Friday, November 18, 2005

What is Universism?

A description on their home page reads, "Uniting atheist, deist, agnostic, pantheist, and transcendentalist philosophy to create the world's first Rational Religion." Universism is the new chic way of being "spiritual" without being overly religious. As a religion of rationality, Universism stand against anything that calls for "faith" or precommitment to abstract, intangible realities.

Therefore, one should not assert that God/gods/angels or other invisible beings definitely exist. According to an article in the Birmingham News released on September 9, the Universist movement claims about 8,000 adherents who decry the idea of certainty and assurance in spiritual matters. They may be atheists or freethinkers, but the common ground they stand on is that there are no universal spiritual truths. (Yes, that's a self-stultifying argument. I know it already.) Their religion is one of flex, tolerance, ambiguity, and denial of absolute truth in spiritual matters. Their only dogma is the promotion of doubt and nonbelief.

Universism should not be confused with Universalism (the belief that all people will be saved or will go to heaven) nor with Unitarian-Universalism (a merger of two liberal 18th and 19th century denominations, which in some ways is similar to Universism). However, the Unitarian-Universalists deny the Trinity and affirm universalism, and for the Universist, that's probably going too far.

Founded by Ford Vox, a medical student at the University of Alabama, the Universist movement appeals to people who want some kind of religious expression, providing a sense of community that intends to help others, and an appeal for each person to "arrive at their beliefs through reason and personal experience" (from the short FAQ). Just don't come to any conclusions that apply to anyone else, because the ultimate booby prize is dogmatism.

Will Universism amount to much overall? It appears to strike a chord with those who want discussion and freewheeling conversation in an accepting, tolerant atmosphere. But without a coherent system of truth, they don't seem to have anything of substance to pass on to a future generation. Eternal skepticism will eventually have to give way to people who can offer hope for tomorrow, and who can base their hope on the living God who acts in history.

Anne Rice turns from vampires to Christ

Anne Rice, prolific author of some 25 novels on witches, lust, and vampires (including the more famous Interview with the Vampire), has written a book showing a new direction in her life. On November 1, she released Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (Knopf), a fictional account of the life of Jesus between the ages of 7 and 12. It has received very positive reviews, and more importantly, it announces Rice's abandonment of the vampire/blood/death narratives which comprised much of her career.

Though Anne Rice, 64, says she has "no regrets" about writing her last vampire novel in 2003, she now says "I wanted to write only for Jesus Christ," and intends her new book to be part of a series. In fact, she says, "I feel Christ the Lord is the finest book I've ever written, and it represents the culmination of a long personal journey..."

The turning point for her came in 1998, according to some interviews. Rice also includes a lengthy "Author's Note" in the back of Christ the Lord, explaining some details about her new perspective. Answering common questions on her website, Rice explains that though she is now Roman Catholic, she believes the Catholic church and other churches "need to open their arms and their doors to gay believers."

I'm grateful to God for the growth in Rice's life, and how she seems to have made a remarkable conversion toward the Lord Jesus. We will have to differ on the matter of homosexuals in this respect: the good father of the Prodigal Son did open his arms to the returning young man, who had squandered his fortune with wild living. The text of Scripture says the son "came to his senses," which presumably includes realizing the damaging results of living in lust and sensuality.

Christans should pray for Anne, and though some of us can think of various ways in which she "ought" to grow or think, we should all be grateful for the profound shift toward God that has occurred in her life, and for the opportunity this will give to many people to consider the life and work of Jesus Christ in a new way.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Can Intelligent Design be falsified?

In recent conversations, I have heard dismissive remarks about Intelligent Design because (allegedly) intelligent design "cannot be falsified." I agree that positions which cannot be proven false, not even in principle, are metaphysical assertions or presuppositions. The argument against intelligent design (ID) proceeds as follows: Falsifiability is essential to a scientific hypothesis, and ID lacks such falsifiability; therefore ID should not be given serious consideration by anyone claiming to support science.

I want to argue that Intelligent Design can be falsified, and indeed that it even begins and end with falsification. The ID claim is categorically different from certain religious movements in which no evidence imaginable could falsify their religion. (For example, for some Buddhists, it would make no difference at all if Gautama Buddha never existed, whereas for evangelical Christians, our faith would be falsified or disproved if someone could produce the body of Jesus Christ.)

My first encounter with ID came from reading The Design Inference (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), by William A. Dembski. In this book, Dembski explores the basic question of how humans detect the activity of deliberate events (or philosophically, "agent causation") as opposed to accidental or natural causation. Discerning "intent" runs through our lives since childhood. Did Tommy knock me down "on purpose"? How did the upraised tack on my chair get there from the bulletin board 20 feet away? Does this stream of binary data from a pulsar contain an encrypted or encoded message? Was this insurance claim filed to cover an accidental fire, or was the fire set intentionally?

Dembski presents an "explanatory filter" or sieve, a set of four questions which we put to an event or an object to determine whether the event occurred by intelligent design or by natural causes. If questions #1, #2, or #4 are deemed to be true, then "intelligent design" is falsified (that is, we can attribute the event to natural causes). If question #3 is deemed to be true, then "intelligent design" is validated (that is, we are justified in assuming intentionality). Let's look at these briefly. The illustrations are my own invention.

First, does the event occur through natural laws or law-like forces? Newton's apple falls to the ground because of gravity, not because of intelligent action. The needle on my compass points to the north because of Earth's magnetic poles, not because of angels pushing it with their invisible fingers.

Second, can the event be ascribed to the normal range of the laws of probability? If I toss a coin 10 times in a row and come up with "heads" seven or eight times, that's still within the realm of probability. Those heads should be ascribed to chance, rather than to being caused by supernatural intervention. If I get heads 10 times in a row, I might check to see if it's a weighted, trick coin, and if it is, then the law of gravity (test #1) would account for this row of 10 heads. If the coin is not weighted, a run of 10 heads is still within the realm of probability (specifically, 1/210, or 1 out of 1024 chances). Thus, "intelligent design" can be falsified, since random chance is sufficient to permit this occurrence, however striking it might appear to be.

Third, does the event fit the scenario of both small probability and specified complexity? The subtitle of Dembski's book is "Eliminating Chance Through Small Probability" and small probability is the subject of Dembski's Ph.D. thesis from the University of Chicago. Consider this illustration: Suppose I ask you to pick up a stone out of anywhere in California at random. So you spend a day hiking through a very remote mountain range with billions of rocks, out of a state which has hundreds of trillions of stones and rocks. You pick up one rock and bring it back to me. (At this point, you have met the criterion of small probability.)

Then I give you a hammer and ask you to break the stone apart. You do so, and inside is a small piece of rolled up paper with your name, my name, and today's date on it. At this stage we also have "specified complexity" and you would be fully justified in thinking that this stone did not get into your hand by accident, but was instead the product of "intelligent design." Maybe I palmed the stone when you weren't looking, maybe I hypnotized you to pick a stone I pre-selected, or maybe something else happened. But whatever the explanation (even if you cannot come up with one), the presence of both small probability and the complexity of the personal message on the hidden paper gives us sufficient grounds to say, "This was not an accident."

Fourth, is there small probability without specified complexity? Let's suppose that the next day, you are dumbfounded about what just happened the day before. You go hiking in the California mountains once more, return to that same colossal rock pile, and retrieve one single rock out of the billions or trillions of other rocks. (You now have small probability once again.) You get out your own hammer, crack the rock in half with it, and this time find nothing significant inside. Since there is no specified complexity, we cannot attribute this event or object to intelligent design (hence, intelligent design is falsified), and by default we must write off this unremarkable rock as an occurrence of small probability.

Personally, I think this explanatory filter make sense, and that it does represent a valid means to determine whether an event occurred by chance or by someone's deliberate act (that is, "by design"). The ID movement fills out the implications in greater or lesser detail, and the ballyhoo over applying this logic in the science classroom is really over whether this filter ought to be applied to biological organisms.

In fact, the same science teacher who squawks about applying this explanatory filter to micro-organisms will readily apply this explanatory filter in looking for plagiarism! When two student papers look suspiciously alike, the combination of both small probability and specified complexity alerts most of us to the fact that one student has copied from another (or maybe, both students copied from the encyclopedia). Ironically, the same logical system which works to inform the teacher of plagiarism is excluded by the teacher from being applied to other areas of investigation.

No one objects to the principle of seeking intelligent purpose in the racist exclusion of minorities in hiring, or seeking intelligent purpose in how my credit card number wound up paying for John Doe's trip to Paris (hmmm.... probably not an accident). Stratified social groups and and individual people are clearly biological entities. I see no reason why ID should not be applied to other areas of investigation as well.

Your feedback is welcome.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

How to link to a single Usenet message

Usenet is a flowing river of information, with hundreds of thousands of messages posted daily, and sorted into tens of thousands of discussion areas in a sort of dotted hierarchy beginning with a general term (e.g., alt., comp., rec., soc., sci., and so forth) and then progressing into finer degrees of specificity, such as alt.religion.mormonism.fellowship.

Each message posted to Usenet contains a unique message ID, buried in the headers, like so:

Newsgroups: comp.editors
Subject: Re: need a Unicode compatible Editor for Perl
Date: 7 Nov 2005 10:26:43 -0800
Lines: 41
Message-ID: <>

Using Google groups, you can link directly to that message using the following URL technique:

For the message alone:

For the message in its threaded context:

So, for example, you can click these:

Sample single message or this sample threaded message

Nice little shortcut, eh?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Open Office 2.0 released last week

Don't know how I missed it, but Open Office 2.0 was officially released on October 20. (I wonder if that was intentional? version 2.0 on october 20?) Open Office is a suite of programs that effectively replaces Microsoft Office. If you don't have Microsoft Office installed already, you can get virtually the same functionality of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Access with o.o. Writer, Impress, Calc, and Base.

That doesn't mean that your Word macros and Powerpoint presentations will import flawlessly, since Microsoft doesn't publish the format for its document (.DOC) files. That said, to a large measure you can import Office files without pain and use them immediately. On a biweekly basis, I use Calc to open large Excel files (1000 rows, 40 columns), add things, search, and export them to other formats without any problems. Most of my experience has been with Open Office 1.9.95, so it's time for me to upgrade.

Open Office files are technically saved as XML format. Unlike Microsoft documents, the o.o. document format is an "open document" format, which means that programmers and external applications can read them. Open Office won't cost you a dime. Give it a whirl.