Intimations of “God”

As promised, here are my thoughts on a hypothesis propounded by Robert Wright, briefly excerpted in a previous post.

  1. Ultimately, Wright’s argument is bound to disappoint theists and anti-theists alike.

    Most believers are committed to a particular scripture and a particular understanding of God. As Wright comments, “They don’t want to just hear that some conception of a god might be defensible, or that a personal god is defensible as some sort of approximation of the truth.”

    Meanwhile, anti-theists are dismissive of all arguments for God’s existence. They see no direct evidence of God’s existence, and no need to appeal to God as an explanation for any phenomenon — including the moral order.

    Thus Wright’s book is likely to annoy many people and satisfy few.

  2. But Wright’s argument may have some appeal to a certain class of believers — people like me.

    I have come to the conclusion that the traditional “proofs” for God’s existence are anything but. For example, the resurrection of Christ. It might have sufficed as a proof in the first century, when you could investigate the event for yourself by talking to the various eyewitnesses — Peter, John, James, Paul, etc. But 2000 years later, the resurrection is merely an article of faith rather than a compelling demonstration of the truth of the Gospel.

    Meanwhile, the theory of evolution, substantiated by a solid body of evidence, and subsequently corroborated by discovery of how DNA works — these scientific insights have provided an alternative explanation for the world that we inhabit. The ancient proof from nature — “The heavens declare the glory of God / the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1) — is no longer the only explanation on offer.

    What evidence, then, can we still appeal to — those of us who accept the conclusions of science, yet stubbornly persist in our belief in God? In my view, we are left with intimations of God’s existence rather than proofs.

    Wright is offering exactly that — an intimation of God’s existence — when he describes God as the source of the moral order. Wright interprets human history as a long arc toward a higher morality. To give some examples of my own choosing (I’m not sure what examples Wright would offer) :

    • “an eye for an eye” has been supplanted by, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44);
    • a love that was circumscribed — reserved for fellow tribesmen — has been superseded by the ideal of the “brotherhood” of all humankind;
    • a reflexive human tendency to organize people into castes, with kings and landowners at the apex, and common labourers near the bottom, and women as slaves to the slaves — has yielded to our democratic norms:  i.e., that every person is entitled to one vote, and women can rise to any office in the nation.
    • the arbitrary and absolute power of despots has been called to account by an international recognition of human rights:  “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”; “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”; “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”, etc.

    Too often, the above ideals are honoured in the breach rather than in the observance. Nonetheless, Wright is correct to recognize a remarkable trajectory from a dimmer understanding of morality to relative moral illumination.

    Wright then intuits “God” behind this remarkable display of moral progress:

Fool your ears

This is the first thing I’ve come across in a while that was brief enough to share, but interesting enough to be worth doing so!

Courtesy of Digg, I bring you auditory illusions. For a long while I’ve loved a good visual illusion, but there are so few that seem to circulate that eventually I don’t bother looking any longer. But this was something new, and thrilling, particularly since I tend to be an auditory person sooner than visual.

The article itself is the host to five different intriguing tricks our brain plays on us to help make sense of the world around us. Much like the fact that our eyes retain an afterimage of each brief snapshot of the world to make our vision appear fluid, our ears lend some sort of consistency to the abnormalities of noise around us. All of them are interesting, but the best by far is the first, and so I’m going to post it directly. Be sure to listen to the following video with headphones on!

Urban legend debunked

As someone who has heard a large number of sermons in his lifetime, I can tell you that this urban legend (debunked here) is frequently used as a sermon illustration:

The urban legend is that if you place a frog in cool water and gradually turn up the heat, the frog will not attempt to jump out of the pot and will appear as if it is feeling no pain and will gradually boil to death. The story is that being that the frog is cold blooded, its body adjusts to its surrounding environment and it will simply “allow” itself to boil to death. It is often used as a metaphor to say that gradual change can be imperceptible, when compared to a major change, or just throwing the frog into boiling water. …

Vic’s [Dr. Victor Hutchison of the University of Oklahoma] answer was as follows: “The legend is entirely incorrect! The ‘critical thermal maxima’ of many species of frogs have been determined by several investigators. In this procedure, the water in which a frog is submerged is heated gradually at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit per minute. As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will eventually become more and more active in attempts to escape the heated water. If the container size and opening allow the frog to jump out, it will do so.”

Hat tip James Fallows, who points out that Al Gore used this illustration in An Inconvenient Truth. In a different post, Fallows points out, “It’s mean to the frogs to keep talking about them this way.”

Science is subjective … but peer-reviewed

An interesting description of the scientific method, from a cognitive neuroscientist:

Our field is one with many open questions, many confusing and apparently mutually exclusive data points, not to mention a dizzying array of theoretical perspectives to consider.

As scientists, we learn to live with the fact that much of our work is highly subjective. There is actually very little that any two people who call themselves “cognitive neuroscientists” are guaranteed to agree on. Mostly we make progress by choosing the side of an argument that seems most plausible given our pre-theoretical commitments, and trying to provide data that would convince someone starting from the other side. [emphasis added]

We depend on the people who disagree with us to keep us honest when our imagination or our capacity for due diligence fail us. Any published work has to survive a process of peer review in which researchers working on similar topics evaluate whether our data mean what we say they mean. Empirical evidence is always reported along with a description of the methods used, which should, in principle, be enough to replicate the result. In other words, there is a system in place that is designed to rein in our impulses to put our thumbs on the scale when weighing the merits of our arguments and the data that support them.

But what if the peers to whom you turn for a supposedly objective review share many of your subjective “pre-theoretical commitments”?

It’s not easy to eliminate subjectivity from any human endeavor. The postmodernists are right on this point. (Go here and search for the reference to Kuhn.)

Movie footage of Noah’s ark?

Here’s the background to the story, as reported eighteen months ago by LiveScience:

High on Mt. Ararat in eastern Turkey, there is a baffling mountainside “anomaly,” a feature that one researcher claims may be something of biblical proportions.

Images taken by aircraft, intelligence-gathering satellites and commercial remote-sensing spacecraft are fueling an intensive study of the intriguing oddity. But whether the anomaly is some geological quirk of nature, playful shadows, a human-made structure of some sort, or simply nothing at all—that remains to be seen.

Whatever it is, the anomaly of interest rests at 15,300 feet (4,663 meters) on the northwest corner of Mt. Ararat, and is nearly submerged in glacial ice. It would be easy to call it merely a strange rock formation.

But at least one man wonders if it could be the remains of Noah’s Ark—a vessel said to have been built to save people and selected animals from the Great Flood, the 40 days and 40 nights of deluge as detailed in the Book of Genesis.

The Genesis blueprint of the Ark detailed the structure as 6:1 length to width ratio (300 cubits by 50 cubits). The anomaly, as viewed by satellite, is close to that 6:1 proportion. …

The anomaly is surrounded below by very rugged-looking strato-volcanic rock; however, the texture of the feature in question is relatively smooth and appears to be made of a different substance.

The new development is this:  Satellite Imaging Corporation of Houston, Texas has just released a “3D Fly Through movie” of the site, using Stereo IKONOS Satellite image data. You can view the movie for yourself here.

Sure looks like a flat-bottomed boat, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t take us very far toward proving the historicity of the biblical account of the Flood. A sceptic might even wonder if this isn’t just a publicity stunt for Satellite Imaging Corporation.

Nonetheless, some folks are taking the story seriously:

They found the completely destroyed ruins of Jericho’s walls a while ago. They found the temple stones shoved off the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. They found the Pontius Pilate Stone in Caesarea. They found that the Dead Sea area used to be a fertile agricultural area.

As I’ve been told, every time they dig crap up in the Middle East, turns out the Bible was right.

Go figure!

After all this hype about sun burns and skin cancer, it turns out that a deficiency of Vitamin D could be helping cancer’s rates:

“In the latest study, scientists at the Moores Cancer Centre at the University of California, San Diego, estimate that 250,000 cases of colorectal cancer and 350,000 cases of breast cancer could be prevented worldwide by increasing the intake of vitamin D3.

“In the UK, such a strategy would reduce cancer cases by 30,000 a year.

“The study combined data from surveys of blood levels of vitamin D during winter from 15 countries, along with satellite measurements of sunshine and cloud cover.

“The data was then applied to 177 countries to estimate the average blood level of vitamin D among inhabitants, says a report in the journal Nutrition Reviews.

“The study showed lower levels of vitamin D are linked to higher levels of breast and colon cancers.”

Obviously doesn’t mean that you should go out and burn yourself every couple weeks to keep healthy, but it means that couch potatoes no longer are helping their causes either! Funny, how it always works out that our modern scientific paranoia takes things too far and undermines its own cause!


This is an issue that was actually brought to my attention last summer by my girlfriend, Rose, when she returned from her trip to Germany for World Youth Day with her church. The event is a gathering of Catholic youth from all over the world to hear the Pope speak. It is held every few years, and the country it is in changes each time. The previous one was in Toronto, and from what I understand the next is to be in Sidney. But Rose has a passion for Europe, and when she was given the chance to go to Germany with her Youth Group, she jumped. Fast.

Well, she came back enthused not just by some of the landscapes and buildings she saw, but also with a completely unique issue: That of plastic. She has mentioned it a few times now, because to this day she thinks it is one of the neatest things she has seen. And, of course, I, too find it intriguing, but have never heard of it from anyone but her until today.

I guess much of Europe is defined by pretty innovative environmental movements. One friend has mentioned large incinerators that serve not only as a way of eliminating landfills, but as a source of energy nearby as well, while still being environmentally friendly in general. Something that large scale would be pretty hard to adapt here in North America, though, although that doesn’t mean it’s not something to look forward to. But for the time being, something like what Rose came across in Germany should be an easy way of moving past some of our problems as they stand. And of course, when dealing with plastic, two issues automatically come to mind: Oil and Waste.

Both should theoretically be confronted with the ability to transform naturally-occurring glucose into plastic. The article points out that this notion is a long way off from being mainstream, but from what Rose said, that was just where it was appearing in Europe. Her disposable fork at mealtimes was composed of corn, and, surprisingly, it was even more durable than a normal plastic fork.

Yes, it will take some time for the process to be perfected. But if they are making cutlery out of corn in Germany, is there any reason that in North America it couldn’t be done? Not only would it help some of our landfill problems, since glucose is bio-degradable, but it’ll help slow the demand for oil and it makes forks that are far more usable? How could you say no?

Personally, I hope to see this in the news a lot more, soon. It’s a lot like replacing the old light bulbs — a project that is currently taking place throughout Ontario. By eliminating archaic technologies, we can begin to move past the legacy of the past generations — and avoid the eventual inevitable environmental crises that will result from our constant lack of action. Of course, until we get over our culture of purchasing a new computer, or TV, or couch every 2 years, then the landfill issue will not go away. But each step needs to be taken in turn, and something like converting from oil-based plastics to glucose-based plastics would be a good place to start.

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