Archive for: March, 2007

What is the purpose of religion and/or spirituality in a scientific age?

Mar 12 2007 Published by under Science & Religion

I suppose you could, with some justification, accuse me of being a troll, given that my post "So I'm a Christian. Shoot me." generated an entirely predictable set of flames tearing me down for unscientific thinking, and for trying to claim that there is any kind of bias against the religious anywhere on scienceblogs. I continue my trolling here -- though, of course, trolling is not the reason I'm doing this. I'm hoping that there are actually some out there who see this as a valid intellectual exchane.

In that post, I lay a few things out which aren't even the things I thought people might really object to. Indeed, mostly nobody objected to what I wrote-- which says something about the redership around here, since a bunch of what I wrote would be offensive to many who are religious. Instead, some objected to to the very fact of me being religious with the usual "stump the deluded godist" questions. Others actually objected to something in what I wrote, not liking my grousing about the anti-religious rehtoric that's so common around scienceblogs. The view seems to be that since atheists are so persecuted in general American societ,y it's OK for them to behave like intolerant boors around here. (I should also note that I received some comments in support of what I wrote, and I thank those of you who did that.)

In that post, I make it very clear that religion is no good at explaining the processes of the natural world. Once upon a time, that was a big part of what religion was for. We want to understand, to explain, how the world works. Until ancient Greece, at least Western thought didn't even attempt to explain it without recourse to theology. In the last few hundred years, science has demonstrated tremendous power in explaining the natural world without recourse to theology-- there's just no competition. We don't need religion to explain the natural world any more, and indeed it's clear that religion does a terrible job at that, whereas science has done an impressive job, and there's no reaspon to suspect that it will stop any time soon

Given that, is there any point to religion any more? For many, the answer is no. However, to some subset of those many, they think that the answer should be no for everybody. When somebody uses language like "The God Hypothesis," there's a good chance that they are taking a narrow view of religion as merely a "science substitute." What I want to argue is that there still remains a point and a purpose to "God" even if there is no point or purpose to "God the Creator." I would say that indeed the hypothesis of "God the Creator" has not stood up to observational scrutiny, for there is a whole host of other hypotheses that have stood up an awful lot better. While we can't strictly rule out "God the Creator," the role of that creation is shrinking into an ever decreasing set of gaps-- that I full expect science will one day close. Despite the Discovery Institute's senseless rambling, there's no need to invoke any kind of God or Intelligent Designer to explain how humanity arose. We've got broad theories that get our Universe from a very early state, that produced our Sun and our Earth. I fully expect that one day we will even have scientific theories that satisfactorily address the creation of our Universe itself.

So if we don't need God to explain how we came to be, how the world or Universe came to be, or how things work, what good is God?

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326 responses so far

My 10 favorite "songs"

Mar 12 2007 Published by under Random & Gratuitous

Chris at Mixing Memory has a post about correlating one's favorite music with one's personality.

Learn just what a fuddy-duddy I am by reading this list:

  1. Saint-Saens, Symphony #3 (the "Organ Symphony")
  2. Beethoven, Symphony #7 (esp. the 2nd movement)
  3. Dvorak, the "New World" Symphony (#9)
  4. Schubert, String Quintet in C Major (the cello quintet)
  5. Copeland, "Fanfare for the Common Man"
  6. Helmet by the Bobs
  7. Holtz, "Jupiter" from "The Planets"
  8. Tchaikovsy, Violin Concerto
  9. Widor, Toccata for Organ from Symphony #5
  10. Brahms, Symphony #1

Most people will quickly notice that it's 90% classical music, and their eyes will immediately glaze over. Those who know anything about classical music may make something out of the tendency towards 19th-century orchestral music....

Addendum: Of course, this list is too short. There's a whole lot of classical music I love that's not on there. But there's other stuff I like too. In no specific order:

  • Kool and the Gang's "Celebrate Good Times." Generally, it's not a style of music I'm fond of. The driving drumbeat of most popular music from 1950 or later often sets off my "highly sensitive person" whiskers, leaving me wanting an out. But "Celebration" was what they always played at the Oakland Colosseum whenever one of the A's would hit a home run, or when they would win a game. As such, I have a lot of visceral positive associations with that.

  • All of the Bobs. I love the a capella sound. I also love their wacky, offbeat sense of humor. I haven't heard much of "They Might Be Giants," but I've liked what I've heard of that as well.

  • "In the Mood" by Glen Miller. Indeed, I like a fair amount of Jazz, and sometimes listen to it on the radio. I prefer the all-instrumental jazz to vocals, but I like a lot of it. "In the Mood" is probably my favorite.

  • Sondheim and other Broadway musicals. Some more than others. I've done a lot of community theater, I've played my violin in a few orchestras, and I've performed in (and been the stage manager or producer of) several community theater productions of musicals. I like a lot of that stuff.

  • John Williams soundtracks. To a lot of people, this sounds like classical music, but many people who study and know classical music get offended by the suggestion that this media tie-in popular pablum is at all the same thing. But, heck, I'm a physicist, not a musicologist. I'm allowed to get a thrill out of the theme to Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars. My single favorite composition by John Williams is probably the Olympic overture he wrote for the 1984 Olympics.

18 responses so far

So I'm a Christian. Shoot me.

Mar 11 2007 Published by under Science & Religion

It's very irritating to come to my blog and see the advertisement at top for a book proclaiming loudly " GOD: The Failed Hypothesis. How science shows that God does not exist." I haven't clicked on the link, and won't, because its very title indicates to me that it's hogwash.

This bugs me on two levels. First, it sets off my bullshit-o-meter in a big way. God is not a scientific concept, and as such science cannot disprove the existence of God. Science has obviated the need for God or gods for many people, and science assuredly has disproven a lot of things people claim in the name of god (e.g. all of the absurdity claimed by creationists), but that's different from disproving God itself.

On the second level: if you are a scienceblogger regular and you go to a site that may have interesting and enlightening material, but you read at the top "How the Scientific Establishment is Destroying America!!!!" in big letters, what would you think? You'd be turned off to the site from the very beginning, and would approach everything you read there with suspicion. And, perhaps rightly so. But do we really want people who are religious but also interested in and open to the full implications of modern scientific knowledge to be turned off from the get-go when they arrive at this site?

Yes, scienceblogs is a site generally overrun with atheists of one stripe or another; the debate is between the radical atheists who think that anybody religious is soft-headed, ignorant, intellectual dishonest, or confused, vs. the "Neville Chamberlain" atheists who subscribe to a "live and let live" philosophy, and have no problem with people of other religious views as long as they still support good science. So, here's me, way out on a wing as being actually religious, not just tolerant of people of religion-- and, yet, still considering myself a fairly hard-line supporter of good science.

I'm very thankful for the Neville Chamberlain atheists. I'm very grouchy about this "go away religious people, you have to accept atheism into your heart to be approved as a science supporter" attitude that the advertisement showing up at the top of the site right now is supporting.

But if you're a science blogs regular, perhaps even a PZ sycophant, you may wonder: how the hell can Rob be so deluded as to think that he's a hard-line science supporter while still being religious?

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208 responses so far

Most significant SF books

Mar 11 2007 Published by under Nerdism

Honestly, I'm not sure where this list originated, but somebody came up with this list of "the most significant Science Fiction and Fantasy books of the last 50 years". I was having breakfast with some friends a couple of months ago, and we were musing about what should be in the "SF Canon". This is one person's list, and I suspect others would have other lists.

The in thing to do around here (based, at this writing, on the actions of Orac, PZ, John, Joseph, and Bora, is to post the list, posting in bold the ones that I've read.

Let's see how my nerd cred does:

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22 responses so far

"Friday" Galaxy Blogging : The Milky Way (to our eyes)

Mar 10 2007 Published by under Pretty Pictures

It's called "The Milky Way" because if you don't know what you're looking at, it looks like a hazy, nebulous path across the sky.

But try this : go down to Chile, or somewhere else in the Southern Hemisphere. Go outside at a nice, dark site, and stay out there so your eyes adapt. If the galaxy is passing overhead, you will see something like this:


This is a picture taken by an all-sky cloud monitor camera at the Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Around the edge of the picture is the horizon; you can see the silhouettes of the telescope domes. And, directly overhead, is the big and impressive edge-on spiral galaxy that we are inside. The "Milky Way," with a telescope, resolves to lots and lots and lots of stars. You can see the bulge near the center. The contours are irregular, because the disk of the galaxy is filled with dust clouds, some of whicih are closer to us, some of which are farther from us. All of the stars in this picture are in the Milky Way; they're just the closest ones, that look spread out on the sky to us because we're embedded in the disk.

It's a very impressive sight. I strongly recommend that everybody in the Northern Hemisphere find a way, sometime in their life, to get down to the Southern Hemisphere sometime in the fall when they can see this. And if you're already in the Southern Hemisphere, and haven't seen this-- get to it!

16 responses so far

Entropy (Basic Concepts)

Mar 08 2007 Published by under Astronomy & Physics

This post was copied and slightly edited from a post I made a year or so ago at my blog's former location.

More bullshit has been written about entropy than about any other physical quantity.

—Prof. Dave Beeman, 1988

There is a popular-level understanding of entropy that is "randomness" or "disorder". This is not a bad way of looking at it, but brings along with it some associated concepts that are misleading. Creationists exploit this ambiguity by turning the argument around to information, where, even though ultimately we're talking about the same physical quantity, the implications are much less obvious- precisely because "information" has a common, colloquial meaning in regular conversation that is different from the entropy-connected (and therefore second-law-of-thermo-connected) definition of information. Much as the term "theory" is misunderstood when talking about science, so is "information".

So, if we are going to strive to be accurate: what is entropy?

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34 responses so far

My Take on the Scientific Method (Basic Concepts)

Mar 08 2007 Published by under General Science

This is my meager contribution to the "Basic Concepts" series that is going on around here. (I hope to do more later, but for right now I want to start with this one.) I've written about this before at my blog's old location, but I'm writing this now without looking back at that; we can compare later to see how consistent I am.

I also expect other scientists to have a slightly different take on this.

In three words, my view is that the scientific method is nothing more than Applied Common Sense. Now, "Common Sense" has at least three meanings. The first meaning is "the title of a tract written by Thomas Paine," and is not really relevant here. The second meaning is "what seems obvious to people in everyday life," and is very much not the scientific method, and indeed is often at odds with the scientific method. What I'm talking about here is just common sense in the sense of "apply logic, be careful, ask hard questions when something sounds odd." The most important point of this is that the scientific method is not some holy rite that is written, learned, and followed ritualistically by scientists. Indeed, it is something anybody can do in almost any situation.

The scientific method also isn't the clearly delineated set of steps you learned about in junior high school and high school science classes. Those were the steps that start, 1: formulate hypothesis. 2: design experiment. 3: take data. 4: compare data to predictions of hypothesis. Yes, in fact, we are always doing all of these steps, but it is very, very rarely that we do them in the clean, step-by-step method that you learn about in school. Often, we're stumbling about in the dark. We start looking at or exploring something to test one thing, but see odd behavior; we modify our hypotheses or form new ones, and slightly modify our experimental procedure. There's a constant feedback going on. We're playing, but we're doing it carefully, and we're doing it systematically.

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18 responses so far

A One-Parameter Model of Rob Knop

Mar 08 2007 Published by under Kitties!

A friend (Deepto Chakrabarty, former housemate, and as such one who would understand) pointed me to this comic.

To first order, that is a complete description of my behavior.

One response so far

Friday Galaxy Blogging : IC 342

Mar 02 2007 Published by under Pretty Pictures

This is face-on spiral galaxy IC 342, taken with the Mosaic-1 Camera on the 4m Kitt Peak telescope by Travis Rector and Heidi Schweiker. (Image credit: T.A. Rector/University of Alaska Anchorage, H. Schweiker/WIYN, and NOAO/AURA/NSF).


It was released by NOAO a week ago at a symposium in Washington, DC on light pollution. Here is the NOAO press release.

11 responses so far

Your Papers, Please!

Mar 01 2007 Published by under Culture, Rant

Check this out: National ID Card Regulations Issued (27B Stroke 6 Blog, via BoingBoing).

Would somebody please remind me again when it will no longer be considered unhinged paranoid raving to sound the alarm that the US is rapidly degenerating into an authoritarian police state, and that we'd all better become very worried very fast or be prepared to sacrifice most of the freedoms we hold dear?

14 responses so far

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