Happy birthday, DBC

It was four years ago today that I was presumptuous enough to think the internet needed one more web site of personal yammerings. Danny's Blog Cabin was born on LiveJournal on May 30, 2003. Eight months later I moved to Brendoman.com at the generous invitation of Brendan. It would be appropriate to stop and reflect on what we've all learned in the last four years, how much things and people have changed and what the fifth year and beyond might hold in store for this safe haven of personal expression and exploration. But instead of any of that crap, I'll post this picture of monkeys riding bicycles.

Book review: The Language of God by Francis Collins

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

Image from AmazonFrancis Collins is an eminent scientist who, as head of the Human Genome Project, led the monumental undertaking to sequence the entire human genome. Collins is also a Christian and he explains why he believes and how that relates to his life's work in the 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief.

Collins sets himself apart from most Christian apologists in a few ways. First, he doesn't see science as an opponent of religion; he insists that they answer different questions. Second, Collins agrees with the scientific consensus about evolution and he doesn't see it as a threat to religion. He spends a great deal of the book presenting the evidence for evolution and arguing in its favor. A third thing that makes Collins' apologetic different from the likes of Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel is that his case is not built on the Bible. He includes illustrative quotes and makes passing reference to the textual reliability of the Bible, but it's far from being central to his argument.

Collins dismisses a few other reasons for believing before getting to his evidence. The origin of life, long believed to be a question that science cannot answer, has been commonly claimed as evidence for God's existence. How did self-replicating life forms come into existence if God didn't breathe life into them? Science has made inroads toward solving this cosmic riddle, and Collins refuses to hinge his belief on a gap in our knowledge that may be closing.

He deals similarly with the claims of irreducible complexity by Michael Behe and other intelligent design spokesmen. Behe claims that certain structures and processes are so complex that they couldn't have evolved because if they were any less complex then they wouldn't provide any advantage to the organism. Nearly all scientists, including Collins, have seen the problems with Behe's idea. The examples that Behe gave have been debunked and there are no known irreducibly complex structures in biology.

After dealing with the origin of life and irreducible complexity, Collins turns to the more general reason for believing in God, called "God of the gaps." This phrase is used to describe a view of the relationship between science and religion. There are gaps in our scientific knowledge, like how life originated and how certain structures evolved. Believers often want to credit God for doing things that we don't yet understand. Humans have taken this approach for time out of mind. Before we understood rainbows, many cultures assumed they had a supernatural explanation. Those who take this view of God find that as scientific knowledge grows, God shrinks. For decades, thinking believers have discarded this view of God. Collins roundly rejects any evidence for God that is based solely on gaps in our knowledge.

So, scientifically, ID (Intelligent Design) fails to hold up, providing neither an opportunity for experimental validation nor a robust foundation for its primary claim of irreducible complexity. More than that, however, ID also fails in a way that should be more of a concern to the believer than to the hard-nosed scientist. ID is a "God of the gaps" theory, inserting a supposition of the need for supernatural intervention in places that its proponents claim science cannot explain. . . . Ultimately a "God of the gaps" religion runs a huge risk of simply discrediting faith. ID portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan for generating the complexity of life. For a believer who stands in awe of the almost unimaginable intelligence and creative genius of God, this is a very unsatisfactory image (Collins, 193).

So, after passing over the claims of creationists, intelligent design proponents, "God of the gaps" evidence in general and Biblical literalists, Collins presents his evidence for belief. It can be narrowed down to two reasons: 1) The universe had a beginning which seems to have been fine-tuned for life, and 2) humans all share a sense of morality.

Scientists have made reasonable explanations for what has happened in the history of the universe all the way back 13.7 billion years to mere microseconds after the big bang. But, it's true that science has been powerless to tell us anything about the universe before that. The singularity that must have existed before the explosion of the Big Bang defies all scientific laws. And as the universe expanded, conditions that would be friendly to life are a very unlikely outcome. This could be seen as evidence of a supernatural designer that brought the singularity into being and sent it out of the gate at the proper trajectory to ensure that life would be possible in a few billion years. Or it could be seen as another gap in what we know. Like other gaps, it's getting smaller all the time. And even if science never learns any more about the beginning of the universe, consider the implications of Collins' view. He says that God set up the conditions of the big bang almost 14 billion years ago, then didn't intervene until two or three thousand years ago, once humans had evolved fully and begun to found civilizations.

Collins second reason draws heavily from C.S. Lewis, who makes the universal human experience of morality his central reason for believing in God. Not only is this line of reasoning susceptible to the charge of finding God in another gap in our knowledge, but that gap has already all but vanished. Collins and Lewis are both correct when they claim that nearly all humans share an inborn sense of right and wrong. The next step in their reasoning is that if there's a moral law, then there must be a moral lawgiver. God is invoked as the absolute standard that our morality is measured against. I used to consider this a very convincing argument, but now I don't see how you get from the fact of shared morality to the conclusion of God's existence. It is one attempt to the question of where our sense of morals comes from, but is it the most probable?

The Darwinian evolution that Collins uses to to explain the complexity and diversity of organisms can also explain the behavior of humans and other organisms. As an example, take the maternal instinct. It's easy to see how any animal with a strong affection for its offspring would be more likely to pass its genes on. As much as I enjoy taking care of my daughter, I recognize that this paternal instinct is a product of evolution. That doesn't make my feelings any less significant to me. Morality could be seen in the same way. A group of evolving humans living a small group, as early humans did, would be more likely to survive than a neighboring group if they took care of each other. Kindness, generosity, forgiveness and bravery would all give a survival advantage. As humans spread around the world and diverged into different cultures, you would expect slight differences in this instinct to evolve but for the heart of the instinct to be shared by all humans. And this is exactly what we see. Does this make our shared morality any less real? I see no reason to abandon an instinct that has served us so well just because we've found out more about its origin.

Many people will find Collins' approach refreshing. Others will find it conciliatory or even blasphemous. For my part, I find it unconvincing.

Zoo trip

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

Yesterday we took a trip to the Kansas City Zoo. It was rainy, but the weather was cool and the place wasn't crowded. We saw a pair of baby baboons, a great sea lion show and several free carousel rides.

Here are the pictures.

Starcraft 2

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

Blizzard has announced that they are working on a sequel to their classic sci-fi strategy game, Starcraft. They began development after the release of Warcraft 3: Frozen Throne, which was in January 2003. So, they've been working on it for four years! There's no release date yet, but it will be out for both Macs and PCs at the same time. You can watch trailers, see screenshots and read about some of the new units at the Starcraft 2 site. Starcraft is still my favorite video game. After their success with World of Warcraft, it's great to see Blizzard revisiting this game.

Penny Arcade has a theory about how Blizzard was able to keep this project under wraps for so long.

McCain

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

Does John McCain like to ask rhetorical questions? Yes he does. Does it wear thin? Yes, very quickly. Did he squirm and dodge like a weasel today on Meet the Press? Yes. Is he still a maverick? No.

Danny on Google

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

I recently installed the AsonishMe Search Cloud plugin for my blog. Here's my search cloud (aka, Zeitgeist). It shows what search terms people most commonly use to find my blog. Clicking on the term takes you to the blog post that they found. Bigger terms have occurred more often. Hover your mouse to see how many times.

But the strange thing I noticed was that "danny" was one of the most common search terms that led people to my site. I searched Google for Danny to see how many pages I would have to go through to find my blog. It was number 2. Not page 2, but the second result on the front page. It puts me ahead of Danny DeVito, Danny Elfman and Danny Bonaduce. I tried Yahoo and found that I'm number 7 there.

This seems like a mistake. Search engines, you may want to adjust your algorithms.

If any Brendoman.com authors want to have your search cloud added to your page, I can do it for you.

Gas Boycott

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

People, for the love of crap, if you get an email that sounds too good or bad to be true, it probably is. Before you hit the forward button, do a quick Google search for the subject of the email and the word hoax. Or visit snopes.com.

Google search for gas boycott hoax
Gas boycott page on Snopes

Someone taped this gem to the breakroom door at work. I also got it in an email from an otherwise reasonable person. First of all, there's never been a one day gas boycott that dropped the price of gas by 30 cents. Second, if you just buy gas on another day, the monthly total sales won't be different at all. The only things that can drop the price of gas are an increase of supply or a (real) decrease in demand.

If you actually want to do something about gas prices, then use less gas. Bike, walk, carpool, don't travel as much or get a more efficient car.

Gov Blunt's Biggest Donor

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

Fired Up Missouri reports that Governor Blunt's latest campaign finance report includes some big numbers from a notable name: Bob Perry. He was also a contributor to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the 2004 smear campaign that brought us four more years of Bush. Perry has been the largest donor of some of the political action groups run by disgraced former congressman Tom DeLay.

Some find it surprising that the increasingly unpopular Matt Blunt is even raising money for a reelection run in 2008. Bob Perry is not the kind of person that we want associated with our state. If we judge by the company he keeps, then Matt Blunt isn't either.

Quid pro quo

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

Contribute toward the character assassination of a war hero and you, too, could be rewarded by being made an ambassador. Bush is so loyal to his hitmen, he's appointed Sam Fox even when it was clear that the Senate thinks he's unfit to serve. At least this crony appointment won't put lives in danger like Mike "heckuvajobbrownie" Brown.

EMI drops DRM in iTMS

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

Apple, inc and the record label EMI announced (EMI press release, Apple press release) this morning that they will begin offering songs in the iTunes Music store that have no digital rights management (DRM). If you're not familiar with DRM, here's a quick explanation. When you buy a 99 cent song in iTunes, you can play it on your computer and up to four more computers where your iTunes account is authorized. You also can only play the song on an iPod, so if you have bought some songs on iTMS and you get an mp3 player that's not from Apple, you can't play your songs. There's also a limit on how many cds you can burn from the music you buy. The idea is to prevent piracy, but the people who are willing to pay a dollar for a song are usually not the pirating type. They could have downloaded the entire album for free from BitTorrent if they wanted to pirate it. What usually happens is that DRM is an annoyance to law-abiding music purchasers.

EMI is offering DRM-free tracks on iTunes for a premium ($1.29), but they are higher quality (256K). I think the price is still too high, but this is a huge step in the right direction. You'll be able to do whatever you want with these files: email a song to friend, burn as many cds as you want, back them up, play them on any mp3 player and not worry about losing your investment if technology changes. Steve Jobs says that similar deals with other labels will follow and by the end of the year he hopes to have 50% of the iTMS catalog available DRM-free. This may be the beginning of the end for DRM. I've never bought songs from iTunes, but I may consider it now.

I mentioned DRM in a post almost two years ago. I linked to Cory Doctorow's great speech on the subject (still a good explanation of why DRM is terrible) and I hoped that Microsoft's forthcoming portable audio player wouldn't have an oppressive DRM. It does.

If you're wondering what artists this will include, here's a list of EMI artists.

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