Links and Comments: Good News about the state of the world; cultural concepts; science; religion and fantasy

Catching up on links and comments from the past three weeks or so, given the holiday lapse.

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First some Good News:

Slate: Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack: The World Is Not Falling Apart

In the world is getting more and more peaceful, and less violent. This essay echoes Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), an enormous, exhaustive volume examining world history and the pattern of violence across the centuries.

That people have the impression that the world is getting scarier every year (the Slate article quotes examples) is an artifact of how journalism works. Bad news leads; if there were only one murder in the entire world on a given day, that would lead all the news broadcasts, because news is exceptional, and news is about what’s exceptional. This is not to condemn journalism (well, except perhaps for Faux News), but to understand how it works, and what the motives are for those who produce it, and those who consume it.

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The New Yorker: John Cassidy on Twelve Lessons for 2015.

The writer identifies trends from this past year — the economy is growing; monetary policy works; Obamacare is working; Obama is far from a lame duck, and so on — and speculates about which of these trends will continue into 2015. Another is that the GOP can’t yet be written off. (Alas)

Next, general cultural issues.

Mother Nature Network: 7 cultural concepts we don’t have in the U.S.

I got this from a Facebook post, and responded that Kaizen is, actually, a common concept among US high tech industries; my former employer Pratt & Whitney, and its parent company United Technologies, had an elaborate ‘operating system’, called ACE (for Achieving Competitive Excellence), that was largely based on the Japanese concept of Kaizen.

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Science

Salon: God is on the ropes: The brilliant new science that has creationists and the Christian right terrified

This is an interesting piece about an MIT professor who has a thermodynamic theory about how the emergence of life is inevitable; it compliments the general theory of evolution, popularly proposed by Darwin but since much expanded, which addresses how lifeforms evolve over time, but not how the earliest life appeared in the first place.

This is actually not news; similar theories have been proposed before. As PZ Myers notes, this article is Bafflingly hyperbolic, implying that this abstruse research will somehow send fundamentalist creationists shaking in their boots, despite their inability to understand basic evidence and logic.

Creationists don’t understand thermodynamics. Heck, they don’t understand basic logic. You think an obscure bit of theory by some brilliant wonk, written up in journals they’ll never read? My dog, man, I’ve still got creationists asking me, “If man evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” and you think they’re going to be stunned into silence by a technical paper in a physics journal on entropy, heat dissipation, and molecular self-organization?

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Then there is the editorial that appeared on Christmas Day in the Wall Street Journal by a Christian apologist who declared that science has increasingly been making the case for the existence of ‘God’ — based on the ‘fine-tuning’ argument of universal constants.

His argument was bogus — my favorite comparison, to arguments of this type, and to the banana argument put forth by the dimwit Kirk Cameron — is to think that the fact one’s legs are long enough to reach the ground must prove — God! Jesus!

This Addicting Info post reproduces the astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss’ letter to the editor, which concludes,

Religious arguments for the existence of God thinly veiled as scientific arguments do a disservice to both science and religion, and by allowing a Christian apologist to masquerade as a scientist WSJ did a disservice to its readers.

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Salon: The truth about free will: Does it actually exist?

An interview with Daniel Dennett. This has been a debate among scientists/philosophers for some years now, one I’ve not followed closely. But one point, which has been repeatedly validated through scientific experiment of brain scans and whatnot, is that our minds make decisions before we are consciously aware of them. And I have found myself experiencing this myself. You get out of bed; did you consciously *decide* to get out of bed? Or did you get out of bed and realize a moment later that this was an appropriate thing to do? The debate is partially about whether ‘free will’ is a fact or a socially useable concept. EO Wilson, in his recent book, concluded (p170),

So, does free will exist? Yes, if not in ultimate reality, then at least in the operational sense necessary for sanity and thereby for the perpetuation of the human species.

And finally, religion, fiction, and fantasy. [All pretty much the same thing.]

From a while back, a post by Hemant Mehta about a book by Greta Christina about death. He quotes her:

And I haven’t even gotten to the monotony of Heaven. I haven’t even started on how people need change, challenges, growth, to be happy, and how an eternity of any one thing would eventually become tedious to the point of madness. Unless, again, our personalities changed so much we’d be unrecognizable.

I’m with Christopher Hitchens on this one. Heaven sounds like North Korea — an eternity of mindless conformity spent singing the praises of a powerful tyrant.

I had a similar reaction to the portrayal of heaven in the film The Tree of Life, when I reviewed the film here on my blog a couple years ago:

Yet the beach scenes near the end were a bit too reminiscent of naive images of heaven, when everyone you’ve ever known will gather together for…endless strolling?

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The Friendly Atheist blog captures a tweet by pastor Joel Osteen: Don’t let facts get in the way of your fiction.

He endorses faith over facts. My take, my theme in this blog: to human beings stories are more important than reality. Especially stories that place *you* as the central subject, as religions of course do.

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Salon: Religion’s sinister fairy tale: Extremists, the religious right, Reza Aslan and the fight for reason

Subtitle: “We must no longer ignore the propagation of apocalyptic fables that large numbers of people take seriously”

The writer, Jeffrey Tayler, challenges the author Reza Aslan for his demarcation and dismissal of the non-religious into “atheist” and “antitheist”. And Karen Armstrong.

Aslan has often argued that we atheists are eschewing interpretation and reading religious texts too literally. Well, if we want to see religion as the majority of believers do, we should continue to do so: three-fourths of Americans believe the Bible to be the word of God – numbers that, to the shame of the Republic, find reflection in our resolutely anti-science Congress.

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I have more, but will finish for tonight.

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