December 30, 2010

How Much Economic Inequality Can the American People Endure?

A New Year's Resolution for the Rich by Sam Harris

This article reminds me of when the US economy almost collapsed in 2009.  Many conservatives said:  "Let it collapse, no bailouts. It will only make the US stronger."  I can only conclude they were either ignorant of or could care less about the social consequences the ensuing 30% or higher unemployment rate would have had.

Had we let it collapse, robbery, mugging, burglary and other crimes commited by the those who would have been most severely affected would have increased proportionate to increased unemployment.  Wealthy conservatives, turning to their most favored responses to such social upheavals, would have called for more police, harsher laws, longer jail sentences, more prisons, more prayer, more secure gated communities, more residential security systems, more personal handguns.  These responses would not have been sufficient for a national catastrophe of this magnitude.  Had the economy collapsed and these measures been implemented, "freedom" would have disappeared from the land of the free and the home of the brave.  A police state of marshall law would have become the American norm, at least until law and order were restored and the economy recovered, if it ever did.  One can easily imagine under such circumstances our new reassuring national slogan becoming:  In God, Money and Force We Trust.  Not exactly the American dream or dream of America most of us have in mind....

More troubling is the fact that the societal impact of skyrocketing crime following such an economic collapse does not take into account the short and long-term economic and psychological damage that would have been done to millions of families and children; and the further hardening of the "political ideology and culture wars" that have already frayed and degraded the fabric of American society.

We might be able to dig ourselves out from the national debt caused by the bailouts and other government spending on the economy but I have my doubts our society and culture would ever recover or become as great as before had the government done nothing.  "Just how much inequality can free people endure?," Harris asks.  I am grateful the Obama administration acted to avert such a national crisis and chose not to find out the answer to this question.  Here are some excerpts from Harris' article on what more can be done to address economic inequality in America:

"We now live in a country in which the bottom 40 percent (120 million people) owns just 0.3 percent of the wealth. Data of this kind make one feel that one is participating in a vast psychological experiment: Just how much inequality can free people endure?"
"There is not a person on earth who chose his genome, or the country of his birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress.  ...  And yet devotees of self-reliance rail against those who would receive entitlements of various sorts - health care, education, etc. - while feeling unselfconsciously entitled to their relative good fortune. Yes, we must encourage people to work to the best of their abilities and discourage free riders wherever we can--but it seems only decent at this moment to admit how much luck is required to succeed at anything in this life. Those who have been especially lucky--the smart, well-connected, and rich--should count their blessings, and then share some of these blessings with the rest of society."

December 24, 2010

Let There Be Light - Cheaply, in Every African House

African Huts Far From the Grid Glow With Renewable Power - "Small" Men and Women in Africa are Bucking Government, Costly Power Grids and International "Developers" to Meet their Green Energy Needs

"Thanks to this $80 solar panel made in China, Sara Ruto in rural Kenya no longer takes a three-hour taxi ride to a town with electricity to recharge her cellphone."  Photo:  Ed Ou/The New York Times

"The United Nations estimates that 1.5 billion people across the globe still live without electricity, including 85 percent of Kenyans, and that three billion still cook and heat with primitive fuels like wood or charcoal."
"Even United Nations programs and United States government funds that promote climate-friendly energy in developing countries hew to large projects like giant wind farms or industrial-scale solar plants that feed into the grid. A $300 million solar project is much easier to finance and monitor than 10 million home-scale solar systems in mud huts spread across a continent.
"As a result, money does not flow to the poorest areas. Of the $162 billion invested in renewable energy last year, according to the United Nations, experts estimate that $44 billion was spent in China, India and Brazil collectively, and $7.5 billion in the many poorer countries.
"Only 6 to 7 percent of solar panels are manufactured to produce electricity that does not feed into the grid; that includes systems like Ms. Ruto’s and solar panels that light American parking lots and football stadiums."
"What has most surprised some experts in the field is the recent emergence of a true market in Africa for home-scale renewable energy and for appliances that consume less energy. As the cost of reliable equipment decreases, families have proved ever more willing to buy it by selling a goat or borrowing money from a relative overseas, for example.
"The explosion of cellphone use in rural Africa has been an enormous motivating factor. Because rural regions of many African countries lack banks, the cellphone has been embraced as a tool for commercial transactions as well as personal communications, adding an incentive to electrify for the sake of recharging."

"This Christmas, for perhaps the first time ever, Britain is a majority non-religious nation."

Religion: Respecting the Minority

December 23, 2010

Is 'Intelligent Design' a Credible Scientific Theory?

UPDATE:  Origin of the Specious by A. C. Grayling, New Humanist, September/October 2008. 

The court's answer:  Trial of the (New) Century: Kitzmiller v. Dover (5 years later) by Andrew Zak Williams, Skeptic, December 22, 2010.

December 21, 2010

Important Building Blocks for Life Present on Earth 2.8 Billion Years Ago

One-Fourth of DNA Born by 2.8 Billion Years Ago

"About 27 percent of all gene families that exist today were born between 3.3 billion and 2.8 billion years ago, two researchers from MIT reported online Dec. 19 in Nature. The surge of gene births — which the scientists have dubbed the Archean expansion — predate some important changes in Earth’s early chemistry, including the appearance of large amounts of oxygen in the atmosphere....

"Genes for shuttling electrons burst onto the scene about 3.3 billion years ago, the researchers calculate. Those genes, known as electron-transport genes, are important for such processes as photosynthesis and respiration. By increasing the energy efficiency of some early life forms, these genes may have enabled populations to thrive.

"Genes for using oxygen appeared at the tail of the genetic expansion around 2.8 billion years ago, long before oxygen began accumulating in the atmosphere around 2.5 billion years ago. The team also found evidence for the birth of genes for processing nitrogen and for using iron, molybdenum, copper and other elements."

Origin of Life Chicken-and-Egg Problem Solved
A Theory of Evolution for Evolution
The Complexity of Evolution
Newly discovered gene shed light on the evolution of life on Earth

December 20, 2010

Recent Govt. of Sudan Comments Encouraging for the South, Not for the North

Islamic Sudan Envisioned if South Secedes

“If South Sudan secedes, we will change the Constitution, and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity (in the North). ... Shariah and Islam will be the main source for the Constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language.”
                                                                               - Omar Hassan al-Bashir, President of Sudan

NCP official admits likelihood of South Sudan’s secession, downplays its economic impact

"Meanwhile, President Omer Hassan Al-Bashir has said that the north would only recognize the referendum outcome if it genuinely reflected the will of southern Sudanese.
"Al-Bashir made these remarks during a meeting held on Thursday in Khartoum with a delegation of the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC).
"According to the state minister for foreign affairs, Kamal Hassan Ali, President Al-Bashir assured the AUPSC delegation that the government in the north would cooperate with southern officials to sustain stability and shore up social and economic ties if the south decided to secede."

Other good signs for the South...

Sudan parties, civil society groups discuss referendum code of conduct
South Sudan welcomes Obama push for conduct of referendum
Mubarak, Qaddafi to visit Sudan for talks with Al-Bashir after Obama letters
Biden reminds Sudan U.S. sees on-time vote as vital December 24, 2010

New Evidence That Meteorites May Have Seeded Life On Earth

Life Ingredients Found in Superhot Meteorites—A First

Islam, Christianity and Politics in Nigeria

Clashes Pit Muslims Against Christians - Underlying Issues are Political and Economic BBC 12/28/2010
Religious Clashes Flare in Central Nigeria NY Times 12/26/2010
Northern Nigeria:  Background to Conflict  International Crisis Group (ICG) 12/20/2010

Based in Brussels, the ICG is an independent, non-profit, international non-governmental organization "committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict."  Its reports are objective, thorough and useful for understanding the full range of issues behind potential and actual conflict.  See the above link for the full report.  From the email notification of this new report:

“While some in the West panic at what they see as growing Islamic radicalism in the region, the roots of the problem are more complex and lie in Nigeria’s history and contemporary politics”, says Titi Ajayi, Crisis Group’s West Africa Fellow.
Many common factors fuel conflicts across Nigeria: in particular, the political manipulation of religion and ethnicity and disputes between supposed local groups and “settlers” over distribution of public resources. The failure of the state to assure public order, contribute to dispute settlement and implement post-conflict peace building measures also plays a role, as does economic decline and unemployment. As elsewhere in the country, the far north – the twelve states that apply Sharia (Islamic law) – suffers from a potent mix of economic malaise and contentious, community-based distribution of public resources.
But there is also a specifically northern element. A thread of rejectionist thinking runs through northern Nigerian history, according to which collaboration with secular authorities is illegitimate. While calls for an “Islamic state” in Nigeria should not be taken too seriously, despite media hyperbole, they do demonstrate that many in the far north express political and social dissatisfaction through greater adherence to Islam and increasingly look to the religious canon for solutions to multiple problems in their lives.
On the positive side, much local conflict prevention and resolution does occur, and the region has historically shown much capacity for peaceful co-existence between its ethnic and religious communities. Generally speaking, for a vast region beset with social and economic problems, the absence of widespread conflict is as notable as the pockets of violence.
The starting point for addressing the conflicts must be a better understanding of the historical, cultural and other contexts in which they take place. The region has experienced recurrent violence, particularly since the early 1980s. These are the product of several complex and inter-locking factors, including a volatile mix of historical grievances, political manipulation and ethnic and religious rivalries.
“Northern Nigeria is little understood by those in the south, still less by the international community, where too often, it is viewed as part of bigger rivalries in a putative West-Islam divide”, says EJ Hogendoorn, Crisis Group’s Acting Africa Program Director. “Still, the overall situation needs to be taken seriously. If it were to deteriorate significantly, especially along Christian-Muslim lines, it could have grave repercussions for national cohesion in the build-up to national elections in 2011”.

December 18, 2010

Development in Africa and Global Climate Change

Africa Needs Aid, Not Flawed Theories - Bill Gates vs. Matt Ridley and William Easterly

"Development in Africa is difficult to achieve, but I am optimistic that it will accelerate. Science will come up with vaccines for AIDS and malaria, and the "top-down" approach to aid criticized by Mr. Ridley (and by the economist William Easterly) will fund the delivery of these life-saving drugs." - B. Gates

December 17, 2010

December 13, 2010

Africa & US Policy: Sudan Govt. Assures US It Will Protect Southerners - What Will We Do If It Doesn't?

Recent State Department Visit to Sudan

Scott Gration , US Special Envoy to Sudan, says the US will keep a "strong eye" on the Sudan government's reaction to the January referendum.  On his recent trip to Sudan Gration received "assurances" from the GOS that they are "working very hard to ensure the people will be protected, especially Southerners...."

I hope GOS means it, but you never really know.  Too often, regrettably, the US takes other governments at their word in such matters.  Many governments know we will go away and not bother them if they tell us they will not harm their people or sign documents to that effect.  Many citizens of these countries have told me privately they can't believe how gullible the US government is - "Well, they said they wouldn't attack, that they would protect their people!  They signed a treaty, an accord, a convention!"  The reality is, the GOS could give any number of reasons for a preemptive strike in the run-up to the voting, during the balloting or afterwards primarily on the pretext that the voting had been tampered with internally or by outsiders and therefore was not valid.

I'm hoping for the best but am very worried that violence will ensue during or after the voting, instigated by the GOS.  There is just too much at stake, especially vast oil reserves in the South, for the GOS to stand by and let the South secede.  Tension and conflict between the GOS and the southern Sudanese have been going on since the 1600s.  More recently, civil war has ravaged the country for all but ten of the fifty years between 1955-2005 at the cost of 2 million southern Sudanese deaths and 4 million internally displaced persons in the South.

December 7, 2010

Reducing Rural Poverty Among the Poorest of the Poor

From the Introduction....

Between 2006 and 2008, international food prices doubled. The effects of the price surge reverberated globally, though the worst hit were low-income, food-deficit countries with meagre stocks. In total, about 100 million poor rural and urban people were pushed into the ranks of the world’s hungry. While international food prices have declined since mid-2008, they are still substantially higher than prior to the price surge, and they are likely to remain at 2010 levels or higher for the next decade. To date, much of the production response to higher prices has come from rich countries. Looking to the future, however, it is calculated that feeding a global population of just over 9 billion in 2050 will require a 70 per cent increase in global food production, while ensuring food security for all will demand that issues of access and affordability are also addressed. This will require that agriculture – particularly smallholder agriculture – play a much more effective role in these countries, and that greater and more effective efforts are made to address the concerns of poor rural people as food buyers.
The population of the developing world is still more rural than urban: some 3.1 billion people, or 55 per cent of the total population, live in rural areas. However between 2020 and 2025, the total rural population will peak and then start to decline, and the developing world’s urban population will overtake its rural population. In Latin America and the Caribbean, and in East and South East Asia, the number of rural people is already in decline. Elsewhere, the growth of rural populations is slowing. Numbers will start to decline around 2025 in the Middle East and North Africa and in South and Central Asia, and around 2045 in sub-Saharan Africa.
Despite massive progress in reducing poverty in some parts of the world over the past couple of decades – notably in East Asia – there are still about 1.4 billion people living on less than US$1.25 a day, and close to 1 billion people suffering from hunger.  At least 70 per cent of the world’s very poor people are rural, and a large proportion of the poor and hungry are children and young people. Neither of these facts is likely to change in the immediate future, despite widespread urbanization and demographic changes in all regions. South Asia, with the greatest number of poor rural people, and sub-Saharan Africa, with the highest incidence of rural poverty, are the regions worst affected by poverty and hunger. Levels of poverty vary considerably however, not just across regions and countries, but also within countries.
In order to broaden the opportunities for rural poverty reduction and economic growth, there is need for a broad approach to rural growth and emphasis on the larger rural non-farm economy.  A focus on these two areas – smallholder agriculture and the rural non-farm economy – requires particular attention to, and increasing investment in, four issues:

Africa & US Policy: Is the US Ready if the Government of Sudan Attacks the South?

The real questions are:  Is the Government of Sudan ready?  Will it accept a southern Sudanese vote for secession?  GOS is already marshaling troops and military hardware along what will be the border between the two new countries if the vote succeeds.

There is a lot of oil in the south.  How badly does the GOS want it?  Badly enough to declare the voting fraudulent and "interfered with by 'outsiders'" thereby justifying a military push into the south and a backing out of its commitment?  I think so but hope not.

If the GOS acts aggressively against the south will the US, the African Union or the broader international community intervene?  Probably, through the UN.  China is Sudan's largest "trading" partner (oil for money and consumer goods) but would not likely involve itself if the international community acted against GOS aggression.  There would likely be cries of anti-Islamism if the GOS was confronted on its "soverign" territory, especially if the US took the lead in the counter-offensive.

I've interviewed hundreds of southern Sudanese refugee resettlement applicants in neighboring countries in the Greater Horn.  The killing, torture, terror, displacement and destruction of their families, communities and ways of life by GOS soldiers has been horrifying, and more so when told in the first person by those who have experienced it.

December 5, 2010

The New Ten Commandments - A Humble Secular Suggestion

An Examination of the Original Ten Commandments
The New Ten Commandments

Plus four more suggested by Richard Dawkins (2006:298-300)*:

(11) Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else) and leave others to enjoy theirs in private whatever their inclinations, which are none of your business.
(12) Do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of sex, race or (as far as possible) species.
(13) Do not indoctrinate your children.  Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you.
(14) Value the future on a timescale longer than your own.

* - The God Delusion (2006) by Richard Dawkins

Charter for Compassion

Living Up To Expectations: Religion, Evolution And Compassion
Charter for Compassion

If the Universe Could Talk, What Might It Say?

The State of the Universe Address

November 29, 2010

Africa & US Policy - Ethiopia on the Frontline of a "Clash of Civilizations"?

UPDATE - ETHIOPIA: Government arrests hundreds of opposition supporters March 20, 2011

Here is what the US State Department says about the current government of Ethiopia treatment of political opponents:

"In June 2008, former CUD vice-chairman Birtukan Mideksa was elected the party chairman of the new Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party at its inaugural session in Addis Ababa. In October 2008 the Ethiopian Government arrested over 100 Oromo leaders, accusing some of being members of the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). At the end of December 2008, after detaining Birtukan several times briefly during the month, the government re-arrested her, saying that she had violated the conditions of her pardon (she was one of the prominent opposition leaders pardoned by the government in the summer of 2007). Her original sentence of life imprisonment was reinstated and she remained in prison until she was pardoned and released on October 6, 2010.

"In April 2009 the Ethiopian Government arrested 40 individuals, mostly Amhara military or ex-military members allegedly affiliated with Ginbot 7, an external opposition party, for their suspected involvement in a terrorist assassination plot of government leaders. This party was founded in May 2008 in the United States by Berhanu Nega, one of the opposition leaders in the 2005 elections, and advocates for change in the government "by any means." In August 2009, the Federal High Court found 13 of the defendants guilty in absentia and one not guilty in absentia. In November 2009, the court found another 27 guilty.

"In simultaneous national and regional parliamentary elections in May 2010, the ruling EPRDF received approximately 70 percent of total votes cast but won more than 99 percent of all legislative seats in the country. Election Day was peaceful as 93 percent of registered voters cast ballots, but independent observation of the vote was severely limited. Only European Union and African Union observers were permitted, and they were restricted to the capital and barred from proximity to polling places. Although those few independent observers allowed access to the process did not question the EPRDF victory, there was ample evidence that unsavory government tactics -- including intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters -- influenced the extent of the victory.

"Overall, the 2010 elections were not up to international standards because the environment conducive to free and fair elections was not in place. The EPRDF used the advantages of incumbency to restrict political space for opposition candidates and activists. At the local level, thousands of opposition activists complained of EPRDF sponsored mistreatment ranging from harassment in submitting candidacy forms to beatings by local militia members – and complained further that there was no non-EPRDF dominated forum to which to present those complaints."

Yet here is State's description of the US relationship with Ethiopia:

"Total U.S. Government assistance, including food aid, between 1999 and 2009 was $4.7 billion. The U.S. Government provided $862 million in assistance in FY 2009, $345 million of it for combating HIV/AIDS. In addition, the U.S. Government donated more than $374 million in food assistance in 2009 to help the government cope with a severe drought.

"Today, Ethiopia is an important regional security partner of the United States. U.S. development assistance to Ethiopia is focused on reducing famine vulnerability, hunger, and poverty and emphasizes economic, governance, and social sector policy reforms. Some military training funds, including training in such issues as the laws of war and observance of human rights, also are provided but are explicitly limited to non-lethal assistance and training."

Not a single mention of any concerns about the heavy hand of the Government of Ethiopia in keeping political opposition in jail and quiet....

Original Post:  Why Are We (the US) Supporting Repression in Ethiopia? by William Easterly and Laura Freschi

Short answer:  US efforts to support and maintain political stability and maximize the US's influence in the Great Horn sub-region trump the Ethiopian government's persecution of its own people when distributing or withholding the aid the US and international donors provide.  The US gives the Ethiopians aid to keep the government strong and the populace from revolting, and to keep Ethiopia relatively stable in an otherwise unstable sub-region.  At the same time, the US chastises the government of Ethiopia for its treatment of its political opposition.  The Ethiopian government accepts being chastised without too much protestation, keeps getting aid and the US has absolved itself of supporting a corrupt and repressive regime.  The US sees itself as working for the long-term greater good of the sub-region at the expense of the short-term good of the Ethiopian people.

November 28, 2010

The Case For Human Evolution, Science and Reason - A Reading List

Since I began studying physical and cultural anthropology nearly forty years ago, I have been asked the following question many times:  Why do you accept evolution as an explanation of Life, and that humans originated and evolved on Earth?

The short answer is the similarities between humans and many other animals in particular, and all other life forms on Earth in general, are obvious.  Similarities, broadly speaking, imply similar origins.  If plants and animals are of the Earth, and humans have very much in common with these life forms, then humans are of the Earth as well.  All Life relies on Earth's food, water and air.  All Life grows, reproduces, dies.  Life and Earth are inseparable.  Humans and other animals are inseparable.  Humans are of the Earth.

My earliest inkling that I was very similar to certain other animals occurred in early childhood, especially in Fairbanks, Alaska from 1954-59.  Although I had not learned the terms or specifics, I could understand the general concepts.  Simply by looking and comparing I saw many physical and behavioral similarities between myself and most of the animals, especially mammals, I encountered:  head, body, limb structure; five-digit hands (paws); bilateral symmetry (left and right sides along a center line); male-female differences; the five senses; warm bloodedness; ability to "think"; the experience of pain; dreaming; eating, drinking, sleeping; parenting; play; learning; illness, disease; birth and death.  I did not know at the time why such similarities existed but the observable facts compelled me to intuitively feel connected to Earth and its other life forms.

November 17, 2010

Bigotry, Beliefs and Values - The Stakes Are High, The Way Forward Difficult

Some have accused me of bigotry following my post of October 29th, Obama Is Intelligent, Well-Educated, Caring - Save Us From Him, Say Republicans and Tea Partiers.  In that post I repeatedly pointed out that I was certain that not all persons who consider themselves to be conservative, Republican, white and Christian support all the beliefs and values of these respective groups, all the time.  Despite my efforts not to stereotype all members of these groups there were some who read my post and took my comments very personally, and nevertheless believe I think all people in these groups possess all the beliefs and values of these groups.

In my post I took issue with the core values and beliefs of these groups, not those of every individual member, as they are currently expressed politically.  Again, I did not say that all conservative, white, Christian, Republicans have the same beliefs and values.  However, I remain convinced that there is enough in the core beliefs and values of these groups to make a strong case for viewing their ongoing political efforts as a desire to return America to a previous era when these groups enjoyed relatively uncontested power and near exclusive privileges.

Incidentally, when I asked a friend if he thought I had hit a nerve with some people, he said, "Not at all, Jim.  You smashed the s___ out of their nerves with a sledge hammer!"  Ouch.  I was not attacking persons or their nerves.  It was their groups' core values, beliefs and motivations I sought to criticize.

As for the accusation that I am a bigot, it seems to me that may not be correct.  Wikipedia, my quick and evermore widely respected source for definitions, says that a bigot is someone who is "obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices, especially one exhibiting intolerance, irrationality, and animosity toward those of differing beliefs. The predominant usage in modern American English refers to persons hostile to those of differing race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, various mental disorders, or religion."

"What’s So Great About Christianity" by Dinesh D’Souza – A Review

What's So Great About Kant?  A Critique of Dinesh D'Souza's Attack on Reason by Michael Dahlen, Skeptic, August 17, 2011

Everyone has an understanding of what the world is and how it works, and what human beings are and should do in the scheme of things. These understandings vary in content, scope and accuracy.  All such understandings should be respected.  However, not all understandings, worldviews or points of view are worthy of reverence.  All are not truthful or valid for describing the realities of life on Earth or man’s place in the universe.  All do not provide good guidance for individual and group behavior.  One need not accept all others’ perspectives on life as equally valuable.  Some are less truthful, are harmful to individuals and humankind and should be opposed.  Such is Dinesh D’Souza’s view of the universe, life, Earth and humankind as presented in his book, What’s So Great About Christianity.

At first glance the book appears to be a treatise in defense of Christianity under attack from atheism, secularism and science.  There is more to the book than this.  Essentially, D’Souza’s book is about what he believes to be the natural intellectual and moral depravity of the human individual and humankind.  He has no respect for or confidence in human empirical investigation, experience and knowledge regarding the most human of matters – human nature and humankind’s place in the biosphere and universe.  For him humans are incapable of understanding their nature and natural history.  They are insufficiently endowed to develop a moral belief system.  They are incapable of guiding and controlling their behavior on Earth or in the universe without supernatural intervention.

November 15, 2010

"W's" Book, "Decision Points" - A Companion Reader

Republican, Independent or Democrat; Conservative, Moderate or Liberal - Read This Brief Reality Check Regarding Bush's Reflections on His Foreign Policies

George W. Bush's foreign polices really were that bad.  Worse still, they will continue for some time to do harm to other nations and the biosphere, and lower America's ability to influence and lead world affairs.

For more free-thinking regarding American foreign policy, see my previous posts:

The Delusions of American Foreign Policy
Re-Writing the "Four Bs" of American Foreign Policy?
The Overseas Plans of Our Diplomats and Soldiers - Transparency in Government

A New Human Species?

November 4, 2010

First Ugandan Mutwa (formerly Pygmy) Receives Bachelor's Degree

Uganda's First Batwa Pygmy Graduate

In article, UG Forest Guide Kanyabikingi, a Mutwa: "There is no life for us inside or outside the forest. We can neither live in our original habitat nor are we allowed to have our own land."

For those interested here's a great book on the relationship between Bantu-speaking peoples and the Twa-speaking peoples they encountered during the Bantu migration (Diaspora) from West-Central Africa into the Congo rain forest:  The Pygmies Were Our Compass: Bantu and Batwa in the History of West Central Africa, Early Times to c. 1900 C.E.

November 3, 2010

Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue - A Book Review

Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (2001) by Paul Woodruff, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas.

Here is the crux of the book:  Reverence is a virtue characterized by respect for all who are kind and just, including the strong and the weak, the intelligent and the ignorant.  It is a feeling of awe toward powers greater than ourselves.  It is a capacity for empathy and humility.  Reverence can be taught and learned, and strengthened through repeated acts of reverence.  It is essential to personal and societal well-being.  It need not be, but can be, religious.  It should be grown.

Other reviewers have commented that the book could and should have been condensed into article form.  I agree.  For example, the author repeats his thesis and main points too often and the examples from ancient Greek mythology and Chinese philosophy are tedious.  But, the Greek and Chinese examples have value if you are like me, less than well-versed in these areas.  Examples from a wider range of cultures and civilizations would have made the reading less tedious and given greater weight to the points the author makes.

This book was recommended to me by an old friend who lives in Oregon.  I read it hoping to find answers to the following questions:  What exactly is “reverence?”  What happened to “reverence” that has left it in need of renewal?  Why is it important to renew "reverence?"  What will happen if/when we do or do not renew it?  How do we renew it?  Here are some of the author's answers....

Reverence Defined
  • “Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control – God, truth, justice, nature, even death.” (pg. 3)

Two Physicists Examine the Basis for Belief

"The Physics of Atheism", A review of Victor Stenger's book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning:  Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us by Andrew Zak Williams, eSkeptic, June 15, 2011

“There is nothing in the realm of human knowledge that requires anything supernatural, anything beyond matter, to describe our observations. I am almost one hundred percent certain that the God of Abraham worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims doesn’t exist. This God supposedly plays such an important role in the universe that there should be evidence that he exists.  ...   I won’t live to see it but someday religion will disappear from the face of the Earth. It has to. It is too evil and too absurd." - Victor Stenger


NOTE:  Source of above artwork unknown.  Copied from eSkeptic November 3, 2010.  Art theme see: The Blind Men And The Elephant, a poem by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

"Realism and Religion - A Physicist Examines the Basis for Belief", an article in eSkeptic, November 3, 2010, by Milton Rothman

"(W)hen events are governed by idealistic (as opposed to realistic) theories, they invariably turn out to be mental constructs involving unreal entities and forces such as psychic energy, spiritual energy, an incorporeal “mind,” “vibrations,” antigravity, the ether, supernatural beings, and the like. Whoever claims the reality of imaginary and nonexistent things is operating in an idealistic framework. His idea or belief takes precedence over the existence (or non-existence) of physical evidence.

"In view of these observations it appears to me that those innately skeptical toward claims of the paranormal operate from a realistic philosophy, while those who tend to believe in the paranormal use a reference frame that is idealistic in nature. This dichotomy generally characterizes the distinction between normal and paranormal, skeptic and believer."

October 29, 2010

Africa Needs A New Map - Maybe, But Not This One....

"Africa Needs A New Map" by G. Pascal Zachary

The author of this recent article in Foreign Policy magazine is either misinformed about the human geography and ethnic composition, complexity and fluidity of modern African societies, or is failing to seriously consider the implications of his call for a re-drawing of Africa's map along ethnic lines, or both.  Citing what is likely to be a successful referendum by the southern Sudanese to create their own ideologically defined nation-state in the southern half of Sudan, Zachary illogically goes further and advocates pursuing divisions in other African nations along ethnic lines:

"Countries could finally be framed around the de facto geography of ethnic groups. The new states could use their local languages rather than favoring another ethnicity's or colonial power's tongue. Rebel secessionist movements would all but disappear, and democracy could flourish more easily when based upon policies, rather than simple identity politics. On top of that, new states based on ethnic lines would by default be smaller, more compact, and more manageable for governments on a continent with a history of state weakness."

The 53 nations of Africa contain over 2,000 ethno-linguistic groups accounting for a total population of over 800 million people.  To redraw the map of Africa in a manner that places this large number of ethno-linguistic groups into distinct nations based on ethnic affinity is an absurd suggestion given the physical dispersion, social mobility and inter-ethnic marriage of Africans within and between their current nations, and the various long-standing political alliances and shared ideologies that transcend ethnicity and in some cases, nationality.  Even if this monumental problem was somehow surmounted, careful scrutiny of the linguistic and cultural diversity on the continent would require the creation of as many as 500 new African countries - a mind-numbing idea to contemplate if there ever was one.  Imagine a ribbon of a country spanning the entire breadth of the Sahel, from Senegal to Sudan, with the predominantly nomadic Fulani or Taureg as its empowered ethnic group!

Obama Is Intelligent, Well-Educated, Caring - "Save Us From Him!" Say Republicans and Tea Partyers

Republicanism as Religion by Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Beast, September 12, 2011

'Centrism':  The Cult That is Destroying America by Paul Krugman, The New York Times, Opinion Pages, July 26, 2011

"Think about what’s happening right now (regarding the matter of the debt ceiling). We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating — offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

"So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent — because news reports always do that. And we have influential pundits calling out for a new centrist party, a new centrist president, to get us away from the evils of partisanship.

"The reality, of course, is that we already have a centrist president — actually a moderate conservative president. Once again, health reform — his only major change to government — was modeled on Republican plans, indeed plans coming from the Heritage Foundation. And everything else — including the wrongheaded emphasis on austerity in the face of high unemployment — is according to the conservative playbook.

"What all this means is that there is no penalty for extremism...."

What Are They Really Up To?

What?! The New York Times Attacks President Obama For Being Smart, Thoughtful - A Commentary

Here's the Times article:  In Writings of Obama, A Philosophy Is Unearthed

American Political Conservatives, Tea Partyers, Republicans - Madness!  Okay.  Okay.  I accept that there are some sane, reasonable people in each of these groups.  But it is extremely clear by their words and actions that the vast majority have a view of America that has not changed much from the white, Christian, heterosexual dominated ethos that they and their parents basked and flourished in during and subsequent to the World War II afterglow of the late 1940s and 1950s.  A society where people of color were seldom in the news unless they were associated with a problem, and never appeared as actors in television programs or commercial advertisements until the late 1960s.  (Sorry.  The show business success of Sammy Davis, Jr. is not enough to negate this generality.)

For most of our history brown, red and yellow people have too often been portrayed as the enemy in the minds, literature and movies of the cultural core of white, Christian, heterosexual America.  Though they will deny it in the most vehement terms, I am convinced by their words and actions over the past half-century that not all but a majority of white, politically conservative, Christian, heterosexual Americans, who are currently members of or support the Republican Party and Tea Party, also cling tightly and bitterly to an ethos of white privilege.  As such, they are opposed to free-thinking liberalism, progressive reason- and science-based thinking, and government action on behalf of all Americans, especially those who are impoverished or un-empowered.  They see it as a zero sum game where the winner retains their privilege, not a compromise movement toward a social progress of greater inclusion.

October 25, 2010

Trick-or-Treat! - Buying Certain Halloween Candies Helps Exploit African Children

Halloween Candy and Child Slavery: Another Hidden Danger

Ivory Coast in West Africa is the world's largest producer of cocoa, the major ingredient in chocolate.  It's neighbor, Ghana, is also a major producer.  Cocoa producers in Ivory Coast especially are well-documented for exploiting adult and child labor in the industry.  Fortunately, the governments of Ivory Coast and Ghana have made efforts to address forced or indentured child labor and trafficking - with more success in Ghana than Cote d’Ivoire.

Also, some chocolate producers such as Cadbury, Mars, Nestlé and Kraft have made efforts to comply with fair trade laws.  However, "Hershey, the largest U.S. chocolate company, has been singled out by fair-trade activists (Raising The Bar) who criticize its lack of transparency about where it sources its cocoa and its failure to shift to independent certification of its cocoa."

What Can You Do?

You can help educate the public and force chocolate producers to comply with international conventions on fair labor.  One way to do this is Reverse Trick-or-Treating.

"Imagine—you open the door on Halloween, and some pint-size Dracula (or is it Edward these days?) hands you a piece of chocolate. Amazing, right?

"Of course, there’s a catch. Or, not really a catch, but a serious side that will kill that sugar buzz: some of the cocoa used by major American chocolate companies could be a product of forced child labor.

"Reverse trick-or-treating was launched four years ago by the organization Global Exchange with the goal of pressuring the major chocolate producers in the United States—such as Hershey and Nestlé—to adhere to fair trade practices. Children who take part in the campaign hand out Fair Trade-certified chocolates, along with an information sheet about the problem."

Finally, here is a BBC article that provides startling insight into the effect of the cocoa industry in West Africa on African children:

AIDS in Africa - New Explicit Books for Ugandan Youth Help Lower HIV Rate

New Children's Books Help Lower Ugandan HIV Rate

"When a lion enters your village, you must raise the alarm loudly."
Yoweri Museveni
President of Uganda

October 19, 2010

One Middle Eastern Worldview From 2000BP For All, For All Time? - We Can And Must Do Better

Dispatches from the Evolution Wars:  Shifting Tactics and Expanding Battlefields
Following "creation science" or "scientific creationism" in the 1970s and "intelligent design" in the 1990s, the current creationist assault on science and reason attempts to discredit evolutionary biology by misrepresenting evolution as controversial.

This linked article by the National Center for Science Education is an excellent primer on what's going on and what can be done to counter creationists' efforts at undermining science, especially the teaching of evolution, science's incontrovertible paradigm for understanding the natural history of life on Earth.

Belief based on faith vs. knowledge based on scientific evidence?  Really?  It amazes and saddens me how so many, especially in the US, can so passionately insist on accepting Abrahamic creationism as a complete explanation of life on earth, and do so despite a preponderance of evidence provided by the fossil record and studies of comparative anatomy and physiology supporting a more plausible and simple understanding - evolutionary biology.

I am beginning to understand and agree with those who think and worry that the greatest threat to the future of our species and planet is posed by those wielding power, and their followers, who passionately believe and make decisions based on faith, not evidence and reason.

October 13, 2010

The Delusions of American Foreign Policy

Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan by Derek Leebaert - A Review
"....a persuasive alarm bell about the dangers inherent in our repeated attempts to put things right in countries we don't really understand and cannot control..."  W. Post reviewer Robert G. Kaiser

The Foreign Legion - Ever Thought About Running Away and Joining?

The Hard Truth About the Foreign Legion
Think again....

October 12, 2010

Earth's Senior Population Is Increasing - So What?

Think Again: Global Aging
"It's true that the world's population overall will increase by roughly one-third over the next 40 years, from 6.9 to 9.1 billion, according to the U.N. Population Division. But this will be a very different kind of population growth than ever before -- driven not by birth rates, which have plummeted around the world, but primarily by an increase in the number of elderly people. Indeed, the global population of children under 5 is expected to fall by 49 million as of midcentury, while the number of people over 60 will grow by 1.2 billion. How did the world grow so gray, so quickly?"

This article answers this question and re-examines some myths and conventional wisdom about population aging:

Aging is a "rich-country" problem.  No.
The West is doomed by demographics.  Maybe.
The U.S. baby boom has saved it from an old-age crisis.  For now.
Old people will just work longer.  But only if older workers are healthy.
An elderly world will be more peaceful.  Not necessarily.
A gray world will be a poorer world.  Only if we do nothing.

What should be done about the economic impact of global declining birthrates, elders living longer?  The author of this article, Phillip Longman, a fellow at the New America Foundation, senior fellow at the Washington Monthly and author of The Empty Cradlesays:

"The trick will be restoring what, in the days of family-owned farms and small businesses, was once true: that babies are an asset rather than a burden. Imagine a society in which parents get to keep more of the human capital they form by investing in their children. Imagine a society in which the family is no longer just a consumer unit, but a productive enterprise. The society that figures out how to restore the economic foundation of the family will own the future. The alternative is poor and gray indeed."

The question which no-one has yet answered is, says the author:  How do we get to this solution?

Life Is A Brief Time In Light

Life is a brief time in light,
Emerging from darkness.
Work, and grow love and virtue.
At end of light, successful or not,
Surrender, return to dark,
Gently, happy, grateful.

October 10, 2010

A Synthesis of Science and Religion - Is One Needed? Is One Possible?

Two Magesteria? No, We Need Just One
This blog post by Stuart A. Kauffman, author of Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion (2008), states his case for the need of a synthesis of science and religion wherein the sacredness of nature and natural processes in the cosmos are given reverence.  Kauffman thinks "we can choose to evolve our sense of God from the Creator Agent God of Abrahamic theistic faith, to a sense of God as the natural creativity in the universe;" that "we need to give up our belief in a supernatural Creator Agent God and live with the fully natural creativity of the universe as a newly evolved sense of God, awesome, and invited to stewardship;" that "we need one Magesterium, a new sense of God to live our full human lives far beyond knowing, in (the) Face of Mystery with a sense of the sacred restored, a shareable sense of values we can find, and a world of diverse civilizations to foster.

Kauffman's focus on emergence, agency, and natural selection, from the origins of the cosmos to economics and other social spheres as processes worthy of sanctity, is compelling.

I think Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris, the vanguard of the so-called "new" atheists, would not disagree with Kauffman on much of the above, though they would probably balk at the anthropomorphism of Kauffman's new sense of God being "invited to stewardship."

October 5, 2010

♫ He ain't heavy (brow-ridged), he's my brother. ♫

The Downside of Sex with Neanderthals
Neanderthals Live on in DNA of Humans
Neanderthals' Demise Caused by Modern Human Invasion
Neanderthals:  Needles and Skins Gave Us the Edge on Our Kissing Cousins
Neanderthals May Have Feasted on Meat and Two Veg Diet
Scientists Unralve Neanderthal Genome

Photograph: Nikola Solic/Reuters/Corbis

Photograph: Chris Howes/Alamy                    Photograph: Jochen Tack/Ala

A Better Understanding of Homo sapiens neanderthalensis
Artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis crafted this re-creation of a Neanderthal woman whose subspecies roamed Eurasia for almost 200,000 years.

Artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis crafted this re-creation of a Neanderthal woman
whose subspecies roamed Eurasia for almost 200,000 years. 
 (Joe Mcnally/Getty Images)

Africa & US Policy: New "Partnership" Still Includes Leading Africans by the Nose

Secretary Clinton Addresses our Ambassadors to Africa
Old ways of thinking die hard.  Despite Secretary of State Clinton's language choice in describing our government's interactions with the Government of Kenya - "kept hammering on them, we kept calling them" and her description of our diplomatic initiatives vis a vis the Government of Sudan - "a full court press," I like our government's current approach to Africa. This bit of self-congratulatory back patting is expected, I suppose, in a speech from the SOS to our ambassadors to Africa.  But I think it patronizingly and unfairly portrays these particular African leaders as unreasonable, stubborn and stupid when it does not mention their points of view or the complex circumstances that make them think the way they do.  That is, without the US pressing them they don't know what to do and would not do the right things.  The unspoken message is "Thank goodness for the US to keep these Africans on the right course."  If we believe they are ideologically or humanistically in the wrong, we should say so and describe how they are.  Overall, though, I think our State Department approach to Africa under the Obama administration is much, much better than it has ever been.  I wonder if Clinton would have used such word/phrase choices had she been talking about how we interact with the British, Germans or French?  I think not.

Cultural Evolution, Phase II - Establishing A Unified Worldview

UPDATE:  Recent UN Actions Show Policy Shift, Analysts Say

The recent UN intervention "in Ivory Coast action showed the extent to which the United Nations’ legal and moral commitment to protect civilians now held sway over key permanent Security Council members, including France, Britain and the United States. Diplomats noted that even Russia and China, which in the past have avoided interfering in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations, were persuaded to support the resolution on the Ivory Coast and also did not veto military action in Libya."

Sam Harris on The Daily Show
This link and the book it promotes inspire me and give me hope.  I think we are on the verge of the second most significant event in our species' evolutionary history.  The first event was our commitment to and reliance upon "culture," what I call our First Fundamental Adaptation to the extremely difficult daily and seasonal challenges of the biosphere.  This sounds like a wisdom-driven choice made by our ancient human ancestors.  It really wasn't a choice.  It was rather an adaptive response born of necessity.  To do otherwise would most likely have meant death and extinction.

Our ancestors' use of culture was initially facilitated by their preadaptive primate sociality and their use of stone hand tools.  At some point, earlier or later, their use of culture and its content was made more adaptive, to a wider range of circumstances and environments, by the emergence of high- or rich-content symbolic language.  This happened to a degree that a distinctive "human" culture emerged that was different only in degree from the non-human culture of other "higher" animals.  That is, the "degree" to which it allowed our ancestors a deeper, more subtle and nuanced form of communication, and the relative degree to which they could survive in and, in fact, dominate their environment.

Culture allowed our human-like ancestors, primates with comparatively unremarkable anatomical traits (small canine teeth and weak muscles relative to those of other predator and prey animals), to survive as individuals and groups in an extremely arduous African environment millions of years ago.  This is not an unproven theory or belief.  It is a scientific understanding of our prehistoric past based on fossils and other demonstrable, incontrovertible evidence.

The Origins of Kindness

Thirst for Fairness May Have Helped Us Survive, The New York Times, SCIENCE, July 4, 2011
Survival of the Kindest:  The Evolution of Sympathy, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 2011
Welcome, Stranger, The Evolution of Generosity, The Economist, July 30, 2011
Evolution of Human Generosity, Science Daily, July 25, 2011

Cartoon by Tony Auth

Do we need religion to be ethical? by Thomas Plante, Psychology Today, March 27, 2011;  Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed by Martin A. Nowak with Roger Highfield - Book Review by Oren Harmon, The New York Times, Sunday Book Review, April 8, 2011

The Evolution of Nice

As for human altruism it seems to me there are at least two facets.  First is the degree to which one feels concerned or unhappy over the suffering or danger of another, ranging from none to extremely.  Some care deeply about a wide range of dangers to their fellow humans, others care some while others could care less.  I for one am greatly saddened, even sickened at the sight of human beings physically fighting, street fighting, especially for the one who is being badly beaten by the other.  Others relish such grotesque spectacles and care not, and in some cases seem to enjoy, what the beaten person is suffering.

The second factor is if, and to what degree, the first party would risk his well-being in acting in response to his/her concerns or unhappiness over the harm or danger to another.  Some would face great danger to assist another, other some danger and still others would take no risk at all.  I learned in the Nairobi embassy bombing of 1998 that if I felt I could help someone leave with me while at the same time successfully escape a freshly bombed building, I would do it.  Would I throw myself on a grenade in a foxhole to save my buddies?  I really don't know. Maybe not.  Would I do it for my family?  I think so.  Some would, others wouldn't.

Whether or not a person engages in an act of altruism depends on how dire the circumstances of the other are, how much those circumstances impact the thoughts and emotions of the observer, and whether the degree to which the observer is willing to risk being harmed.

Might there have arisen in human evolutionary history, and still exist, "selective values" for individuals who take risks to assist others in need, especially those in their own group?  I think so.  Those who die for others in their group may have reproduced beforehand or for some unrelated reason bore no progeny thereafter.  Therefore the legacy of altruism is not biological, however, it is cultural.  This legacy is memic, not genetic.  Are there any legacies of such behavior from the past in the human genome?  Maybe.  But to know for certain would require incontrovertible evidence of altruism-producing genetic, physiological and developmental entities and processes.  Are we likely to one day possess such evidence?  I doubt it but I don't really know.  I think human altruism is primarily of a psychological and cultural nature, not biological.  I remain considerably more swayed by arguments for the cultural evolutionary emergence and retention of altruism than I am by arguments that it is contained in and thereby inherited in our genetic makeup.

Suggested Reading:

The Science of Compassion by David DeSteno, The New York Times, Sunday Review - The Opinion Pages, July 14, 2012
Kindness is Adaptive - Practice It
And you thought it was a dog eat dog world and getting worse all the time. Actually, in the long term, it's survival of the kindest and most compassionate....
The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness (2010) by Oren Harman
"For Goodness Sake"
Nice Guys Finish First by David Brooks, The New York Times, OPINION, May 16, 2011
Are We Really Nicer Than Vampire Bats?, The New York Times, OPINION, Comments on "Nice Guys Finish First by David Brooks, May 19, 2011
The Social Animal:  The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement by David Brooks, reviewed by psychotherapist Gary Greenberg, The Nation, June 6, 2011
The Pathological Altruist Gives Till It Hurts by Natalie Angier, The New York Times, Science, October 3, 2011.  See also:
Killing With Kindness by John Derbyshsire, The American Conservative, July 21, 2011, a review of What's Wrong With Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment by David Stove, 2011
New Study Finds First Links Between Genes And Moral Judgments, Georgetown University, October 5, 2011
Make or Break? Social Networking Tames Cheats, The Economist, The Evolution of Co-operation, November 19, 2011

October 4, 2010

Spinoza's God

Recently finished reading Blesséd Spinoza: A Biography of the Philosopher (1932) by Lewis Browne, a marvelously detailed classic account of the Jewish-Portuguese-Dutch philosopher, Baruch (blesséd) de Spinoza (1632-1677).  This is my second book about Spinoza, the first being The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World (2006) by Matthew Stewart.  The Essential Spinoza:  ETHICS and Related Writings (2006) edited by Michael L Morgan is an excellent rendering, with commentary, of the philosopher's major works.

Thank God (Spinoza's God) there was a Spinoza to help begin lifting the smothering spell of the Abrahamic religions, and help open the way for the emergence of reason, empirical science and natural history as honorable, fact-based belief systems.  I'm reminded of Einstein's response when he was asked if he believed in God.  He said:  "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings." (Upon being asked if he believed in God by Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of the Institutional Synagogue, New York, April 24, 1921, Einstein: The Life and Times, Ronald W. Clark, Page 502.)

Browne describes Spinoza's philosophy with particular reference to God or Nature as follows:

"Spinoza's God is the elemental Substance, the stuff and essence of all that exists.  ...  According to Spinoza, the universe is all essentially of one piece, and the things we see in and around ourselves are all related.  To call some of them things of the Spirit (or Thought), and others, things of matter (or Extension), is to point out a purely superficial distinction between them.  At bottom the thinking world, the mechanical world, and perhaps other such worlds of which our minds cannot conceive, are all really aspects of one world.  Fundamentally all things, whether men or trees or stones or dreams, are but part of a single homogeneous reality.  And this reality Spinoza called God.  He might have called it Nature; and he did at times.  ... 

Life Beyond Earth?

Planet Gliese 481 g
The link article quotes UC Santa Clara astrophysicist Steven Vogt's as saying he is "100 percent sure" there is life on this planet. I think this statement was taken out of context.  Can't find where Vogt says this in UC Santa Clara's site explaining the discovery -  He does say:  "Our findings offer a very compelling case for a potentially habitable planet." 

September 28, 2010

Learning from Experience

If you do what you did,
you will get what you got.

If you get what you got,
you will feel what you felt.

If you feel what you felt,
you will think what you thought.

If you think what you thought,
you will do what you did.

- Anonymous (provided by Peter, first couplet by Einstein)

September 23, 2010

Belief, Science, Survival

UPDATE, April 6, 2011
The following is my reply to a number of constructively critical comments made in response to my September 23, 2010 blog post "Belief, Science, Survival" (original post and comments are below) by my good friend and published author Craig M. White.  To understand the background behind what follows, you are invited to look at this brief post and the comments that follow by Craig, another friend, Kevin Graham, and me.

I have known Craig for many years, having worked with him in Washington and in Africa in the US Refugee Resettlement Program.  I have the greatest respect for Craig’s scholarship, and his views regarding human affairs and the “bigger questions” of Life.  Rather than reply as a comment to a string of Craig’s posts, I am making a new post so that Craig’s, Kevin’s and my views might be shared more widely and thereby bring more of you into the discussion.  The issues Craig and I are discussing – the nature of “truth” and evidence, responding to the complexities of our Universe and Life, the need or lack of need for a creator God – are not wasteful mental wheel-spinning.  They are questions that are at the core of each of our very being.  We all think about them quite often, fleetingly or in incomplete snatches.  Yet rarely do we have, find or take time to give them serious consideration or sort out exactly what it is we believe in or accept as truth.  Reading the original post, its comments and the following is an opportunity to do so.

There are no right or wrong answers to the questions we raise.  There is, however, one future ahead of Humankind.  The course we take to that future will depend on what we accept as truth and what actions we take as individuals, nations and as a species based on that truth.  It is likely that the world’s powerful and wealthy will lead us.  But we, each of us, now and into the future, can influence where Humankind ends up.  Join us in trying to influence what direction we shall take.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Thank you, Craig, for your kind and incisive comments on my blog post "Belief, Science, Survival."  I very much agree with you, comprehending and accepting scientific accounts of cosmological and evolutionary time and events is not easy.  Within the scientific truth regarding our Universe there are huge gaps in our knowledge, great possibility for error, and significant on-going scientific debate and revision.  One obviously must somehow address these and other shortcomings of science and secularism before committing to such a truth.  Rather than respond to each point in your comments, most of which I have already addressed or referred to in the writings of others elsewhere in my blog,1 let me address the major aspects of scientific knowledge you draw attention to and claim have serious shortcomings.  Shortcomings you believe make science no more convincing than the absolute truth of the Abrahamic religions, namely Christianity.

Our Universe is dynamic.  Genetic mutation, variation, agency and emergence as they have appeared in the Life of our biosphere add to the complexity of this dynamism.  As long as the Universe and Life remain in process, scientific knowledge about objects and processes must remain provisional.  As you know, this tentative truth is comprised of descriptions and explanations arrived at through observation, experiment and other methods that have produced a huge body of credible knowledge that continues to withstand repeated challenges.  Contrary to your assertion, that which is unknown to science (the gaps and subjects still being debated) does not detract from what is known and make it less credible.

Science does not claim to possess total, perfect, final or absolute truth about anything.  In fact, some of that which is currently unknown about our Universe and Earth and its Life is regarded by science as possible or probable postulates based on credible truths provisionally in hand.  Scientific truth, therefore, is a combination of the provisionally known, postulates about certain unknowns (the gaps, what existed before the Big Bang, etc.), and complete ignorance about all the rest.  Odd, you say, science admits that that which is completely unknown and having no postulates is part of its truth.  Yes.  This “rest” of the unknown has yet to undergo scientific investigation, testing and postulation.  Regarding the unknown, consequently, science does not default to inferences about a supernatural creator God who purportedly understands and controls all.  It prudently submits to scrutiny that which it knows for the time being, rationally postulates about the unknown based on what is known, and leaves the rest for later.  That a truth is incomplete does not make it false or necessarily unacceptable.

Archive for "Being Human"