Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Editorial that got me fired from managing the city of Maricopa's weekly paper (Aug-Sept '06, 60-hour-a-week job, while also producing The Messenger)

I go there in my mind

I just read a column in another local publication, titled “There’s no way that just happened!” This was a religion column, and — beyond a number of the doctrinal and hortatory points it made — one of the notable things about it was the number of words printed in all capital letters. (Now, I’m sure this was completely intentional. We sometimes hear the advice as to e-mail etiquette, “Don’t type in all caps, it looks like you’re yelling.” Here, I’m sure that was the intended effect: This pastor was writing as if delivering a sermon, and at various points in that sermon, I know he would be rather worked up and joyously enthusiastic, and he wanted you to feel that, even while reading quietly to yourself. And I did feel it.)
The other thing notable about his column, though, is that, starting with its title, it takes the opposite view from the one in an essay I recently wrote for my evangelical Jewish friend, who lives in Washington. D.C. Yes, you heard me, this is a right-wing, evangelical Jew (no, not a “messianic Jew,” not one of those so-called “Jews for Jesus”). He’s an avid supporter of “intelligent design,” and of President Bush, along with all of his policies (except his refusing to veto excessive spending). He’s also virulently anti-“choice,” considers Jack Abramoff an upstanding fellow, says liberals and the New York Times are all a bunch of liars promoting a radically secular agenda, etc., etc.
He and I have been arguing over a number of these issues, especially evolution, ID and scientific vs. Biblical explanations for things, via e-mail for about 5 years now.
Side note: Interestingly, this friend and I go back to the 7th grade, and in that era, there was no particular clue he would turn out to be a right-wing wacko. Within certain margins, he seemed quite normal, including being normally rebellious. He introduced me to some good rock albums when I first joined a record club. He also sold me his electric guitar. In the 8th grade, we got sent to the principal’s office for gambling on the school bus. (We were just playing gin and Ohell, for a half-cent a point. Is that gambling?! I ask you.) We tried growing pot out at his once-reprobate-bachelor Dad’s old babe-lair cabin in the woods … just to name a few mutual, harmless adolescent exploits. (Actually, speaking of pastors, visiting him at college once, a preacher’s daughter seduced me at a frat party. Dating her later, I took her out to said cabin one weekend. “David, is this wrong?” she drawled, apparently in shock at the now non-drunken, premeditated brazenness of our trysting.)
Back to bizness. Well, I had a brainstorm recently and figured I might finally be able to explain the correctness of evolution to my old friend — to everyone, in fact — in simple, easy-to-understand terms. Like the reverend’s column I just read, it has to do with what’s more likely: improbable things happening by blind, random chance, or, alternatively, “on purpose”? The idea is so easy, so universally comprehensible, I even sent it to Newsweek as a “My Turn” column. Still waiting to hear back on that. In the meantime, I offer it here, where lesser renown and notoriety, or even pillorying may await me:

The proof is now available. Kind of like with profound mathematical and physics theories, I can now prove the veracity of evolution and the falsity of intelligent design “theory” by way of a thought experiment.
In doing this, I think I am emulating the ID proponents. They construct thought experiments that “prove” ID by showing it defies common sense to think certain things in nature could happen by chance; therefore they must have come about due to an underlying, purposeful mind--probably God, but who knows? It could be those aliens who left the monoliths around littering the solar system, in order to further our evolution from dumb, doomed australopithecines to aggressive, therefore thriving, hominids (and beyond!).
Now, in response, scientists tend to come up with points that get around the IDers’ objections to evolution. I’m not going to go into those back-and-forths. I will instead comment on how philosophers of science--and without having to know much actual science either--can also identify the fallacies in IDers’ thinking, at a more fundamental level.
For instance, a few months ago, one of those liberal-secular New York Times contributors pointed out that one reason ID seems appealing as an explanation is because people basically have trouble truly grasping the immensity of time and space--and, I would add, the amazingly fertile hubbub in the realm of the very small and fast. In other words, if people other than cosmologists, subatomic physicists, geologists, microbiologists and so on could really get their heads around how zillions of events (most of them leading to nothing much interesting), over huge spans of time, at a minuscule, frantic scale and pace could and have led and do lead to all observable natural phenomena (even the most complex and autonomous, such as most “higher” animals, and many people), they would have much less problem allowing the explanatory power of evolution.
By contrast, since many people have very little imagination concerning scientific concepts, and limited ability to hold several abstractions in mind long enough to connect them into an intellectual framework, they think a number of what I consider superstitious, pseudo-explanations for things are more likely, and simpler. But pushing the question of complexity back one step to a Mind capable of coming up with nature’s forms and processes doesn’t really explain anything, even if it might perchance be true. That’s probably why the Founding Fathers were Deists, if by it they meant that a God may be the “First Mover,” but the way in which it then all works out over the eons is a fascinating subject for scientific inquiry, not faith-based nostrums. (Nate also disputes what he calls the “propaganda” that says the Founders were Deists and promoted “separation of church and state.” Oy vey, vas ist dis mishugahss?)
So, back to my thought experiment:
I have a concept called, “Couldn’t have done that if you tried.” [Editor’s note: See, there’s the contrast with the pastor’s title, “There’s no way that just happened.”] You know, like when you toss a piece of trash at the wastebasket and it happens to perch precariously on the edge, just barely teetering there (maybe with the help of the wall--but it’s still pretty cool, and highly unlikely). Or something else, say a slightly crumpled envelope, playing card or piece of a box, or a dollar bill (or, for the less flush, a quarter): you toss it or drop it, and it lands--and stands or leans--on its side or in the slot in a way that you could never have achieved in a million years if you were trying. I’m sure everyone can come up with their own examples. (Many of mine have to do with throwing something and it balancing improbably somehow--must be my inferiority complex about how I’ve never been able to get a basketball anywhere near the basket, let alone propped on the rim, against the backboard. By contrast, my old friend was pretty good with a ball, and still has a nickname associated with some player named Hal _____, number 15 …)
But I digress (again). The bottom line is, my thought experiment (really more just a notion, actually) proves that evolution is correct. The most amazing things happen by chance, more amazing than what tends to happen by design, and the more amazing, the more likely it is that it couldn’t have happened “on purpose.” (OK, so it’s just a variation on the old saw, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”)
Same for evolution: Only chance could account for all the amazing occurrences that have led to all the complex and bizarre forms we know in nature. Such as Michael Jackson. (Ta-dum.) No way anyone--even a God, or a super-brainy and unaccountably benevolent alien--could have done it all on purpose. That would defy the odds, for sure.
So, now you’ve been given some exposure to simple, common-sense based, easy-to-understand formulas for the opposing viewpoints on a major issue of our time. Which side do you come down on? Let us know.
— Or, maybe, you happen to have landed kind of on edge, improbably balanced on an ear, shoulder and hip-bone, not even immediately apt to fall over one way or the other. But if you write to tell me about it, I have only one request: Avoid all-capital-letters.

--David Tell
© 2006 Quicksilver Publishing Group. All rights reserved.

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