Saturday, April 26, 2014

The ultimate free lunch

By Mathew Goldstein

According to the theory of cosmic inflation, our universe started from almost nothing, borrowing the required positive energy from a growing, negative energy, gravitational field as a result of the large negative pressure of the tiny, initial, inflating substance.  In a fraction of a second (less than about 10^-35 seconds) our universe doubled in size about 260 times.  Then this period of "Big Bang" inflation ended.

One of the predictions of inflation is that the cosmic microwave background radiation will contain an imprint of gravitational waves.  This is because quantum fluctuations during inflation will generate gravitational waves. To celebrate the recent discovery of the predicted cosmic microwave background B-mode polarization (and to promote his new book), Max Tegmark has placed the inflation chapter of his new book,  Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, on the internet.  This is the up to date version of the first part of the first chapter of the obsolete book commonly referred to as the bible, with inflation now assuming the role formerly attributed to God, and it is free, so take a look.  It explains why the Big Bang only makes sense if inflation is true, that inflation makes multiple predictions which have been demonstrated to be true, and the implications of inflation for cosmology (inflation is eternal, therefore we live in a multiverse).

Adam Gopnick's errors on the nature of skepticism, rationalism, and humanism

By Mathew Goldstein

The Barefoot Bum blog recently published a short article The nature of skepticism and humanism that accurately criticizes Adam Gopnick's "otherwise excellent piece, Bigger than Phil: When did faith start to fade?, on the failings of many 'Sophisticated Theologians'" for its mistaken definition of rationalism and for its "insulting" depiction of humanism that is "without foundation." Larry's explanation for how we all rely on intuition, but skeptical rationalists are more consistent in giving higher precedence to reason, and his characterization of humanists as people who dispense with transcendentalism, is very good.

Jerry Coyne similarly criticizes Adam Gopnick for being "so eager to take the middle ground that he conflates the human emotions of atheists with the delusions of religious believers—and so sees a convergence of the twain" on his Why Evolution is True blog with his more lengthy article Adam Gopnik on atheism in the New Yorker. This strained "middle ground" journalism is common, particular when the topic is atheism versus theism. One common strategy is to argue that atheists are similar to religious fundamentalists and both are wrong for the same reasons. Adam Gopnick takes a more subtle approach to arguing that atheism is deficient, but his argument is no less rooted in false stereotype and conceptual confusion.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Some Secular and Non-Secular Perspectives for Earth Day

Gary Berg-Cross

Earth Day (ED) is, as they say, a 2nd chance to the wearing of the green in Spring. It’s celebrated in many ways and not just on the 22nd.  There is a nice   spill over for working folks into the weekend with Green events. And you can find any number of Inspirational Quotes for Earth Day. A favorite for the Deist crowd might be Frank Lloyd Wright’s:

I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.

Some years ago Yahoo music has its Top 10 Earth Day Songs:

Top 10 Earth Day Songs

It’s a good list although what about Pete Seeger singing Garden Song (Inch by inch)

 Since this is a day to raise children’s consciousness there are ones just for children with some good values, if some take a religious tone about god’s creatures.

I like the Celebrate Earth Day in Images that Google provided along with its  Animated Google Doodle.

But to all of these joyful connection there are a few suffers out there since Earth Day seems too secular a holiday celebration.  The New America site had a disgruntled Bob Adelman who started out noting that, “some consider it (earth day)the most holy of secular celebrations, the culmination of more than four decades of indoctrination of the theme that it’s moral to force people to go green.
Yep, and his analysis provided this revelation for the selection of the April 22nd ED date.

Various theories are extant about why April 22 instead of March 20, including trying to set the date during spring break, avoiding true religious holidays such as Easter and Passover, while honoring green believers. One of them, conservationist (not an “environmentalist” by today’s definition) John Muir, was born the day before, 132 years earlier, on April 21, 1838.
Perhaps more conveniently, April 22, 1970 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin, the first totalitarian to inflict his own view of Earth Day onto the hapless citizens of the Soviet Union. Called a “subbotnik,” the first day of enforced cleaning of streets and public parks occurred on April 12, 1919.

Wow.  Shades of conspiracy and the very Jewish Bob Adelman commiserates with Steven Landsburg who complained that his four-year-old daughter was being subjected in public school to the indoctrination without proof. Here’s the Landsburg scree:
At the age of four, my daughter earned her second diploma. When she was two, she graduated with the highest possible honors from the Toddler Room at her nursery school in Colorado. Two years later she graduated from the preschool of the Jewish Community Center, where she matriculated on our return to New York State.
At the graduation ceremony, titled Friends of the Earth, I was lectured by four- and five-year-olds on the importance of safe energy sources, mass transportation, and recycling. The recurring mantra was "With privilege comes responsibility" as in "With the privilege of living on this planet comes the responsibility to care for it."
Of course, Thomas Jefferson thought that life on this planet was more an inalienable right than a privilege, but then he had never been to preschool.
I think I know what side of this issue the Deist-like and naturalist Jefferson would have been on. As a fiddler he’s be playing some of the songs listed above and didn’t Jefferson say this?

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands”

 Thomas Jefferson

Friday, April 18, 2014

Stirring things up with Secular Shows, Characters and Issues

By Gary Berg-Cross

Between the new Noah movie and the new Cosmos series espousing the scientific method over faith-based belief we've seen some  conservative Christians howling about the culture.  Cosmos provides a real presence of secular-scientific values and thinking infused into the culture as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson genially poo poos creationist arguments about intelligent or the Jewish testament-based, fundamentalist claim that the Earth is about 6,000 years old. 

In a recent WAPO article called ‘From ‘The Good Wife’ to ‘Cosmos,’ a good moment for atheists and scientists on TV’ Alyssa Rosenberg noted atheist (and pretty normal but strong) character Alicia Florrick (played by Julianna Margulies) standing up to her teenage daughter Grace’s  fervent conversion to Christianity. In the aftermath of the death of a major character there was this exchange as Grace pushed the idea of heaven. She got push back.

“What does that mean, Grace? He’s in heaven? With angels and clouds?” Alicia demanded when her daughter told her that Will was “with God.” ”What does it mean if there is no God? Why is that any better?” Grace asked of her mother. “It’s not better,” Alicia responded. “It’s just truer. It’s just not wishful thinking.”

As noted in Voices, when Alicia more or less “outed” herself as an atheist to a reporter last season despite the political impact, it outraged some fans. 
'One upset viewer wrote on ReligiMedia blog that many “good wives” had identified with Alicia but now found her “far less sympathetic and frankly a tad bit revolting.”'

These shows follow movies like The Ledge by atheist writer and director Matthew Chapman (see trailer) which was a recent talked-about films with an openly atheist “heroic’ character who philosophically contemplates suicide.   Such movies confront some of the easy assumptions about the religious basis for morality. Earlier I'd blogged about the movie Agora which features the last Alexandrian librarian HypatiaBTW, there’s even a Facebook page for Atheist Movies but it mostly covers books and other media.

Now there is a new movie in that vein by Baltimore-based  independent film maker and theorist Erik Kristopher Myers. His first feature film, ROULETTE, released on Thanksgiving 2013 to positive critical reviews, includes a negative portrayal of Christianity and its examination of Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice. It’s led to some outraged response from viewers, film festivals, and potential distributors alike.

Myers will be discussing the film and his attempt to dramatize a balanced examination of the cause and effect of a religious upbringing at the April 19th (2-4) WASH meeting held in the Rockville MD library.  He will talk about the personal consequences of his endeavor in the face of an industry that shies away from perceived anti-Christian commentary.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Universal Arguments...again

By Gary Berg-Cross


The Washington Post had a book review by MIT physicist  & novelist Alan Lightman (latest book is “The Accidental Universe.”) on Amir D. Aczel‘s book  “Why Science Does Not Disprove God.”  You can get a sense of the differences between these 2 thinkers from their book titles and Lightman takes Aczel to task on several topics.

One of the first is the claims about Albert Einstein's religious views. It’s been extensively discussed and Aczel selectively repeats several on Einstein early pronouncements that gesture towards a Deity using religious vocabulary:


“Subtle is the Lord, but malicious he is not” and

“I want to know God’s thoughts — the rest are details.”

I put more store in the case that Einstein channeled Spinoza pantheistic notions that identifies the god idea with nature and not a personal god seen in Jewish scripture.


"It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I feel also not able to imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere. My views are near those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly. I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem—the most important of all human problems."

From  Hoffmann, Banesh (1972). Albert Einstein Creator and Rebel. New York: New American 

Library, p. 95  cited in Wikipedia on E’s religious views see also Jammer’s, Einstein and Religion (Princeton 1999) and more recently Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster 2007).

You can see this humble rather than doctrinaire stance in later pronouncements by E preferring agnostic sounding formulations (sometimes alluding to mysteries) as he said:   

"an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”

It is always interesting to see defenders of the creator hypothesis present E’s idea without his penumbra of humbleness on the whole issue.  Having harnessed a dogmatic style Einstein Aczel, as reported by Lightman, sets out to “debunk the arguments of the New Atheists but also to gently suggest that the findings of science actually point to the existence of God.” And so we pass some arguments about weaknesses of evolutionary explanations but arrive at the more contentious point of argued in L. Krauss’s bestseller “A Universe From Nothing. Aczel is willing to follow this physical argument about quantum foam effect fluxuations producing something from nothing physical, but can ask where the quantum laws come from.


Lawrence Krauss has misused the idea of “empty space” to argue that the universe itself came out of sheer “emptiness.” But we know that the space in which pairs of particles can form is never empty, it is not a “nothing”—it always contains energy, and it always becomes permeated by lines of force representing fields (electromagnetic, gravitational, and other); and it is the energy supplied by these fields that leads to the creation of pairs of particles. The creation of such particles is therefore never “out of nothing”—it is out of a preexisting space that is filled with energy. That space, that energy, and the fields that permeate it all have to come from somewhere. But there are many problems even here that have not been addressed by this theory. [ p. 127]


The Krauss point however, going back to Einstein and pantheism, is to see natural explanations such as pre-existing nature as preferred to theo-religious ones – existence depending on a god. Such natural explanations seem not only more likely and celebrate the wonder of our natural universe. They have, if you
wish, a degree of faith in what provides the best explanation. But the detailed, empirical one seems the more logical to put growing faith in. Every day we hear of something that adds to our understanding of the history of a 13.7/13.8 billion year universe. Less frequently we confirm bigger insights such as a basis for gravity with the Higgs boson, detection of gravity waves or support for Alan Guth’s 1980 inflationary theory of the early universe period of exponential growth, what was labeled earlier the Big Bang.

The long-sought observations, taken from Antarctica, strongly support the cosmological theory of "inflation," which explains how the early universe smoothly expanded to unimaginable vastness in the first fractional second of its existence.

 There seems no comparable advance on the theological side to things as foundational and explanatory as the cosmic background radiation.


See also Forbes article on the Sci-Phil arguments that arise from an Aczel style book.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Picking Winners

By Gary Berg-Cross

A form of March Madness is leaving the bracket-littered scene, but it provides lingering thoughts about what is given emphasis and effort in our culture and the limits of knowledge and prediction.  It’s all humbling and a bit of a mirror both on our values and also human limitations.  Basketball brackets and the associated discussion are highly structured and “professional.” They are laced with expert observations, data of all kinds and statistical analysis.  There is a run up to the tournament with lots of predictions:

NOTABLE TEAMS RISING: Saint Louis, Florida

NOTABLE TEAMS FALLING: Creighton, Michigan State, Baylor

And on the day after the last regular game newspapers have special sections on all 68 contestants.  The main players on each team are discussed and strengths and weaknesses noted.  You can see a range of predictions. This year one heard of the analysis we had statistical NCAA bracket “optimization” and lots of simulations. You can read about how off or not off predictions were explained as Bracket VooDoo which is way of gesturing that things turned out a bit different than experts believed. 

Of the 11 million people who filled out a bracket on, only 1,780 predicted a Kentucky-UConn final. That’s 0.016% of entrants. It was pointed out that statistically a high school basketball player filling out a bracket on ESPN has twice as much chance of getting drafted by an NBA team (0.03%) as he would have at accurately predicting the final.  Pretty humbling. Our cognitive biases have once again beaten our critical thinking, but there are psychological strategies to consider and use next year.  In America we are optimistic (well not about climate change). 
Bracketology: Somewhere between Art and Science lies perfection

So when we turn to other, important areas of American life, like political campaigns one wonders why predictions seem so much more accurate.  It seems strange that the dynamics are simpler.  Well, of course, there aren’t 68 teams.  But still if we think of an election day there is the notion of predicting the future and winning, which every 4 years involves hundreds of different races at the national, state & local level.  The results of those contests are of much greater importance for the direction of the country than the NCAA tourney, but the culture devotes less consistent, if frustrating, effort to covering it for the citizens and our evolvement seems less focused.  Perhaps this reflects the fact that unlike basketball professionals and experts, pols and their advisors want less intellectual power devoted to help citizens figure out the contests.

So perhaps it is time for the citizenry to bone up on the process of selecting good candidates and what better way than leveraging some ideas from that big elimination contest – March Madness.  Given the disappointments with most of our March brackets we’d probably be far from the ideals of our founders, but I sure would feel better if, as a culture we tried a bit harder and smarter.  

Oh, and of course the bracket metaphor is used widely including for rating religious things as below where people get to vote for their favorite eJsus movie: