Monthly Archives: April 2005

Changes of pace [Open Thread]

Another late open thread… I was busy preparing a midterm review, and then I was seized with a fit of irreligion. I should give Christianity a break, and go beat up on Hinduism or something. Or maybe just review the new Fischerspooner album.
Fischerspooner: Odyssey: Fischerspooner’s debut #1 was a CD I really liked the first few times, but then many of the tracks became tiresome astonishingly quickly. I gather that this was not an uncommon reaction. Therefore, it was a relief that Odyssey isn’t more of the same. The sound hasn’t changed drastically, but enough that it sounds new and exciting, and brings back the otherworldly sense that the original album had before it became too familiar. Will this one get old, too? Maybe, but for the moment I’m enjoying it. “Cloud” captures what I like about Fischerspooner pretty well.

Sean Carroll, Charles Townes, and Chewbacca

Enough pope-blogging! For balance, we will now bash a Protestant organization. Sean Carroll has decided not to give a lecture at a symposium in honor of Charles Townes’ Templeton Prize. While this unfortunately means I won’t have a chance to hear him lecture at Berkeley (although it’s unlikely I would register for the symposium anyway), I have to agree with his reasons:

Upon further review, I’ve changed my mind, and decided not to go to the conference after all. (As of right now my name is still on the list of participants, but it will go away eventually.) I talked to Mark, with whom I’ve discussed these issues before, and he made an argument that seems pretty convincing. The point is that the entire purpose of the Templeton Foundation is to blur the line between straightforward science and explicitly religious activity, making it seem like the two enterprises are part of one big undertaking. It’s all about appearances. You have a splashy scientific conference featuring a long list of respected participants, and then you proudly tout the event on a separate web page for your program to bring science and religion together. It doesn’t matter that I am a committed atheist, simply giving a talk on interesting findings in modern cosmology; my name would become implicitly associated with an effort I find to be woefully misguided. There are plenty of conferences, with less objectionable sources of funding; I can give this one a pass.

It seems to me that the Templeton foundation is attempting a kind of Chewbacca defense of religion, in which they point to various unrelated aspects of science and try to claim that this demonstrates compatibility with (or evidence for!) religion. So I can understand Sean’s reluctance to play the part of Chewbacca.
On the other hand, I disagree with PZ Myers, who says,

I don’t see any difference between the Templeton Foundation and Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church—both are endowed with overflowing buckets of money and a dearth of reason, and are pouring that cash into efforts to subsidize public insanity.

Sure there’s a difference—Sun Myung Moon is actively, overtly evil, Bond-villain evil, straight up black-hat, tie-you-to-the-train-tracks, soon-my-electro-ray-will-destroy-Metropolis bad. By contrast the Templeton Foundation is just sort of silly (unless they are involved in secret political machinations I don’t know about).

Benedict XVI

So the cardinals chose the ultraconservative Ratzinger. I don’t know how this will play in the developing world, but I suspect it will alienate the more moderate Catholics in Europe and the United States. While a decline in an institution that I regard with something less than admiration might ordinarily be something to celebrate, I fear the consequences of continued hardline policies on birth control, etc. The Church’s committment to worldwide poverty and disease will doubtless endure a while longer. In the US, we will continue to suffer through clergy and punditry who declare that all Catholic Democrats (but strangely not pro-choice Catholic Republicans) are “bad Catholics”.
As cardinal, Ratzinger was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I suggest that his first act as pope be to reinstate the former name of this branch of the church. Certainly nobody would expect it!
UPDATE: Giblets proclaims victory.

Bill Frist in search of a holy war

Bill Frist, with an eye on the 2008 primaries and looking to win the favor of radical cleric James Dobson and his goons, is doing his best impression of that ranting loon on Telegraph Avenue:

According to a piece by David Kirkpatrick in tomorrow’s Times, Bill Frist is going to participate in a big anti-filibuster telecast, sponsored by the Family Research Council, in which Democratic opposition to President Bush’s most conervative judicial appointments will be cast as a Democratic war against believing Christians.
A flier advertising the event refers to “the filibuster against people of faith” and says: “The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias, and it is now being used against people of faith.”
So Frist wants to cast this, literally, as a war between the believers and the unbelievers. I guess this is part of toning down the rhetoric.

(Via TPM.) So here’s a member of the Republican leadership saying explicitly that Democrats are out to get all Christians. Why do moderates put up with people like this?
I think it’s time for a corollary to my rule about voting for Republican House candidates: I will not consider voting for a Republican Senate candidate as long as Frist is majority leader.

Maybe the city did consume them…

Damn! I only discovered The Delgados a couple months ago, but they quickly became one of my favorite bands. And now, they’ve broken up:

The Delgados, influential figures in Glasgow’s independent music scene for over 10 years, have announced that they are to amicably disband. The reason has been put down to the departure of their bass player Stewart Henderson who informed the band in the New Year that he did not wish to make another album. The Delgados have always been known as uniquely collaborative songwriters and as such, it was decided that the band could not continue without all of its original members.

I need to find a copy of The Great Eastern

Random Linkage: Vote for Pedro Edition

Fred Clark’s take on the all-important Cookie Monster issue is a must-read.
If you’ve seen Napoleon Dynamite, you should read the full text of this Idaho House Resolution praising the film. As you file your tax return this week, ask yourself: are your legislators making such efficient use of your tax dollars? (Via Fark)
Learning Curves is a great blog by a math teacher, focusing on teaching issues and the antics of her students (including some truly horrible essay writing). (Via Professor B.)
James Wolcott posts an awesome Thomas Paine quote on organized religion. Where’s Tom Paine when we need him, anyway?

Sir Martin Rees and Cosmological Speculation

I just got back from the annual Oppenheimer Lecture, given this year by Sir Martin Rees of Trinity College, Cambridge, under the title “Scanning Cosmic Horizons”. I was trying to recall where I’d seen him in the general media before, and a Google search after the talk revealed that he was the guy suggesting that humanity has only a 50% chance of surviving the next century. His talk today was concerned instead with cosmology, but Rees’ penchant for speculation was evident here as well.
Most of the lecture was devoted to explaining what is known about the parameters of the universe: its rate of expansion, how much matter there is and how much dark energy, and how uniformly the matter is distributed. He then moved on to counterfactuals: how much can various parameters change while still allowing for an interesting universe? The subtext of this sort of discussion is always the fine-tuning question: some claim that the range of physical parameters that allow for intelligent life is very narrow, and this is frequently used as an argument* for the existence of God. Rees kept these concerns at a subtextual level, even while his subsequent speculation was essentially an attack on the fine-tuning argument.
His favored explanation is very interesting: he suggests that, since we can only put a lower bound on the size of the universe, it could be far, far larger than the (roughly 15 billion light-year) observable region, and while the laws of nature and parameters of the universe seem to be locally uniform, they could in fact be varying over very large distances. Thus, some of what we consider laws could really be “local bylaws”, and the only explanation for fine-tuning would be a version of the weak anthropic principle. In effect, he said, cosmology becomes an environmental science.
The question period after the talk was relatively unenlightening; people seemed to take Rees’ speculations as license to deluge him with their own crackpot theories. (This is actually not unusual for the Oppenheimer lecture anyway.) Rees took the “smile and nod” approach to most of these. One questioner asked if science or philosophy had made any progress on Hume’s problem of induction; normally one of my favorite topics, but it’s hard to imagine any response to this particular question other than “no”, which was basically how Rees answered.
Anyway, the lecture was entertaining, both due to its speculative aspect and to Rees’ skill as a lecturer. If any readers get the chance to hear him speak I would recommend it.
*In my opinion this argument is unconvincing: when confronted with a strange and improbable phenomenon, I do not find the invention of an even more strange and complex entity to be a very satisfying explanation.