Meeting topic archive

SPRING 2001

4/25/01: God, the limbic system and knowledge: How our cognitive blind spot threatens civilization
(Burl Grey)
It is significant that sacred propositions and numinous experiences are the inverse of each other. Ultimate sacred postulates are discursive but their significata are not material. Numinous experiences are immediately material (the actual physical and psychic states) but they are not discursive. Ultimate sacred postulates are UNFALSIFIABLE and numinous experiences are UNDENIABLE. Thus, in the union of the sacred and the numinous the most abstract conceptions are bound to the immediate and undeniable experience. This results in a remarkable spectacle: The unfalsifiable supported by the undeniable, yields the unquestionable, which transforms the arbitrary and the conventional into the correct, the necessary and the natural. In other words, this lecture will just be about how crazy the human brain is, and how our brains can be unaware of certain types of thinking alltogether.

4/18/01: How Christianity went from being a small Jewish splinter group to a world religion
(Jon Pennington)
How did a small Jewish splinter group grow to a world religion? Is it due to divine assistance, or a more practical, reasonable, secular explanation? Presented will be various theories over the reasons for Christianity's massive rise to power, and discussion over their practicality (or usefulness as models) will hopefully ensue. Is there any reason to assume Christianity's relative success is due to divine influence?

4/11/01: Discussion of the Dawkins Lecture, "Is Science a Religion?"
(Moderated by Nick Landham)
On Monday, Prof. Richard Dawkins gave a moving lecture on the differences between science and religion, notably pointing out the different criterion that each assigns or disregards for truth (appeals to evidence, authority, tradition, and faith come to mind). We held a general discussion of issues anybody has been thinking about in regard to Dawkins' talk. Does he put too much faith in scientists? Is he setting up a straw man argument for how religion works? Does the lack of clear separation between science and religion in a historical context in any way disturb his argument? These and more questions were discussed (primarily there was a lot of debate what we meant by "science" and "religion" -- where the whole argument obviously hinges), though it was not resolved to the contentment of anyone there, as is usual about such things. In the end we took a vote over whether science was a religion (with any definition of science and religion one decided to use), and ended with about 8 saying yes and around 16 saying no. Oh well. Read the full lecture press release here.


4/9/2001: SPECIAL EVENT: Is Science a Religion? 
(Prof. Richard Dawkins)
Prof. Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and Unweaving the Rainbow, gave a free talk for SANE on the differences between science and religion. It was truly a unique, amazing, special event. The auditorium was filled beyond capacity, with around 500 students, community members, and faculty in attendance. A full write-up pending. Click here for the full press release. This event was recorded for SANE personal (non-commercial) use, e-mail sane@ocf.berkeley.edu for information.


4/4/2001: Discussion of Dan Barker's talk, "Being Good Without G
od" (Moderated by Nick Landham)
On March 21, Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation came to UC Berkeley to give a talk entitled "Being Good Without God." His words were both inspiring and controversial for atheists and theists alike (though often for different reasons), and I am sure much time was casually devoted after the meeting thinking and discussing the issues that Mr. Barker brought up. This meeting was a discussion of his talk, with criticisms and elaborations, as well as some intense discussion of concepts of 'absolute morality' and how to build an effective moral systems (and whether or not Barker's "to reduce harm" system is comprehensive enough). All in all, the discussion went for two hours without anybody really noticing how long it had gone on, so I'd call it a success.

3/21/2001: SPECIAL EVENT: Being Good Without God (Dan Barker)
Dan Barker, from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, gave a talk on behalf of SANE and American Atheists called "Being Good Without God." A full write-up is pending, but the talk was an overwhelming success, with the auditorium filled to capacity. Read the full press release here. This event was recorded for SANE personal (non-commercial) use, e-mail sane@ocf.berkeley.edu for information.

3/14/2001: MOVIE: Brain Power (Alex Wellerstein)
The growing study of animal intelligence -- from the use of tools by chimps to the apparent ability of many species to communicate among themselves in ingenious ways -- casts a vibrant new light on the role of the mind in evolution. Brain power, in fact, has led to some of the most fascinating innovations in the evolutionary arms race. This video a part of the extraordinarily well produced "Triumph of Life" PBS series, and is approximately one hour long (some discussion will follow). It is extremely entertaining and quite humorous, and the monkeys are very funny to watch.

3/7/2001: The Taboo of Atheism in America (Joe Guiliano)
This week I'd like to take a break from the philosophy and explore what it means to be an atheist in America today. The countless polls say America is a religious country, full of churchgoers and devout worshipers, but is this really the case? Every year, surveyors like Gallup and the National Opinion Research Center ask Americans whether they believe in God, and every year the same overwhelming majority, anywhere from 92 to 97 percent, say yes. We will also examine why in an age of taboo-breaking gay sitcom characters, and Orthodox Jews just a few votes away from being Vice President, atheists remain relatively despised and very un-American.

2/28/2001: Pizza and Propaganda (Alex Wellerstein)
Since most members have gone crazy with midterms this week, I've decided that we're going to have a meeting where all we do is sit around, eat pizza, drink soda, and trade religious propaganda! Maybe I'll even give my opinions on why our favorite Christian fundamentalist comic book artist, Jack T. Chick (http://www.chick.com), is so interesting in a "scary crazy person" sort of way, and talk about the varying role of propaganda. I encourage anyone who attends to bring any wacky religious propaganda or stories they might have, and would be REALLY interested in non-Christian propaganda as well, if possible.Come for the pizza, stay for the scary comic books, and tell/listen to some stories about overzealous evangelicals.

2/21/2001: Religion and the Mind (Ormond Otvos)
We will be covering a broad variety of theories and topics relating to a Pandora's box of speculation about the ghost in the machine: are we hardwired for religion; can it be patched; can software augment or minimize its effects? The discussion will be about religion, the retreat from rationality, and will include the general religious impulse, not just Christianity. Questions encouraged, new info welcomed.

2/14/2001: Neuro-theology and Placebo Love (Alex Wellerstein)
Most religious people with any fervor make claims to numerous personal "spiritual experiences" as confirmations/justifications of their faith, where they feel a variety of phenomena that they feel cannot be explained without the inference of supernatural aid. But if spiritual experiences can be explained as natural events, then one can perhaps discount the need to invoke the supernatural in their explanation. If these same events can occur in situations where there is no spiritual context, perhaps one can then say that there is no reason to assume that they have any spiritual qualities whatsoever. Neuro-theology is an emerging field which looks (using high technology) into the neurological mechanisms behind religious experiences (also addressing the issue of whether the brain is "hard-wired for religion" -- also explaining why even nonbelievers can be moved by religious ritual). Are religious experiences merely psychological processes in our brain? Are the professed feelings of God's love the same effect as a placebo?

2/7/2001: The Argument from Non-Belief (David Dobervich)
The argument from non-belief is an original argument due to philosopher Theadore Drange. When God is conceived of 1). as desiring humanity to believe in his existence and 2). as an all-powerful being, the fact that so many people lack such a belief becomes a good argument for atheism. First, I'd like to preface the argument by addressing the question of what place such arguments should have. I will then go over the formal argument (i.e. explicitly stating the premises and conclusion), give biblical and other support for the premises, and open it up for discussion. Hopefully in our discussion we will hit some of the most common objections to this argument for debate. I believe this is a very strong argument reflecting an important question for theists and non-theists alike to consider.

1/31/2001: Origins/Interpretations of the Bible (Ben Chaika)
As you're probably aware, the book known as the Holy Bible, in all of its various forms and testaments, is rather important to more than a few world religions and sects. Throughout the centuries it has been read, talked about, translated, interpreted, misinterpretted, debated, argued over, and, in some cultures, banned. It boasts being the most oft-published and most oft-read book EVER. Where did this book come from? Who wrote it? How reliable as a historical source should one treat this document? Does God act moral by his own (or our) standards? Is the Bible consistent? Are its prophesies true? These and other topics relating to the origins of the Bible were addressed, with discussion.

1/24/2001: Argument from Miracles (Jason Bussey)
[Jason Bussey is a SANE co-founder, student at Harvard Law, UCB graduate with High Honors in Philosophy] When one questions a Christian about whether they can logically justify their faith, a common response is that since Jesus rose from the dead and performed miracles, there must be a supernatural and since Jesus could do all of this, he must be the correct person to listen to about matters of the supernatural. Littered through the Bible and all other Holy books of religions are claims to divine events which, if not completely violate logic, reason, and our understand of the laws of physics, prey upon an individual's sense of what is improbable enough not to simply be a coincidence. Appeals of this sort can be broadly labeled as appeals to miracles, and they exist in every major religion we have. Do claims to historical miracles have any validity, or are the odds of human mistake, deception, or simple foolishness higher than the probability of the failure of the laws of physics? On the other hand, is it possible to document modern miracles to the extent that would sufficiently placate a skeptic? Isn't a skeptic dogmatic if they claim that no amount of evidence will convince them entirely? Questions and topics like these and much more were discussed.

FALL 2000

12/13/2000: Entropy, and how relates to Creationism (Patrick Pfleiderer)
Entropy (in the physics sense) is broadly understood as the degree of disorder or uncertainty in a system. Patrick will explain (from someone who has studied thermodynamics) HOW we can understand this as such. Creationists believe that the second law of thermodynamics does not permit order to arise from disorder, and therefore the macro evolution of complex living things from single-celled ancestors could not have occurred. This, however, is a misunderstanding of physics completely, and we will go into why they are abusing science in the name of their creed.

12/6/2000: Crashing Prof. Alex Filippenko's Cosmology "Bull-session"
Instead of a normal meeting at the normal place, we're instead going to attend Prof. Alex Filippenko's Astronomy 10 "bull session" on Cosmology. His "bull sessions" are, from what I gather, like smaller, more interactive lectures where he spends some time delving into one topic in greater detail. Cosmology a branch of astronomy that deals with the origin, structure, and space-time relationships of the universe. Things like the Big Bang and especially the inevitable consequences (according to physics) of our expanding universe are especially potent topics likely to come up. Professor Filippenko is an energetic, entertaining, involved, and competent speaker who can turn complex concepts (such as the nature of space and time itself) into terms understood by non-physics and astronomy people without dumbing them down. He was on the team that not too long ago, discovered that the universe's expansion is not slowing with time but is instead speeding up. Which means that the universe will not collapse in a "big crunch" but will continue to expand forever, so far as we can tell.

11/29/2000: Guest speaker: Religion and Politics (Prof. Peter Sperlich)
[Professor Peter Sperlich of the UC Berkeley Political Science Department came to talk to our group as he was very interested in the concept of such an organization. He teaches a course here about the danger of mixing religion into politics, especially pointing out the crazed extremes it can and has been taken to, all with a sardonic sense of humor. He also spoke about the possible origins of the disproportionate religiousity of the American public, and what needs to be done about it. He currently teaches Political Science C163B ("Religion and Politics").] Professor Sperlich received his Ph.D. from The University of Michigan in 1966. His fields of interest are the American Legal Process, Comparative Law, the Presidency, Religion and Politics, Comparative Ideology, Political Psychology, Philosophy of Science, and Methodology. He regularly teaches courses on The Jury System and Other Forms of Lay Adjudication, Religion and Politics, Political Behavior, and Methodology. The foci of his current research are Law and Adjudication in Socialist Systems, Law and Adjudication in South-East Asia, the Rise of Religious Fundamentalism in Several Cultural Domains, and the Interaction of religion and Politics in the United States. His publications include Conflict and Harmony in Human Affairs: A Study of Cross-Pressures and Political Behavior (Rand McNally, 1971), "The Evidence on Evidence: Science and Law in Conflict and Cooperation," in Saul M. Kassin and Lawrence S. Wrightsman, eds., The Psychology of Evidence and Courtroom Procedure (Sage, 1985), and "The People's Courts: Justice in East Germany," (30:5 Public Affairs Report 10, September 1989).

11/15/2000: The possible need for moderation in skepticism (Patrick Pfleiderer)
My talk and moderated discussion will be on the usefulness and possible uselessness of skepticism, depending on the way in which it's carried out. I'll start with the distinction between the external - where God(ess?), and the answers to all questions ever, are to be found - and the internal. Based on that I'll describe how (I think) skepticism can bring results that leave you sitting there, thinking, "But we still know...something...right?" And I'll try to motivate how one can accept some things as true, real, existing, "there", and yet be skeptic about other things in a SANE fashion. This is a kind of follow-up to our earlier discussion on objective/absolute reality.

11/8/2000: Plato's conception of utopia (the republic) (Nick Lanham)
Plato is not alone in having formed ideas about what a perfect society would consist of. What sets him apart is the fact that he lays out the means to achieve it and gives a conception that does not strike one as immediately impractical. I shall attempt to outline the major aspects of Plato's utopia and his means of achieving it. One cannot understand the origins of his society without some background in his metaphysics so I shall necessarily diverge for a brief discussion of the cave and forms and the like. I will then talk about the society itself. This will include the hierarchy he outlines and the rather strange things he considers detrimental to society. We will also talk about his "Noble Lie" and its necessity in any sort of societal restructuring. This will hopefully all lead into a lively discussion of the nature of a utopia, what we mean when we say utopia, and the possibility of any kind of utopia every existing.

11/3/2000: Kuhn's argument against objective observation (+ an extrapolation) (Alex Wellerstein)
In T.S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn presents a harsh philosophical criticism against many common practices in the teaching of the history of science -- mainly ones that try to establish science as an objective set of answers and do not emphasize the failures and changes in opinion that are more characteristic of its past. I will be focusing on one particular aspect of his criticism which is directed against "objective" scientific observation; that is, the claim made by scientists that they are "just recording data." I feel Kuhn presents a strong argument against the assumption that any information perceived is in any way inherently objective. Furthermore, I will attempt to extrapolate through Kuhn's reasoning that ANY information perceived is so obviously subjective that any claim to "objective" perception is ridiculous.

10/25/2000: Dialectical materialism (Tony Flemmer)
Materialism is the belief that the physical world and the tangible environment is the ultimate source for our thoughts and ideas. The universe is far more ancient than we, and therefore much more ancient than ideas themselves. The universe gave birth to us, and therefore gave birth to the ideas in our heads. The only time when the external world is affected by ideas or thoughts is when it is put into practice, and only the external reality can be the ultimate test for ideas. Dialectics is the Marxist offshoot to the materialist philosophy, centered around the fact that all the social forces throughout history have been in motion. (Now, this is BY NO MEANS an attempt to give radical political dogma a spot in our purely philosophical SANE meetings. However, you must admit that this philosophy can drastically color a person's view of the world, devoid of anything remotely mythological or supernatural in favor of looking at the tangible reality around us.)

10/18/2000: A case for/against Reason (Alex Wellerstein)
I'm just going to pose a few vague questions to the group (not much of a presentation) about whether or not "reason" is philosophically defensible or if it's just a circular argument, among other things. The discussion will hopefully be fairly open ended. As skeptics, should we also be skeptical of "reason" as a method of discovery? Or does rationality take precedence to skepticism?

10/4/2000: MOVIE: "The Trigger Effect" with James Burke (Alex Wellerstein)
The movie is historian James Burkes' interpretation of the implications of man's increasing dependence on complex technological networks, the origins of civilization and society, and in turn (for all you nihilists) insight on how to destroy civilization. It's a really cool film, and it's less than an hour long. I consider it relevant in that we really haven't talked about this sort of thing before, and that if one is going to talk about a nonreligious ethos or something like that, one should probably have an idea of where a lot of our society, civilization, and systems of "ethos" in general originated from in a very broad sense. In any event, it's really pretty entertaining. Afterwards we may or may not have discussion, depending on whatever people want to do.

9/27/2000: Do humans have free will? (Nick Lanham)
We will be discussing (with some facilitation and guidance from Nick) whether people have free will. I'd write an abstract of it, but seeing how I'm not sure exactly where it will go (it is a rather extensive topic that can tie into many different spheres; religious, psychological, philosophical, etc), I'm just going to leave it at that for now.

9/20/2000: The Argument from Evil (David Dobervich and Ben Chaika)
When God is defined as an all-powerful and all-loving deity, many arguments for his nonexistence (under such a definition) can be raised. Two of the main ones are the Argument from Evil and the Argument from Nonbelief. Now, I (Dave) personally think that using these arguments to prove the *nonexistence* of such a God is kind of silly and not terribly productive. I do think that these arguments bring up difficult questions which should be addressed. The form of both of these arguments is that from the fact that God is all-powerful and all-loving we can infer that he'd have both the ability and desire to prevent certain states-of-affairs in the world from occurring (e.g. rampant and preventable non-belief or excessive pointless suffering). We then observe that these states-of-affairs, in fact, obtain and this seeming incompatibility demands an explanation. We will look at the various explanations and discuss whether or not they are terribly satisfactory.

9/7/2000: The Teleological Argument (Alex Wellerstein)
The Teleological Argument is perhaps the best introduction to Christian apologetic arguments for the logical existence of a God, simply because it is the most common lay-man attempt to rationalize a belief in a God. It is more commonly known as the Design Argument (or the Argument from Design), attempting to give evidence that a complex organism (such as the universe) must have had a designer. We will be looking at the full implications of such an argument and discussing why it is frankly illogical. Come, argue, listen, enjoy!


Perhaps eventually I will get around to adding the meeting topics from Spring 2000 too. Maybe.