Saturday, February 18, 2012

Wild animal issues

Some programs recently aired about wild animals ... one on 60 Minutes about wild African species being raised for hunting in Texas, one about commercial fishing pressure (I forget the station), and one on NPR about keeping wild animals as pets.  Zoos with captive wild animals have always struck me as rather sad.  The animals seem either despondent or deeply traumatized by their captive condition.  Modern zoos are better at this than they used to be, but wild animals in zoos have been taken from the environments where they belong and put into very different circumstances.  Imagine if we were captured and put on display in some alien zoo!  It's likely inappropriate to project our human feelings on animals, but watching caged animals has a very unpleasant effect on me.

The exotic African species being raised in Texas for the financial gain of the landowners via hunting permits is a troubling clash of ideals.  I'm not a fan of hunting - the idea of killing animals for sport is simply absurd to me - but if it's true that these species are becoming extinct in their native habitats, this sort of "use" may be the only way to keep the species from vanishing entirely.  Of course, the herds in Texas are very limited gene pools and so don't necessarily represent the best chance they would have for survival, which inevitably would be to allow them to roam free in the environment in which they evolved.  What's truly sad isn't the debate about African antelopes in Texas;  it's the process(es) by which these creatures are being swept from their native lands.  Loss of habitat associated with the growth of human populations and their increasing impact on the land, exploitation of the land (including the native wild animals) for human gain, killing of animals for their "medicinal" value (often in folk remedies for impotence) ... all of these are manifestations of the assumption that humans are entitled to do whatever they want to other species.  This is a kind of "species-ism" comparable to other prejudices we humans exhibit.  

Yes, I realize that humans must kill something living in order to eat, even if someone eats no animals at all.  A friend recently shared an image of wild goose carcasses pulled from a dumpster - slaughtered only for their breast meat.  That's not the behavior of someone killing to survive - it's murder for greed.  How many times is this sort of thoughtless act repeated around the world every day?  We have domestic animals we raise for the sole purpose of providing us with meat.  Is it really necessary to kill wild animals?  I know that a few people in the USA have to supplement their diet with wild game, hunted legally during the appropriate season.  I have no real problem with that.  But when our population is allowed to grow (arguably as a result of agriculture, which can have the effect of destroying habitat, as well), and urban sprawl gobbles up more and more land, hunting pressure can become threatening to wild species.  It makes no sense to me to hunt only for sport and not for survival.  If it's a beautiful animal, does it make sense for us to kill it to satisfy primitive urges that have their origins in a time when we were hunter-gatherers?

Hunting has been justified also as a way to keep populations in check.  Nevertheless, I think the animals would be better off if we returned their natural predators to the environment.  We humans kill the trophy animals, not the sick and old and crippled and unfit.  What does that do to the overall health of the prey species?  I would think it provides negative selection pressure on the strongest, healthiest members of the population.  But of course I'm not a wildlife ecologist, so I have to be cautious in any conclusion here.

It now is becoming apparent that commercial fishing is threatening many different wild fish species around the world.  New technologies not only sweep the sea clear of target species but have the side effect of sweeping up and destroying any associated non-targeted species, as well.  The commercial fishing industry seems bound and determined to put itself out of business by killing off their own livelihood in the name of big profits.  I doubt it's sustainable.

Keeping wild animals as pets is generally pretty foolish.  It has several problems:  wild animals may attack humans even if they were hand-raised by humans, wild animals have requirements for their health and well-being that can be difficult and expensive for humans to meet, the pressure to supply pet owners with wild animal captives puts a great deal of stress on native populations, and exotic imported pet species captives can escape (or even be let go!) into the wild, where they can make it hard for the native species to survive because they have no natural predators to keep them under control.  There have been attempts to make keeping wild animals as pets illegal but if there's money to be made catering to those who want to have a wild animal for a pet, the trade will continue even if it's made illegal.

I can't offer much in the way of solutions, but I feel very uncomfortable about how we behave with respect to wild animals.  Wild animals have a role to play in their native ecologies that can create big problems for us when that role is not fulfilled because the animals aren't there.  Like it or not, all species are in this together!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

An evaluation of the abrahamic god hypothesis

Sorry folks, this is going to be longer than usual.  In what follows, I'm going to assume that all three major abrahamic religions (christianity, judaism, and islam) believe in what amounts to the same deity.  They differ with regard to some details about prophets and other trivia, but they all buy into the basic notion of an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent deity.

On the one hand, we have the "god hypothesis" of the believers, and on the other hand, we have the rejection of that hypothesis by atheists (of various flavors).  I want first to consider the case on behalf of the god hypothesis in terms of evidence.

There are extensive accounts of god in the scriptures of these abrahamic religions.  These scriptures were written many centuries ago, long before the rise of empirical science as we now know it.  It's not entirely clear just who the authors of these accounts actually are and it's quite likely that they were not actual witnesses to the events in those scriptures, so their chronicles are what now would be considered hearsay.  In fact, many of the characters and events within the scriptures have not been validated in the historical record, despite their obvious importance, which should have been evident at that time, if the accounts are to be believed.  Within these scriptural accounts (which include outright factual errors about the world and its creation, historical errors, contradictions, and logical dilemmas of all sorts), the case is made that a supernatural deity long ago made his will known directly, at least to his chosen prophets and through them to "his" people, and who performed a variety of acts we would consider to be supernatural by today's scientific standards concerning how the natural world works.  The supernatural deity has not performed similar acts since the time chronicled in scripture, nor is there any credible evidence that this deity has made his wishes known to humans, directly or indirectly, since those times.  There's no scientific evidence for the efficacy of intercessory prayers.  This deity has not intervened in any evident and verifiable way in the affairs of humans over the centuries since the scriptures were written, notwithstanding the claims of those who believe the deity is "on their side" in a large number of wars, often between opposing religions.

There are various other arguments alleging to rationalize the faith believers have in the deity described within those scriptural accounts.  Some of them focus on arguments for the development of order out of apparent chaos, claiming that it simply couldn't have happened by chance.  There had to be a "designer" to explain the complexity of the natural world, by this argument.  A similar argument is based on the "beauty" of the natural world.  Beauty is a concept notorious for being relative to the eye of the beholder.  Both of these arguments (and any related derivatives thereof) are fallacious and depend on the scientific ignorance of believers.  The fact that science as yet cannot explain many aspects of the natural world doesn't mean logically that this creates a "gap" within which a creator must be inserted.  Science makes no claim to know everything, but it already has replaced many of the deity-based myths proposed in the pre-scientific era as "explanations".

So the primary case for belief in this deity is based almost totally on an uncritical acceptance of the contents of ancient documents - hearsay accounts apparently plagiarized from earlier religious myths that have precious little historical credibility - and the extremely dubious claims of latter-day charlatans.

The case on behalf of atheism is entirely a negative one:  the total absence of tangible, credible evidence for the existence of a deity as described in the abrahamic religions.  It's fundamentally impossible to prove a negative by logic alone - and there's no need to, since logic puts the burden of proof on the believer, not the skeptic.  It's up to the believer to make a case for accepting the god hypothesis.  An atheist is under no obligation to prove that god does not exist.  In fact, not all atheists actually think they know for absolute certain that god doesn't exist, so asking some atheists to prove this is to require them to prove something to which they don't subscribe.

Understand that rejection of the god hypothesis is not absolute proof there is no god.  Rather, it's based on the notion of the preponderance of evidence, or in this case, the absence of evidence.  Rejecting the god hypothesis is simply a provisional conclusion, forced on us when faced with a gaping hole in the very places where compelling evidence to accept the god hypothesis should be found.  Atheists may be able to reject the god hypothesis with extremely high confidence, but many of them are willing to acknowledge they don’t have absolute proof.  To be a freethinker, one first must accept our human fallibility and the limits on what science can do.  Believers are admitting straightaway they're not freethinkers, but rather are shackled by their faith to an irrational belief.  The god hypothesis has no explanatory power whatsoever and can’t be validated by rational thinking in the absence of evidence.

If this hypothesized deity is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, then believers should be enormously advantaged in this world, and their intercessory prayers should mitigate any harm being visited on them.  That this is not the case should be compellingly obvious - I don’t need to list the vast number of counterexamples.  This then requires apologists to explain away the obvious failures of this aspect of the god hypothesis.  There are various ways to do this but they all boil down to some form of "Our god has his own reasons and we must accept this sorrow as his will, despite the clear failure of our intercessory prayers, because we can’t possibly understand his reasons."  This is nothing more than a convenient way to "save the appearances" of a failed hypothesis - a desperate attempt to explain the otherwise inexplicable contradiction of the evidence, when compared to the hypothesis.  It's a rationalization that explains nothing, if by "explanation" we mean understanding the reasons for something.

What would a universe look like if there was no god?  I propose that it would look exactly as it now looks!  The preponderance of evidence is consistent with the rejection of the god hypothesis.   

There could be another universe somewhere in which a supernatural deity intervenes in the affairs of humans on a routine basis.  Presumably, in such a universe, there would be abundant, tangible evidence of the interference of said deity.  One would need no faith to accept the hypothesis of the existence of this god because the evidence would be all around, all the time.  Intercessory prayers would work or we'd know why not!  Physical laws would be violated on a routine basis wherever and whenever the deity saw fit to interfere with those laws, and it would be clear to all that this was the result of the deity's interference, not a problem with those physical laws that necessitated revising our scientific understanding.  Presumably, in such a universe, we would understand why the omnibenevolent creator did things, because he would explain things to us in terms we could understand, like any good parent would do.  And the deity wouldn't use intermediaries (prophets) to relay information to all of us, so we'd all know exactly and directly what's going on and why.  There would be no reason to threaten us with eternal damnation because believing in him would be a trivial issue, as we now believe in gravity.  There wouldn't be thousands of different religions because it would be clear who the deity is and he would tell us clearly and directly what, if anything, he wants from us, his creations.  And this deity wouldn't be so insecure as to need our worship - if we chose to venerate him for his gifts, it would be in gratitude for his kindness rather than being compelled to do so under the threat of his punishment.  In such a universe, the deity would make sense and be worthy of veneration!

In our universe, the hypothesized "god" of abrahamic religion doesn't make any sense at all.  This supposed deity is not substantially different from all the other mythical gods created by humans before the abrahamic revolution in the Middle East.  The abrahamic deity has a number of human problems: "god" is psychotic (a paranoid schizophrenic with multiple personality disorder), vengeful, bigoted (against his own creations!), a bully and a mass murderer, unworthy of the worship of a single human being.  If a deity worthy of the name "god" exists in this universe, it surely doesn't resemble the abrahamic god-figure at all!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The same old sad story

The news broke last night that Whitney Houston has died at the age of 48 years, a career cut short; apparently it was drug- and/or alchohol-related.  This is, unfortunately, just another sad tale in what has seemed to me to be an endless series of sad tales about successful entertainers, especially those in the music business.  The list is long and the names are legendary: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, John Belushi, John Candy, Jim Morrison, Len Bias, Mike Bloomfield, Lennie Bruce, Kurt Cobain, Jon Entwistle, Chris Farley, on and on and on.  The news always is shocking when it breaks, but with such a long list, perhaps no one should be astounded when a popular entertainer dies under such circumstances.  Being successful in the entertainment business can bring sorrow and death.

To seek fame and fortune is a component of the American dream, and the question of "Why?" is often asked when news of the untimely death of an entertainer breaks, even as they have achieved the fame and fortune they sought.  They seemingly have it all, and yet throw away their talent and their life.  No one becomes famous by accident, although luck clearly has a lot to do with who is selected on the path to becoming a "star".  People become famous because they seek fame, with their actions along the way the reflection of a sometimes desperate compulsion for recognition.  Most of us at least can understand this drive, as I suspect many of us envy the rich and famous precisely because of that public recognition and that seemingly endless wealth.

But the seemingly endless string of entertainer deaths as a result of drugs and alcohol is strong evidence that fame and fortune are not what we "ordinary" people think they are.  When achieved, fame doesn't seem inevitably to bring happiness and contentment for the famous.  The associated wealth can represent for some a path to a limitless drug supply with which to blot out the unhappiness they've discovered at the end of the fame rainbow.  I've always loved the line from the movie Krull: 

Prince Colwyn: The reward is freedom... and fame!
: Freedom? We have it! And fame? Nah. It's an empty purse. Count it, go broke. Eat it, go hungry. Seek it, go mad! 

Perhaps we should be grateful when fame and fortune pass us by!  They might well be the grim reaper in an attractive disguise!  Are wealth and recognition such blessings we should envy those who have them?  For some, they surely are not blessings - if they were, these rich, famous people wouldn't be so eager to drown themselves in drugs and alcohol.  A life spent in middle class anonymity, caring for loved ones, enjoying time with friends, and trying to contribute something positive to the world into which we were born, isn't a life without meaning or happiness just because we don't receive widespread public recognition and vast financial rewards for it.

I've never had a moment's temptation to try heroin or cocaine or methamphetamine, for the simple reason that the evidence is there for anyone to see: almost no one can avoid becoming addicted to these drugs, and the reward for that addiction is degradation and death.  Whitney Houston's untimely death should be a warning to those of us who feel a strong compulsion to possess fame and fortune - be careful what you wish for!