Monday, November 22, 2010


I just wanted to write a post to let you know that I'm going to take a break from blogging for the next few weeks. I've been unhappy with the quality of the posts lately and I feel like I need to take time off to try and refocus. So I'm probably not going to post anything for awhile. I hope you'll be patient with me.

In the meantime, if you're looking for something to do, you could always check out the Desert Bus for Hope. It is a rather cool and entertaining charity fundraiser.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Maps and Knowledge

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about maps and about how difficult it is to make a map that's entirely accurate. I realize that the post is a bit different from what I normally write.

I wrote that post because I find that map making is a helpful analogy. The process of making a map is similar to the more general process of gathering and organizing knowledge about the world.

As I mentioned last week, any attempt to make the perfect map is ultimately doomed to failure. You can't make a map that's a perfect representation of, for example, the California coastline. Even the best maps are plagued with flaws and subtle distortions.

A similar thing happens when we form an understanding of the world. We study, we make observations, we put the pieces together and we accumulate knowledge. Then we take that knowledge and bring it together to form a coherent picture of the world we live in.

As we do this we run into the same problem we have with maps. The idea we have about the world in our head is never the same as the world itself.

The world is complex, intricate and full of detail. We can't possibly fit all of that information into our heads, just like we can't fit all the detail and complexity of the earth onto a globe or a piece of paper.

Maps are a helpful tool. They help us to navigate the world we live in, but we must never confuse the map with the world. We must never confuse our understanding of a thing with the thing itself. If we do, then we will inevitably deceive ourselves.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

TGD: Chapter Five - The Evolution of Religion

Chapter Five is entitled, "The Roots of Religion," and in it Dawkins discusses why people hold religious beliefs and why such beliefs are so widespread.

He describes the problem in the first section of the chapter. He says that since we are the products of evolution, we need to consider why natural selection seemingly favored religious belief. It isn't an easy question to answer because religious practices and beliefs seem so inefficient and natural selection usually punishes inefficiency.

So Dawkins asks the question, since religion has such a high cost in terms of time, energy and resources what evolutionary benefit does it offer?

This is a good question. Consider Christianity as an example. Christians are called to follow the example of a man who failed to pass on his genes to the next generation. To the extent that Christians follow Jesus' example, it would seem that we are becoming less fit, in the Darwinian sense.

It is tempting to offer a religious explanation for this dilemma. One might argue that God blesses and encourages religious behavior, thus allowing religious people to continue to multiply despite their self-sacrificing behavior.

This explanation has two problems. First of all, I'm not sure that God shows his followers special favor. Instead, I would argue that God is working to bless the whole world.

Second, there are so many different religious beliefs and practices. Even if we claim that one group survives because God has favor on them, then why does a group with a contradictory set of beliefs and practices survive as well? Is God simultaneously working to support both groups?

Clearly there isn't a simple, religious explanation that works in this case.

Having said all that, I'm looking forward to this chapter. Dawkins is, first and foremost, an evolutionary biologist and in this chapter he's making an evolutionary argument. Since it's his area of expertise Dawkins is able to make a compelling case.

In the first section, Dawkins just goes over possible explanations for why human beings seem to have evolved with religious beliefs.

The first explanation comes from the theory of group selection. The idea is that religious behaviors that hurt an individual's chance of survival might help the group's chance of survival.

The second explanation is that religious behavior might not benefit our genes. Dawkins writes, "An animal's behavior tends to maximize the survival of the genes 'for' that behavior, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing it." It is possible that religious behaviors may not have evolved to benefit us, but to benefit someone or something else.

For the third explanation, Dawkins suggests that religious ideas themselves might behave in a gene like fashion. He argues that the religions themselves may have "evolved" in order to ensure the survival of the religious ideas, in much the same way that animals evolve to ensure the survival of their genes.

I look forward to reading a more detailed account of what Dawkins believes is the cause of religion.

Monday, November 8, 2010

No Answer

I hate not knowing the answer. I know because I've been dealing with that feeling this whole week. I've come across some very good questions, and I've been trying to come up with some answers, so far unsuccessfully.

Why can't I come up with the answer? I don't know, but I can think of a few possibilities, none of which I like very much.

First of all, I might be in over my head. There might be an answer to the question. There might be a very good answer even. I'm just not smart enough to figure it out.

I don't like this possibility much. I'm a proud man, and I like to think of myself as the kind of person who knows all the answers. Especially when it comes to mental challenges, I'm reluctant to admit that I need someone else's help.

What's more, these questions don't seem all that difficult. It's not like we're dealing with nuclear physics or anything. These seem like the kind of questions I should be able to answer, but I'm just not able to.

The other possibility is that these questions might not have an answer. I like that possibility even less. I am aware that in the real world not every question has a definite answer, but saying that there is no answer feels like a cop out.

Besides these are important questions that deserve serious consideration. If I say that there just isn't an answer it feels like I've admitted defeat.

Some people can be happy not having the answer to the questions life throws at us. Unfortunately I am not one of those people, at least, not by nature. I need to feel like I know the answers.

With time I could probably learn to live with uncertainty, and indeed I may have to, but for now it's really bugging me.

Hopefully I'll be able to find some answers soon.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

On Maps and Map Making

Today I'm going to take a break from my usual topics of conversation to talk about maps. It might seem like an odd digression, but it isn't entirely unrelated. I hope you'll bear with me.

I enjoy looking at maps from a few hundred years ago. It's interesting to see what people back then thought the world looked like. It's cool to see early maps of America that are weirdly stretched and where some parts are disproportionately large.

It is easy to tell, just by looking, that these maps are far from accurate. What's not as obvious is that even modern maps have their inaccuracies.

As an example, whenever I look at a globe or a map of the world I always look for the San Francisco bay. Since I grew up near there I have a pretty good idea of the shape of the bay.

But on world maps, the San Francisco bay always looks oddly misshapen. On that scale all the detailed features of the bay are reduced to one small scribble. Most of the time the North bay is completely missing.

It usually isn't as obvious, but even smaller, more close up maps have this problem. They can't record every minute feature of a river or coastline perfectly. On some level, the shapes they draw are always an approximation.

Still, it's more than just a lack of precision that keeps maps from being accurate. Most maps are flat. Since the earth's surface is curved, the maps have to stretch and distort the terrain to make it fit on a flat surface. As a result, on most maps Greenland looks like it's as big as Australia when in fact it's a lot smaller.

Globes do a lot better because they're curved, but they're still not perfect. You see, not only is the earth not flat, but it's not a perfect sphere either. It has odd imperfections, including a slight bulge around the equator. Most globes are spherical, so they distort the earth's features to make them fit on a perfect sphere.

Even with all of their flaws and imperfections, maps are very useful tools. Maps take a large and confusing world, reduce it and simplify it enough that we can better understand it. Maps help us to find our way. Even a bad map can help a person trying to explore an area he's never been to before.

But it's important to note, and crucial to remember, that no matter how good it is a map is no substitute for the real thing. There always are, and always will be, subtle details that our maps fail to capture. If we think that the world out there has to look exactly like our map, then we are only setting ourselves up for confusion and disappointment.