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During the first discussion, we explored the open source movement going on all around the world in which people are agreeing to collaborate on any project; software or hardware, share information, designs, source code, blue prints, etc, in order to achieve the common good and/or make some money along the way. We saw that these technologies are being applied in every field from computer operating systems to building cook stoves and tractors.

What some of us are really interested in is how we too can get started so we can we be apart of this open source movement. The technology is available, its low cost, information is largely available, collaborators are all around us even across the world, and most importantly there is the need for us to get together so we can do something practical for the common good.

open source

In this discussion I hope to present an analysis of the fastest growing open technologies pointing towards mobile devices, mobility and connectivity and how they give us an opportunity to get started.

Presented by: Yusuf Mulinya


The August 2012 Freethinkers’ Night will take place on Thursday, 30th August, at SPICE GARDEN (formerly 4 Points Bar & Restaurant ), Centenary Park, Kampala, starting 6PM. Entrance is FREE.

If you are an open minded person whose opinions are formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason and are interested in meeting like-minded individuals – you are more than welcome to join us.

AIDSOver the past few years, Uganda has been able to get a grip on its HIV epidemic, to a good degree. Since the massive scale-up in treatment that started around 2004, many people are now on Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART), which can prolong the life of HIV-infected individuals by more than 15 years if administered and managed correctly.

Anti-Retroviral Therapy is complicated though, in many aspects.

First, for the patient:

  • It is a life-long therapy, that requires drugs every day, complemented by sufficient nutrition.
  • There may be side effects.
  • The environment for the patient may not be optimal, social isolation and stigma are still frequent occurrences.
  • There is always the risk of resistance, the on-going process of the virus that slowly mutates to become resistant to some drugs. This gets worse when people skip (voluntary or involuntary because of drug stock outs) some treatment days.

Secondly, for the health sector:

  • The epidemic puts a major burden on the health system. It can barely cope.
  • HIV-positive individuals must be continuously monitored to make sure that their outcomes are improving, and that the drugs are working.
  • Drugs must always be available, in sufficient quantities.
  • New developments and knowledge in HIV means continuous training.
  • Samples must be tested, sometimes not where the samples are taken from, but at reference labs.
  • Health workers are not sufficient, and it is hard to retain them at health facilities. They prefer working in the city, rather than rural areas.

aids-ribbon

PREVENTION:

The best medicine therefore is still prevention:

  • Prevention of new infections.
  • Prevention of infection to children of infected mothers.
  • Prevention of infection in married couples whereby one of the two is infected.
  • And prevention of everyone else.

Known strategies that work include abstaining and being faithful. Condoms are extremely effective, but are not as heavily promoted anymore as they used to be. Newer methods include the female condom and medical male circumcision; the latter has become policy for Uganda.

THE PROBLEM:

However, prevention efforts are failing. The number of new infections is on the rise, compared to earlier years when Uganda was touted as a success story in the fight against HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the UNAIDS annual global report of 2010 (with data from 2009):

  • There are currently around 1.2m people living with HIV in Uganda. In 2001, there were 980,000 people living with HIV
  • Women and children are disproportionally more infected. There are around 610,000 women and 150,000 children infected in 2009.
  • Of all adults between 15-49 years, around 6.5% is infected, but major regional differences exist. In Kampala, it is estimated to be 8.5% (2009 data).
  • In 2009, it was estimated that 120,000 new infections took place.
  • The number of deaths from HIV is decreasing. In 2009 there were an estimated 64,000 HIV-related deaths, with 89,000 in 2001.
  • Uganda has spent close to  $270m on HIV in 2007, of which only 2.5% was funded by domestic public spending.
  • In 2008, approximately 153,000 people received ART, and in 2009 this number was slightly above 200,000
  • But it is estimated that around 520,000 people would need ART, based on their disease progression, although Uganda reported that this number slightly above 373,000
  • The world bank estimates Uganda’s population growth to be around 3.3% (2009).

These numbers are worrying, because the country cannot afford this epidemic. All individuals who are currently HIV positive will require treatment at some point. As of now, less than 20% of all who are infected are being treated, yet the health system is already struggling to keep up with the demand. International funding is under pressure – yet the number of new infections is on the rise.

image

From: Epidemiological Fact Sheet on HIV and AIDS, 2009: UGANDA

If these infection rates continue to increase what will happen to Uganda? What’s the way forward?

LET’S DISCUSS!!!

If you are an open minded person whose opinions are formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason and are interested in meeting like-minded individuals – you are welcome to join us at the meeting.

The June 2011 Freethinkers’ Night is going to take place on Thursday, 30th June, at 4 Points Bar & Restaurant, Centenary Park, Kampala, starting 6PM. Entrance is FREE.


See also:

Evolution is not wrongBecause the theory of evolution does a lot of damage to a literalist interpretation of the bible, many believers and various conservative Christian denominations are reluctant to accept it as valid, even though among scientists relevant to the field, evolution is a settled matter. It is a scientific fact. (If you’re hung up on the term “theory”, as it pertains to evolution, you should know that when scientists use the word “theory”, it has a different meaning from how the word is used in normal everyday conversation. In scientific usage, the term "theory" is reserved for explanations of phenomena which meet basic requirements about the kinds of empirical observations made, the methods of classification used, and the consistency of the theory in its application among members of the class to which it pertains. See: Scientific theories).

There is plenty of evidence that supports the theory evolution, such as the very fact that disease-causing micro-organisms evolve to become resistant to antibiotics, or how certain pests evolve to become resistant to certain pesticides. Animal breeders have had centuries of experience selecting certain desirable traits in some domestic animal breeds and having them mate with others to produce off-spring bearing the said desirable traits, or sometimes hybrids that may share traits of both. Creationists (i.e. people who reject evolution on the grounds of their belief that all living organisms were created by a ‘God’) normally concede this point, but dismiss it on the basis that it is “micro” evolution, and then go on to insist that “macro” evolution is what is false. Here is an excerpt from an essay called “Microevolution Doesn’t Prove Macroevolution” from the United Church of God website, expounding upon this kind of objection:

Studies that find small variations within a species over time, such as in the size of finch beaks or the coloration of moths, are sometimes used to try to prove Darwinian evolution. But such studies are sometimes flawed. And even if valid, they provide no such proof.

Adaptation within a species is called microevolution. It is the same phenomenon at work when the average height of men and women increased by several inches in the Western world over the course of the 1900s. Better health and nutrition played a large part in producing larger-sized people. In the same way, microevolution is at work when breeders produce varieties ranging from Chihuahuas to Great Danes within the one species Canis familiaris —the domestic dog.

These examples show, as in the rest of nature, that all species do have a margin of change available within their genetic pool to adapt to conditions. This trait is found in man, who can adapt to freezing weather, as the Eskimos do, or to the broiling sun in the desert, as bedouins have done. But bedouins and Eskimos are still human beings, and if they changed environments again, eventually their offspring would also go through minor changes to better adapt to their new environment.

What has never been scientifically demonstrated—in spite of many examples of wishful thinking—is macroevolution, or the change from one distinct species to another. Dogs have never evolved into birds or human beings.

But is this objection a valid one?

No, it is not:

The term "macroevolution" frequently arises within the context of the evolution/creation debate, usually used by creationists alleging a significant difference between the evolutionary changes observed in field and laboratory studies and the larger scale macroevolutionary changes that scientists believe to have taken thousands or millions of years to occur. They may accept that evolutionary change is possible within species ("microevolution"), but deny that one species can evolve into another ("macroevolution"). Contrary to this belief among the anti-evolution movement proponents, evolution of life forms beyond the species level ("macroevolution", i.e. speciation in a specific case) has indeed been observed multiple times under both controlled laboratory conditions and in nature. The claim that macroevolution does not occur, or is impossible, is thus demonstrably false and without support in the scientific community.

Such claims are rejected by the scientific community on the basis of ample evidence that macroevolution is an active process both presently and in the past. The terms macroevolution and microevolution relate to the same processes operating at different scales, but creationist claims misuse the terms in a vaguely defined way which does not accurately reflect scientific usage, acknowledging well observed evolution as "microevolution" and denying that "macroevolution" takes place. Evolutionary theory (including macroevolutionary change) remains the dominant scientific paradigm for explaining the origins of Earth’s biodiversity. Its occurrence is not disputed within the scientific community. While details of macroevolution are continuously studied by the scientific community, the overall theory behind macroevolution (i.e. common descent) has been overwhelmingly consistent with empirical data. Predictions of empirical data from the theory of common descent have been so consistent that biologists often refer to it as the "fact of evolution".

From: Macroevolution – Misuse

Paleontologists suggest that Tiktaalik is representative of the transition between non-tetrapod vertebrates ("fish") such as Panderichthys, known from fossils 380 million years old, and early tetrapods such as Acanthostega and Ichthyostega, known from fossils about 365 million years old.  Tiktaalik

So what is macroevolution anyway?

In science, macro at the beginning of a word just means "big", and micro at the beginning of a word just means "small" (both from the Greek words). For example, "macrofauna" means big animals, observable by the naked eye, while "microfauna" means small animals, which may be observable or may not without a microscope. Something can be "macro" by just being bigger, or there can be a transition that makes it something quite distinct.

In evolutionary biology today, macroevolution is used to refer to any evolutionary change at or above the level of species. It means at least the splitting of a species into two (speciation, or cladogenesis, from the Greek meaning "the origin of a branch", see Fig. 1) or the change of a species over time into another (anagenetic speciation, not nowadays generally accepted [note 1]). Any changes that occur at higher levels, such as the evolution of new families, phyla or genera, are also therefore macroevolution, but the term is not restricted to those higher levels. It often also means long-term trends or biases in evolution of higher taxonomic levels.

From: Macroevolution – Its Definition, Philosophy and History

Is there evidence for macroevolution? Yes. TONS.

See: 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution – The Scientific Case for Common Descent.

Former Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, Richard Dawkins, makes a case for evolution in this interview:

 

In the video below, biologist Kenneth Miller talks about the relationship between Homo sapiens and the other primates. He discusses a recent finding of the Human Genome Project which identifies the exact point of fusion of two primate chromosomes that resulted in human chromosome #2:

 

To view Kenneth R. Miller’s full lecture (1hr 58min 42sec): The Collapse of Intelligent Design, go here. (Kenneth Miller is a Roman Catholic, by the way)

A Nice Analogy:

I came across a rather simple and interesting way of explaining to creationists HOW macroevolution works. I don’t know who first came up with it, but I found it via Reddit. It goes like this:

macro vs micro evolution

Let’s hope they get it. It can’t get simpler than this.

About four years ago attended a bio disc demonstration at Golf Course Hotel, here in Kampala.

Bio_Disc

After spending close to 10 minutes spewing out New Age ‘energy’ slogans (the bio disc ‘harnesses energy’, ‘purifies’ water, creates ‘harmony and balance’ in your body, etc) a marketing official from the company selling the bio disc asked the audience to point out to him fattest/biggest man in the room. When the crowd pointed out such a man, he was asked to come up to the stage for a demonstration. Four other volunteers were also invited onto the stage to participate as well.

The bio disc marketer then poured water from a jug over the bio disc, and let the water spill into a plastic aerosol container. Once the aerosol container was filled, the lid was screwed back on. He declared that the water in the container had been ‘energised’ by the bio disc.

It now was time for the demonstration.

The bio disc marketer asked the ‘fat’ man to sit on a chair situated in the middle of the elevated platform. He then asked the other volunteers to try lifting the fat man with just two fingers each. They failed.

The marketer told the volunteers not to worry. He walked up to each one of them and sprayed them with ‘energised’ water from the aerosol container. After he was done spraying all of them, he once again asked them to try lifting the fat man off the chair.

They were to lift him on the count of three.

‘One’

‘Two’

Three!

This time, the four volunteers swiftly lifted the man off his seat and held him in the air for a number of seconds, to the astonishment of all of us in the conference hall.

At the time I thought their success was more due to something psychological, because it seemed to me to defy all logic that spraying water on people could make them stronger. What the hell does it even mean to ‘energise’ water? It made no sense. I was deeply suspicious about what was going on.

Below is a video showing the man who claims to have invented the bio disc carrying out a somewhat similar demonstration with the bio disc. But instead of spraying ‘energised’ water to strengthen the participants, he uses the bio disc to ‘weaken the effect of gravity’ on the man sitting on the chair (i.e. to make him lighter) to supposedly make it easier for the participants to lift him.

 

This indeed appears impressive.

However, a little research revealed that this bio disc demonstration is nothing more than a common parlour trick!

Even without there being a bio disc to energise people, or to weaken the force of gravity, ordinary people were doing the very same thing – and they were doing it for fun. Many of them have posted their videos on YouTube:

 

 

This trick is called the One-Finger Lift.

Australian science podcaster, Karl Kruszelnicki, explains how it is done:

There are lots of videos of this Finger Lift on YouTube. One of them claims that "it’s an old Romanian trick", while others have Chinese or Africans doing it.

But they all have the timing in common. For the first doomed attempt to lift the subject, there was no effort to get everybody to do the lift at the same instant. In fact, there was deliberate vague misdirection, along the lines of "so go ahead try to lift".

And in all of the videos on YouTube, you can see that the lifters are very much out of time with each other.

That means that for the brief instant each person is trying to lift the subject by themselves, they are fruitlessly trying to lift the entire 50–80kg weight of the subject on one (or two) fingers.

But for the second successful attempt, the timing is very precise.

The purpose of the chanting of the numbers, or the prayer, or song is not to Unleash the Power Within — it’s really to synchronise the four potential lifters into one single lifting unit.

And there is usually a countdown to the final lift. So all four lift as one, and so each one has to lift only 12–20kg with the chosen finger or fingers.

[You can get the mp3 of the full podcast episode dealing with the One-Finger Lift here.]

We had the chance to talk about the bio-disk at the recent Freethinker’s Night, in our discussion of alternative medicine. Much to our amusement we tried to do the One-Finger Lift ourselves (of course, with no bio disc) and were surprised that we could also do it!

The bio disc has been on sale in Uganda for a hefty sum of US$500, and many people bought it, having been told that it can purify drinking water, reduce fuel consumption (if you place it in your car’s fuel tank), treat arthritis and joint pain (by shining a light through the bio-disk and illuminating the part of your body where the pain seems most concentrated), among other things.

As ridiculous as all this sounds, many Ugandans have fallen for it.

Demon Possession Stories of ‘demonic attacks’ in primary schools have become a staple feature of Ugandan Media in recent years:

Demons attack Kiboga pupils (New Vision, 7th July, 2004):

A primary school in Kiboga district was closed in May after parents reported that their children were being attacked by demons.
Bisika Primary School, located in Butemba sub-county, was later re-opened but the pupils continued to live in fear. Another demon attack was reported on June 29, in the same school.

Bisika, a government-aided day primary school, is located five kilometres from Kiboga town. The well-furnished four-building school has 450 pupils.

The parents accused Isma Sserunkuuma, a man, who lives near the school, of bringing the demons locally known as mayembe. They said Sserunkuma wanted the demons from a witchdoctor to help him acquire wealth.

Acting on the parents’ report, the Kiboga resident district commissioner (rdc), Margaret Kasaija, ordered for the arrest of Sserunkuuma and the closure of the school until the demons would be driven out of the school. Sserunkuuma is still in detention.

“I wonder why people really acquire demons and resort to bewitching others,” Kasaija lamented before she cautioned the public against acquiring demons.
At the time of arrest, Sserunkuuma said he could not afford the demons’ enormous demands. He said the demons demanded for 300 virgin girls and cows to provide them with blood for sustenance.

Sserunkuuma added that when he failed to provide the virgins and cows, he set them (demons) free. They then attacked the pupils. He pleaded that he had no intention of harming the school, but only failed to control the demons.

The demons reportedly affected primary four, five, six and seven pupils below 12 years. When attacked, the pupils gabble and run around the compound. Others undress and foam around their mouths.

They also shake violently as if shocked by an electric current. Parents also said they had to tie their children on pegs with ropes to avoid their disappearance.

The national chairman for traditional healers, Ben Ggulu, performed traditional rituals before the school was re-opened in May. He also healed 15 pupils, whose mental abilities had been affected by the demons.

Ggulu would hold herbs atop the pupils’ heads to invoke the demons out of them. Using traditional charms, Ggulu spoke strange languages causing bark cloth-wound cow’s horn to move around the place, a ritual he said he did to search for the demons.

Demons hit school (New Vision, 4th February, 2008):

OVER 100 pupils of Sir Tito Winyi Primary School Kiziranfumbi sub-county in Hoima district became “hysterical” yesterday, forcing the school to close, in what the authorities described as a demonic attack.

Some victims had undressed.

Hundreds of parents flocked to the school and took their children away.

As the situation seemed to run out of hand, the Rev. Geoffrey Matata of Kiziranfumbi Church took the children for special prayers.

Head teacher Vincent Kitende said 720 pupils had reported for the first term, which opened yesterday. “The situation is bad. About 100 pupils are totally mad. They are chasing everybody including teachers and fellow pupils, throwing stones, banging doors and windows. The situation is difficult to explain.”

The school, named after the late Tito Winyi, the King of Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom and father of King Solomon Gafabusa Iguru, is a UPE mixed day school, with a total number of 970 pupils.

Kitende said late last year, a similar incident happened at the school, affecting about 210 pupils. “We do not know what to do. on Sunday, we held special prayers before the pupils reported and assured parents to send their children, knowing there was no cause for alarm. But here we are in a bad situation again.”

Last year, four residents of the area, one of them a Congolese national, were arrested and charged in a Hoima court with casting a spell on the school. However, when the prosecution produced witnesses, court had to adjourn and magistrate George Obong and the prosecutors fled the courtroom after the pupils who were witnesses became hysterical again when they saw the suspects. The suspects reportedly have a land dispute with the school.

Demons in Hoima district? (New Vision, 9th February, 2008):

THE land wrangles in Hoima District have taken on a new dimension. Pupils are suspected to have suffered a demonic attack and their academic future hangs in the balance. Residents are accusing a prominent landowner of provoking the demons. Pascal Kwesiga visited Hoima and now writes.

AS the saying goes, when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. Juliet Katusabe and Lillian Kwikiriza had just begun the new school term last week when they were hit by severe headaches. Then came sharp pain in their stomachs. And then, darkness. Residents believe the children were attacked by demons, resulting from the land wrangles in Hoima District.

School officials say the girls were among many pupils hit by a demonic attack.

It began when one girl started barking like a dog. Then, others started shouting and pressing their stomachs, saying they felt a burning sensation in their stomachs. Children, both boys and girls, dashed out of their classes. Many were crying. Some fell to the ground and crawled. Others threw stones at people who were rushing to the scene. Adults tied up the affected children and took them to church, where the Rev. Geofrey Matata prayed for them. Eventually, the children got well.

Nakasongola school closes over witchcraft (Daily Monitor, 27th October 2010):

About 2,000 pupils of Nakasongola Junior Academy were yesterday sent home indefinitely after what the school administration described as ‘escalated incidences of evil spirit attacks.

The school is a day and boarding primary school in Migeera Town, Nakasongola District. The attacks have since been attributed to witchcraft. The school administration took the decision over the weekend after numerous consultative meetings with directors.

Pupils injured:

At least 26 pupils are reportedly admitted to Nakasongola Health Centre IV with injuries they say were sustained after being physically attacked by evil spirits.

When contacted yesterday, Mr Francis Ssebitosi, the school headmaster said the school would remain closed for three days as the administration ‘seeks a way forward’. “Our school, like many others in this area, has been affected by evil spirit for very many years but in the last month these attacks have escalated and we felt it would be best to send the children to their parents,” he said.

And the most recent one…

Kitebi Primary School remains closed over mass hysteria (New Vision, 30th March, 2011):

KITEBI Primary School in Rubaga division has remained closed since Monday after 100 pupils tried to kill a teacher.

The pupils at the Government-aided school reportedly became hysterical and acted as if they were possessed by evil spirits.

Sarah Namutebi, the deputy headmistress, said an unidentified pupil ran berserk during breakfast time. Shaking his body and shouting, the pupil claimed that Naome Wandera, a Primary One teacher had concealed charms in the compound which were disrupting the school programmes. “He attracted other pupils’ attention and many of them became hysterical,” Namutebi narrated.

The situation went out of hand when goons from outside the school joined the pupils. Besides eating the food prepared for pupils, the goons incited the pupils to destroy school property and beat up Wandera.

By the time the Police arrived, the hysterical students had torn Wandera’s clothes.

These stories all follow a predictable pattern:

It will be alleged that a school head-teacher somewhere (or a person he has aggrieved) consulted a witch-doctor to have him request the spirits to intervene in a domestic or business problem… the witch-doctor gives the head-teacher the terms and conditions.. the head-teacher reneges on these terms and conditions (or the aggrieved party fulfils his terms and conditions)… the angered spirits take revenge by taking possession of some of the children at his school… some children, completely disoriented, start ‘barking like dogs’… pandemonium breaks out in the school… clergymen are brought in to pray for the pupils, and cast out the demons… parents scramble to take their children away… school is closed…

..or some variation of this set up.

So what is actually going on in these schools? Are demons and evil spirits actually taking control of the minds of these children?

Most people in Uganda, being highly religious, have no problem declaring these phenomena to be supernatural in origin. The majority, being conservative Christians, are quite happy to accept that it must be evil spirits that are the cause of the strange behaviour of the children in these schools. Add to this the fact that in addition to their conservative Christianity, many whole-heartedly embrace the traditional African spiritual world-view, which includes a belief in the existence of ancestral spirits, who require continuous appeasement in order for good fortune to prevail. (While some Ugandan Christians might denounce the act of communicating with ancestral spirits as ‘Satanic’, and for that reason not partake of it, a sizeable fraction of them are more than happy to practice traditional religion alongside their Christianity, or Islam)

To the average Ugandan, this is not even a matter of debate. Indeed, as far as they are concerned, demons had possessed those children. To them, what is happening in this school is supernatural.

But is that the most likely explanation for these events?

Might there be a plausible NATURAL explanation for these same events?

Yes.

Read the rest of this entry »

Stephen Novella – neuroscientist, president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society – summarises “scientism” as:

…the belief that science can and will discover the answers to all questions, that there are no inherent limits to the ability of science to solve all problems. In my experience it is a trait rarely seen in working scientists, but often accused of, as a way of dismissing scientific criticism.

Not surprisingly, the scientism straw man is one that is being widely criticised online in various blogs and forums.

This blog post is a collection of commentary on that straw man:


Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne is a frequent target of the charge of scientism by Christian apologists, creationists, intelligent design advocates, and accomodationists. In a blog post titled ‘Can we apply science to the supernatural?’, he responds to one of his critics, as follows:

Okay, let me get one thing clear at the outset.  I do not believe, nor have I ever asserted, that science provides us with all the answers that are worth having.  Some answers worth having involve subjective taste:  which bistro should I eat at tonight?  Should I go out with Sue or with Megan? Is Joyce’s The Dead truly the best story ever written in English? (The answer to that, by the way, is “yes”.)  Why does Beethoven move me to tears while Mozart leaves me cold?  And there are the moral questions, such as “Is abortion wrong?”

Now some of these questions are at least potentially susceptible to empirical investigation and falsification (I may find, for example, that I first heard Beethoven during a really good time of my life, and that this somehow conditioned my neural response to the music.)  But science certainly can’t “do everything.”  It can’t relieve the tears of a bullied child; it can’t bring civil rights to blacks and gays; it can’t bring peace to Israel and Palestine. Still, many of the answers to these questions can be informed by scientific analysis.  If our answer to the question about abortion involves knowing whether a fetus can feel pain, well, that can—in principle—be studied scientifically.

Dawkins, too, is not immune to the blandishments of art and literature, as you can see by simply reading his books.  I suspect that both Richard and I are advocates of “scientism” only to the extent that when questions are amenable to logic, reason, and empirical investigation, then we should always use those tools.  If that’s “scientism,” then so be it.


Astronomer Phil Plait of the blog Bad Astronomy wrote a blog post titled ‘Science IS imagination’ in which he responds to an article written by a creationist who was accusing scientists advocating for evolution of scientism, and that this scientism leaves no room for imagination. Part of Plait’s response reads:

First off, there is no such thing as scientism. What he is describing is simply science, because science by its very nature is an attempt to explain all things using natural processes. And he seems to think science has no imagination.

That’s insane. Without imagination, all we can do is categorize the world. Assigning names and numbers, statistics and categories. And while that sort of thing is important in the scientific process, it’s not science itself. Without imagination, science is a dictionary.

And in fact the opposite of what Todd is saying is true. It takes no imagination at all to insert a supernatural explanation in some spot where you don’t understand the process. It’s all too easy to say "the bacterium flagellum could not have evolved," or "The Big Bang theory doesn’t explain why the Universe is homogeneous everywhere," and therefore "God did it." But it takes imagination, soaring, incredible, wonderful imagination, to look beyond the limitations of what’s currently known, and see what could possibly be… and even more imagination to make sure this venturing beyond current understanding still stays within the bound of reason and known rules of science.

Read the rest of this entry »

Staw Man

“A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To "attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the "straw man"), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.”

Source: Wikipedia

Introduction

Over at CommonSenseAtheism, an there is an interesting blog post called Time and the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

Predictably, somewhere down in the comments section, a theist commenter accuses atheists of engaging in scientism just because Luke, the author of the post, seemed to be leaning more towards scientific explanations pertaining to the subject he was discussing (Theories of Time). The commenter said:

Isn’t the question of the nature of time more a philosophical than a scientific question?

This unjustified assumption of scientism just bothers me… But that’s of course totally another topic.

An interesting back-and-forth on this issue ensued, leading to what I thought was an important and well articulated point made by an atheist commenter named Hermes. He said:

Anyone who denies scientific answers just because they are from the sciences has discarded reality in favor of a preconceived bias. Could the answers provided by the sciences be incomplete or incorrect? Sure. Yet, it’s nutty to argue that the sciences as a whole should be removed from a conversation where they seem to apply or provide some or most of the best results.

Labelling any mention of an answer from the sciences as ‘scientism’ is an admission that facts are inconvenient and that the alternative on offer can’t hold up to proper scrutiny. It is an appeal to hurt feelings and the promotion of ignorance. It is an admission of failure in the face of reality. If it were not the case, they’d offer facts not an emotional appeal, and they would not attack valid information because they don’t like the source or the facts themselves.  

Indeed, the term ‘scientism’ seems almost exclusively reserved for use by theists in an intentionally pejorative sense when trying to undermine arguments by their atheist opponents (in debate) that are based on science (usually when such arguments challenge or refute the theists’ claims).

The invocation of the term ‘scientism’ is common these days especially in discussions of topics where scientific inquiry has only began to scratch the surface. Examples of such areas might include consciousness, origin of life and the origin of the universe – or the nature of time, as we saw in the above example from Luke’s blog post. Occasionally even creationists use the term when dismissing evolution in face of the overwhelming scientific evidence for it.

Scientism

The term scientism itself refers to..

..the idea that natural science is the most authoritative worldview or aspect of human education, and that it is superior to all other interpretations of life

I don’t know how many atheists or scientists out there today would actually boldly claim that science can answer any and all questions, or that it is superior by default to all other ways of acquiring knowledge, if that is what is implied by scientism. As far as I’m personally concerned, I take the view that science is the best and most reliable method currently available for studying the natural world. Why? Because we have been able to repeatedly demonstrate it to be the case.

But science is not to be thought as divorced from reason; it is a sub-set of it. The scientific method is a certain way of applying reason; it’s commonly described as the organized, systematic, or methodical application of inductive reasoning, although other forms of reasoning may also be applied to it as well.

Typically, in a debate about consciousness or the origin of life or the universe, an atheist engaged in a debate with a theist will bring his opponent up to speed with with new scientific developments in those areas pointing to a possible, and above all, plausible natural explanation. Given that many of these areas have only recently become accessible to scientific inquiry, there will, obviously, still be certain unanswered questions – at which point the atheist might say something like…

‘Well that’s as far as we know currently through science – but let’s wait and see what we might come to understand after more research is done in that area. There are currently a number of plausible hypotheses that merit further investigation. That said, positing the supernatural explains nothing, and in doing so you are merely making a fallacious argument from ignorance/incredulity. Supernaturalist hypotheses are not testable or falsifiable in principle, so they can’t even get off the ground as explanations for anything.’

In response to this, the theist screams…

SCIENTISM!

…and he sits back thinking this somehow lets him off the hook.

Now, it could be the case that there are some mysteries about nature that science might never provide answers to – but this doesn’t change the fact that we are still justified in waiting to see how far science might take us (given its success rate as a method of inquiry about the natural world). Until a demonstrably better method of inquiry of the natural world is presented, where mysteries remain, the most we can do is to admit we don’t know, suspend judgement on that issue and keep investigating using the best method currently available – i.e. science – and see what new things we might come to learn with time. This is the attitude that has kept scientific progress alive.

The theist who insists that certain questions are not within the scope of the natural world (and therefore inaccessible to scientific inquiry) – but instead lie in the realm of the ‘supernatural’– bears the burden of proof to demonstrate that the ‘supernatural’ realm exists. Without demonstrating first that there is a realm of existence known as the supernatural, the theist is unjustified in consigning existing mysteries to it and declaring them out of bounds for science.

Unfortunately for them, most of their attempts to argue for the existence of the supernatural boil down arguments from ignorance/incredulity. The typical way out of this, is for the theist to frame the debate in such a way that is easier to manipulate – and that is what they tend to do,  as we can see from this example:

It’s always the same pattern. The theist starts by mischaracterising the atheists’ confidence in science as the most reliable method of studying of the natural world – as a religious position. He will emphasise this point by insisting (falsely) the atheist ‘dogmatically’ holds the view that science can answer any and all questions. The debate is then framed as a clash of religious views, at which point the atheist advocating a scientific approach to investigating the mystery in question (which he feels is well within the scope of science to investigate) is dismissed as a dogmatic fundamentalist of his religion – the giant straw man called ‘scientism’.

As philosopher Daniel Dennett notes in the above video, the invocation of the pejorative term ‘scientism’ is nothing more than a theist’s ploy to derail the debate, once scientific views expressed by the atheist during that debate start to undermine some of the theist’s cherished claims.

Theistic Scientism?

breakdown_thumb[10] 

Hmm… mechanical fault, or DEMONS?

One has to wonder though – would the believer be guilty of scientism if he assumed that when his car broke down for unknown reasons it was because of a mechanical fault? Would it be scientism-istic for him to hold the provisional view, while waiting for the tow-truck or mechanic, that the cause of his car breaking down was mechanical, rather than supernatural?

In a supernaturalist worldview, after all, there are angels, demons, devils, and gods – any of which, could have supernaturally  caused the car to break down. Should the believer therefore call an exorcist, instead of a mechanic? If the believer is going to behave consistently in accordance with the supernaturalist worldview he holds, he would have to seriously consider the possibility that his car breaking down had a supernatural cause. Incidentally, many Evangelicals or Pentecostals would seriously consider this possibility – in fact, most in Africa would literally believe it to be the case.  This is the precisely chaos that a supernaturalist worldview entails, when applied consistently.

Ironically, the believer who – goes to hospital when sick, rather than contact a faith healer; calls an electrician, rather than pray to the gods to restore a blown fuse; or calls a mechanic when his car breaks down, rather than an exorcist to cast out demons from it – would be acting just as scientism-istically as the atheists he accuses of scientism when they defer existing mysteries about the natural world to scientific inquiry.

I mean, why do many believers (well, the sufficiently educated ones, at least) pursue scientific approaches to finding solutions ahead of supernaturalist ones when faced with everyday problems? Isn’t it due to the fact that solutions based on science tend to be actual and repeatedly demonstrable, unlike supernatural ones? This is PRECISELY why the recognition of science as the most reliable method of studying the natural world cannot be derided as a religious faith position.

This is why what blog commenter Hermes said rings true:

Anyone who denies scientific answers just because they are from the sciences has discarded reality in favor of a preconceived bias.

Science and the arts, music, literature, love, etc..

I have often been put to task by theists to justify how science can explain aspects of human experience, such as the appreciation of art, music, literature, and emotions such as love. This, of course, usually comes up after I have refuted one of their arguments on the basis of scientific evidence.

Their strategy is to force me to concede that science can’t explain those things, which is somehow supposed to (without justification) open the door for mystical explanations for such phenomena; and if mystical explanations can be invoked to explain such phenomena then why can’t I consider the mysteries I am subjecting to scientific inquiry as being mystical in origin as well? My alleged refusal to consider mystical hypotheses in favour of scientific ones is then supposed to make me guilty of a priori “scientism”, apparently making me comparable to an irrational creationist fundamentalist fanatic.

This strategy fails for the following reasons:

  • I do not claim that science is the only way to gain knowledge. It is because we have been able to repeatedly demonstrate the reliability of science in explaining what exists in nature that I tend to prefer it as a methodology for acquiring knowledge about nature. I am open to other ways of acquiring knowledge being invoked as viable methodologies for studying a whole range of things, including but not limited to the human appreciation for the arts, music, and the like. Depending on the nature of the inquiry, one only has to propose a viable methodology and demonstrate it to be reliable.
  • If the believer asserts that mystical, supernatural, spiritual, magical or whatever other methods of acquiring knowledge merit equal consideration as science, he needs to, for starters, demonstrate the reliability of such a methodology for acquiring knowledge about the natural world.
  • If they assert instead that there is a realm beyond, or other than, the natural realm (thus allegedly inaccessible to scientific inquiry), to which mysteries of nature should be deferred, then the existence of such a realm first has to be demonstrated before any claims about what may or may not be the case about reality, based on the alleged existence of such a realm, can be made. They would also need to reliably demonstrate to what extent their preferred methodology can provide any knowledge about such a realm and how that realm influences things existing in nature.

So attempting use science to investigate human emotions like love, or experiences such as appreciating for the arts and music isn’t a symptom of scientism. It is a symptom of simply trying to use the most reliable method available to explore the mystery and see what interesting things we may come to learn.

As it turns out, we have come to learn things we didn’t know before about human emotions, in recent years.

love More here.

We are only starting to scratch the surface yet we’ve uncovered so much. Who knows what we’ll learn in the next 20-50 years? 100 years? 500 years?

This is why I get annoyed when theists arbitrarily erect walls beyond which they think science has no place. What nonsense. Such attitudes stifle curiosity and imagination, without which scientific progress would be virtually impossible. Astronomer Phil Plait put it well when he said:

It’s all too easy to say "the bacterium flagellum could not have evolved," or "The Big Bang theory doesn’t explain why the Universe is homogeneous everywhere," and therefore "God did it." But it takes imagination, soaring, incredible, wonderful imagination, to look beyond the limitations of what’s currently known, and see what could possibly be… and even more imagination to make sure this venturing beyond current understanding still stays within the bound of reason and known rules of science.

You can always insert magic or belief or some supernatural power, but in the end that is a trap. Because someone else who is more imaginative than you will see the actual steps, the process reality made, and then you are left with an ever-narrowing amount of supernatural room in which to wiggle. And once that gap starts to narrow, the squeeze is inevitable. Your explanation will be forced to fill zero volume, and you’re done. Your explanation will be shown to be wrong for everyone to see, and your only recourse will be to abandon it, far too late to save your credibility.

Conclusion

The charge of ‘scientism’ by theists is thus a straw man, and is invoked in bad faith. Theists, without sufficient justification, like to declare certain things existing in nature to be out of bounds for scientific investigation, even when scientific investigation into those things are already underway.

They pick and choose (at their convenience) what scientific explanations are applicable to a given question – and only when a scientific explanation seems to challenge or refute their religious claims will you hear them shout “scientism”. As we have seen, they do this in order to derail the debate – not to further it by offering anything that adds to our knowledge and understanding of the natural world.

I find that highly disingenuous, and its a cop-out.


Related posts:

“Why do you believe in electrons if you don’t believe in God? You’ve never seen either of them!”…argues the believer.

The atheist responds…

“there’s your electron. Now show me God”.

*EPIC TAKEDOWN*

Most arguments for the existence of ‘God’ are appeals to ignorance, or arguments from incredulity; the general gist being…

“science can’t explain X, therefore God exists.”

“X”, here, being a placeholder for all sorts of things for which scientific explanations are not readily, or currently, available. Once upon a time “X” included such things as thunder, lightening, floods, disease, planetary orbits, origin of species, etc. But because inquisitive people decided to investigate these matters rather than to throw their hands up in defeat, eventually we DID find ways to scientifically explain thunder, lightening, floods, disease, planetary orbits, origin of species, etc.

Even the mystery of the origin of life itself is one where science today is making GREAT strides towards unravelling.

Many other mysteries remain unsolved, and even as scientists persist in their quest to understand them better, it is in these current gaps in our knowledge that believers today indignantly stick their various preferred gods – as purported explanations.

One of these current gaps in our knowledge has to do with the origin of the universe.

m31_gendler_Nmosaic1

Using Einstein’s general theory of relativity, we are able to trace the origins of the universe to the moment (Planck Time) immediately following the beginning of the ‘Big Bang’ (expansion of time and space).  Prior to Planck Time, very little is empirically known, and this is where astrophysicists are hard at work trying to construct plausible models of how the matter and energy that expanded into what we today call the universe came to be. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the largest particle accelerator in the world, was recently commissioned to reproduce conditions similar to those produced during the Big Bang in order to study this.

Several logically and mathematically plausible explanations are on offer today from astrophysicists and cosmologists regarding the origins of the universe, such as the universe possibly spontaneously arising as a result of quantum fluctuations, or the universe being cyclical, or this universe being one out of an infinite number of universes. Even as these plausible models await empirical verification, what this tells us is that, in principle, the answer to the question ‘where did ‘everything come from’ does not necessarily have to be anything resembling what people call a ‘God’.

The Grand Design:

The Grand Design

In his latest book titled THE GRAND DESIGN, British theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking seeks to explore some of these models in detail.

According to Amazon.com:

When and how did the universe begin? Why are we here? What is the nature of reality? Is the apparent ‘grand design’ of our universe evidence for a benevolent creator who set things in motion? Or does science offer another explanation? In "The Grand Design", the most recent scientific thinking about the mysteries of the universe is presented, in language marked by both brilliance and simplicity. "The Grand Design" explains the latest thoughts about model-dependent realism (the idea that there is no one version of reality), and about the multiverse concept of reality in which there are many universes. There are new ideas about the top-down theory of cosmology (the idea that there is no one history of the universe, but that every possible history exists). It concludes with a riveting assessment of m-theory, and discusses whether it is the unified theory Einstein spent a lifetime searching for. This is the first major work in nearly a decade by one of the world’s greatest thinkers. A succinct, startling and lavishly illustrated guide to discoveries that are altering our understanding and threatening some of our most cherished belief systems, "The Grand Design" is a book that will inform – and provoke – like no other.

Here is an excerpt from the book:

The emergence of the complex structures capable of supporting intelligent observers seems to be very fragile. The laws of nature form a system that is extremely fine-tuned. What can we make of these coincidences? Luck in the precise form and nature of fundamental physical law is a different kind of luck from the luck we find in environmental factors. It raises the natural question of why it is that way.

Many people would like us to use these coincidences as evidence of the work of God. The idea that the universe was designed to accommodate mankind appears in theologies and mythologies dating from thousands of years ago. In Western culture the Old Testament contains the idea of providential design, but the traditional Christian viewpoint was also greatly influenced by Aristotle, who believed "in an intelligent natural world that functions according to some deliberate design."

That is not the answer of modern science. As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

(Read more here)

As expected, this book has not been well-received by the religious establishment.

Sean Carroll, a senior research associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology (and theoretical cosmologist specializing in dark energy and general relativity) agrees with Hawking. In this video below, he reiterates Hawking’s contention that modern physics has reached the point where there’s no need to invoke ‘God’ to understand the universe:

Also check out a paper Carroll wrote called “Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists”. It was published in the journal Faith and Philosophy in 2005.


Related post:

  • The Retreat to Deism (coming soon)

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