My fortune cookie today said that I "will walk on the soil of many countries."
Great, now I have to worry about foiling an international conspiracy of vampires.
My good friend Stavros pointed out that my previous post requires more explanation in places. I'll begin with a brief discussion of Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson. The other topics I'll write about later or leave to Stavros.
Josephson is a major personality in solid state Physics, particularly semiconductors. His work was instrumental in developing silicon microchips and justifiably earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics. In the years since his ground-breaking research, however, he has fallen victim to some of the claims of pseudo-science.
As a brief digression that does not do the subject justice, there is a marked difference between what we commonly call science and what we commonly call pseudo-science. Science involves forming hypotheses (or theories or educated guesses—take your pick of terminology) about how an effect comes about, and then through experiments trying to determine if that hypothesis is supported. Ideas are never proven, they only withstand disproval. Scientific hypotheses are obligated to account for what we observe (that is, what we think we know). We refer to this characteristic of scientific hypotheses as falsifiability, and scientists generally frown upon hypotheses that are not falsifiable—hypotheses that cannot be shown to be false. Further, science places the burden of experiment on the proposer of a hypothesis, either to perform experiments himself or to suggest experiments to other scientists. In contrast, pseudo-science makes hypotheses that purport to explain effects which might be real or might be contested, but these hypotheses need not conform to current knowledge not lend themselves to experimental testing, and the pseudo-scientist typically neglects experimental confirmation entirely.
As science has progressed, the theories have become more and more complicated (as a rule), making it difficult for the lay individual to judge at first blush whether an idea is credible or not. In addition to falsifiability, credibility requires that the theory account for relevant well-established phenomena. Most people only hear the jargon of science, used to describe credible research, and consequently throwing terms like "quantum", "resonance", or "electromagnetic" into an explanation can make the purest hogwash sound scientific.
Scientists are supposed to know better, at least when a theory overlaps their areas of expertise. In the case of Dr. Josephson, the expertise lies in Physics, and the pseudo-science is homeopathy. He is not alone; a regrettable number of other scientists have lent their names and reputations to equally undeserving ideas when they should have known better.
Homeopathy begins with the idea that, in dilution, harmful substances can confer a healing or preventative benefit. On its face, this does not seem entirely unreasonable, since it resembles the practice of vaccination. While homeopaths are quick to point out this similarity, homeopathy actually derives from the "law of similars," one of the bases of Medieval magical theory. Homeopathy takes the idea of dilution even further, with the hypothesis that if a little of a substance is a good thing, then less is even better. Certainly, it's less likely to cause illness. The most "potent" homeopathic preparations are so dilute that there is not even one molecule of the active substance in any commercially available quantity.
If this sounds odd, it should. A useful analogy might be a flashlight that grows brighter as its batteries fail. Homeopaths recognize this absurdity, and attempt to explain it away by claiming that water has a "memory" of substances dissolved in it to the point of effective non-presence.
Someone with a high-school level of science education should be highly suspicious of this claim. A water molecule comprises two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The manner in which these atoms bind to one another is well understood, and leaves little room to store information. In addition, the molecules in a fluid are in constant random motion. Again, there is little room for a "memory" of once-present substances.
This reasoning should make anyone skeptical of homeopathy. Still, homeopaths make claims, and these claims are falsifiable. The burden of demonstration lies with the claimant, so these homeopaths are obligated to perform properly controlled experiments testing their hypotheses if they expect anyone else to take them seriously.
James Randi has a long-standing challenge to the purveyors of pseudo-science and other delusions. If they can demonstrate their claims under rigorous experimental conditions, they will win one million dollars. Mr. Randi has had an ongoing conversation with prominent homeopaths in an attempt to have them submit their claims to such experiments. I'll let Mr. Randi have the last word on this topic: "That challenge, folks, is the one thorn the quacks cannot remove from their collective foot. It's always there, being dodged and belittled, devalued and denied. But it remains."
This morning I was listening to the radio, and an interview came on with Charles Townes, recent recipient of the Templeton Prize for "work in the field of religion" and co-inventor of the laser. In this interview, he explained that he did not view science and religion as being in competition, nor are they incongruous, but rather they should come together and work in concert. His reasoning for this is that both science and religion are attempts to discover fundamental truths about the universe.
As his fellow Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson illustrates, the disclaimer that "past performance is no guarantee of future results" does not only apply to the stock market. Put simply, Doctor Townes is wrong. There is a great difference between science and religion.
There are superficial similarities between the two. Dr. Townes mentions moments of epiphany or revelation in science; these often precede major advancements. They might also lead nowhere, often with many years of work and several careers along the way. In either case, the revelation is not science, it is an idea for an avenue of inquiry. It comes from a mind tuned to a particular problem and possessing the requisite skills to understand both the problem and the solution. Once imagined, an idea is not dogma; it must be tested experimentally, and only once confirmed can it be accepted as accurate.
Science does not deal in absolute truths, but in abstractions and approximations. We develop models to describe how the universe behaves. The advancement of science comes from the discovery of where our current models fail, and what new models might account for the unexpected behavior. Always, reality is our guide.
Religion presents its tenets as absolute truths. The untestable is glorified with the mantle of "faith." Where dogma and reality collide, reality is frequently ignored or denied until its weight forces dogma to change. Galileo was absolved in 1992 of the "crime" of finding that the Earth revolves around the Sun. This demonstrates how conservative the Roman Catholic Church can be in its dogma, and how unwilling a religious institution can be to reconsider its positions in the light of new evidence.
No, science and religion are very different. Science is the pursuit of the truth through investigation, knowing that you will never reach it but only grow closer and closer to it. Religion is the dictating of the truth by those more interested in being authoritative than right. It is a shame that a Nobel Prize-winning Physicist is unable to see this.
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments regarding the public display of the Ten Commandments outside of the Texas capitol. This has a number of people up in arms on both sides of the issue, as we might expect. On the part of the supporters of the monument, there's an only-too-familiar misuderstanding of the opposing viewpoint.
It would certainly be foolish to deny that Judeo-Christian theology has had a profound impact on our civilization. We have found, however, that society in general, and both faith and government in particular, are stronger when religion is separated from the official workings of the state. This is due to the mutually corrupting influence that church and state exert on one another.
This corruption arises principally from ambition and authority. When high religious position is equivalent to high political position, those whose ambition is for power will seek out religious offices. Doctrine is less important to them than their own agendas, and as they rise through the ranks of the church, they begin to bend its policies to their wills. Separation of church and state thus keeps religion more doctrinally pure.
High political position granting religious privilege also has a corrupting influence. Empirically, we have good cause to believe that a representative government best serves the interests not only of the people, but of the state as a whole. This form of government (or this family of forms of government) depends on the ability of the people to expel leaders found not to be serving the interests, needs, and will of those they represent. Mixing religion with politics doesn't necessarily prevent the voters from ousting a poor leader, but the weight of religious authority can make many people reluctant to oppose that leader.
This is, of course, a complex issue and not the main focus of my discussion, so let's return to the case at hand. We have at present a clear separation of church and state; or rather a proscription of government endorsement of religion. The question then becomes where the line is to be drawn in practice.
The U.S. Supreme Court has a display of what might be called the great lawgivers of Western Civilization. These include Hammurabi, Solon, and Moses. These figures provide a fitting historical backdrop for the nation's final arbiter of the law—Hammurabi gave us the first known written code of law, Solon introduced democracy to Athens, and Moses wrote down the laws that governed first Judaism and later Christianity. This is a just tribute to the legal/cultural traditions in which our civilization formed.
The Texas display, in contrast, focuses not on the tradition of the law, but on a specific set of laws. Were it a heavily religious set of laws under which Texas was first governed, this would be defensible as a historical commemoration. It is not, though. It is a patent endorsement of a specific set of religious laws. The additional displays hastily added around it to mollify or nullify critics do neither.
This is not about restricting people's free practice of religion. Nobody's worship will be negatively impacted by this monument's removal. Atheists (including myself) are not forced to accept a particular religion by its past and continued presence. It is, however, an insult.
When a government makes an exclusive declaration or display, it insults those excluded. It highlights those individuals as outsiders, and relegates them to a lesser status in the society. In a country where all are supposedly equal under the law, it introduces a fundamental inequality, and it is anathema to our principles of governance.
The fact is that the Ten Commandments are not a foundational document of our country. Many of the Founders were Deists, not Christians, including Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. Thomas Paine, the Englishman whose Common Sense implored the colonial leaders to declare independence and made him an American by right of affinity, was also a Deist. This is not a Christian nation, but neither is it a Rationalist nation. It is an Inclusivist nation, where room is afforded to all viewpoints.
The Ten Commandments are also not revealed wisdom for creating a functioning and moral society. Four of the commandments pertain solely to religious practice. Of the remainder, one is a general prescription for personal character and another reinforces a particular societal norm. Four commandments remain, which define a fundamentally moral society, and which need no recourse to religion for their motivation.
We are social animals, and as such require certain standards for a well-functioning society. Perhaps most obviously, we cannot live in a society if we are constantly at war with one another, hence the ban against killing. A society is a cooperative endeavor, so impugning the character of those with whom you live and work cannot be tolerated, as it undermines mutual trust. Society moves in large part by its artifacts, so the distribution of property must be respected. Finally, those who instill in us the basic values, rules, and standards of society, our parents, must be paid heed.
As our civilization has evolved, we have continuously re-evaluated the role of religion and law in society. Some of what we have received through the conduit of religion we have kept, some we have not. By creating a haven of religious (and non-religious) tolerance, we have attracted some of the most intelligent, skilled, and hard-working people in the world to our country. Let's not jeopardize that by turning some Americans into second-class citizens.
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