Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Psychology of persecution

Seems to me there are two possibile explanations for why people persecute others for their beliefs:

1) A genuine disagreement over the issues, a belief that such people are morally reprehensible and/or dangerous for holding them.

2) A cynical desire to maintain their power and position by stifling opinions that draw their own authority into question.

The first is possible, I suppose. But I lean toward the second, because it seems to me that persecution occurs in all realms of human intercourse, both religious and secular -- but is rarely led by people who don't have an economic and/or political stake in the outcome.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm sure there are many troops in these wars who genuinely believe the enemy is bad -- but it seems to me they're just pawns who have been deceived and emotionally manipulated by leaders who always have a personal stake in the outcome.

Consider the Catholic Authorities trying to maintain their hold on Europe through the inquisition. Given the unfalsifiable nature of their claim to authority, could they afford an alternative whose claims were equally unfalsifiable drawing their own into question?

Or evolutionary biologists insisting so rabidly that no alternative is worthy of consideration. What would happen to the funding for their research if it were acknowledged that their theories are absurd?

Or Republicans and Democrats (whose policies are often indistinguishable) using the rhetoric of ideology and morality, and then turning around when in power to do things totally counter to what they said. What would happen to their power and ability to draw contributions and alter the law to benefit themselves and their friends if the other side's moralizing went unanswered?

Or Muslim clerical authorities who use law to stifle religious dissent. What happens to the religious authorities' power if others are free to question it?

And on and on and on ...

It occurs to me that if one attempts to take on these forces through ideology -- through arguing about ideas -- one is simply wasting one's time; because the oppression is not itself about ideas -- it's about the power and authority of those whose ideas are being questioned.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Rewriting history

Offhand, the other day, I told my then-fiance, now wife, that (with only a very few exceptions) everybody in the educated classes of Europe knew the world was a globe from before the time of Jesus. She was shocked. She'd been told a thousand times (as I had) that everybody thought the world was flat before Columbus.

In fact, Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276-200 B.C.) calculated the circumference of the Earth to startling accuracy. 1700 years before Columbus.

Columbus' bold move was not to assert that the Earth was round, but rather his adoption of the Ptolemaic (rather than Eratosthenesian) circumference of the Earth. The ptolemaic calculation was, of course, much smaller, and ultimately wrong. But he thought the Earth was much smaller than previously believed, and therefore thought he could survive the voyage to Japan.

Right? No. Desperately wrong. He just got lucky there was another continent in the way.

But why the widespread lie about medieval folks believing the Earth was flat? I had TEACHERS teaching me that lie.

Or consider this limerick, in which the author breaks down the galileo affair to a conflict between "natural laws versus mystical cause."

The facts, of course, are radically different.

First of all, neither side was arguing about naturalism vs. supernaturalism. Both sides believed in a Creator. The debate was about whether the Sun revolved around the Earth (The Ptolemaic System) or the Earth revolved around the sun (The Copernican model).

So scratch one.

Secondly, this "mystical cause" theory (you know, the ptolemaic system) was devised by a pagan, not a Christian.

So scratch two.

Thirdly, this "mystical cause" was developed through the scientific method -- Ptolemy observed the physical universe, and developed a system to explain his observations. Turned out his system was wrong -- but it was certainly not based on mysticism. Quite the contrary, it was based on science.

Scratch three.

So what you had, actually, was the Church adopting secular science as dogma. And then the secular science turned out to be wrong, the Church didn't want to let it go.

Analogous to the adoption by many churches (like even the Big One, Catholicism) of the ludicrous doctrine of common descent? Perhaps.

But most importantly, perhaps, Galileo's model was inferior to the ptolemaic system, because he insisted the orbits of the planets were round. On this score, Galileo fell far short of his contemporary, Kepler. Galileo rejected Kepler's (correct) idea that the planetary orbits were eliptical -- because he thought circles were more "perfect" than elipses.

But the funny thing is, because Galileo refused to accept the eliptical orbits of the planets (as calculated by Kepler), his mathematics were actually inferior in their description of reality than the ptolemaic system Over the millenia, ptolemaic astronomers had added in all sorts of ad hoc adjustments to match their geocentric system to observed reality -- absurdly complex and ultimately wrong, but a much more accurate description of the observed fact's than galileo's circular orbits.

So why this whole thing about how Galileo was this "martyr for science?" Seems to me to be another anticlerical fiction -- a little rewriting of history that confirms the popular impression that the church opposes "science."

So who does things like this? Well in the case of Columbus, it was a guy named Washington Irving. In the case of Galileo, I suppose it's the morons writing and passing along limericks that rewrite history to serve their own purposes.

What I really don't understand is how people can actually make up stories to support their argument. As though the truth of the matter is less important than persuading people. Secular Fundamentalism strikes again, I guess.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Senses of "evolution"

The word "evolution" is used in so many senses that it's often confusing. The most commonly used senses I've heard are:

* Development of an individual ("I started out as a mathematician. But I gradually evolved into an engineer").

* Development of an idea ("Continue the discussion, and brainstorm, until your ideas evolve into something you can put into use.")

* Development of a design ("Cars evolved from the relatively primitive Model T to the modern Hybrid.")

* Adaption of an organism ("Organisms vary naturally, and those best suited to their environment tend to spread.")

* The story of the origin and history of life ("Life appeared as a spontaneous, self-replicating protocell, and developed through variation and natural selection into everything we have around us today.")

What's interesting to me is how loosely many evolutionists use the terms. I once made the old argument that "similarity does not imply common descent any more than it implies common design because there are "intermediate forms" among cars, but we all know cars didn't evolve" to an evolutionist. His response was puzzling -- "Of course cars evolved, you idiot -- look at the changes in them over time!"

I found this to be amazing. The fundamental difference between change in gene frequencies stemming from unguided, natural processes and the "evolution" of cars through the intelligent effort of hundreds of thousands of engineers over the course of a century" seemed to be totally lost on him.

Similarly, I remember watching a youtube video by other evolutionists in which the narrator said, "If it can grow, it can evolve." The fundamental difference between an individual changing due to inborn programming and change in gene frequencies stemming from unguided, natural processes appeared to be lost on her, too.

Then today, I ran across this blog by a PhD, in which he rather extraordinarily says:
"But we most certainly do not need fossils to demonstrate the fact of evolution, as we are surrounded by evolutionary intermediates right here in the modern world. In fact, if we didn't have any fossils at all we would still conclude - from the living organisms that surround us - that evolution happens..."

In what sense is he using the word "evolution" here? Does he mean changes in gene frequencies due to unguided natural processes? If so, then how does he know that organisms are intermediates without a fossil record to show a path of development from a common ancestor to the divergent species? How can one conclude that organisms are "evolutionary intermediates" without identifying their common ancestor which would necessarily only be found in the fossil record?

These "scientists" never seem able to grasp that point. They don't seem willing or able to effectively define their terms in this area such that criteria can be effectively applied to test whether reality corresponds with theory.

The real question about "evolution" is not whether organisms adapt to their environment through variation and natural selection. That's obvious, and was known well before Darwin ever showed up on the scene. The real question is also not whether many organisms have similar characteristics. That's also obvious, and was known long before Darwin ever showed up on the scene.

The real question about evolution is unguided, universal common descent. The idea that everything descended from a single protocell that came about by happenstance and subsequently diverged into all life through variation and natural selection alone. That's the only point of contention.

Does this guy seriously think you can make claims about history without looking at the historical evidence of fossils?

If he does, he's an idiot.

But I don't think he does. He probably never sat down to really think through what he means by "evolution."