I posted this over at Vox Day's site and decided it was worth repeating here, as well, because I find that much of the problems in discussing evolution have to do with the failure of my critics to understand the nature of science.   This is not a post about God's existence per se, just a discussion of why science can't say much about such claims. . . .

Evidence is not the truth, with a capital 'T', but simply observations reported by (we hope) competent observers.  The more rigorous the observation, the more times said observation is replicated, the more confidence we have in that observation and so we tend to refer to such-and-such an observation as 'true.'

Do people sincerely report religious experiences?   Indeed they appear to do so, so the fact that people report religious experiences is a phenomena that requires explanation, a phenomena that can be reasonably described as 'true.'

We reserve the right, however, to revise or reject such claims based on improved data, so these kinds of claims are never Truth with a capital 'T', the sort of eternal truths sought through philosophy or religion.

Because of this, scientists are not in the 'truth business.'  We are in the model-building and model-testing business.  When a model seems to do an especially good job of describing, explaining and predicting many phenomena we have the tendency to call such a model a 'theory', as opposed to a mere 'hypothesis.'  But we never claim that theories are Truths.

Now, the problem from this standpoint with claims such as the existence of God is not that they may or may not be true, or that the existence of God is an eternal Truth, etc.  The problem is that we can't ever move that hypothesis to the 'theory' stage because we can' test its ability to describe, explain or predict phenomena.  The God Hypothesis that fails a particular test can always be 'resurrected' by amending it with claims about God's intent, God's nature or the invocation of the supernatural.  It is not the possibility of the supernatural's  existence that scandalizes the naturalist, but the fact that within science we have no procedure to test the evidential basis of supernatural claims.

We therefore exclude them without attempting to rule one way or the other on the claim.  The best we can do is check out the testable consequences of such claims, whether or not the hypothesis produces the (natural) phenomena that is expected.



I've got 'em (opportunities, that is) on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. For a 'faithhead', I've sure got a full Calendar of Questions on my immediate horizon.

SUNDAY, 5:00 PM: The Central Valley Alliance of Atheists and Skeptics (CVAAS) will hold its first meeting at its new time and place:

Fresno Center for Nonviolence
1584 N Van Ness (SE corner of McKinley and Van Ness)
Fresno , CA 93728

In its mission statement, CVASS aims at promoting
"secular viewpoints in support of the non-theists who live throughout the California Central Valley. We urge camaraderie among the secular community and their supporters, and encourage joining or forming affiliated non-theistic groups so that we may pool our resources together to further our mutual goals. We accept that rational scientific inquiry has proved to be the best way to understand the natural world in which we live; and that ethical questions are best answered when based upon sympathy and empathy for our fellow humans." Hopefully, having this 'herd of cats' gather on what is nominally a day of rest will facilitate a larger group of questioners to participate.

MONDAY, 6:30 PM: Central Valley Cafe Scientifique has its next gathering, and the Halloween-themed presentation by Dr. Kevin Miller on the use of DNA in identifying skeletal remains promises to be a hoot. . . . as well as a powerful stimulus for thinking critically. Yours Truly will be there with a clipboard, looking quasi-official.

TUESDAY, 7:30 PM: The Fresno chapter of Hugh Ross's organization 'Reasons To Believe', in concert with other Christian organizations, is sponsoring a talk by astronomer Jeff Zweerink that will seek to use evidence from cosmology to argue to the existence of the God of the Bible. Talk about a critical thinking opportunity! I'll be taking a group of students from my high school to this event.

Finally, on the subject of opportunities to doubt. . . . . believe it or not, there's church. Worship services are an excellent place to ask your self what you believe, and why---and it's not really worship if it's slavish and immune to real doubt. The paradox of real faith is that it must always feel free to question! I have to confess that I doubt all the time, and one of the things of which I am dubious is the degree to which how many of the 'faithful' are actually capable of real doubt, and how many are merely terrified at the prospect. But I want to assure those outside the pews that honest doubt really goes hand-in-hand with real faith---or at least that's my experience.



My son's on a new kick: rediscovering the joys of the original 007 flicks. I think he'll appreciate this, which I discovered courtesy of the delightful Mandi Kaye.



This is, in many ways, one of the landmarks of 20th century music. Frank Zappa cites this piece by Edgard Varese as one of his most important influences, and it's easy to hear why. It's often claimed that Ionisation as originally realized was the first sort of large-scale piece strictly for a percussion ensemble. Whether or not this is true, it is certainly the first such piece in the literature whose organization is largely timbral in character, rather than around melody, rhythm or tonal centers. Varese's career featured many attempts to explore the potential for organizing music in great sheets of sound, including some of the first music composed for electronic instruments and tape.

As a sidelight, in the early 1980's I was fortunate to attend a symposium at CSU Fresno of the legendary Nicholas Slonimsky, the original conductor of the first performance of Varese's piece and (somewhat comically) a good friend and musical sounding board for the much-younger Zappa, who held Slonimsky in awe.

As well he should. You can read the wikipedia article I referenced in get a vague feeling for his immense talents, but you should've seen the looks in the recital hall when he did his favorite party stunt: conducting in multiple key signatures simultaneously. Now, I can do a hemiola (6/8 and 3/4), and I've been known to beat cut time and in three at the same time (it's a simple repeating pattern), but Slonimsky was beating 4/4 and 7/8, 5/4 and 7/4, etc. It was funny, and unnerving watching this completely charming octagenarian do this, and you could hear the gasps from all the music majors present.

Now the story is that this was more than a pre-rehearsed stunt, that in social circles he would encouarge others to pick the meters and then attempt to pull it off on the cuff, and more often than not he succeeded. Now I don't know if that's completely true, but it's the kind of story that's fun to tell. It reminds me of something that one of my profs said about Morton Feldman and tone rows . . .

and tone rows

sworn to DNA

toe sword wars

draws on sonar

. . . .but I digress.


Wilkins posted about Michael Ruse's latest offering to the widely-cited Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on-line. (A heckuva resource, by the way). Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others interested in evolution education have staked out one tactical position with regards to defending evolution that puts them at odds with more assertive critics of religion, such as PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. And they go back and forth in this vein, with more than a little rhetorical overkill. Ruse and Scott are 'Neville Chamberlain' atheists, dontcha know, while Myers and Dawkins are 'fundamentalist' atheists.

Me? I'm a theist and I find this entire 'controversy' tiresome and counterproductive.* As I see it, Ruse and Scott are no more 'appeasers' than Myers and Dawkins are 'true believers'.

In reality, even those who like to style themselves as 'radical nonbelievers', who regard religion as inherently wicked, end up making common cause with those who hold less restrictive views on religion. They do so for a simple reason: because they wish to be effective. The views articulated by Dawkins and PZ Myers with respect to how we should regard religion are not science per se and they do not in any way impel science educators to swear allegiance to any imagined 'fundamentalism' on either side. They are simply their personal views, more or less, and (agreeing with some posters at Wilkins' site) holding those views doesn't make them any more or less 'militant'.

Critics often allege that lay people will not make the above distinction, that they will conflate such views with evolutionary biology and that will make the task of educating the public and defending evolution education that much more difficult. This is, of course, true---but irrelevant. Creationists will 'quote mine' and misrepresent all manner of notions as science--that's the nature of creationists. Muzzling Dawkins etc. in the name of protecting evolution education is a means that undermines our hopes about the ends, and (in my judgement) is a response unworthy of those who profess to value intellectual liberty.

As a final observation, I remain unimpressed by these arguments in no small part because I've corresponded with Ruse, Dawkins, Myers et al and found them all helpful and willing to make common cause and assist yours truly. At the core, we all know our common foe, and the sensible and well-spoken among us know how to set aside some of our personal views in order to be effective. Ruse's riposte in the SEP is but another parry in a private fencing match between 'gentlemen of the club'. There is no scorched earth, there is no march to Savannah. I refuse to become animated about this, or jump on it either way as a talking point, and I urge other believers and non-believers alike to take a relaxed view of the whole affair.

* Of course, the reason I feel this way is that I don't care about the 'correct' formulation of atheism any more than I care about the 'correct' formulation of the Texas state GOP platform. If I was emotionally invested in non-belief (which seems contradictory), perhaps I would care. As it is, I don't and I cheerfully admire folk on both sides of the 'ScienceBlogs Atheism Wars.'


Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchHere's a nice little effort taking place in the blogosphere to draw attention to attempts by bloggers to discuss or comment on up-to-the-minute research. The plan is to offer "an icon and an aggregation site where others can look to find the best academic blogging on the Net."

Well, I'm not really an academic blogger. I'm a science teacher who happens to blog, but I think this idea has merit so I'm going to talk it up here and in the future when I'm riffing on peer-reviewed research I'm going to try to follow their guidelines. It just seems like the responsible thing to do.



The other night, I watched a local band play 'Goldfinger'....only, instead of the hammy vibrato of Shirley Bassey, the melody was carried by that wonderful quirk of early electronic music, the theremin, as played by....Blake Jones.

Blake's been a fixture of our local music scene for decades. His band, the Trike Shop, exists to realize his eclectic pop music. The band recently returned from a pilgrimage of sorts to London and appeared as part of a local benefit to celebrate the 25th anniversary of college radio station KFSR. After the show, I bought his group's first CD "A-Sides and B-Movies", which contains the song "Ross Used to Play Us His Frank Zappa Records (Cold Pepsi and Croutons)---which happens to have a snippet of some 20th century composer's work embedded in the arrangement. Like a good Zappa record, it was funny and interesting, and after the show I walked up to Blake and mentioned it to him. I appreciated his 'double take', since he doesn't get that sort of reaction every day.

What quote, you might ask? And what could such a band sound like? Well, you should check out the CD for yourself. It's a delight.


The next celebration of science here in the Central Valley will take place a week from tomorrow (Monday) on Nov. 5th, at Lenny's Bistro Deli in River Park Shopping Center, in Fresno. We'll be hearing Dr. Kevin Miller, a forensic biochemist at CSU Fresno, give a presentation on such topics as using DNA typing to identify skeletal remains in both an archaeological and law enforcement context. Should be fascinating! And, given the close proximity to Halloween, kind of timely...in a macabre sort of way!

For more info, please check out Central Valley Cafe Scientifique's web page!


The whole sexuality of Dumbledore flap I find doubly dull, and I'm more than a bit baffled by the many weird criticisms that Rowling's revelation has provoked. It's the kind of backstory that many writers take the trouble to create for their characters privately, but which they rarely make explicit because such details are rarely the point.

At any rate, I think fans of Rowling's work are bright enough to place this unrolling of the scroll in the proper context. This essay strikes just the right balance between informed textual criticism and geeky outrage.