Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Science verses Religion

Someone wrote:

Science only concerns itself with empirical facts. Religion concerns itself with moral "facts": is murder wrong? how ought I lead my life? how should I prioritize education and community service?

No microscope, no matter how powerful, can tell you that murder is wrong, or how to lead your life. Yes, science is really really good at figuring at empirical facts, but these moral questions are not within its purview.

Science, I think, is best defined as the best process humans know for removing bias and errors from our data and our conclusions. To propose some alternative is to argue that it is better if we leave in some biases and errors. There are certainly different applications of the Sciences (physics is different from history, is different from biology, is different from cosmology, etc) but in all cases the goal is the same. Discerning Truth from Fiction.

I would agree that some questions are difficult for the Hard sciences to address directly, but that doesn't make Science irrelevant - very much the opposite.

And I would argue that a far better distinction would be Science and Philosophy, which is STILL founded on an application of Reason, Logic based in Empirical Facts. But even then, Philosophy can ONLY propose Oughts - it cannot mandate them because an Ought is only meaningful when measured against some value or goal.

Empirical Facts are absolutely relevant to any discussion about ethics or morals. For example, it is critically important to know how our treatment of children is likely to impact their later development before we can make correct statements about the morality of their treatment.

If constantly screaming at a child causes them emotional damage and results in harm in later adult then surely we OUGHT not to scream at children. But in absence of this Empirical Fact many parents do exactly this under the ERRONEOUS assumption that screaming at them endlessly will make them better adults. Without such FACTS you cannot make CORRECT moral or ethical choices in line with your actual values. You will instead make ignorant choices.

To assert that science has no place here is just patently absurd. It is EXACTLY here where science is needed most. How we treat children, how we treat each other, how we go about the business of building a healthy society is exactly where floundering about blindly has failed in the past. Science doesn't have to give a perfect answer to be valuable - it is a progression of better understanding.

OUGHT we feed the worlds population so 15 million children don't die EVERY year? OUGHT we find a way to give basic medical care to everyone? OUGHT we assume that those stuck in poverty, living absolutely miserable lives filled with abuse, hatred, and suffering is their own damn fault? Or OUGHT we recognize that they are born into a situation that very few are able to extricate themselves and perhaps take some of that responsibility for raising up every person on ourselves?

These are questions that science can absolutely help us answer.

Meanwhile, Religion seems far more concerned with discerning the will of the imaginary being of ultimate prejudice - not with facts.

OUGHT we hate gay and lesbian people? OUGHT we deny them rights? OUGHT we take it upon ourselves to control a women's body? OUGHT we lie to people and tell them condoms CAUSE AIDS so they don't use birth control? OUGHT we slaughter those different from ourselves? OUGHT we do what imaginary voices in our head tells us to?

Let's look at two of the so-called "moral" facts of the bible: 1) if god commands it, you should murder your own child, 2) if god commands i,t you commit absolute genocide - murdering every man, women, child, suckling infant, and ox - slicing infants open with a sword.

Even today we find people who (so they say) are commanded by "god" to murder their children and they do it.

OUGHT we continue to teach people such absurd and harmful stories? This is another question science can inform us about.

If all people heard that "If you hear voices telling you to murder your children and think it's God you need to seek help immediately" as often as they heard the story of Abraham and Isaac do you think that just perhaps, every once in a while, someone might just seek that help out instead of drowning their children? I wonder how we could find the answer to such a question? Should we A) Pray on it, or B) take the concern seriously and study the question using the best tools and methodology from psychology and related sciences? Which approach is likely to give us the most detailed and least biased answer?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Newton Was A Christian and other Fallacies

Newton was also an Alchemist and produced several volumes of alchemical works (if I recall correctly they far outnumber his scientific works) - does his contributions to science also prove Alchemy is true? Absurd of course. But tie him to Religion and all of a sudden people assume it has some bearing on the question.

Scientists of the past were largely religious because their culture demanded it on pain of death (primarily Christians and Muslims). Their willingness to spread their religion at the point of a sword doesn't make their religion true. I would argue very much the opposite in fact. Newton had to walk a very fine line with the Church to avoid problems. The fact is he was forced to censure himself. The Church was a force for scientific oppression - only in support when the science could be twisted to their own ends.

The maltreatment of Galileo Galilei in the hands of the Church is well known (despite their far-too-little-too-late and backhanded apology) but what may be less well known is that Galileo got off easy compared to Giordano Bruno who was murdered by the Church. Copernicus suppressed his research due to the church, Campanella was tortured by the church repeatedly for supporting Galileo, Rene Descartes suppressed his research due to Galileo's treatment, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Edmond Halley, Isaac Newton, Georges Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon, William Buckland, Charles Lyell, Louis Agassiz, Adam Sedgewick, Robert Chambers, Charles Darwin... all scientists whose work was negatively affected by the actions of the Roman Catholic Church against the progress of science.

Scientists today are mostly still religious because of inculcation, indoctrination, and socio-cultural expectation. And many also live in parts of the world where religion-by-violence is still practiced.

And if it isn't the state pushing the religion now, then it's probably your family. My mom has been in tears begging me to rejoin the church because she cannot stand the thought of her son burning in Hell while she is in heaven (and honestly, what a horrible lie to have implanted in people's mind in the first place - pretending it's true to manipulate people into joining).

But even in the National Academy of Sciences in the US (which is an outlier for its preponderance of religious belief) some 93% of the members are NON-religious. As the level of education (or more accurately, the level of scientific knowledge) drops the likelihood that you accept the religion of your culture goes up. It's just a correlation but it shows a tension between scientific beliefs and religious beliefs.

If you accept even basic things like the Earth goes around the Sun, Earth is a spheroid which isn't likely to have "stood still" at any point, viruses and bacteria cause disease, life on earth evolved from simpler organisms (and must have started from a replicating molecule of some type, probably RNA-like, based on the heavy natural organic chemistry), there isn't a water layer above the "firmament" of the heavens, the universe is ~13.7 billion years old, the Earth is 4.5 billion years old - then the Bible is clearly and plainly false. There IS no other reasonable conclusion.

Just ask Pope's Paul V and Urban VIII - they knew this very plainly and with the full authority of apostolic succession. They knew what these verses meant and they knew well the implications of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. It meant their Bible was fundamentally wrong.

But Religion is nothing if not well adapted to the human psyche, so it persists. It feeds off the easy belief that the bad will be punished and the good rewarded, that our life will have had cosmic significance and not have been wasted. It allays our fear of death and gives us false hope. It is a cost borne by the living, attested by the unseen and unknowable, with rewards only promised upon death, the ultimate ponzi scheme.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Necrometrics: Death Tolls in History

Aristarchus of Samos

Pretty cool guy

Evolution: As Simple As Possible

The modern definition of Evolution is:
evolution can be precisely defined as any change in the frequency of alleles within a gene pool from one generation to the next. - Helena Curtis and N. Sue Barnes, Biology, 5th ed. 1989 Worth Publishers, p.974

An Allele is simply a particular gene variant.

When a genetic scientist speaks of "microevolution" or "macroevolution" (which is rarely the case) they are talking about the exactly same underlying phenomena over different scales of time. They are not making a distinction between the cause of those changes, as uninformed evolution-deniers often like to incorrectly imply (this is a common dishonest tactic).

Microevolution: allele changes within organisms or populations of organisms; studies that look at individual genetic changes, or allele changes within a population over small periods of time (up to roughly 100 years).

Macroevolution: evolution on a scale of separated gene pools over geologic time; studies that look at the effects of accumulated allele changes between groups of organisms that are no longer biologically/genetically interconnected (over periods of 10,000 years or greater).

Here are the high-level facts regarding Evolution.

So, in summary:
  1. We know that DNA drives pretty much everything that makes us, well, us.
  2. We know how the genome can grow (gene duplication/chromosome duplication).
  3. We know how the genome can and DOES change (nucleotides inserted, deleted, or substituted), with great frequency (~150 mutations per individual).
  4. We know that the genome changes from individual to individual.
We observe all these changes happening in real organism. Microorganisms are the most studied because they replicate faster and generally have smaller genomes to study. It's all there - we see things changing over time with EVERY type of change necessary to change a bacterium into a human being - given enough time. And the amount of time you would estimate from the observables above (and in more scientific detail) are exactly what we find. The radiometric dates (from fossils) align with the molecular clock dates we would expect to an astonishing degree (remember this is a stochastic process so we do not expect perfect clockwork changes) over a wide range of phyla and different time periods.

Yes, it requires many steps - but remember, each of those steps are filtered through Natural Selection. Natural Selection is the key process.

Imagine you thoroughly shuffle a deck of cards and, without looking at them, deal them into 4 piles. The odds that you have 4 Royal Flushes is as close to impossible as we can imagine. But with a subtle change of the rule, imagine that you turn the cards over and simply Select the next random card into the right piles. 4 Royal Flushes becomes a mundane result. Natural selection is Nature looking at the cards and selecting them based on survival. Survival itself is an extremely complex subject and it is NOT simply survival of the fittest, organism often develop complex relationships with one another (food, predator, host, symbiotic, parasitic, etc). If one species depends upon another, it is not in that species best interest to utterly destroy the other species, at other times species may compete for common resources. But the interplay between all of these relationships cannot be so easily summed up.

Evolution is a fact, it's happening all around you in every single organism.

This is why results like Escherichia coli evolving the genes necessary to process Citrate is such strong confirmatory result (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0803151105)). If you read all the papers from Lenski and his team on this you can find the exact genetic changes that gave this result, so they know EXACTLY what changed in the genome to enable this new function.

Evolution is Happening. That is the undeniable conclusion from the above set of facts. There is no way to avoid it if you look at the facts and apply even a modicum of basic reasoning. If you want to deny it, show me exactly which genetic change cannot happen that would get us from point A to point B. Creationists want to claim 'macro evolution' can't happen -- well show me which step can't happen. At the genetic level there is NO SUCH THING as a species, species is an arbitrary category that humans apply because some set of things is "different enough" from another set of things. There are some 10 million species alive today. There is a fantastic series of gradations of life from the lowly bacterium to human. Hundreds of different kinds of eyes (including eyes that are no longer eyes at all, like our own pineal gland, which literally functions in some reptiles as a "third-eye").

There are many other reasons we could go into as well, eg., the observation that everything is made of similar cells (with a few major groupings) goes to common origins, we've observed single-cellular organisms evolve the ability to stick together and form multi-cellular clusters - and the beginnings of specialization, how more essential genes are highly conserved. All these factors just support the facts outlined above.

Another important thing to note is that bacteria have survived for billions of years, the genome of the modern bacteria is NOT the same as the ancient bacterium. It has stabilized itself as it adapted for survival in the environments in which it survives so it's not likely that a modern bacterium would suddenly turn into a squirrel. That just isn't going to happen, if it was that likely to happen we would probably have trillions of species and not merely the millions see today. You would need the EXACT genetics of the ancient bacterium and the exact conditions under which it mutated. But what we do expect to see is a continual, long-term evolution. Just as we've observed in populations where human selection has resulted in massive and sometimes incredible changes in just a few hundred or thousand of years (eg, in dog, horses, cabbages, pigeons, avocados, peas, lettuces, etc).

Think of the tiniest dog and the largest dog - HUMANS did that in just a few hundred years. Because of the limited time-period the claim that "it's still just a dog" is really irrelevant - you are missing the significance of the amount of actual change we know has occurred. Nature still has to provide the mutations (short of genetic manipulation of course).

NOTE: I'll enhance the references as time goes along (I would like to link to definitions for all the terms as well), feel free to comment and suggest key papers and articles to be added. Meanwhile, the reader is encouraged to do their own research to validate the claims. They are VERY simple claims and easily confirmed in numerous scientific journals and popular science publications. Hint: use Google Scholar

There are an estimated 5 × 10³⁰ Prokaryotes (bacteria and the like) on earth today, that's a lot of parallel mutation going on.

For tons more information explore the talkorigins site and this video: