Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thought Experiment on Progressive Tax Rates

By way of a thought experiment, let me illustrate why I am completely comfortable having tax rates that tax a greater percentage of our income as our income goes up.

Imagine there is a park. In this park there is a low bridge over a pond. The bridge has no handrails and the pond has a series of stepping stones that lead from the shore to a small platform below the bridge. On the bridge there are a number of individuals in wheelchairs, none of whom are able to swim. Below them on the platform is a person who fell from the bridge and is badly injured. On the shore near the stepping stones leading to the platform and the injured person is a strong, able bodied person relaxing.

It is not possible for the injured person to get to safety alone. Due to their wheelchairs and inability to swim it is not possible for the people on the bridge get to the injured person, let alone carry that person to safety. Trying would almost certainly result in additional injured people and possible deaths. What they can do is call out, make it known that someone needs help, and offer encouragement. All of which they do, alerting the able bodied person to the situation, who can easily and safely walk on the stepping stones out to the injured person and carry them to safety.

In this scenario, is it morally permissible for the able bodied person to do nothing or to do no more than the people on the bridge?

I would argue that the able bodied person is morally and ethically obligated to help. It is true that this person will have to inconvenience themselves to help. Their help is not without cost, but the cost to the able bodied person is negligible compared to the people in wheelchairs. Just as the burden of paying more in taxes is easier to bear for the wealthy, even if they are paying at higher rates. In a community, our responsibilities are heavily influenced by our capabilities and those better able to contribute to the common good ought to do so.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Just a Theory

Anyone who discusses the interactions of religious belief, public policy, and science will encounter the argument that because something in science is just a theory, it shouldn't be taken any more seriously than other ideas. This comes up a lot in creationism versus evolution conversations and its use betrays a certain degree of scientific illiteracy.

The word theory has two very different meanings. In everyday language, a theory is just an uncertain idea, perhaps thought up on the fly. In science, a theory is a comprehensive framework that unifies and explains a large number of actual observations, has withstood rigorous testing, and makes accurate predictions of future observations. A scientific theory, like the theory of evolution, isn't a wild guess. It is the best possible understanding of some aspect of nature we currently possess. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Nye vs Ham

Bill Nye the Science Guy just did a debate against Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis. This debate was on the validity of creationism and was conducted at Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky. From what I’ve read, many in the audience were followers of Ham’s version of fundamentalist Christianity.

Towards the end of the debate, they took questions from the audience. The format of that section was that a question would be directed to one of them who had two minutes to answer and then the other was given a minute to respond. One of the questions really served to sum up the differences in their world views. Ham was asked what would change his mind. He said in essence that nothing could. Nye responded that he just needs evidence and then listed a bunch of potential examples.

Here is a link to that section of the video of the debate:

That there is no evidence that could ever be compelling enough for Ham to change his mind demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of creationism and concisely shows why it isn't science and isn't compatible with science.

The danger in this debate and others like it is that many will erroneously interpret the very existence of the debate as proof that creationism has scientific merit or that there is ongoing scientific controversy between creationism and naturalism among scientists. We can at least hope that some viewers will reflect on the profoundness of the debaters' answers to the question above and realize that Ham’s answer was antithetical to a scientific mindset.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Are My Beliefs All Scientific?

I care a great deal about whether the things I believe are true or not. I try to use the best tools at my disposal to make those determinations. To date, the most reliable tool humanity has to sort the factual from the fanciful is science, so I do try to use it to inform my beliefs. I try to apply the rationality of science in my daily life, testing my expectations against my observations constantly. I try to examine my feelings and note the behavior of others to gauge their feelings. In all of this, I hold every idea, every belief provisionally — always ready to modify a belief or discard it in favor of one better supported by the evidence and able to withstand logical scrutiny. My beliefs change and shift as a result, but always with the goal of obtaining a more accurate, more complete understanding of the world around me.

So does that make all of my beliefs scientific? In the sense of being learned only from science papers and books, no. But I do try to arrive at my beliefs in ways that are consistent with the mindset and findings of science, to the best of my ability.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

State Sanctioned Creationism

I want our schools, our courts, our halls of government to be neutral ground, where no religion or theology has any more influence than any other, where no one is persecuted or favored on the basis of their faith. The most sensible way to insure that is to not allow any intermingling of religion and state. That way our government can represent us all equally, it being no more Catholic than it is Hindu or Muslim or Baptist or atheist, even if it is made up of people who hold those and other beliefs.

Neutral, secular, nonsectarian, fair.

Unfortunately, in some states there are schools that are teaching creationism. Actually that is probably true in every state because private schools can teach what they want. But some investigative journalism has recently uncovered that there are taxpayer funded schools that are teaching creationism.

That is not OK because creationism is a religious belief. It has no scientific merit. It cannot be taught in place of or even alongside science in publicly funded schools. To do so is to use a part of our government to show that some religious beliefs are favored over others, which is strictly forbidden by our Constitution. This applies to any school that is getting government money, be that the local public school or even a private school partially funded through tuition vouchers provided by the state.

I understand how it might be tempting to resolve such a contentious issue via some sort of compromise — maybe taking the time to teach both science and creationism, letting the students decide for themselves. Generally I am enthusiastically in favor of compromise but although teaching both might seem fair to everyone, it isn't. Not all religions share the same creation mythology or share a creation mythology that is compatible with the creationism that is being promoted in some American schools. Such schools are taking a side in theological matters allowing some religions to promote their beliefs.

Part of the reason that I am so adamantly opposed to religion in our government is to protect religious believers. Believers who might believe differently than those currently in power who might abuse their authority. If we keep our government secular in its purpose, from our schools to our courts, then we can all be represented equally with no one religion ever able to use government power to promote itself or persecute heretics and nonbelievers.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Uncle Sugar

I’ve been thinking about the ideas highlighted in Mike Huckabee’s “Uncle Sugar” speech. It occurs to me that Conservatives might be objecting to people getting material help from society via the government instead of relying on churches. Which isn’t to say that Huckabee wants churches to distribute contraceptives, no, but I do think his speech betrays Conservative fears of the diminishing influence religion has in our society and the role that Obamacare could play in that.

It is pretty well documented that societies that have less financial and healthcare insecurity also have less religious populations. Religion does provide aid and assistance, with strings attached of course, but the need for that aid and exposure to those strings are reduced in countries that provide more government administered support for people. I think that partially explains what perpetuates religion. I’m increasingly convinced that partially explains why Conservatives object to government social programs and are so ready to express their objections with language that slut-shames women.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Souls and Mind-Body Dualism

I see no evidence to support the idea that there is some kind of metaphysical "me" that controls my body, that defines who I am regardless of what happens to my body, or that will exist after my body has died. I understand the appeal, but it strikes me as nothing more than wishful thinking.

What I do see is evidence that we are meat. We are our bodies. We are our brains. If changes are made to our brains, we necessarily change. From what I understand, that is the conclusion of neuroscience. Moreover, it is also something I've witnessed.

In December, my mom died from frontotemporal dementia. Over the years as the parts of her brain that housed certain functions and abilities were attacked and atrophied, her personality, her behavior, and her ability to think were radically and repeatedly altered. Changes wrought on her brain by dementia robbed her of all those traits that defined her, sometimes even replacing them. She was not at all the same person in 2001 as she became by 2011, nor did any hint remain of the woman she once was by the end, nor any clue that "she" was still in there somewhere.

Whatever remnants of mind-body dualism I still retained in my thinking from my childhood were expunged in these last few years. As appealing as the notion might be -- and it is appealing to think that Mom somehow understood all I did for her or that I'll be with her again someday -- I can't sustain such beliefs, given what I've seen and come to understand about the brain.