Thursday, April 26, 2007

My Hero, Stephen Hawking


"Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who has been confined to a wheelchair for most of his adult life, expects weightlessness to feel like 'bliss' when he goes on a 'zero-gravity' flight Thursday aboard a refitted jet. . ."

This man has been living with ALS for over 40 years - many times over past the longest reasonable life expectancy he could have been given when diagnosed at age 21. He's now 65, and, oh yeah, during those intervening years he managed to compute many features of the space-time continuum and develop human understanding of our place in the universe. This guy is made of tougher stuff than the Iron Horse himself.

I think I'm going to re-read A Brief History of Time for my next book.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bioethics Quiz

You are an expectant father in a frantic delivery room. Your baby is in breach position, and his little legs and part of his torso just past his belly button are out, but he's stuck and your wife is hemorraghing at an alarming rate. The OB informs you that, having been deprived of oxygen for so long, your baby will be severely brain-damaged, and will not survive more than a couple weeks on life support after birth, and will be essentially unresponsive and kept alive by machines for that short while anyway. Moreover, because the baby's head is compressing your wife's spinal cord, she will be rendered a parapalegic at the very least, and may also sustain severe brain damage from the hemorraghing, if they do not remove the baby immediately. If they do remove the baby immediately, she will likely be spared paralysis and certainly will suffer no brain damage. However, the only way to remove the baby is by a partial birth abortion. You have power of attorney and all applicable medical consent forms have been signed by your wife allowing you complete control over any health decisions she is unable to make.

Quiz question: who decides what to do? (hint: it's not really a bioethics quiz)
Answer (from the United States Supreme Court): A nearly all-male majority of Congress. And by the way, fuck you if you think stem-cell research might restore your paraplegic wife to full health.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

On Creationism

Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins both push an argument pointing out that creationists are making a scientific claim, and that the issue is not one of religion vs. science, but of which scientific claim is more accurate. Claims about how human beings originally came to be on Earth are scientific claims about the natural world.

Creationists accept the following theory, from Genesis 2:7-8, about how the first human, Adam, from whom we all descend, was created: "And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. 8: And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. "

This is a scientific claim in that it is, at least in theory, empirically testable. Here's a thought experiment: let's set up video cameras to record the event. The creationist claims that if we could go back in time, set up video cameras and record at the precise place and time of the occurrence described in Genesis, we would see a man being formed from actual dust -- real matter in the natural world -- and springing to life after having wind blown up his nose. It is debatable whether the video would pick up God insofar as creationists, I think, would claim that he is supernatural and so would not be visible in the material world. But that's no matter because creationists accept (I think) that the dust, Adam, and the wind in his nose would be events involving actual matter in the natural world, and so should in theory be recordable on a video.

The "video" of evolution would involve much more footage, occurring over a much longer period of time, but you can imagine the prediction an evolutionist would make about what we'd see on the videos, the footage of which would go back at least as far as the lives of clearly non-human primate ancestors and forward through their step-by-step mutated offspring.

Thus, the creationist and the evolutionist both have predictions about what we'd see on the video tapes. They both make scientific claims that are testable, at least in theory. Based on other empirical evidence of which I am aware, including the fossil record, and the DNA links between our species and "lesser" primates and other related species, such as mammals generally.

Based on this evidence, my money is on a series of videos that trace man back through a mutation process that arose from a clearly separate species. I am still awaiting a presentation of evidence from creationists that is more impressive than the overwhelming evidence for evolution. I'd consider it if it were presented to me.

I have a similar belief about the virgin birth. We could, in theory, test Jesus's DNA and compare it to Mary's and determine if there was any other contributing human DNA. More crudely, we could do the video thought experiment with Mary too. I bet video would reveal sex, or perhaps rape. This would be the most shocking video ever, incidentally.

I think I'll end this post on that note before I go too much farther down this road just before Easter. . .

Friday, April 06, 2007

On Developing a Political Philosophy

I recieved an excellent question from, I believe, my second poster ever (see comments two posts ago). Hat tip to Collin Brendemuehl at Philsophy For Chistians (; and Evangelical Perspective (

I am not approaching this as-yet-begun exposition on my political philosophy within the framework of natural law. Indeed, natural law is a concept which I reject (consistent with, but not a function of my atheist beliefs).

Rather, I have begun with a premise which is contingent. If one asserts certain rights vis-a-vis society (e.g. the right to be free from bodily harm by others), then one consequently also assumes obligations (e.g. the obligation not to cause bodily harm to others). I am trying to avoid any normative (should or "ought") conclusions. Thus, the initial premise does not include the normative statement that one ought to assert rights, but that IF one does so, it follows that one is also assuming obligations.

It seems that this formulation, as I write it now, however, does fall into a normative trap about the obligations. Put another way, if one assumes a right, I appear to be saying, one OUGHT to submit to a reciprocal obligation. That, of course, is little more than a wordy version of the golden rule. Back to the drawing board.