Friday, 31 July 2009

Book Review: Only A Theory

The Dover trial was worldwide news, the notion of Intelligent Design and the fate of science itself was mainstream news. Even then-Prime Minister John Howard weighed in on the matter, claiming that schools should 'teach the controversy'. Now my memory of the event may be a little fuzzy, but the debate here went along the lines of the state education systems saying "fuck off, it's not science". While they may have been more polite than my recollection of the events, this case was landmark and attracted global attention.

What really drew me into the whole debate was a lecture a housemate linked me by a biologist named Ken Miller, where he outlined ID and the challenge it posed to science. From there I was hooked and in the last few years through the wonders of the internet I've been drawn in to this debate. Ken Miller beyond anyone else has been the public face of this debate in terms of science, so it's only fitting I read his take on what this is really about.

The book does something all arguments should do, framed the case for what he is arguing against in a fair manner then dismantled it piece by piece. But this was not the purpose of the book, only a microcosm of the wider argument at hand. ID is not about bringing a new unifying theory of biology to the classroom, it's a means of subverting the materialistic process of science - that methodological naturalism is being attacked with evolution as the point of weakness.

He brilliantly sums up the public controversy, and just why it is boiling over on the pits of academia. And the majority of this book is dedicated to explaining the importance of science, trying to explain methodological naturalism and why it is such an important too. But this is not an atheist assault on theism, Miller is a theist himself. And seeing a theist come out in such defence of methodological naturalism (as the name suggest, it is a method not a philosophy) is important to dissect this notion that science is an inherently atheistic enterprise.

One thing did irk me though, his explanation of resolving the anthropic principle seems a false dichotomy. That one needs faith for God or the multiverse to account for why this universe is so primed for life. While I can understand that could be a position for theism, to characterise it as atheists needing to have faith in a multiverse just missed the point to me.

To use an analogy, 200 years ago before Darwin where Paley gave us the watchmaker argument and Lamarck had his species change themselves notion. In the absence of Natural Selection, should one be forced to choose between a divine watchmaker and species passing on acquired characteristics? In light of modern information, we know this dichotomy to be a false one. It's neither designed nor are acquired traits inherited, variation and natural selection forms the basis of how life diversified.

I don't see what's wrong with saying "I don't know" in the absence of understanding of how the laws of nature and the ratios therein form. Perhaps I'm looking too much into what was almost a throwaway statement to give comfort that there is still a gap to put God into. But that should give an indication of what I thought of this book, the only statement I could possibly find fault with was something so insignificant that it demonstrates what a well-written book it is.

This book is worth reading for anyone who needs reminding of what is at stake if science is redefined in order to be friendly to religion, and to understand what this whole controversy is all about. I was thoroughly impressed with Ken Miller's style, he's an engaging writer and an amazing teacher. He carries the same style in his books as he does in the lectures I've seen of him (a lot of this book actually was in the aforementioned lecture, to the point where I thought I was reading the same sections twice). It's thoroughly engaging, you won't want to put it down. At least I didn't.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Review: Did Darwin Kill God?

I wasn't sure what to expect going into this documentary. I was already in agreement with the host, that it is evidentially true that one can both be a Christian and a supporter of evolution. And if one wasn't perturbed by the notion that one can ascertain truth through empirical investigation in the time before Darwin, then why would it change after? One thing that has cropped up in recent debates has been whether this is philosophically true, after all only 14% of people in America think that evolution happened unguided (~35% guided by God, ~50% special creation) where about 12% of the population is non-religious. I went in seeking an understanding of how a Christian can reconcile God with this modern universe and came away completely dismayed at what I saw.

Don't get me wrong, the content was still solid. But it didn't really seek to answer the question posed - rather that position was assumed as the default and anyone who said otherwise was attacked. It started off calling Dawkins a fundamentalist and pretty much stayed at that level for the next 60 minutes. Which is fine, I disagree with his assessment of course about what constitutes a fundamentalist. But more than anything, such language was indicative of the argument to follow.

He started out showing that the bible should not be taken literally, showing the disparity between Genesis 1 and 2. Then followed by a few quotes from prominent theologians, there his case that Christianity was compatible with evolution was set. I couldn't help but think watching him quote Augustine of Hippo (I even quote this guy when it comes to biblical literalism) that it would be like someone in the future quoting John Paul II supporting science and claiming from there that historically there's no incompatibility. Methinks that such statements by the likes of St. Austin demonstrate that the same battle was playing out back then as it is now - that agreement isn't unanimous, rather that there were individuals on both sides hence the need for the excellent prose in the first place.

So apparently everything was fine and dandy among the church in England and in the US until the early 20th century when fundamentalism rose for the first time in history (which again makes me wonder why St Austin had to write such words in the first place) and that put religion at loggerheads with science. But, as we find out, it's not that William Jennings Bryan opposed evolution, but the moral decay posed by social darwinism. He was an old earth creationist, so that's different. Likewise in 1961, the modern creationist movement was started by Henry Morris called The genesis flood. And this was again caused by apparent moral decline, because it was the 60s. Just forget to mention that JFK made a huge push to get science taught nationally at that time, play the morality card.

Today, it's pretty self-evident that the morality card is still played against evolution. So I agree to an extent that its a problem. And for the biblical literalists? Well he kind of played it down with a No True Scotsman argument, apart from that opening where he tried to show that genesis is myth, there wasn't really much to his taking down this position. It doesn't fit with the church fathers (well the ones he quoted) so it isn't true Christianity.

The final third of the program was dedicated to the other extremists who say that evolution and God are incompatible - the Darwinists. While he lined up Richard Dawkins in the opening monologue, he had to settle for the likes of Dan Dennett and Susan Blackmore. His focus? Ultra-darwinism, whereby memes mean that one can't really know anything (hello Plantinga) so the atheist objection is absurd. And there was atheist philosopher Michael Ruse to give credence to the notion of compatibility between Christianity and Darwinism.

I know it was an hour program, but his response felt shallow. After allowing Susan Blackmore to explain her case, he argued against it in a matter of seconds - asserting that such a case is absurd and that there's no counter argument to this. And his argument here may be right about a certain form of argument against the existence of God, but it didn't cover what seem to be the mainstream arguments the likes of Dawkins propagates - that evolution makes God unnecessary. Maybe Conor Cunningham accepts such an argument could be valid, though it seemed a blight on this show that such an argument was missing.

So in the end, I was left feeling somewhat empty. The structure followed a simple format - present the opening, tear down the arguments from the creationists, then tear down the arguments from the atheists. Though I felt that at all stages he didn't give a satisfactory explanation, at least from what I've seen from my contact with both believers and non-believers regarding this issue. It might just be my position as a hardened atheist, but it seemed that he didn't address the underlying issues at all. I could picture a creationist watching it and dismissing his arguments against biblical literalism, and I could see the likes of Dawkins watching it and thinking he missed the mark against the atheist position.

I went in hoping to gain some insight into the theist mindset regarding the intersection of God and science. What I saw seemed not to make the case, but an attack on others who say there is no case. It seemed overly apologetic towards creationists, and tried to pin it on a wider societal movement, and that the Darwinist position puts itself into an untenable position - so it's invalid? It didn't feel like he made much of a case at all, and that is sad. It didn't try to paint a picture of how God fits into reality, I'm guessing that being nebulous has some advantages when contemplating the infinite, and because of that it for my mind didn't make the case for the topic at hand.

Maybe I'm way off the mark, that my beliefs got in the way. I've been dealing with creationists online for a while now, but I didn't get anything out of there which would help in my understanding of how one could be a Christian and support evolution. I was expecting there to be something of that nature, something that would show that the position is intellectually tenable. But I can fully accept that my expectations would mean that what Cunningham presented would be unsatisfying to me. Maybe Only A Theory should be next on my reading list. But in the absence of that, the words of Jerry Coyne still echo in my mind:
Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.

The Post-Scarcity Economy

Do the music corporations really want to go down this road? A woman is being fined $2.4 million dollars (AUD) for downloading a total of 24 songs. What about forcing ISPs to disconnect customers who file share? It seems that there's a great disconnect between what the market wants, what the product that is being provided and the technology. Business seems largely stuck in the old way of doing things, but this is a post-scarcity marketplace.

The will of the market
A post scarcity economy can be contrasted with a scarcity one. Society has been moving towards a post-scarcity economy for decades now, the invention of personal video recorders and cassettes were the first in a line of technologies meaning that an item's value meant it was as simple as knowing a source and having the right equipment and one could make an imperfect copy. With digital technology and digital media, there's no need for even finding a local source. Within a few clicks, one can be downloading a copy from the other side of the world.

File sharing is not something new in society, ever since consumerism pushed technology to be able to replicate information, humans have found ways to share it. But this is a truly revolutionary component. Now information is digital, and it can be digitally replicated for essentially no cost. Now this means that consumers have more power than ever before about what to do with the product, replication is easy. And it seems the consumers have spoken. The success of file sharing shows that consumers are taking that road, much to the detriment of the corporate model.

As internet speeds have gotten faster, the quality of information and types of information have increased. While Napster was allowing for MP3 transfer 12 years ago, it was unthinkable to download TV and movies. But as speeds have gotten faster and compression technology better, there's no need anymore for the original product. Combine this with a global market, now if a show is aired in the US months before here in Australia (if at all) it means an individual can get the product within a few hours of it airing.

Yet corporations seem frightened of this kind of technology. Despite the overwhelming consumer demand for such technologies, the businesses have instead gone down the path of trying to take us back to the pseudo-scarcity economy by restricting what people can do with their products (which is easy enough to get around) and threatening individuals who do circumvent it. They have been pulled kicking and screaming into the 21st century, whereby the internet services we have now are scarcely a competitive alternative to pirating. But, there's one company who I feel deserves full praise for adapting to such a society.

The Steam model
I've got to say that Valve have done a great job with steam. It now has an impressive range of titles, it keeps games constantly up to date, and it gives incentives to buy. While there is still a form of DRM (that you need to have the game registered to your account to play) it has taken advantage of this post-scarcity business model to provide the consumer with incentives to pay. And it seems that it is working quite well.

I was at a mini LAN a few weeks back and we wanted to play Team Fortress 2. One of the people didn't have a copy, so we were able to make a backup of the data and give him that. Then loaded him up with a free 3-day pass and we were all able to game legally. It might have meant another sale for steam in the future even. Yet this simple gesture shows the power of such a business model. If we wanted to do it legally under the old system, this would mean going to a store and buying a copy. Hardly something one can do at 8pm on a Saturday night. Previously such a situation would have probably led to piracy, and why pay after one already has the product?

Now this business model is great for gaming. It's not perfect, there's still a few kinks - such as the ability to on-sell a product like one could do with a physical disk. But still it works, it meets market expectations and does so at what is an affordable price. This model would not obviously work for things like television shows or albums, but it shows that it can be done. And that's a positive step in the right direction.

For the likes of television shows and movies, why isn't there something like netflicks but in a digital age? Surely a subscription-based service much like Pay TV would be a potential path to operating in the post scarcity environment. Same goes for things like music - why not have a legal equivalent to oink where individuals can download what they like again for a subscription. The iTunes model is a bit of a joke, this individual pays for a apple-locked product is not a substitute.

The bottom line
Using fear tactics will not work, and one cannot adequately police what individuals do inside their own homes. Cracking down on file sharing won't stop file sharing, it'll push it into more cryptographic channels, and it is forcing people to use a system they quite clearly don't want to use anymore. There is potential for adaptation and success in a post-scarcity business model. And they need to because this infrastructure is here to stay. Giving half-arsed compromises like DRM or iTunes is not a substitute as is clearly demonstrated.

The internet has sprung up overnight on the societal scale of things, the business people successful in the last generation of things evidentially don't have a clue how to use this business model for success. But surely it is also evidenced that there is the possibility to be successful on the internet, and that the consumer must be afforded a certain degree of power. It's a risk putting this kind of business model out there, but it is needed because this post scarcity economy is not going away. Information is no longer a valuable commodity, and it's time that notion was accepted and we could move on to the user-centric model like the market is demanding now.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Order Of Molly

Time for a little piece of self-congratulatory posting. As you may or may not know, I'm a frequent commenter over at the blog Pharyngula, and on there I've picked up the accolade of Order of Molly. With so many great posters on there, it's a really good achievement to stand out enough in order for others to recognise you.

And I beat out the inanimate carbon rod. Take that rod!