Monday, July 21, 2008

The Tedium of "Uncommon Descent"

I've been eyeballing William Dembski's "intelligent design" website, "Uncommon Descent". Speaking only for myself, there definitely is an enjoyment in sneering at these folks. It's not only a concern for the future of science education in the U.S. that compels me, all too frequently, to see what these folks are up to.

There is yet another motivation for visiting these sites. On some level, I honestly do hope that somebody could arrive at an argument for "intelligent design" that is compelling, or actually challenges some evolutionary views and forces good scientists back to the blackboards. I'm all for weirdness, whimsy, complexity, surprises, and strange twists. More than anything, I enjoy the attempt at honing in on reality. If science blows expectations, more power to it. Contrary to what many creationist ninnies seem to believe, there's no "anti-god" motivation behind my disdain for their philosophies, and that's probably true for most scientifically-minded people.

Unfortunately, these compelling arguments never seem to emerge. Visit the site, and it's highly unlikely you'll find anything of scientific value. Currently, what will you find?

*Philosophical proofs against anything that tweaks the Abrahamic mindset...abiogenesis (how can non-life beget life? huh?), artificial intelligence, morality (if there's no absolute lawmaker, people can just run amuck, right?), etc. Didn't these sorts of arguments lose credence 400 years ago?

*Disputation of the global warming consensus. This, of course, has little or nothing to do with the site's stated charter (to dispute "materialism"), but it's not in the least surprising to see where these folks stand on the issue.

*The "Darwin is the Jesus of Atheists" argument. Constant attacks on Darwin's character and intelligence.

*Praise for the way in which ID has subtly infiltrated society.

*A repeated argument that science requires more faith than religion. (Scientists assume that if you feel pain in your foot, you've hit a real rock, but religious folks don't need that assumption, blah, blah, blah). Ho-hum.

*Complaints about PZ Myer's threat to desecrate communion wafers.

*Praise for a journal article titled "Design Principles of Photosystem II and Hydrogenases". Like infants, it seems the IDiots are merely thrilled at the inclusion of the word "design" in the title, since the actual body of the paper contains no succor for them. This isn't the first time that the term "design" in a paper has incited an orgy for these fools.

*One of the main contributors arguing, in effect, that mutational hotspots somehow disprove evolution (according to him, they're entirely non-random, which is anti-evolutionary, blah, blah, blah). Tedious. Similarly, there's an emerging ID-based argument that epigenetics == Lamarckism != Darwinism, so evolution is false.

*Endless repetition of the "evolution is in its death throes" mantra. In the next paragraph, of course, you're likely to hear these dunces complain that they have no representation at all in academia because of one conspiracy or another.

*Interminable proclamation that any slightly perplexing biological mechanism is "IC" or "irreducibly complex", and thus impossible to arrive at by any means other than conscious design. The current example is the Venus Flytrap. At first glance, it is a tad imagination-defying that that such a mechanism could evolve. After all, what use is a half-flytrap? Five minutes of internet research, however, reveals that the flytrap is related to the sundew, a carnivorous plant that doesn't snap shut, but traps flies via a sticky goo. It's then fairly simple to imagine some gradual evolutionary steps...1) the sundew better captures prey by folding around it, albeit slowly, 2) the folding mechanism improves, and 3) the goo is eliminated. My initial failure of imagination is remedied with some simple background on the flytrap's relatedness to another species.

Where's the bloody science? What is a pro-ID scientist to do in a research environment? Shall scientists cease work on abiogenesis because an IDiot has a cutesy philosophical refutation of its possibility?

The UDers are known to imply that a number of their scientists are forced to work in stealth to avoid the bigotry of "big science". If huge numbers of biologists are indeed being expelled for their unorthodox views on evolution, it only makes sense that there should also be a sizeable number of scientists working stealthily on pro-ID science. You'd expect a slew of anonymous but science-literate posts over at "Uncommon Descent". But the tone of the posts over at UD make it clear that there aren't any such stealthy biologists contributing to the site. One of the head honchos at the site, in fact, is in the habit of announcing that he only has access to the abstracts of journal articles (i.e. he doesn't have the passwords that any university academic would).

One of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is a lack of willingness to entertain third explanations. If we can't explain the lights in the sky, then an alien visitation is the only possibility. Even if we grant the dubious premise that known mechanisms of evolution (e.g. point mutations) can't account for the complexity of some proteins or protein complexes, why not speculate on mechanisms by which evolution can proceed at an accelerated pace? I hint at a few here. Here's a prediction: if and when new explanations are validated, they'll come from real biologists. The findings will then be greeted with excitement by most academics, but will be pooh-poohed by the IDiots.


By the way, don't even attempt to post a comment on "Uncommon Descent". They'll ban any real scientist who evinces the slightest hint of snideness, though they're more than happy to let young earth creationists roam amuck on the site. In this sense, the site is all the more anti-evolution: the bright folks get weeded out, and the morons survive.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Quick. How many balls are in the jar?


It's a tiger phallus.

We're not in a museum. And the clear liquid is not formaldehyde. We're in a country shop near the Mekong River, and the preservative is good old ethanol. The Thais call this stuff "yadong"...local distilled alcohol (usually from sticky rice) plus, say, a snake, a venomous centipede, herbs, whatever.

Presumably, a sip is supposed to do your sex life good. Being scientifically-minded, I put this theory to the test. The results came out negative. Given the rarity of this particular item, who knows how long ago that phallus had been separated from its owner? After untold dilutions that would make a homeopath proud, one can only speculate on how many tiger molecules actually flit about in a shot glass.

Dancing Shrimp

Above is a Thai dish known as "goong dten" or "dancing shrimp". They're dancing because they're not particularly thrilled at finding themselves in a styrofoam "to go" box mixed with mint, chilis, onions, and other ingredients you'd expect in a dish of "larb". Add a dash of lemon and they get extra-frisky.

You can catch a sense of Thai-ness here. Note the accompanying blue dish. It's not a bowl. Sure, some of your dinner might hop off the table, but that's the fun of "goong ten". Children, little sadists, get a special kick out of the treat.

Gastronomically speaking, there's nothing profound going on here. You bite into the critters and experience a little "pop" as their guts seek the most efficient exit route through the exoskeleton. Otherwise, it's larb.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A True Thai Ghost Story

Sometime in November or December of 1999 some Thai friends dragged me off to Ayutthaya for a nighttime "sound and light" show. The show was nice enough. On the drive back to Bangkok, talk turned to ghosts. It often does with Thais.

In brief, there's an old temple back in Ayutthaya, "Wat Tagrai" (ตะไกร), where masses of Thais were executed during one of the Burmese invasions in the 1700's. The Burmese would bind a Thai to a pole, slit the neck, and methodically repeat the process with the next victim. It's this sort of history that, of course, makes for a haunted temple.

For quite a while I'd had an ambition for New Year's 2000. It was this: toss my watch, and go alone to a place on the globe where nobody celebrates New Year's. The Himalayas were high on the list, but that wouldn't have been practical. When told of Wat Tagrai, it was clear where I'd spend the last night of the old millenium, and the first morning of the new. Being shit-scared of ghosts, Thais would steer far from the temple as midnight approached.

I arrived sometime on the afternoon of the 31st, located a cheap hotel near the temple, and then sauntered off to Wat Tagrai. As you can see in the background of the pic above, it was more of an archeological project than a well-preserved relic of old Ayutthaya, once considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. There were three large statues in front of the temple. The one you see is "Pra ReuSee", the archetypal forest hermit.

Around 10 pm, I situated myself on the pedestal of one of those three statues (I forget which one) and occupied myself with simple meditation. Feral dogs wandered around. With my eyes half-open, I swear one of those dogs stared at me, head a-tilt, doggy brain thrown for a loop by the new statue on the scene. The great forest monks of Thailand were known for their ability to sit sublimely even as tigers sniffed their robes, but that's not me. I considered making a move to scare the critter off, but imagined that this might set off a very undesirable howling spree. Eventually, the dog hopped off, uninterested.

When I tell the story to Thai friends, it's at this point I ask them, "do you know what happened next?"

Absolutely nothing. No ghosts.

Unfortunately, of all people on the globe, Thais are most likely to find any excuse for a party. They celebrate Chinese New Year's, Thai New Year's, and Western New Year's with full intensity. I could hear the sound of fireworks at some point, and it's likely that point was precisely midnight. Around 2 AM I dragged myself off the pedestal and walked back to the hotel.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Is "Spiritual Rationalism" Even Possible?

Where do rationalists stand with regard to non-banal experiences that are typically referred to as "religious" or "spiritual"? You know...meditation, bliss, oneness, zeroness, whatever. Do practices of phowa, tummo, chod, yidams, yoga, etc., shed any light on questions of being? There actually seems to be quite a variety of views:

A. such experiences are reserved for elites, and thus shed no light on the driving forces behind religion.
B. such experiences are delusory or, at least, worthless. Check out PZ Myers
C. such experiences can indeed be powerfully transformative and may be worth pursuing (Sam Harris).
D. I can enjoy all of these experiences myself without engaging in religious woo. Here, you have Richard Dawkins emphasizing that he can enjoy a sunset (it's usually some celestial phenomenon) as much or more as the next guy.

These categories aren't meant to be mutually exclusive. They're just intended to reflect the dominant responses you'd expect to hear from various rationalist personalities when you play a game of word-association and blurt out terms like "neurotheology".

I've avoided the term "atheist" for my argument. Theravadan Buddhist purists (who often are Westerners re-projecting all that they thought they had rejected in Abrahamic religion) might spurn some of the aforementioned practices as superstitious or "degraded" or untrue to the original scriptures, and embrace others. Here, you get a mix of all the above categories. These Buddhists would probably self-identify as atheists, but might not be thrilled with the geeky "rationalist" tag. Rationalists are not known to seek out the spaces between thoughts. However, in many cases, especially in the West, the two terms can be used virtually interchangeably.

Regarding A), at best it's a simplification to say that the experience of meditation is reserved for religious elites when, even today, a large percentage of the male population in places like Thailand is expected to engage in an extended retreat at least once in a lifetime. To then argue that the religion "in itself" can do without meditation seems rather silly.

I'd like to add my own category E). It goes like this: Yes, these experiences may be worthwhile and transformative, but rationalists can't have them. Or, to be less dramatic, they may be somewhat handicapped when seeking them out.

I recall Phil Plait arguing that he might view the night sky with more awe than less educated folks. With his trained eye he, after all, can make determinations as to whether stars are retreating or not. Their colors tell him something about the heat they produce. He knows their stories. That's very nice, but he's playing right into the hands of the folks who claim that a scientific view dulls the moment to moment appreciation of life. For many, this dunderhead included, awe arises when one is left thoughtless, and dissipates as a conceptual overlayer gets re-established. That's the vaunted Zen "beginner's mind" to which contemplatives aspire, as opposed to Plait's "expert mind".

Blathering about spiritual experiences is a dangerous road, but I've done enough meditative tinkering to know that the quality of sights and sounds that impinge on consciousness are hugely variable. In the Tibetan tradition, you may identify with a "yidam". Depending on the yidam you focus on, your post-meditative perceptions might be altered in interesting ways. Meditate on Tara, and you may find the soft curves of your coffee cup to be unusually prominent and compassionate. Meditate on a heavenly realm, and you may find every object glistening, imbued with sacredness. Meditate on a wrathful deity, and a confident, sharp clarity may be felt. Other times, the world is saturated with a dreamlike quality. There's really no reason to find these gestalts to be any less "real" than that of ordinary, tedious, ego-focused, samsaric vision. But you're not going to "get it" if there's a big internal debate going on as to whether these deities have objective existence or not.

There's a bit of a paradox here. Rationalists identify strongly with the logical, thinking mind ("sem", in Tibetan, if I recall). They believe in its eminence. And yet, they often don't seem to fathom the extent to which this mind can exert its power right down to the level of perception and sensation, where a deity's presence may be felt vividly and organically. "Sem" may be more or less isolated from the realm of the senses for some folks. There are indications that religiosity, suggestibility, etc., may have genetic components. Point is: maybe some folks are simply cut off from certain experiences.

Another Tibetan practice is "guru yoga". Here, you summon up intense devotion for your teacher. You see him as no different than Buddha. It's something that's awfully difficult for me (superhuman authority figures on thrones are problematic, to put it mildly). Rationalists have an understandably difficult time suspending disbelief and logic in this sort of situation, and it's all the more difficult when the supposedly venerable guru figure spends massive hours watching TV, seeking out his next fuck, and micro-managing the financial affairs of the organization. But here in the West we have psychologists who are supposed to free us of neurosis. Imagine, for a second, that you viewed your therapist as no different than the Buddha. You'd probably carry out his instructions especially intensely and dutifully, and results might be quick in coming. Of course, this sort of relationship can and does lead to abuse, but that's another issue.

As far as I can see, these feelings of intense devotion are hugely emphasized in virtually all religious traditions. They enable certain experiences. What object of intense devotion can atheists claim?

Various traditions emphasize the importance of creating an "auspicious" environment to facilitate prayer or contemplation. We might simply be talking about lighting some incense, or we could be talking about a very elaborate ritual. How might rationalists quicken various "spiritual" experiences? What venerated implements are available?

Next, there's the issue of "self knowledge" for rationalists. Being of a scientific bent, they may disregard any information gathered via self-reflection, since it's 100% subjective. In other words, because you believe that you can't probe your mind via the scientific method, you're not even going to try. I say "believe" because I'm not at all convinced that the mind can't be investigated, and subjectivity can't be minimized via the structure offered by meditative techniques. You attempt to focus solely on your breathing, but repeatedly get distracted in discursive thoughts. You then realize that you're not quite as "in control" as perhaps you thought. Is that not insightful? Is this not an experience that can be shared with and confirmed by other meditators? Perhaps Westerners are somewhat burdened by the impression that "self-knowledge" necessarily involves stuff like recalling and playing out the historical chain of events that culminated in a rubber boot fetish. There's also this very Western notion that "self-knowledge" involves selecting out the traits that make you especially different from the next guy, not the traits that bind you.

Rationalists reject views that are not based on sound evidence. That's nice, but 24/7 we're faced with the existential dilemma of constructing/maintaining/abiding-by a self-perception that is based on...what? Many scholars of the early texts of Buddhism remark on the radical deconstruction of self going on in these works. It seems, however, that many rationalists would prefer to avoid this particular exercise in deconstruction. Or, perhaps, they think that Ellis, Maslow, and the like have rendered these approaches moot. Laughable, really.

Rationalists focus on logical and evidentiary errors. But what of perceptual errors? A classic Hindu/Buddhist example is that of an individual whose fear causes a rope to be seen as a snake. Are rationalists less prone to such effects? Perhaps more prone. Mistaking a rope for a snake may occur once in a lifetime, but the unjustified reification of self is near-constant and worthy of examination, according to the Buddhists.

In science, anomalies often spur insight. It's rather odd, then, that an apparently large subset of rationalists have concluded that meditative self-experimentation is necessarily a fruitless endeavor. Science isn't mere application of logic and statistics. It's about going out and finding and manipulating materials and circumstances. No?

Ask rationalists why religion endures and they often unwittingly offer up a sharp reflection of their own cognitive biases: it's there to explain the cosmos. Or, perhaps, it's there to offer a legal/moral/social skeleton for society. For the politically inclined, it exists as an elitist power structure. I'm reminded of a classroom of well-indoctrinated schoolchildren. Ask them why people take drugs. You might be surprised at the sophistication of the responses, but isn't it odd that nobody chimes in, "because drugs make you feel good"?

Folks spend a good deal of effort justifying their own propensities. A musician may pity those who can't "get" Coltrane. For the literate, it's lamentable that some humans never experience the genius of Joyce or Shakespeare. You may be seen as pathetic because you're clueless about the gritty reality of the inner city. Or because you're out of touch with nature. Because you've never gone for a real adrenaline rush. Because you've never experimented with S&M. Because you've never studied martial arts and can't defend your own body. Because you've never been through cancer. Because you've never had children. And of course, you may be pathetic because you haven't had a "born again" experience. Or because you're deluded enough to believe that you've been touched by a sky fairy. And it's pathetic that some folks don't seem to appreciate the diversity of mental states that they encounter in interactions with others.


In fairness to Phil Plait and PZ Myers, they've got awesome, provocative blogs. Plait has indeed spoken of the purely visceral power of heavenly imagery, and PZ, when he's not thrashing creationists (which is enjoyable in its own way), can write incredibly evocatively and lucidly. He's sure as hell not autistic.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


Quick! What is the highest place on earth?

If you say Mt. Everest, you're kinda wrong. Mt. Everest is highest above sea level. However, the earth isn't a perfect sphere, which means that the distance from the center of the earth to the surface is greatest at the equator. This distance isn't entirely trivial...6357 kilometers from the center to the poles, and 6384 kms from the center to the top of Mt. Chimborazo in Ecuador. A basketball with these proportions would probably bounce a tad unpredictably.

From this perspective, Everest is 2.4 kms lower than Chimborazo! Furthermore, the Mariana Trench is quite a bit "higher" than some areas on the ocean floor near the North Pole. I say "some areas" because scientists, believe it or not, have yet to pinpoint the exact spot on the earth's crust that is closest to the center.

For the weight-conscious, Chimborazo is also the world's best place to stand on a scale. If my numbers are right, you'd weigh about 1% less on Chimborazo than at the poles. Not noticeable, though I wonder if somebody with a highly trained sense of gravity (a juggler? a high jumper?) would perceive a difference. The greatest high jump in history occurred in Salamanca, Spain at 40° latitude, and the second highest actually occurred in Stockholm (59°), which argues against any significant effect.

The diminished pull of gravity, however, is significant enough that it makes good sense to launch large rockets near the equator.

There was a time a couple hundred years ago when Europeans believed Chimborazo to be the highest point on earth! They were correct for the wrong reasons. I presume they arrived at this judgement via triangulation, just as they later arrived at a measurement for Everest, with sea-level as a reference point. Alexander Humboldt (of Humboldt Bay and Humboldt Current fame) attempted the summit in 1802.

Three other peaks are actually further from the center of the earth than Everest: Huascaran, Cotopaxi, and Kilimanjaro. Given the difficulties in making precise measurements from the absolute center of the earth, there's some debate, in fact, whether Huascaran might actually be a tad taller than Chimborazo. For me, all this ambiguity points to the illusoriness of pursuing the world's "highest" summit. Given the relative ease of climbing Chimborazo, one wonders if some anonymous, bored Incan nomad (did Incans have nomads?) scampered up the peak 1,000 years ago, leaving the goats to fend for themselves.

Another item to add to the "things to do before you croak" list. It'll go somewhere above "hear the roaring sands" and below "see a really intense aurora".