Sunday, 29 March 2009

"The Atheists"

For those who don't know, Australia's public broadcaster ABC has a weekly religion show called Compass. Most weeks the documentary shown is pretty ordinary, but on the rare occasion it's worth watching. In the past they have aired documentaries like The Story Of God and The Root Of All Evil?, and this week there was a look at the world's fastest growing (non)religion - atheism.

The host being a good Catholic has shown hostility in the past to atheism and the expression thereof (describing Dawkins' program as "highly personal") so I was sceptical going into it. But I've got to say after watching the program, it gave a good appraisal of what it means to be an atheist. Having the likes of Dr Shermer and Philip Adams on the program gave it a reputable basis, this was atheism from an atheist point of view, and hopefully it's going to help the understanding of what it means to be an atheist in the religious who watched the program.

Having the atheists talk about the concerns of religious fundamentalism while paralleling it with imagery of religious fanatics was a good touch, it really rammed the point home that atheists perceive this religious fundamentalism a genuine threat to the future of this planet. And that was just one example of many in the program where it sought in as much fairness as possible to portray the atheist message. All 4 atheists who talked on the issue were concise and to the point.

Any documentary about atheism was going to have to mention "the new atheists" and while short it seemed to cover the topic quite admirably. It is divisive and intolerant as Adams pointed out, but it's a necessity thanks to the pre-conceived notions of atheism as Shermer argued. The only criticism I could have of the show was the last few minutes where it talked about the continuing role of religion in society. It seemed to take the Voltaire path, that people are not able to cope without religion thus fuelling it's necessity. While this may be evidentially so, it's not quite at the stage yet to write off people as needing a religion.

Overall it sought to dismiss a lot of myths about what atheism is and isn't, and in that it did as admirable a job as a 30 minute documentary should. If nothing else, it tried to show in the most intellectually honest way possible what it means to be an atheist and that should be commended. It will be interesting to see what Dawkins felt of the program, that is meant to be up on the Compass website but at time of writing it has yet to appear. Hopefully it will be put up along with a podcast for the show, so that anyone wanting a basic insight into atheism will have a source of information.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Effective Proselytism

When wanting to proselytise a belief, it's important to understand how to effectively communicate it. This means understanding where the other side is coming from. In my time on atheists forums and blogs, I've come across many Christians who try to proselytise their beliefs and finding one who can actually communicate with an atheist about beliefs is almost non-existent. The ones who believe in God simply don't know what it's like not to, and as such their arguments reflect this basic ignorance of the position they are arguing against. Here are 10 of the most common ineffective arguments against atheism I've come across, in the hope that theists will take it on board for future communication.

Quoting the bible
Certain passages may be emotionally significant to you, but there's no reason to suggest that someone not of the faith will be swayed by them. Consider that a Muslim was trying to convert you to Islam. And his survival strategy was to quote the more eloquent and profound poetry out of the Koran. Would that sway you to become a Muslim? If not, what makes you think it would be any different to an atheist hearing passages from the bible? There may be some wonderful passages in there, and there may have been some profound things said by Jesus and other figures. But it's not going to sway those who don't have that emotional connection between the bible and a belief in God.

The threat of hell
It may be that the threat of eternal torture is a very real threat, and that you need to save as many people from that threat as possible. It's a sign of a good person to want to help as many people as possible. But it's important to remember that it's only a threat if someone believes it's a threat. Consider a Buddhist warning you on The Cycle of Samsara, and that if you don't follow The Noble Eightfold Path that you'll suffer in the next life. Would you seek to end the cycle of suffering by following Buddhism? If the threat is not sound real, people will ignore it. It goes for anything, if one doesn't know what a gun does they are hardly going to be scared if one is pulled on them.

Pascal's Wager
This might seem like a good strategy, but like the threat of hell there needs to be a reason to believe in the reward on offer. If someone were to offer you $50 billion dollars in exchange for cutting off your arms, would you go and cut your arms off without any assurances that the act would result in the said compensation? Rather one would hopefully get assurances that the money is there and that there are measures to ensure the transaction goes ahead. It may be that simply believing doesn't have the cost that swapping your arms for monetary gain has, but the risk of believing is still there. What if we believe in the wrong god and that god is petty and spiteful? What if eternity was achieved through works rather than faith? In the absence of knowing, the wager is a 1 in infinity stab in the dark.

Vicarious atonement
Jesus may have died for our sins, but it's hardly a selling point to those who don't believe in the concept of sin in the first place. To those who find the concept of original sin absurd to begin with, there's no need for any martyrdom in order to atone for it. Again this may be emotionally significant to you, and if The Passion Of The Christ is any indicator then it would seem that it's a common belief. But without the need for atonement, without the belief that atonement can be achieved vicariously through the suffrage of Jesus, arguing that Jesus died for the benefit of mankind is no better than arguing that one should be a Hindu on account of Krishna's similar plight.

Calling someone immoral off the bat is never going to win them over, nor is holding them accountable to your moral standard. Would a Jew calling you immoral for eating shellfish and working on the Sabbath sway you to forsake Christianity and become Jewish? Or a Muslim telling you that you're immoral because you enable a society where women can wear miniskirts persuade you to join their faith? The same goes for atheists, it matters not whether you think God hates homosexuals or that abortion is a sin. When one doesn't believe in God, appealing to God as a basis for morality is not going to persuade anyone.

Hitler / Stalin was an atheist
Throughout history there are bound to be humans beings of all walks of life who have taken part in atrocities. But it's guilt by association to argue that because Stalin was an atheist that atheism is bad. Hitler was a professed Roman Catholic, but does it matter one bit about the question of God whether Hitler believed or not? Would Christianity automatically become evil if it turned out that Hitler (as his writings and speeches suggests) was indeed a Christian? Does the witch-burning throughout Medieval Europe or the numerous inquisitions that led to the slaughter of heretics invalidate Christianity? And does this at all have any bearing on whether there is a God or not? It's appealing to social consequences (which are largely unfounded) in order to weigh in on a philosophical position.

The former atheist
Antony Flew may have now gone deist and CS Lewis may have been an atheist in his teens before becoming a strong apologist for Christianity, but what does it have to do with whether God exists? Consider the opposite situation where Christians have rejected a belief in God and turned atheist, does their rejection of Christianity prove that God doesn't exist? When preachers like Dan Barker or John W. Loftus left the flock and are now prominent atheists, did that hurt the arguments for God? If not, then what does Antony Flew's conversion to deism have to do with the arguments for God? By focusing on the authority of the figure as opposed to the arguments used to justify such a conversion, it will not resonate with atheists at all to bring it up. Atheism is not about what authorities say.

Arguing against atheist "authorities"
It must be recognised that atheism is a non-belief in any god, nothing more and nothing less. As such, there are no atheist doctrines or dogma, no prophets or proverbs. Think of what it means to not believe in astrology, and how not believing that the destiny of our lives are written in the stars means. A non-astrologer does not regard James Randi or Carl Sagan as prophets, much as an atheist does not regard Richard Dawkins or David Hume as such. Even if a particular argument that Dawkins uses is bad, it doesn't make the case for God any more convincing. Likewise, even if an argument Dawkins uses is valid it does not mean that all atheists have that as part of their belief in God.

Scientific ignorance
Ignorance is no crime, with the sheer amount of information out there it would be impossible to expect one to know everything. But the problem is confusing that personal ignorance for a wider ignorance on the matter. Science has come on in leaps and bounds, and if you are reading this page then you are at least somewhat aware of the power of the scientific method. You may not personally know how life came about, or how planets and stars form, but that doesn't mean that others share this ignorance. Would you listen to someone who tried to tell you that God was really a giant tyrannosaurus called Frank, and that Christianity was founded when a dinosaur stumbled into a space-time continuum and inadvertently created the big bang? Especially given the links between atheism and methodological naturalism, arguing on scientific grounds will require an understanding of the current scientific knowledge base.

The universe is very intricate and complex, and as a species we are incredibly complex beings. But there is a process by which complex life can emerge called evolution. As such the appearance of design can be fulfilled by natural processes. It's neither accident nor design that when you let go of an object that it falls to the ground, it's simply the gravitational attraction of the earth. The dichotomy between chance and design is a false one, so challenging about how it all came about by accident misrepresents how a scientifically-minded atheist views our origins.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

The Moral Base Of Humanity

It should be well established by now that we live in an increasingly secular society, and the role of the church is being gradually marginalised on a social level. Yet despite the correlation between the decline of the church and the progress of mankind, the notion that religion is still the source of morality in the community is still a majority view. Religion perpetuates its own relevance by perpetuating the idea that it's necessary. Since the natural world is lost to science, it's in the role of society where it preaches it can still play a role. That may be true, though finding other niches for religion to fill does not necessarily mean that it has a place talking from a moral foundation.

A history of inaction
What major religious institution has come to the cause of the progress of mankind in the last few hundred years? In that time I can think of many instances of the advancement of mankind, such as the abolition of slavery, the right to practice religion freely, equal rights for women and minorities, protection of freedom of speech and expression, and now the movement towards giving equal rights to persons of LGBT. Yet looking back through history, it's hard to find any major religious institution that stood up for these rights before secular society has done so.

Now while many of the people who have been part of these movements were religious themselves, just what role has the institution of religion played in progressing the rights of man? To be as charitable as possible to the institutionalised religions it would be fair to say that the progress of man happened irrespective to religious instruction. It would be more accurate to say that in a lot of these cases, progress has happened in spite of religion. The suppression by religion in the dawn of the age of enlightenment was abhorred by modern standards, yet this is still the system being largely advocated by fundamentalists. These institutions are being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

If anyone can give me an example of where the rights of mankind have been called on by a religious leader before there was a secular movement, please do. Because all I can find when I look back through history is that the major markers of social change happened in spite of religious preference. The avocation of slavery was most ardently argued through religious instruction, the rights of women are still being contested by religious fanatics today. The right to free speech is in constant battle with religions calling for a sedition on blasphemy, and the most strident opponents of equal rights for LGBT come from the bible thumpers.

Looking at history, it seems that religions act not in the best interest for humanity, but for their own preservation. This trait is hardly surprising, and from a memetic perspective it's understandable why such a survival strategy would come about. The irony of the situations is that many of these religions were born out of a radical overhaul of the then conservative establishment. Christianity especially has this foundation, Jesus was centuries ahead of his time in terms of advancing the moral zeitgeist of society. Yet the Catholic Church should draw particular ire for the way it supported fascism in the early 20th century, or how it systemically covered up sexual abuse of children by priests, and even the anti-condoms stance in AIDS-ridden Africa.

A basis for behaviour
The idea of free will needs to be discarded, it's inadequate to describe how humans behave, and as such the notion that beliefs can dictate behaviour absolutely is absurd. It fails to recognise the process which have shaped our behaviour, and the internal processes that govern our behaviour. To go without food is not mind over matter, the body needs an energy source in order to survive so the feeling of hunger is programmed into us. Likewise the survival of our species depends on reproduction, so automatic functions exist within our body that lead to the desire for sexual interaction. One may call it original sin, but in reality these drives are reflective of our ancestry and of our mammalian status.

To say "without God, people will behave like animals" is specious reasoning, because we are animals! By definition, everything we do is animal behaviour so we can't not behave like animals with or without God. The more that has been learnt about social behaviours in other species, the more apparent it is that almost all of our behavioural patterns are simply extensions of behaviour exhibited by other species. Any moral doctrine serves at best as a modifier on already existing behaviours, the extent to which is dependant on the individual and the society they reside in.

The prospect of genetic determinism is a frightening one, and it's largely incompatible in regard to how we view moral choices. But the science points to there being at least some genetic trappings that individuals cannot get out of, so it would be naive to ignore that the phenomenon exists and is one factor in determining behaviour. It would be a dangerous endeavour to shy away from that notion and still work towards the dogmatic absolute of behaviour. There are certain standards that society holds itself to, an implicit and explicit set of rules by which those within a society have to hold themselves accountable. Because quite simply, everyone within a society is accountable to themselves and to others. Otherwise there would be no society, just individuals.

The interdependent nature of humanity has been that way for presumably hundreds of thousands of years, we are historically a tribal species who live and operate as a group. As such there needs to be means in which individuals can operate with one another, and thus the social construct of morality is born. One of the great insights into human behaviour of the 20th century was mathematically linking behaviour to game theory. Like Darwin did 150 years ago with the case for evolution, game theory over repeated interactions shows that what we consider moral behaviour is not only possible but inevitable.

It's not to completely discount the role that higher thinking plays, but it would be quite a leap to suggest that we are smarter than the process that bore us. After all, evolution has had hundreds of millions of years shaping the minds and bodies of our species and we've had but a few thousand years of trying to make sense of it all - and for the most part that endeavour suffers the same fate as the Ptolemaic universe in that it has traditionally been based on a bad assumption. The assumption of gods behind our behaviour is another failed hypothesis that now survives beyond it's usefulness. There may have been a time when it was necessary, but we are in a post-religious reality where our understanding is shaped not by the appeal to the supernatural, but by looking at the world around us.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Book Review: Bad Science

Going from one book looking at the importance of science to this, the contrast of styles is startling. While Sagan tried his best to empathise and emotionally guide the reader towards science, Ben Goldacre's effort was an unrelenting attack on the way science is misrepresented and misused by the mainstream media. The book is Media Scepticism 101, and as such is a valuable read for anyone who wants to learn how to interpret the heavily filtered information we receive through media.

It's in it's privilege of the source of information that makes it so important for the media to be as accurate and as informative as possible. The problem for any media outlet is the ability to sell it's story, even the non-profit enterprises are competing for attention. Goldacre lays the blame for the miscommunication and controversy in the media at the hands of the journalists and editors themselves - humanities students who not only don't understand science but have a disdain for the endeavour. While this may be true, it's merely incidental to the real problem at hand - getting the layman to understand about how to investigate any claim of knowledge regarding science.

Being a British book, there is a strong focus on a couple of British media personalities. As it gets into personal details about these people, the stories serve as little more than parables to the non-British reader. It matters not what qualifications a nutritionist may or may not have, but it does matter in the way they present the message - and the media uses these people as an authority where there is no foundation for which to do so.

Where the book's strength lies is in its highlighting of the processes involved. The explanation of the placebo effect was sublime, exposing homoeopathy was thorough, and the way Goldacre explained the trappings and limitations of medical studies was highly impressive. The great thing was that even in all this, it gave the reader experiments to conduct on their own - from squirting water on detox pads to making moisturiser. By doing this, it wasn't simply a regurgitation of processes but a way to empower the reader to become more active in the process. After all, what's more important than one's own health?

The dismantling of the New Age claims about conspiracy theories and systematic subversive behaviour by health professionals was most impressive. Every conceivable argument was dismantled, and was even shown to be for the most part hypocritical (like a nutritionist claiming that big pharmacy is just in it for the money while using his platform to sell vitamin supplements.) The sympathy Ben Goldacre displayed for the layman couldn't be more apparent. At all times he focused on evidence-based medicines and means to achieve the best possible health outcomes for the public, and was very sympathetic to the concerns that generally are responsible for the negativity towards western medicine.

The book is blunt but entertaining, informative and yet a delightful read. The real beneficiaries from reading such a book would be the journalists and editors who make the news, but in absence of that trying to educate the public on the matters is the next best thing. In this, the more people who pick up a copy of this book and read it, the better off society will be. In a time when intellectual dishonesty is pushed by a sensationalist platform and an ignorant yet credulous public, having voices like Ben Goldacre speaking out is more important than ever before. When selective bias is being exacerbated by user-driven demand (the Internet) having the tools to combat misinformation can only be a good thing.

Next book: Christopher Hitchens - God Is Not Great

For Morality-Creationists

It seems that while a lot of people may have abandoned the silly notion that life was created "as is" a few thousands years ago, yet the equally silly notion that morality was installed in us in much the same manner still persists. If life evolved, it should follow that behavioural traits that permeate throughout the animal kingdom evolved too. Humans are moral creatures, that much is certain. So if what these morality-creationists are saying then humans have been endowed with something unique in the animal kingdom.

It could very well be that any individual species could come up with a unique and novel trait that no other shares, but that in itself would not be proof of divine. But I'll grant this concession for the sake of argument and say that if morality is a novel trait amongst humans it will give weight to the claims of morality being god-given. So with that I present a challenge for all men (or women) of faith to demonstrate this notion:
Find a bear who has recently given birth to cubs. Then proceed to attack the cubs in front of its parent.

Unlike us, bears have no higher moral base. They have no ability to rationalise whether something is right or wrong, yet I would be willing to bet that a bear mother would protect it's cubs to the death if need be. Living in Australia, I see a very similar behaviour from some of the birds - and every spring this means that I have to be wary of magpies swooping me in order to keep it's nest safe.

Neither a bear or a magpie has to rationalise this behaviour, it's wired in their brain and in their genetic code in order to behave this way. Just as with the male emperor penguin that will in winter spend months standing still in order to keep the egg warm, then trek for 40 kilometers to get food to feed to it's offspring. The protection of the young is hard-wired into animals because as we understand life is that it's an immortal journey of the genes contained within. Life is geared towards survival, so our mortal coil is prolonged by investment in future generations.

From that, it should follow that protection of the young is hard-wired in us too. That we don't need a higher power to tell us to protect our children, but that 3.7 billion years of evolution has meant that survival strategies that give help to the future of our species, and especially the future of our genes, will form the basis of any desire to protect children. I would argue that in the absence of any particular doctrine of behavioural conduct, we should still see parents protecting their children because quite simply we are wired to do that. The survival of our species depends on that very notion, and humanity survived for just that reason over the course of the hundreds of thousands of years before the invention of religion to mandate behaviour.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Society's Hangover

It's not long now until Easter weekend will be upon this, and this means for me as a member of the workforce is a paid day of rest. For some the day still holds some certain religious sentiment, but by and large our culture has shifted away from such matters. Recently walking through the fish section of a supermarket I came to a sign saying "get ready for Lent" which let me to rhetorically ask if anyone actually follows lent anymore? Like eating fish on Fridays or obeying the sabbath the practice has fallen by the wayside among the masses. Traditions and rituals change as the society they reside in change.

This brings me to the point of this rant, it seems that Tabcorp have caught on that society has changed and want to operate their service on what used to be considered a holy day. The argument is that we are a secular society and as individuals we should be free to do what we want. Of course this has outraged anti-gambling and religious groups who insist that the day should not be perverted as such. And thus the problem of adapting a secularist society from a religious foundation becomes apparent.

Like Christianity being an awkward revision of tribal polytheism to universal monotheism, a secular society on a Christian foundation is inevitably going to run into problems of this nature. By virtue of declaring these days as public holidays, the government makes these holidays secular. But on the flip side, by having these events as holidays it allows religious influence on how the day is celebrated. Personally I couldn't care less about the ability to gamble, I don't do it any other day of the year so having that service isn't going to enrich my life in any way. But it's the principle of the matter I agree with.

It's not a major disgrace to have the occasional day where activities are outlawed, it's not a great inconvenience that it happens that way. But ultimately it's still pushing for one religion's standard on all other members of a society regardless of their own personal choices, and in a secular society doing this goes against the very principles that govern said society. Those who are arguing against keeping these laws in place are recognising the reality of the situation. It goes beyond the battle between religion and secularism - it's to the point of impracticality given the changing societal standards.

Standards change over time, society will shift as the population within shifts. New technologies, new fads, importing culture from other areas; all these contribute to the changing standards in our society. On most matters society sorts itself out, but the legal boundary in this case is preventing society from taking that leap on it's own. Rather, now it's up to the politicians to take the initiative to rid this society of it's post-Christian hangover and move towards a more secular state. It's not a matter of marginalising Christianity, rather recognising that Christian behavioural dictum should not impose on the freedoms of others. Just as I hope they would not deny the right to eat a steak on Fridays, or drink alcohol during Ramadan.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Satan - God's patsy

Having never been a Christian, there are certain aspects to the story of God I find quite confusing. It's a monotheistic religion, so it has one deity that has control over all reality. So what role does Satan ultimately play in the battle for our eternal souls? As far as I can tell Satan is nothing more than God's fall-guy for reasons I'll specify below.

The origin of evil
God made the universe and everything in it. Therefore if there is evil in the world, then God would have to be the creator of evil. Otherwise, evil needs to come from a source external to God, and that would either suggest polytheism or that God is not omnipotent. So to accept that God is the creator of everything is to accept that God is the creator of evil. If God created evil, that would mean that God is evil too. The options seem to be that either God knew evil but is not evil, in which case there needs to be another external source for evil - again destroying monotheism, or that God embodies evil for evil to exist. Thus God is both pure good and pure evil.

The absence of God?
One argument could be that evil is simply the absence of God, but then what we call evil would be acts that God is incapable of committing. So when God kills the first-born of everyone in Egypt or drowns all of humanity, or demands a blood sacrifice - these are normally things that we consider evil acts. The absence of God is very different to what we attribute to be evil. Thus if evil exists in the world God is all evil and all good at the same time.

It goes further in that God is attributed that God is omnipresent, so by the very construction of the concept God cannot be absent by definition. In you, in me, in the singularity of a black hole - God is there. Metaphysically God has to be everywhere, so the best the absence of God could imply is that God is absent from one's heart - as in the case of atheism. Thus evil is simply not believing. This solves the problem above that what we consider evil is perpetrated by God and having a coherent definition. This would also make salvation via faith make sense, along with eternal punishment. But by this we would have to conclude that the Nazi guards were not evil but the ones they gassed were.

The fall of man
It's attributed that evil entering the world is the fault of mankind eating from the tree of knowledge. As before, that God made everything in the universe it follows that God made the tree of knowledge. So God's omniscience should have concluded that if he put the tree of knowledge there, then man would eventually eat from the tree and thus bring evil into the world. And even more so, man had no knowledge of right and wrong - they got that knowledge from eating from the tree. So either man didn't have the knowledge to exercise free will properly and thus have no blame from the event, or that God made mankind to eat from the tree. God is punishing all mankind for an event that man had no ability to exercise appropriate judgement.

The need for redemption
God is all powerful so God could in any way lift the curse of original sin if he so chooses. So instead of just lifting the curse for that random event by which those involved didn't know the consequences, he instead decided to come down to earth in human form in order to martyr himself to take away the sin. An omnipotent being could have just blinked and made original sin go away, but instead had to prove a point through sacrifice. Well it wasn't really a sacrifice, if that was God in human form, all God did was remove himself from an earthly body and the few days of that wild S&M that went a bit too far was nothing compared to all eternity. The sacrifice was a non-sacrifice in the scope of God's existence. Now it could be argued that God came down to earth just to feel mankind's pain, but this would imply that God is not omniscient.

The role of Satan
It must be recognised that Satan is not the equivalent of God. Satan is not omnipotent or omniscient. God in effect could get rid of Satan or diminish Satan's influence with the raising of an eyebrow. Instead he does not, which brings us back to the question of free will. If we have free will to either choose between God or not-God, then God surely would prevent Satan from acting in that decision. Rather having Satan's influence on any individual is a sign that God is neither omnipotent, omniscient, or that we truly have free will. The devil is nothing compared to God, yet it's built up as if they are equal partners in fighting for our souls. And again, as I raised above ultimately it's God who decides the fate of our eternal souls. If our free will has been incapacitated by the influence of Satan, then God could take that into account when determining the fate of our eternal souls. Satan is nothing more than the tool of God, and ultimately useless in the battle for our own salvation.

Faith In Science

Spend any time discussing metaphysics with a believer and eventually there will be a comment about having a "faith in science." It may seem like an absurd throw-away statement (especially for those who see faith as a virtue) but there may be a nugget of truth behind it. At a superficial level, there may be some validity to such a claim. No one person knows everything there is about reality as science reveals it, specialists in one field may have little more than a superficial knowledge of another. The sheer diversity of science means that no single person can know everything. So it seems like there's a strong argument for such a statement, right?

Science, it works!
Sitting in front of me now is a machine that can perform more calculations a second than the entire human race combined - and does so with startling accuracy. Hour after hour, day after day, month after month; a computer is the triumph of the scientific method. It's an incredibly complex device that is only made possible through rigorous scrutiny of the laws of nature. The precise nature of such a device speak wonders for the theoretical foundation on which it's based.

Coming back from my European adventure I flew halfway around the globe in under 24 hours, a plane flying higher than the tallest mountain was able to carry hundreds of people at 900km/h. Again, powered flight is an achievement of the scientific method with the principles of flight derived from observation and testing. Any modern transport for that matter has the same scientific underpinnings. Most of our modern-day conveniences are triumphs of the scientific method. Electricity in our houses, the ability to modify the room temperature, to cook and store away food, to have hot running water, talk to people around the world; it's an endless list of modern conveniences that are all a testament to the power of the scientific method.

To dismiss science while indulging in all modern conveniences is to be a hypocrite, yet there are many willing to commit this grave act of hypocrisy while basking in it's rewards. The victory of science is that while many are dedicated to unscientific nonsense and actively argue against the cold materialism that the scientific outlook has provided, those people at the end of their day will go home to an air-conditioned house where they cook store-bought food with electric appliances and sit down in front of the television. Science has won the battle of ideas.

Tentative knowledge
Scientific knowledge is not absolutely certain, and any glance at the history of knowledge will demonstrate this notion. To use evolution as an example, what Darwin proposed first in 1859 has undergone serious revision. By gathering more evidence and by studying the natural world, scientists are able to research the mechanisms by which evolution works. As such, modern evolutionary theory is not the word of Darwin but modified to more accurately match the theory to current evidence and give it a greater predictive power.

In this respect, science is a tentative endeavour. Any confirming evidence prolongs the life of a hypothesis / theory, and any evidence that contradicts hypothesis means that the theory has to be modified to accommodate the new evidence; or even in some circumstances a hypothesis / theory is discarded completely. For this reason, despite all the confirming evidence for any particular model no model in science is regarded as certain. To fully understand this notion it is best to look back in time and see how knowledge derived from observation has led to a shifting insight.

It was only 500 years ago when the earth was the centre of the universe; the sun, moon the 5 planets and a backdrop of stars all revolved around what was only recently changed from flat to spherical. Copernicus proposed that the earth orbited the sun, and Galileo confirmed it - which in doing so led to a crime of heresy from the catholic church. Then over the next few hundred years, the discovery of other galaxies showed that the sun was not the centre of the universe, and now it stands that there is no centre of the universe. Over the course of only 500 years, Euclidean space-time of a geocentric universe has been replaced with a finite relativistic reality with the sun but an ordinary star - and the inadequacies of this view of reality is leading to further revision.

It's there where scientific knowledge is distinct from faith. Science changes over time, as more evidence comes to light and as great thinkers come up with new ways of interpreting it. Defending evolution is not defending the exact mechanisms of which evolution currently stands, rather it's defending the process by which those principles have arrived. Scientific knowledge is tentative and that is a good thing. This is what separates a scientific worldview from a faith-based one. The scientific method is based on evidence and defended with great zeal, but it's open to the notion that ideas can be wrong and gives several means to demonstrate that. Someone who doesn't understand the uncertainty and tentative nature of scientific knowledge will never be able to understand this distinction.

The bottom line
Ultimately one cannot know everything, and in science there's a certain level of trust in those who have done the experiments to verify hypothesises. But this is entirely different to what the religious call faith for the above reason. Science is testable, falsifiable, and ultimately an ever-evolving accumulation of knowledge. As a consumer of science, I believe in the results because I'm aware of the power and scope of the process. Turning on my computer is not an act of faith, just as believing that the science behind the process works. For the most part the endeavour of science is self-evident - even if the conclusions are very counter-intuitive. One doesn't have to understand how a computer works to use it, but it's downright dangerous for society not to recognise that it's the scientific method that is responsible for such a device.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Separating History From Legend

While many modern theologians shy away from using the bible as an authority for the existence of God, there still exists a strong number of theists out there who are willing to argue from the authority of the bible. Often the creationists will use that it's God's word in order to trump all discoveries by man, though that's not what I want to focus on today. Instead it's those who use the bible to assert that Jesus is God-incarnate. So much effort and apologetics is put into trying to show that the gospel accounts of Jesus are valid evidence.

The power of testimony
As astounding as it may seem, an inescapable part of the human condition is the transfer of information through anecdotes. It seems an affront to logic and reason but it's this very notion that allows for infomercials to be so successful. Withstanding proper scrutiny is not needed in order for the transmission of eyewitness testimonials, nor does it stop people from passing on information the same way. Whatever the cause of this trust and scepticism filtered through another's eyes, the effect is well seen. Humans are social creatures, and passing on information is vital to our survival.

So where does this go wrong? Alternative medicine is an obvious example, despite the inability of alternative medicine to show any progress in double blind studies it's still a multi-billion dollar industry. UFO abduction encounters are another, otherwise perfectly rational people are convinced they have been abducted. Those who talk to gods, almost without fail it's the a god they've been brought up to believe in. Communicating with the dead, psychic powers, horoscopes, claims of bigfoot, conspiracy theories, modern-day cults; the list could go on all day. All these concepts exist with almost no empirical evidence to support any of them, yet all those are passed on anecdote and a good amount of those are widely accepted as real phenomena by the general population.

In the middle ages, people were convinced of witchcraft. Small communities were rife with accusations and a fervor swept across much of Europe which left many were killed for being witches. In modern day Africa, this still happens. Yet would we take the eyewitness testimony of the Salem trials as being a confirmation of the truth that there is witchcraft? I would sincerely hope not, and hope the lesson taken is the dangers of accepting anecdotal information on face value.

The gospels traditionally have been regarded as accurate historical accounts of the life and divinity of Jesus. Yet the gospels are that same anecdotal storytelling that has been shown to have limitations. I've seen many try to push the gospels back to as close to Jesus as is possible, that they were written by the apostles who witnessed such events. We now know through investigation that it's not the case, that the gospels were written decades later by people who had never seen or met Jesus. But even if they were eyewitness accounts, as evidence it's still nothing more than anecdotal storytelling. Given the extraordinary nature of the claims, accepting that the miracles happened is putting credence into the storytelling.

History revised
Preceding the claim that the eyewitness testimonies of the Gospels are strong enough evidence for Jesus' divinity comes the notion of making sure there even is a historical Jesus in the first place. One simply cannot appeal to the gospels in order to establish that the gospels are correct that there is a Jesus, it's a circular position and thus outside sources that verify that there was a Jesus are needed in order to give at least some credibility to the notion. And there are some early historians who did mention that there was a Jesus. So there's at least some historical backing.

It's important to keep remembering that in any historical context that it's now advocated that Jesus was God-incarnate; that God came down to earth in human form only to be martyred and thus redeeming original sin. It seems absurd that the best evidence for God walking on earth is in the form of 2nd-hand eyewitness accounts and secular historians mentioning it in passing. Of course Jesus was not the only proclaimed messiah of the age, like today we see people claiming to be the second coming of Christ, back then messianic cults were common. And many of these cults had followers who claimed their messiah performed many of the ascribed miracles that are also part of the Jesus story.

There are supposed artifacts, most associated with the flagellation and subsequent murder. One hilarious artifact is the alleged foreskin of Christ. Yet there's not one, but several! Multiple chalices from the last supper, fragments of the cross, parts of the crown of thorns, the nails pierced through him, etc. Several of these items would be expected to have human DNA left on them, so firstly they could be verified against each other to show authenticity of stemming from the same source. Secondly they could be tested to show whether there's both male and female ancestry in them. Though this is somewhat of an absurd request, just a suggestion on how one can go about scientifically demonstrating Christ's existence and divinity.

There is selective bias when looking at history, finding relevant names and places then using those positive hits to confirm its validity while ignoring all the misses. For instance, in the case of Jesus asserting that it must have been true because Herod and Pilate were real historical characters. But there's no account of the slaughter of the innocent even by Herod's prominent critics, and the gospel of Luke puts the birth of Jesus 10 years after Herod died. Yet beyond these superficial glances at history, the biblical accounts cannot be verified or falsified as there is a distinct absence of evidence. In the case of God walking on earth, one would ponder why there wasn't a bigger deal made. Why important locations and artifacts haven't been passed down through the ages, or why many of the elements of the Jesus story bear striking similarities to other pagan deities.

The legend
The purpose of this was not to dismiss a historical figure at the start of Christianity, rather to demonstrate how appealing to the bible as evidence of Jesus' divinity is flawed. Eyewitness accounts and a couple of names in history should not be enough to convince any reasonable person of what is nothing short of extraordinary, that even if there were strong evidence that Jesus existed it would not demonstrate anything more than that Jesus existed. His divinity is another matter entirely and cannot be drawn from any text.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Dunning-Kruger effect

I was checking through my comments recently, and came across this comment. I found it quite hilarious, it's always hilarious that sceptics / atheists are accused of not being open minded enough by people who believe on at best tenuous evidence. But that's his choice, if he wants to believe in God he's more than welcome to do so. If he just left it at a personal insult and with smug condescension told me that he was praying for me, then so what? But the fun never stops there with creationists. They just go and have to demonstrate their own ignorance, combining their own personal incredulity with a complete misunderstanding of how the science works. So without further adieu, here's why Olly should pick up a book on science before speaking on the matter:
Me, a man who does not go to church, who didn't believe in God but had faith in the laughable theory of evolution, am assured that you are a blinded man with NO SCIENTIFIC evidence of anything other than a Master Designed Earth, Sun, and Moon Stars etc.
Thanks to having tools that enable us to scour the galaxy, we can extract information about the origins of those great balls of fire. How do stars form? Out of a gravitational collapse of molecular clouds. We can see how materials clump together in nature, either in spherical lumps or in discs. We've witnessed the birthing of new stars at various stages and seen the deaths of stars. There's still some mystery as to how it works (as with all information) but there's nothing yet to show that a designer was involved.

Any child can see that we have Man & Monkeys but nothing in between.
The divergence of life, isn't it wonderful? Humans and old-world monkeys last shared a common ancestor around 25 million years ago, with new-world monkeys it's about 40. As for nothing in between? There are the primates Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Orangutans, and Gibbons all are more closely related to us than any monkey, genetically and anatomically.

As for our evolution, from the fossil record we can see divergences where one lineage eventuated in humans and another in chimpanzees. We've found many hominina skulls showing a clear pattern of evolution. We've found so many skulls that we've found lines of evolution that no longer exist. Homo erectus is not an ancestor and neither is neanderthal. Yet we've found skulls that could very well show human ancestry.

And to think, that is only one line of many lines of evidence that we use to know that we have evolved.

The serious & genuine scientists are now re-assessing their long held beliefs of random & chance mutations in favour of an incredible design
The serious and genuine scientists are doing nothing of the sort. The only scientists who are doing so aren't arguing for intelligent design in the scientific arena, they are appealing to an ignorant public for support. And it's working, people now think that Intelligent Design is a science. Even when it hasn't had any empirical verification and the arguments brought forward to support Intelligent Design (irreducible complexity, specified complexity) have long since been refuted by scientists. In the case of irreducible complexity, such systems were explained back in 1918 and are a prediction of evolutionary theory.

As for random and chance mutations being the only alternative? I'm afraid mutationism never really took hold. Chance mutations do play a part in evolution, but it's not the driving factor. Natural selection is a non-random process, and allows for the accumulation of successful or neutral mutations which over a period of time spread through a population and facilitate change. Evolution is an unguided yet non-random process. If you need an example, pull out 5 dice. Roll them and see if you can get all sixes. The odds are 1 in 7776 of rolling all 5 in one go. You'll eventually get it by chance, but it will take a long time. Instead, if any die should happen to roll a six, do not roll it again. You'll see that it won't take you many rolls to have 5 dice all displaying six.

We see a digital camera & know it is a product of a designer, yet when we look at a human eye (many times more intricate & far superior design) Some foolish people believe the trail of fools that tell them it all happened by accident.
Again, by accident? Evolution is a non-random process and it's been shown through experiment after experiment that through natural selection an eye comparable to our own can evolve in a very short space of time (on an evolutionary scale.) We can also look at nature and see different creatures with the different stages of said development.

As for the human eye being a far superior design to a digital camera, if someone tried to sell me a digital camera. There's a blind spot stemming from the optic nerve, it would be terrible to see any camera that is missing a piece of the picture. The light-sensitive rods are behind many layers - something that is common among all vertebrates. By contrast cephalopods do not have this problem, and the problems of our eye are not shared by the octopus - a cephalopod with an eye of similar functionality and quality to our own. The eye beyond all else is an example of evolution in action; or a really terrible designer that could be bested by 1st year engineering students.

ALL scientists agree that only life can beget life & then many totally contradict themselves when they say the earth magically appeared from a BIG BANG..
Current life can only beget life, spontaneous generation of life is impossible. But if you rewind the clock far back enough to around 4 billion years ago, then there's a point where life needs a start. Instead of having fully-formed animals springing forth, instead we hit a primitive cell. And while we don't know exactly how cells first formed, there are some promising leads through certain interactions that make the "stuff of life"

As for the earth magically appearing from the big bang? That sounds awfully biblical. That the earth magically formed in the beginning, only with the word "God" thrown in there. Where scientists stand on the issue is that the big bang was the beginning of the universe and over time the fundamental forces of interaction formed stars and galaxies, that stars died and some shot heavy atoms all throughout space. And the process of star formation began again, this time with the heavier elements that were needed for planets. It was the attraction of gravity thanks to the giant thermonuclear reactor sitting 150 million kilometres away from us and the interactive forces of nature that built the earth - nothing magical about it.

A child will tell you that no matter how many explosions you have, you will end up with a mess & chaos. You are never going to get any order, let alone an amazing world that is full of design where ever we look.
The big bang is not an explosion, rather it's an expansion of space time out of a singularity. What accounts for order in the universe? The fundamental forces of nature. It's not simply chaos, on a macroscopic level the universe behaves according to a set of forces. The arguments from design are in this sense tautological. "We exist, therefore God exists."

In the interests of making a falsifiable argument, I would ask anyone using the argument from design to describe just how one can detect for an absence of design; and from there make a distinction between a universe governed by naturalistic forces and one that requires an intelligence in order to function. Just what exactly is God needed to do if through the fundamental forces of nature one can account for the current state of the universe? Likewise, what parts of the universe cannot be accounted for between the fundamental forces that would require a conscious designer? Without answering such questions, appealing to design is arguing from ignorance in the most tautological sense possible.

It is FAR better science to believe in the truth than in your EXTREME FAITH in CHANCE.
Faith in chance? The only chance I believe in is the probability that is systematic in quantum mechanics - which has been empirically demonstrated time and time again. Beyond that it's cause and effect all the way, again empirically demonstrated. As for the dichotomy between accident and design...

If there is no God then a loving decent Christian (one who follows Jesus kind & gentle example) has everything to gain & nothing to loose. But an atheist or non-believer has nothing to gain & EVERYTHING TO LOOSE. Think about it.
*sigh* Pascal's Wager again. So many ways to refute it. Pascal assumes too much, that it's simply a choice between God and nothing (it isn't), that there's such thing as an infinite reward (there isn't), and that reward will come through belief. It's hard to imagine that anyone who believes is a loving god could also in the same breath talk about eternal torture for anyone who doesn't believe in Jesus as their saviour. By this logic a mass-murdering Christian would get heaven and their godless victim would get hell no matter what kind of life. This doesn't fit in with the message of justice so often spouted by theists, Pascal's wager and subsequent use of it is pushing conformity through fear.

Even a child will make the right choice if he is LOVED enough to have been given the right of truth & not brainwashed into believing Darwin's mid 1800's incorrect theory that is now taught as fact.
Ironic that a religious person is talking about brainwashing of children, but that's besides the point. It's not Darwin's nineteenth century theory that is taught in schools today - science progresses with as new information comes to light. Darwin's insight was natural selection and the tree of life, yet modern evolutionary theory is centred around genetic inheritance and variation. Natural selection plays a role, but so do many other features. What is taught today is known as modern evolutionary theory, it's not brainwashing Darwin's ideas rather it's telling students where the science is at today.

Science is not brainwashing. There's no threat of hell or promise of heaven associated with it - unlike Christianity. There's no indoctrination into evolution rather it's merely taught in the science classroom - unlike the biblical account of creation. There are no rituals in place and no prayers that reinforce the theory - unlike adherence to religion. And children are not properly exposed to the theory until their later years, again unlike religion. Science is taught where the evidence lies and our best way to interpret such evidence. And if there was brainwashing involved, it seems we've done a bad job. Because most people don't know the first thing about how evolution works and how nature works as a whole. Whoever taught you science failed, please actually read up on the basics before you try and lecture someone else on it. Because unlike you, not everyone is completely oblivious to the role of nature.