A new adventure…

… with pal and colleague, Craig Story. Check it out and recommend it to your pastor friends! We are creating a one-week retreat-style course for pastors on scientific literacy. All expenses paid and we’re looking for folks to help us refine the course content by taking a short survey. Let us know what you think!

The link is easy to find and we’ll be updating/editing the blog a lot over the next few months…

http://www.gordon.edu/pastors

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Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty (TED talk of the week)

This week’s TED talk is an amazing and aesthetically pleasing talk on a Darwinian theory of beauty. The talk is given by Denis Dutton but is done in collaboration with animator Andrew Park to produce a truly beautiful, but controversial presentation.

Dutton argues for a universal philosophy of beauty that, much like Sam Harris’ universal morality, is based on science. In this case, Dutton believes that our universal appreciation of beauty is an evolutionary adaptation with deep origins.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the talk, I disagree with Dutton. While it is possible that there are aspects of beauty which are universal (and perhaps the appreciation of and longing for beauty is itself the universal aspect), I don’t believe the reason for this is because of evolution. Yes, natural and sexual selection are essential in our development as a species but to say these determine artistic preferences seems like *just* a bit of a stretch.

I’d encourage everyone to watch the presentation and enjoy it simply for its creativity and beauty. Then come on back and share what you think about his ideas. Do you agree with him or with me?

Posted in Evolution, TED talks | 5 Comments

Friday laugh track… xkcd on sports

I love sports but thing most commentary is pretty ridiculous myself…

Link here.

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Friday laugh track… xkcd on free will.

Link here.

Posted in Humor, xkcd | 1 Comment

Sam Harris on The Moral Landscape (TED talk of the week)

Well, it finally happened.

In multiple posts in the past I have defended Sam Harris and his efforts towards a scientific morality. I have done this even though I have never seen him speak or read a word of his books. My reason for defending him is simple. I don’t defend him because I believe everyone has a right to an opinion (even though in most matters, I do). I don’t defend him because he and I are in agreement on morality (I doubt we are, although we likely share some positions).

I defend him because I believe that no area of discussion, topic of interest, or intellectual problem should be a priori labeled a non-scientific matter. I say let science try and see what it adds to this already very complex discussion. Sure, others have tried in the past to root morality in science and reason and failed, but our understanding of human biology and neuroscience, in particular, has grown (and will continue to grow) immensely. There are new methods and they have provided us with deeper understanding. While I am skeptical that these studies will be as fruitful as Harris is, I believe his ideas are worthwhile, are worthy of consideration, and have merit.

So what finally happened? I finally saw him speak or read a word of his books (TED talk link here)! AND… my position hasn’t changed. In fact, if anything, my defense of his work will get even stronger. This should not be registered as a full endorsement. I think it may be most instructive to view Harris’ ideas on scientific morality in both a weak and strong form.

The weak form is what is prevalent during the majority of his talk and the strong form comes out in the questions at the end. In the weak form, Harris argues against moral relativism and states that there are moral positions that we can consider as wrong. Furthermore, he notes that it is plausible that there will be multiple positions that objectively could be considered valid. Thus, there is a moral landscape of views, some of which are wrong and some of which are right. His basis for evaluating these uses reason and empiric investigation.

He spent most of his time on which positions could be assigned as wrong and very little time on how to evaluate which ones are right. But, that’s the way of science. We disprove hypotheses but we don’t prove them. The strongest thing we can say is that there is abundant evidence that strongly supports a theory. In this weak form of Harris’ scientific morality, there is nothing that I disagree with on face value. That does not mean I am fully endorsing the argument, but I am willing and excited to read more of his work. This weak form contrasts with the strong form of his argument in which I think he is too optimistic regarding the explanatory power of neuroscience. In the talk, it felt like he slipped up a bit here but I can’t be sure. It’s possible he’s not going to reduce it all to physics and chemistry, but non-reductionists like me have to be skeptical until we see the whole matter play out.

What most concerns and upsets theists about Harris and the other New Atheists when it comes to discussions of morality, I would gather, is that they believe he is taking the power of what goes in morality from them and transferring ownership of it to atheistic scientists… and they don’t trust that the moral rules that will result will be ones they agree or are familiar with or ones that jive with their religious beliefs. It’s possible to be upset because one thinks he is wrong, but that’s not what I’m observing. It seems like theists are more convinced that science simply should not ask questions about morality.

I share the aforementioned concern, as it is one thing for me to say that Harris has a right to these matters and yet another to say he and other scientific elite get to determine the rules of the game. Nevertheless, I won’t let fear interrupt the discussion and I, perhaps naively, believe that Harris and I would probably agree on what positions constitute peaks in the moral landscape.

So, I say let the discussion continue. I, for one, am looking forward to it. Are you?

Posted in Atheism, Mind, Morality, reason, Sam Harris | 12 Comments

Friday laugh track. You know you’re a scientist when…

Link here.

Posted in Humor, xkcd | Leave a comment

Julian Baggini: Is there a real you? (TED talk of the week)

This week’s TED talk comes from Julian Baggini, a philosopher, writer, and the cofounder and editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. The talk (Is there a real you?) was given at the TEDxYouth@Manchester 2011 event. I thought the presentation was clear and even though it was somewhat elementary (on purpose), the analogies were both spot-on and thought-provoking.

In this talk, Baggini claims that there is no real you, in the sense that you are a separate thing. There is a you in that you are a collection of your experiences and thus change with time and new encounters. Without using the terminology, he is saying that there is no dualism. There is no separate “you”, “you” are your brain and the experiences you have. Baggini finds this idea freeing as you no longer need to seek and struggle to find out who the static you is, but that, to quote the army (my quote), “you can be all you can be.” With the constraints that genetics imparts, of course.

He doesn’t really address why we all tend to think there is a separate, or in his language, “real” you, but I suppose that would be for another talk. Is the “real” you epiphenomenal? Is it an illusion created by your brain?  Is it something that through our environment we have been trained to create? Is the matrix real? Okay, maybe not that one…

I’m not willing to give up on a “real” you at this point and am not sure that the evidence necessitates it at this point anyway. Even if neuroscience and genetics play a limiting role in our “you-ness” that doesn’t mean these disciplines eliminate it. I don’t see how science can remove the possibility of a separate you that isn’t material (even if I disagree with it), since science wouldn’t be able to test it. More likely, could this “real” you emerge out of the properties of the materials as in his watch and waterfall examples? Wouldn’t this you still be “real”? It could be a simple issue of competing definitions as well. Perhaps Baggini would say that this emergent you is legitimate but not defined as “real” because it’s similar to what we label and attribute to other objects and phenomena?

Clearly, this talk did it’s job and stimulated the creative juices. I’ve got to commend Baggini for that. Whether you agree with him or not, he made his point well and memorable for his intended audience and he also raised more questions than answers for this viewer (and likely many others). It’s very hard to do both in a 12 minute talk. Bravo.

I’ll leave you with a screenshot of his closing quote. Are you fashioning yourself?

Posted in TED talks | 3 Comments