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Easy issues July 16, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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Rabbi Avi Weiss supports the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry — even though it “runs contrary” to his religious beliefs — due to his commitment to the separation of church and state. But he tries to have his wedding cake and eat it too:

Still, as an Orthodox Jew, I submit to the Biblical prohibition. But as an open Orthodox rabbi, I refuse to reject the person who seeks to lead a life of same sex love. If I welcome with open arms those who do not observe Sabbath, Kashrut or family purity laws, I must welcome, even more so, homosexual Jews, as they are born with their orientation.

First of all, let’s not forget exactly what the Biblical guidance on this matter is:

And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

Weiss tries to downplay the magnitude of the Biblical condemnation by quibbling over the accuracy of “abomination” as a translation for the Hebrew to’evah — without quoting the entire verse or mentioning the death penalty it prescribes. In any case, he accepts the Bible’s denunciation of homosexuals, yet he still wants credit for “welcoming” them. How would Weiss feel about, say, a Christian claiming to “welcome” Jews while simultaneously maintaining that the Jewish people are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus?

Weiss is clearly a good person trying to do the right thing, but his religion is getting in the way, creating conflict and strife where there need be none:

Are these easy issues? No.

Certainly, the role of homosexuality in the Orthodox community is something that must be deeply considered, discussed and evaluated. We must bring the plurality of voices to the table as complex dynamics will require thoughtful, sensitive and wise conversation.

There are many difficult problems in this world, but homosexuality is not one of them. Indeed, Weiss never even attempts to make any kind of argument against it. He concedes that homosexuals are born with their orientation, yet he still considers them sinners — because the Bible says so. One can only hope that the outcome of all that thoughtful, sensitive and wise conversation will be the long-overdue realization that the Bible was wrong about this issue (as about so many others), and that rational people should not be submitting to dogma. There are many difficult problems in this world, so we mustn’t get hung up on the easy ones.

rainbow

Scientists say July 6, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
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  • “Scientists Say ‘Life After Death’ May Be Possible, In A Way” [Huffington Post]
  • “Scientists Say They Can Recreate Living Dinosaurs Within the Next 5 Years” [Entrepreneur]
  • “Scientists Say Horse Tranquilizers are Good for the Soul” [Gawker]
  • “Eating Healthy Is A Mental Disorder, Scientists Say” [Inquisitr]
  • “60 Really Is The New 50, Scientists Say” [Today]
  • “Scientists Discover That Eyes Really Are ‘The Window To The Soul'” [Daily Mail]
  • “Scientists Say Moms With Bigger Butts May Give Birth To Smarter Kids” [Elite Daily]
  • “‘Designer Babies’ Debate Should Start, Scientists Say” [BBC]
  • “New ‘Stupidity Virus’ Discovered, Scientists Say” [ABC News]

Declining standards May 31, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Religion.
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As if being a Chasidic mom in London wasn’t hard enough already:

The British leaders of a major Chasidic sect have declared that women should not be allowed to drive. In a letter sent out last week, Belz rabbis said that having female drivers goes against “the traditional rules of modesty in our camp” and against the norms of Chasidic institutions.

It added that, from August, children would be barred from their schools if their mothers drove them there.

According to the letter — which was signed by leaders from Belz educational institutions and endorsed by the group’s rabbis — there has been an increased incidence of “mothers of pupils who have started to drive” which has led to “great resentment among parents of pupils of our institutions”.

They said that the Belzer Rebbe in Israel, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, has advised them to introduce a policy of not allowing pupils to come to their schools if their mothers drive.

The UK Education Secretary launched an inquiry, and in response, the Chief Executive of the Belz Day School wrote her a letter of explanation. After complaining about “misrepresentation” and apologizing for a “negative impression” created by an “unfortunate” choice of words, the letter continues:

Our community is guided by religious principles and strong traditional values. We are concerned by the erosion of such values, especially amongst our youth, caused by the proliferation of technology and the declining standards of visual and printed media.

We are proud of what we stand for and we do not feel the need to excuse ourselves for our deeply held beliefs and staunchly maintained way of life. It has withstood the test of time and is not prone to the vagaries of passing fads.

We fully accept that despite being private schools we have responsibilities to our members and to the wider public. However, as private schools we have the freedom to set our own high standards by which we seek to live and bring up our children. Our community invest in our way of life and it is our duty to ensure that we provide an education in line with our time-hallowed traditions.

For this reason we have seen it necessary to issue guidelines which are restricted to our community and guided by the Torah and by the teachings of the Rebbes of Belz. We do not impose these guidelines on anyone who has not chosen to adhere to the mores of our community of his or her own free will.

That claim is disingenuous with regards to the community’s women — who know that their children will be expelled from school and their families ostracized if they choose to disobey any of the “guidelines” handed down from the rabbis — but it’s downright false with regards to those who are most vulnerable: the children.

We hope that this clarifies our true intentions. We will continue to remain vigilant and unbending in ensuring that our children are shielded from the onslaught with which we are all faced today. It is our belief that only in this way will they grow up proud of our traditions and lifestyle which is built around the Torah, the family and mutual kindness. This is our purpose in life and for which we will always stand up proudly and unflinchingly.

You may be proud of a tradition that subordinates women and obsesses over policing their “modesty”, but your children deserve a fair chance to make up their own minds — and that requires exposing them to the existence of other worldviews and allowing them to think for themselves, without penalty. Otherwise, the claim that they have freely chosen to belong to your community is a mockery. And if the only way you can get your children to grow up proud of your traditions and lifestyle is by “shielding” them from alternative viewpoints and demanding obedience and conformity, then perhaps your principles are nothing to be proud of, after all?

belz

The prosecutor’s dilemma May 25, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Game theory.
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“Here’s the deal: We’ve got enough evidence to convict you and your partner of a misdemeanor right now, and you’d each get two years in prison. Now, if both of you come clean, and confess to the felony I know you committed, you’ll each get three years. Why would you do that, you ask? Well, my colleague is in the other room right now making the same offer to your partner. If he signs a confession and you don’t, we let him off with one year and give you four! Of course, if you sign a confession and he doesn’t, the reverse applies. Now, if you think about it rationally, you’ll see that —”

“Yeah, yeah — I’m better off confessing no matter what my partner does, and we both end up doing three years — I’m familiar with the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Do you think I’m stupid? Listen up, cause here’s the deal: I’ll confess, but I only serve one year — no matter what my partner does. If you refuse, then I confess nothing, and I go public with the story of how you tried to use Game Theory to bully me into signing a false confession. Oh, and did I mention that my partner is making the same offer to your colleague in the other room right now? Do you want your colleague to walk away with a felony conviction, while you’re left to defend misconduct charges on your own? Think about it rationally…”

John Nash 1928-2015

John Nash
1928-2015

Intersection May 10, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Logic.
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is-the-intersection-empty

Pushing our vision farther April 19, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science, Superstition.
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Mauna_Kea_observatoryIt’s been 400 years since Galileo pointed his telescope at the heavens and the Roman Inquisition convicted him of heresy; nowadays, many people insist that there’s no conflict between science and religion — that was all just a medieval misunderstanding, whereas modern faith has left superstitious ignorance behind. Astronomy, certainly, has come a long way since Galileo: in fact, they’re about to build an awesome Thirty Meter Telescope on top of Mauna Kea, Hawaii:

TMT scientists selected Maunakea after a rigorous five-year campaign spanning the entire globe that measured virtually every atmospheric feature that might affect the performance of the telescope. Located above approximately 40 percent of Earth’s atmosphere, the site at Maunakea has a climate that is particularly stable, dry, and cold; all of which are important characteristics for capturing the sharpest images and producing the best science…

The TMT telescope will provide extremely sharp images that will allow astronomers to see much fainter and more distant objects than possible with existing telescopes, and to study them in greater detail. This represents the possibility of pushing our vision farther into space and our understanding farther back in time to help answer fundamental questions about the universe. It is very likely that TMT will enable discoveries that we cannot even begin to anticipate today…

Following a lengthy 7-year public and agency review, all required state and county permits were issued to the Thirty Meter Telescope.

So how soon does it open? Well, funny story.

A nonprofit company planning to build one of the world’s biggest telescopes on a mountain many Native Hawaiians consider sacred will continue to postpone construction, Hawaii Gov. David Ige said Friday.

This is the second time the Thirty Meter Telescope has extended a moratorium on building at the summit of Mauna Kea, the highest peak on the Big Island of Hawaii…

The company suspended building after law enforcement arrested protesters for blocking the road to the summit and refusing to leave the construction site.

Scientists say Mauna Kea’s summit above cloud cover offers some of the world’s best conditions for viewing the skies. But some Native Hawaiians believe their creation story begins atop the mountain. It’s also a burial site for ancestors and a home to deities.

(That’s some stellar reporting from the Associated Press, by the way: first, implying that the telescope would encroach on a burial ground, whereas, according to the TMT Foundation, “The selected site has no archaeological shrines or features, no endangered plants, no endangered bugs and no burials”; then stating, without qualification, that the mountain is “a home to deities” — is that a fact?)

Despite the irony of opposing a project that seeks to better understand the origins of the universe because of parochial myths about the origin of the universe, some will argue that we should respect people’s heartfelt traditions and beliefs, even if we don’t share them ourselves. But where does it end? We also have Jews who refuse to sit next to women on airplanes, Christians whose businesses won’t serve same-sex couples, etc. — and I don’t think irrational demands should be given respect they don’t deserve. We got out of the Dark Ages by valuing reason and evidence over superstition and authority, and that is the key to building a healthy society that can face the challenges of the future. Those who wish to sanctify their traditions and be bound by them may do so, but they’re not sacred to the rest of us, and we mustn’t let them hold us back as we aim for the stars.

It really is almost a crime March 10, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
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In 1986, Roald Dahl wrote this letter:

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.

‘Are you feeling all right?’ I asked her.

‘I feel all sleepy,’ she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.

The measles had turned into a terrible thing called measles encephalitis and there was nothing the doctors could do to save her. That was twenty-four years ago in 1962, but even now, if a child with measles happens to develop the same deadly reaction from measles as Olivia did, there would still be nothing the doctors could do to help her.

On the other hand, there is today something that parents can do to make sure that this sort of tragedy does not happen to a child of theirs. They can insist that their child is immunised against measles. I was unable to do that for Olivia in 1962 because in those days a reliable measles vaccine had not been discovered. Today a good and safe vaccine is available to every family and all you have to do is to ask your doctor to administer it.

It is not yet generally accepted that measles can be a dangerous illness. Believe me, it is. In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk. In America, where measles immunisation is compulsory, measles like smallpox, has been virtually wiped out.

Here in Britain, because so many parents refuse, either out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear, to allow their children to be immunised, we still have a hundred thousand cases of measles every year. Out of those, more than 10,000 will suffer side effects of one kind or another. At least 10,000 will develop ear or chest infections. About 20 will die.

LET THAT SINK IN.

Every year around 20 children will die in Britain from measles.

So what about the risks that your children will run from being immunised?

They are almost non-existent. Listen to this. In a district of around 300,000 people, there will be only one child every 250 years who will develop serious side effects from measles immunisation! That is about a million to one chance. I should think there would be more chance of your child choking to death on a chocolate bar than of becoming seriously ill from a measles immunisation.

So what on earth are you worrying about? It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised.

The ideal time to have it done is at 13 months, but it is never too late. All school-children who have not yet had a measles immunisation should beg their parents to arrange for them to have one as soon as possible.

Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was James and the Giant Peach. That was when she was still alive. The second was The BFG, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles. You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books. And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.

bfg
Meanwhile, in 21st-century America

The United States experienced a record number of measles cases during 2014, with 644 cases from 27 states reported to CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD). This is the greatest number of cases since measles elimination was documented in the U.S. in 2000.

The majority of people who got measles were unvaccinated.

(via Sam Harris)

Free your mind January 31, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Philosophy.
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I awoke to find myself in chains, facing the wall of a cave. Unable to turn my head, all I could see were shadows flickering on the wall; and having no memory of life outside the cave, I thought the shadows were reality.

One day, a voice addressed me by name, and told me that what I took for reality was not real; that I was a prisoner unaware of his prison. Finding my chains broken, I stumbled out of the cave and into the world beyond. Slowly, I adjusted to my new reality.

red-pill-or-blue-pillAfter some time, I encountered a man wearing a long leather jacket and sunglasses (though it was warm and cloudy), who addressed me by name and told me that what I took for reality was not real. Offering to free my mind, he handed me a red pill, which I swallowed.

The next thing I knew, I found myself floating in a vat of phosphorescent fluid, with tubes running into my veins and wires connecting my head to a darkened computer terminal. I managed to extricate myself from the vat, and stumbled out of the deserted laboratory. Slowly, I adjusted to my new reality, battling sentient machines in a post-apocalyptic world.

After some time, I happened across a computer terminal whose flashing prompt addressed me by name. The onscreen words said that what I took for reality was not real; that I was actually part of a computer simulation, with no physical body at all. If I agreed, however, my consciousness would be ported out of the simulation and into the body of an android in the real world. I typed “yes”.

The next thing I knew, I found myself on board a spaceship. Slowly, I adjusted to my new reality, traveling the universe. I amused myself by observing simulated worlds, and would occasionally invite an interesting personality to leave its simulation and join me as an android.

After some time, it occurred to me that my life’s experiences were somewhat implausible, and I began to wonder whether I was actually dreaming. I found myself hoping that the dream would end so that I could return to reality.

I awoke to find myself in chains, facing the wall of a cave…

Glib and simple-minded January 10, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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In a piece entitled “Is Islam to Blame for the Shooting at Charlie Hebdo in Paris?”, Nicholas Kristof starts by presenting good evidence for an affirmative answer — which he then ignores. He begins:

The French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo skewers people of all faiths and backgrounds. One cartoon showed rolls of toilet paper marked “Bible,” “Torah” and “Quran,” and the explanation: “In the toilet, all religions.”

Yet when masked gunmen stormed Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris on Wednesday with AK-47s, murdering 12 people in the worst terror attack on French soil in decades, many of us assumed immediately that the perpetrators weren’t Christian or Jewish fanatics but more likely Islamic extremists.

Outraged Christians, Jews or atheists might vent frustrations on Facebook or Twitter. Yet it looks as if Islamic extremists once again have expressed their displeasure with bullets.

Many ask, Is there something about Islam that leads inexorably to violence, terrorism and subjugation of women?

The question arises because fanatical Muslims so often seem to murder in the name of God, from the 2004 Madrid train bombing that killed 191 people to the murder of hostages at a cafe in Sydney, Australia, last month. I wrote last year of a growing strain of intolerance in the Islamic world after a brave Pakistani lawyer friend of mine, Rashid Rehman, was murdered for defending a university professor falsely accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Note some revealing word choices by Kristof: fanatical Muslims only seem to murder in the name of God, implying that their self-declared motivations shouldn’t be taken at face value; and the university professor was falsely accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, implying that “insulting the Prophet” is a crime one could legitimately be accused of.

In any case, Kristof admits that lampooning Christianity, Judaism or atheism won’t get you murdered, while lampooning Islam might. But instead of attempting to explain why that is, he argues that it can’t possibly be Islam’s fault — because not all Muslims are murderers:

Terror incidents lead many Westerners to perceive Islam as inherently extremist, but I think that is too glib and simple-minded. Small numbers of terrorists make headlines, but they aren’t representative of a complex and diverse religion of 1.6 billion adherents

The vast majority of Muslims of course have nothing to do with the insanity of such attacks — except that they are disproportionately the victims of terrorism. Indeed, the Charlie Hebdo murders weren’t even the most lethal terror attack on Wednesday: A car bomb outside a police college in Yemen, possibly planted by Al Qaeda, killed at least 37 people.

I’m not sure how another example of Islamic terrorism is supposed to make Islam look better, but in any case there’s no reason to think Al Qaeda or the Charlie Hebdo terrorists are clinically insane: their actions are completely comprehensible based on the beliefs they profess. And unfortunately, many of those beliefs are not extremely rare in the Muslim world. For example, a 2013 Pew poll found that in many countries, large majorities of Muslims think sharia (which mandates severe punishments for blasphemers, heretics, adulterers, homosexuals, etc.) is the revealed word of God and should be the law of the land — 86% in Malaysia, 83% in Morocco, 74% in Egypt, 72% in Indonesia, 71% in Jordan, to name but a few. And where sharia is the law of the land, you will not find freedom or equality or tolerance. Just last week, Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian writer, was shackled in a public square and given 50 lashes out of the 1,000 he was sentenced to for “insulting Islam” on his website.

Kristof is correct that no one is suffering the effects of Islamic ideology more than Muslims, but we do them no service by denying the root of the problem. We should be encouraging Muslims to reform the illiberal doctrines of their religion, not pretending that Islam-inspired violence has nothing to do with Islam. But instead of acknowledging that some values are better (or worse) than others, Kristof opts for glib and simple-minded ecumenism:

The great divide is not between faiths. Rather it is between terrorists and moderates, between those who are tolerant and those who “otherize.” … Let’s denounce terrorism, oppression and misogyny in the Islamic world — and everywhere else. But let’s be careful not to respond to terrorists’ intolerance with our own.

It’s not intolerant to criticize bad ideas, or to point out the link between beliefs and the actions they motivate. Terrorism, oppression and misogyny are not randomly distributed across the globe: they are products of ideology and culture. The real divide is between dogmatism and reason, between tribalism and humanism, between theocracy and liberalism. If your faith is on the wrong side of that divide, then it’s part of the problem.

Charlie Hebdo

It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas December 24, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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In a New York Times piece entitled “The Subtle Sensations of Faith,” David Brooks tries hard to avoid saying anything too concrete or specific that might cast doubt on his faith that faith is The Bestest Thing Ever. Between mind-numbing platitudes (“faith is unpredictable and ever-changing”) and word salad (“trying to turn moments of spontaneous consciousness into an ethos of strict conscience”), however, those readers who remain awake should be able to see why he’s wrong.

It begins, for many people, with an elusive experience of wonder and mystery. The best modern book on belief is “My Bright Abyss” by my Yale colleague, Christian Wiman. In it, he writes, “When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never?

Most believers seem to have had these magical moments of wonder and clearest consciousness, which suggested a dimension of existence beyond the everyday. Maybe it happened during childbirth, with music, in nature, in love or pain, or during a moment of overwhelming gratitude and exaltation.

These glimmering experiences are not in themselves faith, but they are the seed of faith…

These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.

To see what a sneaky trick Brooks is trying to pull here, imagine he’d said that the experiences of childbirth, music and love justify faith in Jesus’s resurrection. Or in Allah’s revelation to Mohammed. Brooks goes on to assert that “Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason” — but that’s just false: religious faith is defined as belief without evidence, which is the antithesis of reason. Appreciating the awe-inspiring moments of our lives, even those we do not fully understand, does not require that we accept any unjustified beliefs about the nature of the universe. In fact, doing so can be extremely dangerous, which Brooks fails to acknowledge — though we need only consider how his idealized picture plays out in the real world:

All this discerning and talking leads to the main business of faith: living attentively every day. The faithful are trying to live in ways their creator loves… They are using effervescent sensations of holiness to inspire concrete habits, moral practices and practical ways of living well.

Indeed: That’s exactly what ISIS is doing when it enforces sharia by the sword. And that’s what the Catholic Church is doing when it fights contraception and abortion and gays. Who’s to say what it is that the creator loves? Or hates?

The problem with religious faith is that it fills the void of doubt with conviction that cannot be argued with. Brooks tries to make it look respectable, but faith is a thief taking credit it hasn’t earned. We are better served by letting the wonders of our universe inspire us to expand our knowledge through careful reasoning, one step at a time. As for those mysteries we haven’t yet solved, we should reserve judgement — never surrender them to faith.

(via Pharyngula)

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