29 March 2007

Ug have perfect pitch!

Writing in "Compose" rather than "Edit Html" makes a huge difference. So you know.

Early hominids!! I really enjoyed reading these articles (Wikipedia less so); I may have to dig up the entire book sometime. However, I wasn't really clear on how this really addresses religion, except in that Neanderthals did not apparently have any sort of religion, since they lacked the capability for abstract thought and piecewise idea formulation.

A few things I thought of while reading:

The speculation that early humans were responsible for the extinction of the Neanderthals really amuses me. The N. seem to have copied the symbolism that the humans brought with them from Africa, but the humans killed them! (maybe). This volatile human characteristic continues, I think, today. Just think of the Crusades or really any war in recorded history. Humans go someplace and want to take over. In contrast (according to the book), N. had a stable, functional society, with little or no need for massive violent expansion. It seems like our basic drives haven't changed so much as we'd like to think. It also makes me wonder what in the evolutionary track of humans caused this urge to expand and conquer, since it obviously developed after the evolutionary tree split into N. and Homo sapiens. Or it could have come about as a result of the interaction. Maybe it was a fear of something just similar enough to be creepy. Or maybe it arose from competition for resources, for which the humans were more capable of procuring through various means.

The biology of Neanderthals is also fascinating to me. The article mentioned that N. had breathing control similar to that of modern humans, but the larynx position and tongue control were more like that of modern chimps. This reminded me of an amazing true story (gleaned from Sagan's excellent book The Dragons of Eden) of an infant chimpanzee raised as a brother to a human infant for something like a year (this happened before such things were considered cruel). At the end of the experimental period, the human had learned to speak to the extent that is normal for a child that age. What really surprised me was that the chimp had also learned to speak English! Admittedly, though, he could only say three words (mama, papa, and cup), and then with immense difficulty. But still, that's really cool. This suggests to me that N. were likely also capable of these sorts of things, but never tried speech specifically. (This isn't strictly related, but the Sagan book also talks extensively about chimps' ability to use symbolic language [mostly nonverbal American Sign Language] and suggests that they have their own forms of abstract language, since one chimp was observed to invent a nasty name to call her trainer, which is a metaphor and definitely abstract!)

The mention of the musical savant at the end of the reading first gave me a little moment of glee when it made me think of a recent episode of House which guest-starred Dave Matthews. After that had passed I reflected on the truth of the point the author made: Once we attach symbolic meaning to a sound, we start to lose sensitivity to the nuances of the sound itself. Neanderthal language was probably much richer emotionally, then, since they were more attuned to the specifics of the sound. Anyone who's really enjoyed a great symphony can understand how "meaningless" sound can arouse extremely powerful, but vague, emotions (Beethoven's 9th comes to mind as a common example). I even sometimes have similar experiences with jazz or rock, even things like Guns 'n Roses or the Goo Goo Dolls, when I stop listening to the words. With a bit of practice, this almost becomes second nature, and I personally like it a lot. Try it sometime.


I'll get to the Neanderthals in a bit, but first a quick response to Stacy's most recent entry.

If Genesis is basically a version of the Big Bang, how did whomever it was that wrote Genesis know about the Big Bang? The way I like to think of this as a Christian and a scientist is that Genesis was actually divinely inspired. This, of course, relies on belief that God exists and has influence (to a degree, at least) in the physical world, if only to the extent that He can control the "random" neurons firing during, say, a dream, drug trip, meditation session, or seizure.

Conversely, how do we know that the Big Bang isn’t just a scientific version of Genesis? There are too many similarities to just ignore it, but if the Big Bang is just a scientist explaining Genesis without putting God in there, how can with give it any (objective) credit? I fully agree that this has the potential to go both ways, and it ultimately comes down to personal preference and willingness to believe that God would deceive us by placing "dinosaur bones" and "quasars" that only look old to the infidel scientists ( <-- sarcasm). I (obviously) don't hold that view, and if you actually get into the cosmology of it, the Big Bang makes a huge load of theoretical sense (though it's important to remember that it is only a theory, and also incomplete and mostly untestable, by virtue of the fact that we can't just make a Big Bang and see if that works). The theory was derived primarily from two observations. First, everything in the visible universe is redshifted (via the Doppler effect), and objects that are farther away are redshifted more. This means (take PHYS160 to verify) that everything in the universe is getting farther apart: the universe itself is expanding. This is like if you put a bunch of dots on a balloon and then blew it up -- the balloon expands, and the dots get farther apart.

The second major observation is that the entire sky is emitting radiation in the microwave spectrum (called cosmic microwave background radiation, or CMB). I don't have a good way to explain this to someone who hasn't already learned about it, but you can try Wikipedia (or other sources). But basically, it supports the theory that the universe was born out of a sudden explosion of intense heat, which emitted all the CMB that we can still observe today. Astronomers who feel poetic like to call it things like "the last remnants of the birth of the universe". (pish) It's cool science. (Ask me what I'm doing this summer!)

Also, it's entirely fair to say that a lot of what I wrote is a stretch. It's completely plausible (to me, at any rate) that someone could have just made this up. If I were an omnipotent Creator, I'd have probably done it something like that. Also, as we discussed in class (and I mentioned previously), the details preserve the dominant group's status quo. Which is (for them) a good thing.

There's a lot of goodies in that post if you look. On to something serious.

28 March 2007


sorry about that, guys, i turned off comment moderation now :)
anything you post will show up right away

27 March 2007

in da beginning...

I foresee a major discussion around the Genesis reading, especially given the number of physicists and vocal atheists in the class! Since I have long, complicated opinions on the topic, I'm going to post the potatoes here and only bring up the sirloin tips in class so I don't have to bore you.

First some basics about my position in all of this:

I was raised Lutheran, though these days I make it to church less frequently and the one I get to is actually Methodist, but ELCA and UMC are practically synonymous. I am skeptical about a lot of things in the Bible, but I do believe in the basic gist of it; i.e., God forgives our sins if we repent, Jesus died to save us, there is something after the death of the body besides nothingness (at least I want to believe that!).

Other than that, I take very few of the stories from the Bible literally. Genesis is an allegory (more on that), the virgin birth is a mistranslation (in the original language, the word used can mean "virgin" or "young woman"), and a lot of other stuff is hyperbole. Huge, enormous hyperbole, and events as interpreted by FALLIBLE HUMANS, YO!! *shakes fist at literal interpretations* Further, I think this non-tolerance of homosexuality and "preserving the sanctity of marriage" that religious conservatives in the US are stuffing down our throats is nonsense. That's a long and non-PC rant, so I won't go there. For now.

Finally (and perhaps mostly), I am a scientist, which means I question things and look for empirical evidence to support contentions. There are some things that I see as beyond the realm of science (at least as far as conclusive results are concerned), and this is where religion comes into my life, which is actually a frequent occurrence.

But on to Genesis. As a physicist and aspiring astronomer, not to mention skeptic, there is no way I can possibly take anything but the tiniest snippets of Genesis as truth. The one part I do see as unusually enlightened for an ancient (human!) writer, whether he was divinely inspired or not, is 4:3 (Then God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.) --- Big Bang, anyone? According to the prevalent theory, this is indeed what the first moments of the universe were like. First, there was nothing, not even technically space, since there was nothing by which to measure it or that could fill it or be aware of it in any way. Then suddenly, POW! energy EXPLODES out of the nothing (or from a higher dimension), and the new universe is so full of light (and no matter, yet) that it expands even faster, possibly, than the current speed of light. Seconds or eons pass (what is time at this point?), the first day. (See what I did there?) Eventually it expands enough that subatomic particles , the first matter, condense out of the energy, the second day. Further expansion and cooling, and atoms form and after many more billions of years gravitational forces pull them into stars and planets, and 13 (or so) billion years after the big asplosion a little blue planet pops out some plants and some animals, and after a few mass extinctions some bald, tail-less apes invent writing and decide that they were created in the image of an omnipotent and omnipresent God.

The only reasonable explanation I can think of for something as (currently) obviously whack as the creation myth to be "the Word of God" is if God is actually very smart and knew that ancient people couldn't handle the truth -- quarks and muons would have been utterly meaningless to every last one of them, so he did a cute little metaphor. Or some dude was divinely inspired in a wordless manner, and this is what came out. Or some dude was shrooming in a cave with some papyrus and thought "Hebrew" was a cool word. You know, whatever.

Also Genesis was written by a man. You know, bald, tail-less ape with a ding-a-ling. If the dominant group has to say that a vengeful god put them in charge to keep them dominant, they'll do it. Who's going to question divine inspiration?

I hope my future posts are shorter because I have E&M homework to get going on.

Some recommended reading (translation: great fiction that addresses religion!)
  • His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, in that order.
  • Contact by Carl Sagan, which is science-y but WONDERFUL, especially the end. My favorite book of all time! Also a movie which is OK but not as awesome.
  • A multitude of other nonfiction/speculative books by Sagan, including The Demon-Haunted World and Dragons of Eden.
  • Paradise Lost by Milton.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams -- not really about religion, but it makes some great satirical points. And I loves it so :)

Comfort Me With Apples

Hallo alle. Hier ist dann meine erste Post, auf Deutsch nur damit es nicht so langweilig ist. Etwas echtes kommt.