Quickies

Skepchick Quickies, 9.21

Jen

Jen is a writer and web designer/developer in Columbus, Ohio. She spends too much time on Twitter at @antiheroine.

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    1. Hm… But if we could hook a magnet up to his body, and set up some wire coils, he could be an endless supply of electricity!

      Well, at least as endless as the sort of “thinking” that produces lines like, “BJU Press science writers take the position that science describes what can be observed, and their writing reflects that.”

      I mean, seriously, we could get decades of power from the bones of Sagan and Einstein on that line alone. (Thanks for that follow-up link, Kahomono!)

  1. The sentiment expressed in this “science” text as well as that expressed by Insane Clown Posse (“fucking magnets, how do they work?”) seem to me like crude versions of the “cosmic religious feeling” that Einstein talked about. After all, electricity is pretty magical. Even when you are armed with knowledge of Maxwell’s equations and Quantum Electrodynamics, you are still talking about phenomenon that arise from the fundamental laws of nature and the inner workings of atomic nuclei. As much as we think we know, we may still have only a crude understanding compared to what lies beneath that level of understanding. That is pretty mind blowing (IMO).

    I think the heart of the conflict between science and religion is the difference between the “WHY” and the “WHAT IS” questions. Science can answer the “WHAT IS” question (e.g. what is the charge on the electron?), but no matter how much it catalogs about the characteristics of the Universe, there is always going to be an ontological question left unanswered. Religion seeks to respond to this “WHY” question.

    Atheist say that we should ignore the “WHY” question and instead accept that we are here and get on with it. The “WHY” question may never have a good answer, but the asking of that question expresses a yearning for meaning that most humans seem to share. The folks on here will probably think me an idiot fit for nothing more than road duty with ICP, but I can’t help but feel a sense of mystery and awe toward nature which I would characterize as a “spiritual” connection. I think Evangelical Christians probably channel that same impulse into their religion and hence fear that science wants to take it away from them.

    1. I read this really awesome article on Boing Boing a few months ago about how “How the fuck do magnets work?” isn’t really nearly as dumb a question as we like to smugly think it is. Sure, most of lay folk us know there are such things as magnetic fields and that things have positive or negative charges, and that those charges are mostly a result of how many electrons a given atom has, and that atoms want to “balance” those charges are so are attracted to atoms with the opposite charge and blah blah blah…

      But why do atoms have these charges? Why do those charges “want” to be balanced? What causes a particle to take on a charge? Why are there such things as electrons, protons and neutrons, and what constitutes the difference between these?

      You follow the question through, “How the fuck do magnets work?”, and you quickly get to some really interesting, weird, and eventually mysterious physics.

      The song isn’t really about there not being any scientific explanation for these things, or saying that they’re all magic or the work of God or whatever, it’s really just about noticing that the universe if FULL of incredibly strange, fascinating, “miraculous” phenomena. That there’s lot of wonder out there. And that’s a sentiment that I think most scientists would absolutely, totally endorse.

      So let’s not be too hard on ICP, okay? They’re talking about being excited and fascinated by the universe, and are ASKING QUESTIONS about it. That’s good stuff!

      This textbook, though, in giving up, saying “nobody knows”, and not bothering to ask any questions and not taking any joy in the mysteries, is a very different kind of message, and a really ugly one. I can’t believe there are people who think this is a better education for their kids than what’s provided by public schools.

      The moon chapter was even worse. It’s just pure creationist, dogmatic, anti-science propaganda. It doesn’t just say “nobody knows” and give up, it instead provides ridiculously simplified and inaccurate versions of the science, mocks it, and then says “but unlike those silly scientists, we know the REAL answer! Godidit!”

      1. Yes, the textbooks were beyond sad. I think many of the people who fight for this bunk are afraid that science is going to take away the inner comfort that they get from their religious faith. Why else would you spend so much energy pissing into the wind against reason. Fear tends to bring out the worst in people.

        I know my sister who graduated from a prestiguous liberal arts college converted to Apostolic Christianity for this reason. She is not dumb, but I think she rationalizes her faith in the crazy dogma because the spiritual component of her faith is the only thing that stands between her and the black hole that sucked in my mom and brother (they both committed suicide).

        \BCT

        1. I don’t know, I think there’s *lots* of reasons that people turn to faith, not just fear. But I absolutely agree that there’s a huge connection between the two.

          Actually, the most recent episode of Doctor Who had that as a theme. It was great, really touched on the connections between fear and faith, and how relying on faith to deal with your fears can be dangerous and make you very vulnerable.

          SPOILER ALERT:

          I thought the minotaur-alien was a terrific metaphorical stand-in for faith healers and psychic surgeons and others who prey upon people’s fears, who use that connection to exploit people in vulnerable situations, and how when people are scared they’re a lot more likely to believe in what you offer them. The revived series often has lots of cool messages about questioning what you see, thinking for yourself, acting on your own conscience even when nobody agrees, etc. but this was definitely one of the most skeptic-friendly episodes you could have in a soft-sci-fi show with aliens. The victims were chosen because they were a superstitious gambler who believed in luck, a socially anxious conspiracy theorist, a muslim, a scared dude who wanted his government to think for him, and a woman who placed too much faith in her flawed friend. It was great to see some pro-skeptic allegorical propaganda in pop-culture instead of the usual “Doubt makes you weak! Faith and believing in things makes you strong!” message I’m accustomed to getting on TV. :)

      2. They aren’t asking questions, they’re saying goddidit.

        http://www.examiner.com/atheism-skepticism-in-new-york/insane-clown-posse-defend-miracles-their-celebration-of-ignorance

        The article contains a link to their interview with the Guardian. A brief excerpt:

        “Like Stonehenge and Easter Island,” says Shaggy. “Nobody knows how that shit got there.”

        “But since then, scientists go, ‘I’ve got an explanation for that.’ It’s like, fuck you! I like to believe it was something out of this world.”

    2. That is a great way to put it, but “why” only matters if you presuppose that everything has a purpose. If you take away the notion that something must have a purpose, then it really doesn’t matter why electricity exists, if we know the mechanics of how it works and how to use it for our benefit.

      Religion presumes that everything that exists must be in existence for some purpose and therefore, god is needed to explain why things are there — because some consciousness created them for US to use. It’s a pretty egocentric point of view. Thinks exist completely independent of our ability to use or even perceive them. If god created electricity for us to use, why would it take so long for us to be able to use it?

      1. Awesome point! I find it pretty weird how humans have this tendency to always ask “why” of things that really don’t have an answer to that, or need one. “Why”, as you said, is all about things that have uses, purposes, reasons. But most things don’t. Most things aren’t tools. So “why” is a silly question to ask.

        It’s almost like asking… I don’t know… “When is a chicken?”… the question makes no sense in relation to the thing you’re asking about. A chicken isn’t an event.

        One of the examples I love to use is how rude it would be to ask a pregnant woman “why are you having this child?” or “what is your intended purpose for this child?”. She’s just having the child, and the child doesn’t need a use or purpose or meaning. Its life and her pregnancy are valid without needing any purpose.

        And, like, a deer in the woods might have a role in the ecosystem, but that isn’t its purpose. The deer just wants to be a deer, and the point of a deer is a deer. You know?

        1. It would be rude to ask a pregnant woman “why are you having this child?”, but not because the question is a wrong one to ask, but because you and I aren’t the ones who should be asking it (it is, in most cases, not our business). I would hope the woman and the also the father might entertain that question before consumating the causal act. Although it is unlikely, the woman could be thinking that, “hey, after this baby is born I want to harvest its kidneys and sell them”. That would not be okay (and in that case it would be your’s and my business).

          As far as the deer goes, I agree that it just wants to be a deer. The deer has instincts that it follows. That is pretty much it unless there is some higher deer consciousness that we don’t know about whereby deer sit around going “why am I here?”.

          We humans seem to be unique in that have the extra brain capacity and we aren’t so consumed with survival that we actually have time to sit around having these sorts of existential reflections.

          The atheist may dismiss the “why am I here” question of non-sensical (“hey, bub, there is no answer, you are just here – period”), but that question is IMO related very closely to the question of “what should my purpose be in life?” – e.g. making porno films or feeding the poor? (I suppose one could feed the poor with money made from producing porno films) or “how do I find a sense of fulfillment or satisfaction in my life?”

          Perhaps these are questions that anxious people who are plagued by boughts of depression (such as myself) ask more than naturally happy people. Maybe it just the tug of war between the survival instinct (the instinctual desire to live) and the feeling of hopelessness that makes one comtemplate tasting the business end of a firearm.

          In any case, an interesting discussion. That Dr. Who episode sounds like a good one, Natalie. I haven’t seen that show in many years, maybe I’ll seek it out for a trip down memory lane.

          \BCT

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