Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Goofy Gerson

by Edd Doerr

GOP shill and former Bush staffer Michael Gerson's column in today's (Jan 31) Washington Post, titled "Catholics betrayed", is a vicious smear of President Obama. Following is part of the response I posted on line in the WaPo on line:

"Gerson is wrong, so wrong it's hard to know where to begin. President Obama's contraceptive decision is a good compromise; it does not apply to strictly religious operations but only to hospitals, colleges and charities that serve and employ large percentages of non-Catholics AND which receive generous funding from taxes extracted from citizens of all religious persuasions. Further, over 90% of sexually active Catholic women use contraception. Persons who object to contraception are not obliged to use it.

"The Catholic bishops may be having a hissy fit, but they are very largely out of sync with most Catholics on many issues.

"The 'Blaine Amendment' (which Congress never passed) is a bogeyman. In 25 statewide referenda in recent years 2/3 of US voters, including Catholic voters, have upheld the American constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

"Gerson amusingly brings up cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan. Dolan, as reported by Jason Berry in the National Catholic Reporter (2-3/16-12), is under fire for when, as bishop of Milwaukee, he transferred funds around to avoid having to compensate victims of clergy sexual abuse.

In short, Obama is more concerned about the welfare and freedom of conscience of ordinary people, Catholics and non-Catholics, than about the stringent dogmas of clerical officials. More Catholics are comfortable with President Obama than with the Gersons and Republicans who regularly thumb their noses at the religious freedom of Americans of all faiths.

"Edd Doerr, President, Americans for Religious Liberty"

A View of Secular Perspective Activities

by Gary Berg-Cross
Viewers and readers of Secular Perspective get to see content, but may have no idea of how busy and growing the blog site is. This was a point made at a recent get together in Rockville. So here are some statistics available to editors of the site.
First a view of this past week shows the jagged path through the week peaking on Satureday browsing. The top five blog articles visited - a recent one on "Complex issues" that had 48 views (6 per day) , while a post almost a year old on Memes still got 34 views.
Most of the visitors come as a result of Google queries and these are from North America although some stories grab attention from Europe. The numbers for the week were:

United Kingdom 13 Canada 11 Russia 10 France 8 India 7 Australia 4 Italy 4 Japan 4 and Germany 3
A snapshop of the day's activity show that recent articles have grabbed some attention. "Poor reasoning" had 22 reads in the last day, while "Religion and the Arab Spring" has had 12 views.
Perhaps the most interesting view is what is called "All Time" shown at the top of the article. This goes back a year to see the most visited blog articles. The winner is one on "Pyschological Harm of Traditional Christian Behavior" with 651 hits. An article on the Flying Spaghetti Monster comes in 2nd at 587 follwed closely by the "Binary Thinking Habit".
As you can see from the trend of use the site has jumped up from modest beginnings in the fall of 2010 and has grown to a steady rate of some 100 hits a day (3ooo+ per month). However with the new year in January, the site has exceeded 4000 hits for the first time

Monday, January 30, 2012

Poor Reasoning Occupies some Minds

By Gary Berg-Cross
One of my conservative neighbors sent me an article called “Occupy PGA Tour”. It’s a critical article from the republic-mainstreet.blog knocking the Occuoy movement as selfish – see
It struck me as a sad attempt at humor or at least an attempt to mock the occupy movement and cast a certain image of them. I found it full of misconceptions and false analogies. But these are perhaps representative of the type of assumptions that people have about the movement
and related topics sometimes argued by some bubble-centric, ideologically conservative thinkers.

The blog starts by placing regular golfers in a self deprecating, common man frame of the 99%:

It's say that "I" am a card carrying, lifetime member of golf's 99%.
I play golf, or something that looks like golf, but I will never make it to the professional level because I can't hit my ass with both hands!!

More humble commentary follows explaining why a person might be a poor golfer:

I have played the gamefor over 30 years, but I have not put in the practice time and training to bethe best, mostly because I am lazy and I do not have the skills to ever become
the best.
With this frame our blogcommentator as self identified as lazy and unskilled. Now the writer has a simple, sleazy slide to use atransitive inference to project this onto Occupy folk as people who are lazy and unskilled but use a concept of fairness to get an unearned prize:

However, after watching Occupy Wall Street for the last six months, I feel
that all duffers should be paid by successful professionals for trying.
It just isn’t fair that those players who have worked harder, have studied the
game, have better equipment and are stronger and more skilled should be able to
make all that money. My kids are bringing home third place soccer trophies that
are as big as my wife, and now it’s my turn to grab some gusto….

This strikes me as an utterly false characterization. Implied here is the Romney-expressed idea that occupy people are jealous and want to be paid like wall street people, but are unwilling to work for it, presumably like hard working wall street professionals. Here the hidden assumption is that wall streeters are as good at their job as Arnold Palmer and earn proportionately based purely on talent.
Well I’ve never seen an 18-hole competition to establish that. Was it wall street professional's wicked hook shot that sent the economy into a sand trap? If Arnold didn't perform well his salary would plunge, but not so now among the professional financial adviser class. Perhaps we can use that model for stock traders rather than golf duffers.

Clearly the implied analogy has some problems. Part of the problem of this mock analysis is that it is poor representation of sports and the sports area itself. Perhaps it would have been more faithful to reality if the author had used a basketball theme. We all want to earn like a b-ball pro, what’s stopping us? Well I wasn’t drafted for one thing. And you know the team owners are a bit to blame here…Not only for me, but you know they
have problems with the salaries of pro-player. Here free enterprise doesn’t seen the model being followed. A hard working super-star can’t get what the market will bare. Instead the owners need to regulate the market. Here are some examples of the "unfairness":
  • Player’s salaries have stayed even with inflation. Essentially this means their pay has not been going up.
  • Owners have been increasing their spending. Management’s operating costs (per their own numbers) have been going up at five times the levelof inflation (that’s a lot).'
  • Even in the ideal case for the owners with the new CBA these problems will repeat themselves in 2020.
  • The Owners are asking the players to take a pay hit to make up for bad management practices.
I sure hope that we don't have to bail out either those hard working b-ball team owners or those golf courses owners. I hope that the ticket and greens’ sale contributions help everyone keep up their monthly payments on those expensive properties.

The tortured blog comparison goes on to imply the occupiers want a free ride (as if this wasn't a good critique of people who live on their past gains no matter how they come to it):

I want the PGA to pay my green fees for life, buy me new equipment and give
me and my friends half the purses from all tournaments being played this year
and free booze at every 19th hole in the country
Perhaps this is the fantasy of some duffers. It seems less a fair characterization of people working to change the current system. One might respond to this anonymous non-professional golfer with advice to keep playing the game and enjoy the recreation, but keep the day job.

Religion and the Arab Spring

By Hos
[I must start by saying, I resent the use of the term "sectarian" to describe ethno-religious conflicts in various parts of the world. As far as I can tell, this is just a form of political correctness, trying to minimize the responsibility of religion in human suffering and bloodshed. The following is my translation of an article on how religion is complicating the pro-democracy movements in the Arab world.]
Source: elpais.com
Rivalry between shiites and sunnies grinds revolutions in Bahrein and Syria to a halt
Why has the Arab Spring ground to a halt in Syria and Bahrein? In both nations the people have made their discontent with their systems clear with repression successfully silencing them about a year later. Nonetheless, in both nations a significant part of the population is opposed to change, thinking that the current systems protect their interests better. Observers point to sectarian divides within these nations. The chasm between shiites and sunnies that divides the Middle East and coming back to haunt Iraq is resurfacing. Some fear that this rift between the two denominations of Islam may turn into a regional conflict.
Religious identity helps explain the loyalty of sunnies in Bahrein to the Al Khalifa dynasty, or the Syrian minorities to president Asad. Even though the Bahreini protesters insist on the secular and democratic nature of their demands, fulfillment of those demands would lead to a radical change that would bring the shiite majority to power. By the same token, democracy is Syria would bring the sunnies to power, which is presently held by the Alawites (a shiite sect) supported by the Christians, Druzes and other minority creeds.
From a Western perspective this might appear irrelevant, but according to Barry Rubin, "In the Middle East sectarian affiliation underlies the communities, which have their own interests and compete for power". According to the head of the Gloria Center in Israel, "shiites and sunnies have different vision of political affairs in the world and different forms of leadership. As such, religious affiliation in not the way it has been recently in the West with the possible exception of Ireland".
These clashes are not new. Rivalry between shiites and sunnies goes back to the dawn of Islam, when conflicting views emerged regarding the succession of the prophet Mohammad. The spring has brought them to the surface by overthrowing some of the regimes that were based on secularism and Arab nationalism. Islamism, once again, puts the emphasis on religious identity and as such, brings back the sectarian divide. Even in countries where sunnie homogeneity brought about a consensus to overthrow dictators, divides are surfacing, for example between Muslims and Christians in Egypt.
According to Mehran Kamrava, the director of the Center for Regional and International Studies of Georgetown University in Qatar, the weight of sectarianism depends to a good extent on its use by the governing elites. "In Syria, the Alewites and Christians fear that if Asad falls, a sectarian conflict with arise. How Asad handles these fears will affect the perception of tensions in Syria. Likewise, how Maliki and his opponents resort to sectarian sentiments of their respective followers will determine the conflict in Iraq".
The case of Bahrein is illustrative. "The monarchy in Bahrein has tried, to some extent successfully, to turn the anti-authoritarian sentiments of the people into sectarian divides between sunnies and shiites and make shiites look like stooges of Iran, which they are not", he says.
The same Arab monarchies that came quickly to the help of the King Hamad of Bahrein are threatening to bring Asad to the UN Security Council. Are they supporting the status quo, or the spring? It is tempting to conclude that this apparent contradiction is the result of sectarian solidarity. As the majority of Arab governments, the kings and Emirs of Arabian Peninsula are sunnies. But apart from this, and perhaps on top of it all, there are geo-strategic interests.
"There are different levels of support among nations of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council", says Greg Nonneman, deacon of the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University in Qatar. "Oman and Kuwait, for example, have not participate in the military operation, but they all have an interest in the survival of the Bahreinin monarchy, as a partner in the Council. Also they consider that the Bahreini problem could be settled", he affirms before adding that they all "even Saudi Arabia are at times trying to make the regime make a compromise".

The Role of Tehran

The shadow of Iran is key in all these perceptions. Since the triumph of the 1979 revolution, which lead to the first shiite government in an Islamic nation, the Arab regimes, champions of sunnie orthodoxy, have viewed their Persian neighbor with suspicion. That event added a political dimension to the historical/religious divide. The war between Iran and Iraq in the 80's underscored this antagonism. The help of the neighbors helped Saddam Hussein keep the Iranians at bay but also, his own shiite majority.
As such, the transfer of power brought on by the 2003 US invasion was not seen well in the Arab world. The fear that it caused among Arab governments was graphically pointed out in the warning of the "shiite arch" made by King Abdullah of Jordan. The government of Baghdad would give shiites geographic continuity from Tehran to Lebanon (dominated by Hezbollah) through Syria. It is important the Saudi Arabia, the sunnie nemesis of Iran, has not opened its embassy in Baghdad. But for the more radical sunnies, the shiite advancement represents a mortal threat and the defiant tone of the Iranian leaders does very little to soothe these fears.
The wave of attacks that have shaken Iraq since the withdrawal of US forces on December 18 brought back to mind the fear of sectarian war that the country went through between 2006 and 2008. No one thought it was serendipitous that they happened in shiits majority areas. Even though the resurgence of terrorism has various causes, the political crisis between the shiite prime minister Maliki and the main block backed by sunnies, Iraqiya, provides a dangerous mix for discontent. To the point that the Turkish prime minister Erdogan (sunnie) has warned his counterpart that in case of a sectarian conflict, Ankara would not remain silent.
The resurgence of shiite-sunnie conflict have worried some analysts that Arab revolutions may lead to a religious war. As of now, the rhetoric is heating. "We are at the highest level of conflict in centuries", warns Rubin. Theodore Karasik, of the institute of strategic studies in Dubai, goes further. "I would say that the sectarian war is already under way and if Syria falls there will be a shiite-sunnie war from Lebanon to Iraq".
Nonneman disagrees. He does not think that there will be war between shiites and sunnies but accepts that "an armed conflict pitting Iran again sunni Arab countries in the context of an outbreak of violence in the Persian Gulf is possible (but not very likely)".

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Population Control and NCR

by Edd Doerr

This letter, headed "Population control", was published in the Feb 3/16, 2012, issue of the National Catholic Reporter:

"Regarding 'The moral measure of climate crisis' (NCR, Dec 23/Jan 5): As a longtime subscriber, I applaud NCR's position on our planetary crisis. As it is at least in part due to human overpopulation, it would be helpful if the Vatican would rescind or at least modify 1968's Humanae Vitae, especially as most First World Catholics ignore it anyway. -- Edd Doerr, Silver Spring, Md."

As few readers of this blog are likely to be familiar with NCR, let me explain that it is a respected independent Catholic bi-weekly published in Kansas City. I have been a subscriber for years and it has published a number of my letters. In the same issue as my letter NCR published long articles on how the Falwellian Religious Right has taken over the Republican party, on the clergy sexual abuse scandals and coverups in Ireland and Poland, and on shenigans in the Catholic church in Wisconsin.

The point I wish to make is that many important values are shared by Humanists, Catholics, mainstream Protestants, Jews and others, and that in this crucial election year working together is both smart and necessary. And as Korzybski pointed out in the 1930s, "The map is not the territory." Or, we might say, the label does not tell you what is really in the bottle.

We are familar with the dichotomy, "proud, defiant humanists, freethinkers, atheists versus
religion". This is a formula for failure, for irrelevance, for losing. On the other hand, think about this dichotomy, "caring, moderate-to-progressive Humanists, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews working together versus fringe theocratic fundamentalists". Now that is a formula for winning, for relevance, for solving problems.

I will have more to say on this when I am the speaker at the WASH meeting in Wheaton on March 3.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Virginia GOP vs Jefferson and Madison

This letter was published in the Washington Examiner on 1/26/12 ---

'Vouchers would violate Virginia constitution'

Virginia Republicans' plan to provide tax-code vouchers for church-related private schools clearly violates the spirit and intent of Articles I and IV of the Virginia constitution. It is hard to believe that legislators in Virginia would thumb their noses at the religious freedom provisions that were originated by Virginians Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that became the pattern for our whole country.

This plan is especially objectionable when we see public school budgets being slashed.

Edd Doerr, President
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Md

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why gravity is real but god is not

Christian Platt, in his recent article "Atheism: A Null Hypothesis on God", admits that "I have tried in vain over the years to understand atheism.". He then goes on to make various analogies for acquiring knowledge of various phenomena empirically, such as our seeing things from reflected light, and our verifying gravity by its effects, with his claims of witnessing god by god's reflections and effects. He, and other people like him, will continue to have difficulty understanding atheism because he is not understanding the difference between arguments based on empirical evidence and his arguments for god. This distinction is not difficult to grasp, and after understanding this distinction, he may come closer to his positive goal of "getting" atheism.

But first, lets dispell the unbalanced notion, which Christian Platt mistakenly promotes, that agnosticism is consistent with Christian theism but inconsistent with atheism. He appears to confuse uncertainity that god exists with faith that god exists, and since atheists don't have faith that god exists he concludes atheists are not agnostic. But all agnostics do not have faith that god exists. Not having perfect and direct knowledge that something exists does not equate with faith that it does exist.

Christian Platt is correct that everyone should be agnostic because humans are not omniscient. But he is incorrect to say that atheism precludes agnosticism. Richard Dawkins, for example, has acknowledged that he has such uncertainty. All atheists who are thoughtful acknowledge agnosticism. He also claims that atheism 'implies the same kind of certitude that a religious fundamentalist might claim is arguing they "know without any doubt that God exists."'. Some atheists may say that, but in my experience most atheists either say they don't believe and stop there, or say they believe there is no god, instead of saying they "know without any doubt". This notion of disbelief isn't difficult, and there is no good reason for intelligent people to have difficulty with this concept of disbelief in the singular context of god belief when everyone disbelieves lots of things. The real issue here isn't whether someone has any particular conviction, nor whether that conviction is definite or indefinite, nor whether the conviction is in the middle, or towards one end, of a true versus false spectrum line. The real issue is whether the belief, or disbelief, is well justified and held in proper proportion to the evidence.

Christian Platt then approvingly quotes John D. Caputo for his argument that God belief "insists, so that the rest of creation might exist.". This sounds like an argument that the universe must have a creator. That is a dubious assumption. For example, insects exist, but they do not have a creator. Insects exist because of abiogenesis and evolution. Some cosmologists think that the universe was spontaneously created, or self-created, and most cosmologists think that a self created or spontaneously created universe is consistent with all of the known laws of physics. While the notion of a creator is intuitive, we know from the very long list of non-intuitive and counter-intuitive conclusions found within modern knowledge, that intuition is not a good guide to, let alone a good source of, knowledge.

Christian Platt then declares: 'God is the impetus, the spark, the divine breath, the "inspiration," if you will from which all the rest of creation finds meaning.' I think this is silly, and I will try to explain why. Meaning is found in our experiencing and living our lives. Merely declaring otherwise does not constitute a justification for claiming otherwise, let alone constitute a compelling argument for a god. The notion of creation finding meaning makes no sense. There is no meaning to be had outside the context of minds capable of contemplating the concept, and all such minds that are known to exist reside in physical brains that are attached to physical bodies of animals. Saying that "creation finds" a concept or sentiment, such as meaning, is a category error. This is poetic language, but evidence and argument is not found in poetry. If it were then we would go to poets instead of medical doctors for our annual medical health checks.

Christian Platt then argues that God is found "conspiring with the physical world to create something that makes sense." Here is where he indulges the flawed analogy with seeing an object indirectly as "the result of the interaction between the light and the observed object.". Light is a physical entity that is measurable, it has amplitude and wavelength, it is empirically observed and evidenced. This is very different from the assertion about the vague concepts "something that makes sense" and "conspiring". This analogy doesn't work at all, since the foundation of our knowledge in the second case is precisely the empirical evidence that is completely absent in the first case.

Christian Platt then tries to argue that empirical evidence is not necessary because in the past we didn't know about atomic particles, or dark matter. He appears to be confusing what we know, a.k.a. ontology, with how we know, a.k.a. epistemology. It would be nice if we could just eliminate the effort and time needed to acquire knowledge and magically skip to having knowledge through some unspecified direct mechanism to this particular truth claim (god). However, such magical and instant capability to directly possess knowledge has not demonstrated much success as a non-empirical, alternative method for acquiring knowledge. There is a time sequence constraint here that applies to everyone. Time travels in a single direction from past to present to future. Before we can have knowledge about what is true we must first obtain the evidence to justify the conclusion that it is true. The latter achievement precedes the former achievement in time, we cannot properly leap directly to a conclusion without the evidence needed to justify the conclusion.

Christian Platt cites gravity a second time, saying it 'cannot be directly observed: only measured as it affects other objects. It's not a "thing" that can be pinned down.'. Gravity is due to curvature in space-time, and space-time curvature is a thing that can be, and is, predicted and indirectly measured. It is true that all empirical measurements and observations and knowledge can be said to be indirectly acquired. But the critical and essential attribute of evidence is that it is repeatedly measureable and observable, attributes that are entirely missing from poetic "evidences", if we can call them that, for god. Even if it is true that everything that is empirically evidenced is evidenced indirectly, it doesn't follow that everything that is argued for indirectly is therefore also properly evidenced.

Christian Platt then asserts "to say that even science is entirely constrained by the scientific method is to ignore the creative imagination required to stretch the boundaries, to imagine what might be, beyond what is now understood to be. It's this kind of imagination that pushes humanity to create new tools that have allowed us to observe things we never knew existed before.". The notion that atheists define the scientific method so narrowly as to preclude a role for imagination is false. Imagination, when married with empiricism, can be an important contributor to getting productive ideas. But imagination is no substitute for grounding existence claims in empirical evidence. Undiscplined imagination unfettered by empiricism has been a path to much fictional fantasy falsely claiming to be knowledge. There is excellent reason to think that imagination by itself is a source of fiction only.

Christian Platt then argues "making room for those possibilities, seem, to me, to be at the heart of science as much as the rigorous processes defined by the scientific method.". If by "those possibilities" he means all of the possibilities that have no empirical support then the fact is that the scientific method does not endorse, and cannot arbitrarily endorse, any such possibilities. But the issue here is not "scientific method". The issue is the need for empirical evidence in support of existence claims to justify the corresponding existence beliefs.

The article concludes with this comment: "However, to leap from that to certitude of God's non-existence is to violate the principles of the scientific method, isn't it?". Explicit atheism is not a conclusion of science. It is a belief based on an assessment that the overall direction and weight of the available evidence favors the conclusion that there are no non-material actors with non-material super intelligent minds that created the universe or that take some special interest in humans or that intervene, monitor, or oversee human affairs on earth, nor that humans continue to live forever as material or non-material entities after they die under circumstances dictated by such a god, nor anything of this sort. Instead, the available evidences best fits the conclusion that all god stories are human created fictions that have no relationship to anything that is true.

Monday, January 23, 2012

How to mess with a Moonie's head

by Edd Doerr

Several years ago, when the Moonie (Unification Church) missionaries were pushing their wares in airports, I was stuck at Chicago-O'Hare for several hours. A young woman Moonie missionary approached and tried to engage in conversation. I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Jeg forstor de ikke. Jeg snakker ikke Engelsk." She walked away.

An hour later I was still waiting for my flight, but in a different location. The Moonie missionary walked up again. This time I responded, "Ich verstehe sie nicht. Ich spreche kein englisch", and shook my head. She turned and left with a puzzled look in her face.

About an hour or so after that, as I was leaving an airport restaurant, the same young woman came up with a handful of Moonie literature. This time I said, "Yo no le entiendo a Usted. Yo no hablo ingles." She got all wide-eyed, dropped her literature and literally ran off at top speed.

Throwing Norwegian, German and Spanish at her probably made the poor kid's head hurt.

Well, reading the Moonie-owned Washington Times, with its ultraconservative rants against Obama every day makes me nauseous. I am comforted by the realization that the paper has lost the Moonies over a billion dollars over the past 25 years.

Roe v Wade at 39

by Edd Doerr

Roe v Wade's 39th anniversary came and went this past weekend with scarcely a mention in the media. Yet Roe v Wade was one of the most important rulings ever handed down by the Supreme Court. It ranks with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in importance. It liberated women from the bonds of misogynism endemic in society for millenia.

Roe did not "create" the right to terminate problem pregnancies. It acknowledged a right already there in the 1st, 9th, 13th and 14th Amendments, a right that existed throughout the lifetimes of the Founders. Roe consolidated in one fell swoop women's freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

But conservative misogynists have not given up, not by a long shot. In 2011 conservatives in state legislatures passed more anti-choice laws than ever. And while President Obama praised the ruling over the weekend, all -- ALL -- of the Republican White House aspirants have made it clear that they will press on to reinslave women to the "fetal personhood" nonsense emanating from ultraconservative religious forces.

Humanists who value freedom of conscience for all cannot back down.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Epistemological Styles

by Gary Berg-Cross

I see that recent Blog posts, such as The incomprehensible, everything good, god, explore some theist-revised god-concepts:

  • "What if there were concepts of God that had something to offer or add to the fulfilled?
  • What if we had concepts of God based on creativity?
  • On a positive definition of incomprehensible peace?
  • On imaginative joy?

This subverts some Greek-old questions about existence and dresses it up in new clothes. The Greeks were the first we know of to develop elaborate reasoning on the nature of existence and reality. But this was more on an exploration of naturalist concepts of what we see existing as part of a continuous fabric of reality. Parmenides put it this way:

We can speak and think only of what exists. And what exists is uncreated and imperishable for it is whole and unchanging and complete. It was not or nor shall be different since it is now, all at once, one and continuous...”

He wasn’t speaking about god’s existence, so much as about his world, but people push the discussions that way with an unseen spirit in back of everything. Some call it metaphysical, but in his Metaphysics Aristotle defined the scope as 2 important philosophical questions:

What exists?' and How do I know?'

They are separate questions, but related. The first question he discussed as Ontology - the meta-philosophy or world view of reality. The seminal ontological question wasn’t so religious as psychological - ‘Is there a "real" world out there that is independent of our knowledge of it?'

Naturalist assume a natural world out there existing on its own one, not invented by our conceptions. Theists say reality isn’t a human invention, but a godly one. God must exist to explain the complex ontology of things we find in nature. Discussions about god as an existing object are therefore ontological too. The argument is that god is as real as a tree and maybe more so.

People whose ontology posits a god, angels, devils, miracles etc, want to talk about these concepts, while Naturalists, such as Dawkins aren't so interested. When Dawkins dismisses these subjects, such as in revealed text, he is criticized as not knowing anything about Religion. That is, he knows nothing about the ontological entities that religion believes exist and have value. True enough because an atheist's ontology doesn’t include them. Why talk about what an enormous list of ancient writers might have invented as part of their psychology a long time ago?

Others may be willing to talk about God as a “scientific hypothesis. ” But looked at this way shouldn't it be tested? But even that moderate position is a divisive questions to some...

"He who is not with Me is against Me;
and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad."

—Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew, xii, 30

It's clear that there are big differences between religious believers and non-believer's ontology. This is often discussed in detail, at least by theists. But how do believers know that god exists? This brings in the 2nd questions and Epistemology, which is the philosophy of how we come to knowledge and how we justify arriving at something as known. The epistemological positions that brings people to a particular ontology is also important, but less discussed. Unlike the clarity of the question it’s complicated, at least in part because people aren't pure philosophers and their "knowing" gets intertwined with personality and values as they grow up in a culture which has implicit positions on styles of knowing and believing.

Even science has different investigatory styles/paradigms that can lead to alternative views. Scientific historian Alistair C. Crombie described several main styles in the Western tradition of scientific thinking:

  • the simple method of postulation exemplified by classic Greek sciences
  • the deployment of experiment to explore postulation with controlled observation and measurement,
  • hypothetical construction of analogical models
  • ordering of variety by comparison and taxonomy,
  • statistical analysis of regularities of populations etc.

To these styles, philosopher Ian Hacking added a contemporary laboratory scientific style in “Statistical Language, Statistical Truth and Statistical Reason:The Self-Authentification of a Style of Scientific Reasoning" (Hacking’s thesis is that ontological truth conditions for certain kinds of propositions are given by a style of scientific reasoning – that is the method of inquiry constructs the truth of a proposition.)

One might argue that people in general are like this in that they approach the question of truth and reality through styles of inquiry. Some come to a style by reflection, experience and reason, but most of us are strongly influenced by existing patterns of inquiry which may come from groups we identify with. These styles might be thought of as composed from many, mutually supporting parts, engineered to work together over time. But for social transmission they often get packaged as meme-like labels such as realist, skeptic, theists, atheists, liberals, conservatives etc.

For example, at a broad level a theist may have an approach to knowledge as revealed and they take that on faith and they take faith as supported by group belief. An alternative approach to knowledge relies on evidence proof and reason.

But there are finer aspects to people’s style of thinking epistemologically and people’s preferences for things that is more like what psychologists call styles of personality . For example, there is familiar thinking versus open ended thinking. We accept something if it is familiar and described in commonsense terms. This is often part of a layman's style of knowing.

When talking about personality styles some use binary, common sense distinctions about reasoning and investigation styles. So some people are curious while others are intellectually lazy – George Bush comes to find for the latter category. We might build a better model by adding a scale along which people fall from lazy at one end and curious at the other. That’s better, but there are other dimensions of reasoning to consider. Some people are skeptical while others are not. Now we have 2 dimensions and we could add a 3rd of critical thinking. These dimensions seem somewhat related but not identical. We can add more orthogonal dimensions like simplicity vs. appreciation of complexity. John Wayne illustrates simplicity when he was reported to have said in an interview, "They tell me that things aren't always black and white. I say, 'Why the hell not?'" This is a simple, common sense view that affects how much energy we might bring to investigating a topic. It speaks in a common language and thus has popular appeal and has the advantage of being able to spread meme-like.

But people’s epistemological styles are even more complex than that and can be thought of as existing in epistemological layers and frameworks. The framework includes, and is influenced by, people's ontology and pre-existing assumptions about such things as diverse as:

  • objectivity,
  • what is real and
  • group values.
These serve as broad guides for reasoning. Other factors include the nature of evidence and the value of observation, the role of theory (what is a theory?), what are acceptable method to test ideas, and what they define as logical or reasonable.

People and groups are stunningly different in attitudes towards such things as to what constitutes truth. As Hacking noted for scientific styles the approaches are put together and maintained by networks of people to answer their needs, interests and ideology. This is illustrated by the work of Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, for example, who studied on liberal-conservative differences in style and arguments. The style supports and is maintained by people who share a strong desire for unity and group membership which is guided by ideas of truth, rightness etc. This is a light, morality based epistemological stance. “Conservatives”, for example, quickly get disgusted with ideas that violate their ideas of reality and means of determining it. At the political level Republicans, more than Democrats, tap into universal moral passions to foster in-group solidarity. This goes along with concerns about being contaminated by outgroups and their thinking.

A related style is seen in people who value the idea of ancient, private wisdom existing inside people or available via divine revelation. These are believed to give access to a body of eternal truth independent of scientific investigation. To protect this stance it helps to distrust experts - at least some types of experts whose opinions may challenge existing social bonds. Better to keep hold of an ancient view, wrapped up and supported by your own justification. With defenses like these it is hard to have a conversation on why people believe as they do. Thus a reasoning style with its ontological beliefs has mutually supporting factors that provide a defense against foreign reasoning styles.

A natural science orientation, in contrast, views truth as derived from a method of public, empirical observations. One needs some methodological expertise to qualify to achieve knowledge. This is challenging to some who like to attack it by characterizing it as dogmatic. The dogma here is one of method and a testable one that can lead to what seems closer to the true.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Indonesian atheist arrested for blasphemy

By Mathew Goldstein

English is a compulsory subject in the Indonesian national curriculum for students. Many universities require students in all subjects to show they meet a certain minimum standard of English proficiency before they are allowed to graduate. There are two national English-language daily newspapers, and a number of radio and TV stations produce programs in English. So among Islamic majority countries (Indonesia is around 85% Islamic) Indonesia is a country that is relatively accessible to Americans. It is a country known in its past for respecting religious pluralism. So it is sad to see some of the vile religious extremism that afflicts countries such as Pakistan also making inroads in Indonesia.

In 2008, the government made it illegal for the Ahmadiya, who are Muslims that do not believe Mohammed was the final prophet, to publicly promote their religious beliefs. The Indonesian government restricts the freedom of its citizens to adhere to any religion other than Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Christianity, or Confucianism. Today, it was reported in the English language Jakarta Post that an atheist was detained by police for blasphemy. A police chief is identified as saying that the man was arrested because of his writings on the internet and his direct statements saying that he did not believe in God. He was apprehended by people who entered his workplace, beat him, and then transported him to the police station. If found guilty, he could spend five years in prison.

Islamist supremecist intolerance directly affects other religious minorities as well, even among the five minority religions that are legal, such as Indonesia’s approximately 20 million Christians. It can be difficult to obtain the necessary permits to build a church in some parts of Indonesua. Even when all the requirements have been fulfilled, Christians sometimes cannot gain final approval for the construction of houses of worship. Churches and prayer halls have also been subject to vandalism, and their congregations face various forms of intimidation. Every year the U.S. State Department documents the forced closure of churches by extremist groups, often with government inaction or complicity.

The Indonesian constitution declares that the state is based on, among other things, “the belief in the One and Only God,” while guaranteeing “each and every citizen the freedom of religion and of worship in accordance with his or her religion and belief.". The constitution explicitly guarantees that “Every person shall be free to embrace and to practice the religion of his/her choice“; that “Every person shall have the right to the freedom to hold beliefs (kepercayaan), and to express his/her views and thoughts, in accordance with his/her conscience“; and that “Every person shall have the right of freedom to associate, to assemble and to express opinions.” The document asserts that freedom of thought and conscience, as well as freedom of religion, are “human rights that cannot be limited under any circumstances." Words are cheap, and apparently Indonesia's constitution is worth little more than ink on paper.

Newsweek/Sullivan/Obama/Ferguson . . . . .

by Edd Doerr

While I have never been a fan of writer and former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan, I must say that his 4-page piece on Obama, "The Long Game", in the Jan 23 Newsweek is a pretty good defense of Obama's record of accomplishment. I recommend it.

The same issue of Newsweek also contains a rather dumb 4-pager titled "Rich America, Poor America" by conservative British historian and Newsweek columnist Niall Ferguson that features praise for discredited American Enterprise Institute writer ("The Bell Curve") Charles Murray. But what is most peculiar about Ferguson's piece is that in the penultimate paragraph he makes this totally unconnected recommendation: "Finally, end the state monopolies in public education to launch a new era of school choice and competition." In other words, Ferguson is advocating tax support for a growing multiplicity of mostly discriminatory faith-based private schools that would fragment American education along religious, ideological, class, ethnic and other lines. I have been writing on this subject for over 45 years and thus recognize that Ferguson is regurgitating the endless nonsense of the religious right.

Ferguson's weird attack on public education and church-state separation is all the more peculiar because his wife is -- take a breath here -- none other than Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali woman who escaped a forced Islamic marriage by moving to the Netherlands, where she was elected to Parliament. In that position she stirred up an investigation into Islamic "honor killings", which in turn led to threats on her life that required 24/7 police protection. When it was found that she had entered the Netherlands illegally she lost her seat in Parliament and immigrated to the US, where she is reportedly working for the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute.

So, if Ferguson gets his way with "school choice" and school vouchers (which AEI supports), wouldn't that mean tax support for Islamic as well as other church-related private schools? And how would that square with his wife's antipathy toward Islam particularly and religion generally?

In the same paragraph Ferguson also recommends: "Scrap the failing welfare programs of the '30s and '60s ... [and] Ensure that everyone has a basic income." Will someone please explain how one can espouse the ultraconservative line and its socialist opposite in the same breath.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Great example fo Christopher Hitchens

18 January 2012 12:12 PM

Christopher Hitchens. Funeral and Memorial arrangements

First may I once again thank the many people who visited this site to express condolences on the death of my late brother, Christopher. I was most moved that so many people crossed the divide of opinion to do so.
Second, I felt I should post here two facts that, although they are to be found on the Internet, are still unknown to many.
Some people have asked me when and where my brother’s funeral took place. In fact, as Christopher donated his body to medical science, there has not been and will not be any funeral. He took this decision partly because of his religious (or rather non-religious) opinions, and partly because, much influenced by his friend Jessica Mitford and her book ‘The American Way of Death’, he disliked what he regarded as the excesses of the American funeral industry.
There are many discussions now taking place about various other forms of commemoration. There will certainly be a memorial gathering in New York City during the Spring, most probably in April. I would expect that, later on, there will also be some sort of event in London. I would hope to be able to post details when these are clear.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The incomprehensible, everything good, god

By Mathew Goldstein

When I wrote, in my previous post, that theists argue for irreducible complexity in biology as evidence for god, I was not (of course) referring to all theists. So what about a god that is not to be found in biology, chemistry, or physics? Victor Udoewa, in his recent Huffington article titled "Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?", wrote "it is clear that science may make belief in a certain concept of God obsolete. But it is a hard task to make belief in every concept of God obsolete.". Seeking funding from the Templeton Foundation to promote his timeless and undefeatable version of theism, he asks: "What if there were concepts of God that had something to offer or add to the fulfilled? What if we had concepts of God based on creativity? On a positive definition of incomprehensible peace? On imaginative joy? On creative, problem-solving love?"

The god that is creativity, peace, joy, imagination, love, and other such general and positive capabilities, outcomes, feelings, and sentiments is a favorite gambit of liberal theists. Its strength is its weakness, in equal measure. There can be no evidence against this god nor can there be any evidence for this god. This god is claimed to be real but is defined as a fantasy. And that is why no one has any proper justification to believe in this god. Evidence is the proper foundation to justify beliefs about what is true or false regarding the reality of entities that are to be worshipped or otherwise asserted to really exist. Conservatives want evidence, but they don't respect evidence that contradicts their theism, so they tend to manufacture their own, alternative world "evidence". Liberals want to follow the real evidence, but they don't want the evidence to contradict their theism, so they tend to place their cherished theism out of harms way by defining their god to be beyond the reach of any possible evidence. Either way, it's the same failure, they are both failing to put the evidence first and follow it.

Debating the Concept-Labels of Secular Humanism and Atheism

By Gary Berg-Cross
A proposed Washington Area Secular Humanists (WASH) Name Change was announced in the December 2011 issue of WASHline, after the WASH Board of Directors has voted to change the organization’s legal name from “The Washington Area Secular Humanists” to “The Washington-area Atheists and Secular Humanists.” This compromise vote allowed the acronym, WASH, to be retained. But the bylaws requires further votes before the name change goes into effect. So some discussion continues.
Over the last 6 months or so there was considerable discussion, available to WASH members, on the monthly WAShline newletter on the pros and cons of adding “atheist” to the name. This may not have been available to some Secular Perspective blog readers (a motivator to join?), but might be of interest. So here is a small take on it.

On the pro side WASH Board of Directors member Don Wharton kicked things off in the August WASHline with the something of a practical, “marketing” argument to achieve our goals:

Clearly most of our members identify as “secular humanists.” It is a wonderful term which accurately and comfortably reflects me and my views; thus, raising the issue of a name change for WASH does not reflect my personal preferences. It is a matter of better marketing and achieving WASH’s mission as an organization. The terms “secular humanist” and “secular humanism” are now far less visible and meaningful than before. For WASH’s May board meeting I gathered some statistics on the majority of US adults who are also Facebook members. Adding the numbers who specified atheist and atheism as an interest totaled 138,000. Only 5,700 reported an interest in the term “secular humanism and none in secular humanist.”

WASH co-founder Lois Porter responded with an opposing letter in the August WASHline arguing to retain the current organization name because it will:

“attract young new members” and that they “would be especially good at giving the world a picture of what secular humanism looks like in the 21st century.”

WASH Board Member and Baltimore chapter coordinator Bill Creasy also responded in a letter in the August WASHline supporting keeping the name. His analysis used data available on Meetup.com that suggested that “atheist” is a label that serves a within group function. It is more used for secular people to meet other secular people. Don later responded with additional data challenging Bill’s data and so on.

The debate also got the attention of our November MDC WASH chapter speaker Tom Flynn of the Council for Secular Humanism. Tom wrote an article ("Whither Secular Humanism") in the Secular Humanist Bulletin (available to Associate members of the Council, such as WASH) defending keeping the original name. He notes an obvious personal bias as director of the Council, but acknowledges Don’s point about the growing usage of the atheist label:

“Particularly among young people the term is well known and generally understood. In contrast secular humanism is less strongly recognized among folks under 20.”

On the other side he notes that atheism is generally (but unfairly) associated with “stridency and intolerance.” He goes on to say that the Council has:
“striven to achieve a tone and level of sophistication in discourse above that seen in at least some purely atheist groups. But there is a larger problem with atheism: strictly understood it is only a position on the question of whether God…exists.”

He later goes on to note a discussion of this in his edited The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief reflecting the point that:

“Once one has realized that there are no gods, anything at all can follow… Secular humanism has dimensions that atheism alone cannot offer.”
I generally agree with the idea that atheism (A) is only the beginning of the story of our identity. SH is broader and wider than the big A. I enjoyed reading Tom’s further ideas on the unfortunate shrinkage of the Humanist idea as Secular has become more widespread.

I’m sure we will continue to have discussion on this issue. What you've got here is a rich, but vague, concept-dish covered in a historical-intellectual sauce, served up on a platter of underlying questions and projections into the future.

So much fun and so important!

Monday, January 16, 2012

V-ATPase proton pump and biological complexity

By Mathew Goldstein

Vacuolar-type H+-ATPase (V-ATPase) is a highly conserved evolutionarily ancient enzyme. A proton pump is an integral membrane protein that is capable of moving protons across a cell membrane, mitochondrion, or other organelle. The V-ATPase proton pump helps maintain the proper acidity of compartments within the cell. The pump has a ring that is made up of a total of six copies of two different proteins, but in fungi a third type of protein has been incorporated into the complex. There are many molecular machines like this in cells. Theists assert that these molecular machines are irreducibly complex and therefore must have been created by a god (a.k.a. Intelligent Designer). How could a ring that consists of three different proteins be created without an Intelligent Designer?

A team of scientists from the University of Chicago and the University of Oregon worked out an answer: "It's counterintuitive but simple: complexity increased because protein functions were lost, not gained," The lead author of the study, Dr. Thornton said. "Just as in society, complexity increases when individuals and institutions forget how to be generalists and come to depend on specialists with increasingly narrow capacities."

Hundreds of millions years ago the proton pump ring consisted of two proteins, similar to those found in animals today. However, these older versions of the protein were more versatile, their functionality was broader than the equivelant proteins seen today so they could substitute for each other in the ring. A gene coding for one of the subunits of the older two-protein ring was duplicated, and the daughter genes then diverged on their own evolutionary paths. The functions of the ancestral proteins were partitioned among the duplicate copies, and the increase in complexity was due to complementary loss of ancestral functions rather than gaining new ones. In other words, since the proteins were now assembled by different genes, the proteins diverged, becoming more specialized.

"The mechanisms for this increase in complexity are incredibly simple, common occurrences," Thornton said. "Gene duplications happen frequently in cells, and it's easy for errors in copying to DNA to knock out a protein's ability to interact with certain partners. It's not as if evolution needed to happen upon some special combination of 100 mutations that created some complicated new function.". Thornton proposes that the accumulation of simple, degenerative changes over long periods of times could have created many of the complex molecular machines present in organisms today. Such a mechanism argues against the intelligent design concept of "irreducible complexity," the claim that molecular machines are too complicated to have formed stepwise through evolution. "I expect that when more studies like this are done, a similar dynamic will be observed for the evolution of many molecular complexes," Thornton said. "These really aren't like precision-engineered machines at all," he added. "They're groups of molecules that happen to stick to each other, cobbled together during evolution by tinkering, degradation, and good luck, and preserved because they helped our ancestors to survive."


a short story by Edd Doerr

Brendan was twenty-two when he met Anne. He was working full time and taking night classes to finish his degree. Anne was nineteen and working as a receptionist in an office downtown. They hit it off immediately and after a few weeks decided to get married. But where? Neither was a member of a church. Brendan was indifferent, but he knew that his Irish grandmother would be more than merely mystified if the wedding were not in a Catholic church.

But Brendan, though raised Catholic, considered himself to be a naturalistic humanist. His transition from Catholic to humanist had been fairly rapid and quite painless, unlike the situations of others he knew of. The problem was that Brendan had discussed his transition with a priest from his old parish, Father Steiner. So he went to see Steiner to see if he would officiate at the wedding, knowing that Brendan was asking him only in his "civil" capacity. Steiner was friendly but not really sold on the idea. Brendan made the point that it all had to do with his grandmother's feelings and happiness. Steiner acceded and the wedding was held in the church rectory, as Anne had never been a Catholic.

The marriage lasted two years and ended with an amicable enough divorce. Two years later, after Brendan had finished his degree and was teaching school, he met Ingrid, also a teacher, and they got married, this time by a Unitarian minister.

Not long afterward, Brendan learned that a Catholic diocesan marriage tribunal was investigating him to see if there might be grounds for a church annulment of his marriage to Anne, who had become engaged to a Catholic. Pissed off, Brendan phoned the priest at the marriage tribunal and told him to butt out, that if he had any questions about his religious beliefs to ask him and quit annoying his friends and relatives. He assumed that the marriage tribunal people could find no grounds for an annulment.

A few months later Brendan heard that Father Steiner had been killed in a car accident. Too bad, he thought, Steiner was really a nice guy. Then he thought to ring up the marriage tribunal priest. He told him that he had the solution to the annulment problem, that the priest who had officiated at his an Anne's wedding had known that he had left the church. The marriage tribunal priest got angry and yelled, "Why didn't you tell us this before?"

Brendan replied, "Look, Father Steiner bent or broke the rules to do a favor for my grandmother. It would have been unethical for me to rat out a guy who had done me a big favor. So put that in your pipe and smoke it."

Rick Santorum and Opus Dei

by Edd Doerr

Is Rick Santorum a member of Opus Dei, the secretive, ultraconservative outfit founded by a Spanish priest in 1928 that came to practically run Spain during the last years of the Franco dictatorship? The outfit exposed, sort of, in Dan Brown's popular novel and film The Da Vinci Code? We may never know. Opus Dei, a "Personal Prelature of the Catholic Church", discourages its members from revealing their connection with the outfit that is so bizarre that most Catholics would have nothing to do with it.

What we do know is this. In early 2002 then-senator Santorum led a delegation from the US to Rome for a week long celebration of the Spanish founder of Opus Dei. Santorum sent two of his sons to The Heights, a males-only private prep school in Potomac, Maryland, connected to Opus Dei. The school's web site says that "The spiritual direction of The Heights School is entrusted to Opus Dei." Other bigshots who have sent their sons to The Heights include former GOP senators Chuck Hagel and Mel Martinez and former FBI director Louis Freeh.

Santorum's extremist views on contraception are essentially those of Opus Dei.

On January 14 the 150 or so evangelical leaders meeting in Texas to find an alternative to Willard Romney agreed to coalesce around Santorum.

(Lest there be some misunderstanding, let me make clear that all of the GOP presidential aspirants strike me as less suitable for high office than the Three Stooges.)

Christian values of family !!

How can the christians who value family life and family values explain this Biblical gospel wording?
Jesus: I have come to set a man against his father: and a daughter against her mother: and a daughter in law against her mother in law:And a man`s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter  more than me is not wothy of me"
These are divine values. They are against human values. Let people choose either divine values or human values. 
Humanists, Atheists, Rationalists, skeptics, agnostics, secularists stand for human values
Innaiah Narisetti

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Understanding Complex Issues: Lessons from the Life of a Pebble

By Gary Berg-Cross

Recent posts have addressed some complex issues including free will (and fine tuning) as well as the psychology of religion. Often complicated issues are dumbed down to make them more acceptable and digestible to a broad swath of folks. But this is often done disingenuously using fallacious arguments and/or false data to lead people to targeted conclusions and opinions. See for example, Mathew Goldstein’s blog Theists' defense against atheism and human invention fails.

Presidential campaigns, like chit-chat, often tend to avoid difficult issues. Appealing to preconceptions, using simplifying language and binary thinking frames are all part of a dumbing down to fit the narrative styles of contemporary life. Complex social and natural phenomena like climate change just aren’t sexy items and get discussed in bumper sticker phrases. This telegraphic style comes despite that fact that most of us would acknowledge that there nuances and shades of gray on issues. We just don’t routinely take them into account.

It is plausible that complexity emerges from multi-causal factors and the fact that many issues are composite being made up of several parts. Further such parts are often in conflict. National security, for example, is composed of many factors supposedly organized in defense of our concept of freedom.

But national security polices can be in conflict with some established ideas of freedom and liberty. And what about a seemly distant concept like climate change? As some have noted the world-wide costs and consequences of changing climate (increases in global average air/ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow & ice and rising global average sea level) is one strong factor influencing how the 21st century will unfold. The totality of such effects they will have serious implications for U.S. national security interests, as well as global stability. Defense analysts talk about a range of problems from the mundane of coastal military installations more sustainable to the supporting the stability of “friendly” nations that lack the suite of resources, good governance, & resiliency needed to respond to the many adverse consequences of climate change. The subtleties and depth of understanding needed for such things tens to get thrown aside in political campaigns as they put issues into neatly categorized little boxes often for ideological ideas. Such is the case with things like climate change denial which often seems based on a mis-uderstanding of the underlying science. It's just too hard to unscramble the egg of deep time and understand our current circumstances in earth historical time.

But science is quite different and complex phenomena, such as evolution, get their due. It’s a contrasting pleasure to read an exposition of complex issues by a scientist to a talking point snipptet of a gabby politician like Newt Gingrich. It was therefore a great joy to run across a guided trip through geological complexity in a book The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth's Deep History by geologist Jan Zalasiewicz. There is an online copy of much of it including pictures!

If you or I pick up a rock at the beach we might see some small beauty and a portion of the composite nature. But Zalasiewicz know how to pick a special rock whose existence is entwined with the history of the whole Earth. He picks a pebble “of gray slate from a Welsh beach - perhaps from somewhere like Aberystwyth, or Clarach, or Borth on the west Wales coast." But Zalasiewicz knows about the inherent complexity in the pebble which he compares to a dense computer chip –“ tightly packed with more information than one could ever surmise from gazing on its smooth surface." It’s the unpack of this information with modern techniques that makes such an interesting story.

It does take Jan a while to elucidate the complexity in 13 chapters, each exploring a different stage in the history of the material from which the pebble is made and ways we have of dating these events and what happened in them. Along the way we learn geologist’s lingo and come to love ‘strata” and such.

He starts all the way back with a cosmological view Big Bang expansion at a time before there were elements for a pebble is be composed of. This is followed by plenty of violence periods including exploding stars to product the elements from which the slate-based pebble emerged. Then there is the formation of the sun and the planets followed by the formation of continents and seas.

Today, almost everything that happened to the pebble and its constituent parts can be inferred from lab measurement. One of the most interesting is zircon, a high-density accessory mineral that often turns up in trace quantities in rocks such as granites and quartzes. Zircon crystals aren’t pretty to a layman or a jeweler, but they were born 4.4 billion years ago - only a hundred million years or so after the Earth was formed, and are our oldest terrestrial material. Besides they are geologically adventuresome and have unique chemical properties that allow geologists to reconstruct their birth in ancient landscapes. Zircons act as eerily accurate atomic clocks with small amounts of radioactive uranium and thorium that they contain decaying constantly to provide a radiometric clock that can tell us when as well as where they first appeared. This gives earth scientists access to what Zalasiewicz calls a virtual “time machine” to Earth’s beginnings” nearly four and half billion years ago. Zalasiewicz’s isotopic tales of ancient continents and explanations of how geologists have learned to unravel such complex geochemical matrices are just as gripping as his detailed accounts of the pebble’s eventful history. For example, Neodymium isotopes tell when the stuff that makes up the pebble was released from the Earth's mantle.

Among the intertwined topics showing the complex processes that lead to a small pebble we follow the formation of ancient continents. Runoff from these provides the sediment that made the pebble’s slate was derived. When this sediment was deposited in ancient oceans it included hydrocarbons formed from buried organic matter. Biology is a surprisingly powerful part of the story. It turns out that Jan’s pebble contains fossils of graptolites, animals that date the rock with fine precision. There is even lichenometry, a method by which the stubbornly slow,steady growth of lichen gives us clues about how long its rock-host has had a surface for its growth. Such events leave traces that can now be dated from isotopic methods. This allows Zalasiewicz to tell not only us a story of various aged components of the pebble but also how we know this. This is not a story on faith, but one of scientific method and the resulting understanding. Unlike religious mysteries these are painstakingly uncovered. And each part encodes and reveals a different part of commensurate fabric. Truly a wonderful experience and a lesson in knowing.

Note, the title is a bit of a take on William Blake rhapsody about the possibility of seeing “ a world in a grain of sand." Where Blake was poetic and a bit mystical in Auguries of Innocence Zalasiewicz is being more like the Newton that Blake feared and seeing the beauty of a rainbow that is not decreased by natural understanding, but is heightened. I wish that more of our thought leaders would take on such a project and educate the public in the honest possibilities After John McPhee’s works it is one of the most accessible works on geology that can be enjoyed by a layman.