The Philosopher Stone

An eclectic view of spirituality in the context of modern culture and science.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Common Ground

The intelligent design debate continues unabated; Judge Jones' decision in Dover ended up being little more than a humorous footnote.

(For "don't miss" humor, see "How many Darwinists does it take to screw in a light bulb?")

In my last blog, a solution to the conflict was promised. That solution is increased spiritual awareness.

Without knowledge of the spirit, one is bound to misunderstand the intelligence factor in intelligent design.

Men and women of all religions, as well as those who belong to no religion but hold spiritual beliefs, accept or celebrate the existence of the supernatural.

On the other hand, those whose faith lies in philosophical naturalism or materialism, those who oppose intelligent design, uniformly deny the existence of the supernatural.

The intelligent design conflict has been cleverly misrepresented as a battle against Christian fundamentalists, when, in fact, it is a battle against all who believe in the existence of the supernatural.

Materialists have successfully engaged in a "divide and conquer" strategy, obscuring the actual depth and breadth of the conflict. As long as they frame the conflict as defending truth against "know nothing" Christians, they escape notice from others who should be concerned.

The first step in resolving the conflict is bringing together people of all religions and spiritual pursuits for an ecumenical conference to discuss the clash of worldviews—the clash between those who acknowledge supernatural causes and those who claim there are only material causes.

Only when we uncover the fundamental assumptions informing the two opposed worldviews do we find a basis for a dialogue that will lead to tolerance of diversity.

In such an ecumenical gathering, common ground among those who accept the existence of the supernatural can be explored. Though views of the supernatural will vary, a common voice can be found, a voice with which to enter dialogue with those who reject, and even attack, the idea of the supernatural.

When persons of faith and spirituality share a common voice, the dialogue will become productive. As long as we mistake this conflict as only concerning Christian fundamentalism, we will miss the true significance of the clash of worldviews.

See Bill Dembski & Friends' Blog Uncommon Dissent.

Judge Hands Science a Defeat

(Note: Originally Posted 3-7-06)

In a stunning blow to science, a Federal Court neutered science, rendering the discipline no longer relevant to our understanding of the universe. (See full essay.) The press missed the real story, failing to note the dogmatic nature of the Plaintiffs’ lawsuit, which prompted the Dover Inquisition drama.

The Court interrogated the Defendants, put their souls and character on trial, and recounted the history of Fundamentalism in a witch hunt seeking religious intent. Swept up in the Plaintiffs’ antipathy for religion, the Court itself exhibited religious prejudice. Fundamentalism, not the statement of the Dover School Board, was put on trial. The Court roamed far from the legal question before it and demonized Fundamentalism.

The Court, delivering a history lesson regarding Fundamentalism, had an equal duty to deliver a history lesson regarding atheism and the ACLU. If the Court sought motive in the annals of history, it had a duty to consider all motives, including the Plaintiffs’ religious viewpoint motive. Incomplete histories are prejudicial. The Court, using selective history, entered bias into the opinion and violated First and Fourteenth Amendment protections.

The statement issued by the Dover school board does not establish nor endorse a religion. Impugning the motives of the Defendants was out of bounds. Their motives, their associations, their opportunity, and their character were irrelevant, as no transgression took place. Unless I commit an offense, my motive, my character, and my opportunity are irrelevant.

Essentially, Defendants were accused of committing a concealed thought crime. There was no unlawful act; they were “convicted” on the basis of implied motive, beliefs, and associations. When our religious beliefs become thought crimes, we are on the slippery slope into secular totalitarianism.

When the government transgresses the limits of neutrality and acts in ways that show religious favoritism or sponsorship, they violate the Establishment Clause.” The government violated the prohibition against “conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred.”

Plaintiffs presented a case based on their religious viewpoint. Plaintiffs’ argument, in the end, rests upon a metaphysical position, not upon science. When the government conducted an analysis (Inquisition) of the Defendants’ religious views, but failed to conduct an analysis of the Plaintiffs’ religious views, judicial prejudice entered the picture. As there was a religious motive behind the Plaintiffs’ lawsuit, the court discriminated against one religious view on behalf of another. When the Dover court failed to query the religious motives, views, statements, and history of Plaintiffs, the Court failed to provide “equal protection.” The Court demonstrated bias when it performed “purpose” and “motive” tests on one side, without performing the same tests on the other side.

Plaintiffs argued ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation. They argued ID forces science to broaden its ground rules so that supernatural forces have to be considered. Plaintiffs, however, failed to provide scientific evidence that the universe is limited to natural causes. If ID is true, it simply means there are both supernatural and natural causes. That is still science. If the universe consists of both supernatural and natural causes, then that is what science must study. The metaphysical beliefs of the Plaintiffs are irrelevant.

Plaintiffs simply wished to impose their beliefs (aka “ground rules”) on science. If the Court understood the issues, it would have asked, “what scientific event in the 16th, or 17th century, or in the 18th, 19th, 20th, or 21st century determined there were only natural causes in this universe?” Plaintiffs offered no scientific evidence the universe in which we live does not contain both supernatural and natural causes; they offer a metaphysical view that the world contains only natural causes. Scientists cannot arbitrarily decide, based upon their metaphysical views, based upon their religious views, that the universe contains only natural causes. That is religion, not science.

Plaintiffs were cleverly deceptive. They hid their metaphysical and religious belief there are only natural causes—known as philosophical naturalism or materialism. If the Court had investigated Plaintiffs’ beliefs, it would have found Plaintiffs more dishonest than the Defendants the Court chastised. The Plaintiffs’ position is a religious view unsupported by science. They know it, and hide it. Plaintiffs cleverly deceived the Court and gained special treatment for their religious view in the schools.

Science must be unfettered from demagogues who preach philosophical naturalism and insist their religious view deserves a special place in our schools. When the Court ruled, “It is therefore readily apparent to the Court that ID fails to meet the essential ground rules that limit science to testable, natural explanations,” the Court violated the Constitution and endorsed metaphysical naturalism, a religious view.

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Shakespeare and the Literary Monkey

(Note: Originally Posted 12-12-05)

The evolution bug has mutated once again and infected yet another human discipline. A November 6th article in the New York Times Magazine, "The Literary Darwinists," asks the question: "Can evolutionary principles shed new light on the literary canon?"

In field after field, the unfounded assumption that human intellect is equivalent to neurons firings in the brain and no more makes an appearance. The key premise promoted by the "we are bio robots" crowd tells us we are no more than evolved bio machines, thus everything we do, including reading and writing, is based upon random mutations selected for by natural selection. Of course, such "scientists" have yet to provide even the sketchiest evidence that consciousness is equivalent to brain activity. Very few scientific endeavors get this far out of the barn with absolutely no support for their most basic hypothesis. It is not difficult to conclude we are witnessing metaphysical propaganda masquerading as science.

And it is not difficult to locate the source of contagion. Those ill with the evolutionary psychology virus have been spotted at the scene: "The alpha male of Literary Darwinism is the 76-year-old Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson." It turns out "Wilson contributed a forward to 'The Literary Animal' in which he writes that if Literary Darwinism succeeds and 'not only human nature but its outermost literary productions can be solidly connected to biological roots, it will be one of the great events of intellectual history.'" There are others, myself among them, who consider Literary Darwinism to be one of the low points of intellectual history.

The current state of psychology, unfortunately, amounts to an attempt to "demystify the nature of consciousness itself, positing, for example, that the brain is a collection of separate modules evolved to serve mental operations, more like a Swiss Army Knife than a soul." We find society divided between those who wish to achieve spiritual enlightenment and those who wish to reduce Man to the level of a really handy bio robot. Of course, at the scientific and intellectual level, the contest is over. The existence of spirit has won out. However, with the propaganda campaign mounted by naturalists like Wilson in full gear, one might easily miss the anticlimactic nature of the current debate. The school of literary criticism known as Literary Darwinism failed to get the memo.

What is Literary Darwinism? "Literary Darwinists read books in search of innate patterns of human behavior." The Literary Darwinists, "…say that it’s impossible to fully appreciate and understand a literary text unless you keep in mind that humans behave in certain universal ways and do so because those behaviors are hard-wired into us." Speaking of literary hard-wiring, the movie Bladerunner based upon the Philip K. Dick short story, "Do Androids Dream of Sheep?" comes to mind. The androids in the story, discovering they’re hard-wired bio machines, rather than real humans, take exception to the fact and give Harrison Ford a rather difficult time. One can only hope temperamental writers, upon finding out they are hard-wired bio machines, do not exhibit such hostile sentiments. Then again, a few writers experiencing disgust with these Darwinists might be just what we need.

Darwinists ask how writing "makes us more adaptive, more capable of passing along our genes" when this "strange exercise of the imagination" may have "no purpose," giving evolution reason "to dispense with it." Anyone familiar with the joke about the actress in Hollywood who naively slept with the writer appreciates the fact literary toil does not enhance gene transmission. A quick look at the bank accounts of most writers confirms writing is also not much of a survival strategy. Perhaps writers need to engage in a little "survival of the fittest" behavior. Seeing their imaginations, their very personal fantasies, being denigrated as the work of survival-obsessed dreams, may cause them to strike back with well-aimed keystrokes. Imagine a whole new sub-genre of horror literature targeting the new breed of Social Darwinists. Writers will find ample inspiration in the history of eugenics and the Holocaust.

But, I digress. To be fair, one must ask if Literary Darwinists have a valid point. Compare Shakespeare with current Hollywood fare and one feels the approaching chill of extinction. Was Shakespeare the epitome of perfect literary genes? His genes, seeking survival, no doubt computed the fact that writing was the path into the heart of the ruling class. Perhaps the radiation glow emanating from our television sets has since mutated our imagination genes. Music video directors now possess the dominant gene.

Literary Darwinists explain Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a "…play [that] becomes the story of a young man’s dilemma choosing between his personal self-interest (taking over the kingdom by killing his uncle, his mother’s new husband) and his genetic self-interest (if his mother has children with his uncle, he may get new siblings who carry three-eighths of his genes)." One can only wonder why Shakespeare wastes time having Hamlet talk to ghosts rather than to his genes. To be fair to the Literary Darwinists, the Hamlet analysis suggests an answer to a question I previously considered unfathomable. Why in the world is gangsta' rap so popular? Literary Darwinists would tell us some bad ass genes want to reproduce. Maybe they have a point.

Writing fiction has often been considered sanctioned lying. Perhaps lying is a survival behavior; a certain amount of dissembling has value in tight spots. Literary Darwinists may be following in this grand tradition of writers when they represent evolutionary psychology as science.

Harvard Simians

(Note: Originally Posted 10-21-05)

Over the years, there have been those who have opined that a Harvard education was equivalent to a degree in monkey business. Their metaphorical complaint may be closer to the truth than one might assume. An article in the October/ November issue of Seed magazine titled "The Simian Seminar" provides a closer look at the monkey business that passes as higher education.

Seed Magazine Oct/Nov 2005
Seed Magazine Oct/Nov 2005

Before my readers get the wrong impression and assume the Simian Seminar is an experimental project designed to test whether or not chimpanzees are capable of earning an undergraduate degree from Harvard, I should clarify the name: according to the Seed article, "Devore and Trivers (Harvard professors) recruit(ed) an elite group of scholars called the Simian Seminar." The Simian Seminar is not about chimps in the learning lab, it refers to elite professors.

A short history lesson is in order. Shortly after Darwin published The Origin of the Species, Herbert Spencer kicked off what is known as Social Darwinism, a movement best captured by the phrase "survival of the fittest," which was followed by the eugenicist movement in the early twentieth century which "invoked natural selection to promote malicious policies of forced sterilization in America and policies of genocide in Europe." Out of favor after the Holocaust, Social Darwinist views waned, but did not disappear. They eventually re-emerged in the figure of Harvard professor E.O.Wilson, the father of sociobiology. Wilson "postulated biology would supplant all other fields of human inquiry—sociology, philosophy, religion, aesthetics—as the single way in which we will understand ourselves." Sociobiology met with strong protests that linked the subject with Social Darwinism and eugenics. The protests convinced Wilson to seek a lower profile. The disfavored sociobiology agenda morphed into a new movement: evolutionary psychology.

The Simian Seminar, an incubator of evolutionary psychology, avoided Wilson's public fate "by simply meeting in private to churn out big ideas." DeVore and Trivers "were convinced of the power of their simple insight: that to understand a particular human behavior, it is essential to ask how and why it might have evolved." DeVore kept his speculation in low-profile mode: "While the chief combatants in the sociobiology debate fought to a draw, DeVore was quietly nurturing a cadre of thinkers who would take the study of sociobiology forward, and who continue to apply evolution to human behavior." Many influenced by his movement are now leaders within the scientific establishment. DeVore accomplished that which Wilson prophesized: one no longer finds philosophy, religion, and aesthetics enjoying a robust presence on campus. By the time today's college students graduate, they are well indoctrinated in man-is-an-animal evolutionary psychology.

If evolutionary psychology were valid science, there would be little to protest. The facts, however, do not support evolutionary psychology. The science is sadly lacking, the metaphysical agenda blatantly in the forefront. What we find, when we look closely, are the pernicious effects of covert metaphysical propaganda.

Genes code for structure. Behavior is not structure. Behavior arises from complex variables that go well beyond genetically-determined structure. Reductionistic models of complex behavior easily become absurd, and fail to account for observation.

The use of an analogy will clarify the situation. Take an elite academician from the Simian Seminar to the race track. Observing the cars and using the same logic as evolutionary psychology, the Simian would propose to predict the behavior of the cars based upon their structure and the design changes instituted over the life of the automobile. Common sense tells us this analysis will fail to meaningfully predict the outcome of the race or a particular car’s behavior.

The Simian will enjoy some success predicting the Lamborghini will outrun the Geo on the backstretch due to superior horsepower and engineering. The Simian, however, will fail in the greater percentage of predictions, however, because he fails to take into account the driver behind the wheel.

The Ferrari, based upon structure, could be predicted to outrun the Taurus, unless the Ferrari is piloted by a shy ten-year-old and the Taurus is driven by a NASCAR veteran. When the Mercedes piles into the wall in corner two, our Simian would grossly misunderstand the reason for this behavior unless he understood it was driven by Ray Charles.

The structure of the automobile supports and constrains behavior. The Ferrari with a professional driver at the wheel might reach two-hundred miles per hour. A Toyota Prius, no matter how skilled the driver, would fail to reach that speed. The far greater set of behaviors observed, however, would be the result of the driver’s skill and the decisions he executes.

In the above situation, the Simian Seminar scholar would easily be seen as incompetent, even by a third-grade evaluator. And yet, the reductionist approach captured in the analogy above is the method evolutionary psychologists expect us to accept. Before society jettisons all other approaches to understanding behavior, as E.O. Wilson proposed, we should take a close look at the quality of science coming out of schools such as Harvard. The research scholar who fails to recognize there’s a driver in the car just might be promoting monkey business.

Neuroscientists Say No to Compassion

(Note: Originally Posted 10-20-05)

The Dalai Lama is scheduled to speak next month at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, but, according to a New York Times article, 544 brain researchers signed a petition urging the society to cancel the lecture.

The Dalai Lama’s appearance comes in connection with his collaboration on experiments involving Buddhist monks using meditation techniques to bring about changes in the brain. This venture arose out of the Mind and Life conferences in which the Dalai Lama met, over a period of years, with western scientists for an informal exchange of ideas. (Alan Wallace, whose books are referenced on this site, played a role in those conferences.)

Anyone familiar with Buddhism knows Buddhist practitioners, over the past two thousand years, have conducted the world’s most in-depth research into consciousness, gaining them valuable insights they can share with the western scientific establishment which has only recently undertaken the study of consciousness.

So why do neuroscientists want the Dalai Lama banned from their annual meeting? One petition-signer stated, “No opportunity should be given to anybody to use neuroscience for supporting transcendent views of the world." The materialistic bias of the scientific establishment again makes an ugly appearance.

What do the petition signers fear?

The Tibetan monks taking part in the experiment created observable effects on the brain; their work, as it is expanded and becomes properly understood, turns conventional western thinking upside down. Using Buddhist techniques, it can be shown that the mind—which is not the brain—causes observable effects on the brain. One’s state of consciousness, controlled through specific exercises, determines the state of the brain.

Consciousness, it turns out, IS a “transcendent view” and not a mere epiphenomenon of the brain.

The Times article reports, “…some investigators who plan to attend the neuroscience meetings are trying to find the neural traces of consciousness itself, a notoriously disorienting quest that has led more than one enterprising scientist into a philosophical fog.” Anyone familiar with the subject understands this is a gross understatement. The quest is not only disorienting, it is an impossible quest, a fool’s errand.

And that, it appears, is precisely what the neuroscientists do not want to learn. They are convinced they stand at the threshold of greatness. For example, the same petitioner who objected to providing a platform for transcendent views stated, “Neuroscience more than other disciplines is the science at the interface between modern philosophy and science.” One can only imagine the chagrin that awaits such scientists when it is shown the important interface belongs to the Tibetan spiritual leader who understands consciousness, while neuroscientists will ultimately be relegated to the role of mechanics who attend to structure.

In order to protect the lie that neuroscience has a grasp on consciousness or ever will, such neuroscientists will deny anyone, including the Dalai Lama, a platform on which to present evidence that consciousness is a transcendent phenomenon.

Will the Dalai Lama treat the neuroscientists to a healthy helping of the truth? Will he expose their folly and put neuroscience in the proper perspective? There’s little chance that will occur. That is not how the spiritual leader conducts business.

If one reads the Mind and Life dialogues, one finds the Dalai Lama cares little for being an authority. He cares little for scientific acclaim. He is not seeking a Nobel Prize in neuroscience. The Dalai Lama facilitates discovery. He allows others to discover truths he has long known, as though they are discovering them for the first time.

The Dalai Lama will not present himself as deserving acclaim and recognition. Instead, he will encourage those in attendance to discover that which he already knows but is too humble to claim.

How will the spiritual leader deal with the bias and contempt and dislike expressed through the petition? With compassion and loving-kindness. The Dalai Lama will demonstrate he controls his state of mind. In spite of the deeply-engrained bias, some of those in attendance will come away understanding they have encountered a transcendent presence.

The Parachute

(Note: Originally Posted 10-19-05)

Kirk Cameron, the actor who played Mike Seaver on "Growing Pains," now an active evangelist, uses an insightful analogy to convey the importance of his message:

Two passengers board a flight. The flight attendant hands Passenger One a parachute. “Here, put this on and wear it during the flight. It will help you enjoy the trip.” Though strapping a parachute to his back in a cramped airline seat is a bit of a chore, Passenger One complies.

Shortly, he discovers there is insufficient room to lower the drink tray. He must balance his drink and bag of peanuts as the plane flies through turbulence. Though irritated with the inconvenience, he continues to wear the chute. After all, the flight attendant told him, very sweetly, that his flight would be improved with the device strapped to his back.

Soon, however, the passenger across the aisle snickers. Another shoots him a derisive grin. The ridicule is more than Passenger One can stomach. The promise of an enjoyable flight loses its allure. He rips the parachute off his back and dumps it in the overhead bin.

Passenger Two is also presented with a parachute. The flight attendant, however, warns him that later in the flight he will be forced to jump from the plane at an altitude of 25,000 feet. The parachute will save his life when that moment comes.

The passenger thanks the flight atendant for the tip and slips the chute on his back. He makes sure the straps are taut and securely fastened. Forced to hold his drink in his hand, he spills on himself when they hit turbulence. But he doesn’t remove the chute. Passengers in nearby seats begin to whisper and make fun. Their critical glances make our passenger feel foolish. The insults hurt, and yet, anticipating the upcoming jump, he keeps the parachute firmly fastened.

The analogy shapes the evangelical message Kirk presents to those whom he meets. He doesn’t promise an enjoyable journey. He knows life can be difficult, inconvenient, and filled with insults. Instead, he addresses the jump we will one day be forced to execute. He addresses the future we face upon death. This future, in Christian thought, involves heaven and hell. If one believes, as Kirk does, that friends and acquaintances face the potential of spending eternity in horrific conditions (hell), one has sufficient motivation to suggest a path that might affect the outcome in a positive manner.

Kirk uses another analogy to inform his mission, the analogy of a fireman who must enter a burning building to rescue the endangered inhabitants. We would think little of a fireman who consistently considered the task to be too challenging to perform, preferring instead to leave the residents to their fate.

Those who have knowledge of the afterlife face a similar responsibility. They have a safety message to relay. Just as the responsible flight attendant advises the passenger of the jump to come, the evangelical owes fellow passengers a warning that they should prepare for the future.

Warnings of consequences that are not obvious, however, usually garner ridicule. In the face of such stinging criticism, it is often easier to turn your back. Nothing drains compassion quicker than a rude response to a heartfelt warning.

Like Ray Carte, in Under the Tree, we face a decision: do we remain silent, keeping our thoughts to ourselves, or do we speak out in the face of ridicule?

Back to Trial -- Scopes Revisited

(Note: Originally Posted 6-29-05)

Eighty years ago, in the sweltering summer of 1925, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow faced off in one of the most famous trials in history. In the Scopes Monkey Trial, as it has become known, the legality of a (non-enforced) statute outlawing the teaching of Darwinian Evolution in Tennessee schools was argued.

Contrary to the propaganda film Inherit the Wind (which purported to tell the story of the trial), John Scopes, the substitute teacher who claimed to have taught evolution theory (but probably didn’t) was in no real jeopardy. He was not about to be lynched by the local townspeople, as portrayed in Inherit the Wind, but rather willingly offered to be indicted for the purpose of a show trial. The ACLU was on the hunt for a test case that would set a precedent for its secular agenda.

The trial was the first trial broadcast nationwide; the drama played out on the big stage with celebrity lawyers. Those early volleys fired in the culture wars continue to reverberate today.

This week the ACLU returns to the courtroom (in Federal District Court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) to argue a similar case; but this time the ACLU is not concerned with crashing the classroom delivering books on Darwinian Evolution. This time they are bolting the classroom door against alternate theories of biological origins, namely the theory of Intelligent Design. (ID theorists claim we find structures in nature that are irreducibly complex; such structures, they argue, cannot have come about solely as a result of random mutations and natural selection.)

Some observers see the case (Kitzmiller et al v. Dover Area School District) as an attempt by the ACLU to intimidate local school boards who find the Intelligent Design argument warrants discussion in our schools. (School Board members, in increasing numbers, are warming to the idea that students should be exposed to debate between ID and Evolution Theory and allowed to exercise critical reasoning.)

In the Dover case, the local school board has not proposed teaching Intelligent Design. The crime for which they are accused is requiring ninth-grade biology students to listen to a brief statement which informs them there is a controversy regarding Evolution and informing them that, if they wish, they can go to the library to check out a book that presents the argument from Intelligent Design.

In the Dover case it is no longer the Bible which stands above challenge. Biology textbooks are now considered sacred and exempt from challenge.

The brave souls from the ACLU claim they are protecting our children from the terrible evils of religious thought. Their argument equates any scientific theory that fails to adhere strictly to the metaphysical assumptions of naturalism with religion. They argue such theories must be banned from the curriculum.

In fact, according to the ACLU, a scientific premise that stands outside the dogma of naturalism and even suggests an alternate theory of origins violates our civil liberties. The mere mention of such a theory, as in the Dover case, is a violation warranting a full-scale legal attack by a cadre of ACLU lawyers.

What, exactly, is the ACLU’s argument? As in 1925, they will not argue the case for Evolution. Instead, they argue the need to defend our schools from religion-in-disguise.

They cannot argue the case for evolution, for once they do, Evolution Theory is exposed as other than undeniable fact; evolution will be exposed to be a theory, a collection of hypotheses and inferences, supported by some observations, while failing to explain all observations.

Arguing the merits of the science, the ACLU will lose; arguing Evolution is an unchallengeable fact, they will lose. If they debate the veracity and completeness of Evolution Theory, they engage in that which they seek to deny students—an open forum for open debate.

Instead, the ACLU attacks the alternate theory based on its being religion, not science. They have cleverly and successfully used this tactic in the courts in the past.

The argument starts with a narrow definition of science, one which claims science addresses only natural phenomena—if it ain’t natural (material), it ain’t science. Science that hypothesizes a universe consisting of both natural and supernatural factors, no matter how accurate that theory might be, gets tossed a priori.

Philip Johnson (author of Darwin on Trial) points out such faulty reasoning amounts to covertly advocating the dogma of philosophical naturalism rather than protecting science. The ACLU has not gone to war on the side of science. The ACLU advances a metaphysical position masquerading as science. While they claim intelligent design is religion masquerading as science, they offer anti-religious philosophy disguised as science.

Hopefully the Federal District Court in Harrisburg will listen carefully and grasp this important point.

Up-to-date information on the Dover Trial.

The Fleecing of Sir John

(Note: Originally Posted 1-18-05)

When I first heard of the Templeton Foundation, founded by Sir John Templeton, I was thrilled at the prospects. The endeavor to unite the study of science and religion was much needed and timely. Science had long since gone off the deep end in its embrace of philosophical materialism; the trend had become so advanced that the unsophisticated, unable to divorce the philosophy from the practice, believed science was materialism. And the study of religion had retreated under the advance of creeping secularism; in the seminary, spiritual insight was replaced by pop psychology exported from rat studies.

I entertained the hope that Sir John Templeton's funds would revitalize the dialogue between science and religion and, in the process, lift both studies out of their primitive states.

The rigor of science would force religion to abandon outdated dogma; religion would be forced to refocus on spiritual reality. Religious thought, on the other hand, would awaken science from its slumber under the blanket of myopic materialistic philosophy. The Templeton dialogue would revitalize the age-old push into the frontiers of human knowledge.

The reality of the Templeton Foundation, however, turned out to be something very different...

My first exposure to the Foundation's philanthropy was a lecture given by Pascal Boyer at the University of California at Santa Barbara as part of the "Science, Religion, and Human Experience" program. Dr. Boyer's lecture paralleled his book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

Boyer's thesis hypothesized religion evolved out of the primitive mind: religion was an evolutionary artifact of pre-historic jungle events. The brain, according to this theory, contained trace genetic memories of a time when Man rationalized natural phenomena into supernatural theology. Saint Augustine simply echoed the trembling of an ape before the approaching storm.

Boyer's work, however, lacked evidence, and logic. His narrative was implausible, it read like an improvised fairy tale a father invents to lull a restless child to sleep. His theory was so insubstantial, so disconnected from spiritual reality that it aroused cynical awe: How could someone present such wild conjecture with a straight face?

Given this was a Templeton funded lecture, I was certain someone with a modicum of knowledge regarding religion, theology, and spirituality would be in attendance. Dr. Boyer would be challenged to support his thesis. Given the academic setting, I assumed scientists in the audience would point out the lack of rigor in Boyer's work.

To my chagrin and astonishment no one raised a question regarding the work's validity. The nearest theologian or monk might as well have been on retreat on Mars. Host Dr. Jim Proctor (of UCSB’s geography department) ignored questions submitted from the audience asking Boyer to supply evidence to support his idea; instead, he tossed out a few "softball" questions then closed the discussion.

A dialogue between science and religion? The lecture fell significantly short of such billing. If the event had been billed as a roast with religion as its guest, the public relations would have been more accurate.

As I hiked to the parking lot in a light drizzle, I wondered if Sir John had any idea he was being fleeced. Did he know religion was being dragged through the mud, mocked as the invention of prehistoric primates, and represented to be an evolutionary quirk which had outlived its usefulness?

My hopes for the future of the Templeton Foundation dimmed. Maybe this one lecture had simply slipped past without scrutiny. The lack of dialogue was perhaps an accident. The theologian, or the monk, who represented a contrary view had perhaps been called away at the last moment on more important matters. Hope springs eternal.

Recently, however, my attention was drawn to a new program funded by Templeton and administered by Dr. Proctor. The previous event, it appears, was no fluke. The new program, also bankrolled by Sir John—as part of the continuing "dialogue" between science and religion—had on its panel two primate researchers! Does Sir John believe understanding baboons brings spiritual enlightenment?

Reading further in the literature, I found, among other participants, a member of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science. Figuring this participant , Antje Jackelén, might be the source of a counter-balancing view, I visited the Zygon site. There I found she "spoke in evolutionary terms." Phrases like "religious naturalism" were abundant. (The phrase religious naturalism wins my nomination for Oxymoron of the Year, as religion addresses the supernatural realm while naturalism denies the existence of the supernatural.)

After considerable pondering, I arrived at the conclusion that Sir John Templeton is being soundly fleeced. He could not possibly be aware his funding is used to support the argument that religion is the product of an ape roaming the Savannah long ago. Aside from being nonsense science, such unsupportable conjectures are the antithesis of religion and spirituality. Religion's grave is being excavated with shovels paid for by Sir John. The ground may be hard, but the grave diggers are determined and well-funded. Sir John wanted a dialogue with science; instead, he has funded a Requiem.

The God Gene

(Note: Originally Posted 1-18-05)

There’s a new title on the market, The God Gene: How Faith Is Hard-Wired Into Our Genes, by Dr. Dean Hamer. Haven't read the book yet, but, as I read the New York Times review, I was left wondering, "What in the world could genes possibly have to do with God? What could genes have to do with Faith?"

Flipping through a biology text gathering dust on my shelf, I located the definition of a gene: "A discrete unit of hereditary information consisting of a specific nucleotide sequence in DNA."

DNA is the famous double helix molecule made up of phosphorous, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen atoms. Thus individual genes are units of code on the master code list known as DNA. The code determines the structure of proteins.

Genes are thus biological codes for structure; genes are specific arrangements of atoms, within the longer chain of atoms known as DNA, which determine the complex arrangement of atoms that make up proteins. It’s structure all the way down, and all the way up. Programmed building blocks.

So where do we find the connection between genes and faith, spirituality, or God?

Genes are not repositories of thoughts and ideas; they are molecules that code for structure. DNA molecules do not contain a code for faith; they instruct the formulation of proteins. The scriptures are not inscribed on genes. The link between structure and consciousness continues to elude scientists; How it is that consciousness arises from structure? remains the question for which science has no answer.

So what could Dr. Hamer be thinking? It appears he’s a modern day Icarus, leaping off the speculative cliff into the hot sun. After locating a gene that controls a brain chemical that has a tenuous relationship to "mood," he builds a house of cards leading through the modern day fairy tale of emergent consciousness into the non sequitur "...the gene is important because it points out the mechanism by which spirituality is manifested in the brain."

The link between the gene and spirituality ends up being the fantasy of Dr. Hamer and nothing more. Anyone even remotely familiar with spirituality can see the illogic in his statement. He affixes the wings of speculation to his mind with wax and attempts the leap across the chasm that separates genetic structure and spiritual consciousness. Though one cannot even see the spiritual side of the divide from the genetic side, Dr. Hamer assumes a few flaps of his wings will land him safely on terra firma.

But we all know the sun melts wax. We know the fate of Icarus. So, too, Dr. Hamer and The God Gene will plummet from sight.

The publication of The God Gene makes a strong case for much needed improvement in science education and an even stronger case for teaching spirituality. As standards in science education decline and the study of spirituality is eliminated altogether, we will experience an epidemic of Icarus-like academicians jumping off cliffs.

When Kuhn spoke of scientific revolutions maybe this is what he had in mind; when the old guard leaps off cliffs and disappears, a radical shift in the paradigm can take place.

Link to God Gene Comic

Click to enlarge.

Compassion

(Note: Originally Posted 10-18-04)

One often hears Buddhists use the term "compassion," and many, like author Karen Armstrong, argue compassion is common to all religions. There's even something called compassionate conservatism afoot in the land. But what, exactly, is compassion?

The concept of compassion possesses depth and nuance: just as you think you have grasped the idea, additional multi-faceted layers are revealed. That which seemed obvious proves to be more challenging and more powerful than first imagined.

At first glance, one might assume compassion is a fancy way of saying "sympathy." I witness your suffering; I offer my sympathy; I suffer with you; we become one in our suffering.

But sympathy does not appear to be as effective in reducing suffering as it is in spreading that suffering. Where there was one person suffering, now there are two. One can imagine a world awash in sympathetic suffering; sympathizers and victims united. Perhaps sympathy doesn’t capture the subtlety of compassion.

Of course compassion isn't the same as sympathy, some respond, adding compassion is a form of empathy: the ability to duplicate the emotions and thoughts of another.

Empathy is the ability to walk in the shoes of another and comprehend their experience. One can be emphatic without being sympathetic. This explanation goes a long way toward solving the problem, but begs the question: what raises mere empathy to the level of compassion?

Perhaps two concepts, both integral to Buddhism, elevate empathy into compassion: the first is detachment, the second is wisdom.

Viewing suffering from a detached position, one does not collapse into sympathy but is able to duplicate the experience of another without becoming that other. Some might argue that to be detached is to be cold and aloof, but this is not true in the Buddhist sense of detachment. To understand the difference, it helps to grasp the negative role the opposite, attachment, plays in Buddhist thought.

Attachment is clinging to, desiring, or identifying with the "illusion" of forms, both subtle and gross. Clinging to such forms prevents us from viewing life clearly. Sympathy is a "clinging" emotion. When detached, we push aside the obscuring veil of attachment and see things "as they are." In this sense, detachment leads to wisdom, for what is wisdom other than the ability to see things "as they are?" Wisdom grasps what is, as it is. It goes beyond knowledge of forms to the reality behind illusion. Employing wisdom, one empathizes in the fullest sense of the word, comprehending the totality of the conditions from which the other suffers, both illusory and non-illusory.

Empathy, informed by detached wisdom, however, still falls short of a complete description of compassion. It lacks flavor. Something is missing.

That missing ingredient is admiration. Some might call it love, but "love" echoes the problem found with "sympathy"— "love" engenders thoughts of clinging and attachment. "Admiration" skirts this difficulty. To better understand the distinction, consider a person dear to you. Now flow love toward that person; then flow admiration. Inspect the subtle difference.

The act of admiring another, without judgment, lays bare the basic goodness of the being one beholds. No matter how enveloped in the world of illusion that being is, no matter what false self is presented, with compassion comprised of empathy, detached wisdom, and admiration, the Truth is laid bare. Illusions drop away. Unwanted conditions disappear. The truly compassionate person thus relieves suffering; something magical occurs in their presence. It is thus that we have often heard religious leaders, such as Buddha and Jesus, described.

As noted above, as soon as the concept of compassion is grasped, however, a new revelation appears, a new wrinkle is exposed. With this in mind, I welcome the insights of readers who have also grappled with this challenging concept.

BLEEP!

(Note: Originally Posted 10-10-04)

Most contemporary films rely upon emotions to entertain their audience, eschewing all but the most minimal intellectual content required to sustain paper-thin plots. Emotions bloat on celluloid steroids, while thought processes starve and shrivel up. Hollywood promotes not only anorexic body styles, but also a life-threatening anorexia of the mind.

Thus, when word spread that a tasty morsel of an indie film What the Bleep Do We Know? was appearing on a local screen, I rounded up friends and relatives and, buoyed with high hopes and great expectations, headed to the cinema for a brain feast.

A film that dared to make quantum mechanics the centerpiece of its promotion could not possibly go wrong. I arrived at the theater experiencing the excitement I imagine adolescent boys experience at the sight of Spiderman swinging between skyscrapers in pursuit of Kirsten Dunst.

As anyone over thirty knows, however, as soon as one intones "could not possibly go wrong," one is most likely perched precariously on the precipice of a disaster. That's just the way the universe works.

Before the entire endeavor slipped off the cliff, however, there were a few bright moments: Physicist Amit Goswami charmed the audience with his comments on quantum theory and idealism; physicist Fred Alan Wolf presented a cheerful screen presence as he teased the audience with snippets of speculative thought on quantum theory; Dr. William Tiller was intriguing; a segment on a Buddhist monk who used intention to change the configuration of water molecules was a brilliant metaphor for how our thought affects our physical form.

These elements were sufficient to comprise the core of a wonderful (maybe even remarkable) film. If the filmmakers had dipped the cinematic bucket deeper into this intellectual well, they could have delivered a truly invigorating elixir.

Unfortunately, the behind-the-camera team lacked an overall vision and appeared to toss ideas, like spaghetti, up against the wall to see what would stick. Apparently not grasping the subject matter, they failed to realize half the film contradicted the other half; the result was the proverbial snake eating its tail. A quite unpleasant experience.

No matter how you frame it, the Idealistic concept that thought creates form contradicts the materialistic idea that form creates thought. There's not enough room on the big screen for both ideas in one film.

The primary collapse of the film was precipitated by a prolonged (a painfully prolonged) segment on neurochemical physiology with the production value of a high school biology film.

The segment featured animated hormones running up partygoers' legs, whipping the lead actress into an erotic sweat. All films, studio and independent alike, should hire at least one person beholden to no one for his or her future employment; that person’s only mantra should be, "what the hell are you thinking?"

A film purportedly about spirituality, quantum theory, and consciousness ended up being a boring and unconvincing lecture on the-human-as-bio-robot. (A point of view which has nothing to do with spirituality, consciousness, or quantum theory). A film which should have provided intellectual sustenance instead induced gastrointestinal discomfort.

The concept of a spider bite turning Tobey Maguire into a "spiderman" is far more convincing than the poorly-produced romp through neurobiological nonsense that sits at the center of this film. The producers have an excuse. Per their theory, the making of the film wasn’t their fault; the chemicals in their brains made them do it.

I’m hoping any sequel focuses on the gems present in the first film (see above) and eschews the nutty speculation of neurochemical nerds. Besides, the bio boys have plenty of work to accomplish: they have failed utterly in their search for a naturalistic theory of consciousness and we’re all waiting impatiently for them to deliver support for their wild speculation.

The Smirk

(Note: Originally Posted 10-2-04)

Two weeks ago, I stumbled across the PBS two-part series "The Question of God," contrasting the thoughts of C.S. Lewis, the writer transformed from atheist to theist to Christian, and his contemporary, Sigmund Freud, who never wavered from the path of atheism.

The show's format included historical dramatizations plus a panel of guests assembled to shed light on the existence of God. As the camera panned the guests, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed an unsettling sight... The Smirk.

Seated on the panel was the ubiquitous skeptic Michael Shermer, sporting the sarcastic demeanor that permeates his writings like hot syrup on soggy french toast.

“Of course,” I muttered to myself, “one could not possibly stage a dialogue on the subject of God without inviting naysayer Shermer. It wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be sporting. After all, hadn't God created Shermer in His quest for a fair-and-balanced universe?"

In spite of such divine designs, I was not pleased to find Mr. Shermer gracing the panel. His column had previously aborted my valued relationship with Scientific American. By the third appearance of his column "Skeptic," it was clear Scientific American had ceded its mandate to highlight the frontiers of science and was now publishing skeptic rants. So much for the enlightened exploration of the unknown.

How could I trust the magazine to deliver valid science news when each issue led off with unreasoned polemics? With a modicum of sadness, I phoned the subscriptions department and delivered my cancellation notice.

Watching "The Question of God" and becoming reacquainted with The Smirk, I wondered if I had not been overly hasty. Perhaps something ingenious, something previously unnoticed, motivated Shermer. It became difficult to suppress the nagging suspicion that even Shermer himself did not believe his own bad-boy rhetoric. Thus, the smirk.

Shermer had written Why People Believe Weird Things, hadn’t he? That was the important clue which launched a "gedanken" investigation that would make Columbo proud. The clues just did not add up...

Shermer could not really believe matter created matter out of nothing; there was no scientific evidence, none at all, and, at best, the logic was tortured. The concept was downright weird.

He could not really believe excited neurons created consciousness; no scientific evidence supported the idea, and such speculation was counterintuitive. It was simply another "weird idea."

And the theory that complex life spontaneously combusted in a prehistoric pond, the Grand Accident Theory—well, that weird idea also lacked scientific evidence. (As Hoyle noted, the idea was analogous to a tornado assembling a 747 from parts strewn about a junkyard.)

It was clear that Shermer, the smirking paragon of reason, could not possibly believe in such unsubstantiated weirdness. It would be against his creed to do so. What was he up to?

Slipping into my threadbare Columbo overcoat, I paced and cogitated. In the language of poker, the smirk was a “tell.” What move did it broadcast? A bluff?

Then it dawned on me: Shermer, with a background in psychology, had conjured up an ingenious experiment and had garnered the unwitting complicity of Scientific American. The experiment shared a lineage with the carnival shell game.

Using classic misdirection, the skeptic noisily points to “believers” and dubs them the unreasoned ones. This noisy misdirection encourages self-proclaimed rational men and women to ally themselves with the carnival man and to abandon critical thinking.

Lowering their guard, the gullible assume they are impervious to Shermer's sleight-of-hand. As the carnival man knows, when the mark can be persuaded to turn his knowing and disdainful glance upon believers, he can be manipulated.

Bright people nod sagaciously as Shermer trots out one weird idea after another. No one objects to the lack of scientific evidence or logic; after all, everyone is having fun at the expense of silly “believers.”

Eventually, however, the game plays out, the experiment comes to a conclusion, and a paper is published. Scientists and other readers of Scientific American, those who proclaim themselves to be rational and reasoned, those who rest their case on the foundations of observation and evidence, those who posture as keepers of reality, are exposed— victims of a brilliant ruse.

Their gullibility and willingness to abandon sound principles in order to sustain biases is laid bare for all to see. Shermer brilliantly concludes his Why People Believe Weird Things ruse, having demonstrated the best and the brightest are prone to a failure of reason. (The follow up book should be titled "Why Scientists Believe Weird Things.")

As I replay the scenario in my mind, I’m certain I’m on to something, as the idea brings a smirk to my lips. It’s the same smirk that graces the features of the famous skeptic. I’ve broken through my earlier prejudice and found the beauty in his plan (or is it His plan?).

Shermer, one of God’s creatures, has brilliantly played his assigned role of Doubter. Native Americans might recognize the Trickster in his methods. Buddhists recall the story of Mara tempting the Buddha with illusions; they recall the Buddhist precept that as long as we cling to weird ideas, we will ride the illusion train.

I'm beginning to appreciate Shermer as a fellow traveler on the illusion train. Will re subscribe to SA to see how the experimentt turns out.