Monday, March 24, 2014

Cosmos Wars

CosmosStageThe creationists really don't like the new Cosmos series. Of course, I'm sure they didn't like the original either. CCCosmos Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Silliness:
But this sense of wonder does not touch the hearts of those who reflexively dismiss scientific findings as merely “materialistic” threats to their faith. They have no interest in knowing more about Halley’s Comet, or Andromeda’s trajectory, or indeed even in stimulating young leaners.

No, creationists took to the air this week to complain that their ideas were not getting equal time on Cosmos.

Danny Faulkner, an astronomer with the creationist organization Answers in Genesis, appeared on The Janet Mefferd Show to complain that “consideration of special creation is definitely not open for discussion” on Cosmos. The host added,

“...when you have so many scientists who simply do not accept Darwinian evolution it seems to me that that might be something to throw in there, you know, the old, ‘some scientists say this, others disagree and think this,’ but that’s not even allowed.”


Actually, it is allowed. If creationist astronomers want to fund and produce a major television series that refutes Cosmos, they are perfectly free to do so.

Creationism: defender of superstition

“During more than twenty-five years of teaching and defending evolutionary biology, I’ve learned that creationism is like the inflatable roly-poly clown I played with as a child: when you punch it, it briefly goes down, but then pops back up. And while the Dover trial is an American story, creationism isn’t a uniquely American problem. Creationists—who aren’t necessarily Christians—are establishing footholds in other parts of the world, especially the United Kingdom, Australia, and Turkey. The battle for evolution seems never-ending. And the battle is part of a wider war, a war between rationality and superstition. What is at stake is nothing less than science itself and all the benefits it offers to society.” - Jerry A. Coyne. “Why Evolution Is True.”

Friday, March 21, 2014

Atheist Morality

It’s a fairly common opinion in the U.S., which is predominately Christian, that religion or a belief in a god is a requirement of morality. A recent Pew poll continues to support this notion.

Of course this is not the case. No, not even close. But it is what believers tend to believe and it IS an interesting question: where do we get our morality? For the religious, it comes from a holy book such as the Bible and is often presented along with a threat of hell for the sinner or a promise of eternal life for the repentant. Of course it gets a bit confusing as most Christians also believe in the forgiveness of sins in the act of accepting Jesus - so go ahead and behave badly, just accept Jesus before you die and you’re good to go. Makes for some pretty loose morality I’d say. Now, I’m just speaking here of Christians. Other faiths do not necessarily provide such an easy ticket into whatever version of an afterlife they are promoting.

Before we go any further let’s have a look at the definition of how morality is defined:
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary:
morality |məˈralətē, mô-| - noun (pl. moralities) principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. 
• a particular system of values and principles of conduct, esp. one held by a specified person or society: a bourgeois morality. 
• the extent to which an action is right or wrong: behind all the arguments lies the issue of the morality of the possession of nuclear weapons.
I see no mention here of religion as a requirement for morality. From Wikipedia:
Morality (from the Latin moralitas “manner, character, proper behavior”) is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are “good” (or right) and those that are “bad” (or wrong). The philosophy of morality is ethics. A moral code is a system of morality (according to a particular philosophy, religion, culture, etc.) and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code. Morality may also be specifically synonymous with “goodness” or “rightness.” Immorality is the active opposition to morality (i.e. opposition to that which is good or right), while amorality is variously defined as an unawareness of, indifference toward, or disbelief in any set of moral standards or principles. An example of a moral code is the Golden Rule which states that, “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.”
I think it is fairly obvious that morality is relative depending on different sources as well as interpretations. But we’re not just talking about the source or framework of morality are we? We are also talking about actual human behavior and the notion that only those that believe in a higher power can or will behave in a moral way. One aspect of this seems to be that the threat of eternal damnation should serve as a deterant even as the promise of an eternal heaven serves as an enticement. Of course, for many Christians, actual conduct is irrelevant as long as one accepts Jesus before dying. As an atheist I’d suggest that human morality, both the structure of recommended behavior as well as the actual behavior, is far too important to leave to religion. I would suggest that our morality requires a level of rational thought and understanding of evolving complex systems and that to rely on outdated and unproven religious beliefs rooted in confused texts and superstition is nothing short of folly.

Let me put it another way. Any morality rooted in contradictory and confused texts written by men worshiping an unproven supernatural power should not be the basis for a modern morality that guides human behavior in era of science and rationality. Such texts are, simply, not up to the task. What is needed today (and what has been needed for a very long time) is a living morality that is being actively questioned and fine tuned by the humans of today. In this regard I would suggest that it is to atheists that we might look for a new, updated morality that is based on an understanding of reality as informed by the best minds of our times. This is not to say that such a morality is to be the sole province of atheists but that it is past the time that we stop pretending that superstitious belief systems can be the primary foundation for what is considered good human behavior. In fact, the longer we cater to such belief systems the more likely we are to cause irreparable damage to our planet. Let’s explore some examples.

A common emphasis of faith-based belief systems is the idea of eternal life after death. Depending on which interpretation of the New Testament you might prefer, such eternal life takes place in heaven or on a new earth. Regardless of that, in such a worldview long-term life on Earth becomes far less important.   Our dealings with our environment, with the ecological systems of our planet, are one area of morality that might be considered not only important but critical to our survival. What kind of morality do we get from religions that not only emphasize an unproven afterlife but which explicitly state that that life is more important than the current one? What kind of relationship can we expect with our planet’s life support systems when the guiding morality explicitly states that a new Earth will be provided?

The problem of faith-based belief systems is the resistance they provide against critical, rational thought. In the U.S. there is a long standing conflict between many Christians and those that advocate science literacy. It manifests in a variety of ways, most notably in the “debate” over evolution and creationism. The “Big Bang” theory of the origin of the Universe is another. On the issue of human-caused climate change and what might need to be done to address the problem, we see a situation in which the public, lacking the scientific literacy needed to understand the available information, has demonstrated a very confused reaction. While this confusion is not the direct result of any specific religious influence, it might well be presented as an example of what happens when a superstitious population, lacking in basic scientifc literacy, is presented with a very serious and complex social-ecological problem that can only be understood in scientific terms. Without the skills and knowledge needed to evaluate the quality of information (and the sources) being presented on the internet and in the corporate media, public opinion has swayed back and forth year to year.

Ask a few adults you know about the cause of seasons on Earth and many will not know the correct answer. This is basic science knowledge and yet many do not understand. According to a recent National Science Foundation poll, 25% of Americans do not know that the Earth orbits the Sun but think the opposite is true. These are just the basics of scientific knowledge. Unfortunately we also see a general lack of understanding of the scientific method or of how science works on a larger scale via peer reviewed publishing. Unfortunately it’s not just average citizens that are ignorant of basic scientific knowledge and process but also many elected representatives that make important decisions on funding and regulation. Currently less than 2% of U.S. Congressman have a background in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Perhaps this helps to explain why so little has been done to solve problems such as climate change?

A society which has the capability of sending spacecraft to the edges of its solar system is one which is obviously capable of leaving behind superstition and embracing complex, rational thought. A society which has remotely landed a variety of rovers on other planets is a society which is capable of developing advanced technology and has, at the very least, some portion of the population which is dedicated to scientific endeavors. Of course it is also true that science is the tool that is often used for ethically questionable ends. Asking how we might develop this or that technology is not enough. We should also be asking why we should be developing such technologies. Bioengeneering is one area of scientific development which has met with a great deal of resistance across the planet. Whether the issue is the genetic engineering of the food supply or some other application of the technology, the ethics are not yet settled. Who do we turn to when we are uncertain of the ethics of certain technological development or the ethics of the goals of some areas of scientific pursuit? Is there a difference between science that is conducted by a corporation such as Monsanto and that conducted by a publicly funded university? Science is a tool and can be used in many ways. Are we to turn to the religious texts of history to guide us in such discussion and decision making?

I propose that there really is no need for debate on this topic. Human society has outgrown moral frameworks based on unproven historical texts that are little more than superstition. Such frameworks are not just a hinderance to our understanding of the Universe around us but also an obstacle to our ability to adjust to new social ecological problems. What is needed today is a living, rational morality which is informed by reasoned discussion and debate guided by the most current information provided by peer reviewed science.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Kaleesha's Book!

KwithBookWe got the proof copy for Kaleesha's book "Free to Be" today!! Have I said recently how proud I am of Kaleesha? So happy to be sharing life with her and looking forward to sharing many more of her future accomplishments. We will be ordering our first batch of copies of her book in the next day or two and should have them to sell by late next week.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Cosmic Dance

A few weeks back I wrote about viewing the supernova in M82. It was first observed around the same time that an article was circulating about the continuing and drastic decline of Monarch butterfly populations. I had both the supernova and the threat to the Monarch on my mind when I sat down to write about my observation of M82 but I couldn't quite make the connection I wanted to make. A few days ago the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, in describing the earlier generations of star birth and death, comes close to articulating what it was I was pondering:

This happened in the Milky Way billions of years ago, and those elements from some long-dead star made their way into you. Your bones, your teeth, your blood, your very DNA have elements in them forged in the heart of a mighty star that violently tore itself to bits so that eventually you may live. It is a transformation on a literally cosmic scale.

I should hope the metaphorical metamorphosis is obvious enough. The only constant in the Universe is change, and much of it is a cycle. Birth, life, death, restructuring, and rebirth. That is also the theme of much of human art, from paintings and movies to myths and great novels.

Some say science is cold, dealing unemotionally with hard data. But that’s far from the reality. Humanity and life are reflected in the stars, and the Universe itself is poetry.

The thoughts I'd had were specific to the harsh reality of extinction on Earth. The Monarch is not there yet but it's numbers have declined drastically. Other species are also in decline and extinctions happen every day. In fact, according to the Center for Biological Diversity we are now experiencing the 6th mass exctinction event of the planet, loosing dozens of species a day:

It’s frightening but true: Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century .

Unlike past mass extinctions, caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us — humans. In fact, 99 percent of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities, primarily those driving habitat loss, introduction of exotic species, and global warming. Because the rate of change in our biosphere is increasing, and because every species’ extinction potentially leads to the extinction of others bound to that species in a complex ecological web, numbers of extinctions are likely to snowball in the coming decades as ecosystems unravel.

For most of my adult life I've gone through a cycle of depression connected to or caused by my awareness of what we are doing to the planet and our fellow species. I will never accept what our species has done, is doing, to our planet but I have found a certain peace in the understanding that the Universe will go on regardless. Our fragile planet and the life on it has an end date. In 600 million years our sun will have have increased in luminosity significantly and the carbon cycle plants depend on will shift causing mass die-off of plant life and animal life. By the time the sun transitions from a main sequence star (4.5 bililon years from now) life on the planet will have long since disappeared. Such is the case for all life supporting planetary systems in the Universe. All stars have a limited lifespan.

The Monarchs will end. Humanity will end. Our planet, our solar system and our Sun will all have an end. So it goes. The cosmic dance will continue... for awhile anyway. What can we do but live our lives in the best possible way? I for one will try to live with a respect for the fragility of life on this Pale Blue Dot and with an understanding that the star stuff that makes up my body and this planet will one day be pushed forth into the Cosmos.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

New York Times Cosmos Review

Cosmos rebootA great write up of the Cosmos reboot!
"'Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey' comes at a critical moment for a society that is increasingly fragmented. If we are going to decide big issues, like eating genetically modified food, fracking for natural gas, responding to the prospect of drastic climate change, exploring space or engaging in ambitious science research, we are going to have to start from some common experience."

Monday, March 03, 2014