In Association with

Who am I?

You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

Blogs I read

Recent posts

Directories on this blog



Thu, 30 Dec 2004

I don't know why I let it get to me. But the arguments of creationists just aggravate me so much whenever I see them that I feel compelled to post about it. This morning's aggravation was a result of coming across a link to a pointed criticism of an article by Phyllis Schlafly, where she starts off with "The most censored speech in the United States today is not flag-burning, pornography or the press. The worst censors are those who prohibit classroom criticism of the theory of evolution." The article is infuriating on many levels, but fortunately, the criticism addresses most of the outright falsehoods.

In the comments section of that post, somebody posted a link to this thread commenting on an article by Gary North, explaining that Christians should assert their majority status, and withdraw their children from any school that teaches evolution. The comments on that thread are similarly scary.

What scares me about it is that, first of all, I seem to be in a minority position. The majority of people in this country, according to a poll I saw, either believe in creationism outright, or are unsure of the evidence between evolution and creationism. I'm not sure I want to live in a country that chooses religion over science.

Secondly, I am horrified that the majority of this country apparently can not distinguish between pseudo-science and science. They accept what authorities tell them, and so they think that everybody must do the same thing; it's just a matter of choosing which experts to believe. They choose creationists, and others choose evolutionists, and it's just a matter of faith which you believe in. They think that evolutionists believe in evolution because a few scientists said so. They don't appear to understand the concept of peer review, that while evolution is a theory (as is all science - gravity is a theory too, but try jumping off a cliff to argue with that one), it is a theory consistent with the vast preponderance of evidence that has been found.

Creationists like to point out holes in evolution, saying that "Oh, well, it didn't explain this one thing, so the whole thing must be wrong." This betrays a total lack of understanding of science. A theory which explains everything, with no exceptions, does not exist. The entire history of science is a continual evolution of ideas, where theories are tried, exceptions are found, new theories are thought up that both explain the original data and the new exceptions, etc. Newton's laws morphing into relativity are a good example.

However, it seems like the creationists believe that a theory that doesn't explain everything is worthless. I feel that this is only because their alternative is something that explains everything: God. God is an easy answer. Of course God explains everything. But I feel that it's also a totally useless answer in this context. Creationism doesn't give us any insight into how our world works, any thoughts on how we can make our lives better.

Another frustrating thing is that several of the criticisms I read this morning basically say that "Creationism is believed by the majority of this country; therefore it should be taught in schools." Science by democracy. It's unbelievable. Do these people think that the physical world is swayed by what people think? If that were true, the earth would still be flat, and at the center of the universe. But it's not. Scientists like Copernicus figured that out, despite the vast majority of the people thinking they were wrong.

Scientists have to challenge the norm. If they didn't, there would never be any progress. Challenging the status quo is one of the greatest, most honorable things to do in science. All scientists dream of finding an exception, a chink in the best current explanation, because an exception is also an opportunity, a chance to do new science. It is most certainly not a reason to throw the explanation away, as the creationists would have us do. Heck, one of the reasons I dropped out of particle physics was that it looked like most of the work for the next couple decades is going to be theory-checking; the Standard Model is good enough at this point that it explains things out beyond where we can test and verify them.

The other thing that drives me bonkers about the comments I see from creationists in these threads is that they believe that their lack of imagination means that something isn't possible. Some of them at least concede that small changes are possible, on the order of moths changing color, or beaks changing size and shape, which is good because those are well-documented in our time. But then they say ridiculous things like "All changes lead to inevitable breakdowns of the system" (which starts by assuming that the systems are perfectly functioning to begin with), and "Well, we can see small changes, but the evolution of major changes is impossible" (meaning I can't imagine it). They don't have any conception of how natural selection works over hundreds of generations. The power of combinatorics and large numbers can lead to extraordinary changes.

One of the standard objections is the evolution of the eye. This is used by the creationists because Darwin himself says:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.

Creationists use that quote triumphantly, and say "Even Darwin doesn't believe that evolution can make anything complex!" Of course, if you continue to read, as I just did with the power of Google, he says:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case. No doubt many organs exist of which we do not know the transitional grades, more especially if we look to much-isolated species, around which, according to the theory, there has been much extinction. (emphasis added)

Of course, quoting out of context, and using selective reading, is just par for the course for most religionists.

Oh, and the reason I bring up the evolution of the eye is that I read about an experiment where two scientists set up a computer simulation that allowed for natural selection in an optical system (overview here). It started with a patch of light-sensitive cells, that could determine light or dark. It modified it at each step with relatively small mutations. And then it let the system evolve. At each stage, the system which could perceive an image best was "selected" and used as the basis for new mutations. In only 2000 steps, it had evolved from a flat patch that could only tell light from dark, into an eye cavity with a lens looking remarkably similar to what vertebrates have. They estimate it could have happened in about 400,000 generations or so.

This isn't proof, by any means. But it shows that even something as complex as the eye, which looks like it must have been designed, can evolve from very simple starting conditions. Because it is better. And natural selection favors good design. If it helps organisms survive, it gets selected. Lots of little changes, accumulated over thousands and thousands of generations, can add up to huge changes. It's a mind-blowing concept. And utterly inspiring to me, because it says that little changes can have an effect, in time.

Which is interesting, actually. Because now we've come across a weird congruence between religion and science. Religious folks believe that every little act matters, because God is watching, and "...whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." Whereas I believe that little things matter because they can add up to big things, as demonstrated by evolution, or the butterfly effect in chaos theory. I'm not sure what to make of this congruence. Maybe it's coincidence. More probably, it's just a consequence of each person's search to believe that their life matters, when most of the time, it doesn't. So we like believing in fairy tales or anything which might give our life significance.

Anyway. I just had to rant for a while. Creationism does that to me. Science by democracy is bogus. Science by fiat is, too. Pseudo-science, where they use scientific terms but fail to embrace the scientific method, is infuriating. This country is quickly heading down a path towards the Dark Ages, not because we are turning our back on God and morality, as some would have you believe, but because we are turning our back on science and reason and the Enlightenment, which helped us make more extraordinary achievements in the last hundred years than were made in all of previously recorded history. We who believe in science must fight for it as vigorously and energetically as those who are fighting for their God of ignorance and deceit and children's tales. I don't know how to make this happen yet. Or where it's going to happen. But the battles lines are being drawn. And we need to have our weapons ready when it comes. Weapons of intellect, hope and propaganda. Because clearly reason isn't enough. Okay, now I'm depressing myself, so I'll stop here.

posted at: 09:58 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/religion | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 02 Mar 2004

The Passion of the Christ
I went to see Mel Gibson's new film The Passion of the Christ over the weekend, mostly because I want to see anything that engenders this much controversy so that I can form my own opinion. Plus, the Christ story ("For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.") is one of the most powerful stories ever told, a fact that is obvious due to its resonance two millenia later. I wanted to see what Gibson did with the story. Unfortunately, I was disappointed on many levels.

Let's start with the violence. Gibson wanted to show the violence in excruciating detail, so that we would understand the tremendous suffering that Christ endured for our sins. But it backfired, at least with me. He took violence to such an extreme level that I had to turn off my capacity for empathy or I wouldn't have been able to continue watching. I actually felt the same way as I did when watching Kill Bill: cold and distant. And it wasn't just the violence; violence, when presented in a cartoonish way such as in an action film, is okay with me. Realistic violence in the service of the story can even work; Reservoir Dogs was incredibly violent, but it served the story by externalizing the inner brutality of the thieves. I didn't feel that the violence served the story here; I felt it _was_ the story (and the fact that most of the reviews dwell on it only reinforces that).

Part of my problem with the torture scenes was the total dehumanization of the Roman centurions. They are portrayed as horrifically cruel sadistic beasts. No redeeming qualities whatsoever. No explanation of why they would want to torture Jesus. Just shaven-headed thugs grinning as they cover themselves in his blood. I think Gibson was trying to demonstrate man's inhumanity to man here, but I deal very poorly with cruelty. One of the only movies I was ever unable to watch was Welcome to the Dollhouse. I rented it, watched about 15 minutes and had to turn it off, because the cruelty of the other kids was so extreme that it was just painful to watch. That's what I felt like during the torture scenes.

In fact, everybody in the movie seemed dehumanized, lacking in true human motivation. They existed only to move the story forward towards an inevitable denouement. I think it would have been more interesting for everybody involved to be more human with appropriate motivations, rather than pieces being moved around a cosmic chessboard to achieve the result of crucifixion. Stories are interesting not for their details, but for their insight into how we think and what we believe. Stories without human motivations aren't stories at all; they're merely recitations of facts. The one human character in the film was Pontius Pilate, who at least got a line explaining that if the province were to descend into bloodshed again, he would suffer the consequences.

And what's incredible to me was that Jesus was not given any such humanizing characteristics. He was portrayed as utterly perfect. Never a doubt. Never a question. Infinitely forgiving. To me, that devalues the whole point of Jesus. Jesus was a man first, and God second. Man is fallible. Man has doubts. Man sins. That's why he needs redemption. To make Jesus a perfect man is to make him not a man at all. How can Jesus serve as a role model when nobody can aspire to be perfect? One of the only things I remember about the Last Temptation of Christ (which I saw only once over ten years ago, but want to see again now) was how Jesus doubted whether he could carry the burden. He was scared. He didn't want to go through with it. But he fought through and conquered his fears and his doubts, and shouted "It is accomplished!", a moment which still gives me the shivers when I think about it.

That's what makes men great: facing your fears, pushing through your doubts, and still accomplishing great things. We lionize those who bravely face the unknown. Those who are flawed and persevere to achieve great things are honored even more. Perfection is not greatness. Perfection is starting out with all the advantages. Perfection is not taking any chances. Perfection is a terrible model for humanity, because it implies if you're not born perfect, you might as well not even try. Being born imperfect and recognizing your imperfections and learning to overcome them; that is a model we can and should aspire to.

As is obvious, I was extremely disappointed by the movie. The Passion is a tremendous story. I really liked what Scorsese did in the Last Temptation of Christ, helped along by a fantastic score by Peter Gabriel (the soundtrack Passion is one of my favorite albums to this day; in fact, Peter Gabriel should sue whoever scored Gibson's film because they clearly had listened to his score and stolen many elements from it). Gibson could have done so much more to make the story come to life. I sang St. Matthew's Passion by Bach when I was at Stanford, and despite being purely auditory, it resonates more strongly with me than Gibson's movie. During the scene where Pilate gives the mob a choice between Barabbas and Jesus, instead of the mob shouting that Gibson showed, I was hearing the beautifully dissonant chord of the chorus shouting "Barabbas!" When Pilate washes his hands, I was hearing the ironically perky and bloodthirstily enthusiastic bit where the chorus sings "Sein Blut komme uber uns und unsere Kinder!" (His blood is on us and our children!). It's generally not a good sign when memories of a piece I sang six years ago are more compelling than a visual display in front of me.

I think a really interesting version of the Passion, especially in light of my desires for more human motivations, would be one that takes a Rashomon-like approach to the Crucifixion. Follow the story from several perspectives, that of Jesus, of Pilate, of Caiaphas, of Judas, of a Roman soldier, etc. Why do they do the things they do? How did all of these factors conspire to achieve this horrible fate? Because God willed it so isn't good enough for me. I believe in free will and human motivations. Perhaps those cruel Roman soldiers had been attacked in several riots and took out their frustration and anger on Jesus. Judas selling out for silver is a true story in any age; who hasn't been tempted to take the money and run? One possible set of Pilate's motivations was covered in the movie. And what was Jesus thinking? I think these would be interesting stories to tell. I thought Gibson might tell them. Alas.

posted at: 14:51 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/religion | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 15 Nov 2003

New vs. the Old Testament
(written 11/12/03) Whee. Short post. Too much going on in life (chorus rehearsal last night, salsa class tonight). Maybe another long post tomorrow.

While I'm on the general anti-religion bashing theme, I was chatting with a friend about the people who think that the Bible is the literal word of God. The interesting bit to me is how they can reconcile the gods of the Old and New Testament. Old Testament is all "I am a vengeful God full of wrath"; New Testament is "For God so loved the world..." Plus, the Old Testament has all sorts of crazy stuff that I don't see how people can take literally; my favorite example is Genesis 19:8 where Lot tells a mob in Gomorrah that they can have his two virgin daughters and do with them what they please, if they'd just leave him alone. And Lot is the one guy God saved from Sodom. This is the approved behavior. Craziness.


My theory on the whole Old and New Testament thing is that it makes perfect sense if you treat the church as a meme, designed to perpetuate its own survival. Once you have a loving, merciful New Testament God, how do you keep the rabble in line? You've got good cop, you need bad cop. Old Testament God serves in the role of bad cop. He's angry, He's vengeful, He'll smite you down just for thinking the wrong thing. So now you have the carrot of "Jesus loves you", and the stick of "And if you don't do what He says, He will smite you down and punish you with an eternity of Hell." This makes it much easier to run crowd control.

In fact, I'm going to do a whole post at some point about rule design to perpetuate power, but not tonight.

posted at: 08:24 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/religion | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Evil cults
(written 11/10/03) This is going to be a rant. It's not a reasoned discussion, it's not an unbiased look at the facts, it's pretty much just a rant. Go with it.

It started with a friend of a friend trying to drag people to a Landmark Forum event, raving about how it had changed their life. I was skeptical, to say the least. Landmark Forum, according to skepdic, is an offshoot of est, which is itself an offshoot of Scientology. I didn't end up going to the event, because it conflicted with another obligation, but I did a little reading and thinking, and I'm mostly just recording that here.

Here's what I don't get. Why do people believe in crap like this? As far as I can tell, most of these cults (from Jesus Christ onwards) have one message: "You're a good person. You are valued. Keep on paying us, and we'll continue to value you." I can understand the need for validation, and for external approval. I crave it myself. But I don't understand why people think that such validation that comes with a price tag is worth anything. I only hope I never get that desperate.

It's a weird thing. Many of these programs, apparently including Landmark Forum, strive to break down the participants in order to build them back up. Things like refusing bathroom breaks, holding the meetings at odd hours (Landmark Forum meetings are typically at 10pm, I assume to take advantage of people being tired and slightly disoriented, and therefore more impressionable), sleep deprivation, and repetition of the core message. When you're broken down, then they can build you back up, and you'll forever be dependent on them.

But, as my friend pointed out, even skepdic admits that sometimes these programs help people. And that doesn't surprise me. After all, the placebo effect helps people about 30-50% of the time even when dealing with actual physical diseases. And I can even see how these programs could help people deal with their life better, providing a crutch to help them get on with their life.

The evil part is that, instead of teaching them to walk first with the crutch and then on their own two feet, they teach them to walk with the crutch, teach them to be dependent on the crutch, and then threaten to take the crutch away unless they pay up. That's pure unadulterated evil. I have a strong belief in the right of people to attempt to achieve their potential, and deliberately crippling people with a mental crutch like that flies in the face of all that I hold dear. Teaching people to believe in themselves is valuable. Teaching people that they hold their destiny in their own hands is wonderful. Teaching people that to achieve their destiny, they must attend the advanced course is pure poppycock.

The other thing that I thought was interesting was that this friend of a friend apparently made a comment to the effect of "I really got to reinvent myself" at a Landmark Forum event over the weekend. My immediate thought was "So is 'reinventing myself' code for 'making myself feel better about myself'?" I'm skeptical that one can "reinvent" oneself in the sense of making measurable alterations in one's behavior over the course of a weekend. One's behavior is so locked in by nature and nurture that changing anything fundamental about yourself is really really hard. Learning to accept one's limitations and working within one's behavior patterns is one thing. Changing them is another. I've spent a lot of time trying to change what I don't like about myself, and have learned there's no shortcuts. There's no easy path. It's long, it's hard, it's miserable, and sometimes it's just not worth it, and you have to just accept the way you are.

I can definitely see the appeal of somebody offering a shortcut. I'd love to become instantaneously more sociable and more comfortable around people. But it doesn't work that way. It's the equivalent of dieting. Dieting, in the end, is about eating right and exercising. There's no shortcuts. But that doesn't stop people from trying every fad diet that comes along, and paying for the right, to the tune of $40-100 billion a year in the US. I see these programs like Landmark Forum to be the mental equivalent of the diet industry. They're there to give you a temporary boost, which is doomed to fail in the long term, so that they can get you to pay more money for another go-round. And the real solution is free and available - it's just hard work.

Anyway. I think I've said what I want to say for the moment. I'm sure I'll come back to this subject over the next few days.

posted at: 08:22 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/religion | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal