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An open letter to the American Museum of Natural History September 30, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Evolution, Religion, Science.
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I recently had the opportunity to revisit the wonderful AMNH. Besides returning to many of my favorite exhibits, I enjoyed touring the Hall of Human Origins for the first time, which impressively utilizes the fossil record and DNA evidence to illustrate the gradual evolution of our species (alongside other hominids) over millions of years. I was unpleasantly surprised, however, by a video display in the last part of the exhibit, featuring various scientists speaking under the heading “What Makes Us Human — The Science of Evolution.”

One of the scientists on display (I have forgotten his name) asserts that “science cannot tell us what is right or wrong, what is good or evil, what is the meaning or purpose of existence. That’s what philosophy is for; that’s what religion is for; that’s what moral and ethical frameworks are for.” I found this statement to be incoherent and misleading (at best). First of all, note that nearby displays in the exhibit deal with the evolution of human art, tools, music and language — and their analogs in other species — and we can likewise recognize precursors of what we would call moral behavior, like cooperation and compassion, in other social animals. Science certainly does have much to say on the subject of morality — for instance, the theory of evolution itself has had profound implications for how we treat nonhuman animals (our cousins in the tree of life) and humans of different races. In general, science can potentially tell us whether and how much a given creature might suffer in a given situation — surely the primary concern of morality. As for meaning and purpose, the theory of evolution reinforces the understanding that there is no “cosmic purpose” behind our existence; that the universe doesn’t care about us and wasn’t created with humans in mind. The meaning to be found in our lives is the meaning we provide ourselves, having recognized our part in the unique and fragile tapestry of life — as revealed by science. In any case, there is no reason to think that religion has privileged access to some transcendent source of morality and meaning, and there is no justification for uncritically accepting its extravagant claims “on faith.”

I was further disappointed to see a video of Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, proclaiming that while science is the way to explore the natural world, he also believes in a personal God, and finds science and faith to be complementary. To realize how nonsensical and unscientific this statement is, replace the word “God” with the name of a specific deity — Allah, Shiva, Zeus, etc. After all, it’s not as if Collins is a deist or a generic theist (whatever that might be) — he is an evangelical Christian, and claims to believe many specific truth-claims of his doctrine: the resurrection of Jesus, the divinity of the Bible, and so on. A Muslim or Hindu scientist would hold different (often contradictory) beliefs. And yet none of these religious dogmas are supported by any good evidence, as is true for the belief that a personal God exists at all — indeed, 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences reject the belief in such a God (according to a 1998 survey).

It seems as if the curators were worried that people would emerge from the exhibit thinking, “Well, if we evolved naturally from nonhuman animals, then our lives are meaningless and there’s no reason to behave morally.” This is nonsense, but instead of highlighting how a scientific understanding of the world (and the theory of evolution in particular) can and should strengthen our appreciation of life’s value and our commitment to treating each other ethically, the exhibit chooses to reinforce the tiresome tripe about how science can’t address the big questions of life (while presumably religion can), and how we need to rely on a supernatural deity to give our lives meaning and tell us how we ought to behave.

Even if this particular part of the exhibit was intended to present merely personal opinions of individual scientists, it is not marked as such, and no alternative opinions are presented (though I’m sure there are many scientists who would support the position I have outlined). In any case, why is a museum of natural history invoking the supernatural at all? Religious faith represents the antithesis of scientific thinking, and the mindset portrayed in the aforementioned videos is at odds with the spirit of rigorous rational inquiry and critical thinking which is the foundation of institutions like the AMNH. There is no reason why children who come to the museum to learn about the theory of evolution should hear scientists proclaiming their belief in God. I hope the AMNH will reassess this video display, and either revise or remove it.

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Useful fictions September 26, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Philosophy.
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Do negative numbers really exist? To someone unfamiliar with the concept, the idea of a number smaller than zero surely seems meaningless at first. I may have three apples, or five apples, but I cannot have less apples than none. Consider the problem: If Alice has five apples, how many apples must Bob give her so that she will have three apples? It’s not difficult to recall the mindset wherein such a question seems absurd. And yet, thousands of years ago people realized that for many purposes it can be very useful to extend the number line below zero — when keeping track of credit and debt, for instance. After a little practice, we get comfortable with negative numbers and they come to feel just as real as positive numbers. The same is true for imaginary numbers (originally a derogatory term): at first, the idea of a value which yields a negative result when multiplied by itself seems absurd and meaningless, but this concept turns out to be invaluable for representing certain complex physical phenomena, like electromagnetism and quantum mechanics.

Concepts like negative and imaginary numbers are part of an enormous set of mind tools that humans have devised over the ages to help us model the world around us, and these tools underlie many of the amazing achievements of our species. We must be wary, however, of extending unwarranted physical or metaphysical status to our abstractions. Here is one of Daniel Dennett’s thought experiments from his book Consciousness Explained:

Imagine that we visited another planet and found that the scientists there had a rather charming theory: Every physical thing has a soul inside it, and every soul loves every other soul. This being so, things tend to move toward each other, impelled by the love of their internal souls for each other. We can suppose, moreover, that these scientists had worked out quite accurate systems of soul-placement, so that, having determined the precise location in physical space of an item’s soul, they could answer questions about its stability (“It will fall over because its soul is so high”), about vibration (“If you put a counterbalancing object on the side of that drive wheel, with a rather large soul, it will smooth out the wobble”), and about many much more technical topics.

What we could tell them, of course, is that they have hit upon the concept of a center of gravity (or more accurately, a center of mass), and are just treating it a bit too ceremoniously. We tell them that they can go right on talking and thinking the way they were — all they have to give up is a bit of unnecessary metaphysical baggage. There is a simpler, more austere (and much more satisfying) interpretation of the very facts they use their soul-physics to understand. They ask us: Are there souls? Well, sure, we reply — only they’re abstracta, mathematical abstractions rather than nuggets of mysterious stuff. They’re exquisitely useful fictions. It is as if every object attracted every other object by concentrating all its gravitational oomph in a single point — and it’s vastly easier to calculate the behavior of systems using this principled fiction than it would be to descend to the grubby details . . .

The “useful fiction” Dennett is trying to expose here is the concept of a self — a central authority who lives in our heads and is the experiencer of our experiences and the thinker of our thoughts. There is no supreme command center in the brain where consciousness “all comes together,” but the intuition is so strong that many people believe our minds cannot be entirely a product of our brains — there must be something magical, something mysterious, something immaterial going on. But that is to mistake fiction for fact. The idea of a self is indeed a useful fiction, but we must not allow our intuitions and familiar abstractions to constrain our thinking when we set out to investigate how the world really is.

Living is easy with eyes closed September 10, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Reason, Religion.
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There is something tragically poetic about the latest Haredi self-imposed restriction: men veiling their own eyes when traveling, so as not to see forbidden sights. Surely there is no better physical symbol for the mindset with which such people face the world. They refuse to allow their beliefs to be modulated by input from reality; they obsessively shut out any external influence that might ignite doubt or independent thought; nothing is allowed to penetrate the walls of dogma they have constructed. Sadly, it is indeed possible for a person to shut himself off from reality and put himself beyond the reach of rationality. It’s undeniably true that if you insist on never looking at any evidence and never considering any alternative viewpoints, then you will never need to change your mind. The logical consequences of this attitude, however, are quite obvious to anyone with eyes in his head: people who walk around with their eyes closed will end up walking off a cliff.

As for the rest of us, it is not enough that we politely decline to hold their hands on the way down. A person has the right to put out his own eyes if he chooses, but he should not be encouraged to do so nor respected for it if he does. And yet, like a man who murders his parents and then asks for leniency on account of being an orphan, these willfully blind people continuously demand special privileges and dispensations to accommodate their delusions. Moreover, they ceaselessly strive to push blinkers onto the eyes of others. (A recent case in point: forcing all the citizens of Israel into early darkness by ending daylight saving time many weeks before the rest of the world, because of religious considerations.) Appeasement and indulgence will not help us here; the flame of the Enlightenment will surely be put out if we leave it undefended in the growing darkness. We must shine the light of reason as bright as we can, make no concessions to self-imposed disabilities, and do whatever we can to protect members of the next generation from growing up blindfolded.