Sunday, January 30, 2011

Egypt is an Inspiration

I've been watching Al-Jazeera to catch up on the Egyptian uprising link

The images are an amazing sight to behold because they're of regular men and women standing up in protest to change their government. They're persons that want freedom. They're an example of how people can bond together to affect political change, and it is change of this nature that the United States could benefit from. They want democracy. I am not against democracy. But our politics do not account for the political nature of economics, and as economic power becomes intertwined in political power this is a poor interpretive stance. The economic is the political. With this message in mind, everyday persons in the United States could bind together in a general union ran by workers. Those who stock shelves, wait tables, and tend bars could have a political voice. At present there is no labor-left party within the United States, not one with power. But there could be one. The images of Egypt, of regular persons wanting freedom for themselves, give examples of how regular persons can stand up against the social constructs to make a better tomorrow. It makes one think that political struggle isn't an entirely depressing affair.

Friday, January 28, 2011


I've stated on here that I believe rationality ought to be part of politics. I go so far as to say that I am a sort of rationalist. I say "sort of" because "Reason", "rationality", and so on, don't mean the same thing to everyone. Not only do people disagree with the meaning and implications of rationalism, they also feel divided on the issue. My "sort of" is rhetorical: I mean to say "reserve your judgment for after you hear me out"

I believe that rationality can be summed up with a single, simple maxim: Find reasons for your beliefs which are logically consistent. When you can no longer do this, acknowledge this, but continue to reflect on this hinge proposition.

There are no appeals to a universal "making-sense-ness" within the heads of reasonable persons. There is no pointing at the unreasonable, or routing out the irrational, or exercise of epistemic chauvinism. That isn't to say that rationality can't or hasn't been used for these or other negative ends. It certainly can. However, rationality is, in the end, a loose position. It is this looseness that I wish to point out.

Suppose I claimed that I believed in God. If someone then asked why, I would say, "Because I experience his existence every day" If they retorted, "Why don't I experience this, if he is so wonderful?" I would reply, "I am ignorant. I wish he made this known to me, but I'm afraid that I can't say"

This is a rational position. It is a position I disagree with, but it is a rational position. It is epistemically rational. There is a difference between rationality and proof. Having reasons for your beliefs, finding warrant, and applying these constitently is all that is required to be rational. "Proof" is the deduction of a position from axioms. However, argument, and reasons for positions, are much more varied than deductive systems. One may only use deductive systems to justify their position, but it's not necessary for rationality.

I chose "God" because I'm mostly speaking to that group of persons who think that concluding that God does not exist is the only conclusion a rational person who is honest or not arguing for "Feel-good" constructs could come to. Rationality is not so restrictive that the atheist/agnostic/materialist/whatever world-view is a for-ordained conclusion. Beliefs as divergent as "There is no purpose in the world" or "There is a God" or "The World is nothing but Mind" can be justified underneath the rubric of rationality . We can rationally disagree and discover where, and possibly why, we diverge.

This doesn't reflect on the "truth" of either claim, or any claim within rationality. Rationality and "truth" are two separate issues: At base, if it were true that irrationality is "true", then rationality would be against "truth". All this is intended to do is point out that "rationality" really, really, really doesn't say that much, and that therefore theism, disagree with it or no, can be rational.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

THE experiment of my undergraduate career

... is making a standard curve. Today I came into lab, and we were prepping yet another standard curve. I wonder to myself: Is this what Chemists do? Are we always interested in identifying either the identity or concentrations of some substance? Is this only specific to analytical chemistry, or does it translate elsewhere?

Not that I would really mind, if that were the case. I'm really good at it, now. R^2 values are regularly .999whatever. Standard deviations are regularly quite tolerable, and this is all by hand. But I also keep on thinking: What can I do with these tools? What can I explain within chemistry with this experimental-theoretical framework? Is there really much left in chemistry to pursue outside of explaining things outside of itself, or improving the apparatusus to be more automated, more precise, more accurate, but not novel?

At conferences I've seen a lot of interesting computer modeling projects, where the standard parameters determined experimentally are shown to be able to be calculated from basic quantum mechanically based algorithms -- stuff like the change in gibbs, enthalpy, or energy contributions from solvents, solvent structures, and other modular neatness. But I can't help but think that there has to be some greater theoretical project than simply increasing the resolution of our models, improving the efficiency for identifying substances, or making more accurate estimations of important physical parameters. These would be termed core chemical projects. All other projects seem to involve elucidation of other systems for some other purpose, whether it be interest in a biochemical system, or improvement of some industrial practice.

But I'm stuck as to where, or if I tried something new if it'd even be interesting or desirable to try; PhD's earned in respected fields are likely more marketable, after all. I suppose I could memorize a few more reactions, and what they look like, to be better prepared to identify oddities when I see them, or have a handle on unexpected events at a more intuitive level. But I wonder: What novel thing can chemistry do today?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

For Accommodationism

There is a current amongst the atheist blogs I read regarding accommodationist vs. confrontationalist stances. This is my argument for accommodationism as the superior position of the two.

Confrontationalism lacks any credible epistemic basis to discredit religion at large, and this is, from what I can tell, what it tries to do. If it does not do this, then the following is incorrect. When I say religion at large, I mean all the predominant religious positions within culture today. We'll say Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism. Further, it lacks the moral basis to discredit religion at large. These are the two main issues brought against religion by confrontational atheists. I think that these positions are the product of arguing against weak positions, positions I also stand against, but when generalized to all religions then atheism is making too dogmatic a claim. At that point we're talking politics. If politics, then there are more important issues than atheism to discuss, like war, class, capitalism, genocide, health care, gay rights, science education, and so on. Further, there are religious allies to these political causes, and so if politics, then accommodationism is better for supporting these political points, as well as building a healthy pluralistic environment.

On epistemology: The central claim here is that religions are false. The basis that religions are evaluated to be false are scientific claims. However, there exist scientists who are religious. To relegate these scientists to the special, no-counter example corner of "Their beliefs are contradictory" is to play the no true Scotsman card. As such, I have good reason to believe that science does not prove religion false.

To know and to believe are two separate things. To know something requires an argument, whether it be a "negative claim" or not. On "Negatives":I can prove a negative, such as the square root of 2 is not rational. Negatives can be proven via the modus tollens inference, or the proof by contradiction. In fact, the often used problem of evil builds itself on the proof by contradiction. However, I don't think the problem of evil works to prove that God does not exist, but only that God is not in this exact way that some rationalist theists thought he was. But, for the major world religions, you didn't need such a proof by contradiction -- God's nature is explicated in far greater detail within the religious tracts than some simple, vague Three-O reference.

Lastly, there is an emphasis on evidence based claims. Why, and what does it even mean? If all we mean is, "Well, it's nice to have data", then I have no problem. If what we mean is ,"the existence of pH meters proves that God does not exist", then I'm claiming that this is a little senseless. The whole "evidence based claims" meme sounds great as a talking point, works fine against creationism, but could really do with a little more ground work to support it.

On moral claims: Atheists are personally moral, as are many theists. To point to the Catholic abuses of children, the crusades, and so on doesn't say anything. You need to show that religion is the causal culprit. Without a causal argument one must admit that atheism leads to mass murder, as the USSR performed mass murder. Clearly no one in the atheist community believes this, so one should admit that the correlation between theism and child molestation doesn't follow causally.

Further, if the atheists lack an epistemic basis to claim that religion is false, and continue to claim that religion is false for epistemic reasons, then the atheists are loosing moral credibility with respect to truth-claims in that they are demonstrating an inability to self-reflect, which is an important part of moral deliberation.

As neither epistemic or moral claims counter religion as a whole very well, we should get down to the brass tacks of politics. Accommodationism is a superior politic to confrontationalism because it's more honest about our epistemic certainty, it allows bridges to be built between the atheist community and theist communities who are friendly towards the same political end goals, such as gay rights and science education, and it plays a better PR role. In fact, accommodationism is the correct position, not the weak and scared position that's too afraid to "say anything". Accommodationists are skeptical of strong negative claims, and find things outside of metaphysical speculation, such as science education vs. thoughts on the existence of god, to be more important. As the confrontationlists have said, let us not mince words. Religion, at large, can stand on its own two feet, and atheists don't have a good basis to claim that it doesn't do so in its entirety. The confrontationalist position is poorly thought out, lacks self reflection, and the conclusions it purports to prove are simply wrong if it's swinging its rhetoric at religion as a whole. As such, accommodationism is the only position that is epistemically and morally worthwhile, whether or not confrontationalists are angry about this fact or not. While there are some religions that deserve scorn and derision, the claim that all major religions are false is simply an unsupported belief.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Weighing in on a national tragedy in an uncomfortable way

There has been much talk about the shooting of Representative Giffords and the death of innocent bystanders. Many causal sources have been proposed:

CSM reports that Europe believes that the political climate in general is at fault, and this is due to America's decline in power and its failure in two world wars. link
Sarah Palin and extreme Right-wing rhetoric link
Public School systems link
Ayn Rand, Mein Kampf, Das Kapital, and George Orwell link
Some "They do it, too!" from the right link
Some point to gun laws link

As long as we're weighing in political opinions, I might as well take a swing: the shooters actions are a clear indictment of capital. Capitalism encourages news sources to instead offer flash, fiction, and meta-commentary that conform to our predispositions -- this brings in a larger market share of viewers. The need for counter-factuals, scientific inquiry, and criticism is abolished. All that matters in every walk of life is profit. This drive for profit increases the number of persons, which, due to our limited capacity as thinkers, increases the number of sub-cultures which develop. Capitalism, in pursuit of the greater spectacle, further exacerbates these sub-groups so that they lose more and more common pragmatic rules of communication that are a necessary precondition for rational discourse. Each sub-group obtains its own epistemic values and assigns a differing distribution of weight to facts presented, which creates discontinuities between large groups of people. These discontinuities are further exacerbated when we attempt rational discourse, and noise is generated.

The internet is not to blame. This internet is to be praised for making this reality more apparent.

With noise, misinformation, confusion, political turmoil, meta-commentary, and economic hardship comes a climate that generates a person willing to shoot a politician for unknown, indistinct, un-rational reasons. And, for those thinking this a ridiculous causal hypothesis, I couldn't agree more. But I ask you this: Is this a better explication than anything offered so far?

If we were really interested in causal factors, then we'd likely wait on police reports or turn to the field of psychology. Everything offered in the news thus far has been sociology/politics. We're using the event to construct a narrative which argues for our politics -- we have a political axe to grind. I don't think this is even necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps we should reevaulate our rhetoric in light of having what that rhetoric means being shown to us. We should certainly reevaluate the role capitalism plays in everything complained of so far, such as irrational political discourse. However, as I am a proponent of rationality within political discourse, I think it best to understand that the news presented thus far has been political speculation -- like metaphysical speculation, but less structured.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Central Dogma

In Biochemistry, the above is known as "The Central Dogma". It used to be the case that we thought RNA, once transcribed as RNA stayed as RNA and that it could never be the case that RNA became DNA. Whether this was the case for reasons of convenience or it was genuinely thought to be impossible, I have no clue, but such a statement does have a "dogmatic" feel to it and so I always took that to be a reason why it was called a Dogma.

The other reason, which is related to it being a central dogma, is that it forms the conceptual basis for a basic biochemical analysis of DNA expression. First one learns what DNA, RNA, and Protein are, and then one learns that this is the general outline by which DNA is expressed into RNA, and the general outline of protein tranlsation from RNA. As has oft been repeated, DNA can be thought of as a code which expresses a sequence of RNA bases, which in turn generates proteins through a well modulated and specific chemical reaction. There are four RNA bases, each of which has a complement on DNA. These four bases form "codons", which are the basis of the genetic code for all life known to date.

A Codon is a sequence with three bases in it. AUG, for example, forms an RNA codon. As there are four bases and three "slots" for each codon, there are 4^3 possible codons, or 64. These 64 possible codons only code for 20 amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins.

Proteins perform many, many functions within the body, and so understanding how proteins are made and transferred through reproduction forms a strong basis for understanding life at the chemical level. There are many, many details to get lost in, and some of the nitty-gritty details are really only known by people in that specific research field. This is why the central dogma is of so much importance: It gives a foundational biochemical reference point to which we can connect all of our other knowledge to.

I said earlier that it used to be thought that DNA makes RNA, end of story. That, now, has changed -- it turns out that we've found enzymes which help to reintegrate RNA back into DNA sequences. This enzyme is called "reverse transcriptase", and it is through mechanisms such as these that viruses infect us. Although, to them, it's not an infection: It's their method of reproducing themselves. A greater understanding of this purely theoretical mechanism can yield practical results in the field of AIDS treatment, which goes to show how a general theoretical question like ,"How does a cell operate at the chemical level?" can possibly lead to practical benefits. Surely this isn't the motivation behind such research, as such research is intrinsically interesting, but it does go to show how intrinsically interesting questions which have no perceived benefit are often connected to practical benefits.

The other thing that the central dogma shows is that even scientific "dogma" can undergo revision. As far as I can tell, whether it was for heuristical reasons or judged to be this way, the central dogma was taken very seriously. Yet, over time, we've had to revise our models given a long series of inquisitive arguments. It can't be emphasized enough that even our most basic scientific descriptions are taken as fallible constructions -- not to dissuade persons from the credibility of scientific work, but to make persons aware of how far a scientific argument can go. The word "science" has often been used to legitimize, and pointing out how actual science is full of qualifiers -- like "may", "could be", "might", "I suspect", coupled with complex arguments from difficult to obtain and possibly faulty data to likely rejectable conclusions, at least in so far as it's only a published paper -- can only help the public to critically evaluate scientific claims.

Or, in short, even the most stalwart of scientific constructs have hesitancy involved: If a company or politician may gain by your acceptance of their scientific claims, and they lack this hesitancy, you might want to turn your bologna alarm on and check some alternate sources.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Feminism and Labor Politics

This month's IWW had an excellent article covering the intersection of labor politics and feminism. In particular, it asks some excellent questions for men within the labor movement in a direct, firm, and non-threatening manner. I highly recommend checking it out on the bottom of page 4:

IWW Jan/Feb 2011 Issue

I was very excited to see this issue, because I feel that many disparate left-leaning causes are in many ways fighting the same battle, and it's great to see this sort of crossover. After all, Marx expressed radical feminism, desiring to dismantle family structures and marriage because of their inherent tendency to enslave one class of persons as property to property owners.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Atheism: A Basis

A recent theme that has re-emerged in my life, mostly due to the holidays, has been the philosophic basis for atheism.

Skipping definitions and relying upon common uses for words, the standard question I receive is, "Why don't you believe in God?" As I use the big A word as opposed to the little A word, the question is more earnest, if rarely an attack. The simplest reply that doesn't ruffle feathers is, "I don't have a reason to do so"

But this isn't the entire reason for my atheism. Within my life the God hypothesis has been "falsified", in any sense of the word that this can be meaningful. This isn't to say that God can't be, as clearly falsification isn't the end-all and be-all of enquiry (Or even scientific enquiry). This is only to say that I have always been interested in theology, have prayed, have meditated, have read holy books, have attended several services, and have even had experiences that mirror what others describe as God. If all that one means by "God" is "A feeling of warmth one may experience when at calm or in a particularly beautiful or sublime aesthetic experience which helps guide one to a moral walk in life, albeit confusedly" then sure -- I'm a theist. I felt this long ago in acting, in having sex, in looking at works of art, in philosophy, in science, and so on.

The problem I tend to encounter within countering atheists as well as in speaking with theists is a singular assumption that atheism implies material reductionism: Physics and Determinism are the basis of all reality, and those namby-pamby feelings are merely illusions to which you are a slave to!But are they?What exactly is meant by "Real"? What does this word connote, denote, mean, and why is the scientific description of the world MORE real than, say, a person’s theological standpoint? Does "Reality" admit of degrees? Is the one "noumenally Real", and the other merely "Phenomonon"? I certainly do not think this is the case. Further, on the basis of "Occam's Razor" no dualisms are permittable (though I have other reasons to stand against dualism). If an atheist rejects Occam's razor, but is still a material reductionist, that would be a person whom I'd be interested in having a discussion with. The first question in this paragraph will be my starting point for arguing contra material reductionism.

So, why atheism? While theism can mean many, many, many things, and I'm certainly open to this sort of a discussion, theism, within America, still has a very simplistic basis that has a very strong influence on American culture. To those theists that find the atheists out of bounds: I encourage you to speak. You should be more offended by this simplistic theism that is easily refuted, thereby inspiring the hubris of atheists, than atheists are -- yet it is the atheists who are speaking.

What do I mean by simplistic theism? A theism unconsidered, that uses an elementary notion of faith as a shield against questioning. A theism whose only recourse to scientific argument is to reference the infallibility of the Bible. A theism that is tied to Republican politics (as opposed to a theist who is also a Republican). A theism that can't find a love in their heart for homosexuality. A theism that claims to know God. These are simplistic theisms, and in comparison to the high-and-mighty self proclaimed horse of the atheists, the atheist position, while not merely negative and thereby in need of argumentation, comes across as stronger.

As for my argument: I don't think God is either non-falsifiable or incomprehensible, in the same way that I don't think that matter is incomprehensible or non-falsifiable. What I do think, however, is that arguments for God tend to put the cart before the horse -- they are decided beforehand. Now, this can mean one of two things, as far as I can tell: One, God is simply a metaphor for understanding the world, an interpretive lens that provides categories through which one may communicate on a pragmatic basis with other believers, or interpret certain contexts such as morality and judgment to pragmatic ends. Two: God is a presupposition which one believes in not by choice, but is "triggered" by background, environment, and personal characteristics. I find neither condition blameworthy, mutually exclusive, nor does either actually negate the possibility of the standard metaphysical God. But such descriptions of theism and God are the reasons why I am an atheist. Theistic culture, from my perspective, confusedly shifts the referent of God from the culture and values themselves to a grand metaphysical system of rewards and punishment that has, in my interpretation, immoral implications. If there were no metaphysical construct giving these moral precepts an infallibility, then there may be room for discourse to change them in light of new contexts. But there is no such device within the theism which influences a large number of Americans.

Epistemically, I have no argument contra theism. I have no problem with hinge propositions. However, with Kant, I argue that God is implicated by morality -- yet the morality of our modern Gods is immoral, and I refuse to consent to such a Kingdom of Ends. Ergo, I am not a mere epistemic agnostic; though epistemically I have qualms here and there with the atheists, to me ethics is a stronger compulsion for acting than epistemology. As far as I can tell, to make an argument from an internal perspective, the first commandment has been broken: other Gods have been placed before God -- God, the symbol, for the culture of men. And so Atheism, not as a simple pondering of the Problem of Evil (which, if one accepts God, I don't think is a problem; Leibniz's Best of All Possible Worlds and all that razzle-dazzle), is a moral choice against a deeply Christian nation. I have no desire to abolish all of God, though I don't believe in him. But I certainly wish to negate those who use what could be a beautiful concept for some towards alienating homosexuality, promoting patriarchy and militarism, creating an Other in Islam, supporting Capitalism, and generally promoting right-wing politics. And, as things sit, a large enough number of theists make the atheist camp more worthwhile.

Additionally, I just find sleeping in on Sunday and premarital sex to be more holy than falling asleep on a hard wooden pew and lying about not having premarital sex.