Using Science to Find the Meaning of Life (For Free)

When you think of deep, philosophical questions, the one that is probably the most quintessential is “What is the meaning of life?” At the very least, we want to know what makes our own lives meaningful or have purpose. While religious institutions have for centuries tried to provide the structure to give answer to that question, it seems like it is not working for many people today, given the drop-out rate in the US, not to mention the secularization of many other modern nations. There have been plenty of spiritualist movements that you can point to that do the same. Heck, even Ancient Aliens is really about that as well with its mix of “science”, “history”, Theosophy, and New Agerism.

On the other hand, science is often considered to be separate from values, so it’s hard to say in any way that science could tell us what is the purpose of our existence. That’s not correct from the research I have seen because science can tell us what does and doesn’t work towards living a fulfilling life. And fortunately, that academic study isn’t tucked away in a corner. Recently Gleb Tsipursky at Ohio State (who I have met and conversed with) has done a lot of work to do research-based workshops on helping people find that elusive sense of purpose. He now has a book to do the same, and I was fortunate to get a copy earlier. I like its approach since it also follows my own educational philosophies, and it is clearly following the consensus of the best knowledge we currently have on what makes people happy and fulfilled. That includes forms of meditation, though you hardly need to be a Buddhist to do it.

The book, Find Your Purpose Using Science, was crowd-supported and now up on Amazon, and for the next few days it’s free for Kindle/digital download. I found the book interesting in its use of not just scientific research but also some insights from how the Soviet nations were able to find meaning even though my own image of the communist regime is covered in the bleakest of greys. The book also not dryly written nor is it filled with platitudes. If you have a copy, compare it to Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Drive Life and see how different Gleb’s approach is and how more universal and useful it should be. (Of course, I would also recommend Robert M. Price’s response to Warren’s book, The Reason Driven Life).

The free book offer is only for a few days, but even after it should be worth the price. While I would claim that my life feels meaningful right now, I think I can use the exercises in there to get even more out of life. Why not?

Then again, you could get the answer to it all at the end of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

Then again, know your place in the world

Thanks again, Gleb, for the copy of the book. I hoping to make my personal insights a little more intentional. ;)

Did the Universe Begin, and How? (Interview)

I recently had the pleasure of having an interview/conversation on the subject of Big Bang Cosmology and the implications for the universe having an absolute beginning. The question is also wrapped up with theistic claims that a god is a necessary precursor to the universe (or not). Also, some will argue that the Big Bang is just the scientists’ way of avoiding the conclusion that God made everything.

Now, some details of the very early (observable) universe are well-understood. Other parts aren’t. Also, theoretical arguments can be very technical and the limitations are sometimes misconstrued to reach some conclusion.

So, in this talk I get to dive into those issues, along with talking about my work and research on science explaining the Star of Bethlehem. You can listen using this link here or watching this YouTube video.

I want to thank Taylor Carr for the opportunity to have this chat, along with his work getting it up and ready for everyone. We may have another chance to do the same sort of thing in the future, so let him know if that’s a good idea. If you don’t, well… you don’t have to tell anyone.

Has the Star of Bethlehem Returned to the Skies Tonight?

There have been plenty of media stories about the wonderfully close approach of the planets Venus and Jupiter in the skies, reaching conjunction on June 30th. But it hasn’t just been the beauty of the configuration of these planets that has been getting people interested. As has been noted in many places, this sort of close-approach of these two planets (and near the star Regulus) is in many ways a re-creation of the skies in 3-2 BCE and has been proposed as the real Star of Bethlehem. This hypothesis is what underlies the popular Star of Bethlehem documentary, which I have explained in detail elsewhere.

While fantastic to see, it doesn’t fit the timeline of Jesus’ birth in any canonical gospel, it doesn’t fit the description of the Star from the Gospel of Matthew, and there isn’t any evidence that it was astrologically auspicious or indicative of change specifically in Judea. But it then again, it is lovely to see in the sky, and the planets were even closer back in 2 BCE.

I don’t have great optics for night-time photography of the sky, so here is what I did with my smart phone and some Instagram. Lots of better pictures are out there, but if you can check out to the west just after sunset (which is when I took this picture in Michigan) and see the planets for yourself.

And of course, if you want a better understand of what the Star of Bethlehem was (and wasn’t), you all should know a resource I can recommend (here). Happy sky watching!

The Country is a Little More Equal Now #LoveWins

Legally-recognized gay marriage is now the in the USA. There are still things that need to be done for gay and trans rights and respect, but at least this significant step has been taken. I wish it were not a split 5-4 decision but something stronger, but beggars can’t be choosers. For now, we can say that indeed, it has gotten better.

Gay pride flags are going up, and racist flags are coming down. The progress is slow and sometimes very painful, but we can point to progress. #itgetsbetter

Little Pyramid(iots) on Mars… Again

Everyone knows about the so-called Face on Mars, and in the same general area (Cydonia) of the Red Planet there are objects some have called pyramids on Mars. Better resolutions images demonstrate that there really was no monumental face on Mars, and the pyramidal structures are most likely caused by prevailing winds that erode the sides of mountains or some other directional eroding forces as seen on Earth (cf. Matterhorn).

But there seems to be a new pyramid in town, captured by the Curiosity Rover. The claim that we may have here some artificial structure seems to have first appeared on Exopolitics.org, though basing it on a YouTube video, and has been spreading to other, more popular websites. All I can say is, “really? This is exciting?”

First off, from this one image you can’t even say it’s pyramidal in shape. The back side that is unseen could be rounded or otherwise out of the needed shape. We also don’t know about the shape of the rock under the sand. Lastly, with the shadow I can’t really tell that the dark side is flat or not. Even calling it a pyramid cannot be fully justified.

Also, look at the scale here. It was captured not too far away from the Mars rover, and other rocks in the background and foreground give you an idea of how large the “pyramid” is. Mind you, the Rover itself at its highest is about seven feet above the ground, and the base of the rover is about two feet above. These are rocks that the rover could potentially drive over but will probably be avoided.

But that hasn’t stopped the wild speculation. It’s being suggested as either some sort of land marker for directional purposes or the top of some much larger structure, the top of a pyramid. If it’s a marker, then it’s a bad design since it fails to be larger than the surrounding rocks and thus impossible to be distinguished by a traveler. And supposing there is some large pyramid underneath the soil is just groundless (*pun intended*) speculation.

It seems we have speculation built upon seeing what we want to see. The person that made the original video also found the head of Obama on Mars. It doesn’t seem like that much a resemblance to me, but perhaps all black people look the same to this person? Come on, man! #BlackRocksMatter

Still, what are the chances of finding such a rock of this size on Mars? Given the millions of such objects and the millions of ways a picture could be taken to given the appearances of pyramidal shapes, not to mention the pattern-seeking ways of the human mind, it seems like a pretty darn close to 100%. A pyramidal rock just isn’t that strange a thing to exist (eg., here). Heck, after a little bit of looking, and I see that a pyramidal rock was found on Mars by Curiosity back in 2012! But in this case, you can see it’s not smooth on all sides and almost certainly a natural formation (the person in that link saying it looks “melted” on one side really should take a look at lava).

Looks like we have a combo of pareidolia and pyramidiocy.

The Climate Change Encyclical: The Pope, The Warming, And the Ugly

As has been first leaked and then officially released, the vicar of Christ published an encyclical about taking action on climate change, in particular making it a moral issue. Reading the long document from the Vatican, it tries to lay out a response in showing a growing precedent in papal concerns about the environment as well as the morality of the use of natural resources to destructive ends for short-term gains. Some of the most interesting quotes on that point came from Pope John Paul II, such as the need to “safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology” (italics in original).

The production of this statement hasn’t been a surprise, and conservative voices in America had already been making statements about how the Pope should keep out of this debate. As well stated by The Onion: Frustrated Republicans Argue Pope Should Leave Science To Scientists Who Deny Climate Change. The irony is also very strong because Pope Francis has training in the natural sciences, namely as a chemical technician (but not a Masters in chemistry as has been reported, as noted by Forbes).

However, because of the nature of the response by the Vatican to take up the challenge of combating climate change, it may do more to polarize than the advance the conversation. The biggest issue with the acceptance of anthropogenic global warming is a political and psychological one, in that the acceptance of man-made climate change goes against the moral feelings of deniers. It suggests that standard free enterprise and industrial work is a negative force and requires something like government regulation or communal forces to undermine free trade. So no wonder Fox News voices are calling the Pope “dangerous” among other things. Then again, I have to imagine that so long as millions of people feel that someone like the Pope has the moral high ground it will be hard to put all of that cognitive dissonance aside. What the future will hold when it comes to public opinion on the reality of climate change and how to respond to it we will have to wait and see.

As for how to respond to it, things like carbon taxes and other market-based approaches certainly appear to be viable ways to go forward without abandoning basic capitalism–and really, it doesn’t undermine capitalism at all since it is forcing polluters to actually pay for the damage they cause and have prices reflect it (see externalities). However, other ways to combat the problem appear to have run against some points of Catholic dogma. As Lawrence Krauss notes, the encyclical doesn’t allow for dealing with population growth (see paragraph 50 of the encyclical). While it is certainly true that even without population growth the fact that poorer people want to have and will access more technology that produces carbon dioxide (be that cars or machines that have to be built and thus contributed to global warming, or the greater demand for meat) obviously having still more people wanting the same can only accelerate this issue. Also, demanding that we be less of consumers (paragraph 206) and it seems to be a part of a larger woe about technology and commerce. It is then less surprising that the encyclical saying nothing about discovering new energy sources and instead a call for less demand and more efficiency (192) and even some poo-pooing nuclear power (184), which may be one of the avenues we must take to reduce carbon emissions and still keep the lights on.

On the other hand, are the particulars for how the Pope wants to combat climate change really going to have an effect? The real point of the coverage of this story is the fact that the faith leader of over 1 billion people is calling for action on this serious issue, and it is that soundbite that will have any chance of resonating. The worst that I can expect is what will happen with Protestant response and how that could get into battles of biblical exegesis. Plenty of Christians have tried to say that the Bible tells them to subdue the world and make it work for humankind. Others want to highlight the aspect of environmental stewardship. I will be curious to see how that debate goes.

Bottom line: the papal call for environmental action is more likely to help in the long run, but I can expect to see a lot of push-back from the powers that be who want to maintain the status quo. For me, I’m onboard the Francis train.

Galileo the Nonbeliever?

When someone mentions Galileo, one of the first things to come to mind is his fight with the Catholic Church about the motions of the Earth and the centrality of the Sun. The Galileo Affair has been one of the keystones on those arguing that science and religion tend to (or naturally) come into conflict. Many historians have rightly contextualized the events, pointing out the political and personal levels that brought the great Italian scientist before the Inquisition and placed under house arrest for promoting the theories of Copernicus. Also a big part of the contextualization has been to show how Galileo was a devout man, a Catholic, and had no wish to fight religion but if anything better understand it and the Bible.

However, a recent biography by historian David Wootton, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, has an intriguing argument to change this stance that has been a consensus position for centuries. Wootton notes that plenty of less than pious figures in this time would display affirmations of belief and the necessary genuflections, but privately they could be skeptical of various dogmas. There were obvious social repercussions to publicly speaking against the Mother Church or the Christian faith more broadly. The example of Giordano Bruno is an obvious case of what happens when one publicly denies the divinity of Christ. So there is some degree that Wootton has to make his position an argument from silence: a lack of piety or mention of religious matters in the voluminous surviving writings of Galileo. On its own, that may be curious but hardly compelling.

However, Wootton has a particular avenue for arguing his new position. Continue reading

Ethical Chocolate: Science Deceptions and Solutions

The big news last week was that a study touted around the world for showing the supposed health benefits of eating chocolate was as a hoax. As revealed at io9, the study was done in order to show how bad things are in science journalism and what can get published and noticed today in diet and medical journals using specious statistical tools.

The way it worked is this: the author, John Bohannon, collected a rather small number of subjects to do an experiment with three groups changing or keeping their normal diets. Then data was collected from all groups and a later battery of tests were done to find any differences. The problem with a study like this is that with the small sample size and the very many different tests, the chances of finding any variable change that is “statistically significant” is rather high. Note that “statistical significance” is not the same as having a result that is large and noticeable but instead is a measure of how unlikely to get that result if there were no correlation between input and output (i.e., diet with chocolate and weight). With most papers, a result is statistically significant if the chances of getting a correlation when there is none is less that 5% (p < 0.05); but that also means that if you do twenty tests you can expect one to be statistically significant just by chance. With so many tests and so few subjects to average out any statistical fluctuations, then any positive results -are at best specious since chance cannot be ruled out. Roll the die enough and you will get snake-eyes. Heck, it’s expected, and that should have been noticed by any journal reviewer or trained science journalist.

So the fact that the study even got published, let alone got wide attention, shows there is something wrong in how things are working.

Interestingly, this has been causing not simply a reflection on issues in science and journalism, but there is a question on the very ethics of doing a fake study like this one. Continue reading

God’s Not Dead 2.0 — Star of Bethlehem Edition

Last year there was a lot of news about a small movie with a strong Christian bent, but apparently its marketing strategy worked and got plenty of people, including atheists, talking about it. With a premise that some compared to the sorts of chain emails that have been around for decades, God’s Not Dead was all about how one person, steadfast in their faith, takes on the odds to argues against his atheist philosophy professor and convinces everyone that God is really for real. There are several other subplots all running together, and it has unnecessary cameos by Ducky Dynasty folks and pop Christian music. More noteworthy, the actor playing the atheist/sad-rabid puppy professor was Kevin Sorbo, best known for playing Hercules in the 1990s TV series. Critically panned and philosophically dubious (as shown expertly by Daniel Finke), it made plenty at the bank as various evangelical groups came to it in droves, and at least some secular folks had to see it if just to say they know what message it was trying to get across.

With the basic idea that academia is trying to force secularism onto everyone that attends, the underdog story has great appeal for those that want to say they are being oppressed or persecuted (even if it’s not so), and the formula is now being repeated. And in particular, it looks like one variant has come to my area of specialty. While not yet produced, there is a screenplay for a movie about the Star of Bethlehem, which again will run the premise of underdog Christian protagonist against political correctness in schools, at least according to what news sources I can find. It has gotten attention because it has received a newly minted award designed to highlight promising Christian or evangelical films, the “Chronos Prize”. The Star of Bethlehem movie was a finalist for best screenplay, and apparently it won a significant cash prize of $50,000. That may not be enough to get such a movie project off the ground (I have no idea what budget it needs), but the attention will probably bring in the investors.

The writers of the film are not nobodies either. Joan Considine Johnson was a writer for two major cartoons on Nickelodeon, among other projects. Her husband, Dave Alan Johnson, has also worked in the TV business as a writer, director, and other high-level jobs. Among other things, they both worked on the show Doc with Billy Ray Cyrus, father of Miley Cyrus. It looks like this current film is a family project (for now), since all three writers (including Gary R. Johnson) have the same last name. There is nothing on IMDB about a Star of Bethlehem film project from these three, nor by anyone else as best as I can tell. But again, that’s probably because there is only a screenplay right now and is likely to be produced not so much by Hollywood but other, independent companies. As for the content, the tiniest bit of blurbing I have seen is about showing the science behind the story and proving it’s true even to a secular public school administrator or teacher. I would guess that the particular theory it would rely on is the one from the Star of Bethlehem documentary by lawyer Rick Larson, to which I have already provided an extensive critique. I could be wrong about that, but given the obvious evangelical bent of the film and this particular documentary I would probably win a bet. And even if not, I have a book on the subject that would address the proposals anyway.

But will the movie actually get made? I’m sure there are thousands of proposals and screenplays written every year that go nowhere, so even with the current publicity I have no idea how much of a chance it has. And there is the most important question: will Kevin Sorbo return as the angry atheist professor? Because I know another atheist professor that knows a lot about the subject… ;)