Deep Science Cuts in 2011 Budget, but Oil Subsidies Remain

Posted on 14th February 2011 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior
PEW Center on Cuts
PEW Center on Cuts

Spending cuts outlined in the Continuing Resolution (CR) bill currently top out at $74 billion, but, with the Tea Party holding Republicans to principle, it will reach $100 billion (updated cuts here). Predictably, this bill has lots of bad news for Science and Technology in America; unfortunately, it maintains the status quo on oil and gas subsidies.

The biggest cuts are to Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (-$786.3 million), the Environmental Protection Agency (-$1.6 billion), the Centers for Disease Control (-$755 million), Clean Water Funds (-$950 million), and a cut of $893.2 million to Science. It hurts, but it’s important to keep perspective. Some of these cuts are merely cancelling out the unspent portions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and we’ve been reminded from both sides of the aisle that “very hard choices” will need to be made on the deficit. A look at the above Pew poll on where American’s think spending should be increased and decreased, and we have to admire the Republican Congress for taking such a political risk.

Federal Subsidies (2002 - 2008)
Federal Subsidies (2002 – 2008)
Source: Environmental Law Institute

But the respect is tempered by the fact that, while cutting subsidies for alternative energies, Congress won’t make the truly hard choice of cutting subsidies for the entrenched Oil and Gas industry, which receives $10 billion annually in subsidies, more than five and a half times the federal subsidies for renewable energy from 2002 to 2008. Internationally, fossil fuel subsidies are 12 times greater than support for renewable energies, $46 billion compared with $557 billion in 2008. By maintaining tax subsidies that keep gas prices artificially low in the United States, the Federal government creates a distorted energy market where consumers cannot compare the true cost of fossil fuels to alternative energies.

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Net Neutrality is Free Market

Posted on 6th December 2010 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior

While I do feel the late Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens was treated a little unfairly by the webbernetting-meme-machine over his Internet as a “series of tubes” analogy, I also know that the anti-net neutrality advocate was extremely ignorant of how the Internet functions, as are almost the entirety of American politicians with their non-technical backgrounds. With the recent GOP takeover of Congress, I’ve seen numerous articles speculating on the death of Net Neutrality, but I fear it was dead no matter who controlled the government.

Allowing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to discriminate against network traffic with a tiered system would be a disaster of epic proportions for everyone who uses the Internet world wide. If you understand the architecture of the Internet, you understand that the preferential treatment of network traffic would quickly escalate beyond short-sighted offenses such as Cox Communications and Comcast blocking BitTorrent use into an arms race of ISPs undermining one another’s traffic. The elimination of Net Neutrality will quickly lead to a full-blown communications war.

What Americans and politicians don’t understand is that their personal ISP is not the only thing bringing them online services. Look at what happens when I use a visual trace tool to show the path of connections between my location and Google:

Google Trace Route
Google Trace Route

My connection to Google had to go through 19 locations and across approximately 5,821 miles. See number 11 on the map? That’s where the connection tried to go through one of Comcast’s routers, but couldn’t, and had to be redirected through another path along the network. That’s normal functioning for routers, which are dynamically calculating the best routes along the network for data packets all the time. Sometimes when I access Google the trace route will run all the way out to Europe and back to the United States to make a connection, a completely normal operation.

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Science and Geekdom at the Rally to Restore Sanity 20101030

Posted on 31st October 2010 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior

Vicky and I sat in traffic, stood in lines, rode the metro, hopped off the metro for a desperation pee-break (for me), stood in more lines, rode more metro, shuffled forward for hours in massive crowds, and mostly missed all but bits and pieces of Jon Stewarts closing speech for the Rally to Restore Sanity, but the point wasn’t to be entertained, the point was to be represented. With best estimates of 215,000 attendees, we were adding ourselves to a show of support for reasonable discourse in American politics.

Rally Stage
Rally Stage

This was a rally with strong roots in geek culture, from the initial petition calling for a rally to take place on 10/10/2010 (Powers of 10 Day) to raising half a million dollars for DonorsChoose in support of classroom projects, there was a heavy geek vibe to this movement.

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Enlightenment Tagging

Posted on 13th January 2010 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior

Awhile back, I was visiting Monument Park in Richmond Virginia, which requires crossing a very long suspension bridge running underneath the highway across a river. While crossing this bridge, I happened to look up and spot some graffiti on the underside of the freeway. It was an incredibly impressive place for someone to tag with spray-paint, requiring them to risk life and limb to reach such a precarious perch and paint their words of wisdom for everyone to enjoy a hundred or so yards above the river below:

Have U Spanke It Today? (sic)
Have U Spanke It Today? (sic)
Credit: Moi

HAVE U SPANKE IT TODAY?” Brilliant. What a profound statement. Well worth the investment of time and bravery.

While I don’t have the fortitude to risk my life spreading my own inspirational quotes, I have taken to carrying around a permanent marker and using it to tag bathrooms, street signs, and other conspicuous places with enlightening quotes:

Stephen Hawking Quote
Stephen Hawking Quote
Credit: Moi

I like to think it makes the world a little more intellectually-engaging.

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Glen Beck’s Confusion Over What Constitutes “Race” on the American Census

Posted on 8th January 2010 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior
Types of Human Race
Types of Human Race

On his radio show, Glen Beck recently objected to the term “African American being included with the terms “black” and “negro” on a census form:

African-American is a bogus, PC, made-up term. I mean, that’s not a race. Your ancestry is from Africa and now you live in America. Ok so you were brought over — either your family was brought over through the slave trade or you were born here and your family emigrated here or whatever but that is not a race.

Technically, Beck is correct in this isolated statement. “African American” is not a race, but he does not object to “black” or “negro”, appears to consider people who immigrate to America from Africa “African Americans” (contradicting the above statement), and admits he doesn’t know what to call those Americans who were kidnapped, enslaved, and treated as secondary citizens up until just 35 years ago. While coherency isn’t why people become fans of Glen Beck, he does deserve some leeway on this one. The term “race” as we apply it to classifying human beings is itself an incoherent concept (from Wikipedia):

The term race is often used in taxonomy as a synonym for subspecies, in this sense human races are said not to exist, as taxonomically all humans are classified as the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens. Many scientists have pointed out that traditional definitions of race are imprecise, arbitrary, have many exceptions, have many gradations, and that the numbers of races delineated vary according to the culture making the racial distinctions. Thus, those rejecting the notion of race typically do so on the grounds that such definitions and the categorizations which follow from them are contradicted by the results of genetic research.

“Race” in the way the American government uses it and to what Beck is objecting is purely a social construct, subjective and devoid of scientific validity. The scientific definition of a “race” is “any inbreeding group, including taxonomic subgroups such as subspecies, taxonomically subordinate to a species and superordinate to a subrace and marked by a pre-determined profile of latent factors of hereditary traits. Every human being on this planet is capable of breeding with one another; therefore, we are of the same race.

So what are Americans referring to when we checkmark “white”, “black”, “asian”, or “other” on our census and equal opportunity forms? I myself can claim to be white, Arab, Persian, or black depending on which of my hereditable traits you wish to focus on. Some critics argue that Barack Obama isn’t the first black president because he’s half white, but, because our American “race” isn’t based on genetics or ethnicity, we make it a matter of self-identification. There is nothing to prevent a white person from identifying themselves as black on a census form, and, in fact, the opposite has not been uncommon.

While we are all Americans, our government must deal with the fact that some Americans have endured centuries of oppression as a result of their skin color and ethnic origins, people who are at a severe disadvantage today from such oppression, and our society has a responsibility to make amends. There is only one human race, but our civilization has been plagued by “racists,” people who believed their “race” was different from that of other human beings, and our census forms reflect this ignorant and destructive government-sanctioned heritage, just as our Constitution will always remind us of a time when slaves counted for 3/5ths of a person.

Previously on ideonexus: The American Anthropological Association says There’s Only One Human Race.

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Plugging a Century of Climate Data into Eureqa

Posted on 7th December 2009 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior,Geeking Out

Friday I posted some links to the Cornell’s free data analysis software Eureqa. The video tutorials take a collection of data points from a swinging pendulum over time and then have the Eureqa software determine the function that best explains its wave using an evolutionary algorithm. I played with the software a bit this weekend, trying out various datasets, when I remembered the wealth of global temperature data on the World Wide Web.

With HadCRUT’s, NASA’s, UAH’s, and RSS’s data available online, I easily downloaded and imported the data into an excel spreadsheet, which made it easy to copy and paste into Eureqa. The HADCRUT data was the most thorough and extensive with over 21,000 points of data extending from 1850 to the present. It was also the most straightforward, which made it the most accessible for a non-statistician like myself. I had Eureqa search the average of the data points a through i against time for functions that best explain the relationship.

(a+b+c+d+e+f+g+h+i+j)/11 = f(t + (t2*.01))

Below are the fit functions Eureqa came up with from most fit to least. The function is at the top of each image with the result drawn over the data points below it:

Solution 01
Solution 01
Solution 02
Solution 02
Solution 03
Solution 03
Solution 04
Solution 04
Solution 05
Solution 05
Solution 06
Solution 06

Each one of these functions depicts a clear warming trend over the last 160 years of measurements that looks a whole lot like Hansen’s instrumental record of global average temperatures, inferred through software lacking any bias or preconceptions. An acceptable criticism of this data is that it only goes back to 1850; however, any climate skeptic who believes this warming trend is only a cyclical phenomenon is welcome to plug the deluge of ice core data into Eureqa and post their findings.

See Also:

New Scientist Magazine: Why there’s no sign of a climate conspiracy in hacked emails

Enlightenment Truths and Metaphysical Inaccuracies in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol

Posted on 11th October 2009 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior,Mediaphilism
Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol
Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol

I strongly disagree with avid Plotz’s commentary, Dan Brown’s Washington, which argues that the real story of Washington is in the political players, not the spiritual and philosophical history which is the focus of The Lost Symbol. Dan Brown’s power as a writer is in having his characters take an intellectual adventure, travelling down pathways of obscure knowledge and history. The Lost Symbol is at its most intriguing when the characters are just standing around reasoning, however misrepresented their facts may be at times.

Rosicrucian Metaphor for the Invisible College
Rosicrucian Metaphor for the Invisible College
“The Temple of the Rosy Cross”
Credit: Teophilus Schweighardt Constantien

If you can remember that Dan Brown writes fiction and ride along with his storytelling with a notepad and a critical eye, you can discover some very fascinating things to look for in Washington DC and the Enlightenment Era. Thanks to Brown, I discovered the Invisible College, which was the precursor to the UK’s Royal Society, a society of scientists interested in understanding the world through empirical analysis. Today, the term serves to describe any method of attaining an education without going through an official academic route, similar to attending free courses online to get the knowledge, if not the course credit. The Rosicrucians was another fascinating concept, linked to the Invisible College, another secret society that may or may not have existed, but two anonymous manifestos were attributed to the organization, Fama fraternitatis and Confessio Fraternitatis, that stirred up much intellectual debate in Europe, and may have contributed to the Enlightenment movement. One individual rumored to have written the manifestos was Francis Bacon, who’s New Atlantis, also mentioned in Brown’s book, which depicted a utopian society founded on the principles of free inquiry and scientific research.

Library of Congress, Jefferson Reading Room
Library of Congress, Jefferson Reading Room

The Lost Symbol takes place across a wonderful variety of settings right around the Washington DC mall, which would be difficult to take in over the course of a week, much less during the single night in which Brown’s book takes place. He hits most of the science imagery found in the Jefferson Reading Room, a fantastic monument to science, knowledge, and Enlightenment values. The US Botanical Gardens, National Statuary Hall, and the Kryptos Sculpture outside CIA headquarters are just a few fascinating locations in the book and they serve as just a glance at the immense amount of history packed into the nation’s capital.

Credit: CIA

Brown has a penchant for silly academic scenes where Professor Robert Langdon wows awestruck students with seemingly incredible historical facts. The Lost Symbol delivers many of these, like when students mistake the pristine Smithsonian Castle for an ancient Norman castle so the Professor can correct them. But the Smithsonian is an incredible Institution, one that requires weeks to take in just what’s on display around the National Mall. Dan Brown introduces us to the Smithsonian Museum Support Center (SMSC), described in Smithsonian Magazine as the “Nation’s Attic,” which emphasizes that what the public can access in the museums is only a tiny fraction of the Smithsonian’s total collection. However, Brown’s book is a little out of date, as the squid and coelacanth referenced in the SMSC’s “Wet Pod” are currently on display at the Sant Ocean Hall in the Smithsonian museum of Natural History, which opened September 2008.

Smithsonian Museum Support Center (SMSC)
Smithsonian Museum Support Center (SMSC)
Via Google Maps

I never suspected there was anything at the Washington National Cathedral for me, an Enlightenment scholar, to appreciate; however, I am thankful to Dan Brown for introducing me to the Space Window, honoring the Moon landing, and includes a fragment of lunar rock brought back from an American lunar mission. The cathedral also features the head of Darth Vader as one of its gargoyles, voted by children as the scariest figure to fulfill the “role of the grotesque” in the architecture.

Washington National Cathedral Space Window
Washington National Cathedral Space Window

My favorite new Washington DC discovery in The Lost Symbol is the Apotheosis of Washington, the mural gracing the inside of the Capitol Building’s dome, which depicts the Founding Fathers and other great minds of their age receiving wisdom directly from the Roman gods. Ceres sits on a McCormick mechanical reaper, bringing agricultural science to Americans, Vulcan forges cannonballs in front of a steam engine, Venus helps to lay the transatlantic telegraph cable, and Minerva is shown bringing an electrical generator, batteries, and a printing press to the great American scientists Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Morse, and Robert Fulton.

Science in the Apotheosis of Washington
Science in the Apotheosis of Washington

The problem is that all of these real-world settings and details prime us to believe other, wholly fabricated aspects of Brown’s storytelling. I unquestioningly swallowed the falsehood that the Founding Father’s originally planned to call our nation’s capital “New Rome,” because I knew they were heavily influenced by the Greek Democracy and Roman Republic; however, I have found no evidence that the FF intended this whatsoever, and must assume that it has no basis in fact1.

Brown’s protagonist, Robert Langdon, asserts at one point that Google is not research. Maybe Brown fears his readers discovering or other original sources where they can find out how he has exaggerated or misrepresented material. For instance, the way he overhypes the CIA’s Stargate Program, which experimented with remote viewing, but was cancelled without producing anything conclusive. Or the importance of the Noetic Sciences, which deals with supernatural ways of coming into knowledge, and, despite millions of books being sold on the subject, has yet to produce anything empirical. He mentions that meditating Yogis, produce a miraculous waxy substance from their pineal glands, but fails to mention this substance would be melatonin (there’s no evidence for Brown’s statement anyway). And, of course, 2012 has to make an appearance as well.

Brown ties together the facts that Isaac Newton’s temperature scale had 33 degrees (zero being freezing, 33 boiling), there are 33 Vertebrae in the human spine, and 33 degrees in the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry as proof that 33 is perceived as a powerful number in mysticism. If Dan Brown had wanted to weave the number into his storytelling a little more, he could have included Dante’s Divine Comedy (3 canticas with 33 cantos each), the number of segments in the United Nations’ symbol, and the coming of age for hobbits in the Lord of the Rings according to Wikipedia.

Where The DaVinci Code was focused on religious institutions suppressing knowledge to maintain their power, Lost Symbol focuses on ancient institutions trying to keep psychic powers out of mortal hands. Ancient societies had an awesome understanding of the universe that we modern folk are only just now beginning to discover, according to the book, and we simply aren’t ready for much of this forbidden knowledge. Everything we discover with modern physics was already written about in all the ancient texts. The Bible, for instance, contains this forbidden knowledge, but it’s hidden in the verse to prevent us from destroying ourselves with it. According to The Lost Symbol, America’s Founding Fathers were keenly aware of this:

It was here, Robert, at the very core of this young American nation, that our brightest forefathers–John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine–all warned of the profound dangers of interpreting the Bible literally. In fact, Thomas Jefferson was so convinced the Bible’s true message was hidden that he literally cut up the pages and reedited the book, attempting, in his words, ‘to do away with the artificial scaffolding and restore the genuine doctrines.’

These words are technically true, but are highly misleading for the context in which they appear in The Lost Symbol. Dan Brown is trying to make it seem as if the Founding Fathers thought there was a hidden mystical meaning in the Bible, but this was not Thomas Jefferson’s intent in crafting his own version of the Bible. Jefferson started out constructing a simplified version of the New Testament that American Indians could easily understand, but turned to extracting what he considered Jesus’ true philosophical intent from what he came to see as the morass of supernatural embellishment the evangelicals had brought into the scriptures. Thomas Paine was highly critical of the Bible, not seeing a hidden mystical meaning, but a philosophy that he found morally reprehensible.

Dan Brown, in trying to prop up Noetic Sciences, ends up perpetuating an historical urban legend instead:

Peter once compared Noetic Scientists to the early explorers who were mocked for embracing the heretical notion of a spherical earth. Almost overnight, these explorers went from fools to heroes, discovering uncharted worlds and expanding the horizons of everyone on the planet.

This is nonsense and bad history. In American public schools we are taught that Columbus’ journey to find a western route to India was all the more amazing because everyone at the time thought the Earth was flat. While this makes his story more compelling, the reality was that the Earth’s spherical nature was a well-established fact. Aristotle knew the Earth was round in the third-century BC by observing its shadow on the Moon, Alexandria philosopher Eratosthenes had estimated the size of the Earth, and the early Romans were the first to suggest the idea of a westward route to India. Columbus’ opponents knew the Earth was round; however, they believed the explorer had grossly underestimated its size. Dan Brown is himself guilty of underestimating the “wisdom of the ancients2” in not knowing that the ancients knew the Earth was round.

The problem is, if you believe the conspiracy theory that all this powerful forbidden knowledge is being obfuscated by secret societies, then the fact that original documents reveal a truth that is devoid of supernaturalism, however intriguing their philosophical debates, then the lack of evidence is merely more support for the conspiracy to hide the “truth.” It’s a catch-22: there’s no evidence of a conspiracy to hide what the conspiracy theorist wants to believe; therefore, the conspiracy theorist takes this as evidence that the knowledge is being effectively hidden3.

I do appreciate Dan Brown bringing up Albert Einstein’s concept of a “Cosmic Religion,” which was the sense of spirituality Einstein got from uncovering the workings of the natural world and was best explained in his 1930s essay in the New York Times Magazine, Religion and Science:

…the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. Only those who realize the immense efforts, and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue. What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe and what a yearning to understand, were it but a feeble reflection of the mind revealed in this world, Kepler and Newton must have had to enable them to spend years of solitary labor in disentangling the principles of celestial mechanics!

There is spirituality in this view of life, and there is hidden power to be revealed through scientific experimentation and empirical discovery. Just as “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” as Arthur C. Clarke said, Dan Brown is correct that “If our ancestors could see us today, surely they would think us gods.”

1 The only reference I could find to America and “New Rome” was as a pejorative in a commentary by Osama Bin Laden.

2 Part of the “wisdom of the ancients” Brown cites is the ingenuity of Alchemy, from which he conveniently leaves out the fact that his icon, Isaac “Jeova Sanctus Unus” Newton poisoned himself by playing with and tasting Mercury.

3 Full disclosure, I am a Discordian, so technically I am part of the conspiracy, but since organization is against the principles of Discordianism, it must purely be an emergent phenomenon.

Living Waters Ministries’ 150th Anniversary Edition of Origin of the Species

Posted on 6th October 2009 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior
Living Waters' Origin of the Species
Living Waters’
Origin of the Species

As was covered in Science Etcetera, the Living Waters Ministries has started a campaign to distribute copies of Darwin’s Origin of the Species on College Campuses, to which Ray Comfort, a critic of evolutionary theory, has added a 50 page introduction attempting to refute evolution. The link to a free PDF of the introduction appears to have gone dead. Luckily, you can still read it here through the magic of Google cache. I also downloaded a copy of the intro, which I’ve uploaded so you can download it here.

I’m actually very impressed with the ministry for taking such an innovative strategy. I would never consider distributing copies of the New Testament with an introduction arguing for the validity of Natural Selection and the modern scientific understanding of our origins in the Cosmos. I think it takes a great deal of bravery to assume the costs of printing your opponent’s most influential work, even if it is for the purposes of publishing your own criticisms in the introduction. That much I applaud.1

Unfortunately, Ray Comfort’s introduction itself is a very flawed, irrational, and misinformed work. Comfort’s rebuttal of evolution includes all the classics. There’s the watchmaker argument that the more complex an entity, the more evidence that it was engineered by a creator, which makes the Creator even more complex, begging the question of what created the Creator? There’s the chicken and egg argument, that certain organs and structures require one another to exist, and therefore could not have evolved gradually, which is an argument that relies heavily on a willful ignorance of biology and how these systems work in less complex species. There’s the god of the gaps argument, that missing links disprove evolution–an argument that works well in Creationists’ favor as every time a missing link is discovered, two more are created, but has the unfortunate side effect of squeezing god into smaller and smaller spaces as our understanding of reality expands.

This last is interesting because it questions the validity of evolution based on what it hasn’t figured out yet; however, in a defense of Creationism against the existence of vestigial organs, organs that benefited our ancestors but atrophied as we evolved out of them, Comfort argues that citing these organs as proof of evolution is unfair:

Besides, it’s not even scientifically possible to prove that something has no use, because its use can always be discovered as more information becomes available.

What an interesting double-standard. Evolutionary theorists are wrong because they haven’t found all the missing links buried in 3.5 billion years of life on Earth, but it’s unfair to question god’s work simply because you haven’t figured it all out for yourself. Comfort, predictably, takes this a step further:

Isn’t it possible that the same could be true with God? Just because you’re ignorant of His presence doesn’t mean He doesn’t exist.

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” to quoth Carl Sagan. Fair enough, but Ray Comfort appears to also believe that the existence of evidence is not evidence of existence, as when he, incredibly, appears to suggest that there is no evidence for Neanderthals:

And don’t look to Neanderthal Man for any evidence of evolution. He died of exposure–his skull was exposed as being fully human, not ape. Not only was his stooped posture found to be caused by disease, but he also spoke and was artistic and religious.

Am I reading this correctly? Comfort is implying that we believe Neanderthals once roamed the Earth–from the sound of it–on the basis of a single skeleton? A skeleton, he argues, that was only different because it was diseased? What about the other 400 Neanderthal skeletons archaeologists have uncovered since the 1850s? And what does being artistic and religious have to do with anything? Evolution doesn’t preclude the idea that other branches of Homo could have had culture. In fact, today we know that even chimpanzees have culture.

Mirando al pasado
Mirando al pasado
“Looking Back”
Credit: Mr. Theklan

So perhaps Comfort is simply ignorant of the current science. Maybe he had to do his research with journal articles from the 1850s. Who knows? He doesn’t provide any citations for the reader to follow up on his sources and check their accuracy. However, there is evidence of Comfort selectively pulling from his references, taking them out of context to support his ideas.

For instance, there are three full pages of Hitler quotes, and it would be intellectually dishonest to deny the way history’s greatest monster applied aspects of evolutionary theory to his own personal philosophy of racial purity; however, this is a rhetorical sword that cuts both ways. For every example of Hitler invoking something akin to Darwinism in his Nazi movement, there is an example of him invoking Christianity to motivate the German people to the same ends. As Hitler writes in Mein Kampf, “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” It would be logically fallacious of me to present such a quote as evidence of Hitler being inspired by Christianity, because, in the larger context of everything we know about Hitler’s political philosophy, fascism is an animal completely alien to all forms of philosophical and political thought. This is why it is fair to invoke Goodwin’s Law against Ray Comfort for cherry-picking from history those passages that support his attempt to connect Darwin and Nazism, while ignoring fascism’s connections to numerous religions and political ideologies.

Comfort invokes the something from nothing argument as his strongest point against the theory of evolution, but Darwin, evolution, and natural selection have absolutely nothing to do with this question whatsoever. The origin of our Universe concerns the Big Bang theory, of which scientists are still actively trying to figure out the details. Details found in equations that require substituting infinity for many variables as you count down to the moment before the Big Bang. While “God” is supposed to be infinite, it does not effectively resolve this question because, as with the watchmaker argument, we are still left to wonder how god came from nothing.

Why we exist instead or not existing is a beautiful mystery we can all enjoy, people of faith and people of none. It is a question on which many great scientific minds have speculated. Stephen Hawking asked, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” Carl Sagan famously said, “In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” It is science however, not religion, that shows humility before this mind-straining idea in admitting and accepting our ignorance of the answer.

1 The text is an abridged version of Origin, but I won’t fault the Ministry for that. So long as the text has not been manipulated or selectively abridged in such a way as to subvert Darwin’s hypothesis. In this post, I am giving the Ministry the benefit of the doubt.

The full text of Origin of the Species is in the public domain, and may be downloaded at Project Gutenberg.

Denis Diderot’s Prescience

Posted on 30th July 2009 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior

There are things I can’t force. I must adjust. There are times when the greatest change needed is a change of my viewpoint.” – Denis Diderot

Denis Diderot
Denis Diderot
By Louis-Michel van Loo

Humanities scholars tend to dismiss the Enlightenment, the period of time in Western thought that produced the American and French Constitutions and the Scientific method. In fact, my alma mater, Virginia Tech, offered literature courses in every possible culture and era except the Enlightenment. Dr. James Schmidt argues in his lecture series Making Man in Reason’s Image, The Enlightenment and the Birth of Modern Humanity that scholars characterize the Enlightenment as somewhat frivolous, just a bunch intellectuals hanging out in coffee shops and waxing philosophical.

I have an alternative hypothesis. Humanities scholars disparage the Enlightenment for imposing reason on their poetical frivolity. Intellectuals like Thomas Paine, philosophical father of the American Revolution, and John Locke, who wrote the bible of Empirical thought, freed humanity from the chains of tradition during the Enlightenment, but the Humanities tend to regard them as imposing the chains of reality on their creativity.

Denis Diderot was also one of the powerful minds of this age. Diderot oversaw the writing of a comprehensive set of encyclopedias, to which the church and monarchy worked every legal means against him to prevent the publication of each volume. Diderot contributed over 1,000 articles to the 17-volume set, which took 14 years to produce.

There are powerfully forward-thinking concepts in Diderot’s philosophical writings. At the time of his life, 1713 – 1784, Descartes’ Cartesian Duality, the idea that the mind and physical body were separate and distinct entities, was the popular notion. It was a philosophical argument for the existence of a soul. We have to have an immaterial soul, the argument goes, because matter alone cannot be imbued with conscious thought.

In his philosophical dialogue D’Alembert’s Dream, Diderot explained how stones may come to think. If you take stones, grind them up, mix them with compost, grow plants with the compost, and then eat the plants, you have produced thinking stones. It is not that conscious and unconscious matter are distinct realms of being, but rather that consciousness is a characteristic of certain configurations of matter.

Credit: europealacarte

Diderot proposed that all matter was in a state of constant flux, that even species on Earth were perpetually changing. Extending from this idea, Diderot proposed that we might invent machines with consciousness. He used the clavier musical instrument as an example, suggesting that with consciousness, claviers could play themselves. If sufficiently complex, claviers could feed themselves and produce offspring. As outrageous as this idea sounded centuries ago, today we work with intelligent machines, where the current generation of processing chips is responsible for designing the next generation of processing chips.

Computer Lab
Computer Lab
Credit: Archigeek

While the Cartesian Duality provided a simplistic way of understanding the Universe, where we conscious beings are special and distinct from nature, Diderot’s understanding makes no such distinction. We are irreducibly intertwined with nature, a swarm of atoms that produces consciousness, but nature, in the form of a blow to the head, turns off our awareness and any perception of our distinction from inanimate matter.

If all of the cells in our bodies are replaced regularly, then what is the common thread that defines who we are? In his philosophy, it was conscious memory. Today, we know that we really don’t have even that much to define our uniqueness.

Diderot died on this day 325 years ago, and as we know through modern science, his atoms dispersed, some becoming air, others consumed by bacteria, others consumed by trees. We are breathing atoms that once belonged to Diderot, just as we are breathing atoms that belonged to dinosaurs, or were forged in the interiors of stars gone supernova billions of years ago. Our irreducible parts are one with nature and the Cosmos, and that is a more inspiring understanding of our place in the Universe than the idea that we are separate and isolated from it.

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Doctors Support Health Care Reform

Posted on 28th July 2009 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior
Symbol for the Medical Sciences
Symbol for the Medical Sciences

Health Care is a science issue. Beyond the higher-purposes of discovery and enlightenment, science provides daily improvements to our quality of life through improved agriculture, technological conveniences, and a better understanding of our place in the Cosmos. A large part of this endeavor is the enhancing and extending our quality of life through the medical sciences, but in America the system is barring many of us from enjoying the fruits of the medical profession’s labors.

America has the highest per capita health care costs of any other industrialized nation, spending 44 percent more on health care than the nation with the second highest costs, Switzerland. Yet, we get fewer physician visits and shorter hospital stays on average compared to most other industrialized nations. 40 million Americans are without insurance, meaning they are one bout of pneumonia away from financial ruin.

The Health Insurance Company practice of rescission, where the companies do not audit the veracity of customer applications until the customer gets sick and needs treatment, at which point they look for any little discrepancy between the policy-holder’s application and their health history to deny them coverage, means there are millions more Americans who think they are covered, but are in for a horrible surprise someday. In one extreme case, a woman was denied breast cancer surgery because she failed to disclose that she had been treated for acne. The federal government refuses to regulate such underhanded, crooked behavior on the part of insurance companies, which means that individuals who have been paying into their health insurance plan for 20 years have a 10 percent chance of being rejected for coverage when they finally need it.

Most of us don’t know this because most of us have employer-sponsored group plans. But thanks to the Information Age, more and more of us are going the self-employed route. I was an independent contractor in Washington DC from 1998 to 2001, responsible for my own health insurance. Juggling that $250 a month bill with my rent, electricity, gas, and lack of steady income was a perpetual stress factor in my life. At the same time, the libertarian news magazine The Economist argues that failing to tax employer-sponsored health care plans has artificially inflated the market in America. In other words, one of the reasons we pay so much for health care in America is because tax-exempt health-policies have made health care cheaper than it should be for those of us lucky enough to be in a company large enough to offer it.

What about that 10% of people insurance companies deny treatments to for failing to understand the cryptic language used on the applications, which even health insurance executives admit they have no idea what they are talking about? We pay for them. Hospitals are required to treat the sick whether they can pay or not, which is why people aren’t dying in the streets currently for lack of coverage. Hospitals recoup this loss by increasing the prices of their services to consumers.

Not only are Americans paying for the health care of people who cannot afford it, at the same time we are subsidizing the health insurance companies that refused to pay for them. Think about that in the context of health insurance companies experiencing a 1,084 percent increase in profits between 2002 and 2006. That’s not socialism; that’s a concept so financially ludicrous as to defy rationality.

But even without all these economic manipulations and diabolical practices, insurance alone is socialism. In a health insurance system, everybody pays for everyone else’s illnesses. The only difference is that we have a for-profit company managing the whole thing instead of the government.

The American Medical Association endorses the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009. They do not think the plan to reform health care is perfect, but they understand that the current system is spiraling down into an increasingly worsening state that cannot be supported. When doctors give health advice, wise people listen to them.