Thursday, April 18, 2013


Jane & Janeway on Science & Religion

I like synchronicity. A couple of days ago I saw an episode of Star Trek: Voyager that I thought nicely spoke to the difference between a belief in science as a tool and when that belief becomes scientism, which "exalts the methods of the natural sciences above all other modes of human inquiry." Then, today, I happened upon an essay by primatologist Jane Goodall that also touched upon the subject. In neither case was I expecting the subject matter to include the so-called conflict between science and religion. Below is an excerpt from Goodall as published in chapter 13 of The Faith of Scientists in Their Own Words by Nancy K. Frankenberry, ed.
I was taught as a scientist to think logically and empirically, rather than intuitively or spiritually. When I was at Cambridge University in the early 1960s most of the scientists and science students working in the Department of Zoology, so far as I could tell, were agnostic or even atheist. Those who believed in a God kept it hidden from their peers.

... there are many windows through which we humans, searching for meaning, can look out into the world around us. There are those carved out by Western science, their panes polished by a succession of brilliant minds. Through them we can see ever farther, ever more clearly, into areas which until recently were beyond human knowledge.

... Yet there are other windows through which we humans can look out into the world around us, windows through which the mystics and holy men of the East, and the founders of the great world religions, have gazed as they searched for the meaning and purpose of our life on earth, not only in the wondrous beauty of the world, but also in its darkness and ugliness. And those Masters contemplated the truths that they saw, not with their minds only but with their hearts and souls too. From those revelations came the spiritual essence of the great scriptures, the holy books, and the most beautiful mystic poems and writings. That afternoon [in May 1981 in the Gombe forest], it had been as though an unseen hand had drawn back a curtain and, for the briefest moment, I had seen through such a window. In a flash of "outsight" I had known timelessness and quiet ecstasy, sensed a truth of which mainstream science is merely a small fraction.
Below is an excerpt of dialogue from the Voyager episode, "Sacred Ground" by Dr. Geo Athena Trevarthen a.k.a. Geo Cameron. The encounter has a delightfully wry feel to it. The setting is that Captain Janeway has undergone an arduous religious ritual in order to obtain scientific data to help a crew member, Kes, mortally injured by a "biogenic field" after approaching a shrine. She has returned to Voyager with her information but it has proven fruitless in helping Kes. Desperate to help Kes, Janeway returns to the sanctuary where she had earlier encountered three elders while undergoing the "meaningless ritual".
Male Elder 1 (ME1): Well. Look who's come back. So, your little adventure didn't quite work out the way you'd planned it. You put yourself through a lot of trouble and for nothing, didn't you?

Male Elder 2 (ME2): Don't feel bad. You wouldn't believe some of the things people have done to themselves on their way to seek the Spirits.

Janeway (J): So there's no real ritual after all.

ME2: "Real" is such a relative term. Most of the challenges in life are the ones we create for ourselves.

Female Elder (FE): And you are particularly hard on yourself, aren't you?

J: I've always been driven to succeed.

ME1: Stubborn, I'd say. You didn't really consider sitting and waiting with us, did you?

J: Well, I'm here now, and I'm asking for your help. I want understand the purpose of waiting in this room.

FE: But isn't it enough enough to sit and be sociable? We're good company.

J: That's what I'm supposed to do, talk to the Ancestral Spirits.

FE: Oh (giggles), first we were a test, and now we're the Ancestral Spirits.
J: Are you?

ME1: That would be nice and quantifiable for you, wouldn't it? If the Spirits were something that you could see and touch and scan with your little devices.

ME2: If you can explain everything, what's left to believe in?

J: I know it's an important part of your religion to trust the Spirits without question, but I wasn't brought up that way. It's hard for me to accept.

ME1: So much for your tolerant, open-minded Star Fleet ideals.

J: There's a difference between respecting the spiritual beliefs of other cultures and embracing them myself.

ME1: Fine. Don't embrace a thing. It's all the same to us. Go on back to your ship and play with your molecular microscanner.

FE: You've tried all that already, but it didn't work, did it? Kes didn't get better.

J: No, she didn't.

FE: Why not?

J: The Doctor couldn't explain it.

FE: So, it's inexplicable. A miraculous non-recovery.

J: We haven't found the reason yet.

FE: But of course you will. You'll find all the answers eventually with enough time and study and the right sort of tools. That's what you believe, isn't it, as a scientist?

ME1: Be honest.

J: Yes, that's what I've always believed.

ME2: Even when her science fails right before her eyes, she still has full confidence in it. Now there's a leap of faith.

FE: Unconditional trust. Now that's promising.

J: All right ... if you're saying that science won't help Kes, what will?

ME1: You won't like it.

J: I'm willing to do whatever's necessary.

ME1: Kill her ...

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Monday, April 01, 2013



Below are some excerpts from Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America by Adam Winkler (Norton, 2011).

Despite the utopian dreams of some gun control advocates, guns in America aren't going anywhere ... Nevertheless, disarmament was the motive behind the D.C. laws challenged in the Heller case. The D.C. city council hoped that its ban on handguns would trigger a nationwide movement to eliminate civilian ownership of guns. The folly of its idealism was highlighted when, a decade or so after enactment of its strict gun laws, the District came to be known as the "murder capital of America." ... In the absence of any short-term hope of disarmament, gun control extremists throw their support behind poorly designed and predictably ineffective reforms. The statistics that clearly suggest bans on handguns and assault weapons don't reduce crime—or even the number of handguns and assault weapons in circulationdon't seem to matter. [p. 10]

Few people realize it, but the Ku Klux Klan began as a gun control organizations; after the Civil War, the Klan and other violent racist groups sought to reaffirm white supremacy, which required confiscating the guns blacks had obtained for the first time during the conflict. To prevent blacks from fighting back, the night riders set out to achieve complete black disarmament. In the 1960s, race was also central to a new wave of gun control laws, which were backed by liberals and even some conservatives, like Ronald Reagan. Enacted to disarm politically radical urban blacks, like the Black Panthers, these laws sparked a backlash that became the modern gun rights movement—a movement that ironically, is largely white, rural, and politically conservative. [pp.13-14]

Nelson "Pete" Shields III, one of the founders of Handgun Control Inc.—later renamed the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence—argued for eliminating all handguns. "We're going to have to take this one step at a time ... Our ultimate goal—total control of all guns—is going to take time." The "final problem," he insisted, "is to make possession of all handguns, and all handgun ammunition" for ordinary civilians "totally illegal." Sarah Brady, who serves as chair of the Brady Center, argues that "the only reason for guns in civilian hands is for sporting purposes," not self-defense, and supports the creation of a national gun licensing system in which only people with government approval can have a gun. Self-defense, the core reason why many people in America own guns, would not be a proper basis for government approval to be gra.[p. 35]

Used to losing battles over gun control, gun controllers latch onto any proposal popular enough to make it through the legislature—usually right after some school shooting or other tragedy. Whether or not a proposed law will actually curb gun deaths is irrelevant; gun control extremists will stand behind it. ... Consider the federal gun ban on so-called assault weapons, adopted in 1994 during the Clinton Administration. The controversy flared up a few years earlier, when Josh Sugarmann, founder of the pro-gun control Violence Policy Center, published a study entitled "Assault Weapons and Accessories in America." Sugarmann called for a ban on guns he termed assault weapons—a name derived from a German World War II-era battle rifle called the Sturmgewehr, or storm rifle. ... Machine guns have been heavily regulated in the United States since the 1930s [civilian ownership of new machine guns has been illegal since the 1986 passage of the Firearm Owners' Protection Act - VFPD], Sugarmann was referring to semiautomatic rifles that just looked like machine guns. A semiautomatic rifle can't spray fire like a machine gun. Instead, when you pull the trigger on a semiautomatic rifle, it fires only one bullet. ... Sugarmann was unusually frank about how public misperception of assault weapons would make banning them the sale of them easier. "The weapons' menacing looks, coupled with the public's confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semiautomatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons." [pp. 35-36]

... in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, law enforcement began confiscating guns from law-abiding people even though police protection was nowhere to be found amid the looting and theft. Often, if there's a crisis, the easy solution is to do away with the guns. [p. 40]

Not only did killing [in Washington, DC] become more common after the [1976 Washington, DC] gun ban, but guns also became a more common way to kill. [p. 42]

Concerning the legislative debate over the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, Winkler writes: Gun rights advocates managed to defeat registration and licensing by arguing that such measures would lead eventually to confiscation of all civilian guns. In the House of Representatives, The Michigan Democrat and NRA board member John Dingell warned his colleagues that the Nazis adopted mandatory registration and used the records to disarm the Jews and political dissidents. This law, too, could be the first step toward a holocaust. While others dismissed the analogy to the Nazis, it didn't help that [US Senator from Connecticut] Thomas Dodd had in fact asked the Library of Congress to provide him with a translation of the German laws of the 1930s when he was drafting his bills ... [p. 252]

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