Monday, August 22, 2005

Then A Miracle Occurs...

Chances are, you've seen this comic before. It captures, I think the problem with trying to add God to science, which is exactly what is once again on the table thanks to the Intelligent Design debate.

Myself, I've spent a lifetime fending off attacks for (a) being an atheist and (b) believing evolutionary theory. As early as third grade, self-righteous pricks were approaching me, demanding how I could idly sit by while daming my soul to the fires of perdition. So I've girded my loins with facts, as it were. I've equipped myself with a slew of arguements for why biblical literalists have it wrong.

But times have changed, and today's religious 'plat du jour' is Intelligent Design theory, which basically runs along the lines that science, in general, is good, and most of mainstream science is true, but that evoultionary theory fails to account for a variety of factors in the life sciences, which are best explained by divine intervention. Relegated to the dustbin are the old saws of the flat-earth society, such as (a) the sun is expanding, (b) the strength of the strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force have changed within recorded history, and (c) fossils of dinosaurs were planted by god to test our faith. The new arguments appear, on the surface, to be a lot less absurd.

So let me resurrect one of favorite replies to the arguement that living things were engineered by God rather than that they evolved:

Squids have eyes with a fundamentally better design than humans.

Let me explain: The figure compares the overall structure of an ideal human eye and the real design. In the ideal design, the retina feed into the nerves that become the optic nerve from the back, like a digital camera with the lens on the front, and the cable leading to the computer on the back. Instead, our cable comes in on the front. This gives us a tiny blind spot in each eye, where the nerve has to come together and head back to the brain. In principle, this isn't a big deal, until we get a rush of blood to the head. Ever stand up to fast and experience spotty vision, or even a few seconds of complete blindness? I do on a regular basis (poor circulation), and this is caused by the blood vessels that feed the retina entirely filling. These vessels pass in front of light-detecting cells, blocking the light to them. The expression "to see red" is quite literally possible, as extreme emotion can cause rises in blood pressure that tint a person's vision red. "Blind with rage" is also possible, for the same reason.

In case I wasn't being clear: the blood vessels in the eye can blind you, because they pass in front of the retina. Not so for squids, whose eyes are build in the manner depicted in Figure A: a retina with all the nerves and blood vessels behind, out of the way. They don't have a blind spot, and don't have blood-related vision impairments. With color and motion detection comparable to humans, squids show no deficits in their vision to "balance" the equation - they simply have better eyes.

What am I to conclude from this: that my Intelligent Designer is a jerk? Personally, I favor a more rational arguement: the two eye designs are similar (because they have converged towards a functional design) but distinct (showing different characterists based on the path taken to get there) precisely because an evolutionary process led there.

What bothers me about Intelligent Design is twofold: dogmatism and complacency. On the one hand, if you take as an article of faith that God "created life" then evolution must either be refuted or somehow cowed into subservience. Dogma is notoriously unwilling to give under the pressure of empirical fact. It also doesn't require that its arguements be either rational or based on reality, so long as they support the creed. On the other hand, adding divine intervention to science is the recipe for laziness. "How does X work?" "God." "Oh." It's the way the Church has argued every topic brought under scientific scrutiny for thousands of years. "Disease?" "Demons." "Madness?" "Witchcraft." "Maggots?" "Spontaneous Genegation." If you allow someone to say "God did it," it closes the book on discussion. Even if, as an article of faith, you believe in God, why is it wise to assume that things in the physical world are beyond understanding?

Then there's the "it's just a theory" ploy, used all the way up to the President of the United States (his exact words: "The jury's still out on that one," as if science was a popularity contest). Take any theory you like: the theory of gravitation, atomic theory, or quatum theory. In each, there are huge gaps in our understanding, and many of our initial assumptions have been disproved (e.g. "Atoms are the smallest unit of the physical world. Wait! Protons, neutrons, and electrons are the smallest! Wait! There's quarks!" etc.). But the theory, the overall idea, remains accepted. The Onion did a tremendous spoof on "faith-based physics" demanding that gravitation be given equal time with "intelligent falling," the theory that things fall because of God's will.

Dennet is one of my favorites in this field of thought. In Darwin's Dangerous Idea, he points out that it's not just evolution that allows complexity to rise from simplicity. The key underlying idea is the idea of the algorithm. Evolution is an algorithm, being iterated continuously, just as the simple principles of supply and demand drive the stupefyingly complex international economy. One of Dennet's favorite analogies evokes cranes. The Intelligent Design attitude remands that the moment something defies immediate understanding, the hand of god descends from heaven and does the heavy lifting. A divine skyhook, if you will. Evolution is a crane - it can be built without requiring a larger crane or divine intervention, just as a skyscraper can be built without having to build a crane as tall as the skyscraper - just put the crane on top of the skyscraper and keep moving up.

In a way, I find the latest debate a little encouraging: the fact that Intelligent Design accepts many of the basic tennants of science (the age of the Earth, for example) suggests that rational thought is slowly chipping away at the irrational elements of our society. But I still doubt I'll see this country behave rationally as a whole in my lifetime.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


I don't get why it is that people simply don't know anything. I mean, I'm included in that statement (despite my best efforts). It drives me nuts: information seems to spill out of my brain almost as fast as I can cram more sutff in, and the stuff that does stick is rarely vital to my ongoing existence. For example:
  • I can still tell you all fifteen factions of the city of Sigil, from the now-defunct Planescape setting of D&D.
  • I have a knack for remembering the faces of actors and determining where else I've seen them.
  • I know the hebrew myth of the golem, and that while alive, the word "TRUTH" was inscribed on its forhead. Thus, by erasing one character, the word came ot mean "DEAD," and the golem ceased to live.
  • I can tell you that the Oda clan in Shogun: Total War built castles more cheaply.
What can't I remember?
  • How to program in Java, even though I spent a whole semester doing it.
  • Huge swaths of French vocabulary, even though I speak fluently.
  • Whether someone who I'm telling a story to was, in fact, one of the people present when it happened.
  • The names of more than a dozen people I went to high school with.
So my mind has become sort of a clearing house for inside jokes, gamer esoterica, movie synopses, and science fiction. Meanwhile, my liberal arts education has left me scratching my head as to the names of all those Greek guys whose ancient books I read, and to where those countries in the news are on a map.

I'd love an external memory - a digital database, codified through cross-relations (X is related to Y for reason Z). Whenever I jump onto wikipedia because I'm curious about something (like, for example, who the band Phish was), the details actually stick because I plunk them into this core.

And if everyone else did it as well, people would understand my in jokes! When I say, "It's on fire, and wrapped in bacon!" people understand me. People would know not only who Cthulhu is, but Nyarlathotep and Yog-Sothoth as well. I could joke about why the cats of Ulthar are well-fed, or why Sergeant Schlock doesn't like riding in cabs.

Just wishful thinking, I know. We don't have e-brains yet. It's a shame. People might catch the contradictions in their politicians' shifting campaign platforms.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

In and Out of Somnia

Insomnia sucks. You can be dead tired, unable to think straight, physically worn out, and yet sleep simply won't come. Then the whole next day, you're wasted until around when you should be getting to bed, at which point you start to wake up and can't go to sleep properly.

For my part, I think I've pinned down why it's always been such a problem for me. Consider: the only reason an alarm wakes someone up is to go to work/school/unemployment office. Which means that when I awaken, rag myself out of bed, and get to work, I'm awake because I have to be, but usually not because I want to be. My most ineffective hours are the morning hours, which is fine by me because they're someone else's time: provided I'm not bad at my job, I don't mind being at my worst while on the job. It's not like lives depend on my mental alacrity.

Then, as the day wears on, and as I consume calories and caffeine, I come into true wakefulness, with mind functioning at full capacity. Usually, lunch is when it hits me (which, unsurprisingly, is when I wake up when my alarm's off). Then I'm in good shape until fairly late at night.

The catch is that, when I'm home from work, it's me-time. I'm doing what I want to be doing, so my body becomes fully engaged. Endorphines get used, even though it's probably a waste (compared to, say, when I need to sprint to flee muggers or something). And the result is that while I may be tired, I want to keep doing what I'm doing. And if I deny that calling, I can't sleep. If I were talking about 7 or 8 hours of sleep, no big deal. But getting 4-5 hours for a week kills a person. My immune system shuts down, and my energy levels are nonexistent (except when I'm trying to sleep).

So: I need to somehow find a way to be doing things that are not my pet projects (but rather something boring and mundane) the next time I'm up at 4:00 AM. We'll see how it goes...