawyer gets to enhance the fine-tuning argument a bit: the usual rebuttals to fine-tuning (multiverse and oscillating universe) have been falsified by the physicists of her world (who are, obviously, a century or so ahead of us, which is why they have interstellar travel and we don’t), leaving deliberate tinkering by an intelligent designer the most logical remaining hypothesis — the one, in fact, that passes the test of Occam’s Razor.

Um, no. Even if we grant the premise that the physical constants must have precise values (which has been disputed), an intelligence of unknown nature and immense power is anything but a simple hypothesis. It only looks like simple if you think you already know the answer; i.e. if you’re religious, or at least grew up in a society where a naive mind/matter dualism is pervasive. Intelligence is complicated; minds are complicated, and the only ones we know about for sure are the result of a complicated process occurring in physical brains. Postulating a mind of cosmic scope based on an unknown substrate is, in fact, an extraordinary claim. (Actually, given the vagueness of it, it’s barely a hypothesis at all). It is far from obvious that the god hypothesis is a good solution to the problem of fine-tuning — it’s an example of the God of the Gaps fallacy.

In later chapters we get more Intelligent Design boilerplate, much of which appears to be lifted straight from Michael Behe’s 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box: a precis of the irreducible complexity argument, complete with the mouse trap analogy and the examples of the cilium and the blood-clotting cascade. And there’s more of the same: speciation has never been observed (which it has), gaps in the fossil record, and a straw-man refutation of punctuated equilibrium. This is serious flaw in Sawyer’s presentation. Replying to charges that the book promotes creationism, Sawyer protests:

my novel takes pains to point out arguments against intelligent design, irreducible complexity, and many other issues

Um, not that I noticed, it doesn’t. Other than the rebuttals to the fine tuning argument, there is nothing of the sort — the standard laundry list of creationist/ID assertions as to what is wrong with evolution is simply allowed to stand. Darwin’s Black Box came out in 1996, and by 2000 there was no shortage of material rebutting Behe on both his science and his logic. Heck, that was about when I read it, and I (with what would be termed an “advanced layperson’s” understanding of evolution, and a good acquaintance with the creation/evolution debate) had no trouble picking big holes in Behe’s argument. Yet the book’s only mention of the reaction to Behe is some tone trolling about how Martin Gardner made fun of his name. Did Sawyer just not bother to look up any of the background?

Most of these passages are written in the voice of Tom Jericho’s inner muse, and there’s this creeping quasi-religious conversionist, confessional tone about them — we were arrogant and dogmatic about evolution, glossing over problems and holes when we taught our students, we were soooo mean to Michael Behe, etc. — again, stuff that could come straight off any creationist website, with no mention of the voluminous responses made by scientists to exactly the points raised. Contributing to Jericho’s “crisis of faith” is the fact that he is dying of cancer: he’s being forced by science (i.e. the distorted presentation of it given in the book) to take seriously the idea of God, while being repelled by the idea that this postulated God doesn’t give a damn about helping people in dire need.

Interlude: The Good Stuff

Being a native of Hogtown, who spent a good my youth in the vicinity of the Planetarium and ROM (I was a student member of the RASC), I appreciated the novel’s setting. I know exactly where Hollus’s shuttle landed….

Hollus is an engaging character with a wry sense of humour, and the relationship that develops between her and Jericho is touching. Her reactions to Earth popular culture are perceptive and amusing. Despite their bizarre physiology — sort of a cross between a giant spider and a Larry Niven Puppeteer — her species, who call themselves Forhilnor, are psychologically similar to humans.

Not so the other species on the star ship, the Wreeds. They have 23 digits and a visual organ that wraps completely around their heads. The first means that they have no concept of counting (largish prime numbers being inconvenient bases for a number system), but instead have an intuitive sense of number extending to much larger quantities than that of humans. The wrap-around “eye” gives them a holistic perception of their surroundings. Where humans and Forhilnors would analyze a problem piece-by-piece, the Wreeds intuit the answer as a whole. I’m interested in the question of how cognition arises out of the way our senses present the world to us, so I find the Wreeds interesting as an exploration of how a radically different physiology might produce a radically different cognition. Like their Forhilnor companions, they believe in God, and spend half their waking hours trying to contact him telepathically. The reality of telepathy is taken for granted and never explained, although it becomes important in the climax of the book.

Sawyer also works in some digs at the Mike Harris government in Ontario and at the general dumbing-down of museums (sentiments with which I heartily concur). There is an aside about how the American news media reports on the Forhilnor that are visiting sites in the US, but never mentions the ones visiting other places in the world (that’s a very Canadian piece of snark regarding American culture).

Back to Kvetching

I’ll give Sawyer credit (though not much, as it turns out) for one thing: doing what the Intelligent Design movement refuses to do, which is try to put some flesh on the dry bones of the basic idea. The IDists, of course, can’t, because admitting that they very specifically believe the Designer to be the Judeo-Christian God would give away their game. The Forhilnor believe God to be an intelligence that arose spontaneously during a previous cycle of the universe (How? Made of what?), somehow survived the Big Crunch/Big Bang that began our universe, and was able to tinker with the physics of the new universe.

But God hasn’t been on vacation ever since. All that recycled creationist/ID crap? He’s also been busy doing biochemical engineering (and like the IDists, Sawyer never gives us an explicit hypothesis on what, when and how. It’s just the usual implication from “There’s something wrong with evolution!”). But most intriguingly, God caused the mass extinctions that occurred simultaneously on the worlds of all three intelligent races. Apparently, mere tinkering with biochemistry is insufficient: the decimations that opened the ecosystem to be repopulated by the few surviving groups are, in some way not even speculated at in the story, necessary to allow the evolution of intelligence on all three worlds at about the same time. There seems to be an implicit concept here of some sort of highly abstract evolutionary trajectory which will cause biota, despite having radically different body plans, to converge on high intelligence, but only if they all pass through the same sequence of extinction events, over the period of half-a-billion years. However, the idea is never explicitly stated or developed, and it strikes me as a massive hand-wave.

In the end, Sawyer is only slightly less vague than the IDists are as to just what the Designer did.

Oh, I mustn’t forget (because it truly is forgettable) the side-plot involving a couple of Christian fundy terrorists, written as the most stereotypical of hicks-from-Arkansas. They begin off-stage, blowing up an abortion clinic in Etobicoke. Chapters later, they shoot up the ROM’s collection of Burgess Shale fossils, which they regard as fakes intended to deceive the public into believing evolution. I found this rather upsetting, just as I find the real-life cases of ISIS dynamiting ancient monuments upsetting, and for much the same reason. That’s not a flaw: a good novel should move the reader to joy and tears. It’s a dramatic scene, with a hostage-taking involving the main characters, culminating in a shoot-out with the Toronto cops in which both the yahoos die.

And then nothing. The police question the witnesses for a few hours, Jericho discusses it with Hollus a bit —  and we never hear about it again. It ties into the main plot in no way whatever. The sole purpose (and Sawyer pretty much admits this) seems to be further establish his position as a reasonable moderate — “How dare you call me a creationist? See, this is what creationists look like! I’m totes taking about something completely different!” No, Robert: you’re not a creationist. You just credulously repeat anti-evolution talking points, apparently without doing much fact-checking.

Granted, the shoot-out at the ROM — as dramatic as it is — is rather eclipsed by events of the following day. First the star Betelgeuse goes supernova, and the radiation therefrom is going to barbecue Earth’s ecosphere. (All die. Oh the embarrassment). But it’s okay because the very next thing that happens is that God Himself, who turns out to be a sort of Black Space Amoeba of Enormous Size, shows up and interposes Himself between Earth and the supernova, absorbing the radiation blast. Unfortunately, the way this climactic scene is narrated falls rather flat. The whole thing is being observed by telescopes aboard the orbiting Forhilnor starship, and the video is relayed to Earth. However, the point-of-view character isn’t watching a TV monitor, he’s standing out on University Avenue looking at Betelgeuse shining brightly in the daytime sky — we’re told, rather than shown, one of the pivotal moments in the plot. The sense of duration is also lost: I can’t tell whether this sequence of events takes seconds, minutes or hours. This isn’t a plot, it’s a summary of a plot, and I found it a weak point.

Of course, this is the aliens’ big chance to meet the God they’ve been looking for. A few days later, their ship leaves in the direction of Betelgeuse, with Jericho in cryo-sleep (i.e. so he won’t die of his cancer on the way), and a few other human volunteers. The Forhilnor star drive is not FTL, only relativistic, so about two years (ship time) or four centuries (Earth time) later, they reach the BSAoES (a.k.a. God). The Wreeds finally get their telepathic contact, and BSAoES gives them instructions on what to do next: build an artificial womb, and place within it samples of human, Forhilnor, and Wreed DNA.

Then a miracle happens. No, really. In response to a beam of light (which somehow shines through the hull of the ship) from the BSAoES, the chromosomes fuse together and begin to develop into…something. Then we have another annoying passage where we again lose the sense of first person narrative, and with it, the time scale. Along the way there is some not-quite-right stuff about embryonic recapitulation, and how no one ever knew what that was about (um, did you know there’s this whole field called evo-devo?). Eventually we are informed that several months pass before the critter is ready to leave the incubator. It is identified as an infant God, destined to survive the next Big Crunch, and all the mucking about with biochem and mass extinctions was leading up to this.

It’s a bit of a weak ending. Remember the Star Child at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey? This ain’t it. But one more point I’ll grant to Sawyer: his deity isn’t likely to please the conventionally devout. It cares not at all about the fates of individuals — not their lives and deaths, not their sex lives, not how they treat each other. It is concerned with the fates of worlds and species in general, and even that only because they may eventually become capable of producing God’s offspring.

In other words: after all the intelligent design buildup, God turns out to be a reproductive parasite on the rest of us. The IDists should be careful what they wish for — Sawyer’s hypothesis is at least as likely as theirs.

Well, What Does Sawyer Really Think?

Works of fiction often try to say something true about the real world, and it can require some discernment to separate the author’s voice from the words they put in the mouth of  various characters. Even first person narrators may be unreliable. Further, science fiction by definition always has a few gimmes: technologies we haven’t yet invented, scientific discoveries we haven’t yet made, possibly even falsification of current real-world science. So, it’s possible that he’s just playing with ideas here, in the way hard SF does, and he doesn’t intend his readers to take the ID arguments (whether voiced by Hollus, or by Jericho’s internal monologue) seriously.

However, other on-line material give some pretty clear indications as to Sawyer’s views. In his essay Science and God, he says flat-out that science is the “only legitimate way of knowing” — not faith, not mystical insight. Therefore if there is a God, he/she/it should be, at least in principle, scientifically discoverable. And he makes pretty clear that he is either atheist or agnostic. So far, I agree completely2: you want me to consider your favorite God? Fine: give me a definite hypothesis, with as much detail as you can manage, and we can discuss the state of the evidence. That essay then goes on to give us the Fine-Tuning argument (practically the same one given by Hollus). For reasons given above, I don’t buy it.

He goes further in this 2009 interview with a Portuguese SF site (emphasis mine):

….can I categorically state that we don’t live in a simulation created by some more advanced being than ourselves? Can I categorically state that we don’t live in a baby universe created by some experimenter in a parent universe? No, I can’t deny either of those possibilities. Do I think that we might be able to find proof that either of these is in fact the case? Yes, indeed, such proof might be uncovered via the tools of science. Intelligent design is the school of thought that most closely coincides with the above views: we might live in a designed universe, there are some scientific hints that this might be true, and they are worth exploring.

Given that quote, and the lack of rebuttal within the book, it seems quite reasonable to take Jericho’s recital of the “problems with evolution” and the ID biochem talking points, as an indication that Sawyer is, at least, sympathetic to those arguments. I’m disappointed in the character: a realistically knowledgeable palaeontologist character (one who has even debated creationists) should know better.

That sympathetic position was barely tenable in 2000, if you hadn’t been paying attention to the technical details of the creation/evolution debate. But by the time of that interview we’d had Kitzmiller vs. Dover, the leak of the Wedge Document (actually, that occurred in 1999), Bill Dembski shooting his mouth off in ways that clearly link ID with (Christian) theology and the US culture wars, and much, much more. And of course, we’d had the notable lack of any actual scientific results coming out of the ID “school of thought”. All of which demonstrated in spades that ID, as a “school of thought” was, and had never been anything other than, a flimsy disguise for Olde Time Religion. They had no positive scientific hypothesis to put forth, and their negative arguments (i.e. against evolution) had been shown to be erroneous.

That last bit is the clincher: you can talk about open-mindedness and maybe-there’s-someone-pulling-the-strings all you like, but without 1) some valid reason to think there’s something seriously wrong with the current consensus and 2) a coherent and testable alternative to present, it ain’t science. That was one of the big holes in Darwin’s Black Box: Behe spouts enthusiastically about how Intelligent Design is going to replace Darwinism as the reigning paradigm in biology, the way Einstein’s physics replaced Newton’s, but the analogy doesn’t work. Experiment had shown by the turn of the 20th century that classical physics was in big trouble, and Einstein presented a mathematically rigorous, testable hypothesis to replace that paradigm. This is in no way true in the case of Darwinism vs. Intelligent Design. That hasn’t stopped some Christian apologists from greeting Calculating God with pleasure (example here), even if they don’t agree with where the book ends up (as I suggest above: there’s a lesson for them in that).

I wind up with mixed (but on balance, negative) feelings about the Calculating God. I liked, and cared about, the main characters. It plays with Big Ideas in fun (if at times simplistic) ways typical of hard SF. Charitably, I could read it as a subtle poke at the religious IDists, i.e: sure, let’s concede for the sake of argument that you’re right about irreducible complexity and gaps in the fossil record and all the other rubbish you bunch like to spout — it still doesn’t get you within a light year of a God who loves us and sent His Son to die for us, and it’s lazy and dishonest thinking to imagine that it does. But I think Sawyer’s other writings indicate pretty strongly that he buys into the bogus premise of the IDists, and that’s the way people on both sides have mostly read him. Which makes him a lousy skeptic trying to occupy a fallacious middle ground, and by using his writer’s soapbox to trot out creationist/ID arguments in an uncritical way, Sawyer has done rationalism a disservice.

  1. This may in part refer to what seems to have been an acrimonious exchange arising out of a 2002 review published in Skeptical Inquirer. Not being a reader of SI, I can’t comment on the episode.
  2. Allowing for some quibble-room about the Demarcation Problem and so forth.

Syfy’s Childhood’s End: Meh.

Well, we had to watch it, of course. I’ll admit to being a bit handicapped in judging a cinematic production of a book I’ve read: I’m always thinking, OK how are they going to handle this bit…OK that’s done, now on to the next bit. For example, I couldn’t really appreciate (or properly criticize) Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings until the second or so viewing.

So, Syfy’s Childhood’s End has its moments. Such as: they turned the Wainwright character (leader of the anti-Overlord movement) into a bombastic media magnate peddling fear and bigotry. Colm Meaney managed to pull off a pretty good Bill O’Reilly impression in the role. And he gets his comeuppance by shooting himself in the foot, very publicly.

And then it has its other moments. Like: the solution to hunger in Africa is to ship all North America’s surplus food there in converted US Navy ships (because the arrival of the Overlords has made the military superfluous, so they’re conveniently available). Um, I don’t think getting the food from continent A to continent B has ever been the major bottleneck in the problem of world hunger…. And if it was, a couple of container ships would still probably carry more than a whole fleet of converted warships (OK, maybe aircraft carriers could carry containers, and of course the navy has supply ships, but the rest, not so much). Fixing the world’s problems is soooo easy, all we ever really needed was a big-ass alien ship over every major city in the world to motivate us to get on with it.

And how come just about everyone is a white American, where the book was multinational? (A: Because it was made by Americans, for an American audience, dummy). Thus Rikki Stormgren the Finnish UN Secretary-General becomes Ricky Stormgren, Missouri farmer. Even the scenes set in South Africa have hardly a black face in sight. Except, of course, the astrophysicist Milo Rodricks — and that (I can’t help feeling) only because the book character he was taken from (Jan Rodricks) is specifically identified as black (bi-racial, actually, and good on A. C. Clarke for sticking that in a book written in 1951). Interesting giving Milo a mean-streets background, though.

Having seen the mini-series, I had to re-read the book (it’s probably been close on 40 years since the last time). I have to say: Clarke’s characters are all cardboard, and he can’t write dialog. A lot of the book is written in the “Travelogue of the Future” mode that shows up all over his novels, and it really hasn’t aged well. Clarke’s stories were always carried by the Big Ideas; that was what made them fun and interesting, and the book does get there, eventually. Syfy’s version of humanity’s apotheosis — The Rapture of the Kiddies — really doesn’t stand up next to Clarke’s.

So: Syfy’s Childhood’s End is nowhere near as atrocious as the last Syfy adaptation I watched (A Wizard of Earthsea, which I couldn’t even finish), but not terribly good. Still, unlike that other, the book wasn’t that great either.

Dig & Delve: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I spent a chunk of last weekend at the Dig & Delve Christian apologetics conference, mostly because a local pastor has been coming to a bunch of CFI events, and invited people to attend. Being a Lazy Retired Guy (and a believer in reciprocity) and all, I didn’t really have an excuse not to. It was An Experience. They had three speakers exploring the theme of “BEING HUMAN: Scientifically? Uniquely? Sexually? Freely? REALLY?” I took some notes, though not faithfully, and this is basically a brain-dump.

The Good: John Stackhouse

This was the only speaker I can really have any respect for (as it happens, I actually knew him a little bit at Queen’s almost 40 years ago). Stackhouse is someone I can imagine having a friendly argument with over a pint and agreeing to disagree. His last talk on Saturday, about cultural engagement in a pluralistic society, was actually quite good. It was entitled “Should Christians Try To Take Over Canada and Fix It?” (something like that), and the answer was, pretty clearly: No. Christian hegemony has been tried and the results are far from universally admirable. The bulk of the talk was really about the issue of how to have a functional society that allows diversity while retaining an overall sense of being a society, not just a gaggle of unrelated factions — an issue that Canadians generally, not just Christians, have to deal with. His answer (after examining several alternative models) is acceptance and mutual toleration. Agree or disagree, that’s a thoroughly secular answer to a thoroughly secular question.

The Bad: Fazale Rana

Rana is a biochemist by training and previous employment, but now works for Reasons To Believe, an old-earth creationist apologetics group. His basic message: Humans are created uniquely in God’s image, and not at all related to other animals. He gave one talk that concentrated on cave art, and how (apparently) it sprang into full flower at a certain point in prehistory, with no prior development at all. Therefore humans were created in fully modern intellectual and spiritual form at a discrete point in time. Not being an archaeologist, I really wouldn’t know — but then, Rana isn’t either, and if I’ve learned one thing about creationists, it’s that they love to simplify a complex subject to the point of distortion (more on this anon).

When were humans created, according to Rana? About 100ky-150ky ago, based on the rough date ranges for “Mitochondrial Eve” and “Y-chromosome Adam”. What’s that you say — that they weren’t the only two people living at the time? Actually, the error bars on population size derived from population genetics are so wide, that “two” is just as good a number as whatever evolutionary scientists are saying. But, but: early humans remains are mostly found in Africa, not Mesopotamia (Biblical site of the Garden of Eden)? Just look at a map: the two places aren’t really that far apart….

The other hominids (including Neandertals) are not related to us, notwithstanding their manufacture of tools. After all, chimps also make primitive tools therefore…something. Actually, this seems like a perverse argument to make: that chimps and early hominids made tools would seem more to indicate that they both might be related to us than otherwise.

Oh, and the fact that chimps share such a high proportion of DNA with us? Common design, of course. (Including the beta-globin and GULO pseudogenes?).

But Rana made clear that his strategy is to assume creationism, then see how science can be shoe-horned into that, so no need to worry about trivial concerns like statistics or geography.

Rana really hit his stride on his talk about ENCODE, and how it has decisively refuted the idea of junk DNA. Apparently, junk DNA was considered “the best argument for evolution” and now the evolutionists are desperately trying to tear it down because they don’t like that (all backed up with appropriate quotes — a move we’ve seen before). As usual, the real situation is more complicated.

First, I (a layperson with a better-than-average understanding of evolution) was not aware that junk DNA was “the best evidence” for evolution — indeed, that there is any single “best evidence”. Evolution is supported by the consilience of multiple lines of evidence, of which genetics is only one.

Second (and more important), their are genuine reasons to doubt the ENCODE conclusions (Larry Moran provides a timely summary here, with links to additional material). TL;DR: ENCODE uses a questionable, and very generous, definition of “functional” — basically, anything in the genome that shows pretty much any binding activity and is transcribed to mRNA is deemed “functional”. But a lot of that transcription is at such a low level it almost certainly represents biochemical noise. And as Larry’s post points out: even the promoters of ENCODE have backed away from their bolder claims.

In short: Rana’s presentation of ENCODE as a slam-dunk for his side is a ludicrous distortion of the situation. He’s not doing science, just dishonest propaganda. And he’s a scientific creationist. But I repeat myself.

The Ugly: John Patrick

Dr. John Patrick is a charming white-haired academic with a lovely British accent and a frighteningly medieval mind. And one of the most frightening aspects of it is that he would not consider that an insult — in his opening talk on Friday night, he said “the medievals were better thinkers than us”. It got to the point that every time he got up to speak, I and the friend I was with would roll our eyes at each other, meaning: Oh god, what’s he going to say this time? Such as: You know why women can’t walk safely down a dark street any more? It’s because of the Pill (no, I don’t get it either). He’s one of these Protestants who think the Catholics are right about birth control. Natural Family Planning totally works! But when it doesn’t, that’s OK, because you’re supposed to be trusting God with your fertility! And children are a blessing! IOW: the sort of doublespeak I remember getting from a Catholic friend I used to argue about this with. Basically, he spent a bunch of time scolding his fellow Christians for not being orthodox enough about this hobby-horse of his.

On abortion, he told a charming little story: while he was in paediatric practice, a mother brought in her (visibly handicapped) baby for an appointment. She was in tears because some woman on the bus had rudely asked why she hadn’t had the child aborted. Dr. Patrick’s reply: well, she probably once had an abortion just so she could go on a Caribbean holiday without a baby bump showing in her bikini, and now she feels terribly guilty about it, so she takes it out on random strangers on the bus.

And he knows this how?

But wait, there’s more! The gay lifestyle is really, really, really unhealthy, but that fact is being suppressed by the big Gay-Liberal Conspiracy. Which They can do because They have more money than Us (yes, it sounded just about that sinister).

Is your doctor dead set against euthanasia under any and all circumstances? If not, then find a new doctor because yours will quite happily do you in if your heirs slip him a few grand under the table. Anyways, euthanasia is never necessary; we can control all pain now, and dying quietly at home surrounded by your family is such a beautiful way to go.

IOW: this is a guy who will make up egregiously nasty shit about his ideological opponents. I don’t think I like him much.

Other tidbits:

Abortion to save the life of the mother is never necessary. Apparently, this case at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix never happened.

Science can’t say anything about Love, Justice and the like. Funny, I just happen to have a book on my tablet right now entitled The Neurobiology of Human Values (with papers by among others, de Waal and the Damasios) that does exactly what Dr. Patrick says isn’t possible.

So: that was a fun (and in its own way, informative) way to spend half a weekend, but on the whole I think I have better things to do with my time.

Parmenides on What-Is-Not

Originally submitted as a course assignment. A parallel Greek-English text of Parmenides’s poem On Nature is available here (PDF).

In the reading, Parmenides is attempting to define “being”, by which he means not just the physical universe, but the raw fact of existence, including mental concepts. Anything that can be said or thought counts as “what is” [fragment VI]. In doing so, it is sometimes necessary to contrast it with “what is not”, i.e. non-being. By what-is-not, Parmenides does not mean just an empty void (perhaps waiting to be filled, or out of which a universe might spring), but the pure idea of non-existence, possessing no attributes, and no potentialities. In attempting to make this clear, he repeats the point several times in different words (“nothing”, “not to be”, “things that are not”, “not-being”, “what-is-not”).

However, in doing so, Parmenides stumbles into a linguistic paradox: what-is-not is, by his own definition, that which cannot even be spoken of or thought about – and yet, here he is, thinking and speaking about it. The reiteration of his definition of what-is-not does not resolve this issue.

In my view, the paradox is unresolvable. We are beings evolved and embedded in a physical universe, and psychologically we cannot conceive of absolute non-existence. (When I try, the closest I can come to it is to envision a featureless black expanse – which at the least still possesses spatial extent, and a colour I can name). Cognitively, we are obligate symbol-users. However, our cognition (and language) is versatile enough to assemble symbols into a myriad of combinations, not all of which make sense. Hence, we can juxtapose “being” (a comprehensible concept) with “opposite” (a comprehensible relation) to produce “non-being” — which is inconceivable to our imaginations.
I conclude that while Parmenides’ description of what-is-not makes linguistic sense, the concept itself is incoherent; we cannot associate any clear concept to the words.

Socrates anticipates the Salem Hypothesis

During my Usenet days (roughly 1992-2005) I hung out on talk.origins a lot. About once a month, some new creationist would waltz in, posting pompously about how evolution was obviously false, and all the evidence points to creationism, because I Haz Science Credentials. Upon further inquiry, it frequently turned out that our new chew-toy’s background was, in fact, in some branch of engineering. It happened often enough that one t.o regular, Bruce Salem, proposed the eponymous hypothesis that an engineering education forms a predisposition to creationist beliefs. As it happened, I had already surmised something similar about engineers and pseudoscientific crankery in general. I recall some TV show in the early 1980’s about crop circles (now known beyond all reasonable doubt to be pranks — they barely even rise to the level of “hoax”) which included an interview with an “investigator” (shown against a background of oscilloscopes and similar lab equipment, because an oscilloscope displaying a sine wave seems to be a cultural icon for Gee Whiz High Tech Investigationality) intoning about the “altered molecular structure” of the bent grain stalks, therefore alien technology must have knocked down that barley! Obviously. Sure enough, the guy was an electrical engineer. I don’t know how much empirical support there is for the Salem Hypothesis, but it seems to be an idea that won’t go away, and I tend to believe there’s something to it. (I speak as one who was trained in electrical and computer engineering to the Master’s degree level, with a 30-year career behind me).

One component of the Hypothesis is that engineers suffer from the “little knowledge” effect, i.e. it’s a dangerous thing, because you start to think you know more than you really do, even on matters outside your own field. I see pedagogy as part of the problem. The typical engineering curriculum (casts mind back to undergrad days) gives you a fire-hose introduction to mechanics, electromagnetism, optics, thermodynamics, chemistry, metallurgy, computer programming, several branches of math, maybe a little geology — how could you not know all the wisdom of the world by fourth year? Yes, well: we get the results of science by the truckload, but not so much the process of science, and the latter is what you need to have a useful opinion on a whole field of science, not just a superficial grasp of thermodynamics and a smart-ass attitude.

Turns out, Socrates noticed something similar about 2400 years earlier. In the Apology, he relates how he has polled the men of Athens seeking those who have wisdom. After being disappointed by the politicians and the poets, he turns to the craftsmen — which would include the engineer-equivalents of his day — and found (emphasis mine):

….they did have knowledge of things which I did not have knowledge of, and in this way they were wiser than I. But, men of Athens, the good craftsmen also seemed to me to go wrong in the same way as the poets: because he performed his art nobly, each one deemed himself wisest also in the other things, the greatest things—and this discordant note of theirs seemed to hide that wisdom.

La plus ça change….

Socrates and The Hipster: Prelude

Reading: Hippias Major 281a-286b, translated with introduction and notes by Paul Woodruff. This is one of Plato’s early works, in which he seems more concerned with preserving the memory of his mentor Socrates than with developing ideas of his own.

Hippias (according to Woodruff, and a few online sources checked), was a sophist of the 5th century BCE who made his living traveling about giving speeches, and instructing the young in various subjects. Socrates (and therefore Plato) didn’t think much of him — while Hippias’ knowledge was broad, his understanding was shallow, and he had an inflated opinion of himself. In other words: an ancient example of Dunning-Kruger Syndrome. It takes Hippias over half the dialog to catch on that Socrates — here at his sarcastic best — is mocking him.


As the dialog opens, it appears that Hippias is recently returned from one of his frequent diplomatic missions to other Greek city-states. Socrates (in what has to be high irony) praises him for his great wisdom, remarking on how much wiser modern thinkers are than their predecessors. Where previous generations of thinkers eschewed involvement in affairs of state, the current crop of sophists are up to their necks in it, and moreover are making a handsome living on the side as itinerant orators. This sets Hippias boasting of how much money he has made speaking here, there and everywhere, and how much he took the small-town hicks of Inycum for. I’m getting a picture of Hippias as the Classical equivalent of today’s touring motivational speaker, giving glitzy presentations dispensing pop-psych platitudes. Socrates agrees (and Hippias appears not to notice the sarcasm) that the measure of one’s wisdom is how much they pay you for it.

A Legal Digression

However, there is one city where Hippias failed to make even a single mina — Sparta. The Spartans, he explains, only permit education according to their own customs; no outside teaching is permitted, and the only subject they would allow Hippias to speak on was the deeds of heroes of old. This fits with what we know of the rigidly militaristic Spartan society. We have plenty people like that today, who love to be flattered by way of history, real or invented.

Socrates is perplexed by the Spartans’ stubborn legalism — does not every law-abiding citizen seek after virtue, and wish his sons to learn it? Should not, therefore, the finest teacher of virtue be enthusiastically received, put to his work, and paid well for it?  (Here, I think Socrates’ disdain for Hippias is matched by his distaste for the Spartans’ jingoism). Would not a more liberal educational policy be beneficial to Spartan society? And is not the purpose of law to benefit the city? So (he concludes), when legislators make laws that are not good, “they have failed to make them lawful — indeed, to make them law.” Paradoxically (says Socrates), the notoriously law-abiding Spartans are blatant law-breakers on a matter of some importance.

This is a bit of a leap; Socrates seems to think in different categories than I do. To us, a law can be harmful, and therefore ought to be repealed — but until then it’s still a law. However, Socrates dismisses such an idea (see 284e) as a confusion of the ignorant — to him, the idea of a “bad law” seems simply incoherent. There is a hint in the following text of the distinction between man-made law and natural or moral law, and that the former should attempt to promote the latter, but this is never properly developed — if Socrates thinks that, he doesn’t say it; he just tosses his paradox out there to confound Hippias. Later generations would make this distinction explicit, as for example, Martin Luther King’s “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.'”1 And of course King referring to Augustine echoing Socrates brings us full circle….

To me though (philosophical newbie that I am), realizing that Socrates (and/or Plato) do not make the same distinctions that we do is quite helpful (there’s a similar conflation of “law” with “justice” in the Crito which I read for another course). It means that, instead of trying to make sense of what seems at first sight to be quite opaque inferences by reference to my own categories, I can instead assume that it made sense to Plato, and ask what that tells me about his categories. While it may seem that it should make matters more confusing, in fact I find the additional degree of freedom to be a welcome avenue to comprehension.

All the foregoing is really just a warm-up to the feature presentation. A remark by Hippias about renowned heroes of the Trojan War reminds Socrates of an argument he recently had about the word “kalos” (καλοσ). But other work calls, so that will have to wait for another post….

  1.  Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963