Some Thoughts On The Philosophy Of Religion And Civil Society

There seems to be a kerfuffle claiming that Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas wants to eliminate (or downplay) teaching the Theory of Evolution and substitute “intelligent design” or Creationism as part of the school curriculum.

See the claim from the Arizona Daily Star: Arizona’s schools chief seeks limits on teaching evolution, Big Bang theory (link to story).

And a rebuttal from ADI’s Loretta Hunnicutt: Fake News Claims Evolution Stripped Out Of Arizona Science Standards (link to story).

Before getting to the philosophy, I have some (tongue-in-cheek) questions for hard-core “intelligent design” folks:

1) Why do human males have nipples? How intelligent is that?

2) What if some entity figuratively snapped its fingers and precipitated a “big bang” that created a universe with the precise chemical and physical properties that led to evolution of life. That’s the ultimate “intelligent design.”

3) Is God a tinkerer? The Genesis story of creation contains this phrase several times: “And God saw that it was good.” Didn’t He know it would be good beforehand, or was He experimenting and evolving?

The philosophy of religion and secularism:

Do you know the difference between right and wrong? How do you know? Upon what principles do you base your judgment? In this age of politically-correct, moral relativism, many of us think that many others don’t know the difference, or, at the very least, are operating on a different system of moral justification. Does the end justify the means, and is the end itself justifiable? Let’s review, very briefly, the theories of what is right.

There are four general theories used to justify the rules for civil society, one religious and three secular.

All religions, aside from their various creeds and rituals, have two common characteristics. 1)They attempt to explain the origin of the world and man. Almost all religions have creation stories. (see one from a Native American at the end of this post). 2) Religions attempt to provide justification for a system of ethics and social mores. The first characteristic has provided many interesting stories; the second has often led to trouble and intolerance. Religious doctrine has been used to justify the “divine right of kings” and to support systems which give little respect to or cognizance of individual rights.

The first of the secular systems, Natural Law theory, supposes that there are certain principles “discovered,” not “invented” by all societies, practical principles which work. In Western civilization, these principles derive from Greek and Roman law; especially the latter, since the Romans had to adjudicate cases in many cultures, and they noticed that disparate societies had some principles in common. Our founding fathers embraced Natural Law theory in the Declaration of Independence, when they wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights ….” Natural Law confers rights to the individual, and individuals form a society with a social contract based on those rights.

Natural Law theory has always had two problems, however. How can you identify a “natural” law? And, how do you make it work in society? The observations of the Romans answered the first: find the common principles which work in a variety of cultures. Our founding fathers found a solution to the second: the U.S. Constitution.

The second secular system, called the “Organic Theory” or “Historicism,” was a rejection of natural law. It was a reaction among European thinkers who thought that events such as the French revolution and breakdown of monarchies were getting too messy. Organic theory attempted to find a unifying doctrine that could conform all of society to some static model of perfection. This theory sought to identify a “collective will” manifested by majority rule, but it essentially ignored individual rights. Organic theory evolved into National Socialism in Germany, and into Communism.

The third secular theory is Utilitarianism. This, too, is a product of 18th century Europe and a rejection of natural law. Utilitarians think they can design a system of government to maximize the happiness of the citizens based on scientifically determined principles of governance. They attempt to show how a citizen’s self-interest can be reconciled with social responsibility without resorting to any lofty metaphysical assumptions. To reach this happy state, Utilitarians are loath to compare the values of one person with another. They think that goals, and means toward those goals, are so obvious to the enlightened, that they need not be justified with actual evidence. This theory has led to welfare economics and moral relativism.

Our educational system should visit all of these views and let the students decide for themselves which makes the most sense.

Finally, evolution is a scientific concept but science is not set in stone because:

“Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory. On the other hand, you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory.” –Stephen Hawking

A creation story:

Coyotes feature large in Native American folklore.  One of the most interesting stories to me was told by professional storyteller and author Gerard Tsonakwa during a lecture at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  Mr. Tsonakwa is a Native American from the Abenaki people who inhabited Quebec and northern New England.  He now resides in Tucson.

Of the many stories he told us, I found his creation story a most interesting parable. The written word can’t convey the nuances of delivery nor gestures, so you will have to be satisfied with the plain narrative of what I remember of his story, and even this will be an abridged version.

The Lord of Creation was lonely, so he gathered all the energy of the universe into a small space so that, with much noise and fire, it exploded to create the world.  On the world, the Lord of Creation made plants and animals and humans, and all the animals and humans could talk to each other.  The Lord of Creation provided food for man and beast and some animals understood that they were to provide food for other animals, and for that, the animals and humans would give thanks to those they ate.

So it was on the first day.  On that first day, there was the Sun to provide light and warmth and the whole world was beautiful.  The first night was a different story.  There was only darkness with no stars to punctuate the black sky.  So on the second day, the Lord of Creation set out to do something about that.  He collected certain bright flowers called Tundra Stars and put them in a big bag.  On the second night, the Lord of Creation, using a long stick, carefully placed each Tundra Star in the sky.  The Lord of Creation was very meticulous and placed the stars in patterns like a bead design.  This was hard work and before the night was over, the Lord of Creation fell asleep.

As the Lord of Creation slept, Coyote happened upon him.  Now, Coyote was a curious beast, and although he was well fed from the fruits of the world, he was always looking for something else, and he saw the bag of Tundra Stars.  Coyote sniffed around the bag, then took it and ran off.   But as he was running he tripped and dropped the bag which opened and spilled its contents all around the night sky.  This commotion awoke the Lord of Creation who saw what Coyote had done.   The Lord of Creation chastised Coyote for scattering his stars and obscuring  his meticulous patterns with a random array of stars.  Coyote began to cry, then howl.  And from that day,  Coyote and his kin howl at the night sky as penance.

So here, in a short narrative, we have an explanation of the big bang theory, of why constellations appear in a random star field and of why coyotes howl at the night sky.

See also:

The Urban Coyote and a Creation Story

Environmental Sophistry

“Journey of the Universe” and “Journey of the Universe Conversations” – DVD Review

Journey_of_the_Universe_Conversations_coverJourney of the Universe” is an hour-long documentary, previously aired on PBS, tracing, as the title implies, the history of the Universe. It begins at the “big bang” and tells the story of evolution of the universe, our planet, life, and human development. Throughout the documentary, host Brian Thomas Swimme, an “evolutionary philosopher,” (see bio here) projects a sense of awe and enthusiasm in relating the story. You can get a taste in a three-minute trailer here. This is an interesting documentary that gives an overview of this amazing journey. Unfortunately, near its end, the mood is shattered when Swimme devolves into doom-and-gloom environmental propaganda. This DVD serves as an introduction to the next.

Journey_of_the_Universe_Conversations_coverJourney of the Universe Conversations” is a four-DVD set containing 10 hours of interviews hosted by Mary Evelyn Tucker, an historian of religions (see bio here). There are 20 interviews. Interviews on the first two DVDs are those of scientists who relate, in more detail, the “Journey” of the documentary. DVDs three and four are populated mainly by non-scientist activists who are heavily into sustainable development and utopian environmental schemes. Most of the ideas expressed by these people have long been explored over the last 60 years or so in dystopian science fiction stories and found wanting. One interesting exception I found among this latter group, was Dr. David Begay, a physicist at Northern Arizona University, who related the way Navajos thought of the universe and related their “sense of place.”

These DVDs will be released on June 4, 2013 from most vendors. You can pre-order at Amazon here and here.

Life before Earth

Biologists Alexei A. Sharov and Richard Gordon have written an interesting speculative paper about the origin of life on Earth and in the universe (see full 19-page paper here). The paper is at times tough going with molecular biology jargon. They used a computer simulation to get back to the simplest form of life.

They start: “An extrapolation of the genetic complexity of organisms to earlier times suggests that life began before the Earth was formed. Life may have started from systems with single heritable elements that are functionally equivalent to a nucleotide.”

Some of their speculations and conclusions:

“Linear regression of genetic complexity extrapolated back to just one base pair suggests the time of the origin of life = 9.7 ± 2.5 billion years ago.” That is older than Earth.

This cosmic time scale for the evolution of life has important consequences:

(1) life took a long time (ca. 5 billion years) to reach the complexity of bacteria;

(2) the environments in which life originated and evolved to the prokaryote stage may have been quite different from those envisaged on Earth;

(3) there was no intelligent life in our universe prior to the origin of Earth, thus Earth could not have been deliberately seeded with life by intelligent aliens;

(4) Earth was seeded by panspermia

(Panspermia: Theory that life on earth originated from organisms coming from outer space); I wonder if this begs the question. However did life originate elsewhere?

(5) experimental replication of the origin of life from scratch may have to emulate many cumulative rare events;

(6) the Drake equation for guesstimating the number of civilizations in the universe is likely wrong, as intelligent life has just begun appearing in our universe.

Physicist Luboš Motl, a fan pf panspermia, has some comments here.

Some of their other speculations:

“In summary, the functional complexity of human civilization grows exponentially with a doubling time ca. 20 years, but we do not see any signs of an approaching “technological singularity” when humans would be replaced by intelligent machines. Instead, we expect a stronger integration of human mind with technology that would result in augmented intelligence.”

 – Big Bang’s Sheldon Cooper can hardly wait.


Landscape evolution in SE Arizona – a river runs through it

The physiography of southeastern Arizona is characterized by long, thin mountain ranges separated by broad, fault-bounded valleys. This physiography, which is unique on the planet, is the result of crustal extension that occurred between 8- to 12 million years ago.


The story of the evolution of SE Arizona is the subject of a featured article in the new Fall-Winter 2012 issue of Arizona Geology magazine, published by the Arizona Geological Survey. The paper is “Post-Tectonic Landscape Evolution in Southeastern Arizona: When Did a River Start to Run Through It?” by Matthew C. Jungers.

Initially, the basins had internal drainage and were not connected. Jungers’ story shows how geologic forces gradually connected the basins and how the Gila-Santa Cruz-San Pedro river system developed. The article also describes how he figured it out.

The graphic below shows the sequence of events according to Jungers:

SE AZ topo evolution

His figure caption reads:

“Figure 2. Final stages of the Basin and Range disturbance. (A) Structural basins were filled with sediment, and most basins were still internally drained. (B) Following the cessation of extensional tectonics in the region, basins continued to fill with sediment and faults were buried. Basins began to integrate with the main stem Gila River via a combination of basin spillover and headward drainage capture. (C) Following integration with an adjacent basin, sedimentary fill was incised as its basin adjusted to a new, lower base level. (D) As a new, through-flowing drainage network was established, integrated basins graded to the Gila River. The shift to an oscillating climate in the Quaternary may be preserved in flights of terraces that record alternating periods of floodplain stability followed by rapid incision. Figure adapted from Menges and Pearthree, 1989.”

Read the full article here.


Book Review: Religion versus Science

I was initially reluctant to take on this book because I didn’t want to get embroiled in the debate. But having read it, I’m glad I did. The book is informative and thought provoking.

The author, Dr. Ron Frost, is a professor of geology at the University of Wyoming and a practicing Buddhist.

The book is divided into three parts. Frost begins with the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant. Each of the men feels a portion of the elephant and each comes away with a different version of reality. This sets the tenor of the book.

Part 1 is a statement of the problem. Frost gives a brief history on the philosophies of science and religion and how they came to diverge. Frost starts with the geocentric view of natural science expounded by Aristotle and Ptolemy and codified into Catholic dogma by Thomas Aquinas. This was disrupted by the heliocentric observations of Nicholas Copernicus: the sun, not the earth was the center of the solar system. This work was expanded by Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei and created a rift between observation and religion.

Part 2, How we got here, is an excellent summary of the evolution of the universe and of life. Just these two sections make the book worth reading.

The heavy lifting comes in Part 3: Metaphysical Implications. Here, Frost examines the nature of consciousness. Is consciousness merely a result of electrical signals in the brain or is consciousness transcendental and something accessed by the brain? In Nature, as living beings and environments change, new life niches are opened. Does self-consciousness open a new niche for us?

Throughout the book Frost deconstructs Creation Science and Intelligent Design. He also takes issue with the purely materialistic view of atheists. In the last chapter, The future of the debate, Frost says that religious fundamentalists will have to give up their thrall to the literal interpretation of their sacred texts. (I know from other reading that Buddhists are not bound by texts, even their own: precepts change with new evidence.) Likewise, Frost says that atheists and pure materialists have to realize that they don’t know it all.

In the last chapter Frost recounts the problem presented by quantum physics on the nature of light. Light behaves as both particles and waves depending on how you observe it. To me, that is analogous to the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Reality depends on how you look at it and perhaps we don’t yet know its true nature.

This book is food for thought and well worth reading. It is published by O-books and is available at Amazon.

A Geologist's Tale

The Endangered Species Act is bad law because it fails to provide any positive incentives for conservation; it “takes” beneficial economic use of private property without just compensation; it prevents economic opportunity on public land; and it seeks the unnatural. Preservation is unnatural because things change; nature itself creates species and kills them off, most notably in 5 known mass extinctions in the last 500 million years and in at least two other mass extinctions before that. But, after each mass extinction, speciation and biodiversity increased, because the most robust lived and evolved to occupy the newly empty life niches.

It is, perhaps, only natural to want to preserve the status quo, but some environmentalists carry this to ridiculous extreme and even yearn for some imagined Eden that never was. Whatever their motives may be, they derive them in part from ignorance about life on earth. So let me tell you a story.

In the first half of the 19th century, when the science of geology was young, a British geologist, Adam Sedgewick, was working in Wales. He noticed that certain strata contained abundant fossils of marine life that formed a characteristic life assemblage which was, later, to be recognized throughout England and Europe. He named these strata “Cambrian” after the Latin name for Wales. He also noticed that successive layers of rock contained a slightly different characteristic assemblage of fossils. Life was evolving. Later dating would place the beginning of the Cambrian period at about 540 million years ago.

But there was a mystery. The Cambrian rocks showed an “explosion” of abundant and varied animal life. The strata below the Cambrian (called Precambrian) was apparently devoid of obvious life. This vexed Charles Darwin whose new theory of evolution demanded that the Cambrian animals should have evolved from earlier life forms.

Of course, Darwin was right; there are Precambrian fossils, but they weren’t discovered until 1940 because they weren’t obvious. It’s hard to make a fossil out of a jellyfish. I’ll get back to that later.

So let’s now go back to the beginning and take up the story, as we know it, in chronological order.


Life leaves a signature. We now know that life began on Earth almost 4 billion years ago, and it left a signature consisting of a special combination of carbon isotopes. The first known life-form on Earth was the bacterium. You’ll notice that bacteria are still with us. That’s because they are good chemists. They don’t change body shape, but they do change chemical processes in response to the environment.



The first bacteria developed and lived at crushing ocean depths near undersea volcanoes where they derived sustenance from hydrogen sulfide emitted by the volcanoes. Gradually these earliest bacteria worked their way to shallow water near land, and started to use carbon dioxide and sunlight. The oldest known fossils are microfossils called stromatolites, which are remnants of bacterial mats. The earliest stromatolites are dated at about 3.5 billion years before present. For about one billion years, bacteria were the only life-form on earth.

Bacteria give off oxygen, and after a billion years, that process caused an environmental crisis. About 2.5 billion years ago, oxygen levels in the ocean reached some critical level which caused iron and manganese to precipitate. All of the world’s large iron deposits, called Banded Iron Formations, formed between 2.5- and 1.8 billion years ago, and none have formed since. After oceanic iron was used up, oxygen increased in the atmosphere. The oxygen began to destroy methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas, and the reaction produced carbon dioxide, which is 62 times less effective at warming the surface of the planet. Loss of methane plunged the planet into a profound ice age that lasted for about 30 million years. The bacteria retreated to equatorial habitats and again toward warm volcanic vents. Populations became isolated and some changed; they became more organized into a new life form called Eukaryotic microbes. Fossil Eukaryotes appear in the iron formations, initially as single cells, then as multicellular chains up to 4″ long. Life was getting big. The Eukaryotes would eventually become animals, plants, and fungi. Algae appear in the fossil record beginning about one billion years ago.

Planet Earth suffered another series of ice ages between 750 million and 600 million years ago, which caused at least three separate mass extinctions including most of the stromatolites. Another extinction occurred 560 to 500 million years ago, right at the start of the Cambrian Period. But with each extinction, life bounced back, became more diverse, and bigger. And that brings us back to the discovery in 1940.

In 1940, an Australian geologist, R.C. Sprigg, found some fossils in Precambrian sandstone in southern Australia. These “Ediacarans” resembled jellyfish, worms, and stalked sea anemone-like creatures. Some of these fossils were nearly three feet long. Similar fossils have since been found worldwide. The Ediacarans appeared about 580 million years ago and were largely gone by 550 million years ago. As I said, it’s hard to make a fossil out of a jellyfish. The early Ediacarans were preserved in bacterial mats, stromatolites. When the stromatolites disappeared, so did the means of fossilizing Ediacarans.

The next evidence of animal life are trace fossils, not the critters themselves but squiggles and tracks left by relatively large animals capable of locomotion. Next came SSFs, small shelly fossils, evidence that animals first formed hard parts that are easily fossilized. These critters appeared beginning about 545 million years ago. The “abundant life” in Sedgewick’s mid-Cambrian assemblages didn’t appear until 522 million years ago. Genetic work from molecular biology studies, and more-recent fossil discoveries suggest that a major diversification in animal life took place at least 50 million years before the Cambrian, and that the Cambrian “explosion” represented the second major diversification. So you see, there is a continuous line of fossil evidence for evolution; it just took us a while to recognize it.

Abundant, visible life was present on planet earth by 500 million years ago, and nature tried to kill it off several more times. Here are the major events.

The Ordovician and Devonian mass extinctions of 440- and 370 million years ago caused extinction of 20% of marine families. The Permo-Triassic mass extinction event of 250 million years ago appears to have been the most catastrophic. It is estimated that 80% to 90% of all species became extinct during this event. These extinctions are associated with Ice Ages.

About 50% of genera were eliminated in the end-Triassic extinction 200 million years ago. This one may have been caused by cooling associated with an asteroid impact. The Cretaceous/Tertiary extinction, 65 million years ago which eliminated the dinosaurs and about 50% of other species is attributed to cooling events caused by vulcanism and asteroid impact.

Finally, megafauna, such as the mammoth, became extinct about 10,000 years ago following the last period of glaciation. The time of extinction coincides with a major cooling event called the Younger Dryas. Some attribute this event to asteroid impact.

Life on earth is risky, but resilient, and each extinction was followed by more speciation and greater biodiversity. The old order gives way to new.

So that’s my story. Put all that against the feeble folly of the ESA. Do you see now why the plight of pygmy owls and other “endangered” species doesn’t impress me? Lots of things kill off life on earth, including us. We are part of Nature. Notice also, that most extinctions were associated with cooling; not warming.

Bottom Line: The Endangered Species Act reflects only our own hubris, and is just so much wasteful foolishness because Nature is the ultimate impartial and ruthless arbiter of life on earth.