Sunday, August 25, 2013

Science, the Roots of Nature, and the Branches of Knowledge

I'm always going on and on about how great science is. I know I do it too much, and some of my friends are probably a little mystified (and a little irritated) by this behavior. I think I might be to blame for that, because I may not have adequately explained my point of view. Or...maybe I'm just being a pain. Anyway, in this post, I'd like to explain why science is such a big deal to me, why it strikes me as so beautiful and powerful, and why I think it's harmful when it's ignored or denied.

My outlook is heavily based on science, but it's not an outlook all scientists or science buffs share. In fact, I first started thinking hard about science when I got irritated by a bunch of scientists. I was in graduate school studying animal behavior. Some of my professors were psychologists and some were biologists. Most were brilliant people, but I couldn't believe how obsessed some of them were with their own little specialty, and how little regard they had for other disciplines. The biologists looked down on psychology, and the psychologists from different perspectives (behaviorists and cognitivists, for example) looked down on each other. It seemed to me the world was big enough for all these perspectives to be true, at least partially. In fact, it seemed like combining insights from many fields would be a great way to learn more about all of them. But many of them didn't see it that way.

Anyway, all this got me thinking about fragmentation in human ideas in general. People today have a million different worldviews, ideologies, and perspectives. Such diversity can be a good thing, but it can also lead to mutual misunderstanding and contempt, as well as confusion about what's really true. What I wondered was, is there any point of view that could be seen as universal? Is there any way to find unity in all that diversity?

Well, I thought, nature is one source of unity. Whatever our ideology or nationality, we all live on the same planet and belong to the same species. We all breath the same air and look up at the same moon. We're all related—we share a common evolutionary heritage, and somewhere back there, we all share a common ancestor. We're even made of the same parts--each of us is made of the same kinds of cells, which are made of molecules, which are made of atoms, and so one. In fact, if I leave out “same species”, all the commonalities I've mentioned above don't just apply to humans. They apply to every animal on earth. Many of them apply to every living thing on earth, and some of them, like “made of atoms” apply to things across the entire universe. We all live in the same natural world, and it existed long before all the ideologies we hold so dear. It's the ultimate source of common ground.

So there's that. But how do we know these things about nature? Some are obvious to anyone, but most of them were discovered by scientists. If nature is a source of unity, then science is too, because science is our best method for figuring out how nature works. That's how I see science. When I think of science, I don't think of laboratories, or computers, or space probes. Those are just tools. I see science primarily as a means of understanding nature—not just nature as in “what you see when you leave the city”, but nature in the sense of the entire universe; the grand cosmic order of things. For me, science is a way of understanding how the universe works, and how—at least in the physical, factual sense—we fit into it.

And one thing science has shown us repeatedly is that we are not what nature is about. Copernicus showed we aren't at the center of the universe, and Darwin showed we are related to all the other living things on earth. It's not that we're not special—we are in many ways—but we're still a young species among several million others on a tiny little fleck of a planet that is one of countless trillions in the universe. We shouldn't get too big for our britches.

But most people have never really taken those lessons to heart. To hear them talk, you would think the human world and the natural world were two separate spheres, with the human world by far the most important of the two, as in the image below. In this view, science is just one of many human pursuits, and it's seen as having as much to do with technology as nature. 

The reality is different, and more like the next image. We're actually just a small, odd subset of nature. We're not an exception to nature's basic laws, but an unusual elaboration on them. People talk about things being "unnatural", but we actually can't do anything truly unnatural, in the sense that it would violate fundamental natural laws and exist outside of nature. What we do might be stupid and destructive, but it can't be unnatural in the deepest sense. We aren't that powerful. Anyway, in this view, science is like a telescope looking outward from the human sphere to try to understand the wider world we are a part of, and the laws by which it operates. It's not just a way of making better gadgets.

So. We are a part of nature, and science is our best way of understanding nature. What does that tell us about the problem of intellectual fragmentation? How does this shed light on how different branches of science are related, or how other important branches of knowledge, like ethics or the arts, fit in to the landscape of ideas? 

I think the first step in understanding this is to take a bit of a detour, and think about how reality is like a layer cake, or a set of nested Russian dolls--it has many levels. The whole universe is a great hierarchy of parts and wholes. Particles combine into atoms, and atoms into molecules. All these things combine into stars, planets, and nebulae; which in turn combine to form galaxies. Even galaxies combine into clusters and superclusters. Here on Earth, there are even more layers. Atoms and molecules combine in intricate ways to form living cells, which combine to form living things, which can combine into larger social groups, like an anthill or IBM. 

As you move up and down this hierarchy, you find that each whole system has emergent properties that aren't present in any one of its parts. A brain can do things a single neuron can't, and even a water molecule can behave in ways that the oxygen atom inside it couldn't on its own. There's nothing magical about this, it's just whole systems have different structures than their parts, and that gives them different properties, which you can't see if you focus on the part alone. The image below illustrates this with simple geometric shapes.

The fact that wholes have these holistic properties is the reason each level of nature needs to be studied at its own level. If you want to understand biology, you have to know something about chemistry, because it describes the atoms living things are made of. But you also have to study processes at a higher level than atoms, such as cell division or the evolution of species. Those things are just as real as the chemical reactions they are ultimately based on.

When you look at this hierarchy of parts and wholes, there are some very interesting trends we see as we move up and down the scale of complexity.The first, obviously, is that most parts are simpler than wholes. A subatomic particle is simpler than an atom, an atom is simpler than a molecule, and a molecule is simpler than a cell. Another obvious fact is that parts are more numerous than wholes. There are more atoms than cells, and more particles than atoms. Parts also tend to be older than wholes--not necessarily the part itself, but the category it belongs to. Atoms have been around longer than molecules, which have been around longer than living cells, which have been around longer than multicellular organisms. Finally, parts tend to be more universal. Particles, atoms, and molecules can be found throughout the universe, and they obey laws that seem to hold throughout space and time. Cells, as far as we know, only exist on earth, and they follow the more complex and less universal laws of biology. Even more complex whole systems, such as human societies, follow even less universal laws.

None of these trends are absolute--you can find many exceptions--but they are clear trends. You can combine all of them and think of the hierarchy of structure in the world as a big pyramid, as in the image below.

But this image leaves out something important. Whole systems are far less numerous than parts, but they are (or have the potential to be) far more diverse.There are untold gazillions of subatomic particles in the universe, but they only come in a few types. Atoms are somewhat more diverse--there are just under 100 naturally-occurring elements. But there are millions of kinds of molecules. There are also millions of species of living things. It's like letters and sentences. There are only 26 letters in the English language, but each can be repeated over and over again. Letters aren't very diverse, but they're very numerous. If you surveyed everything ever written, you would obviously find more letters than sentences, but sentences are endlessly diverse. In other words, whole systems are fewer in number, but far greater in kind, than their parts. The pyramid above doesn't capture that. A better image would be a tree, where a few roots give way to many, may branches. Superimposing the tree image on the pyramid, we get the image below, which sums up the changes we see from the bottom to the top of nature's hierarchy.

Where did this hierarchy come from, and why the changes we see from bottom to top? The answer, I'm convinced, is that nature's hierarchies were built up gradually over time in the evolution of the universe. Scientists today are almost unanimous in thinking that everything in the entire visible universe began in one place and time, in the Big Bang. That's why there are common features across the whole universe--it all shares a common origin. At first there was just a seething sea of subatomic particles, interacting according to the most basic laws of physics. But some of those particles combined into wholes called atoms, and some of those combined into wholes called molecules. As the pyramid of complexity grew, nature got more diverse. Here on earth, nature got extremely diverse and complex, as the first living things evolved and diversified over the eons into the millions of organisms we see around us today. Whole new layers of complexity and diversity were added when humans appeared, grew big brains, and started developing complex cultures--giving rise to things like art, philosophy, technology, and politics.

And that brings us back to the issue of intellectual fragmentation. I think the idea of an evolving hierarchy of structure in the world can help us figure out how the different branches of knowledge fit together. Consider the image below.

When you think about different branches of knowledge in terms of the hierarchies of complexity in the world, this gives you a clear way of arranging many of them. Each one has its place, and can't be collapsed into another. It describes the world at a certain level, where there are emergent properties that don't exist at lower levels. You don't want to try to understand what an artist was trying to say in a painting by learning more about the chemistry of pigments. That's looking at things at the wrong level; collapsing everything into science and forgetting about emergent properties. On the other hand, you don't want to try to explain a scientific idea, like the origin of humanity, with mythology. Mythology has its place, but that's not it. The point is, there doesn't need to be any conflict between the humanities and the sciences. They simply describe the world at different levels. In fact, the humanities may not even be about describing the world at all, but about creating new ways of looking at it. Each point of view has its own strengths.

Still, as I said above, I do think the natural sciences are vital. They describe nature at its most fundamental, universal levels. Physics is the most fundamental science, because it's concerned with nature's most basic particles, forces, and laws--which exist throughout the universe. Chemistry is slightly less fundamental, because it focuses on how atoms interact to form different kinds of matter, and not everything in the universe is made of whole atoms. But chemistry and astronomy both concern processes that occur across the universe, so they are pretty universal. Biology is far less universal, because it is concerned with life, which as far as we know only exists on this little speck of a planet. But what biology lacks in universality, it makes up in complexity and diversity.

What I'm trying to say is that the natural sciences describe the roots of nature--it describes where all that diversity converges into the fundamental unity of the natural world. Science is how we understand that huge circle above labeled "Nature". It's not the only valid way of seeing the world, but it is an essential one, because the facts it uncovers about nature are the same no matter what our ideology. If the facts are well-established, and our ideology conflicts with them, then the ideology needs to be revised. That's why science could be a source of unity in human ideas. It tells us about the biggest branches in the tree of knowledge. It tells us how nature works, how we fit into it, and where we come from. EO Wilson once pointed out how economists and politicians like to talk about "the real world", but they forget that nature is "the real real world." The natural sciences allow us to understand the real real world.

But people don't often realize that; sometimes not even scientists. For one thing, science is often presented as being primarily about technology, or as a way of predicting or controlling the world, rather than simply understanding it. And science is taught piecemeal. Teachers don't talk enough about how the different sciences fit together--how biology is grounded in, but transcends, chemistry, and how chemistry is grounded, but transcends, physics. The idea of nature's hierarchy of emergent forms isn't common enough, which may be why people think things like art and physics are in competition, when in fact there's plenty of room for both.

I think a great way of explaining the basics of science, and many other branches of knowledge, and how they all fit together, is to tell the story of how the universe evolved. When you talk about the birth of the first particles and atoms in the Big Bang, you automatically talk about the basics of physics. Talking about how the most of the elements in the periodic table were forged inside exploding stars is a great way to make chemistry a little more exciting. When you talk about early living cells on earth, you automatically talk about many of the common features all living things share, such as DNA, cell membranes, and the basic types of organic molecules. Discussions of human evolution naturally lead into anthropology and archaeology, and those naturally lead into history, which touches all the other, more recent, branches of knowledge. Of course, human history, and even life on earth, have little effect on the history of the universe as a whole. What a history like I'm describing would really do is trace a particular set of branches on nature's tree of diversity--zooming inward from the universal limbs of physics and cosmology into the branches we inhabit here on earth, as in the image below, or the one at the top of the page.

Of course, writing a big cosmic history like that would be a pretty tall order. I know--I tried it once, and it quickly got bigger than I could handle (not to mention bigger than most people will read). But I still think it's a good idea. Maybe I'll try to write a shorter version someday, covering just the natural sciences. Maybe even a super-abbreviated one; one that could fit in one of my standard, overly-long blog posts. Maybe. But not today.


My attempts: (More successful)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Global Warming, Public Opinion, and Other Hazards

I spend a lot of time thinking about other people's opinions. I'm always reading polls and comment threads, trying to get a sense of how others see the world. It's not that I'm intrinsically interested in John Q. Public's worldview. In fact, sometimes I find it pretty disturbing. But I feel like I have to pay attention, because opinions matter--they determine, at least in part, how people will act. And how people act will determine our future. There are 7 billion of us on this planet now (up from 6 billion just over a decade ago). If too many people believe things that are at odds with reality, we're going to have a collision with reality, and reality doesn't budge.

One of the opinions that worries me most is the idea that environmental issues like global warming or deforestation are not real problems, so we don't need to worry about them. I've gotten more tuned into this the last couple of weeks, after reading the following: "A new paper in the journal Science finds that climate change is now set to occur at a pace "orders of magnitude more rapid" than at any other time in the last 65 million years." 65 million years. If that's true, then many plants and animals may not be able to adapt fast enough to changing climate, as they have in the past. That's a scary thought. And Science is not some radical environmentalist magazine. It's arguably the most influential and respected scientific journal in the world. So that article got my attention.

Many people don't realize that there's a clear consensus among climate scientists that global warming is real and caused by human activity. That's what at least 90% of them believe, and probably more. Yet nearly half of Americans don't believe in global warming, or don't think it's caused by humans; while 59% don't think there's a scientific consensus, and 37% actually think global warming is a giant hoax. So, whether global warming is real or not, there's a huge gap between what scientists believe and what the public believes.

One of the most commons reasons for denying global warming was stated unusually plainly the other day by Rush Limbaugh: "See, in my humble opinion, folks, if you believe in God, then intellectually you cannot believe in manmade global warming … You must be either agnostic or atheistic to believe that man controls something that he can’t create."

Obviously that isn't true; lots of people who believe in God can and do believe in global warming. And we clearly affect many things we didn't create. We didn't create the passenger pigeon or the dodo, but we sure did kill them off. So, Rush's statement is demonstrably wrong. But doesn't mean his views are uncommon. I suspect a lot of religious conservatives use a similar thought process: God is in charge, and He will determine the ultimate fate of the earth and humankind. Many literal-minded Christian conservatives believe the world will end as described in the book of Revelation, and perhaps soon, so worrying about other potential catastrophes is silly (many seem to look forward to it, which scares me more than anything in the whole world.) Others believe mere humans couldn't significantly alter what God created, so things like global warming can't possibly be real.

Others deny global warming for different reasons. One is just plain old wishful thinking--I don't want it to be true, therefore it isn't. Another common reason, I think, is that global warming conflicts with free market ideals. Those who believe that free markets can solve most of the worlds problems don't like to think a major global issue could arise despite free markets, or even because of them. The much-lauded Invisible Hand of the marketplace isn't supposed to turn around and slap us. I suspect that's what motivates most libertarians who deny global warming, since they don't tend to be especially religious, and they don't usually deny other well-established scientific theories. Conservatives may be motivated by both the religious and the free-market arguments. I think those are the main ideological reasons for denial in the United States, but in other places people surely deny it for other reasons. I imagine there are Marxists who deny it because it would conflict with the vision of the inevitable triumph of socialism.

In any case, the main point here is that these opinions are motivated by ideology. Why else would people oppose global warming more than other modern scientific theories, like plate tectonics or the expansion of the universe? Why single out global warming? Because it conflicts with a pre-existing ideology, that's why. Non-scientists who deny global warming rarely do so after unbiased, careful consideration of the evidence. Instead, they begin with a conclusion--global warming is not real--and then look for arguments to support that conclusion. And those arguments seem convincing, at least to people who want to believe them and don't want to look for contradictory evidence. It's confirmation bias in action--seek out arguments that support what you already believe, and disregard those that don't.

That's the opposite of how science works. Science, at least in theory, proceeds by observing the world, noticing certain patterns, and then formulating hypotheses to explain those patterns. Then the hypotheses are tested, and if they fail, they are (eventually) discarded. The ones the scientists can't knock down are the ones they keep. Of course, scientists are only human, so in the real world it's messier than that. But the process still works amazingly well--well enough to give us the know-how to land a robot car on Mars and eradicate smallpox, to give just two examples.

Science is an astoundingly powerful method for understanding the world, and the people who use it to study climate have concluded that global warming is real and caused by humans. And here's the thing: they don't believe that because of some ideology they already had. They believe it because they realized how much carbon we're pumping into the atmosphere, wondered if it might warm the planet, and then started trying to figure out if it really does. And the answer most of them have come to is, "Yes, almost certainly." A few have taken an honest look at the evidence, and remain undecided, or even skeptical. That's fine--science couldn't function without honest dissenters, because sometimes they turn out to be right. I don't have any beef with them unless they're skeptical because of some other ideology. Then they aren't really doing science.

As for myself, I also believe in global warming, but not for the same reasons most climate scientists do. I understand the theory fairly well, but I can't honestly say I've mastered it, looked at all the evidence, and drawn an honest, educated conclusion. I've done that with simpler theories, like the theory of evolution (whose fundamental ideas really are very simple). But climatology is an unbelievably complex field, with all kinds of variables interacting in complex, counter-intuitive ways. I would have to immerse myself in it for months to have a truly informed opinion. So I go with what the majority of scientists think. I have enough faith in the process of science, with its checks and balances, to think that's a good bet. And like most scientists, I don't have any ideological dog in the fight already. In fact, I would much rather believe global warming isn't happening. But I simply can't help thinking it is. What I wish were true has absolutely no bearing on what is true.

I'm not saying people should or shouldn't believe in global warming. I'm just saying they should try to step back from whatever ideology they have and take the time to actually understand the theory--and the level of support it has among scientists--before rejecting it. Is that so crazy? A whole lot of people who reject it do so without coming close to understanding it. I know that because when the subject of global warming comes up, I've seen lots of people deny it...and then start talking about holes in the ozone layer. That's a completely different issue. Anyone who confuses global warming with ozone depletion hasn't understood either issue, and has no business making pronouncements about them. Most global warming skeptics I've talked to either reject it out of hand, without doing any research, or Google it and find a few reasons to deny it, without ever really understanding what the theory says.

That's a huge problem, because there's a whole lot riding on the theory. It has enormous bearing on the future of the whole planet. It's too important for knee-jerk reactions based on wishes or ideology. And it's not the only issue like that. There are all kinds of ways we could wreck the planet, and therefore wreck human civilization. It's not just global warming. In the last 60 years or so, humans have become fully capable of devastating, and possibly even ending, life on Earth. We could do it with nuclear weapons, or uncontrolled population growth, or runaway global warming, or any number of other screw-ups we only dream about now. This isn't hyperbole. This is realism. We're numerous enough and we're powerful enough to do it. As a species, we're like a child who's just found a stick of dynamite and a box of matches. We've suddenly gained a whole lot of power, but not the wisdom to control it.

We really are living in a uniquely dangerous period in human history; one in which our potential global impact has suddenly become explosive. If you don't believe that, I invite you to take a look at the graph below, which plots the human population over the last 12,000 years. Population isn't the only thing that has suddenly gone exponential. The growth in computing speed, scientific knowledge, and potential human impacts on nature are following similar curves. We're living in an age of explosions, and if we don't learn to control them, we will blow ourselves to bits.

My main point in this post, then, is not about global warming. It's about the idea that catastrophic human impacts are impossible. That's probably the most dangerous notion I've ever heard of. It leads to apathy, overconfidence, and outright hubris in the face of very real problems. This idea--that God or the marketplace won't let us wreck the world--could wreck the world. It really could. Global catastrophes have happened before in Earth's history (just look up "mass extinctions"), and there's no reason to think they couldn't happen again. It's just that now we've become the most likely cause of the next catastrophe. As Pogo famously said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." We no longer have the luxury of wishful thinking and comforting ideologies. We've got to learn to pay attention to what's really true, not what we think should be true, so our opinions don't put us on a collision course with reality.


The Climate Is Set to Change 'Orders of Magnitude' Faster Than at Any Other Time in the Past 65 Million Years - The Atlantic Monthy

Climate change: A guide for the perplexed - New Scientist (has a great list of common objections to global warming, and their rebuttals)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Captain Stormfield and the Sky-Blue Man

Last night I re-read Mark Twain's hilarious little novella, Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven. I first read it as a kid when my Mom gave it to me, telling me it had changed the way she thought about some of life's big questions. It had the same effect on me.

"Well, when I had been dead about thirty years," the story begins, "I begun to get a little anxious. Mind you, I had been whizzing through space all that time, like a comet." The good captain is on his way to heaven, but space is a big place, and though he estimates he's making a good million miles a minute, it's a long way. He's a boisterous old soul, and he gets a little bored, so he decides to race a comet. This takes him off course, and when he arrives at the gates of heaven, he's come to the wrong one. After waiting in line with "a sky-blue man with seven heads and only one leg", he finds that the attendent has never even heard of Earth. It turns out that beings from billions of other worlds also go to heaven, and the Earth is not one of the more prominent worlds. The attendents eventually figure out where he's from, and send him on his way, where more surprises await him.

As a kid, I was fascinated by the idea that God might have created other inhabited worlds besides our own. That kind of stupendous cosmic creator sounded a lot more God-like to me than the descriptions I heard in Sunday school. And it still does, though these days I don't claim to know if there's a God or not. If there is, I certainly don't think he created humans in his image. Our species has no business being that egotistical. But I can imagine him (or her) creating the universe knowing that intelligent life would eventually evolve on some worlds, or at least this one. I can also imagine that he didn't, but it's interesting to think about what follows if he did.

And no, I'm not going to turn this into an argument that God doesn't exist. I really am interested in thinking about what's likely to be true if he does. Let's assume for the sake of argument that God intentionally created a universe with intelligent life (and further assume we qualify as such). Now let's combine that assumption with a certainty: the unfathomable enormity of space. We share our galaxy with at least a hundred billion stars--more stars than you could count in a lifetime; many with planets circling them. And our galaxy is just one of countless others, some of which are behemoths containing over a trillion stars. I can't help thinking there's life out there in all that, even if life is completely random (which I think is likely). But I don't really know. However, if God intentionally created a universe with intelligent life, then I would think there really is life on billions of worlds.

That may seem like a surprising conclusion, and it doesn't seem to be common among theists. But why else would God have created all those galaxies, stars, and planets? If he created our world with some purpose in mind (and most theists think he did) then why would he have created all that extra space, if not to put life out there, too? Most just think of God as focusing on the creation of the earth, and humans in particular. But if that were his focus, why did he make all those other galaxies? Of course, I have no idea what's necessary when creating a universe, but still, making all that just to stick life on one little out-of-the way speck of dust--seems like a strange extravagance.

I guess what's fascinating to me about this idea is that I see most religious views of creation as far too small. The idea that God created this world all at once a few thousand years ago just seems so pedestrian next to the thought that it's millions of years older than that. It's like comparing a sand castle and the Great Pyramid. The literalist view of creation just doesn't do justice to the grandeur of the universe. Nature is more magnificent than that. But if my line of thought in this post makes sense, then a religious view of a purposeful creation should lead to an even more surprising view of the cosmos than a non-religious one. If the universe is random, then maybe living things on Earth are alone in the universe. I doubt it, but we don't have much of a basis for ruling one way or the other. But if life in the universe is purposeful, then we have good reason to think it's common. Unless you want to insist that God flung galaxies across space like so many billion grains of sand, just to put us on this one little particle, in one little atom, in one single grain. And what kind of sense would that make?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Myths, Morals, and Facts

Once when I was having dinner at a friend's house, he showed me an antique steamer trunk he had just bought. "You know," he said, "The word 'posh' originated as a label on trunks like this. It was an acronym for 'Port Out, Starboard Home'. Wealthy people had P.O.S.H. printed on their trunks to tell the luggage carriers where to put them on the ship, so it turned into a word about wealth and luxury."

I thought that was a great bit of trivia, and I told people about it every time I heard the word "posh." Not long ago, I heard someone talking about a "posh" home. Hearing my cue, I started telling my story about the word's origin. "Wait a minute." he interrupted, "Are you going to tell me about labels on trunks? You know that's just a myth, right?" Sure enough, I consulted a dictionary and it said "Posh" originated as a slang term for a dandy or fastidious dresser, and that the story about steamer trunks is not true. It is indeed a myth, and I had been passing it along.

That kind of myth is all too common in the modern world. A lot of historical "facts" are really just stories or images that get passed on because they're interesting, even though they aren't true. Marie Antoinette, for instance, never said "Let them eat cake." Her opponents made up the story to stir opposition against her. Vikings never wore horned helmets--some artist drew a picture of burly guy with a horned helmet, and the image stuck. Educated people in Columbus' time didn't think the world was flat. Humphry Bogart never said "Play it again, Sam". And of course, we've all heard the urban myths about dogs choking on severed fingers or people getting cooked in tanning beds. What these images and stories have in common is that they strike chords in our imaginations. We find them fascinating for some reason, whether it's shear morbidness in the case of urban myths, or vividness, like the image of blond warriors with horned helmets. Their appeal outweighs the fact that they aren't actually true, so they get passed on.

Looking up the history of the word "posh", with its real and its mythical origin, I started thinking about the word "myth" itself. People often refer to common misconceptions, like the ones above, as myths. This sense of the word--an appealing and common, but false, story or idea--is different than the other sense of the word; of myth as in mythology. Mythology is myth in the sense of powerful stories of heroes, deities, and the creation and destruction of worlds. There are similarities between the two kinds of myth. Both are perpetuated because of their human appeal, and neither are literally true, at least not entirely. But when we talk about myths in the sense of "mythology", we're not focusing on their falsehood.

We don't study mythology to make fun of the misguided notions of ancient or pre-scientific peoples. We study it because of the power of the myths, and the insights they give us into the common themes of the human imagination; themes of heroes, quests, gods and goddesses, monsters, doomed lovers, and natural disasters, all of which show up around the world. Myths reflect the deepest fascinations and concerns of a culture. They aren't often thought about this way, but I think they evolved, in a way that's analogous, though not identical, to biological evolution. Like species, myths evolved through a process of variation and selective retention. Variation occurred when storytellers would forget parts of a story, or add new twists. Selection was based on how well these variations resonated with the people that heard them. If they were found meaningful and appealing they stuck; they were passed on. This is surely one reason mythology can be so powerful. Myths have evolved to reflect people's deepest curiosities, fascinations, and fears.

Mythology is a fascinating part of the history of human ideas, because it represents the most ancient way cultures interpret the world. Originally, people didn't distinguish literal, emotional, ethical, and aesthetic truth. Pre-scientific mythology was an all-purpose worldview. Myths combined explanations of natural phenomena with religious or ethical lessons, in the form of vivid, memorable stories. In the absence of modern scientific instruments, literal truth was often unattainable anyway. So, the more meaningful or vivid the story, the better. For example, theres an ancient Hindu myth about the primal divinity Purusha. Purusha is the first being, and has no gender at the time. Feeling all alone in the universe, Purusha swells up and splits in two, becoming a man and a woman. They desire each other because they had originally been two halves of one being, but the woman fears it would be incestuous for them to mate (incest is a common mythological theme, since mythic first people are usually related). She tries to hide from him by turning herself into a series of animals, but he follows her. When she turns into a cow, he becomes a bull, and they mate and have offspring. He continues to pursue her, and they reproduce as every animal in turn, thus creating all of the animals on earth.

This story clearly serves many purposes. First, it's beautiful and memorable. It also offers explanations for facts about the world, including the existence of men and women, their mutual attraction, and the origin of the animals. It has an ethical component--the taboo against incest. Myths, then, formed the ideological, explanatory, and poetic background by which primal cultures defined themselves. This kind of worldview had its advantages. Because myths combined artistic, explanatory, and ethical ideas, there was little fragmentation of belief. The entire culture shared the same myths, which gave everyone a common understanding of where they came from, who their gods or spirits were, and how they should act. The only problem was that most myths were not literally true.

In the modern world, we find ourselves in the opposite situation. We have access to all kinds of factual truth (if we can track it down amidst all the nonsense). We now know the sun is a giant nuclear fusion reaction, not Apollo racing his chariot across the sky. Today we have theories about the natural world that are demonstrably more coherent and accurate than the old mythological explanations, so myth has come to be equated with falsehood. The problem is that people no longer share a coherent, poetic view of the world. Our beliefs have become fragmented into compartmentalized disciplines and rival camps. We've attained a great deal of literal truth, but we've lost a worldview.

That's a problem, but I think it's is a necessary step toward a better situation. We can no longer, in good conscience, believe things simply because they're poetic or traditional. We know too much. to the extent that ethical, artistic, and scientific ideas don't overlap in the real world, we need to disentangle them. Mythology is good literature, but it isn't good science. Science is good for describing nature, but it leaves many ethical questions unanswered. We need to differentiate these realms of human inquiry because they have different aims and serve different purposes.

But we can't simply pull them apart and leave it at that. These distinct realms of meaning aren't completely separate. Sometimes they do overlap. For example, our idea of factual truth has ethical implications, because believing something that isn't true can cause ethical mistakes. In many myths, including the one about Adam and Eve in the Bible, there's a theme where men were created first, and women were later, almost as an afterthought. Science offers no evidence for this. If we make the factual mistake that men are primary, we're more likely to make the ethical mistake of treating women as secondary. So, we have to perform a balancing act. We have to differentiate the areas of knowledge--mythology should not be mistaken for science--but then we need to integrate them, to see where they do connect, and how they fit together. Ethics, for example, can be informed by science (and vice versa). To move beyond fragmentation, we have to fit the various realms together, without letting them collapse back upon each other.

I wrote the first version of this about ten years ago. Here's that version in its original context.

The Purusha story in the Upanishads

Friday, August 2, 2013

School Prayer Again: The Good Old Days and Other Fallacies

This morning I saw that a group called The American Family Association of Kentucky has an online petition to the governor of Kentucky, imploring him to return "God's protection to America" by "putting prayer back in the schools." At the top, it shows a pair of praying hands in front of the American flag, and says, "restore student religious liberty." It goes on to say:
Prayer was in our schools for over 200 years before the anti-God forces took it out in 1962. After prayer was removed from our schools, teen pregnancy went up 500%, STD’s went up 226%, violent crime went up 500% and SAT scores went down for 18 years in a row, opening the door for the AIDS epidemic and the drug culture.
I didn't wake up this morning thinking I would write another post about school prayer, but this survey got me thinking about some of the myths and fallacies I keep seeing that surround the issue, and I'm getting pretty tired of them.

The biggest myth (or lie, if you're more cynical) is that prayer was ever entirely taken out of schools. It wasn't. Official, school-sponsored prayer was taken out of schools (though not always successfully--I remember bowing down with all the other seventh grade football players to say the Lord's Prayer before games). Students are still free to pray as long as they aren't disrupting class or doing so as part of an official school function, like cheerleading or speaking at a graduation. School officials can pray, too, but if they want to stay within the law they need to do it silently and discreetly, so that it isn't a promotion of prayer. You can't outlaw silent prayer, and no sensible person wants to anyway.

I've noticed it's incredibly hard to get some people to acknowledge the distinction between "official school prayer" and "voluntary student prayer". It's an important one: the first is illegal, and the second is not. In fact, it's protected, as long as it's not disruptive. There's an inevitable tension in the 1st Amendment between the Establishment Clause, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" and the Free Exercise Clause: "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". In the case of government institutions and employees, free exercise is restricted, to keep from violating the Establishment Clause. That's why public schools and their employees can't officially support one religion over another. What they do on their own time is up to them.

Which brings us to another fallacy: that restricting official school prayer is a violation of "religious liberty", as the Kentucky petition claims. It isn't, or at least it isn't an unreasonable one. School officials and students acting in official school functions can't expect full religious liberty while they are acting on behalf of the school, because that violates the Establishment Clause. We're back to that official/voluntary distinction. In fact, official Christian school prayers would be a violation of religious liberty, because some non-Christian kids would be forced (or would feel intense pressure) to participate in the prayers of a religion they don't share. There's this strange idea on the religious right these days that religious liberty means being allowed to force others to conform to your religion. It doesn't--that's twisting the word "liberty" into something else entirely. In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Another one you hear a lot is that "God has been kicked out of schools." There's an idea in religious right circles that many of today's woes can be traced to the removal of official prayers from school in the early sixties. Those woes aren't just the result of kids not receiving religious instruction, according to this view. They also come from the fact that God has removed his protection from America, as the petition claims. The recent school shootings aren't just happening because the students don't know God. They are also happening because God is letting them happen, because we "kicked him out of the schools."

Now, I'm a little out of my theological depth here, I admit, but these sentiments don't seem to be giving God a whole lot of respect. If God is really omnipotent and omnipresent, as most Christians believe (I think), than it's impossible for mere humans to kick him out of anywhere. Of course, you could argue that the "kicking out" part is just a rhetorical flourish, and what's really happening is that God is simply deciding to leave the schools and withdraw his protection. As Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association (the same organization sponsoring the petition in Kentucky) put it when discussing why God let the Sandy Hook school shooting happen:
In 1962 we kicked prayer out of the schools. In 1963 we kicked God's word out of ours schools. In 1980 we kicked the Ten Commandments out of our schools. We've kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us, 'Hey, I'll be glad to protect your children, but you've got to invite me back into your world first. I'm not going to go where I'm not wanted. I am a gentleman."
So...God let a madman gun down little children because...he's a gentleman? Once again, I don't think the word "gentleman" is being used correctly here. This view paints a picture of God as being petty and vindictive, the kind of God who says, "If you don't base your government on one particular religion--conservative Christianity--then I will let terrible things happen to you and your children." Granted, that does resemble the vengeful and jealous God of the Old Testament. But happily, not all Christians see God in those terms anymore (some folks on the religious right seem to have never read the New Testament...except for Revelation, of course). 

But whether this view is true Christian doctrine or not, some of us in this country aren't Christians, and it's our country too. Personally, I think that if God exists at all, he probably doesn't have much to do with human affairs one way or the other, so the whole "God's protection" argument is a moot point. I don't think that's how the world works, and if it is, and God only protects countries with school-sponsored prayer, then he is a petty and callous deity, and certainly no gentleman. Is that a God worthy of worship? I don't think so.

Now, what about the quote from the petition that talks about the ills that have befallen America since "anti-God forces took it out in 1962"? First, that "anti-God forces" part is mostly wrong.  Engel v. Vitale, the court case in 1962 that made official school prayer illegal, was brought by a group of parents including "two Jews, an atheist, a Unitarian, and another Protestant." Only one of those people could possibly be considered "anti-God", though at most an atheist would be anti-religion, because you can't be against something you don't think exists. Maybe they're confusing that case with Murray v. Curtlett, the case that lead to Bible readings being outlawed in 1963. That's the one that involved the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who was pretty anti-religion, and apparently not a very pleasant person. Many of the court cases that helped remove official religious observances from schools were brought by religious people, many of whom are quite passionate about separating church and state (religious people came up with the idea in the first place, after all). So, it isn't generally "anti-God" forces; it's "anti-official-sponsorship-of-religion" forces, which is a very different thing, and often quite pro-God. 

But what about the claims about teen pregnancy, STD's, and violent crime increasing after 1962? I'm not going to spend a bunch of time tracking the statistics down for Kentucky, but I wouldn't be surprised if they were partly accurate. Those things may have increased in the 60's. Society did see some upheavals then. But that doesn't mean the removal of official prayer from school caused those problems. Jumping to that conclusion is an elementary logical fallacy: the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (it means "after this, therefore because of this"). The fact that an event precedes another event doesn't mean it caused that event. My Dad is a veterinarian, who is always having people tell him that their pets got better because they dewormed them, even when the ailment had nothing to do with worms. He asks, "Did you ever have a flat tire the same day you went to the gas station? Did you decide that going to the gas station causes flats?" (See also "regression to the mean" and "correlation does not imply causation")

There are all kinds of things that might have caused increases in violence, teen pregnancy, etc. in the 60's, and the removal of school prayer is just one (rather remote) possibility. However, I can imagine that both the removal of school prayer and the increasing social ills could have been related to a general societal move away from traditional religious and moral values. That move did really get rolling in the sixties. It's true that belief and morality have grown more diverse in the United States in the last few decades. Some people are moving away from traditional religion, while others are embracing fundamentalism. I do believe it can be a dangerous time when people start questioning their old moral systems, because they may start abandoning rules that are there for very good reasons. That's one reason I write about ethics so much in this blog--people have to have some kind of moral framework that keeps them from doing hurtful things, and I'm trying to figure out what system might make sense, without relying on unproven supernatural claims. 

That's the thing--just because the removal of an old system of morality leads to problems, that doesn't mean the old system was right or good. And that brings me to the good old days. Lots of people, especially those on the religious right, look back wistfully at a glowing golden age when God was in charge and morals were morals. I heard someone recently longing for the time when "God was in the classroom, and there was a paddle in every teacher's desk". People look at "kids today" and shake their heads in despair. But there are some big problems with that view. For one thing, it's been around forever. Back around 700 BC, Hesiod lamented that "When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint." People have said the same things for at least 2700 years, and probably much longer, yet the world has never yet completely gone to hell in a handbasket (it's come close, maybe). Every generation has the rebellious kids and the more obedient kids. Admittedly, things today are a little unusual, because we have seen traditional Christianity lose more of its dominance over western culture. Many Americans, and far more Europeans, are now non-religious (and some of the least religious countries are some of the happiest on Earth). So yes, we are living in an unusually dynamic time, in a moral sense and in pretty much every other sense. 

But that doesn't mean there's no hope for the future, or that we should return to some imagined Golden Age. Things aren't that bad now, and that golden age wasn't so golden. Yes, violent crime started climbing in the 60's, and kept on climbing through the 80's...and then it started declining in the early 90's, and has ever since. We're not down to the levels of the early '60's yet, but we may get there. Most people think violence is increasing, but that's just an illusion based on the way the media plasters the juiciest atrocities across our TV screens day and night. As for teen pregnancy, I don't know about Kentucky, but across the United States, teen pregancy was at its highest in--get this--the fifties. It started declining right around the time prayer was removed from schools (and I won't claim causation) and has mostly declined since then. Sure, we've got some problems these days, but the news isn't all bad, despite what's on the news.

Besides, those good old days weren't all they're cracked up to be. Yesterday I was looking through some microfilms of the local paper (I live in south Louisiana) from 1965. There was an obituary for a black woman who had died at the age of 89. It was tucked at the bottom of the page, in a small section entitled "Negro news". Any article that mentioned a black person would pause to point out their race, as in, "John Doe, negro, was...". In 1965, local schools were separate and distinctly unequal, and the whole region was segregated. Blacks didn't have schools that went past the 8th grade until around 1950, and those schools opened months after the white schools, so that their students could keep working in the sugarcane fields. I read an account of this period by a woman who came home from Xavier University in New Orleans in the 50's and went to the library system (where I now work) to do some research. She didn't see a "Whites Only" sign, so she decided to risk going in. But she was told to go "her people's" library, which was a shelf full of books in the underfunded black high school. 

This doesn't sound like the good old days to me, and I know it doesn't to a black person. Back in the days when "God was in the schools", women and most minorities were treated as second-class citizens, and blacks especially suffered incredible indignities and injustices. But I'm not saying that's because God was in the schools back then. That's just the kind of dodgy reasoning I'm arguing against here.