Tuesday, November 22, 2005

If you really think about the intelligence of the designer...

The University of Kansas Religious Studies Department will be offering a new course next semester called "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies." (Update: The course has since been cancelled.)

And of course, the Intelligent Design Network's John Calvert, an attorney and managing director in Johnson County, Kansas, reacted to the offering of the course by saying "To equate intelligent design to mythology is really an absurdity, and it's just another example of labeling anybody who proposes (intelligent design) to be simply a religious nut. That's the reason for this little charade."

"Little charade." That reminds me of Kristinn Taylor calling Cindy Sheehan's vigil a "publicity stunt."

Since I've been thinking about intelligent design for about four and a half decades (I'm 49 now and I probably started seriously thinking about God creating the heavens and the earth when I was around 4), you can imagine I've developed a few opinions on the subject. A couple of years ago, while I was writing an episode of my yet-to-be-produced drama series, the topic of the origin of the universe came up, as it usually does whenever I write about characters who are deep thinkers. In this episode, the central character, Zeph, who is from a deeply religious Amish background and is now an agnostic, has a long, laid-back discussion with a new friend, Sadiq, an Iraqi-American who grew up in a mostly secular environment and is now exploring his Muslim heritage. This is an excerpt from the dialogue.

Have you kept any of your faith from when you were Amish?
Mostly I've been describing myself as an atheist. But to be truly scientific, I need to acknowledge the possibility of the existence of God, and so I should call myself an agnostic.
You acknowledge the possibility of the existence of God?
It's a long shot, but sure, it's possible. Since we learned from Hume in philosophy 101 that nothing can be conclusively proven, we know that we can't conclusively prove the non-existence of God. Of course every fervent believer takes that as absolute proof that God exists, because his non-existence can't be proven.
      (Looks to Sadiq apologetically)
I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—
It's okay. I'm not a fervent believer.
Have you always believed in Allah, or was that something you had to develop when you returned to Islam?
I've always believed there was something, some supernatural entity. Some self-aware, creative energy-accretion. And so it was a simple matter of applying the name Allah to that entity when I started studying Islam. Actually, the book I started with was Islam for Dummies.
You didn't. Heh.
Then I read a few other books. I couldn't accept every statement I read about the nature of Allah. But studying those books...felt good. I felt a profound sense of well-being. A connectedness with past generations.
Zeph nods in recognition.
Yeah. I miss that.
You can't come to the point where you can accept the idea of just an entity, a guiding presence in the universe? Forget names. Any names we've come up with for the entity are wrong. It has its own name.
Zeph shrugs and frowns and hesitates before responding.
I acknowledge the possibility of it.
It's hard to explain. It's like... Picture somebody blowing smoke rings up into a dark room. Or I guess they would be smoke domes. Smoke balloons. It's a dark room, but there's enough light that we can see these smoke domes slowly expanding and dissipating. Okay, now, at the microscopic level, think of all of the particles of soot that make up that smoke. Incredibly fine, tiny particles of soot. Okay, now think of each tiny particle of soot...as a galaxy.
Sadiq processes this a moment and then chuckles.
Not just a star, a galaxy of stars in each particle of soot. "Billions and billions."
Heh. "Come with me..." Okay, now locate the speck of soot that represents the Milky Way.
Yeah, I see your point—an entity who can relate to the universe at that scale, how can it interact with us at our scale?
It's totally possible that an entity exists who finds the spread of galaxies no more complex than a city. Or a motherboard. And it's totally possible that an entity exists who can interact with our daily lives.
Yeah—but how can those entities be the same, the scales are so vastly different. I see.
And it's entirely possible that there are nested entities ranging from the local to the universal. And beyond! But then you're starting to talk about a corporate chart. A population of entities.
And if you don't like something about the local entity, can you go to its supervisor?
Heh. But then again, after reading about quantum weirdness, I have to admit that my thinking about scale is limited to my three-dimensional experience.
Quantum weirdness... Schrödinger's cat. Superposed states.
Yeah. Split a beam of electrons, alter one of the beams, and the other beam is altered simultaneously, regardless of the distance between them.
Yeah, I remember a lecture on this. It's as if the separated particles are actually the same particle in a different dimension.
So, in a six-dimensional universe, this universe might be fairly easy to manage. It's possible.

If a proponent of intelligent design wants to make bold, confident statements about its validity, he or she must be as familiar as possible with the nature of the known universe for those statements to be informed and credible. But when the human brain honestly tries to grasp the incomprehensibility of, say, the number of atoms in the known universe, or the time it takes light to travel from here to the edge of the known universe, confidence usually isn't the result.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Alito's 1971 pro-gay stance complicates things

Samuel Alito in 1971An Associated Press article by Calvin Woodward, quoted below, reveals that, as an undergrad at Princeton, Alito chaired a student conference which drafted a report condemning sodomy laws and discrimination in hiring based on sexual orientation, along with other forms of invasion of privacy.

Of course, that was more than three decades ago.

It will be interesting to hear Alito's responses to questions about the report and whether his views have significantly changed since that time. I suspect they have or he would never have been nominated. But Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign is hopeful that Alito hasn't moved all the way away from his youthful philosophy.

Time will tell.
WASHINGTON - In college, Samuel Alito led a student conference that urged legalization of sodomy and curbs on domestic intelligence, a sweeping defense of privacy rights he said were under threat by the government and the dawning computer age.

President Bush's choice for the Supreme Court, in a report written years before ubiquitous personal computers made electronic privacy the everyday concern it is now, warned of the potential for abuses by officials and companies collecting data on individuals.

Three decades before the Supreme Court decriminalized gay sex, Alito declared on behalf of his group of fellow Princeton students that "no private sexual act between consenting adults should be forbidden." Alito also called for an end to discrimination against homosexuals in hiring.

As a federal appellate judge, Alito has built a scant record on gay-rights issues and a mixed one, at best, on privacy matters generally, in the view of civil liberties advocates who are still examining his opinions.

But they saw in the 1971 report a prescient thinker taking on issues ahead of their time, including the need for computer encryption, stronger oversight of domestic intelligence and curbs on the surveillance powers of states.

"The document itself is amazing," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "It is a dramatic statement in support of the right of privacy.

"Nonetheless," Rotenberg went on, "his decisions as an appellate judge over the last 15 years do raise some significant concerns about his willingness to apply Fourth Amendment privacy standards." Rotenberg cited an example in which Alito appeared to support the strip search of two people involved in an authorized search but not named in a warrant.

The college report was first reported in The Boston Globe.

The Human Rights Campaign, which advocates gay rights, said the report gives senators the basis to question Alito on that subject and privacy matters broadly in his confirmation hearings.

"If these are his views today - and there is no indication they are not - it's a hopeful sign that may provide some insight into his philosophy," said David Smith, the group's policy vice president. "This isn't pop-the-champagne-cork time. His views need to be explored."

Even so, Smith was struck that Alito's report would raise a subject few tackled back then, and come down so unequivocally on it. "Very few people were standing up for gay Americans 34 years ago," he said.

Harriet Miers, whose withdrawal from contention led to Alito's nomination, had gone on record in 1989 as favoring equal civil rights for gays but opposing repeal of the Texas anti-sodomy law, since overturned by the Supreme Court. Smith said that in comparison with Miers' known views on gay rights, "Alito wins and it isn't by a nose."

Alito is listed on the paper as the chairman of the conference, entitled the Boundaries of Privacy in American Society, and author of the report's seven-page summary of findings. It was done for Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Alito was a senior acting as a "commissioner" for the undergraduates in his group.

Mark Dwyer, a college roommate of Alito's, said such class projects were typically "one of those academic exercises of 'let's pretend in the real world.'"

Rotenberg said the report sounds much like one produced later by a national committee drawn together by that era's Health, Education and Welfare Department. Recommendations in that report became the basis of the landmark 1974 Privacy Act.

"A lot in this paper is surprisingly forward-looking," he said.

In it, the young Alito writes that the Census Bureau should be barred from asking unnecessarily intrusive questions, federal privacy ombudsmen should be appointed and the government should face strict conditions for keeping and distributing dossiers on citizens.

Much as privacy-savvy Web sites today promise not to disseminate personally identifiable information, Alito said the government should limit its use of information on individuals to "bulk statistics."

"The cybernetic revolution has greatly magnified the threat to privacy today," he said.

In one recommendation that was commonly debated at the time but a nonstarter today, he said all computer systems should be licensed by the federal government.

The report, two years before Roe v. Wade affirmed a constitutional right to abortion, does not address that subject. Abortion-rights supporters consider that right to be a fundamental matter of privacy.

As an appeals court judge, he held that states can require women seeking abortions to notify their spouses. The Supreme Court disagreed.

Also on the bench, Alito supported a high school student who was taunted because he was perceived as gay, and a family seeking to adopt an HIV-positive child. The adoption had been challenged on grounds that the child posed a medical threat to the family's other child.

Alito also, however, wrote the majority opinion in a 1999 decision overturning a school district's wide-ranging anti-harassment policy, ruling in favor of Christian students who wanted to preach against homosexuality.

EDITOR'S NOTE - Associated Press writer Rosa Cirianni in Princeton, N.J., contributed to this report.
My note: When seeing a current photo of Alito, I can't help but wonder if he isn't in the closet. He doesn't look fem, of course, or stereotypical. His look is much more that of a nerd. But that smile... He trips the gaydar lightly.