The new Cosmos

Guys, I just watched the first episode of the new Cosmos.

It is so good.

Cosmos

Sitting in the dark in my living room while Neil DeGrasse Tyson walked me from planet Earth to the edge of the observable universe, I cannot describe how Small I felt, or how Large science seemed. It is remarkable what we have done in so short a time, and what we have learned about so long a timespan. I’ve read about all this before, and yet every time it gets me.

Along with the splendor of what I was watching, I couldn’t help but feel something less positive. I thought of my little cousins, who, by sheerest accident, happen to have been born to parents who don’t accept evolution. And it made me angry.

In Cosmos, Tyson tells us that we’ll need imagination to explore the natural world, but “imagination alone is not enough, because the reality of nature is far more wondrous than anything we can imagine.” It’s true – the natural world is full of phenomena that we’ve only been able to grasp by pulling back layer after layer. Gravitation, the atom, the evolution of life – none of these were easy to get right, and it took us many tries before we successfully developed models that were as weird as reality. We really weren’t able to imagine these things beforehand.

But as my cousins grow up, their minds will be stunted by parents who present them with ideas that are easy to imagine.

I want more for them than that.

It’s a beautiful thing that Tyson is doing – exposing young (and old) minds to some Big ideas. I imagine that Cosmos will play a part in creating a lot of future scientists. So spread the word.

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Filed under Creationism, Evolution, News, Religion, Science

Religious directives dictating healthcare

Occasionally I have discussions with people about whether it is a such a big deal that Catholic hospitals follow their own set of religiously-inspired directives when treating patients. Shouldn’t a private institution be able to do whatever they want? Isn’t a breach of religious freedom to tell religious organizations how to operate? This is how I respond.

On December 9th, the New York Times Editorial Board summarized the issue regarding Catholic hospitals and standard of care:

Beyond new state efforts to restrict women’s access to proper reproductive health care, another, if quieter, threat is posed by mergers between secular hospitals and Catholic hospitals operating under religious directives from the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops. These directives, which oppose abortions, inevitably collide with a hospital’s duty to provide care to pregnant women in medical distress.

They go on to describe a case from 2010 in which a pregnant woman from Michigan had her water break at 18 weeks. The doctors at the only hospital in her county – a Catholic hospital – did not inform her that her fetus had almost no chance of survival, and that terminating the pregnancy was the safest option. Despite the danger to her life, the woman was sent home twice. The doctors had been following the religious directives of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which apply to all Catholic hospitals in the nation.

Catholic hospitals account for about 15 percent of the nation’s hospital beds and, in many communities, are the only hospital facilities available.

This isn’t the first time that religious directives have conflicted with proper medical treatment in the US or abroad. In 2010, a nun at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix was excommunicated for approving a life-saving abortion for a pregnant mother-of-four. Last year, in Ireland, Savita Halappanavar died of blood poisoning because doctors weren’t permitted to perform the abortion that would save her. In short, Catholic directives require that doctors withhold information or withhold treatment from patients, and the consequences can be tragic.

No hospital should be allowed to operate this way. There are standards of care that healthcare institutions must adhere to, and the ACLU is currently suing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for enforcing directives which contravene those standards. No one knows if they’ll win the suit, but I applaud them for trying. The bishops are right to call this is a matter of religious freedom; specifically, it’s a matter of whether our healthcare system will be free from the bishops’ religion.

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Filed under Catholic Church, First Amendment, Government, News, Reproductive Rights, Women's Issues

Book recommendation: His Dark Materials

I have just finished reading His Dark Materials, a fantasy trilogy written by Philip Pullman. It’s a delightful series which presents a humanistic worldview, so I thought I’d write a quick recommendation for it here. (Readers unfamiliar with the trilogy may know the title of its first book, The Golden Compass, which was also made into a movie in 2007. The movie didn’t impress me, but the books did!)

The Golden CompassThe story is set in a parallel universe similar to our Victorian England. In this world, humans have animal companions called daemons - sentient creatures that go wherever their humans go, and are inextricably linked to them. There are differences between children’s and adult’s daemons; the daemon of a child can change shape at will, but then settles into one particular form as the child reaches adolescence. The main character of the story is Lyra, a parentless child who has been raised and educated by Scholars at Jordan College in Oxford. When she finds out that all over the country children of low-status families are being abducted, including one of Lyra’s friends from Oxford, she becomes involved in a quest to save them. Along the way, Lyra learns about a mysterious particle that permeates the universe, called Dust, which may have something to do with the difference between children’s and adults’ daemons. Lyra and her allies also come into conflict with a powerful church called The Magisterium, that wants to destroy Dust and obscure the truth about it.

Though His Dark Materials contains adventures and battles and interesting worlds galore, ultimately the story sends a message about the pursuit of knowledge and the spirit of inquiry. There is a scene near the end where the heroes are told by one wise character to never stop learning, and to keep their minds “open and free and curious.” What’s not to love about that?

Something, apparently – as there has been a good deal of controversy about the books and the movie. A number of Christian groups and representatives for the Catholic Church have called the story “dangerous” and “anti-Christian.” An archbishop in New Orleans wrote that the trilogy poses a “special threat to Christianity”! That’s quite the review, if three books can undo what two thousand years of history hasn’t.

I must say I don’t quite understand the protest. While the Magisterium in Pullman’s books bears a number of superficial similarities to the Roman Catholic Church, the reason they are portrayed as the “enemy” is because they want to keep people ignorant. The Magisterium opposes the values of thinking for oneself and making one’s own decisions, and the heroes of Pullman’s story don’t take kindly to that. Is this message inimical to the Christian religion or to the Catholic Church? I’d say it’s up to them to decide. But so far, the prognosis doesn’t look good. In 2007 when The Golden Compass movie was about to be released, a bishop in Austin had the books removed from every Catholic school in the diocese. If the Catholic response to books that encourage thinking for oneself is to ban them, then I would say they’ve conceded Pullman’s point rather nicely.

***
PS: Christopher Hitchens wrote a review of His Dark Materials way back in 2002. Readers may want to check it out, as it’s always a delight to read anything by Hitchens. But beware – it does include spoilers!

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Filed under Books, Catholic Church, Freethought, Humanism

New Edge interview with Joshua Greene

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on morality entitled, How I live as a moral relativist. The term “moral relativist” sounds scary and gets a bad reputation sometimes, but those concepts are an accurate description of the world as far as I can tell.

I intend on writing more on that in the future, but for now, here is a new Edge.org interview with moral philosopher and scientist, Joshua Greene. Greene is the guy who pioneered the neuroscience of morality – investigating how people’s brains work when they make decisions about moral problems. There’s some good stuff here on how morality probably evolved, and how our moral intuitions are incredibly quirky and inconsistent (try your hand at answering the questions he poses). This latter fact is a problem for moral realism, which asserts that there are definite answers to moral problems. Given moral realism, inconsistencies such as the ones Greene mentions in his interview shouldn’t exist.

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Filed under Morality, Psychology, Science

Some advice for teenage girls, and boys, and… everybody

My friend Carsie pointed me to a blog post in which a mother gives teenage girls some advice. Kimberly Hall asks young women not to post scantily-clad pictures of themselves on social media, because that would encourage her sons to only think about girls in a sexual way! Oh no!

Carsie tweeted an appropriate response, as well as coined the hashtag #solidarityselfie. So I’m uploading my own solidarity selfie here (because I don’t use Twitter).

#solidarityselfie

Man, I look so slutty in this picture.

I encourage you to blog/tweet your own #solidarityselfie! Hall’s sons, as well as all people, need to learn to control their responses to other people’s choices, rather than control other people’s choices.

And the funny thing about Hall’s post is that she says she’s trying to raise her sons with a strong moral compass. The thing about compasses, though, is that they always point north. It doesn’t matter what else lay to the south, east, or west – the compass always points north. That’s what it means to have a strong moral compass – you follow your conscience no matter what others are doing. Why doesn’t Hall try that?

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A friend visits the Creation Museum

Creation Museum
My friend Tiarnán visited the Creation Museum today. It is a museum in Kentucky which supports a literalist interpretation of Genesis, with exhibits on Noah’s ark, humans and dinosaurs living together, and the like. Tiarnán didn’t enjoy his time there.

I’m finding it hard to even explain how bad I felt. The only time I’ve ever felt this bad because of somewhere I visited was a concentration camp. I’m not comparing the crime, only how it affected me. The juxtaposition of lies, smiling children and a gift shop freaked me out.

Emptiness, sadness, a cruel parody of museums. Children running around, enthusiastic to learn, parents proudly reading lies to them. Children gathered around the animatronic Noah explaining how there was room on the ark for all the dinosaurs.

I felt I was at a funeral for someone I loved and everyone else wanted dead.

Relentless, creepy disembodied voices “The lord said…”, “Eve was created as man’s helper”, “dragons are dinosaurs”. It was soul destroying.

Museums scream of progress to me. They have problems (Anyone seen the receipt for the Elgin marbles?), but they are cathedrals to learning. They show how far we’ve come. They promote and value education. To sit in one with such a corrupt purpose is obscene.

Nobody got a t-shirt. I couldn’t do it. I needed to leave.

What is the solution to this problem? I don’t know. But I imagine it starts with more education, more rationality, and more questioning our beliefs.

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Filed under Creationism, Religion, Science

How I live as a moral relativist

I was surprised at how much I identified with this NY Times opinion column on morality. The author is Joel Marks, a bioethicist and emeritus professor of philosophy. In the essay, Marks describes how he came to realize that morality was not objective, and how this realization affected his actions and interactions with others.

A quick summary of Marks’ thought process goes like this (though you should read the whole thing if you find this summary isn’t enough for you):

A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset.

But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?

Hume said something similar. Though my thought process was not quite the same as Marks’ or Hume’s, I do agree that morality, like beauty, is subjective, and moral rules do not actually exist.

The problematic thing once realizing this is… what do I do now? What is the basis for choosing a “moral” action over an “immoral” one? And if I want to convince another person not to commit an action that I find offensive (Marks gives the example of [tossing] male chicks, alive and conscious, into a meat grinder, as happens in the egg industry) how could I do so? I can no longer say “don’t do it because it’s wrong.

My own answer to this problem was to focus on what I want to do in situations that have a so-called “moral” valence. How do I feel about things like lying, stealing, or injuring others? In examining my feelings, I find that I generally want to treat people well. I like being honest, and not hurting people, and not taking their things. I don’t treat people well because it’s a moral rule, I do it because I want to. Others’ happiness makes me happy, and their suffering makes me sad. I think most people are similar.

What struck me about Marks’ essay was how similar his answers were to mine. For starters, he too focuses on desires:

It seems to me that what could broadly be called desire has been the moving force of humanity, no matter how we might have window-dressed it with moral talk. By desire I do not mean sexual craving, or even only selfish wanting. I use the term generally to refer to whatever motivates us, which ranges from selfishness to altruism and everything in between and at right angles. Mother Theresa was acting as much from desire as was the Marquis de Sade. But the sort of desire that now concerns me most is what we would want if we were absolutely convinced that there is no such thing as moral right and wrong. I think the most likely answer is: pretty much the same as what we want now.

For instance, I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop. Has this lessened my commitment to ending it? I do not find that to be the case at all.

For Marks, animal agricultural elicits the same feeling that any of us would experience if an innocent person were being tortured or detained in squalid conditions. It is an empathic response to the suffering of other conscious creatures. Naturally, we want it the suffering to stop. Again, rules do not dictate this experience for us. It is simply there, and we act upon it.

How, then, do we get others to act with us? My answer has been to teach others what I know. Humans naturally respond to the suffering of others. The key is to teach people about what others are going through, to imagine themselves in another person’s shoes. When they do that, their actions naturally incline toward greater empathy and consideration.

Marks says much the same:

…to argue that people who use animals for food and other purposes are doing something terribly wrong is hardly the way to win them over. That is more likely to elicit their defensive resistance.

Instead I now focus on conveying information: about the state of affairs on factory farms and elsewhere, the environmental devastation that results and, especially, the sentient, intelligent, gentle and noble natures of the animals who are being brutalized and slaughtered. It is also important to spread knowledge of alternatives, like how to adopt a healthy and appetizing vegan diet. If such efforts will not cause people to alter their eating and buying habits, support the passage of various laws and so forth, I don’t know what will.

Indeed. Good does not come from forcing people to do what you say, or what you think they ought to do. It is better to be convince them*. (This is why I object so strongly to religious morality, in which people are not convinced or entreated, but simply told what to do. This has nothing to do with morality, and amounts to merely following orders.)

So I take it as good news that two people who agree about the non-existence of morality can come to similar conclusions about where to go from there. I think society will be better if we move away from moralistic thinking, and instead focus on showing others why we care about the things we care about.

 

*This isn’t to say, by the way, that we should not put dangerous people in jail. But we do this not because they have broken some moral law, but because we cannot allow them to threaten others’ safety or freedoms.

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Filed under Humanism, Morality