Sunday, June 29, 2014

Good Presidents and other Matters of Opinion

Lately I've witnessed a couple of vitriolic instances of a common American pastime: arguing about whether some president or other was good one or a bad one. People seem pretty sure of themselves when they declare that president A was great, and president B was horrible. Of course, others are just as sure it's the other way around, which may explain why the arguments get so heated. But why do people feel so certain in the first place? They act like it's a simple question with an obvious answer. It isn't. For one thing, it's pretty hard to figure out how much you can credit a president for events and trends that happen during their terms. It's a chaotic world, and presidents face powerful opponents, not least within their own government. That's how the system is supposed to work, after all.

Most people understand that. But what they rarely acknowledge is that deciding who's a good or bad president will always be a value judgement--a matter of opinion as much as fact. People act like there's an agreed upon standard for deciding what makes a president good or bad. There isn't. Whether you think a president, or any other politician, is good or bad depends on what you want that president to accomplish. It depends on what kind of country you want him (or her, eventually) to work toward. Answering "Who's a better president" isn't like answering "What's the temperature outside?" You can't just pull out a thermometer and take a reading. It's more like asking whether steak is better than lobster. It is--at least in part--a matter of opinion. It's a matter of what you value, and different Americans value different things. If you want to live in a country where the government has a strong presence and works toward more economic equality, you'll think someone like FDR is the model of a good president. If you want to live in a country with minimal government, where economic freedom is valued over economic equality, you'll think someone like Reagan was a good president. There's no law written across the sky that says exactly what constitutes a good president, or a good country.*

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying there are no objective standards for judging these things. You can certainly measure unemployment or inflation, for example, though once again, it's not easy to say how much they depend on a president's actions. I'm not saying it's completely a matter of opinion, just that it's substantially a matter of opinion. It's weird that people don't acknowledge this. I'm also not advocating some kind of radical relativism here. I don't mean that what makes a leader or society good is nothing but a social construction. Mao, Stalin, and Hitler were bad leaders who oversaw bad things in their societies. Still, politics is to some extent a social construction--what constitutes a good country or president depends on what We The People want and value. The good society just doesn't objectively exist in the same way the deepest part of the ocean does, at least not in a way we know how to measure.

Besides, it's not like any of us are in a position to rule on these matters once and for all. We like to think our opinions are based on pure, clear-eyed reason, but for the most part they aren't. I suspect most political opinions are largely a matter of upbringing, socio-cultural identity, and innate temperament. Reason and evidence are bit players at best. How many people ever really engage in some kind of radical Cartesian doubt; setting aside every belief and trying to reason out from scratch which ones are strong enough to remain standing? Hardly anybody. Some may try, but it's not even clear that humans are capable of that kind of pure objective reasoning.

In short, judging societies, or policies, or politicians is at least as much a matter of opinion as a matter of fact, and our opinions aren't exactly based on superhuman rationality. We're only human, our politicians are only human, and our politics are only human. All too human. That doesn't mean we should just give up and conclude it's hopeless to try to muddle our way toward a better society. Maybe there are better ways of measuring the goodness of a society.** Maybe one day we'll come to an agreement about what kind of country a president should work toward, and then we'll have more objective way to measure whether she did a good job or not. Until then, maybe we should spend less time ridiculing the political judgements of others, and more time questioning our own. None of us has it all figured out yet.

*Or if there is, we haven't found a way to verify with enough certainty that everyone can agree on it.

**Some sort of national happiness index, like Bhutan has, seems promising to me, but I know people who would think that's crazy. The overall life satisfaction of a country's citizens does seem like a real, semi-measurable criteria by which to measure a government's success. Way better than GDP, anyway. Well, in my opinion.

Friday, June 20, 2014

To An Unknown God

Star Formation in NGC 2174 Nebula. Hubble Space Telescope
The other day I finally got around to reading The Language of God, by Francis Collins. Collins is the former director of the Human Genome Project and the current director of the National Institutes for Health. He's also a devout Christian, and his book is an admirable attempt to explain how Christianity and science--including evolution and the Big Bang--need not be in conflict. The explanations of science are truly first-rate. His defense of his religious beliefs didn't convert me from agnosticism, but they did make me do some hard and uncomfortable thinking. The man has a formidable mind, and his book is well worth reading, whatever your religious beliefs may be. I'm still scheming about how I can get more creationists to read it.

Collins' book got me on a kick of reading about the intersection between science, religion, and philosophy. I went on to read Owen Gingerich's book God's Universe (also very good), and then a couple of books on the philosophy of religion. It's interesting stuff, and as usual, I was humbled by the breadth of my ignorance on the topic. In fact, I'm still pretty ignorant, so this post is more of a reflection on my impressions than a carefully considered argument.

The Christian philosophers and scientists I was reading are smarter than I am, and some of their arguments are extremely impressive. I'm sure I'll come back to those in later posts, but in this one, I want to talk about one I found less impressive. One reason Collins, Gingerich, and many others claim that God and science are not in conflict is that science is concerned with nature and its laws, while God transcends nature. God, they say, is outside of space and time, and therefore beyond the reach of scientific inquiry. This means non-religious scientists like Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger are wrong when they claim that God is a scientific hypothesis like any other; one which should stand or fall based on empirical evidence. I suppose this explains why discussions among these sophisticated theists are based on logic, Christian tradition, and a feeling of personal revelation far more than observation and experiment.

In these discussions, God is said to have a whole host of great qualities. He is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, utterly good and loving, eternal, and necessary (as opposed to contingent). Philosophers of religion seem to spend a lot of their time trying to work out how he can be all these things at once without contradiction. Much attention, for example is given to the problem of evil, which was succinctly expressed by Epicurus over 2000 years ago:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
It's a conundrum, no doubt about it. Another apparent contradiction involves free will--a cornerstone of Christian faith. If God is all-knowing, then he knows everything that will happen before it does. How, then, can we be free to choose our path? Isn't it already predetermined?

Of course, some Very Smart People think such contradictions can't be overcome, and Very Smart People think they can. The arguments get extremely subtle, and occasionally mind-boggling. Take the Ontological Argument for God's existence, for example:
God is perfect.
It's more perfect to exist than not to exist.
Therefore, God exists. 
That line of reasoning makes me feel like I'm staring at one of M.C. Escher's impossible drawings--something seems very wrong about it, but it's hard to say just what.

I'm guessing Douglas Adams felt the same way when he wrote this passage about the Babel fish in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
"it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the NON-existence of God. 
The argument goes like this: `I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, `for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing. 
`But,' says Man, `The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.' 
`Oh dear,' says God, `I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly disappears in a puff of logic. 
`Oh, that was easy,' says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next pedestrian crossing."
That's a caricature, of course, but not a groundless one. The real arguments in the philosophy of religion can also be quite bewildering, and can seem a little disconnected from ground-level reality (as Adams' philosopher discovers when he tries to cross an actual road.) Many theists readily acknowledge this disconnect: If God is outside of space and time and beyond the reach of science, as the argument goes, then we can't rely on science to ground our speculations about him.

This seems problematic to me. When I read religious philosophy, as sophisticated as it may be, I always feel like I'm listening to people arguing about whether creatures from Alpha Centauri have eight legs or ten. I think, "What makes you think you can figure out anything about them without actually seeing one? How can you even know whether they exist at all?"

The thing is, figuring out how the world works based on pure reason and faith doesn't have a great track record. Philosophers tried to reason out how nature works for thousands of years, coming up with many plausible-sounding, but wrong, ideas: the Great Chain of Being, the flat and motionless earth, the teleological theory of physics, Descartes idea that the body and mind met in the pineal gland, and many more. They made very little real progress in understanding nature until they started relying on observation and experiment. The world revealed by science has consistently proven far grander and more sophisticated than we ever imagined based on reason and speculation.

Why should it be any different with God? Why do we think we can figure out what he is like--if he exists at all--without having some way to systematically observe him? Why shouldn't we currently be just as clueless about God as Kepler was about General Relativity? What if, instead of the characteristics we traditionally ascribe to him, his real nature turns out to be a huge surprise? That's how it's been with the rest of the universe so far.

Of course, people will object that God is outside nature, so we will never be able to observe him the way we might observe a distant quasar. But do they know that? I see no proof of that assertion (unless you want to prove it by appealing to the definition of God, and definitions are just human inventions). If people like Francis Collins and Owen Gingerich don't think we can access God empirically, but still think we can understand him in any meaningful way, they have a lot more faith in pure reason and revelation than I do. Those approaches have proven to be awfully fallible over the years. Besides, what does it even mean for a being to be outside of space and time, or outside of nature? What if such a thing is impossible? Couldn't nature just be bigger than we thought? Couldn't what seems supernatural be an aspect of nature we haven't fully understood yet?

I'm not saying it's useless to try to reason about God. Doing so can at least clarify our thinking, and tell us which ideas are incoherent on a purely logical basis. Philosophers and theologians don't agree much on what God is, but they do seem to have some consensus about what he can't be. All I'm saying is that you can only get so far without actual observation, and I think it's premature to conclude that (if there is a God) we can never approach him scientifically. Maybe we can. Or maybe we can't. Or maybe one day he'll just come out and say: OK, here I am, and here's what I'm all about. Stop killing each other over it, because none of you had any clue in the first place!*

We humans are small, and the universe is big. We don't even fully understand gravity, or the origin of life, or how many species there are on Earth. Why should we think we're anywhere near understanding God?


The Language of God / Francis Collins

God's Universe / Owen Gingerich

Philosophy of Religion: A Beginner's Guide / Charles Taliaferro

Philosophy: The Pursuit of Wisdom / Louis Pojman

Of God and Other Mysteries / an even more rambling post I wrote on the same topic

* Why wouldn't God just unambigously reveal himself to us, after all? What would be the point of keeping us guessing? Does he really consider faith in the face of uncertainty such a virtue? For that matter, if Jesus was the incarnation of God, and he died and rose from the dead to save us, why wouldn't he just reappear and say: "The records of my first appearance are spotty and don't always agree, and people don't usually rise from the dead. Why shouldn't you want as much proof as Thomas had? So here I am. Oh, and I made a second moon, just to show I'm the real deal."

Friday, June 6, 2014

Denying History: Does it Really Matter How Old the World Is?

The other day, the Gallup polling organization released the results of its biannual survey of American beliefs about creation and evolution. Since 1982, they've been asking people to pick between three views:

Over the last 32 years, the percentage of people who believe the world was created less than 10,000 years ago has stayed pretty constant--between 40 and 47 percent. The main change has been an increase in the number who believe humans evolved with no input from God--that's doubled in the last three decades, while the percent who believe humans evolved with divine guidance has decreased in the last few years. The people who believe in evolution and an old earth are growing more secular, while the young earth creationists are sticking to their guns. It looks like yet another case of growing polarization in this country.

Geologic Timescale. United States Geologic Survey
But polarization isn't what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about that 42% of people who believe everything was created a few thousand years ago, and whether they can truly understand science and nature while believing that. When I talk to those people, I find they aren't usually very insistent on the dates. They say things like, "Well, I wouldn't put any particular number on it...a few thousand, a few million...I'm not saying I know exactly how old it is." I get the idea they don't think it matters much. What difference does it really make, anyway?

The answer is: a gigantic difference. Imagine that someone from another country wants to learn about the United States. He wants to understand its geography, its culture and how it changes from place to place, its values, and so on. The only catch is that he doesn't believe in Jamestown, or the American Revolution, or the Progressive Era, or the Cold War, or that different groups of people settled in different places...none of that. He thinks that was all made up by godless historians. In fact, he thinks, the United States isn't a few hundred years old at all. It was created more or less as it is. All at once. About eight hours ago.

Is that person ever going to really understand what makes the United States tick? Of course not. In the same way, you can't truly understand science and nature if you think the world is 10,000 years old. That's exactly like saying the United States is 8 hours old (I did the math).* Nature has a history, just like the United States does, only much, much longer. To understand it, you have to understand how it's come to be. If you want to understand why South America and Africa look like matching puzzle pieces, you need to understand that they once fit together. To understand why Australia's only native mammals are marsupials, you need to know that Australia has been isolated from the other continents for a long time, so its mammals evolved in a different direction than elsewhere. To understand why Long Island is there, or why there are big boulders and deeply scratched bedrock in Central Park, you need to know that mile-high ice sheets once plowed across Manhattan, and left Long Island behind as a terminal moraine when they retreated. All these things happened on timescales longer than a few thousand years. Much longer, in the first two cases.

It makes far more sense to accept that the world is ancient and evolving, and that what we see today is the reflection of a long history. If you want to say God started the process, and maybe even tweaks it from time to time, I don't have a problem with that. Maybe that's even true--I can't prove it isn't. But I do have a problem with people saying it was all created all at once just a few thousand years ago. To say that is not just denying evolution or the big bang. It's denying some of the central discoveries of physics, astronomy, geology, biology, and even archaeology. It's saying that much of the history of these sciences has been one of delusion; of smart people collecting clues and painstakingly piecing together a coherent history of the universe...and being completely, utterly wrong. It's saying that, while God created the world all at once, he seems to have gone to a lot of trouble leaving false clues to fool scientists into thinking it has a long and fascinating history.

To see the world as being that young, and to see nature having so little history, is just such a shallow, intellectually-unsatisfying view. It's like looking at the twisting streets of some old city that built up over ages, and thinking, "Why did they lay it out like this? And why does it look old if it was built yesterday?" It's like trying to understand the whole of American music when you've never heard anything but what's currently in the Top 40. In other words, it simply won't work. You'll never truly understand science or nature that way. And that's why the age of the earth matters.


* I picked 1607, the settling of Jamestown, as the beginning of American history. It really begins long before that, of course, but I had to pick something.

First image Copyright © 2014 Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted May 8-11, 2014, with a random sample of 1,028 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Those Lovely Greek Islands: The Time One Exploded

The other day I opened a big coffee-table book called the Eternal Sea. It's full of gorgeous photographs of the world's oceans, but what really blew my hair back was an aerial view of an ancient-looking village perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. "Where is THAT?" I thought, "and how can I get there?"

The image below isn't quite as stunning as the one in the book, but it gives the basic idea. It looks like the kind of place where you could trip walking out your front door and tumble a thousand feet into the sea.

When I looked up more information on the town, I realized I had seen it in many pictures before, but not from that angle. The town is Thira (sometimes called Fira), one of those gorgeous whitewashed villages in the Greek islands. But most images of it it aren't as dangerous-looking as the one I saw. I guess they want people who are afraid of heights to visit, too, though I'm guessing some of them cower in their rooms when they get there. Most images look more like the one below, which shows the more-photographed town of Oia, also on Santorini:

The wide-angle images give a different, and rather jarring, perspective on these idyllic Greek villages. They're perched on the rim of a volcano. The semi-circular cliffs of Santorini are the rim of a caldera--an ancient volcano whose center erupted, and then collapsed and filled with water. The satellite image below shows that most of Santorini made of this caldera. The two islands in the center are newer volcanic formations that have risen in historic times. The Roman historian Cassius Dio recorded the formation of the smaller one in 47 AD, writing, "This year a small islet, hitherto unknown, made an appearance close to the island of Thera." The bigger island is an active volcano which declares its presence every few decades with a minor eruption. But those are just baby blasts. The caldera itself was formed by a series of massive, cataclysmic eruptions over the last few hundred thousand years.

The scenic little towns on Santorini, then, are precarious in more ways than one. They aren't just at the edge of cliffs. They're built on one of the world's biggest natural bombs.

The last of Santorini's major eruptions occurred around 1600 BC. At that time, the Minoan civilization was a major maritime power in the eastern Mediterranean. Based on the island of Crete and already over 1000 years old, the Minoans seem to have gained their power through trade instead of warfare. Crete was well-placed to be a trading center; a sort of Singapore of the ancient Mediterranean. Today most people know the Minoans from their graceful, naturalistic art, which sometimes depects a mysterious bull-jumping ritual. These scenes reminded the archaeologist Arthur Evans of the Greek legend of the Minotaur, so he named them "Minoans", but we have no idea what they called themselves. We do know they were a wealthy people, and their art gives the impression that they were peaceful and happy, but it's hard to know if that's really true, because hardly any of their writings have been deciphered.

It's interesting to speculate about how western civilization might have developed if Minoan civilization had lasted longer. What if they had retained their dominance and prevented the Greeks from forming the foundation for so much of European culture? What would our architecture be like now? Our philosophy? Religion? There's no way to know, but could have turned out that way quite easily. What kept if from happening may be one single event: the eruption of Santorini, then known as Thera.

The Thera eruption devastated Crete and utterly destroyed a Minoan settlement on Santorini, now called Akrotiri. It was a cataclysm on an almost unimaginable scale. Before the eruption, Santorini was an nearly complete ring, with a central volcano much bigger than the one today. This ancient volcano is what detonated in one of the biggest explosions in history. Imagine a cube of rock with sides 2.4 miles across. That's how much rock, lava, and ash were blasted into the sky. Some of it ascended 22 miles into the statosphere, forming a giant, fiery thunderhead that flashed lightning and rained boulders. The falling ash and pumice covered and preserved the village of Akrotiri (whose inhabitants had prudently fled.)

This initual eruption was followed by scorching clouds of gas and rock called pyroclastic flows, which raced across the surface of the island at hundreds of feet per second, obliterating any life in their path. Bizarrely enough, they even raced across the surface of the sea, covering shorelines many miles away with hot debris (the same thing happened when another island, Krakatoa, exploded in 1883.) Having ejected so much material out of its core, the volcano collapsed in on itself, taking parts of the older Santorini caldera with it. This caused a huge tsunami which smashed the northern coast of Crete, knocking buildings off their foundations and devastating the heart of the Minoan civilization.

It would never recover. The Minoans lost influence in the Mediterranean, and were finally overrun around 1400 BC by the more warlike, Greek-speaking Myceneans. Some people think the Minoans were the inspiration for the ancient myth of Atlantis, but there's no real proof of that. Besides, the geography doesn't match--Atlantis was supposed to be beyond the Pillars of Hercules, in the Atlantic Ocean. Personally, I can't get that excited about the Atlantis connection. For all we know it's just a legend. The story of Santorini and the Minoans is a fact, but it's as a story as epic as any legend.