Sunday, 12 June 2011

My Own Personal Deepity

As I've explained on the blog before, a deepity (coined by philosopher Dan Dennett) is a statement that is true in the trivial sense, but profoundly wrong in its implication. The classic example being "love is a four letter word" which of course is true but profoundly wrong about the nature of love.

My wife recently reminded me of a deepity I had said many years ago, not quite so obvious as the love example, but still absurd in retrospect. My deepity?
Everyone is shallow.
Not quite so poetic nor bearing a superficial profundity, but nonetheless a clumsy attempt at saying something insightful that borders on the meaningless.

What I meant by the statement was that everyone has things they look for in a partner; that some people go for particular looks or personality traits seemed to me no different than someone who preferred a great conversationalist or someone with the same interests or political views.

I really couldn't see what made mate choice on looks any more or less desirable than mate choice on personality or political attitudes or whatever else people use. The view I was arguing against, in retrospect, was not to defend aesthetically-attracted people but to deflate what I saw as some sort of inherent superiority from the notion of being able to look beyond looks.

My redefinition of shallow put me very much in deepity territory; the underlying truism that we all have standards and desires in mate choice doesn't mean that there's no problem in being shallow in the proper use of the word. Whether or not being shallow is a good thing shouldn't be settled by such trivial statements. The best that could be said for it is that it might get people to think in a different way, but really adds nothing in terms of understanding the problem it was trying to shed light on.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Holy Books And Science

It's common to see believers claim that holy books contained truths that only modern science has discovered - presumably as a way to claim divine intervention because the knowledge would be blind to the ancient authors.

It's a bad argument for a number of reasons - mainly that it doesn't actually show divine authorship (see Shermer's last law). But one general criticism would be that people are reading into it what fits; I've heard a number of interpretations of Genesis in line with modern scientific findings.

Isn't it convenient that one can find the evolution of eyes in Genesis 1, or the evolution of colour vision in relation to fruit-eating in Genesis chapter 3! Neither Genesis 1 nor Genesis 3 explicitly nor implicitly state either claim, but as a metaphor it works nicely. I still remember the first time I read Genesis 1 thinking it was a very fuzzy description of the evolutionary process.

What seems apparent is that we're reading into these books what makes sense to us, always happening after scientific findings but never making any specific predictions themselves. Why didn't people derive from the bible that revelation about fruit on our evolution? Why didn't the evolution of eyes in context to the Cambrian explosion come out of Genesis? Where is the Big Bang theory in Genesis?

That we can fit symbolism with our empirical understanding doesn't show much at all beyond our capacity to weave narratives. What would be impressive is if these holy books were used as research paradigms, whereby experiment and observation were derived from an understanding of the works, and we learnt new things about the universe through the success of experiment and observation. But the holy books aren't science texts, they are mythic narratives. Hence it is much easier to say the narrative fits with the data than it is to predict data from the narrative.

We are in the scientific age, after all, and the fruits of science as an epistemology is there for all to see. So for a holy book to sit with modern knowledge should be befitting of the all-powerful all-knowing creator, so the retrofitting of divinely-given knowledge with science seems a mere formality. One other thing it allows some to do, it seems, is since X must have been divine authorship then the entire holy book is divine authorship and reject the science that outright contradicts their holy book. I've heard creationists bring up the bible predicting jet streams in order to bolster their creationist position. Jet streams!

In a discussion, such claims have the added bonus of adding confusion. I wouldn't know for the most part what's in The Bible or the Koran, whether or not the Koran gets it right on embryology is something that would be lost to me. While I don't doubt the sincerity of the person making the argument, it's a red herring to even go down this path. Whatever the Bible or Koran say, or any other holy book for that matter, as books of science I can only take them seriously when they're used as research paradigms that yield new information about the universe. Retrofitting existing knowledge just isn't the same...

Friday, 10 June 2011

Richard & Me

Expelled as a documentary was a failure in so many ways. It failed in terms of being an informative documentary - seen through by almost every critic who viewed it as bad propaganda; it failed in terms of being an entertaining documentary - it was quite frankly boring; and at the end of it there wasn't even a coherent message to the picture. Some people got Expelled or something, and big bad atheists like Hector Avalos are glad that they're playing a role in it - and something about a holocaust.

When I watched it, I tried taking notes but gave up after about 45 minutes when they started talking about the origin of life. I should have known from the interviews Ben Stein did where he complained about evolution not being able to explain gravity. Seriously! Not to mention the interviews with John Lennox and Alister McGrath talking about Dawkins atheism; then the grand finale interview where Stein asked Dawkins about what gods he didn't believe in. Like I said, one huge incoherent mess.

But to be fair, I think the film could have taken inspiration from Michael Moore and delivered what would have been a far more interesting film. Richard Dawkins won't appear in creationist documentaries, so the entire movie could have been about trying to get an interview with Dawkins while showing the moral and social demise of America.

It's not hard to picture the film. Start with pictures of America's glory - show the prosperity and community spirit that accompanies 1950s fantasies, then show the impact that the 1960s brought, overladen with explanations about the focus on American scientific education once Sputnik launched.

Next, have someone other than Ben Stein interview those high school teachers who have lost their jobs for teaching creationism in the classroom. Have parents complain about how their children have been lost to the world of sex and drugs, while showing the popular song by The Bloodhound Gang "The Bad Touch" and singing "you and me baby ain't nothing but mammals so let's do it like they do on the discovery channel."
And surely someone could follow the personal lives of students as they struggled against the evil dogmatic evolutionist teaching, showing the discussions in high school between students over the issues, and taking it to a discussion with the parents and church peer group. For dramatic effect, even include a scene of a child praying in school and being kicked out of class.

But all the way through, there's clips of Dawkins joking about Creationism and God. And the central theme of the movie would be to try to get that elusive interview with Dawkins, so he could answer for the harm done to American society by evolutionary theory. The climax would be having the narrator ask Dawkins a question in the Q&A about the decline of True America and if he even cared about all those people affected by the teaching of evolution.

Blatant propaganda? Yes. But it would be better than the faux intellectual propaganda of Expelled. It would have a more central message, and one that people would take home - about the plight of Christian America. Better still it would humanise the issue, something that was sorely lacking from Expelled. Overall I think it would make for something much more enjoyable, and something that would have gotten the message out a lot better. If one is going to make a Moore-style documentary, as Expelled seemed to attempt at times, then capture what Moore does well. You can propagandise while still making a good film out of it!