Category Archives: Politics

Review of Cosmos Episode 1: Giordano Bruno Steals the Show

When I was a kid I loved Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.  My dad recorded the shows on our new VCR and I watched the episodes over and over again, the way children like to do. Cosmos made me want to be a scientist, which eventually I did become, if only for a few years, before turning to ethics. Carl Sagan did a good job.

I re-watched the original Cosmos a few years ago, some of the episodes with my kids.  They are still fun to watch, but I realized something in seeing them again. Sagan made mistakes. Big mistakes, as with Hypatia and the burning of Library of Alexandria (I read a letter in graduate school by one of Hypatia’s friends, the Catholic bishop Synesius whose side protected her in what was effectively a class-based civil war – not quite the simple raving Christian hoards that Sagan described). That discovery was saddening to me, but I knew Sagan was an atheist, and I know that people get blinded by their biases, even otherwise very intelligent people.

I was looking forward to the new Cosmos.  But I saw the trailer and Bruno getting burned, so I knew it was just going to be more of the same. but I didn’t know how much more of the same it would be.

I’m not sure exactly how long it lasted, but is seemed like the segment on Giordano Bruno went on for about 20 minutes. Bruno is interesting, and Tyson made a few attempts to clarify the ridiculous cartoonish depiction of Bruno’s life (e.g., saying he was not really much of a scientist, and his theories were untestable). But the  question remains. Why so much time on Bruno? Why Bruno at all? Galileo is the usual guy for this stuff. Why a cartoon? Why not re-enactments with humans like in the original Cosmos?

Here are my thoughts. I think they chose Bruno because somebody said Galileo was getting a bit old, let’s find another scientist that religious people persecuted. Then they hit a problem. There really are not that many besides Galileo. In fact, there aren’t really any more good examples, at least not in Catholic Europe, where the Church over the ages was stuffed full of scientists and scientists-wannabes, including (quoting Wikipedia):

Nicolaus Copernicus, Gregor Mendel, Georges Lemaître, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Pierre Gassendi, Roger Joseph Boscovich, Marin Mersenne, Bernard Bolzano, Francesco Maria Grimaldi, Nicole Oresme, Jean Buridan, Robert Grosseteste, Christopher Clavius, Nicolas Steno, Athanasius Kircher, Giovanni Battista Riccioli, William of Ockham

And so on. Thanks, Wikipedia. So, it is hard to make your case with at least 99 of 100 examples against you. But try anyway. Bruno is the #2 go-to for this “war on science” stuff, so him it had to be.

Problem was, Bruno was not much of a scientist, he was a weird mystic hermeticist who liked to insult people. Becky Ferreira at Motherboard gets it right:

[T]he truth is that Bruno’s scientific theories weren’t what got him killed. Sure, his refusal to recant his belief in a plurality of worlds contributed to his sentence. But it’s important to note that the Catholic Church didn’t even have an official position on the heliocentric universe in 1600, and support for it was not considered heresy during Bruno’s trial…

Bruno was a walking, talking shit storm, with a black belt in burning bridges…

For years, he’d set up shop in some city, find new patrons, and promptly make enemies of them with his combative sarcasm and relentless arguments. Even fellow Copernican pioneers Galileo and Kepler had no love for Bruno. In fact, in light of his difficult personality, it’s kind of a mystery that he survived as long as he did.

The many-worlds idea was interesting, but the Church had already talked about God’s infinite creative power 300 years before and decided it was no big deal. What was a big deal was living in an honor-based culture and going around insulting people. After a while he had insulted everyone who could protect him, and that left him pretty much in the hands of the Inquisition.

I make no excuses for the Inquisition.  They shouldn’t have turned Bruno over to be burned. Quite frankly, lighting people on fire is not a good argument. It does not make your case. Resorting to physical strength makes you look rationally weak, and they had fine rational arguments on their side. Stupid idea to kill Bruno, wrong thing to do. But seriously, he wasn’t being killed for his science. Nobody cared about that stuff compared to him insulting the honor of the Virgin Mary, denying the Trinity and transubstantiation, other theological stuff.

Okay, enough.  The other question is: why a cartoon? Obviously, having the creator of “The Family Guy” running the show might have had something to do with it. That’s a reason from the past, a mechanical reason for it. But what was the teleological reasoning? They could have chosen another means had they so desired.

I think they chose a cartoon for several reasons, #1 being in order to appeal to children.

Twitter was full of people mentioning they had let their kids stay up late to watch Cosmos. And some mentioned how great it was that the Catholic Church got so ripped down in front of their kids eyes. That bothers me a lot, because it is lying to children. It is just as bad as followers of 6-day creationism denying science in order to protect their religion – it is followers of scientism denying history in order to protect their ideology.

They say Americans are ignorant of science because of religion, but now we can also be ignorant of history because of “science.” Thanks, Cosmos.

All right, now I’m going to say something nice. I liked Tyson’s tribute to Sagan at the end. That was beautiful.

I will be watching more episodes of Cosmos. Maybe they will mention the Big Bang model was first proposed by the Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre.  Maybe they won’t. I hope Tyson and crew will surprise me, but after this first episode I don’t expect much.


The Transhuman Visions Conference – My Synopsis

On February 1st at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, the Brighter Brains Institute convened the first Transhuman Visions conference.

I found the event to be really interesting and I will be participating in future conferences, not only as an audience member, but also as a speaker (at their May 10th conference on Transhumanism and Religion). Though I must admit, I do not consider myself to be a “transhumanist” – I am a bit of a skeptic about such things, and too academic to join all-out. But I find the ideas fascinating and excellent fun for stretching ideas of all sorts – technological, scientific, philosophical, religious, etc. – to their breaking points. And, of course, also seeing what ideas do not break; those are the particularly interesting ones (the infinity of God vs. the desired “infinity” of humans is one I have definitely been thinking about – that is an idea that will be hard to break).

If you want to read more about the conference, I did a write-up for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics website at Santa Clara University.  Here is a taste:

While I see no intrinsic moral problems with extending healthy human life as long as we can (realizing that important related questions of justice, cost, accessibility, side-effects, etc., would also need to be addressed), I do not think material immortality is possible in this world. As material creatures subject to entropy, we must eventually break down and die. The existential denial of our own mortality is an evasion, not a solution. But transhumanism does not stop at evasion; it is a social movement with a lot of highly motivated and intelligent people, and is actively researching solutions of many types. I was very impressed by several of the people I spoke to. Some were there because they were deeply concerned about the health of their loved ones and they saw transhumanism as the chance to save their loved one’s lives.

I am looking forward to future conferences.


Space Ethics: Is Exploration a Moral Imperative? Why to Go or Stay Home

Space exploration is important to me. I think it is an important activity for humans, with important associated moral questions. I’ve written before about why I think Christians should support space exploration, and I think many other worldviews can support it as well.

But there is a balance in most worldviews that could tip the judgment either more towards exploration or more against exploration, and that is what I want to look at here.  I want to briefly look at three moral reasons why exploration is good, and three moral reasons why exploration may not be good.  There are no doubt more than three, but these are some of the biggies – if you have more, please leave a comment below.

IN FAVOR

1) KNOWLEDGE. Scientific knowledge is the primary knowledge we should seek in space, but experiential knowledge is important as well. Continue reading


Guest Post at CatholicMoralTheology.com – Biotechnology Needs More Attention

Recently, William Hurlbut, M.D., of Stanford University and formerly of the President’s Council on Bioethics came to Santa Clara University‘s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and gave the talk “Cloning, Stem Cells, and the Conscience of a Nation” (part of a larger speaker series this year on conscience).

It was a great talk, and I summarized it for CatholicMoralTheology.com. Here is an excerpt:

Contemporary biotechnology is developing a voracious appetite for humans and their parts – whether as embryos, fetuses, cells, tissues, or organs…

[Hurlbut] recounted that while visiting a lab he was shown a tiny human arm. This amazing laboratory product was collected as a bud from an aborted embryo and then implanted in a mouse with no immune system (to prevent rejection) and then allowed to grow before ultimately being harvested. Hurlbut recounted that his first response was amazement – now we can grow arms for people! Then, his second reaction was horror – that was going to be somebody’s arm!… Hurlbut mentioned that there are already discussions about whether to ask women to abort their fetuses later so that the parts are more well-developed before harvesting, and that some ethicists believe it is better to use unborn humans for medical experimentation than animals…

Experiments like these are going on right now. How many ethicists / moral theologians / members of the public even know about them? Who should have a say in whether or how experiments like these are conducted?  What kind of society are we where some lives are destroyed so that others may live?

There are more than enough problems in the world to occupy everyone forever, ethicists or not. But Hurlbut’s call is timely and time-sensitive. If we think bad choices are being made now, technology and institutions may become locked-in to those bad choices as time goes on. Now would be a good time to act, for changing course becomes much more difficult once institutional structures adopt regulations and become accustomed to the use of humans and their parts.


Climate Change Enhanced Wildfires: Will These Burned Forests Grow Back?

My friend (and fellow GTU PhD) Peter Hess wrote an excellent post today for the National Center for Science Education highlighting the strong links between climate change and wildfires. California has wildfires every summer, but this year’s Rim Fire has been particularly nasty, growing to be the fourth largest fire in state history, and consuming nearly a quarter of a million acres.

Peter explains that with climate change we should expect things to get worse:

Climate change is likely to exacerbate this situation by changing many of the variables influencing fire behavior. Some regions will no doubt experience prolonged droughts (e.g. Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado), leading to pine and fir beetle infestations that will kill thousands of trees. This increased load of dead and downed fuel will amplify fire potential, and when a fire is started we may find that a changed climate has altered patterns of humidity, air temperature, and wind speed. Fires will burn hotter and more destructively, delaying or even preventing full recovery after an area has been burned.

That is all bad, but it is actually even worse. Hotter climates, lower humidity, increased drought, and increased extreme weather are all bad, but the lingering effects threaten to take on a life of their own.

Wildfires have no doubt existed since land plants first evolved. Plants burn, CO2 goes out, plants grow back, and the CO2 goes back in – a balance.  But the balance is now shifting slightly. Wildfires present a positive-feedback loop for warming: burning releases CO2, CO2 causes more warming, changing climate and causing more drought, due to changed climate forests do not re-grow, the CO2 released from burning is not reabsorbed from the atmosphere, and the cycle only gets worse. And earlier spring melt and later arrival of winter extends the fire season, leaving a larger vulnerable window for these events to occur.

In California, certain types of forests are only found at certain elevations. They depend on the altitude for adequate climactic conditions: enough cold, enough snow, enough humidity, enough water. With climate change these climactic conditions and therefore ideal altitude distributions are going to migrate higher – until the mountains run out (and/or the Sierra granite proves impossible to grow in).

A huge swath of Sierra forest has just gone up in smoke. What replaces it will likely not be the same type of forest as what just burned, in fact it might not be forest at all – it might be open woodlands, chaparral, or even desert. These lands will not absorbs CO2 like a forest would. In fact, these replacement ecosystems might be like nothing that we are familiar with – this has been called “the no-analog future,”  with ecosystems not analogous to ours at all.

The quip “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future” is attributed to Niels Bohr, and it ever remains true. But we can tell this much: the world is changing, and the changes are generally not for the better. Unless we want a future where human society is at serious risk for numerous major and disanalogous disasters we need to get the Earth’s CO2 budget significantly in the negative, and soon.


Science Proves Religious People Are Stupid and Atheists Are Smart

Where to begin with this one?

A group of researchers have performed a metastudy purporting to show that atheism is correlated to high IQ and that religiosity is not (sorry, it’s behind a pay wall).

Normally I like metastudies, but this is just bad. Seriously. There are so many things wrong with this I cannot address them all. So I will just pick five:

1) Racist sources

2) Secular education

3) “Religions” are all the same, and “atheists” are all opposed to them in the same way

4) Garbage in garbage out

5) Your IQ is not worth… ____

One. Continue reading


Catholicism and Conscience

One of my jobs at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center is to provide web resources for a project on Catholicism and Conscience. I’ll just cut and paste a bit here then send you over to that site to read the rest:

The Catholic tradition on conscience is very extensive, while being quite unified. One may wonder, if the teaching is so unified, why there would be so much to say. The reason is because the tradition is unified on a tension. The first pole of the tension is that under no circumstances should one violate one’s conscience – one must always follow even an erring conscience. The other pole of the tension is that, at the same time, a rightly formed conscience is expected to concur with Catholic teaching. These two moral requirements, that one should follow one’s conscience and that one should follow Church teachings, are potentially in conflict. The requirements may not align, and if so, then a point of tension has appeared between an individual’s conscience and the Church’s teachings.

Here I will endeavor to provide only a brief overview of the immense literature surrounding the Catholic understanding of conscience. In the first section I will provide some background to the subject of conscience, in the second some examples of perennial issues that arise in the discussion of conscience, and in the third some current examples of conscience in the news.

The site is a work in progress so if you have any feedback by all means leave it as a comment here (you can’t leave comments on the Center’s page). Particularly leave a comment if you know of any current news stories involving Catholicism and conscience rights (please provide a link), I will add it to the section at the end (“Current Flashpoints”) where we are compiling contemporary cases. Two prime cases being the HHS mandate on contraceptive insurance coverage, and the new tendency of some bishops to use of “affirmations of faith” with diocesan employees (in that particular case the requirement has been temporarily withdrawn).


Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Taken Alive: A Moral Victory

Good job to the Boston Police Department!

Taking Dzhokhar Tsarnaev alive is a very good thing. I don’t know if he was wearing a suicide bomb, but given his and his brother’s blatant disregard for human life (and reports that his brother was wearing one) I wouldn’t be surprised. And in that case the BPD did a huge job – they not only saved the lives of any other innocent victims Tsarnaev might have killed, they saved his life too.

The best possible outcome is still, then, possible – Tsarnaev might say he is sorry. It might not happen, but if it does we should rejoice because that would deflate the terrorist cause; he would be acknowledging that he and his cause were wrong. And that is a powerful witness to keep others away from it. And it would help restore Tsarnaev’s own humanity – he needs to have his sense of right and wrong corrected. It will also show that moral behavior on our part pays off.

When Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan it was only a half-victory for the USA, as I noted at the time. We not only acted outside the law, but we denied him the ability to apologize. That would have been the ultimate victory – the apology of our foremost enemy – and we lost it by killing him. We denied ourselves the opportunity for a moral victory. And as we continue our “War on Terror” we continue to deny ourselves the opportunity for this highest victory.

No matter how unlikely the apology is, we still need to give our enemy that chance. It is not only better for them, it is better for us. Even though distorted towards vice, they are human too. Because in a deep way treating one’s enemy as a human denies the dichotomy of “us” and “them.” It makes us all “us.”

If we deny the humanity of our enemy, we reinforce their denial of ours.  The only way to end this war is by mutual respect or total annihilation, and as I said before, we aren’t going to choose the second path. So we better get started on the path to the first.

In this act of good law enforcement, the BPD respected the humanity of someone who attacked us as an enemy. We need more of this behavior towards those who call themselves our enemies. So once again, good job Boston PD. When BPD officers (and I hesitate to bring it up, but it is the truth and we should never shy away from it) brutalized the peaceful Occupy Boston protesters that was a low-point, but today you have show us the better way.

Let this be a formative moment for our nation, to direct us to defend justice with compassion and respect even for those who deny it to us. We need the moral high ground, not only for the sake of our enemies, not only for the sake of those watching, but for our sake, for us, to keep us human.

And on that note I will end with a link to a story from World War Two. It is a must-read, about a German pilot sparing an American B-17, but I’ll just excerpt one quote.

“People think of the rules of war primarily as a way to protect innocent civilians from being victims of atrocities,” she says. “In a much more profound sense, the rules are there to protect the people doing the actual fighting.”

The code is designed to prevent soldiers from becoming monsters.”

Today we did not become monsters. That might sound like a hollow hurrah, but it is not just a negative, it is much more than that.

Instead we became humans.


China’s Blind and Barefoot Hero: Chen Guangcheng

Chen Guangcheng, from Wikipedia.

Chen Guangcheng, from Wikipedia.

Last night I had the opportunity to attend the awards ceremony for the 2013 Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize at Santa Clara University. The recipient was the Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, a blind and (formerly) barefoot peasant from rural China turned international human rights advocate.

Chen escaped China with his wife and two children in 2012, after he fled house arrest (thanks to some very incompetent guards – remember Chen is blind and fled alone!) and appeared at the US embassy in Beijing. After causing quite an international incident, Chen has now settled down into life in New York City, where he studies law at New York University.

I want to share a few of the things Chen said as well as a few of my impressions.

First, Chen was extremely blunt in his criticism of China’s leaders. He said that he was reluctant to call them a “government” because they ignore the rule of law. He referred to them as the Chinese Communist Party, not a government.

When questioned about the likelihood of future dissent he said this: “In the past the government was pulling up small plants. But now they are becoming trees.” Chen continued by saying that he actually found the possibility of a future revolution “likely,” which I  found quite surprising, and which his translator did not initially translate – the moderator added that he said that.

Chen also commented, when asked what factors shaped who he is as a person, that his response has been very much a “natural reaction,” like shying away when you are being beaten. But in this case, of course, he did not shy away, he turned towards the beating and became hugely important because of it.

Chen voiced his appreciation of US law and the role of lawyers in human rights work to improve America over its history. It made me proud of my country that we could give refuge to such a courageous seeker of justice. It was also bittersweet to remember that the United States does have a very checkered human rights history, but that through the rule of law we have done much to overcome some of the worst abuses of the past.

Interestingly, while Chen’s story took center stage, what was not spoken of in much detail were some of the grotesque injustices that Chen had actually been fighting against. Continue reading


Reflections on the Election of Pope Francis

There is an old Confucian proverb about a farmer.  One day,  the farmer’s best horse got loose and ran away.  The neighbors came to offer their sympathies for his loss: “such bad luck” they said.  “Maybe” he replied.  The next day the horse returned, bringing with him two wild horses.  The neighbors celebrated the fortunate turn: “such good luck” the exclaimed!  “Maybe” the farmer replied.  On the third day, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses, but he was thrown off and broke his leg.  The neighbors (being the nosy bunch that they were) again offered sympathies: “such bad luck!”  “Maybe,” he replied yet again.   On the fourth day,  military officials came to the town to draft young men into the military.  They passed the farmer’s son by because of his leg.  “Such good luck,” the neighbors replied. “Maybe” said the farmer…

Photo: Este papa es el mas bueno de todos los tiempos.  Un hombre humildeThis pope is the kindest of all time.  A humble manQuesto papa è il più gentile di tutti i tempi.  Un uomo umile

The Catholic social media universe was buzzing following yesterday’s news.  Since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was largely an unknown quantity to us here in the United States, most people were trying to piece together an image of the new head of our Church.  First came the wave of obvious “firsts” – he’s the first Latin American Pope, the First Pope from outside Europe in over 1000 years, the first Jesuit Pope, and finally, the first Pope to choose the name Francis after Francis of Assisi.    Next came his first public address, which he opened by asking the faithful to pray for him rather than by offering his blessing on the faithful.  Then came the news that as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had made a point to live in a small apartment, take the bus to work, and to cook his own meals.

For most of my more liberal Catholic friends, this was a day to celebrate.  From a conclave that consisted entirely of cardinals named by the past two, highly conservative Popes, the expectation was that another highly conservative Pope would emerge.  So when this bus-riding, self-cooking, poor-loving, humble, non-European, non-Vatican-insider emerged, the liberal half of Catholicism rejoiced.

“Maybe,” said the Farmer.

Continue reading


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