20 April, 2007

Fluid Dynamics

For those that don't know, I'm something of a math/science geek. So when I saw these YouTube videos posted at Good Math, Bad Math, I knew that I had to post them here as well. Both are illustrations of the interesting and unusual properties of certain liquids.

The first is a demonstration and explanation of the "Kaye Effect" which is, as Mark Chu-Carroll notes:
...you take a substance like liquid shampoo, and allow a thin stream of it to pour down from a height onto a smooth surface, the stream will periodically "bounce", producing a stream leaping up from the point of contact
Apparently the phenomena wasn't particularly well-understood and the researchers who made the video are suggesting a possible cause. The video is really cool:

The second is a demonstration of a phenomena most likely known to just about any cook who has ever made gravy or had to thicken a sauce. When cornstarch is added to water in the proper proportion it forms what's known as a "non-Newtonian fluid" (so-called because the properties of the resulting suspension don't conform to Newton's conception of viscosity). What this means in simple terms is that the viscosity of the fluid will vary with the amount of stress or strain applied. When mixing cornstarch with water, one might notice, for example, that it's easy to pour the syrupy liquid, but that a spoon dropped into the measuring cup will bounce off of the surface, just as if it were solid. A couple of guys (it looks like they're from a Spanish talk show) took advantage of this unusual property to create a situation where they can almost literally walk on water. A very effective demonstration of the manner in which stress/strain alters the viscosity of the fluid: stepping down increases strain and thus increases the viscosity while remaining motionless decreases strain and decreases the viscosity. Again, very cool:

HT: Good Math, Bad Math

Another conservative thinker contra D'Souza

I've neglected some of my regular blog readings for awhile, but when I caught up on Darwinian Conservatism, I note that Prof. Larry Arnhart echoed the concerns I've expressed earlier regarding Dinesh D'Souza's recent book and his general turn towards the neo/theo-conservative lunacy of Ann Coulter and her disgusting ilk. An interesting quote below, but please do read the full article at the link.
D'Sousa argues that "conservatives must move closer to the traditional Muslims" (287). His fundamental claim is that moral debate today is divided sharply between two positions. On the one side, conservatives believe in a religious morality as rooted in "an external moral order" and "external commands." On the other side, liberals believe in a secular morality of the inner self, "the morality of self-fulfillment" (18-20). The liberals' secular morality of self-fulfillment promotes moral corruption through hedonistic self-indulgence and materialism. Traditional Muslims believe that this liberal morality will destroy their religion and their way of life. And American conservatives, D'Sousa insists, should admit that they are right. America really is morally corrupt insofar as liberal morality has prevailed in American life. American conservatives should join with fundamentalist Muslims in fighting against the corruption of such secular morality.

I would say, however, that D'Sousa has created a false dilemma in assuming that our choice is between a religious morality of theocracy and a secular morality of hedonism. Darwinian conservatism respects religious belief insofar as it supports our natural moral sense. But that natural morality stands on its own--as rooted in human nature--regardless of our religious beliefs. We do not have to choose between a morality of "external commands" or a morality of "the inner self." We can recognize traditional morality as founded in our evolved human nature.

12 April, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007

Kurt Vonnegut, celebrated author and Humanist, died yesterday at age 84. Apparently, he had suffered brain injuries after a fall at his home a few weeks ago, but whether or how these contributed to his death is not mentioned in any of the obituaries I found online.

He was one of the most interesting authors of the twentieth century, whose novels often contained humanist and existentialist themes. He was also known as something of a curmudgeon, after the tradition of Mark Twain, due to his irascible nature and often biting commentary on individuals or institutions with whom he disagreed.

Vonnegut was a Laureate of the Academy of Humanism and the honorary president of the American Humanist Association

He will be missed.

11 April, 2007

Said the Pot to the Kettle...

Sam Harris (Author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) and Andrew Sullivan (Former editor of The New Republic and author of The Conservative Soul) have been having an extended online dialogue regarding faith (or, "God, faith, and fundamentalism" as Beliefnet explains it). If you're interested in such things and haven't yet read their postings, I recommend doing so; good points have been made on both sides.

However, in a posting at his blog earlier today, Sullivan responds to a reader's question regarding statements made by other readers on their perception of Andrew's "inability" to answer some of Sam's questions. The reader writes:

I've been catching glimpses of your conversation with Sam Harris. But what's caught my eye have been the e-mails from your detractors like this one and this one and this one. The last one in particular, which asks,

"Do you think God knows that you won't have very good answers to the points Sam Harris brings up at the end of his last reply?"

got me thinking that this obsession with "good answers" points to something close to the heart of this frustration with faith, something you touched on in your last post to Sam - the concept of mystery. Not the Colonel-Mustard-in-the-library-with-a- candlestick kind of mystery, but the awe-and-humility-before-truths-and- experiences-greater-than-we-are-and-deeper-than-we-can-grasp kind of mystery. Seekers like you and I aren't afraid of it, and find our lives are invigorated by it. Some, however, seem allergic to it.

Huh? Wuzzat? Non-believers are "allergic" to mystery while believers embrace it?

The reader goes on to say:

Maybe this is the fundamental disconnect between believers and non-believers - that the latter insist on answers, and if the answer appeals in any way to mystery, then the answer must be wrong. But practical human experience shows us that mystery is all around us, and that answers to even the simplest questions often cannot be found or must bow, at least somewhat, to mystery - not as a cop-out or a catch-all explanation, but as a humble acceptance of the limitations of human understanding and the possibility that the answers are more than we can know.

Sometimes, instead of finding answers, we just have to live the questions. And we do. We all do. Every day. This is the real world and our experience of it: no matter how much we know, most of the important stuff is steeped in mystery. Strange that some athiests, who fashion themselves realists, cannot accept that simple reality.

To which Sullivan replies:
This reality is, in my view, the core basis of all true religious faith and the only solid philosophical foundation for political conservatism. It's also why I find agnosticism far more persuasive than atheism.
To which I say: Holy Crap.

If this isn't just a most egregious case of the pot calling the kettle black, I don't know what is. In reality, it's believers, not non-believers, who reject mystery by attempting to bottle it up inside the label "god". The questions that Sam posed for Andrew (alluded to by the reader) are not the "ultimate questions" the answer to which (at least for the time being) may well indeed be "mystery", but questions about exactly why Andrew chooses to label these mysteries "god". Non-believers don't withhold belief because they're looking for some specific answer, they withhold belief because the given answer ("god") doesn't seem like a good one. And we ask believers to justify why they settled on that particular answer, not demand that they provide answers to all of those "ultimate questions".

I mean, really, let's look at the questions for which Sullivan's reader thinks non-believers are requiring definitive answers and compare our responses with those of believers:

Who am I?

Non-believer: I don't know, who do you want to be?
Believer: You are a child of God.

What do I want?

Non-believer: I don't know, what do you want?
Believer: You want whatever God wants you to want.

Why do I love this person?

Non-believer: There could be many reasons, some of them based on chemical attractors and some based on emotion. In the end, it's because both of you have characteristics that attract the other, but no one knows precisely why we love any particular person other than the reasons that might be revealed by our preferences.
Believer: Because God wants you to love and be loved.

What is the meaning of this experience?

Non-believer: It has whatever meaning you invest in it.
Believer: Whatever God intends.

Where did I come from?

Non-believer: Simplistically, your mother's womb. Metaphysically speaking, the "I" is a psychological construct created by the mind which is in turn a product of the brain. But exactly how self-awareness develops is currently a mystery.
Believer: God created you.

Why am I here?

Non-believer: That is a question only you can answer, if at all. There may be no answer available.
Believer: God has a purpose for you and in time you may discover it.

Of course, all of these answers are simplistic and a little "tongue-in-cheek", but I think they are representative of the general types of responses one will actually get from both sides of this debate. So, please tell me again who is "allergic" to mystery?

Now I fully agree with Sullivan that epistemological humility is absolutely essential to a liberal democracy (he specifically says conservatism, but I think he'd agree with my broader application), but such humility is not likely to be found in anyone who believes that God exists and occasionally whispers in her ear, elucidating the difference between right and wrong.

Sullivan also mentions that he finds agnosticism "...far more persuasive than atheism." But that assumes that they are incompatible. In fact, they're not. Agnosticism is a position on knowledge (from the Greek gnosis) while atheism is a position on belief. One can be both agnostic AND atheist at the same time. Such a position is often referred to as weak atheism, wherein one recognizes that while one doesn't know whether or not a god exists, one finds no reason to believe that it does.

"God" is the believer's way of wrapping mystery up in a tidy package so they can pretend that it doesn't matter. Don't worry about all those "big questions"; Someone knows the answer so you can just rest easy. Far from being allergic to such questions, it's simply the belief that "god" represents a real answer to them that we find difficult to swallow.

We don't reject mystery. We're not allergic to it. . We reject attempts by believers to explain away mystery by covering it with a sheet and calling it "god". And when we're asking for "answers", we're asking why we need our own sheet instead of just being satisfied with the mystery until we find a better answer. One that actually makes sense. That is the question Andrew's readers are suggesting he has not yet answered. And they're right.

09 April, 2007

Julia Sweeney

Former Saturday Night Live actress Julia Sweeney has written and performs a one-woman show titled "Letting Go of God", about her journey from Roman Catholicism to Atheism. I downloaded the show from iTunes and it is fantastic. Very funny yet thoughtful and touching at the same time. Well, Sweeney gave a performance of her show at this year's T.E.D. conference and the opening portion is available on YouTube:

Hilarious, no? In case this whets your appetite for the full show (and I hope it does), you can find it on Amazon or iTunes, among other places.

HT: Friendly Atheist

Funny O' The Day

From My Confined Space

02 April, 2007

Conservative, Liberal, & Progressive: we're all in the same boat

Over at Gay Species, an excellent and insightful survey of the current American political landscape.

Stephen Heersink provides a concise summary of the three major viewpoints currently dominating American politics along with characterizations of the "minor" divisions within each. He also discusses, albeit briefly, some of the weaknesses and strengths of each. He closes with a reflection on what appears to be the widening gap between the two major, as he seems them, factions:

Given that few people are even speaking the same language in the same way, much less accurately, the Dominionist Progressives and Social Conservatives have been the dominant actors. Among today's elected officials, few can be described as "liberal." Indeed, our national dialogue has become immensely confused and confusing, because of the disparate systems and lack of clarity and ambiguous references.

It is not the Rhetoric of Indeterminacy, but the Rhetoric of Demagoguery that prevails. The fascist, autocrat, the cheater, the peddlers of anodynes, talking heads, and others who are frustrated, confused, and uncertain of any political ideas that find the present vacuum to be propitious for demagoguery, license, and abuse. Some dare call it despair. I call it shameful and dangerous.

Wow. But I can't say that I disagree. In my opinion, we as a nation face today a far greater and more insidious threat than we have ever before faced: ourselves. We are in the very real danger of losing our liberty to fear and seem to have completely lost sight of the fact that a democracy not only provides its citizens the freedom to be politically active, it actually requires that they all be so.

Coincidentally, the actor Richard Dreyfuss was on NPR's Bob Edwards Weekend on Sunday discussing his latest project: the restoration of Civics to American high school curricula. In his discussion, Dreyfuss articulated essentially the same fear as I: that we have lost, or never learned, the knowledge of how to be citizens in a democratic republic. During the 1960-70's, Civics was eliminated from the high school curriculum and the "relevant" subject matter pushed into History and/or Social Studies classes. In hindsight, I think we can say that was a mistake. If we expect our society to function effectively, the people who make it work simply must understand how it works and what they must do in order for it to work properly. If we fail to inculcate this knowledge in our young people, we have only ourselves to blame if they lack it when the time comes for them to lead.

While I would say that it's likely too soon for there to be a causal link between the lack of Civics courses and the current state of political discourse, it's all too obvious that if we want to improve the situation it's going to take a lot of knowledgeable people working to together and without those knowledgeable people, we've got a much smaller chance of ever changing anything.