Thursday, October 27, 2005


Paul Morrison Runs for Kansas AG

The recent announcement by Paul Morrison that he has switched to the Democratic party and will run against ultra-conservative Phil Kline gives us all hope that genuine two-party politics may return to Kansas.

The extremists who presently control Kansas politics are succeeding in driving more moderate people out of the party. It remains to be seen if their drive for power exceeds their drive for ideological purity. My feeling is that they will be unable to bend enough on what they think are their God-inspired positions to allow any kind of moderation. My hope is that Paul Morrison is leading the way for others to follow.

I know Mr. Morrison, have had the pleasure of meeting him a few times, and he's been a guest in my Sunday School Class. (He made the only argument in favor of capitol punishment that made sense to me).

He is an intelligent, reasonable voice running for an office that desperately needs him.

Good luck, Mr. Morrison, and thanks!

Sunday, October 23, 2005


Faith and Evolution

Mr. Pat Hayes addressed St Paul's Adult Sunday School class on the subject of intelligent design (i.d.) and teaching evolution in school.

He presented part of a Powerpoint he wrote for the class, titled, "Faith and Science, are They Compatible? The Battle Over Science Education in Kansas."

Mr. Hayes started the presentation with the following quotation: "You say you're supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing. Nonsense. I don't have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist."-- Pat Robertson, The 700 Club, January 14, 1991

He talked about the need for dialog and mutual respect. The attitude displayed by Pat Robertson, calling Methodists the Antichrist, does not appear to represent all of the opposition. Mr. Hayes said many kind things, praising the motives and sincerity of John Calvert and proponents of i.d.

But not all of the i.d. folks are as tolerant.

"In short, the reason that Darwinism and theism are fundamentally incompatible is not that God could not have used evolution by natural selection to do his creating. Darwinian evolution might seem unpublished to some, or too cruel and wasteful a method for a benevolent Creator to choose, but it is always possible that God might do something that confounds our expectations. No, the contradiction between Darwinism and theism goes much deeper. To know that Darwinism is true (as a general explanation for the history of life), one has to know that no alternative to natural evolution is possible. To know that is to assume that God does not exist, or at least that God does not or cannot create. To infer that mutation and selection did the creating because nothing else was available, and then to bring God back into the picture as the omnipotent being who chose to create by mutation and selection, is to indulge in self-contradiction."
-- Phillip Johnson

According to Mr. Hayes, Phillip Johnson, a retired UC Berkeley law professor, helped father the i.d. movement.

"At some point in time, if you compare evolution and the Bible, you have to decide which one you believe. That's the bottom line." -- Independence, Kansas Sept. 24 -- Steve Abrams
Reported by Scott Rothschild in the Lawrence Journal-World

Steve Abrams, a veterinarian from Arkansas City, represents district 10 on the Kansas State Board of Education.

The divisive effects of the battles over teaching evolution are not without victims. As most people know, the issue has ended up in court in Dover, PA. Bryan Rehm, a high school physics teacher and one of the parents suing the school district, says living in Dover has gotten harder.

"They don't know me," he says. "They don't know that I'm the co-director of the children's choir at church ... or that, you know, my wife and I run Vacation Bible School. Yet they have no problem going around calling me an atheist because my particular religious viewpoint doesn't agree with that of the School Board."

Mr. Hayes discussed the difference between faith and science. He defined faith as: "Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence."

Science, on the other hand, is: "The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena. Such activities restricted to a class of natural phenomena."

He then explained his feeling that science and faith deal with fundamentally different parts of the human experience. He quoted Steven Jay Gould: "No supposed 'conflict' between science and religion should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority - and these magisteria do not overlap (nor do they encompass all inquiry). But the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border."

He then showed us the United Methodist Church Official Statement on Science and Technology:

"We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God's natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world, although we preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues...…

In acknowledging the important roles of science and technology, however, we also believe that theological understandings of human experience are crucial to a full understanding of the place of humanity in the universe. Science and theology are complementary rather than mutually incompatible. We therefore encourage dialogue between the scientific and theological communities .…

The UMC does not have an official statement on any theories of evolution."

From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church - copyright
2004 by The United Methodist Publishing House.

(Several members of the congregation expressed gratitude after class for helping them to understand our own church's position.)

Mr. Hayes said, although he is a skeptic, he did not find anything in the UMC position that he could not agree with. At this point, Mr. Hayes invited questions from the floor. The class became more of a discussion than a one sided presentation. He answered questions with scholarly thoroughness and patience.

One of the arguments of i.d. draws an analogy between machine-like parts of cells and human manufactured artifacts. Proponents of i.d. argue that something like a paper clip could never evolve by chance, as it serves one unique function. Mr. Hayes clipped it to his shirt, showing how a mechanical part can serve more than one function.

Mr. Hayes then showed us a slide illustrating the flow of money from state and federal PACS into the campaigns of conservative state school board candidates. He said the use of PACS to get around state and federal limits on the size of single donations to campaigns is very likely legal. However, looking at the chart, it was obvious the campaigns were funded by one or two wealthy sources.

He then showed us a slide of all 10 Kansas education districts. The names of each representative:

District 1 - Janet Waugh
District 2 - Sue Gamble
District 3 - John W. Bacon
District 4 - Bill Wagnon
District 5 - Connie Morris
District 6 - Kathy Martin
District 7 - Kenneth Willard
District 8 - Carol Rupe
District 9 - Iris Van Meter
District 10 - Steve Abrams

I asked about Sue Gamble, who represents most of the members of the Sunday School class. He said she is a moderate. She voted in the minority when it came to changing the state education standards.

Unfortunately, time allowed us to see a little less than half of Mr. Hayes presentation. We gave Mr. Hayes a warm St. Paul's thank you.

A small crowd gathered around him afterwards, eager to continue the dialog. One gentleman asked for a copy of the Powerpoint presentation. Mr. Hayes said yes, and the man whipped out his thumb drive. (Thanks Doc, for sending me a copy.)

I recommend his website, RedStateRabble for anyone interested in following developments at this intersection of faith, politics and science.

Monday, October 10, 2005


Intelligent Design in a Nutshell

(I apologize for the length of this post. I am trying to give as accurate an account of the case for Intelligent Design as is possible. In a future post, I will analyze what it means.)

John Calvert, founder of the Intelligent Design network gave St. Paul's the nutshell version of the case for intelligent design. We invited him as part of our "Stay at the Table" series exploring controversial issues.

Before we began, Mr. Calvert and I discussed the format of the class in general terms. I indicated he would have around 45-50 minutes to talk and we preferred 10 minutes or so of questions and answers. I regret to say I may have been a little vague.

We began at 9:40 a.m. I introduced our speaker and the topic and sat down.

Mr. Calvert used a PowerPoint to introduce his organization. In a nutshell, the Intelligent Design Network (IDN) wants to end state support of "naturalism." Naturalism is the idea that everything is explicable in terms of physics and chemistry. (As my old philosophy professor used to say, "matter and matter in motion.")

The "mechanistic consensus" is the predominant thinking of the age, the general agreement that all meaningful explanation relies on strictly naturalistic means.

Mr. Calvert brought up the book, The Purpose Driven Life, and said the mechanistic consensus denies the thesis of that book. The premise of the book is that every life has a purpose. Under the mechanistic consensus, any particular life is merely an occurrence, a combination of random happenings. Thus, the idea that lives are meaningful is an illusion.

Mr. Calvert knows that each and every human being was conceived in the mind of God before being conceived in the world.

He quoted from the Book of Romans: "Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: ..." Mr. Calvert said this passage shows that God reveals himself through the awesome splendor of creation.

(It's as if he went to last week's sermon - where Pator Jim showed us NASA photos of objects in space.)

Mr. Calvert said "You cannot see purpose, but you can understand it." He went on to define design as "A pattern of events arranged by a mind or some form of intelligence for a purpose."

Design is contrasted with "occurrence," which is an "event that just happens." As noted above, under the prevailing mechanistic consensus, we are all mere "occurrences."

Design can be detected. Moreover, a little thought reveals how this might be done. A few commonplace examples will do the trick.

But first, lets take a moment to ponder a little epistemology. (The study of how we know what we know.)

Any and all events are explained in three ways:

  1. Design
  2. Natural law
  3. Chance

To demonstrate this, Mr. Calvert obtained a coin from a member of the audience. He held the coin between his two hands and then dropped it. He then elicited responses from the audience to show:

1.) He dropped the coin on purpose: by design.

2.) Gravity pulled the coin down: Natural law.

3.) It landed on tails: chance.

Mr. Calvert then showed us slides of jets hitting skyscrapers. He explained when he heard of the first airplane crashing into the World Trade Center, like many other people, he concluded it was an accident. Explained by chance. The second impact, though, changed his mind. Because of the pattern, he realized the strikes were done on purpose - explained by design.

Formal design detection, as a scientific process, consists of three main steps:

1.) Does the event to be explained appear to have a purpose? An event can be screened out as having no discernible purpose simply by an examination on the face of it.

2.) Is the event fully explained by a material cause? For example, a salt crystal under high magnification reveals a beautiful, intricate and orderly structure. Since the structure is fully explained by material causes, i.e., natural laws: design is absent.

3.) Is the event fully explained by chance? Like the coin landing heads or tails.

Next Mr. Calvert showed us a slide of a non-descript looking fractured pebble. He said the discoverer of the rock claims it is a kind of arrowhead; an artifact. The pebble was found in 50,000 year-old strata located in the Carolinas. What makes this claim controversial is it would establish human presence in the America's some 36,000 years earlier than the generally accepted 13,500 years.

He asks, can we accept this claim based on a single example? No. But what what if we had a bucket full? If we had a large number, then we would be convinced.

We then saw a slide of the somewhat famous "face on Mars." This is an image of a mountain or hill on Mars taken by a NASA orbiter. It appears to be a human face - in the photo, it projects the illusion of design. Later pictures of the same formation showed it to be simply a pile of rocks.

These examples are meant to show how gathering more data that shows an event or occurrence can be accounted for by natural causes rules out design.

He then went on to talk about the movie Contact. The story involves a scientist working on the project to discover intelligent signals in radio emissions from outer space. This project, called "SETI" for "Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence" has carried on for many years, with no positive results. In the movie, the scientist hears a signal that sends her scurrying into the lab. After extensive analysis, they decode the signal and discover it's the prime numbers from one to one-hundred one. They conclude no natural process could account for the sequence of numbers. Therefore, it is the product of a mind; it was designed.

This conclusion was reached at the 500th character; at that point they absolutely ruled out chance.

Mr. Calvert then illustrated how difficult it is to produce a meaningful pattern by mere chance with the following example.

Suppose you were given a bag with one set of the characters of the alphabet, a blank and a dash and enough characters to total 55. The chance of drawing the letter "D" out of the bag first is 1/55. The chance of drawing an "E" next is 1/55 times 1/55. The slide looked about like this:

D - 1/55

E - 1/55 x 1/55

S - 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55

I - 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55

G - 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55

N - 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55 = 1/27,680,640,625

Mr. Calvert then said, "As complexity increases, probability decreases expotentially."

He then went on to ask how we can test DNA for design. The first test, "Does it the DNA pattern have a purpose?" he would answer "yes."

He then went on to point out similarities in Morse Code and DNA.

Morse Code -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --genetic code

2 symbols, dot (.) and dash ( _ ) ~~~~~~~4 symbols, A,T,C,G

dash dash dash ( _ _ _) = O ~~~~~~~~~~ATG = START

dot dot dot (. . .) = S ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~AGA = Arginine

. . . _ _ _ . . . = SOS ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~GGG = GLYCINE

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~TGA = STOP

Unfortunately, I derailed his argument at this point by saying we were running out of time and would he allow some questions?

He tried to hurry through the next part of the presentation, skipping a great deal of what he'd prepared for us. We saw impressive slides showing the remarkable resemblance a bacterial flagellum bears to a purely mechanical artifact. We saw snippets of video depicting the machinery of the cell. To me, this would have been the most fun part of the presentation; I just love looking at the marvels science has uncovered.

We saw a talking head, Michael J. Behe, who is a biochemist at LeHigh Unversity in Pennsylvania. Behe talked about how he came to question whether or not purely naturalistic causes can account for biological structures. He said the pictures of a bacterial flagellum moved him to question accepted science and look a little deeper.

I'm afraid I rudely interrupted Mr. Calvert to ask him to please allow some questions.

An audience member prefaced his question by observing one of the hallmarks of a scientific theory is the ability to make predictions. He then asked, "What predictions come from Intelligent design?

Mr. Calvart answered that "junk DNA" is not junk. Intelligent design predicts that all the DNA in a particular gene exists for a reason, to perform a function. I would like to add to his explanation a little. Not too many years ago scientists thought as much as 95% of DNA served no useful purpose. The actual functions of the DNA previously thought of as "junk" are now being discovered.

Another successful prediction, "Mutations are not random." We had no time to explore that one.

Another questioner asked, "How is intelligent design different from creationism?"

Mr. Calvert stated that intelligent design is not Genesis. Intelligent design does not claim to know who the designer is. Claims about the designer belong to the realm of religion.

Another person asked, "How does intelligent design explain extinctions?"

Mr. Calvert said simply look at a junkyard. Extinctions are analogous to discarded machinery.

At that point I had to interrupt and end the class as services were to begin in five minutes. The audience warmly thanked Mr. Calvert for visiting us and a few people remained to continue the dialog.

A point not fully developed but clearly implied by the presentation is the incredibly low probability of any particular sequence of genetic coding. Spelling out a simple word like "design" with 55 characters (why 55?) by random selection yields a very low probability after just a few simple calculations. Although the genetic code contains only four characters, the sequences run from hundreds to thousands and even tens of thousands of characters. We can safely rule out mere chance as the explanation for how any particular sequence of genetic coding came into being.

I came away with a much clearer understanding of the position and its appeal. Mr. Calvert did St. Paul's and the community a service by appearing and attempting to explain the ideas in a little less than an hour. I know I speak for the Sunday School class in thanking him.

Corrections and comments are welcome. To leave a comment, click on the comment button below. E-mail me at:

Saturday, October 08, 2005


Immigration Links

USCIS is the federal agency for immigration.

Chuck Colson, of all people, actually has a well reasoned statement regarding immigration.

The National Bureau of Economic Research posts research they claim shows substantial economic benefits from immigration.

Marginal Revolution posts a thought-provoking story about recent changes in the typical illegal Mexican immigrant.

Many of my own thoughts run along lines found at Advocates for Self Government
and the Libertarian Party (but only about immigration.)

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


Welcoming the Stranger

Another view of immigration.

Melinda Lewis of El Centro visited St. Paul's Adult Sunday School to speak about "welcoming the stranger." She began with appropriate Biblical quotations showing the Christian tradition of hospitality to immigrants. For example: "The immigrant that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were immigrants in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God." (Leviticus 19:34.) She then asked in effect, what does "welcoming the stranger" look like in the 21st century United States?

This report reflects my views only, not those of St. Paul's or the United Methodist Church.

One thing welcoming the stranger must mean is more resources to carry out established immigration policy. Immigrants wait years, not only to meet legally mandated waiting periods, but also simply because of backlogs of unprocessed cases at government agencies. An immigrant may have a legally imposed five-year waiting period from the time they are granted resident status until they can apply for citizenship. They must then wait three or four more years before they can complete the process simply because there are not enough resources invested by the government in the agencies doing the work. Folding the INS into Department of Homeland Security seems to have exacerbated the problem. For example, the "US Citizenship and Immigration Services" publishes a toll free phone number (1-800-375-5283) but no one answers it. DHS is so big, the smaller agency's needs are easy to overlook.

Another important element is policy that helps preserve families. A tragic unintended consequence of the way our policies work in practice is to separate mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, husbands and wives; often for eight years or longer. Melinda told the story of a Polish immigrant she met recently. The woman described her four-year old daughter in loving detail, how the child looks, her personality and so forth: the mother knows these details only by correspondence with relatives. She last saw the child at age eight months. Immigration lawyers and experts tell her the child will be about eleven years old before they are reunited.

This situation is far too common.

I feel the irony of our politicians loudly proclaiming the sacredness of "family values" while quietly pursuing policies so utterly destructive to families.

Another tragedy that cries out for intervention is death at the border. So far this year, an estimated 500 people died trying to cross the border. Melinda proposes two ideas to alleviate the problem. First, rationalize and ease legal immigration. Second, make use of advanced technology to monitor the border. Most of the deaths were due to the heat in the Arizona desert. She did not elaborate, but I would imagine this means we would catch more illegal aliens sooner as they tried to cross into the US. Sort of get them before the heat kills them.

I have read about proposals for an "electronic fence" to be built across the US-Mexico border. I'm not sure of the status of this technology. What I don't understand is why our politicians aren't pushing this.

Melinda addressed the issue of illegal alien college students in response to a question. She said she is reluctant to advise anyone contrary to what law professor Kris Kobach said last week. However, she believes the age of majority under immigration law is 21, not 18 as stated by Mr. Kobach.

My own skim over the rules shows the situation is incredibly complicated. In some cases, an individual will be treated as a "child" well beyond the age of 21. This is because an application process could be started for a 20 year-old but not be finished for four or more years.

Melinda said the status of an immigrant is not simple, straightforward and fixed. Status changes, sometimes from day-to-day. For example, one visa classification recently lost status because Congress forgot to keep a promise to renew. Her office was inundated by panicked callers, aware that they had suddenly become illegal. Congress missed renewing the law giving them their status by a day, so Congress made the status retroactive.

In response to another question, Melinda said that contrary to the myths about illegal aliens, they do not get their pay in cash. In fact, only about eight percent receive wages in cash. However, the stereotype that they tend to pay for everything in cash is true. This both helps them avoid debt but also keeps them from establishing credit.

Missing from both Mr. Kobach's presentation and Ms. Lewis was a realistic discussion of the overall economics of illegal immigration. I'm not referring to the price of smuggling people over the border, neither am I talking about the price of lettuce.

Mr. Kobach says there are 10 million people in the US illegally. Ms. Lewis estimates 8 to 12 million. My feeling is this situation economically benefits the United States. An illegal labor pool can be easily exploited by unscrupulous employers; after all, who will the employees complain to, the INS? Not only does this keep the price of immigrant labor low, it also tends to depress the price of legal labor. Just how much would lawn mowing or construction cost without illegal aliens doing part of the labor?

I can think of no other plausible explanation of why a nation that calls itself "the greatest" would tolerate such a large invasion of illegal foreign nationals.

Consider: An income tax refund is issued within weeks, not years. Social Security retirement claims are often processed within two weeks. Even a passport takes around three months. These are all important to us as a nation. The fact that we tolerate processing wait times of years and years for the legal workings of immigration shows that we, as a nation, simply do not care to face the issue squarely.

I would also like to ask: Why does the fact that one's great-grandparents immigrated to the United States make one morally superior to a new immigrant? This last week, I was watching wacthing Fox television news and seeing the talking heads in a frenzy over the border with Mexico. These men, in their righteous indignation, in their eagerness to cast stones, do not act in the public interest. They speak out of pride and arrogance, to further their own ends. I fail to see how whippping up public furor over this issue contributes in any way to the discussion. I fail to see how they deepen understanding. I fail to see how they build any bridges. I fail to see how they strengthen the community.

We must remember, in the United States, we are all from immigrant families.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


Rules of Engagement

If we disagree, will you still respect me in the morning?

A recent column by Bill Tammeus in the Kansas City Star got my engine started, and I was off down a familiar path.

How can we agree to disagree? How can we respect each other even if we know in our heart of hearts that the other is wrong? To what extent are we entitled to respect? Do opinions that are manifestly ill-informed, poorly thought out, products of prejudice, arrogant, hateful, childish and so forth: do those opinions deserve respect? How can we know we are not committing the same sins we accuse others of?

Today we see the democratization of punditry. The Internet and Blogging phenomena allow common people to voice their opinions in ways not seen before. But does this improve the quality of the dialog, or is it mere pooling of ignorance?

In such an environment, it seems to me more important than ever that we have some standards to judge and evaluate expressed ideas and opinions.

Fortunately, thinkers reaching all the way back to Aristotle discovered many common flaws in rhetoric, identified them and codified the study of these errors. The subject matter used to be called "rhetoric" and I understand it was commonly taught in high schools beginning with the middle 1800's, but it has not been taught at that level within my lifetime. In college, the course is usually identified as "Intro to Logic" or 'Logic 101."

Fortunately for us, many useful resources reside on the web to sharpen our logic skills. For example, Tim van Gelder's Critical Thinking on the Web, and Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum Project. This last one compiled by Loren Miller, who taught "Logic 101" to yours truly some thirty years ago. Some of these even allow submission of your argument for analysis.
(For those unfamiliar with the terms, "argument" is not something you engage in with a spouse. It means a developed, reasoned idea: a thesis supported by statements).

I'd also like to note the existence of many well written and fun-to-read books on the subject. (I'm sorry I can't recommend any titles - it's been thirty years). Just ask a librarian.

Having said all that, I always remember what Thomas Hobbes said in Leviathan, "... as to the faculties of the mind, . . . Howsoever [men] may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves: For they see their own wit at hand, and other men's at a distance. But this proveth rather that men are in that point equal, than unequal. For there is not ordinarily a greater sign of the equal distribution of any thing, than that every man is contented with his share."

In addition to the rules of logic, I also ask: is the position one of love? That is, does the argument spring from love, a desire to help others, to "love thy neighbor?" Will the results of accepting the idea be loving? Is it hurtful? Or does the idea spring from ego, selfishness, greed, anger, hatred, fear, contempt, etc, etc? Sort of my version of "Is it good for the children?' Or perhaps, "Would Jesus advocate this?"

So we have both a rhetorical standard and an ethical standard.

Now I believe that each and every human being deserves respect. The golden rule still applies. But I distinguish the person from the opinion.

If, considering the well developed rules rhetoric, I find an argument poorly formed, badly reasoned, ill-informed, flawed, or whatever, I feel no restraint in saying so. An attack on an argument is not an attack on the intelligence or character of a person. Really poor arguments do not merit respect.

The uncritical acceptance of absurd, extreme positions on issues troubles me. Even more troubling is the acquiescence of highly educated people, people trained in critical thinking. Sometimes the news consists mainly of ad hominem attacks of political opponents on each other. We need to speak out more strongly against this, to make it clear we want reasoned dialog instead of mudslinging. These people are Harvard and Oxford graduates. I want them to act like it.

So, a poorly reasoned, ill-informed, hateful or arrogant position should be rejected. Errors should be called to the attention of the author. If the response is a counterattack on the person pointing out the errors, then that should be taken as evidence of the characters of the individuals involved.

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