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venerdì 3 dicembre 2010

Yes, I am a mutant slime-snake-monkey-person!

If you take the opportunity to follow a few scientifically-minded and skeptical blogs, you'll find things that look and sound pretty strange.
Sounds terrifying, doesn't it?
Well, it makes reference to an “exchange” with one of those bizarre fundamentalist Christian creatures that inhabits vast parts of the United States.
Someone called “Robert Bowie Johnson Jr.”, besides claiming that the tales of the Bible are verified by ancient Greek art, decided to launch a policy of actually insulting “Darwinists”. The phrase he coined was "Slime-Snake-Monkey-People."
Pz Myers discussed this in 2007 in his lovely science blog Pharyngula, and it all makes for an interesting reading.
In conclusion, it was felt by most that a creationist had unwittingly said something true, and evolutionists could proudly use a formulation that recapitulates, albeit with some imprecisions, our genealogy as human beings.
Here it goes: we are obviously “mutant” (without change there can't be evolution), deriving from “slime” (some kind of primitive being, mid-way between mud and life), from “snake” (taking snakes as representatives of our reptilian ancestors), from “monkey” (again, using a generic category to capture our simian/ape ancestors) and, finally we are “people”, indeed that's what we all are nowadays – even though one can always raise doubts about how complete this step is, when referrring to fundies... 

lunedì 22 novembre 2010

Science and its methodology

"If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?"
 This quote from Albert Einstein sums up wonderfully the concrete meaning of the terms "scientific method". And, clearly, this goes in the opposite direction from a religious (or otherwise ideological) conception.
If you really understand what Einstein said, in actual fact, you realise that you can't put a stop to your research -- not only that, but you can't even guide and direct it. Obviously, if you undertake a certain study, you will choose a given path, and you will read certain books and essays, and tend to agree with some of them, and disagree with some others. But if you are really, really intent on learning, on expanding your own knowledge and understanding of the world around you, truly, you can't know in advance where you'll go.
At some level, you don't even know what you are doing -- not in the stupid and narrow meaning of not knowing what is it that you are doing, one step at a time -- but in the broader sense of being unable to figure out the limits of your activities.
What are the borders? What are the limits? Will you find out something that you don't like? Something that contradicts your line of research? Maybe, even your beliefs?
And, if (actually, when) that happens, what will you do?
Try to deny the truths staring at you in the face? Cover them up? Invoke some authority? Find refuge in some sacred texts?
Shouldn't you rather open your mind to the changes? See how much in your previously-held position should be jettisoned as ballast that prevents you from flying higher? Adjust your viewpoints to make them fit reality better?
Is there a danger in this?
Dennett wrote a book called "Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life".
And this is the crucial point: this approach is not dangerous, if you are prepared to have to come to terms with things unpleasant about yourself, your beliefs, the world around you, people around you, and so on. Obviously, that quite a big IF, and not everybody is prepared to handle this.
But you don't run the danger of "your brain falling off your open mind", provided you stick to the basic, crucial components of reality, and maintain an ability to think in a critical/skeptical manner about everything.
For many long years I had been reluctant to put under a severe critical scrutiny my strongest beliefs. Reality compelled me to do this. Facts were clearly stronger than the theories. The theories had to be junked. 
Dangerous? Yes! 
Painful? Oh yes! 
Rewarding? In an intellectual and intellectually ethical sense, priceless!!!

sabato 20 novembre 2010

Serenity, Firefly, human freedom and all that

Wikipedia has a very nice entry for "Serenity". (spoilers)

This is the bulk of the thematic section:

"Themes and cultural allusions"

While the film depicts the Alliance as an all-powerful, authoritarian-style regime, Whedon is careful to point out that it is not so simple as that. "The Alliance isn't some evil empire," he explains, but rather a largely benevolent bureaucratic force. The Alliance's main problem is that it seeks to govern everyone, regardless of whether they desire to belong to the central government or not.[88] What the crew of Serenity, and specifically Mal and his lifestyle, represent is the idea that people should have the right to make their own decisions, even if those decisions are bad.[89]
The Operative embodies the Alliance and is, as Whedon described, the "perfect product of what's wrong with the Alliance". He is someone whose motives are to achieve a good end, a "world without sin". The Operative believes so strongly in this idea that he willingly compromises his humanity in furtherance of it - as he himself admits, he would have no place in this world. In contrast, Mal is, at the movie's beginning, a man who has lost all faith.[90] By the end of the movie, however, Mal has finally come to believe in something — individual liberty — so strongly that he becomes willing to lay down his life to preserve it.[89][91] Whedon has said that the most important line in the film is Mal's contented promise to the Operative at its climax: "I'm going to show you a world without sin", as he shows him the Miranda footage. Whedon's point is that a world without sin is a world without choice, and that choice is ultimately what defines humanity.[89]
Joss Whedon said in the DVD commentary track that the planet "Miranda" was named for Shakespeare's Miranda in The Tempest, who says in Act V, scene I: "O brave new world, / That has such people in't!"[91] The Alliance had hoped that Miranda would be a new kind of world, filled with peaceful, happy people, and represents the "inane optimism of the Alliance".[92]

I did not see the movie when it was, briefly, screened in Italy. Last year I managed to get hold of the "Firefly" TV series as well, and I was entranced by this whole thing. At first the references to the American Civil War (1861-65) made me suspicious, of course, as I've been a Northern supporter all my life, what with slavery in the Confederacy and all that.
And that's why I find this piece above so nicely written. The key point is indeed Mal's sentence: "I'm going to show you a world without sin". What's so powerful in Firefly/Serenity is definitely the absence of religion. That's clearly a world without gods, and people can only live their lives hoping that at the end of their journey, they might have "made a difference", a perfectly reasonable, human and normal desire.
And Mal's end-of-movie belief is something that has indeed being a beacon throughout his whole life, again, something we can all relate to, nothing mystical or "on a higher plane".
Let me admit it: I've be enamored of Western movies since I was a little kid, my first hero was "Shane" (1953), played by Alan Ladd.
I feel this can serve well as the starting point of this blog.