Measured Against Reality

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Universe in a Single Atom

The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, by the Dalai Lama is a book about the spiritual leader from Tibet’s journey into science from a boyhood fascination with mechanical devices to leaders in the field giving him lectures on Quantum Mechanics. He frequently discusses Buddhist philosophy (and the often tenuous connections between said philosophy and modern scientific ideas), and pontificates on the ethical ramifications of scientific discoveries (mainly genetic engineering).

That’s the gist of the book. If you like Buddhist philosophy and science, then go ahead and read it, it will be worth your time. That being said, do not read this book if you’re looking to learn more about science.

I almost had to stop reading when he said that Evolution does not explain the origin of life. Of course it doesn’t! It’s not supposed to! That’s an entirely separate field. He also says, “I feel this inability or unwillingness to engage the question of altruism is perhaps the most important drawback of Darwinian evolutionary theory.” Again, this is entirely mistaken. Altruism is an active area of research, and there are many popular-level books dedicated to it (one of these is The Selfish Gene, which I will get to later).

He did better with quantum mechanics, and even better with consciousness. Buddhist meditation has always fascinated researchers, and many interesting and useful studies are done on meditating monks. However, I am more skeptical about his approach of using Buddhist meditative techniques, such as introspection, to probe ones own conscious scientifically. Because this is an entirely personal process, it’s hard to imagine getting rigorous results out of it. But the Dalai Lama knows a bit more about it than I do, so maybe he’s on to something.

One of my biggest problems with the book was his constant lambasting of reductionism. Granted, that’s a popular position, but reductionism is very useful in many circumstances, and when studying something as vastly complex as the brain we have little choice but to look at it piece by piece and try to build a coherent picture out of that, and as our understanding increases move back a bit and start looking at the whole.

Another misconception he perpetuates is that the scientific process necessitates materialism. Science operates on what is called “methodological naturalism”, which says that the only the we can study is nature. It makes absolutely no claim about there being anything supernatural, it only says that, by definition, we can’t study it. Many people (myself included) take this the step further and say, “I can see no evidence of anything supernatural, therefore I’m confident it doesn’t exist.” When the Dalai Lama says, “Throughout this book, I hope I have made the case that one can take science seriously and accept the validity of its empirical findings without subscribing to scientific materialism,” it’s just silly. There are plenty of professional scientists who don’t subscribe to materialism, for crying out loud. It’s just a tired untruth that science mandates materialism, it simply doesn’t.

This book started with a true gem, one that I’ve quoted before, and something that I truly wish every religious leader would say. I was hopeful that would set the tone for the rest of the book, but as I explained above, there were many errors and misconceptions sprinkled throughout. That being said, this is still a worthwhile read for anyone interested in Buddhism and its philosophies as they apply to science.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

I Am a Science Fanboy

I’ve come to the conclusion that I am a science fanboy.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, a fanboy is someone who is in love with a brand. He has all their merchandise (that he can afford) and worships it. The brand can do no wrong. The single biggest example is Apple, they have the largest, loudest, and most obnoxious fanboys (at least in my experience). Nintendo has them too, as does most other technology brands (and I’m sure most brands have them).

The fanboys defend their brand to the death. It is always right, it is always better. If someone insults their brand, they must respond, even if the person was just trolling. They frequently spout about how great their brand is, and how everything else is just awful (or at least not as good). The trivialize (or ignore) their flaws, while gloating about their strengths. Most of the time, they’re pretty annoying, as they refuse to consider, even for a minute, that their brand might not be the best in every way (or even, in the extreme cases, bad in any way).

I share many of those traits. I will defend science to the death. If someone insults it, I will defend it. I have quite frequently explained why science is great, and why I love it. I glorify its strengths (the best way of examining nature we have ever found) and its successes (which are too numerous to count). I’m not entirely convinced science (the method) has flaws, however I’m certain that the body of knowledge it has collected contains more than a few. But I do think that science is the best, and that nothing out there can beat it in any regard.

Nothing comes close to its ability to determine the truth of claims, or its ability to figure out the strange world we inhabit. Nothing else is self-correcting, with mistakes being weeded out constantly. Nothing else has increased our quality of life and our knowledge of the world as much.

And the best part of it all is that knowing how the world works makes it that much more beautiful. At the heart of every scientist there are two things: someone who has a child-like enthusiasm for figuring out how things work; and someone who loves nature, who is astounded by its beauty, and who wants to be able to appreciate that beauty on the deepest level of all: by understanding it.

Those are the qualities of a science fanboy. I am a science fanboy.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Quantum Mechanics Isn't Spiritual

I cannot stand it when people invoke Quantum Mechanics in the context of spirituality. Why? Because it’s stupid, and it shows that they don’t understand it at all.

Quantum mechanics isn’t spiritual. Why do I say that?

That’s why.

In case you’re unfamiliar, that’s the Schroedinger Equation, which is at the heart of quantum mechanics. Any waveform satisfies that equations, and from the waveform you can, in principle, determine the probability of the particle’s behavior.

Wow, second order partial differential equations, I feel such intense spirituality I might just break down and give up this whole materialism thing.

Even at the popular level, only someone with a highly distorted “understanding” (if you can call it that) of QM could possibly derive anything spiritual out of it. I suppose it would be understandable if the entirety of your knowledge came from What the Bleep do we Know?, which is widely regarded as the stupidest misinterpretation of QM ever.

Yes, QM is very weird. But it’s just equations that describe how particles behave in certain situations. It’s no more spiritual or special than Newton’s Laws or the equations of Special Relativity, or any mathematical construct. They may be beautiful in the sense that the contain vast amounts of information in such simple forms, and they have dramatic consequences for our understanding of the world, but they’re not spiritual. That’s just silly.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Linky-links and State of the Blog

I've built up enough "I should blog about this" links that I thought, well, I should blog about them.

The first is "Why Do Racists have Low IQs?" It's pretty much what you'd expect, an analysis of studies of racists, finding that they have lower IQs, less education, and their parents have less education. Racists are more likely to have a degree (if they have one) in liberal arts than sciences (woo! go sciences!) They're also more likely to be "conservatives, conformists, Republicans, and hypochondriacs", which also isn't very surprising (it's hard to be a liberal progressive if you want to keep entire races down). Although that hypochondriac thing is pretty weird, the author of the page makes some speculations about it, but it's still odd.

Anyway, I found myself wondering if the same stuff is true for anti-gay bigots, and I wouldn't be surprised if it were.

Next up is Intelligent design to feature in school RE lessons. It's in Britain, but guess how I feel about it. Well, you're probably wrong, I'm elated. Intelligent design is being talked about in Religious Education, where it belongs. The God Delusion is also on the reading list, which is cool. But the most important thing is that children are being taught comparative religion, which is (in my experience) one of the most surefire ways to make a bunch of atheists. At the very least it should make people less fundamentalist and give them a better understanding of other cultures, which is never a bad thing.

Finally, we have Do You Believe in Magic? This is a pretty good overview of why people believe silly things (like superstitions). It's not particularly new to me, but you should read it anyway.

State of the Blog: I'm going to start reviewing books that I have liked (first up is the Dalai Lama one). I'll give links through my Amazon Associates thingy. I wanted to disclose that so you knew that if you're interested in a book I review, buying it from my page will make me (a small bit of) money. I'd feel dirty if I didn't disclose that somewhere. However, this will not bias my reviews. They will, mostly, be books I loved enough to drag 2,800 miles with me, and books are heavy so that's saying something.

Other than that it should continue with business as usual. I've been writing less because I just haven't had much to write about. When reading other blogs almost everything they write is in response to something someone else wrote, or a review of something (even if it's a scientific paper), or just a collection of links. If you look at actual new content that they've come up with all on their own, there's just not much. I could try to do what they do, but I find it rather uninspiring, so I'll just keep up with the more seldom posts.

Not that anyway really cares, but I thought I should say it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sex Quote 2

The sex quote from a few days ago was written by William J. Robinson, M.D., editor of the American Journal of Sexology. In case you forgot it:

A dozen sex acts of today do not in their totality equal the thrill, the pleasure and the romance of one sex act of, say a generation ago. The thing has been so commonized, that there is little to it except the momentary physical enjoyment.

What I found remarkable was that it was written in 1917, but I could almost hear it being uttered today, nearly 90 years later. I think that says something about how the people who say things like that think.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Sex Quote

"A dozen sex acts of today do not in their totality equal the thrill, the pleasure and the romance of one sex act of, say a generation ago. The thing has been so commonized, that there is little to it except the momentary physical enjoyment."

Guess who said that and when.

And no Googling.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Some Fun at the Expense of Religion

A comic and Mr. Deity, a very funny sitcom starring everyone's favorite deity.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

View of Stanford

If you're interested in the view from my dorm, I made a panorama with my new camera and it's wonderful programs.

It's here.

I'm not putting it on this page because it's over 15,000 pixels long and 1600 high, and in order to fit that into my page I'd have to shrink it down about 20 times, resulting in a picture that's hardly worth posting.

Beware, it's about 3MB, so it may take a while to load.

I'll post more of these (and more size-appropriate) ones as time goes on, for those who are interested (also Stanford is quite pretty, so even if you're not, they should be nice pictures).

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Another Idiotic Prosecutor-Police Team

I'm not sure if this is more or less ridiculous than the case in the last post, but I'm leaning toward more. If there is any ironclad proof that we need a smaller, more intelligent government, the near-daily cases like there are it.

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Who Polices the Police?

Read this, this, and this, and tell me that it doesn’t make you just a little bit afraid. That could happen to anyone with an internet connection. Especially if you use Internet Explorer.

But this shouldn’t be able to happen. Ten years per image? Granted, child pornography is something we should seek to eradicate, but doesn’t it make more sense to go to the supply? Prosecuting users, especially ones who clearly didn’t even view the stuff and who you can’t prove viewed it, is just ineffectual and absurd. The reason we care about child porn is that the children are being exploited, and throwing buyers into jail for 90 years doesn’t change that at all. We’ll arrest foreigners who facilitate internet gambling, why don’t we just arrest foreigners who provide child pornography? I think everyone could get behind that cause.

I also like how the Reason article pointed out that the sentencing for child pornography is actually stiffer than the sentencing for rape. Brilliant lawmaking there. I know I consider looking at pictures to be several times worse than raping someone. Kudos to Arizona. Oh, and a SWAT team to check out a child pornography lead? Seriously overdoing, don’t you think? It’s overuse of the militarized police force in incidents like this that kill hundreds of innocent people.

After the Mark Foley scandal, I remember reading an article about how pedophilia is considered by psychologists to be its own sexual classification, distinct from heterosexuality or homosexuality (which is why they don’t say “homosexual pedophile”, but “discriminating pedophile”). That got me thinking back then (and this reminds me of it) how we have completely stopped trying to rehabilitate people. If pedophilia is psychological problem (which is usually is), shouldn’t we “rehabilitate” child pornography users by trying to rid them of their problem, rather than just throwing them behind bars? I could continue on to a general indictment of the penal system, but that would be just too much.

None of that is dealing with the problem that in all of these cases the accused is not innocent until proven guilty. And these cases can destroy families. There was an article a while ago about a family who went camping and inadvertently shot some pictures of their toddler naked (in the context of camping), who had to deal with an investigation into it. It nearly destroyed them.

Protecting children is a noble goal, their very nature makes them the most needing of protection. But at some point you have to ask yourself if we’ve gone too far. When an innocent kid could be thrown in jail for 90 years or labeled as a sex offender for the rest of his life, we absolutely have. This is insanity, and it must stop.

But just like every other insanity perpetrated by the government on its people, it won’t. I’m left shaking my head at these foolish, overreaching, overemphatically enforced policies, and praying that I won’t be the next innocent victim of the police state.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Drug War Article

Good article on the drug war's effects, particularly on Jamaica.

I'd say "the more I read about the drug war the more insane it appears", but at this point not much surprises me. A reputable article could come out saying that the DEA has started targeting and killing kittens, and I wouldn't be too surprised (they're that stupid and that evil).

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Wisdom of the Dalai Lama

I’m mostly done with The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama (full review forthcoming), and I wanted to quote this passage from the Prologue:

I remember a disturbing conversation I had had only a few years earlier with an American lady who was married to a Tibetan. Having heard of my interest in science and my active engagement in dialogue with scientists, she warned me of the danger science poses to the survival of Buddhism. She told me that history attests to the fact that science is the “killer” of religion and advised me that it was not wise for the Dalai Lama to pursue friendships with those who represent this profession. By taking this personal journey into science, I suppose I have stuck my neck out. My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims of Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims. [emphasis added]

Can you imagine the Pope saying, “if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims of Catholicism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” I certainly can’t. I find it amazing and refreshing that he takes that position. He never comes out and says this, but I suspect that he believes that the metaphysical tenets of a religion are absolutely trivial compared to the “spiritual” component of it.

If I were to apply that statement to Christianity, it would mean that the story of Genesis or the divinity of Jesus are irrelevant, what is relevant is the messages like “love thy neighbor”. It seems like people pay only lip service to messages like this, and focus on the ridiculous, unprovable, or outright false claims. Maybe I just don’t “get it”, but when I read about Christians trying to chase a business out of town for flying a rainbow flag (or some such incident), I just wonder how the “lamb of God” inspires people to acts of such ignorance and cruelty.

I also feel the need to say, as I have said before, that religion is not the only source of morality. I highly doubt it’s even an important source of a person’s morality. But if you look at how often (some) Christians flagrantly ignore the message “love thy neighbor as thyself” (which I think may be one of the best moral messages from the Bible, and Jesus claimed was the second most important religious law), it simply says that morality does not come from religion.

But that’s a different story. That quoted section left me hungry for an attitude like that in America. I can always hope.

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I've been meaning to do this for a while, and somehow I always forget. But here it is:

Should I take my ads down?

I've reached the point where Google will actually pay me, and it's about enough to buy one of my books this quarter, and from here on out (unless my readership grows dramatically) I won't be getting very much from it (a few pennies a day). I don't really like the idea of having ads, (a friend convinced me to do it in the first place), but I don't see them because of Adblock, a nice Firefox extension.

So I'm leaving it up to my readers. If you care, tell me, and I'll remove them.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Cooperative Genes

I was reading The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama, (which I will “review” when I finish), specifically his section on evolution, when a thought occurred to me. I thought it was a good one so I ran over to the counter to ask for a piece of paper and jotted it down on the back of a SouthWest ticket holder. It reads:

Which came first, the cooperation of the sociality? Does genetic predisposition for cooperation (altruism, compassion, etc) precede social inclinations, or does a social organization select for cooperative genes? Or do they reinforce each other? I’ve only heard that social animals will necessarily evolve to cooperate, but is it possible for cooperative animals to evolve to be social? I would say yes, and that (in mammals) that is probably how it happened.

I’m not sure if this is a new thought, I only know that I’ve never seen it before (or don’t remember seeing it before). I’m not even sure how viable it is. Although I do believe I have seen computer simulations run where cooperative genes can reach fixation in a population (fixation means that all animals in the gene pool that that allele in common). From there it would be fairly simple for social behaviors to emerge, given that cooperation in groups works very well.

However, evolving sociality is still possible, but I have a harder time seeing it happen (granted I am not a biologist, and my understand of evolution, especially the more complicated topics like behavioral evolution, is limited). It seems like a population of animals that are all fiercely competitive with each other would have difficulty forming groups without toning down the competitiveness.

Anyway, those are just some thoughts for a Sunday morning. Hope you have a good one.

Friday, January 12, 2007


This is just too fantastic. The best, and longest, political cartoon I've seen.

In unrelated news, I've heard recently that the entire US is having unseasonably warm weather. I know while I was in vacation in Rhode Island it was quite warm. The funny thing is that here (in Northern California) it's ridiculously cold. It's been falling below freezing, which almost never happens. Apparently I'm in the only place that's experiencing colder-than-normal weather.

Take that global warming!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

De-Lurk-ify Yourselves

Apparently the second week of January is De-lurker week, where blogs encourage readers who don't regularly comment to comment. So comment if you feel like it. It can be about anything, or nothing. I don't care too much.

I have some stuff coming later, including something about the Dalai Lama, so stay tuned!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Carnival of the Godless

Welcome to the 57th installment of the Carnival of the Godless!

Let’s get right into the best Godless blogging of the past two weeks.

Alon Levy of Abstract Nonsense discusses the fallacy of equating the Bible with a science or history book in On Evidence. He makes a very good, concise case for treating different sources differently, as well as for trusting scientists.

In one last push for the holiday season, Carol Hanson of Letters from a broad engages in “a light discussion of how holiday specials and movies portray skeptics vs. belief in Santa.” Skepticism never seems to fair well in movies, which is a tragedy.

In another final holiday commentary, Rich from the Disillusioned kid presents Reindeer: Horses With Antlers, a discussion of all things Christmas.

Robert McNally from Ironwolf, makes the case that we atheists should focus on the things that inspire us, rather than fighting various superstitions in 2007: Year of the Inspired Atheist. I’m inclined to agree, while the case for atheism needs to be made forcefully and repeatedly, there’s much more to an atheist than lack of faith, something we should emphasize.

Jeff G of Minds, Meaning and Morals argues that the burden of proof of God’s existence is on the theist in The Flying Spaghetti Monster and Presumption.

Justin Lowery of wonders Is God Bad for You? He comes to the conclusion “God may be good for some of us some of the time, but not good for all of us all of the time”, a sentiment that I find hard to disagree with.

The Ridger from The Greenbelt tears Cal Thomas a new one in Intellectually Lazy? You bet it is!

No more Mr. Nice Guy! discusses fundamentalist book-banning (and burning) in Is our children learning?

Shalini of Scientia Natura: Evolution And Rationality dissects some common Christian claims in Responses to religious nuts. This almost reads like Talk.Origins Index of Creationist Claims, except with Christian in place of Creationist. Nice job.

John of hell's handmaiden looks at the selective rationality of the religious in St. Isidore and his Etymologies. This is definitely one of those things all Godless people have noticed, and surely prompted Roberts’ famous quip, “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

Martin Wagner of The Atheist Experience has some fun with Pat Robertson in For your enjoyment: Ring in 2007 with some Pat Robert-fun! It made me laugh a few times, but Pat Robertson is almost too easy of a target.

Simen from import Mind.Reason uses an analogy to look at the difference between an atheist, an agnostic and a theist. It’s a pretty good summation of the semantic differences between the groups, although I bet agnostics and theists would beg to differ.

J-Bar of Lord J-Bar For Democracy, Not Theocracy takes a personal look at the Evolution/Creation controversy in Some Thoughts on the Evolution-Creation Controversy.

The next two posts are about morality, and I’m a little surprised there were only two of these. Aaron Powell of Symbolic Order presents The Primacy of Secular Morality, and Aeger of Kingdom of Heathen presents Morality Without God. Both are good discussion of secular morality and its superiority to religious morality. Combating the misconception of amoral secularists is quite important, and even though it has been done quite a bit, it can never be done enough.

Finally, Skadhi of Lacrimae Rerum has a nice distillation of the reasons to be godless in Why I don’t believe in god.

That’s all for this Carnival, tune in two weeks from now when it’s hosted at Abe Linkum.

As a final note, if I’ve made any mistakes please do notify me right away. To the best of my knowledge all of these links work (and names are correct, etc), but hosting a Carnival is actually quite a bit of work, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I messed something up. Also, I interpreted the guidelines pretty strictly (and tried to stick to current posts), so I did reject a few entries (sorry!).

Saturday, January 06, 2007

CotG Update

To those coming here for the Carnival of the Godless, it will be up sometime tomorrow afternoon, barring some kind of catastrophe. Sorry for the delay!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Random Links and Thoughts

I’ve been a bad blogger lately, so here’s a few interesting articles from the past few weeks along with some of my thoughts.

First up is the interesting, insane, and gross spectacle of exploding German toads. Yes, exploding toads. For a while officials were baffled, but now the party line is that crows would eat the toads’ livers, then the toads would self-inflate, (their woefully inadequate self-defense mechanism), be unable to stop (apparently due to the missing liver/hole in their skin), then explode. That seems farfetched to me, it seems like it should be some kind of environmental thing. I guess the world will never know.

Next there’s the fascinating story a the orator parrot. Apparently this parrot has a large vocabulary and some grasp of grammar. It really does seem that the more we study animals, the smarter they turn out to be.

Finally, a story I really wanted to do a whole post on, restaurants that let the customer decide their tab. This is a really amazing story, these restaurants literally do let you choose what to pay for a meal. Homeless people can pay nothing for a four-course meal, people with enough money leave a bit extra, and the truly wealthy can leave $100 for a cup of coffee; it all works out in the end. Of course, it doesn’t always follow that pattern, one homeless man frequently leaves money without eating.

The amazing thing is that he’s not alone. The altruistic goals of the restaurants inspire the rest of the community:

The cafés' business models have won fans among the city's well-to-do residents, many of whom regularly dine there. At One World, patrons have given Cerreta a car, bought new dishes, arranged to professionally clean her carpets, supplied new tile for the restaurant bathrooms, and donated property for an organic garden and funded a new irrigation system for it. Last week, a gentleman left a $50 bill next to an empty bowl of soup at SAME. Since opening, one man has regularly come in and left money on the counter without eating, stating "I was blessed today so I though I'd pass it on." He's homeless.

Imagine what could be accomplished if homeless shelters and food kitchens followed this idea. The quality of their food (and thus their service) could skyrocket, while they actually produce a profit. It shows that liberal ideals can be accomplished in economically viable means in a free market. Libertarianism works!

It’s also a good example of charity sans religion, just though I’d throw that in there.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Murdered for Being an Atheist

I wonder how many people like this there are out there. Killed for no other reason that being an atheist. Just imagine what would happen if the atheist had killed the Christian, or if atheists harassed Christians in a court of law.

I'm too disgusted to say anything else.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Missing Links

This a quick article for New Year’s Day, about a myth I encounter frequently. This myth is the “missing link” in human evolution. You’ll see it in documentaries, popular culture, and in conversation.

The main problem is that human evolution from chimpanzee-like ancestors to modern humans is very well-documented. I challenge anyone to go to this page, look at those skulls (reposted below), and tell me where a missing link should go. I certainly can’t see a good place for one, and that picture doesn’t even contain every fossil in our collections.

That’s not to say that we know everything about human evolution, there are a great number of things that we don’t know. But we do know what we looked like along the way, from Australopithecus africanus to Homo sapiens sapiens.

If you have some spare time, browse the rest of that article. It’s a fantastic summary of the evidence for evolution, and what better way is there to start off a new year than learning? I can’t think of many.

Have a good new year.