« March 2008 | Main | May 2008 »

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Website Update- New Recipes for a Mexican Meal

EnchiladaI've added a few recipes to my How To page. This time, however, I've added enough that you can cook a full meal. Start with an appetizer of Pico de Gallo & Guacamole (if you live in Texas, United carries some really good fresh made tortilla chips). Move on to the main course of 3 Cheese Chicken Enchiladas with Cream Cheese Sauce (or Red Beef Enchiladas if you're a little short on time), with a side of Mexican Rice. For the perfect drink to wash it all down, make a pitcher of Irmaritas (better than Margaritas).

Friday, April 25, 2008

Further Musings on the Soul

I have an essay on my main website (actually, a copy of an e-mail exchange between me and some friends), in which I argue for the existence of a soul. At the time, I'd given it a lot of thought, but hadn't done much actual research. My basic argument was that we're not just automatons - we experience things. Since "experience" isn't a property of matter, our experience must come from something immaterial - a soul.

Well, I've done a little more research into these things since I wrote that. Unsurprisingly, I've discovered that other people have already thought along these lines (that's one of the humbling things I've learned from the Internet - no matter how deep or profound of an idea I think I've come up with, it's almost inevitably been written about by someone else before me, sometimes thousands of years ago). What I was calling "experience" is more formally known as "qualia," and there's a whole Philosophy of Mind dealing with this issue.

One of my original assumptions was that experience couldn't be a property of plain matter. One could arm chair philosophize about this all they wanted, but that gets you nowhere. The best thing to do is to look for evidence that may or may not support this. Unfortunately, given the subjective nature of experience, it's a very difficult topic to find data on. However, since this is a discussion on souls, and the classical understanding of souls is that they are our true identity, and would influence our personalities, we could instead look for evidence dealing with what controls our personality. A very informative website, Ebon Musings, has an essay titled Ghost in the Machine dealing with this very issue. It lists a good deal of evidence explaining how our actions and emotions are controlled by our brains, and how physical changes to the brain can affect us. One of the examples he discusses, and probably the most famous in these types of discussions, is a man by the name of Phineas Gage. Gage was a foreman in charge of blasting for the railroad. In 1848, he was involved in an accident, where an explosion sent a tamping iron through his head, destroying a part of his brain in the process. He survived the incident, but had a completely different personality afterwards.

The fact that it is our physical brains that control our personality is not definitive proof against a soul. It's still possible that to experience qualia, we need an immaterial soul. However, with that line of reasoning, the function of the soul is greatly reduced. It's basically just an observer, along for the ride. And if that were true, what exactly would existence be like after death? Would a soul retain memories? Would it even have a personality?

I don't want to admit it, because the emotional side of me still really wants to reunite with dead loved ones, and to be able to still watch over my daughter after I die, but it really does seem most likely that we don't have souls, that our physical brains really are the true centers of what we would consider "self."

This raises some interesting questions. Where exactly does this awareness come from? Is there any way to know what else has this awareness? Barring solipsism, we can be pretty sure that other humans experience qualia, because we can easily communicate with them. Other animals, too, seem to share this trait. If this awareness is an emergent property of matter, and we know that it occurs in our brains, it seems only natural to assume that it would occur in the brains of other animals. But, are brains the only complex structures that can produce this property? The less we can interact with something, the less we can tell what it might be experiencing. Do plants experience emotions, but we have no way of telling because they can't talk to us? What about the sun? It appears to have some pretty complex reactions going on inside it. Could those reactions be generating some type of experience? Does it even take complexity? Could a rock have a very limited sense of awareness, but with no sensory organs, and no way to communicate with us, we just wouldn't have a way to tell?

And with as specialized as regions of our brains seem to be, how does our consciousness get manifested in a coherent way, incorporating all the thoughts and inputs from different brain regions? Is our consciousness really that coherent, or could it even possibly be that the region of the brain that incorporates input from all other parts is the true center of our "self," and that the other regions of our brain might even have their own sense of awareness? Or, not trying to sound too pantheistic, could this awareness not require actual physical contact (because in reality, no two atoms are ever truly touching, anyway), and be some type of heirarchical phenomenon? Could ant colonies be "super consciousnesses," or could there even be a super consciousness for the entire universe? That last concept seems a bit too outlandish and I really do doubt it, and even common sense would seem to indicate that it's absurd, but knowing how bad of a guide common sense is to the mysteries of the universe (such as quantum mechanics), this still remains an intriguing remote possibility.

In the end, even if we don't have souls, this universe of ours truly is a wondrous place. I'm glad, however it comes about, that I get to experience it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Run of the Mill vs. Big Name Creationists

The Flintstones - not a documentaryI previously covered this very briefly in a previous blog entry, but I wanted to give it its own entry. The topic I wanted to cover is the difference between your run of the mill creationist and a big name creationist, and why the big name creationists piss me off so much.

First of all, let me get this out of the way right at the beginning. Almost all forms of creationism are flat-out wrong. You can't argue with reality - evolution happened. The only possible exception (one which I personally disagree with, but can at least respect) is theistic evolution. But really, when people talk about creationism, it's usually in reference to God creating everything on the earth ex nihilo in 6 days, or possibly in zones of creation over a longer period. So for this article, that's what I'm referring to.

We live in a country where half the population doesn't accept evolution. That's a lot of people, and I don't think you can say that that many people are complete idiots (unless you're on the highway with them, but that's for a different entry). I think a huge part of why so many people don't accept evolution is religion - they hear their respected church leaders and other members of their congregations tell them that evolution is false, and since they trust those people in other areas, they trust them about creationism, too. Couple that with the fact that our science education is so bad that half the population doesn't know that it takes a year for the earth to go around the sun, and you can see why so many people are creationists. As Richard Dawkins has said, "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)." For most people, it's simply ignorance - they haven't studied evolution, it hasn't been presented to them in school, so they go along with others in doubting it. And to be honest, unless you're like me, evolution's not a topic that comes up in normal dinner conversation, so it's not like those people often get exposed to a differing viewpoint. It's hard to get good and pissed off at someone who believes something and hasn't ever been shown a good reason not to believe it.

Now, consider your groups like Answers in Genesis, The Institute for Creation Research, The Discovery Institute, or Ray Comfort (okay - Ray Comfort's not exactly a group unto himself, but he does head Living Waters Ministries). These groups aren't like your run of the mill creationists. Their organizations are very well known, very prominent, and subsequently get exposed quite a bit to people of differing viewpoints. It must be a nearly daily basis that they get correspondence from people trying to show them the evidence, or to have a reasonable conversation on the topic. These people cannot simply claim ignorance like most Americans. Like Dawkins, I'd rather not assume that they're wicked, but the only options that leaves are stupidity or being delusional.

What's worse, these organizations aren't content to simply keep to themselves, they put up the websites I linked to above, build $27 million monuments to their stupidity, publish books, make movies that insult the memories of holocaust victims. They're trying to push their ignorance on the rest of the population, and they're succeding to a large part. They're dumbing down our society.

Now, I know that some people may say that when you start insulting people, you're not going to do a good job convincing them - more flies with honey and all that. And in entries like this one, where I call AiG a "reposity of stupidity," some creationists might feel like I'm insulting them personally. I'm not. I'm insulting the big name creationists, because quite frankly, they piss me off. There's only so much willful ignorance a person can take before they crack, and sometimes I do.

So to summarize - run of the mill creationists are only creationists out of ignorance, and usually haven't been shown good reason to accept evolution, so they get a pass. But big name creationists, who have had plenty of opportunity to be educated but refuse to do so, and continue to push their stupidity on the rest of the country, deserve the ire and ridicule that they receive.

I know my blog isn't hugely popular, but if you just happen to be a creationist reading this entry, and you feel like leaving me some feedback on why evolution is wrong (or, if you're a rational person, and want a resource to use to counter creationist arguments), go check out the Index to creationist Claims on Talk Origins. Chances are, the argument's been rebutted many times over already.

Another Creation Museum Review

Dr. Chip Noodle Riding a Triceratops
I've written about the Creation Museum a few times before. Well, one of my friends recently took a trip to Cincinatti, and he and his girlfriend thought it would be good for a laugh to kill an afternoon at the "museum." He's posted his review. While he thought the whole thing was pretty humorous, he did have this to say:

Overall, it was fun, but still left me sad with life. Aside from the religously-attired and the mullet-equipped individuals, there were families there, reading the museum's claims to their children as if it were fact. I hope these kids don't want to be scientists when they grow up, because they're off to one hell of a bad start before they even get into public school.

Very true. I feel bad for the kids that get indoctrinated into believing this stuff.

A Blogroll, and a Change to the Archives

Well, these are very small changes to this blog, but I did a little playing around with the stuff over in that right sidebar. First, I figured it was about time that I added a blogroll, so I did. It's not very long, and I've limited it to blogs that I check at least once a week. I know there are lots of other good blogs out there that aren't on the list, but that's the way it goes.

Second, I redid the way the Archives show up in the side bar. I had been just going with the default that MovableType came set up with, which showed every month I had entries in. Unfortunately, now that I've had my blog for a few years, that list was getting pretty long, so I put it on a separate page.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Expelled Exposed

Expelled Movie PosterI recently wrote a an entry about the upcoming movie, Expelled, and how biologist blogger PZ Myers was kicked out of the line to a screening, while they let Richard Dawkins right in. Well, I still haven't gotten around to writing anything more detailed about the movie, but the NCSE is working on a site, Expelled Exposed, aiming to refute many of the inaccuracies in the film (that's a polite way of saying lies). They currently only have links to reviews of the movie, but on April 15th, their full site, with all of their original work, should be available.

Update: It's April 15th, and the full site is now online.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Just Because...

Well, since I'm not making any good original blog posts this week, I figured I'd post this picture just for the hell of it. This is me, sitting in the prototype we're developing where I work.

Jeff in PAV

No Big Entry This Week

I have a goal of making at least one post per week. It's late Friday afternoon, I just finished up work, and I haven't posted anything yet this week. Yeah, there are issues I could blog about right now, but honestly, I'm feeling pretty lazy. I'm really just looking forward to going home and spending some time with my family, and not sitting here writing a blog entry. But, a couple weeks ago when I wrote that e-mail about evolution, I did update an essay from my Religious Essays section. And since it was on my mind, this week I made a few more (very small) changes to some of the other essays in that section, and updated them all. So, if you're interested, you can go read them.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Science & Engineering Indicators 2008

NSB LogoIt's that time again. The latest NSF report on Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 has been released. I've made previous entries for the 2004 and 2006 versions of the report. While Americans' scientific literacy did improve somewhat for most questions over the 2006 report, the long term trends are relatively constant, and the overall literacy is still depressingly low.

First, here's the same table as from the previous blog entry, comparing the scientific literacy of several countries(because of the time needed to analyze the data, the surveys for the 2006 report were conducted in 2004, those for the 2008 report were conducted in 2006). This table was taken from the section, Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding. The numbers in the table are the percentage of people that responded correctly, while the correct answer is listed in parentheses after the question.

Figure 7-8
Correct answers to scientific literacy questions, by country/region: Most recent year
Percent answered correctly
  EU-25 (2005) Malaysia (2004) India (2004) China (2001) Russia (2003) South Korea (2004) Japan (2001) U.S. (2006)
Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (False) 47 19 NA 16 24 31 28 45
It is the father’s gene which decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (True) 64 38 38 39 22 59 25 65
All radioactivity is man-made. (False) 59 13 NA 46 35 48 56 76
The center of the Earth is very hot. (True) 86 58 57 39 NA 87 77 80
The universe began with a huge explosion. (True) NA NA 34 17 35 67 63 33
Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (False) 46 16 39 18 18 30 23 51
Electrons are smaller than atoms. (True) 46 26 30 24 44 46 30 48
Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (Earth around Sun) 66 71 70 NA NA 86 NA 75
Human beings are developed from earlier species of animals. (True) 70 NA 56 70 44 64 78 53
The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move. (True) 87 45 32 45 40 87 83 79
NA = not available; EU = European Union

NOTE: NA indicates question not asked.

SOURCES: University of Chicago, National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey (2006); Japan—Government of Japan, National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, The 2001 Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology in Japan (2002); South Korea—Korea Science Foundation, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (2004); Russia—Gokhberg L and Shuvalova O, Russian Public Opinion of the Knowledge Economy: Science, Innovation, Information Technology and Education as Drivers of Economic Growth and Quality of Life, British Council, Russia (2004); China—Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, China Science and Technology Indicators 2002 (2002); India—National Council of Applied Economic Research, India Science Survey (2004); Malaysia—Malaysian Science and Technology Information Centre, Public Awareness of Science and Technology Malaysia 2004 (2005); and EU—European Commission, Research Directorate-General, Eurobarometer 224/Wave 63.1: Europeans, Science and Technology (2005).

Science and Engineering Indicators 2008

And here's the long term trend for just the U.S. This table was also taken from the section, Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding, and it follows the same format - the numbers in the table are the percentage of people that responded correctly, while the correct answer is listed in parentheses after the question.

Appendix table 7-5
Correct answers to scientific literacy questions: 1985–2006
Question 1985 (n = 2,003) 1988 (n = 2,041) 1990 (n = 2,005) 1992 (n = 1,995) 1995 (n = 2,006) 1997 (n = 2,000) 1999 (n = 1,882) 2001 (n = 1,574) 2004 (n = 2,025) 2006 (n = 1,864)
The center of the Earth is very hot. (True) NA 80 79 81 78 82 80 80 78 80
All radioactivity is man-made. (False) NA 65 63 73 72 71 71 76 73 70
Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (False) NA 36 37 37 40 39 43 45 42 45
Electrons are smaller than atoms. (True) NA 43 41 46 44 43 46 48 45 53
The universe began with a huge explosion. (True) NA 54 32 38 35 32 33 33 33a 33
The continents on which we live have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move in the future. (True) 79 80 77 79 78 78 80 79 77 80
Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (Earth around Sun) NA 73 73 71 73 73 72 75 71 76
How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (One year) NA 45 48 46 47 48 49 54 NA 55
It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (True) NA NA NA 65 64 62 66 65 62 64
Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (False) NA 26 30 35 40 43 45 51 54 56
Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (True) 45 46 45 45 44 44 45 53 42a 43
NA = not available, question not asked

aQuestion asked of 1,558 survey respondents.

NOTE: Table includes all years for which data collected.

SOURCES: National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (1985–2001); University of Michigan, Survey of Consumer Attitudes (2004); and University of Chicago, National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey (2006).

Science and Engineering Indicators 2008

Americans are still appallingly ignorant when it comes to science - a quarter thought that the Sun goes around the Earth, half didn't realize that electrons were smaller than atoms, and half didn't know that it takes a year for the Earth to go around the Sun. Those are simple facts that any elementary school student should be able to answer, and it boggles the mind that Americans know so little.

I'm also reminded of the ongoing conflict in Florida over the state standards regarding evolution, and the likely upcoming conflict in Texas when the science curriculum gets reviewed this year. Why do people who are so ignorant over such basic science facts feel the need to interfere in science education?

I think there's a very straight forward message to take away from these polls - we vastly need to improve science education in this country.

Like a Kid in a Candy Store

This is a very frivolous post, but...

I grew up in the '80s, when handheld electronic gadgets meant blinking LED lights and dedicated buttons. (Yeah, as I got older, the GameBoy and Lynx were introduced, but those were way out of the price range I could afford with my allowance). So, to get a mini hand-held computer, I had to do this:

Index Card Computer

Just this week, thanks to a sale on Amazon (prices had already gone back up before it was even delivered), I got this:

AT&T Tilt

And, just to compare them side by side:

AT&T Tilt & Index Card Computer Side by Side

My new computer may be a little bulkier than the one I had as a kid, and the index card version could do a heck of a lot more (like spy on the Russians and give me intel on the new kid across the street), but the new one actually works to show to other people, not just in my head.

It took 20 years, but reality has finally caught up to at least one aspect of my childhood imagination. Now, I just need to wait for those Moon bases and terraforming Mars (I read a lot of Odysssey when I was a kid.)

« March 2008 | Main | May 2008 »