Cara Santa Maria talks science and religion on the Nerdist Podcast

May 17, 2012

A few months ago, I had no idea who Cara Santa Maria was, but I’m quickly becoming a huge fan. I first discovered her when she was announced as a leading contributor to the Huffington Post’s Science section. And if ever a publication was in more need of one since in the past, the Huff Po’s idea of an expert on medicine included Jim Carey and Jenny McCarthy.

Still, after the announcement, I started following Cara Santa Maria on Twitter, but hadn’t really checked out her work until very recently when she did a great video piece in her column called “Talk Nerdy to me”  that investigated the scientific research for intercessory prayer. Since then, she did several interesting pieces including one involving a conversation with Chris Mooney, whom I have a kind of love/hate relationship with if you’ve read my past writings on him. But one thing I loved about Cara Santa Maria is how she couldn’t be further from the science nerd stereotype. She is a young, attractive woman with a kind of rock n’ roll look who is just great at communicating science to the public in a fun and entertaining fashion.

But then she started to turn up as a semi-regular co-host on The Young Turks internet show, which I’ve been a huge fan of for awhile now. And if I had any doubt that she wasn’t stalking me, now she turns up on my current favorite podcast (now behind Filmspotting and The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe) , the Nerdist Podcast. On that show, they cover a lot of fascinating topics, but almost inevitably once they began discussing about criticism her pieces have generated, they got into a lengthy discussion of her hate mail from religious fundamentalists who reject evolution and insist on the existence of a soul despite all the evidence to the contrary, etc.

It’s just a really great conversation about communicating science to the public and dealing with denialists who reject scientific facts. Plus there are dick jokes! Here’s a link to the episode. And as they say on Nerdist, enjoy your burrito!

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The basis of all morality

May 17, 2012
Plato

Cover of Plato

I feel like I’ve written this article several times before. But since it’s been awhile, since I got into a lengthy exchange with a commenter on the topic of morality, and since reading a recent piece on the moderate Christian site, Think Christian, I’ve decided to return to this subject of morality and hopefully go a bit deeper on the topic than in the past.

Though religion typically takes credit for morality, it’s really philosophy that has made all the true breakthroughs in this arena. And though many religious folks insist that objective morality can’t exist without a divine dictator, it’s the opposite that’s true. The presence of some divine dictator who unilaterally decides good and evil on his/her/it’s own is anything but objective morality. Further, the very concept of an absolute moral standard is antithetical to justice. As Captain Jean Luc Picard so eloquently said, “There can be no justice so long as laws are absolute.” And of course Plato dispensed with this whole hypothesis 2,400 years ago with the Euthyphro Dilemma. But since Plato, many philosophers have contributed to how we think about ethics such as Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Rousseau, Locke, Mill, Rawls, etc.

For a much richer discussion than I can provide here on the most prominent schools of ethical thought, contemporary philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has written a lengthy series on the subject:  “On ethics, part I: Moral philosophy’s third way”, “On ethics, part II: Consequentialism”, “On ethics, part III: Deontology”“On ethics, part IV: Virtue ethics”“On ethics, part V: Contractarianism”, “On ethics, part VI: Egalitarianism”, and “On ethics, part VII: the full picture”. I’m not going to get into these distinctions here, however. But that should at least give those who like to think morality begins and ends with “for the Bible tells me so” something to consider.

The three topics that even the most liberal religious followers seem to have the most difficult time accepting without appealing to a third party deity are:  something from nothing or “first cause”, meaning or value, and of course morality. Hell, if you ask Kirk Cameron, he’ll tell you that without a god, his specific god, there would be no reason to not just rape and murder people indiscriminately. The idea that one might actually think of good reasons on their own for not doing so seems to utterly baffle him to no end. But of course that’s because Kirk Cameron is an idiot. Or just a terrible liar. Either way though, it kinda gets us back to idiot.

What it really seems to come down to for the religious, in my opinion, is they don’t seem to like the idea that the universe is chaotic. As the commenter who inspired this piece argued:

Why does chaos result in biology sprouting a moral stem, and us its flower? Niether [sic] Aristotle, Kant, Hume or any other philosopher can give us a WHY, without a ‘God’, without INTENTION.

I’d say it’s so because we want to survive and thrive in our environment. Why would you choose behavior that wasn’t advantageous to your survival? It’s easy to look at homo sapiens and say look how good we turned out, but what about all those millions of species that failed to learn how to work together and perished as a result? And even humans have hardly mastered the art of cooperation. We risk our own extinction as a result.

There is no objective morality in the sense that the religious often mean it. It is a chaotic world with no inherent morality but that which we define for ourselves as a social species. Morality has two main elements as far as I can tell:  the biological and the the social.  Social species realize that their survival depends on social dynamics of cooperation and trust. The universe is a struggle for existence. Social species must learn very quickly that if they are to survive, they’re going to have to work together and form cooperative groups such as herds, packs, prides, schools, societies, etc. Then they must quickly learn that if these cooperative enterprises are to be maintained, they must form rules to govern behavior as to guarantee the safety of the individuals within the group. It’s this that we call “morality.”

All morality, more or less, can be summed up as our trial and error process of figuring out what’s most advantageous for our survival and flourishing, as in the survival and flourishing of society. It’s like traffic law. There was no god of traffic who decreed that we must have stop signs. We just figured out as a group that stop signs were useful. Same with the rules we came up with for governing who has the right of way at a 4-way stop. In a short-sighted Randian objectivist society where everyone just does what they want and “don’t stick my neck out for nobody,” as Rick Blaine from Casablanca would say, a 4-way stop would likely just invite collisions. But we recognize that rules governing our behavior on the road is advantageous for all motorists in that it will facilitate less traffic and less accidents while making everyone’s travel more efficient. I contend that traffic law is a microcosm for all morality in that way. There was no need for an outside third party to devise it but it was designed by us within the system. Our laws are certainly not perfect. But they tend to gradually improve over time as we learn. And improvement is generally defined in this sense as working more efficiently and effectively for the community they govern.

Again, here’s how my commenter responded:

Fair enough, a compelling argument for beasts, but for the human individual, schooled in science, entirely irelevant [sic]. Our one mortal existence is all we shall know, and all we can get from it. The past, the future, pride and pack mean little more than what we can get from them, so long as we are individually victorious.

I said morality derived from both biological and social forces. I’ve just discussed the social aspects. This is where the biological components come in. We, like the proto-RNA we started as, are genetically programed with the drive to replicate or reproduce. Now as we evolved higher order thinking and grew more social, that drive has begun to mutate. Our programing used to drive us to spread our own genes. But once we developed social structures like herds, packs, and societies built around reciprocal altruism, it became less important for individuals to protect and spread their own genes and more important for individuals to protect and propagate the genes within the pack, whether they belonged to that individual specifically or not. Now because there was no guiding hand behind this social grouping, many social species further developed a sense of empathy for those outside of their pack or even outside of their species altogether. This is why we’ll sometimes see chimps and monkeys protect birds or see dogs protect humans, or humans protect whales, etc. Through an evolutionary misfire, we’ve come to identify with other species and empathize with them.

This expansion of herd mentality goes beyond just including other species in our sense of the herd but also allows some people to not have the same drive to propagate their own genes at all, leaving the application of the survival instinct to others in the society. There’s no separating beasts from humans because humans are beasts. We’re just really, really social ones, a trait that puts us at the top of the food chain and allows us to dominate this planet over all other species.

So while it’s almost certainly true that I get only one life, neuro-biological processes I have no control over make me care about the continued survival and flourishing of the species and other species after I’m gone. And those instincts to propagate human genes are as ingrained in me as any other aspect of my personality. But while that may be important to me as a human, the universe has no such affection for humanity or the Earth. The universe has the feelings of a dining room table. It didn’t smile when we were born and it won’t cry when we die, and it won’t miss us when we’re gone. It looks on us, as Richard Dawkins once wrote, with “pitiless indifference.”

Can an individual choose to forgo the society and choose an “every man for himself” lifestyle? Sure, but as millions of non-social, now extinct species would tell you, the odds do not favor the uncooperative individual. If there is an ultimate morality, then it’s live together or die alone.

Again, my commenter:

Amen. But what matter if you die alone, if you had a rich and powerful life? What matter if the rest of you species goes extinct, if you are but your mortal life and the power and pleasure you derive from it? You admit life is amoral, then speak as if it there are some kind of moral balances that tilt toward us living together, but where are those balances? What makes it favourable for us to live together? You are getting dangerously close to a God here, my friend.

I’d say it doesn’t matter, at least not in any larger, cosmic sense. Though in the grand scheme of things, being the king ant on a tiny blue dot in an unremarkable sector of the universe for shorter than blink in the existence of the cosmos is a far less ambitious goal or at least a less impactful one than helping to build a legacy that will greatly outlive you. But to each his or her own, I suppose. You can decide that in the face of an absurd universe, nothing matters or everything matters. Your choice.

NOw I thought I covered what makes it favorable for us to live together. To quote an old obscure movie from the 80’s, “it’s cheaper, faster, much, much safer.” You didn’t have to build your house or your car. You don’t have to hunt for your food or build a fire to cook it. Or sow your own clothes to keep warm in the winter. We have developed a complex system that allows everyone (at least ideally because let’s keep it real here) to get what they need by compartmentalizing and delegating labor responsibilities. This is massively advantageous and has allowed us the time to make countless technologies and discoveries we would never have otherwise found the time for. Some of which, like medical science, allow us to live much longer lives, which if your goal is survival, is kind of a no-brainer advantage.

Last year, I attended a lecture by Patricia Churchland, who wrote the book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality, where she took a look at the evolution of moral behavior common to all mammals. In that talk, she emphasized this combination of biology and social components by suggesting trust and attachment are the platform for moral values, aided by oxytocin and vasopressin. Mammal evolution produced an expansion of the pre-frontal cortex, which gives us our inhibitions or self-control. Oxytocin decreases defense postures and  fear responses from the amygdala, increases the level of trust and safety signals, and decreases autonomic-arousal. She continued that cooperation is the result of a general platform of trust and that all highly social animals take care of others:  kin, herd, or species. Mercats and wolves, she said, only have one reproducing couple in the group and any others are killed.

Other areas Churchland discussed included in-group bonding and how as a population grows, benefits can come from expanding trust relationships and the emergence of institutions that enforce their trust-conventions. She cited a case of an orangutan and dog who befriended each other and became inseparable as a demonstration of how group bonding can emerge between species.

In conclusion, I could go on but I don’t think I need to. The facts overwhelmingly show that what we think of as morality is simply the name we call the bi-product of biology and social dynamics relating to trust, attachment, and cooperation. Non-social species don’t display a sense of morality while all social animals that we have observed do. It has nothing to do with any supernatural third party dictator who makes grand pronouncements about how we should or shouldn’t live our lives, and calling an action immoral or evil divorced from any actual societal harm is simply incoherent. Life is struggle. And if we hope to live long and prosper, the best long-term strategy is to work together. Live together or die alone. And that is the nature of all morality.

Though I’m also quite fond of this quote from John F. Kennedy:

A man does what he must, in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures. And that is the basis of all human morality.

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News From Around The Blogosphere 11.5.11

November 5, 2011

1. Anti-vax parents engaging in bioterrorism – If so-called “pox parties” weren’t enough, some parents have begun literally mailing chicken pox infected items for the purpose of infecting other people’s kids. And even worse, some have started mailing items infected with the far more dangerous measles. This would have made a perfect setup for the virus at the end of the recent Planet of the Apes film or for a zombie apocalypse story.

2. More anti-vaxxer propaganda – Just when I thought it was bad enough that the anti-vax propaganda film “The Greater Good” was coming to NYC’s IFC Center for a week beginning November 18, now I learn Barbara Loe Fisher and her band of cranks at the misnamed “National Vaccine Information Center” has a month-long “PSA” spot playing on Delta Airlines flights that suggests washing hands alone is an adequate substitute for a flu vaccine…cause that’s who you most want to go unvaccinated…people traveling from country to country. Argh! Fortunately, the wonderful Elyse Anders over at Skepchick is on the case and has begun a massive petition campaign to persuade Delta to cease this plot to kill us all. Also, she’s provided a handy-dandy list of contacts at Delta Airlines and its video provider.

3. Zombie worms found in fossil

Traces of bizarre, bone-eating ‘zombie’ worms have been found on a 3-million-year-old fossil whale bone from Tuscany in Italy. It is the first time the genus Osedax has been found in the Mediterranean, and suggests Osedax were widespread throughout the world’s oceans 6 million years ago.

BUSTED!

4. Simon Singh vs. fraudulent psychic Sally Morgan’s lawyers:  part 1 and part 2 – You might remember Singh as the UK science journalist who was sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for libel over his calling their chiropractic “bogus” and his subsequent victory in the appeals process. I also recently wrote about Sally Morgan’s being caught wearing an earpiece during her performance. Well, Singh’s suggested she prove her powers are real, so now she’s trying to intimidate the man who beat the BCA in court with lawyers. Boy, did she fuck with the wrong journalist.

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Republican Strategist Noelle Nikpour has some interesting ideas about science

October 27, 2011

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Republican Strategist Noelle Nikpour has some i…, posted with vodpod
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News From Around The Blogosphere 8.31.11

September 1, 2011

The pale blue dot--that's home. That's us.

1. Earth:  home to 8.7 million species – At least that’s the latest estimate. Two of each of them fit on Noah’s Ark. And if you believe that one, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

2. Sam Harris corrects David Eagleman about atheism – I was unfamiliar with the term, “possibilianism,” but I certainly recognize the position. Eagleman thinks he’s found a position in between atheism and theism; he’s wrong. As Sam Harris says, what he describes is by any other name…atheism.

3. Bill Nye teaches climate science to Fox Business’ Charles Payne   – Bill demonstrates in this clip what a superb science communicator he is. He manages to hold court and deliver a fairly lengthy speech without even once being interrupted by a Fox pundit. It’s remarkable! Even better, when Payne tries to move the dialogue away from the science towards a personal attack on Al Gore, Bill brilliantly takes a moment to first repeat his key message, that global warming is an indisputable fact,  before giving a perfect political response that manages to neither “defend” Gore, who denialists like to pretend personally invented the “myth of global warming” nor falling into the trap of saying something that might be later taken out of context to portray Gore as some wacky alarmist. It’s a perfect performance and a solid win for science communication. That’s why we call him “The Science Guy.”

4. An atheist billboard rejected in Nashville – So what was so shocking that it was too hot for Nashville?

“You don’t need God — to hope, to care, to love, to live.”

How dare those mean, ol’ nasty Gnu Atheists!

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News From Around The Blogosphere 8.21.11

August 22, 2011

1. Bionic leg gives amputee natural gait – Once again, science achieves where gods have failed, creating a practical prosthetic leg that closely simulates the function of a biological one. Now unfortunately, the article was unclear whether the leg comes with a Six Million Dollar Man/Bionic Woman sound effect option.

2. A pro-science GOP candidate? – Republican presidential candidate John Huntsman has come out in support of both evolution and climate change. It began with a Twitter post where they tweeted: ”To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming.  Call me crazy.”  He then went on ABC’s Sunday morning show This Week and came out even stronger in support of science. And in doing so, he’s proven to be the only GOP candidate who seems to have graduated from elementary school and has immediately moved up to the top of my list of who I’d like to see running in the general election against Obama…at least out of the options that are currently on the table…which admittedly doesn’t say much.

I'm pretty sure this is the right Rhett S. Daniels

3. Science blogger silenced by quack’s lawsuit – Fortunately, U.S. libel cases are notoriously hard to prove and Rhett Daniels doesn’t seem to have anything even resembling a good case. But at least for the time being, René Najera has been successfully silenced by this intellectual coward’s bullying tactic.

4. Can science engineer a human with bulletproof skin?

By mixing the genomes of spiders and humans, researchers say they can create genetically altered human skin that could withstand a bullet fired from a .22-caliber long rifle.

They just better make sure this spider-man is taught that with great power comes great responsibility. This story sounds pretty far-fetched but it still makes for an interesting read.

5. JREF targets famous ‘psychics’ following Nightline episode – Last week’s episode of Nightline looked at the world of alleged psychics. It did a pretty decent job of representing the skeptical side, featuring guys like Banachek and James Randi himself voicing their criticisms and mimicking standard mentalist tricks. And now the James Randi Educational Foundation is following up the piece by issuing personal invites for several of the famous psychics featured in the show such as James Van Praagh to apply for their Million Dollar Challenge. Of course, one doesn’t have to be psychic to predict they’ll either ignore the challenge or refuse to take it with a silly excuse.

6. Psychic family caught in fraud case:

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This Week In God 8.10.11

August 10, 2011

1. Three great blogs moving – PZ Myers’ blog, Pharyngula, has moved from Scienceblogs to freethoughtblogs. Though he still posts some of his material at the old site, I’m not crazy about this move because because freethoughtblogs seems more atheist-focused whereas scienceblogs at least gives the impression of Pharyngula being more science-focused, regardless of whether the actual emphasis changes or not. Hermant Mehta has also moved his Friendly Atheist blog to Patheos, a site hosting blogs from many different religious and spiritual perspectives. I think this one was a good move because it gives Mehta’s atheist blog a great opportunity to gain readers among the religious, and this could possibly change some people’s views about atheism. And lastly, blogger Greta Christina will be soon moving her blog to freethoughtblogs. I’m fairly neutral about this because she’s already got a strong atheist readership, so I don’t expect much change one way or the other in terms of her readership.

2. Speaking of PZ Myers, he too has now publicly taken a position on the American Atheists’ lawsuit over the “9/11 Cross.” It seems that even that nasty militant atheist that Jeff Wagg today (I think quite unfairly) called the “FoxNews of atheism” in a tweet agrees with me that it’s just not worth the effort and that we’ve got bigger fish to fry:

I can understand that in principle it’s promoting religion, and I look at that random chunk of steel that forms a crude cross and can see that it is abysmally stupid to consider it a holy relic, but man, if atheists have to police every single act of stupidity committed by the human race, we’re going to get very, very tired. We need to pick our battles better, and this one is just plain pointless.

3. Stephen Hawking’s Curiosity refutes god on Discover Channel – You can watch the whole first installment at the link above…at least for now.

4. Jonathan T. Pararajasingham follows up his videos of 100 academics explaining their atheism with a 25-minute video of 20 academics and theologians explaining why they believe in god. The former is a wonderful collection of brilliant thinkers making intelligent arguments in favor of atheism while the latter is a depressing example of how motivated reasoning can poison the minds of otherwise intelligent people, causing them to make the most asinine and incoherent arguments to defend their indefensible faith.

5. Evolution wins out in Texas – Okay, I’m very late on this story. So sue me. The Texas Board of Education has unanimously come down on the side of evolution in a 14-0 vote, approving scientifically accurate high school biology textbook supplements from established mainstream publishers, rejecting the creationist-backed supplements from International Databases, LLC.

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