Plinks: Steven Pinker, Carl Zimmer, Anti-Intellect, History Chart, Weigel on Card

A collection of quotes from what I thought were interesting articles and posts and tweets, over the past week or more (I should post more often). (And actually, I’m saving a few for later posts.) Perhaps I will call posts like this Plinks — Personal links, and in analogy with the Blinks I do on Locus Online.


The most important item recently is this provocative essay by Steven Pinker about the tension between science and the humanities — and those who accuse science of ‘scientism’.

(I know the eyes glaze over long quoted paragraphs. But I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think these long paragraphs were worth reading.)

The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person — one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism — requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.

To begin with, the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans be4long to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago. We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small. We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.


The phenomena we experience may be explained by principles that are more general than the phenomena themselves. These principles may in turn be explained by more fundamental principles, and so on. In making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede “It just is” or “It’s magic” or “Because I said so.”


Carl Zimmer, at National Geographic, takes on evolution denialists who keep changing the terms of what evidence they would acknowledge…

Re: Darwin:

He pointed out, for instance, that natural selection was a logical — even inescapable — fact of life. Individuals varied in their traits. Some of those variations influenced how many offspring they had. And those traits could also be passed down to offspring. Under such conditions, natural selection just happens.

This captures a point not generally appreciated — never mind all the evidence or disputations thereof. The principles of natural selection only require what he describes, and it’s inevitable — which is why the principles apply not only to biological history, but in many other arenas, and why it’s been called perhaps the single greatest idea of all time.


The Anti-Intellect Blog on Facebook

Belief or disbelief in god is not about intelligence, though that factors. It’s about the serviceability of myths. Who needs them and why. Belief in god also has a lot to do with ignorance and indoctrination. A person is not necessarily dumb because they believe in god or intelligent because they do not. Some “smart” people believe in god. Some “dumb” people do not. The problem with belief in god is that it is a human idea, subject to whim. Or at least that is one of the problems. There’s also no evidence to back up the claim, but people love believing things without evidence.

Whoever this guy is, he seems to tweet constantly, about religious, gay, and feminist issues, and he has a book of essays coming out next February, under this alias. (Which alias is obviously some kind of irony.)


These I already posted on Facebook:

Cool chart:

A 1931 chart of human history since 2000 BC. It’s remarkable for how slender the two centuries of the United States is, against 4000 years of history — not to mention the millions and billions of years of Earth history before that.


David Weigel of Slate comments about Orson Scott Card’s “fascinating political paranoia” — in a long column Card presents as a “thought experiment” about “how American democracy ends”.

Obama is, by character and preference, a dictator. He hates the very idea of compromise; he demonizes his critics and despises even his own toadies in the liberal press. He circumvented Congress as soon as he got into office by appointing “czars” who didn’t need Senate approval. His own party hasn’t passed a budget ever in the Senate.

In other words, Obama already acts as if the Constitution were just for show. Like Augustus, he pretends to govern within its framework, but in fact he treats it with contempt.

To which Weigel responds:
Here on Earth, Obama has actually signed off on a series of compromises that fell short of what he demanded—the health care law, the debt limit increases — and he’s only the latest president to appoint a series of advisers who are termed “czars.”

Weigel goes on. I can’t bring myself to read the entire Card piece.

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