Fall Paddle/Social for GRAF Members & Friends

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GRAF members and friends will meet up for a beautiful fall paddle on the Mississippi River near Grand Rapids in September. Kayakers and canoeists of all experience levels are welcome! It’s an easy launch area with light current (and no rapids), and we’ll stay out on the water for no more than 1 1/2 hours. If you’d prefer a shorter outing, you could also turn back earlier. After the paddle, we’ll head over to Florio’s in Cohasset (just down the road) for food, drink and social time.

If you aren’t interested in the paddle, please still join us at Florio’s if you can! The more, the merrier! We’ll probably arrive there around 4:30-4:45pm.

Here are the details:

Date: Sunday, Sept. 13th (as long as it’s not raining-if you’re not sure call Amy’s cell at #259-1476).

Launch: 3:00pm. We’ll paddle back east toward Grand Rapids (the river follows Highway 2 and travels under County Road 63…behind the Showboat Landing…and continues to the Blandin dam).

Social time: Upon our return to shore, probably starting 4:30-4:45pm at Florio’s in Cohasset on Highway 2.

Paddling Location: Boat launch/parking lot on Blackwater Road (near Minnesota Power Boswell Energy Center) in Cohasset.

Directions: the turn-off is on Highway 2, five miles west of Old Central School in Grand Rapids. It’s the first road on the left just west of the City Hall stoplight in Cohasset, across the road from the Dollar General Store. Turn left there on NW 3rd St./County Highway 87 and drive .7 mile to Blackwater Road. Turn left on Blackwater Road and continue for another half mile until you reach the parking lot/boat launch.

BYOB–bring your own boat! :) And please don’t forget your life jacket!

Looking forward to it and hoping there might be some fall colors to enjoy by then. Any questions? Call Amy at #259-1476 or email her at: fsm.gr.mn@gmail.com.

FREE WILL

The subject of free will has been on my mind sporadically since John David Schirber’s presentation of a Sam Harris overview on the subject several months ago.

I’ve read several opinions, and most recently Jerry Coyne’s.  I’ve wanted to decide my own opinion about free will, but the decision has been reluctant to enter my mind.  All I wanted to know is, “Do we have free will – yes or no?.  I was hoping Jerry Coyne would offer some guidance, but this didn’t happen.

Today I was very busy, happily repotting houseplants, and the answer I was seeking came to me:

I’m seeing the subject of free will treated as a black-and-white issue; that is, it seems that those with a strong opinion are adamant about holding onto it.  Bingo – my head said to me – now I get it: I see things in COLOR – always have, and that’s why it’s difficult to choose a yes or no answer to fit every situation.

I know many will call this waffling, or worse.  Even so, the resolution puts my mind at ease.  Glad to get this off my chest

A Frustrating Conversation

So tonight, as some of you know, I initiated a conversation with an acquaintance regarding religion.  I don’t know why I did, but, thinking of Bertrand Russell who would ask guests at dinner parties their view of religion out of the blue, I asked this person what she thought of religion. Of course she was a believer, and we were off and running.  The conversation was very frustrating because she kept interrupting making it hard to make anything like a complex point.  At any rate, I told her I didn’t care about personal religious beliefs except to the extent they impact others.  One example I used was the religious exemption on having children vaccinated.  For those who may not be familiar with this, if parents decide that having their children vaccinated violates their religious views, their children do not have to get vaccinated.  Such exemptions exist in many states, including Minnesota.  When I brought this up, I was told that I was trying to put people “in a box.”  I replied that this was not the case, and that, in fact, only a minority of Christians believe that vaccination would violate their religious tenets, but those who do are putting their children (and ultimately everyone else’s) in jeopardy.  She replied by calling me “the kind of person that wants to fix everything,” and that I will never be able to do so.  I replied that no, I have no illusions that I can make the world a perfect place, but that this is something that can in fact be addressed by changing the law.  The fact that we cannot fix everything does not mean we should not fix what we can.  She kept saying that I can’t change people’s beliefs, to which I replied I don’t care about their beliefs, but I do care about the imposition of those beliefs on innocent people who all too often suffer serious consequences.  She claimed I was mixing religion and the law, and I reiterated I had no intention of outlawing belief, but that those beliefs should not be imposed in a way that harms the rights and well-being of another, and this is within the purview of government and a matter of law.  She said she cannot change the law, and I pointed out that California recently changed a similar law, and that we as a society can in fact change bad law.  So after about half an hour and innumerable interruptions, I finally got her to agree with me on that point.

At any rate, here are a couple of observations.  My interlocutor was a supposedly educated person, but she often hid behind appeals to ignorance.  Also, she kept moving in the direction of relativism: this is “my path,” etc.  She didn’t seem to understand that, however imperfect it may be, there are ways to sort out the truth.  Science and the best of philosophy are provisional in nature.  Truth claims, except perhaps in mathematics and some branches of logic, can never, for various technical reasons, be know with certainty.  But that does not mean that all truth claims are the same.  There are ways to sort things out.

One more takeaway: though this was a supposedly educated person, it was clear that she was absolutely unused to having an academic or intellectual discussion.  It is very hard to argue with someone who does not understand the rules, based on logic, of argumentation.

We have our work cut out for us.

Why Can’t I Own a Canadian?

Let’s be honest, the religious in this country have an awful habit of cherry-picking from the Bible in order to add authority to whatever powerfully wrong claim they are making at the time.  Faced with this idiocy, I must assume that we’ve all wanted to call them on their crap, or take their arguments to absurd levels.

Well, someone did.

In response to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, an Orthodox Jew at the time, citing homosexuality’s evil by quoting Leviticus, an unknown person wrote an incredibly snarky letter that went on to become an internet meme.

We know not who wrote this letter, and I find it irresponsible to throw in the names of commonly assumed  perpetrators, but here is the letter in full (copied and pasted from RationalWiki).

 

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them:

When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Leviticus 1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Leviticus 17:19-24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

Leviticus 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Leviticus 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this?

Leviticus 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Leviticus 19:27. How should they die?

I know from Leviticus 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

My uncle has a farm. He violates Leviticus 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? – Leviticus24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Leviticus 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

Your devoted fan,

Jim

 

Hope you all enjoy the snark.

Sarah Haider – Our Monthly Meeting on June 23, 2015

Sarah Haider is one of the co-founders of the Ex-Muslims of North America organization. She spoke at the American Humanist Association convention in May of this year. The subject of her talk was “Islam and the Necessity of Liberal Critique”.

In this talk, Sarah voices a complaint against the presumed progressive/liberal portion of the population who appear to object to anyone voicing criticism of Islam. She is surprised that they will fault her as an Islamaphobe because she dares to voice these criticisms. Like Ayann Hirsi Ali, she is puzzled by the willingness of atheist progressives to attack the other Abrahamic religions and show restraint when the topic is Islam. The idea that Islamic extremism is a reflection of the underlying nature of the Islamic faith seems to be completely unacceptable. The extremism is often attributed to problems with prior colonialism, poverty, other problems associated with countries not yet experiencing success entering the modern world, etc. etc., but never to the stated rationale of the extremists themselves which is their religious beliefs. Faulting the religion is often out of bounds even though many secularists would have no difficulty faulting Christianity under similar circumstances. So this video may be controversial, but confirmation bias shouldn’t contribute to turning away from an uncomfortable message…amiright?

Gay Marriage Legal!

It’s about time, but the Supreme Court finally did the right thing and ruled that marriage between GLBT people is legal.  Because this is a human rights issue, this is a victory not just for the GLBT community, but for all humans.

And for those conservative Christians who predicted the end of civilization if this happened, I now boldly predict that they will be proven wrong.

Faith vs. Fact – Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible

Jerry Coyne’s new book referenced in the title above has now been published. I have a copy and I’m reading through it in my usual style of two or three pages at a time which guarantees that I won’t remember most of it and, therefore, can be excused for reading it over and over. He is starting to go through various book tour events and one of the first was held at Politics & Prose, a famous book store in Washington, D.C. A recording of his presentation is available here and is worth a listen.

The talk runs about 35 minutes and then is followed by another 30 minutes of Q & A. His publisher/agent advised him not to talk about what was in the book, but about why he wrote it, thereby being more likely to entice audience members to buy the book since they’d be more curious about what was in it. So Jerry tried to do this although he does give away some of the contents.

If you’ve followed Jerry on his “Why Evolution Is True” website for any length of time, you are probably familiar with his arguments about the incompatibility of science and religion. The book goes into more detail on some of his points and is an easy read so far. The position he takes is that science and religion make competing claims about the nature of reality even if religion also delves into issues of meaning and purpose. It’s the religious claims about reality that are most invidious because they are never supported by any evidence at all; they are simply assertions. There is no way to detect or correct errors within religion itself. It has no tools, no tested process by which to ascertain which of those claims, if any, is true. Hence, we have thousands of religions each making claims denied by some other religion. Science on the other hand, has a highly refined and thoroughly vetted system for searching out and identifying what is likely to be true. Hence, there is only one science, not American science or Chinese science or German science, etc. There is just the one system and it has succeeded in spectacular ways.

Jerry knows his book will be controversial and draw all sorts of challenges and complaints. His first presentation at the University Club of Chicago a couple of weeks ago gave him a taste when the wealthy old white men who make up the club invited him in to talk about his book. They were not amused. I wonder how they managed to invite him in the first place?

Back to Politics and Prose. The Q & A is also worth listening to primarily because of two people who wanted to make speeches instead of ask a question. The first is a nurse who claims that her work with patients relied heavily upon her faith and without said faith she fears she wouldn’t be successful in caring for others. Jerry points out that the word she should be using is ‘confidence’ rather than faith. She has confidence in her skills and those of her co-workers based on training, experience and knowledge. She misattributes this sense of confidence to a religious faith that really seems to play no real part. She is unconvinced.

The second is a fellow who describes himself as a rabbi and wants to lecture Jerry on how he needs to study religion even more since he doesn’t really understand his Jewish heritage. Too bad that Jerry didn’t talk at length about what was actually in his book. The rabbi falls into the trap of claiming that you have to read every single book on religion before you can criticize it. The correct reply of course, is for the rabbi to read every science book and then come back to talk.

These two speech makers take up a chunk of the Q & A time and Jerry has to be a little testy with them given the total number of people wanting to actually ask a question during the time available. It always amazes me when people try to use a Q & A to launch their own presentation instead as though their perspective is so important that they can impose it on the entire audience without permission or invitation. Jerry will likely need to practice his skills at telling people to shut up and sit down. I don’t think he enjoys doing that, but he doesn’t want to listen to the rants either.

 

Atheists: Inside the World of Non-believers – Our Monthly Meeting on May 26, 2015

This month’s program was a documentary produced by CNN in response to the continued rise in the number of those in the U.S. population who choose “none” when asked for their religious affiliation. While most of the “nones” seem reluctant to go as far as declaring themselves to be atheists, the percentage of atheists in this country continues to inch up. Combined with those who have simply walked away from organized religion, all of the “nones” constitute the fastest growing segment of the religious population, now outnumbering Catholics. It seems a bit odd to identify the “nones” as a religious group, but that’s how they tend to be portrayed in the media.

The documentary is a fairly balanced look at what atheism entails, the consequences one can encounter when giving up their faith and being open about it in public and how atheists remain decent people without god. So, a decent presentation that may counter some of the misunderstandings that are often encountered by those who are now part of the “nones”.

King of the (Prehistoric) Seas–Mosasaur

I’ve been dragging my heels with these prehistoric creature posts, but with “Jurassic World” just around the corner, I decided to get off my buns and post about one of my all time favorites: mosasaurs.

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Shamu’s got NOTHING on this sh*t!

Mosasaurs ruled the oceans of the Cretaceous Period of the Mesozoic Era of Earth’s history, biting sharks in half while T-Rex was doing the same with anatosaurs.  A close relative of modern-day monitor lizards and snakes (more on this in a minute) mosasaurs were the dominant marine predators for the last 20 million years of the Dinosaur Age, an age where the seas included plesiosaurs and Ginsu sharks–25 foot long ancestors of the great white and named for the Ginsu knife.  Evolving from small lizards that lived in swamps and lakes to avoid dinosaurs, and later made the transition to oceans, mosasaurs ruled their environment with a number of different weapons, not least of which was their size, which ranged from roughly the size of a Labrador, to the 60 foot long Mosasaurus.

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You can always count on Suicidal Size-Comparison Alan to make things real

But what did such titanic beasts even feed on?  Luckily for mosasaurs, everything during this time was just too big.  Sea birds as tall as a man, carnivorous fish the size of motor boats, sea turtle that dwarfed life-rafts, and of course the sharks and plesiosaurs I mentioned earlier, mosasaurs had their pick of what to eat.  Mosasaurs tracked their prey with two keen weapons, the first of which were pressure sensors in their snouts.  Like modern day crocodiles and Cretaceous Era Spinosaurus (the star of Jurassic Park III) mosasaurs had pockets of nervous tissue in their snouts that allowed them to detect the pressure waves made by all swimming creatures.  Their second weapon was a forked tongue that, like those of their modern snake and monitor lizard cousins, could be used to track scents, even underwater.

We can make the assumption that mosasaurs had these forked tongues by looking at their modern relatives, and we certainly know who those are.  By looking at the skeletons of mosasaurs, as well as soft tissue imprints–which show small, triangular scales like those of snakes–we can see the similarities they possess to snakes and monitors.  Not just that, but the lower jaw of a mosasaur was double-hinged, just like those of modern snakes, which mean that they could move their bottom jaws forward-and-back as well as up-and-down.  You’d think that meat hook teeth and Satan’s own mandibles would be enough, but mosasaurs also possessed a second set of teeth in the upper jaw which would hold prey, as well as shred it to pieces, as it used its double-hinged snappers to drag up to four feet of flesh down its gullet at a time.  Pay attention to the inside of the mosasaur’s jaws in the Jurassic World trailer and you’ll see those devilish teeth yourself.

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“Well, hello there killer-shark-lizard!”

I mentioned soft tissue deposits, which, as you may be aware, rarely fossilize.  Well, remains in Harrana, Jordan (which was underwater at the time) were so well preserved that scientists were able to study the softer, squishier bits that don’t often survive millions of years of being buried in the dirt.  This is how they know what the mosasaurs’ scales were like, how they know that the organs were arranged much like those of modern whales, and how they know that mosasaur had a tail like a shark’s.  This design being in modern sharks and fish is no accident, it optimizes how much water is displaced with each stroke from the tail, allowing more efficiency for a swimming creature.  While things are more ambiguous for the smaller species, larger specimens like the Mosasaurus itself were unlikely to pursue prey long distances.  Like modern great whites, they likely patrolled populous waters until they found a good spot before laying in wait for something to swim too close, tagging their chosen prey with a great burst of power.

With the depletion in fish stalks that occurred after the KT Event–otherwise known as the meteor-based bitch slap that rebooted life on planet Earth–larger predators simply couldn’t continue; they simply couldn’t survive on the smaller fish left behind.  The implications that it took an event of cosmic proportions to send these beasts into extinction speaks volumes of their rule.  Even had dinosaurs died out and left the mosasaurs alive, the world would be much different; there would be no whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals or sea lions or walruses for one thing.  They wouldn’t be able to compete, mammals simply couldn’t take to the seas, which raises more implications about man’s place in a world like this.  Even if we evolved at all, we wouldn’t be able to conquer the globe like we have today.  Fishing would be too dangerous an enterprise with 60-foot sea beasts patrolling the best places, early man would not have been able to travel as far afield across the oceans in rafts and small boats.  Much of our current success is a result of our ability to harness the resources of the oceans, the domain of the mosasaurs.