Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Possible Goldilocks planet discovered

Looks like these guys were pretty much on the money. They claimed there was a better than 50% chance we'd find a "Goldilocks" zone planet by May of next year.

Interesting quote from the Wired article:
“The fact that we found one so close and so early on in the search suggests there’s a lot of these things,” Butler says. Only about 100 other stars are as close to Earth as Gliese 581, and only 9 of them have been closely examined for planets. Odds are good that 10 to 20 percent of stars in the Milky Way have habitable planets, Vogt says.
And likely where there can exist life, so there exists life.

What is life, and why does it exist in our universe? No one knows. But if the universe is as large as is predicted by inflation, then it doesn't even have to be infinitely large for there to be life literally everywhere.

Life—and perhaps intelligence—is as characteristic of this universe as nuclear fusion or even dust.

(By the way, I have a bet going that we discover at least 116 exoplanets by NYE this year.)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

secular religion

While I was on my run this morning, I thought a bit about E.O. Wilson's "epic of evolution":
Human beings must have an epic, a sublime account of how the world was created and how humanity became part of it ... Religious epics satisfy another primal need. They confirm we are part of something greater than ourselves (…) The way to achieve our epic that unites human spirituality, instead of cleave it, it is to compose it from the best empirical knowledge that science and history can provide.
Human beings seem to require a grand narrative which gives their lives meaning. Wilson suggests one in accordance with the principles of science generally and evolution in particular.

I'm amenable to this in some sense. I studied philosophy because I was interested in the meaning of life and the purpose of existence. It's hard for me to understand why someone would study philosophy if they weren't interested in the big questions. After all, there are plenty of other disciplines studying the small questions and doing a much better job of it than philosophers. My own view on this became an eclectic hybrid of Hegel's and Marx's organic, developmental models of society, Heidegger's history of transcendence, and Kurzweil's account of the technological singularity. I believe the grand narrative I've cobbled together from this is not only consistent with the discoveries of science but more importantly explains why the universe is intelligible at all and why problems continue to remain amenable to intelligent solution.

But I would never suggest my beliefs could replace widespread religious beliefs. It's not because religious people are irrational. Religion is a form of rationality. Hegel and Durkheim covered this topic pretty thoroughly. The contest between science and religion isn't between thought and emotion or reason and faith. It's between the new and the old. People are extremely religious, not primarily because they're animalistic or irrational or don't like understanding things, but because human beings are by their nature conservative. At least when it comes to the big things, like not cutting off women's clitorises or not persecuting homosexuals. (They're great at adopting smartphones and search engines, though.)

So, the problem isn't that you have one or two memes floating around in the heads of Pentecostals or Islamists, and if only we could replace those memes or those faulty bits of programming, we'd get rational beings who would accept secular humanism. Nor is it a question of replacing one emotion with another. Communities are more like organisms than like mere aggregates of information. They want to preserve themselves as a whole, and that means holding steadfastly to the essential beliefs about self, universe, and other people. In other words we're talking about a whole pattern of life if you're a bigot, a creationist, or even a goth or hipster or something like that. And the pattern not only defines who you are but also connects you up with other people and colors what you're willing and not willing to accept about the universe. And it's all pretty rational, at least from the inside, since there are things that count as evidence, things that don't, etc.

Really the only thing you can do in a lot of cases is just wait for people to die. And keep putting the message out there about science, rationality, respect, fairness, and the rest. That part isn't hard, because there's so much information available and so much being generated on a daily basis. It's just a question of presenting it in an engaging way, which isn't so hard either. Personally, I just take heart in the fact that the older generations must eventually die (assuming they don't live long enough to become cyborgs, god forbid—the last thing the world needs is a Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin cyborg). And the possibilities for individual freedom generated by technology and science are so much more appealing on a basic level, and the world population is so young in many places. I think that's what will ultimately overcome religious conservativism, not a "new religion" handed down by academics.

Friday, September 10, 2010

the best stats you've ever seen

This is one of the more surprising TED talks I've watched. Hans Rosling, a doctor and researcher of hunger diseases in Africa and international health generally, gives a dazzling presentation of data debunking our preconceptions of the developing world. Some of the points he proves using statistics throughout his 20 minute presentation:
  1. We underestimate the tremendous change in Asia, which was social change before economic change.

  2. There's no gap between rich and poor any more. It's a myth.

  3. The concept of developing countries is extremely doubtful.

  4. [T]he best projection from the World Bank is that [income will even out], and we will not have a divided world. We'll have most people in the middle.

  5. Today we don't have to go to Cuba to find a healthy country in Latin America. Chile will have a lower child mortality than Cuba within some few years from now.

  6. It seems [a country] can move much faster if [it is] healthy first than if [it is] wealthy first.

  7. All countries tend to use their money better than they did in the past.

  8. The improvement of the world must be highly contextualized ... we must be much more detailed.

  9. It's as if the world is flattening off.
The end of the presentation explains why most people aren't aware of these statistics and how the internet is rapidly changing that situation. I was aware of some of this, but I wasn't aware of the extent to which it was true. Seeing the data presented graphically brought the point home more vividly than if I were just to read about it. I recommend you watch the video and not just read the transcript.

As statistics like these become widely acknowledged in North America and Europe, two things are going to happen. The first is that it will be possible to correctly diagnose the problems facing places like "Asia" or "Africa"—useless constructs for international medicine, health, politics, and economics, which Rosling is eager to demolish. The second is that the left's tale about the oppression and privilege inherent in "the system" will continue to lose credibility, as it has for over half a century now. I say this as a leftist, as a critic of capitalism, as someone whose worldview is deeply informed by Hegel and Marx, and as a humanitarian. Leftist political dogma since the 60s has been based far too much on moralizing about the oppressed and the privileged and not nearly based enough on theory and observation.

The reasons this is wrong are not complicated. American Marxists in the 20th century distilled the critique of capitalism down to one idea: capitalism is forever crisis-prone and will make your life worse in the long-run. When capitalism radically raised the standard of living over the course of the 20th century, the radical critics of capitalism no longer had a leg to stand on. (See Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff for more.)

Marxism became equated in workers' minds with losing the real, substantial gains they had made. Those workers weren't "sold out" or "stupid. The problem is that Marxism was turned into a theory about oppression, which it never was in the first place.

The hangers-on insisted all the wealth the greedy, racist, sexist, etc., "western" workers (the real enemies!) were enjoying was being stolen from the "developing world". As Rosling's presentation makes clear, nothing could be further from the truth.

Rather than applying by rote what we learned from our liberal arts education—or cynically dismissing it—why not start instead with the actual trajectory followed by capitalism over the course of the last 200 years, with special emphasis on the past half-century? We start with the facts, we attempt to come up with a general law of development, and then we project it into the future and see where it's going.

What's the future of a high tech global capitalism in which the vast majority of individuals experience themselves as empowered individuals with control over their own lives? I believe that situation is far more dangerous to capitalism than a world divided into the privileged and the oppressed.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Religion is wrong, and science is right
Writing in the Times, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: "Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation ... The Bible simply isn't interested in how the Universe came into being."
What an absurd statement to make. Every religion makes claims about the origin of the world, and the Judeo-Christian religions are no exception. Those claims have been proven wrong, just like most of the claims in the Bible. The universe is billions of years old, not a few thousand. Humans were not created by God; they evolved from other primates. A river's waters never turned to blood. Jesus did not rise from the dead. These things didn't happen because we know they can't happen.

Faced with the fact that everything their traditions say about the world is certifiably wrong, many religious thinkers since the age of the Enlightenment have responded to this problem by redefining the meaning and purpose of religion. Religion is no longer about using reason to understand God, as it was for Aquinas (patron philosopher of the Catholic Church). Now it's about "faith", which is different from and mercifully immune to "reason". The Bible no longer contains an account of the origin of humans and the universe. Now it's there to give our lives "meaning".

It's analogous to a team which sucks at basketball, and instead of just retiring from basketball, they say, "Okay, basketball no longer means [rules of basketball]. It means sitting in the bleachers and singing Happy Birthday as loud as we can. Look how great we are at basketball."

Meanwhile the other 99% of religious people really do believe their crumbling, 3,000 year old scrolls give a better account of the origin of the world and human beings than science, and they're ready to butcher each other over it at a moment's notice. And hey, if it's a matter of their faith and not their reason, who are we to criticize them, right?