Thursday, 29 January 2009
Wednesday, 28 January 2009
A murder scene
Imagine you are a detective for a local law-enforcement agency and you are called out to investigate a murder. The evidence is as follows: the watch of the victim is broken and stopped at 10:15pm. The temperature of the victim's body indicates the victim died between 10pm and 10:30pm. An argument was heard by the neighbours at 10:10pm, and local CCTV cameras picked up a figure leaving the victim's apartment at 10:20pm. All these factors point to the murder taking place at approximately 10:15pm right?
Now there are certain ways all evidence here could be falsified. The watch could have been running fast or broken at an earlier time. The forensic analyst could have made a mistake calculating the time of death. The argument the neighbours heard might not have been between the murderer and the victim, and they could have also had the time wrong on their clock. And while the CCTV may have been accurate, it's not proof that the murder took place at that time - it only puts movement out of the apartment around the time of the supposed murder.
Now if in court, all these facts were established to be true, could a defence lawyer argue that because at one point in time that a different watch was shown to be inaccurate (my watch is currently 2 minutes fast) that no watch is permissible? What about because a forensic analyst has botched the time of death before that any forensic analyst cannot be trusted? That because eyewitness testimony can be shown to be wrong that the neighbours aren't reliable? And because of all that, the CCTV footage showing the murderer leaving the apartment at 10:20pm cannot be placed to the time of murder?
Creationists not only play this game, but play it on an absurd level. Instead of being off by a few minutes, they are arguing that the data is wrong by a factor of almost a million. The time frame in question is a factor of 30 minutes, the creationist equivalent would put the murder in the dark ages, not long after the rise of Islam. They just aren't banking on scientists being wrong, they are banking on the scale of the error to be gargantuan.
When scientists have dated the oldest rocks and minerals found on earth and on the moon, a variety of radiometric techniques are used - all pointing to around the same time. A lunar rock for example taken on the Apollo 11 3.49 and 3.58 billion years ago. Different techniques rely on different decay rates, so for different tests to show almost identical results is testament to the power of the test. We can't verify that the rock is 3.5 billion years old through direct observation, but when multiple sources all show the same date then the confidence in the age of the rock is secured. To take one example of where dating hasn't worked (there are a few out there) and dismiss all tests on that manner is creating unreasonable doubt where there shouldn't be.
Back in court and the defence lawyer is on the attack against the prosecuting lawyer. In another case years back, the prosecuting lawyer once showed evidence that turned out to be fraudulent. From there, the defence lawyer argues that the prosecuting lawyer (even though he was unaware that the evidence was fraudulent) should never be trusted again and that any evidence presented has that same doubt over it. And she goes further too, arguing that the detective involved in the crime is distantly related to the person who initially presented the fraudulent evidence and can't be trusted either.
Fraud exists in any discipline, whether it be science, politics, finance, or even religion. It's a symptom of the frailty that is humanity, that at times certain people lie for some nefarious (or even noble) purpose. There have been cases of fraud in the history of biology, Piltdown man and Haeckel's embryo diagrams come to mind. There was also the recent case of Schön's nanotechnology and the Korean scientists who cloned a dog. Fraud does happen and it means that scientists need to be ever vigilant for deliberate acts of subversion.
What creationists do is use these and other examples (sometimes where there's no fraud at all) to cast doubt on the entire scientific enterprise. Again, it's the creation of unreasonable doubt where it need not exist. Because Piltdown man was a fraud, it does not follow that all hominan fossils are frauds. Likewise because Haekel's embryo drawings where faked, that since then scientists haven't updated their knowledge and still basing evo-devo on false assumptions. The sheer amount of evidence that all correlates again is staggering, the dismissal of all evidence based on a couple of bad examples is like arguing that because a lawyer has been shown to lie that no lawyers can be trusted, or that because of one bank ripping off customers that no bank can be trusted.
Again, no-one was there to witness the fossilisation of our would-be ancestors. But the fossils that have been found fit a pattern consistent with morphological change, that fit in with geographic predictions, that also fit in with genetic evidence. All these factors tell a consistent story much like the story of the murder above. Occasionally some things are slightly out of place, but that's not enough to dismiss all the evidence that does fit. Human knowledge is a cumulative endeavour, individually each piece may be fallible, but when hundreds then thousands of pieces all fit together then a pattern can be established and takes more than arguing against one piece in order to dismiss the pattern.
I wonder how a creationist would feel if every instance of fraud was used to dismiss their religion. How about the death warrant of Jesus, or the modified writings of Josephus. Then there's the Shroud of Turin, and the bleeding statues in churches all around the world. There's claimed miracles that simply weren't, person after person claiming to have spoke to God personally (including Pat Robertson year after year), all this and more has been either accidental or deliberate fraud done under the guise of Christianity. To take these instances of fraud as a demonstration that God isn't there would surely irk a creationist. The truth of Catholicism for example does not rest on whether the Shroud of Turin was created in the 14th century.
It's important to recognise that humans are fallible and are at times not above proving their beliefs by any means necessary, it's important to recognise that fraud happens. Because fraud happens, it means that we need to be ever-vigilant of such trickery. But it does not mean that anything even loosely associated with an instance of fraud or doubt must be cast with that same unreasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt is good, unreasonable doubt is just dismissal without consideration. To do the latter is a dangerous intellectual exercise for anyone who wants to be honest.
Monday, 26 January 2009
IT was a day to celebrate all things Australian but it quickly descended into an afternoon of violence and racism echoing the ugly stain of the 2005 Cronulla riots in NSW.
Once the embodiment of all things good about the country, Australia Day today became a scene of brawls and vandalism across NSW - with anger spreading from Shellharbour in the south to Port Macquarie in the north, The Daily Telegraph reported.
In Manly hundreds of youths draped in "Aussie pride" livery wore slogans declaring "f--k off we're full" as they smashed car windows and ran up the famous Corso targeting non-white shop keepers.
A 18-year-old Asian female in one of the cars was showered with shattered glass, giving her numerous cuts to her arms. She was treated on the scene by ambulance officers.
A taxi driven by a Sikh Indian was also targeted while an Asian shopkeeper was reportedly assaulted.
Groups of men jumped up on cars chanting race hate to the terrified passengers within, and were heard singing "tits out for the boys" at passing girls and yelled "lets go f--k with these Lebs".
What started as chants of "Aussie Aussie Aussie" at 1pm (AEDT) had in an hour had developed the potential to resemble Cronulla Beach in 2005.
By 3.30pm (AEDT) Manly Police called in the public order and riot squad and PolAir in an attempt to control the crowd, made up of a core group of troublemakers estimated by police about 80 drunks teenagers from out of town.
By 4.30pm (AEDT) the rain came and the cooled tensions as police began to regain control.
By the end three cars were damaged, one 16-year-old boy was charged with assaulting police, two 16-year-olds were cautioned for offensive behaviour and one cautioned for jumping into the water infront of the ferry.
Manly Superintendent Dave Darcy said group of teens came in from out of town.
"We are significantly ramping up our investigative response and we're determined to hold these people to account for their behaviour," he said.
"We've brought in some police from the areas where these people are from with their local knowledge in identifying these people.
"If they came over to manly seeking anonymity for their behaviour they're sadly mistaken."
Police were called to a report of a 30-person brawl on Shelly Beach Road at Port Macquarie while another 30 people were reportedly fighting on Towns St in Shellharbour.
For those people:
A reason to change
Australia began last century as a Federation of colonies, a means to govern itself through democratic means without splitting entirely from England. As such we are still part of the diminishing Commonwealth that really now is nothing more than a token of history. We don't need to be part of Britain, we are completely autonomous, and even though the queen can exercise executive power here any attempt to do so would in effect sever the ability to exercise those powers. The queen is our queen technically, but limited to coinage and brown-nosing by our current prime minister.
The date for federation would be a far better date for a more united Australia if not for one flaw: it's new years day and already a significant date on our calendar. Other significant dates in our history include: May 27th 1967, the day a referendum was held to make sure aboriginals would not be discriminated against (came into effect on August 10th of the same year.) March 3rd 1986, where British legislative power over Australian states ended. While these events are significant to the state of Australia as it is now, they aren't anywhere near the impact of date needed to make a compelling argument to shift the date.
One possibility for the future is a republic. It's going to be inevitable that Australia becomes completely separate from the Commonwealth and elects it's own head of state. When that is will remain to be seen, but really it's a perfect opportunity to move the focus away from a controversial and colonial date to something that unites the independent and self-deterministic qualities that Australia Day is supposed to represent. My guess is that Australia will remain part of the Commonwealth for as long as the Queen is in power, the change of power to Prince Charles will spur the end of an era and give gravitation to the notion of Australian independence.
Staying the same
The meaning of any idea is never static, symbols and gestures change as a society changes. Australia may have been founded 221 years ago as a British colony to allow for housing prisoners, but that is not what the country is today. Yet it's that date where we celebrate where the country is now, Australia Day today is a celebration of freedom and dignity that is there for all Australians regardless of heritage or ethnicity. Whether one was born here or has migrated, this day now encompasses all people from all walks of life.
I'd argue that to most the date doesn't matter for the historical event that happened on this day in 1788, rather because of what happens on this day every single year in the lifetimes of almost everyone who is alive today. It's been celebrated in every state since 1935 and became a national public holiday in 1946. For most people who live in Australia today, this day has always been the day to celebrate this nation.
There's no doubt in my mind that aboriginals need to be recognised for their part in Australian history, the Eurocentric holidays that litter our calendar don't highlight the Australian persona as they should. I live in Canberra where we at least have one public holiday for the city's identity and another for the sake of a horse race in Melbourne, but really our public holidays are still very much a remnant of our British past. I wonder how many people would care if the June long weekend holiday was changed from being the Queen's birthday to coincide with the Mabo decision (June 3 1992), or shifted a couple of weeks earlier to coincide with the referendum on Aboriginal rights. Would that be enough though to satisfy the criticism of using "invasion day" as the date of the national holiday?
A difficult dilemma
Personally I don't know where I stand on the issue, I have no particular fondness for January 26th 1788 and as I staunch supporter of an Australian Republic, I don't see the need to celebrate Australia Day on January 26th. But on the same token the date for me has always been that way and changing it would be entirely impractical, not to mention there is no significant candidate to replace the day as yet. My gut feeling is that there needs to be more done to recognise the legitimacy of aboriginal history on the great southern land, and to have a day that truly unites Australia we need to become a republic. It's hard to craft a true national identity that encompasses the multicultural nature of the country without first shaking off the shackles of 18th century British colonialism. Until such time, more efforts need to be made to help the reconciliation process; both to recognise the past oppression of the more unfavourable policies and actions committed against Aboriginal and non-white people, and to offer a path of true reconciliation that gives all Australians a reason to be proud.
Time changes symbols and ideas, society has already shifted in it's thought process and will continue to shift in the future. The inevitability of a shift away from what is today will occur just as today is a shift away from the past. Nothing is static, though if there is the capacity to improve through actions the hastening of that process to bring a sense of equality among all, then surely there is reason for a course of action to do so. Sometimes it takes gestures like saying sorry, offering equality and ending discrimination all in a legal sense to allow for true reconciliation to begin. It seems unaustralian not to.
Sunday, 25 January 2009
Last night I went to an ice hockey match and immediately I felt at home. If it weren't for the fact that everyone is speaking Finnish I could have sworn I was at a sporting event in Australia. The vocal fans, the dedicated opposition supporters, the tribal colours, overpriced beer, advertising everywhere, cheerleaders (It must have been cold to be in such short skirts while dancing on the ice), constant advertising, even the chants where almost identical.
If anyone were to ask me what the universal constant of humanity is, sport would be my suggestion. The obvious tribalism at the very core of conflict, yet the spirit of fair play (though it's stretched slightly when one can smash another into the barrier of the rink) embodies what humanity is to me. The need for competition, to show one is better than another, for the chance for fans to live vicariously through the achievements of their team, yet at the end of it to shake hands is paramount to the human condition.
The game itself was quite scrappy for periods of time, the first two periods showed a few moments of brilliance but a rhythm couldn't be established. Plenty of goals though, it was 3-2 to the home team going into the final third. Then the game came alive and it felt more like a spectacle. 4-4 it finished in regulation time, and despite gaining a penalty in overtime, the home team couldn't convert and the game went to penalties. The shootout was miss after miss, but the away team finally got one in and they deservedly won the game. I was on the edge of my seat for the very end, that tense feeling I get watching football (soccer) was the same for this.
Even without knowing all the rules, I could get into the spirit of the game. What was happening was fairly easy to deduce, though occasionally I had to ask what was exactly going on. I didn't understand why the players rotated every couple of minutes or why some of the fouls were called, but that confusion didn't impair the enjoyment in the slightest. Sport is a wonderful expression of human nature.
Saturday, 24 January 2009
I feel really bad as I've been informed that most people can speak English, all it would take for me to do is ask them if they speak my language. It's their country and not mine so I would feel bad in asking, but so far I've been able to get away with nodding and deflecting to my partner. It's lucky they use decimal currency otherwise I'd really be screwed.
Last night I was sitting at my partner's parents place, and there they were walking me through the basics of the language - using children's toys. There letters were laid out on the ground and words were spelt out for me in big letters. To pronounce some of the letters is really different. Y's sound like U's. J's sound like Y's. And the way that combinations of vowels and consonants are put together is unlike anything in English.
Another thing that shocked me was the similarity of completely unrelated words. Take three words: kyllä, kylä and kyylä. Kyllä = yes, kylä = village, kyylä = a person who watches other people (negative). Now these three words sound almost identical to my English-tuned brain, and trying to pronounce the words is almost impossible for me. Language is just something I've never understood, give me mathematics or science any day.
What I've come to appreciate from this experience is the value of communication, and the difficulty that migration in a global context has for some people. I've come across plenty of people in Australia who haven't been able to speak English, and even those who could sometimes had problems with pronunciation or distinguishing between similar words.
So for now I'll persist in trying to learn the language, crudely mispronouncing even the most basic of words like kiitos (thank you), huomenta (morning), and even hyvä (good). Being around people talking in the language is helping me start to differentiate between similar words but it will be a long time until I can use the language in a meaningful way.
Friday, 23 January 2009
The faith of science
Ex-atheist, Lee Strobel said, "Essentially, I realized that to stay an atheist, I would have to believe that nothing produces everything; non-life produces life; randomness produces fine-tuning; chaos produces information; unconsciousness produces consciousness; and non-reason produces reason. Those leaps of faith were simply too big for me to take . . ."It's hard to keep pretending that this is an attack on atheists, it's an attack on science and a misrepresentation of science at that. As I argued yesterday, everything doesn't have to come from nothing, everything could be universal and it's the processes in between that are an alteration of infinity. But as for the other comments...
Non-life to life is a big unanswered question in science, but the absence of an answer doesn't mean that it didn't happen. We've been able to create the building blocks of life through certain processes, and observe building blocks as remnants of other processes. As for randomness produces fine-tuning, it's again a misrepresentation of the process of evolution. Evolution is not random, selection acts on random events meaning that the process is guided by account on what is advantageous.
Where Strobel makes his mistake is making a dichotomy between God and randomness. On this account randomness would seem absurd to account for what we can see in nature. But it's not either God or randomness, there are set processes by which the universe works and those processes can account for all that we see. Evolution can account for fine-tuning, reason and the onset of consciousness in certain animals. Chemical reactions can account for the origin of life, though what those reactions were is yet unknown. The fundamental forces account for patterns and information in what looks a chaotic existence. Scientists aren't saying it's random, far from it. Scientists are saying there are guiding forces to the universe, it's just that the forces aren't a magic sky daddy. Some believe that the Magic Sky Daddy is responsible for those forces to begin with, but that's another story. The point is humans didn't pop into existence out of pure chance, they are a product of billions of years of mutation and selection.
This was possibly the only thing on the site I could agree with Comfort on:
Was the recovery a miracle? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps it wasn’t. Only God knows. The fact is that we have no idea what happened. However, one thing we do know is that answered or unanswered prayer has nothing to do with God’s existence.If the bible was not an account of God, then it doesn't stop God from existing. Likewise if God doesn't heal amputees or lets a faithful die because they chose prayer instead of medical treatment, that doesn't stop God from existing. Where the contention lies is the kinds of evidence for God. The testament of prayer is one that is often used as evidence for God, another is how faith is rewarded. Pointing out that these occurrences are inconsistent is not alone enough to prevent the existence of God.
God’s existence isn’t dependent on the Bible or its authenticity, the existence of the Church, the prophets, or even creation. God existed before the Scriptures were penned, before creation came into existence, and even if the Bible was proved to be fraudulent, God would still exist.Without the bible, the prophets or the Church, how would people know of God? It may be that without any of those God still does indeed exists, but what those elements have been throughout history is the carrier of the meme that is Christianity. People have learnt of God through the teachings of the bible, through the church, through prophets and through their own reasoning; if you take those away then the reasons to believe are taken away as well. To mute them would be to cast doubt on how people came to know God in the first place.
But I'm in general agreement with Comfort on this, whether God exists or not is not dependant on any holy text or prophet. Either God exists or God doesn't exist. But the way we know of God and what is ascribed to God comes down to those aforementioned means. Take away the bible, take away the prophets, and there's nothing left of which to know God by. The path to salvation, heaven and hell, the very nature of God is handed down through generations by this means. By taking away the sources of knowledge, it brings any statement on God into the realms of speculation. It could be that the sources where speculation to begin with, but those are the foundational grounds of knowledge.
So when an atheist asks why won't god heal amputees, it's a question on why prayer is not as revelatory as some make it out to be. Likewise a contradiction in the bible or a history of the prophets is to cast doubt on those divine sources of knowledge that are at the base of Christianity. And without that foundation of knowledge, there's nothing that makes God distinguishable from something that is made up. It may be that God exists without human knowledge of God, but without reason to believe that God came down to earth in man form and died on the cross to redeem sin as the accounts of the bible testify, why believe in Jesus as God in the first place?
Thursday, 22 January 2009
An atheist is someone who believes that nothing made everything. He will of course deny that because it's an intellectual embarrassment, but if I say that I don’t believe that a builder built my house, then I am left with the insanity of believing that nothing built it. It just happened.I will deny that, an atheist is someone who doesn't believe in a god or gods. It's got nothing to do with whether they believe something came from nothing, it's simply to say that appealing to a deity is not an answer. For the house I'm living in, I know a builder built it. And I also know that the builder had a builder too, the builder had two parents who had sex. And where did those parents come from? Well their parents had sex as well. And if we go back far enough we get to a point where sex organs first developed, and even further back we get to a process by which the first replicating cells came about. Before that we get planetary formation, before that we have a giant star going supernova, before that we have that star formation and before that we have the origins of the universe.
The big bang is the limit of our observational point, beyond the big bang at best it can be nothing more than informed speculation. There is mathematical means to try and understand how the universe could be, but in all honesty there is a huge unknown when we hit the end of observable reality. As far as what atheists believe there is no consensus, Comfort makes the mistake of thinking that science = atheism and appeals against current scientific explanations on face value in order to attack atheism. There is no dogma to atheism, no tenets, no historical account, it's a position on the the supernatural and nothing more.
What Comfort is doing is creating a false dichotomy between nothing creating something and the Judeo-Christian construct of God creating something. Though there are many people who don't believe that there is a creation event at all, that the universe or multiverse in some ways is unbounded and infinite. Hawking and Sagan both talk of this unbounded reality, where time has a beginning but time is a creation of the universe and the components that make up the universe are eternal. There's the idea of a cyclic universe, one that is an infinite sequence of big bangs and big crunches where the universe has a beginning and an end but is still fully contained in infinity. There's also the concept of an infinite sequence of multiverses, an 11-dimensional reality where the universe is one 4 dimensional bubble of many floating in a higher reality. It could be that the universe is infinite too, that the beginning is nothing more than a limitation on our observation point. It could be that black holes in one universe are the beginnings of a completely new universe within. Quite simply there is no answer.
But without an answer, does it make the Christian answer of an all-powerful deity creating it all. Why if a deity can be infinite, can't a component of reality be infinite? The big bang isn't the be-all and end-all of existence, it's the beginning of our 4-dimensional bubble universe. Our frame of reference limits us, but that does not make a deity any better of an answer. Imagine I had a box sitting next to me. Can you work out what is in the box without looking inside? Sure you could guess, and even make particular deductions about what could be in there, but the chances of being right purely on guessing aren't high. On earth it's limited to particular material objects, the size is important and the ability to to obtain it is another. The box that covers over what is beyond the observable universe isn't limited by these restrictions and without lifting the lid, getting the right answer becomes impossible. Proposing that God is an answer is nothing more than speculation, it has about the same probability as proposing that reality was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Comfort makes a very easy dichotomy to pick against God:
Darwinian evolution and the biblical account of creation are incompatible. Either God made man in His own image as morally accountable beings, male and female, reproducing after their own kind, or He didn’t. If the theory of evolution is a scientific fact, then the Bible should be discarded as mere mythology. But if the Bible is right, Charles Darwin single-handedly propagated a fantasy that has hoodwinked millions.So if evolution is true, then the bible isn't according to Comfort. Well evolution is true, it's about as true as true can get in the scientific sense. So by this the bible is mythology and God was killed by Charles Darwin... Of course this line of reasoning is bogus, evolution is just one of a huge number of naturalistic explanations that have replaced the divine intervention that was once the explanation. Why should evolution kill God any more than heliocentric orbit?
It's an easy path to dismiss God for the same reason that some theists reject evolution, if we take the argument that one is true and the other is false then it's really going to be nothing more than a gut reaction. For the scientifically-inclined then maybe it would go to God not existing, for the believer it would go to God. It's a dishonest tactic even if it stems from an honest belief in the incompatibility. The fact that many believers accept evolution including prominent scientists and theologians shows that there doesn't need to be an incompatibility between God and evolution.
The main straw-man attack is the deifying of Charles Darwin, that it's his word against God's. Evolution is a scientific theory, not a religion, and there are no holy books that show irrefutable truth. Indeed when Darwin first wrote the hypothesis of evolution, the fossil record was mostly undiscovered, anatomists were only beginning to see the links between different clades, there was no knowledge of genetics and observed evidence was not there. Since then the evidence found supporting evolution has been overwhelming, and the theory has been updated and revised as all science is.
It's important to mention that evolution is not the single-handed work of Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace came up with the theory independently. Through the good grace of both Darwin and Wallace they presented their idea together in 1858, over a year before The Origin Of Species was published. Since then the concept has become standard science, with many contributions along the way. Mendelian genetics added to the theory in the late 19th century. In the mid 20th century the discovery of DNA again changed the understanding of evolutionary theory, which led in the 60s to the gene-centred view of evolution. The idea of evolutionary arms races came about, a new driving mechanism to variation. In recent times the role of horizontal gene transfer has come to light, and the idea of spandrels playing a role in evolution has been added to evolutionary knowledge. All of this is beyond what Darwin came up with, yet all is now part of modern evolutionary theory.
The fact is that evolution is accepted by almost the entire scientific community, millions of people from different religious backgrounds and all walks of life who actually devote their lives to studying biology all agree that evolution happened. It's not the word of Darwin vs the word of God, it's an accumulation of millions of scientists all devoting their lives to understanding the natural world against the allegorical tales of one middle-eastern tribe. If the bible needs creation to be true, then the bible is mythology. But if like most rational theologians taking the tale of genesis is an allegorical tale, then there is quite simply no conflict.
Wednesday, 21 January 2009
The triumph of this book is the way the information is explained. It's not making the case for evolution, there's simply no need to do that any more. Rather the book takes the idea of common descent and shows just how the evidence fits around it. The distinction is important as the focus then becomes on telling the story of the human body in the context of our current understanding. There's no need to make the case for evolution again, it would be like any book on rocket science having to make the case for gravity. The framework exists and all information fits into it.
Palaeontology is given a very important role throughout the book, as it should be. Where the discoveries fit into the timeline of earth are incredibly important in the context of the argument. What surprised me was how little this book focused on Tiktaalik, it only represented a single transitional point of many that litter our past. Instead through palaeontology and genetics, the story of our body and the origins of each part more often than not went back further in time, through insects, through to multicellular life and quite often through to bacteria. Each step of the way was not only shown to have evidence, but the story of how scientists came to the evidence was told. In this respect, Shubin carried on his humble demeanour to the pages of this fascinating tale.
The power of this book was the sheer power of understanding that our ancestry provides us. Because our past was at one stage aquatic, we carry the scars of our past. The final chapter giving the problems that have come from our ancestor was possibly the most useful section of information in the book. To explain why we have certain injuries, certain ailments and illnesses, and put it all in the context of our past is a stark reminder of the power of explanation of the scientific method. Why does it matter that individuals learn evolution? Because our past affects our lives now. It affects embryological development, it affects the way we live and breathe, it affects the means by which we can harm ourselves, and it affects the understanding of the limitations of the body. To have evolution as a context is to understand ourselves.
I'd recommend this book to anybody, young or old, who is curious about the nature of who we are. For anyone uncertain on the evidence of our ancestry, this is the perfect book to read. And for anyone who wants a fascinating read into the world of palaeontology and anatomy, again this book is wonderful. It's not very technical, but the straight-forward nature of the presented information makes it a must have for any pop-sci book collection.
Next book: Carl Sagan - The Demon-Haunted World
Monday, 19 January 2009
Something was amiss from the first moment I stepped onto the plane, the flight was at 1am in the morning so I could see nothing outside. The destination was Hong Kong, so I just had to take the pilot's word for it. I knew we had to cross into the northern hemisphere, I would be flying across the equator and through the tropics. But something was amiss, the temperature display was getting colder and colder the closer to the equator we became. It would have appeared we were heading south!
I got to Hong Kong at what my watch said was 7am, it was 11C outside. Funny because the forecast for Hong Kong that day was meant to be 20C. I couldn't see much beyond the airport, there was a thick haze obscuring vision of more than a couple of hundred metres. It's like a pollution mask to conceal that we really weren't in Hong Kong, Asia's hub to Europe. We were in an island south west of Tasmania - a secret island uncharted in order to fool any tourist travelling onward to Europe.
My sceptic brain kicked back in, this of course is impossible. Why would there be an elaborate conspiracy to convince the world that a continent exists that does not? I put the question into the back of my mind and boarded the flight to Helsinki.
The in-flight entertainment unit built into the seat in front of me included a couple of options to track the aircraft. First I wondered why we were flying north over china instead of in a straight line to Helsinki. It's like they wanted to avoid a huge mountain range, but what mountain range rises more than 10km above sea level? The plane had a camera on the bottom of the aircraft so I was able to look down at the landscape, it all looked so familiar... I had seen images like this on Google Earth. I was again alarmed.
Now it could have been that I was genuinely looking at the ground, but the coincidence between what google earth sees and what I saw on the plane were just too coincidental not to be causal. The conspirators were clever about it though, instead of just taking the image straight, they applied a filter to the image so it would look like it's live. The cloud cover was a nice touch, I must admit. The temperature outside got colder and colder, it was at once stage -70C. I knew we must be in the Antarctic.
One other give away that we were in the Antarctic was the length of day. The flight had been 11 hours and the sun had been up for a couple of hours beforehand. In Finland the sun is only up a few hours a day, how could I have seen that much sunlight if I was in the northern hemisphere?
I landed in "Helsinki" in the late afternoon their time, it was -7C outside and the sun was low on the horizon. Curiously enough they didn't care much about screening me to allow me into the country, probably didn't want me asking too many questions. I've had more trouble getting out of a domestic airport than that, surely in this age of heightened terrorism a real place would be doing all it can to put in safeguards.
I know this all sounds crazy, but the motivation fits. Currently the EU is the backbone of the global market, it is helping stabilise the global system. It's the fictitious entity that caused the global meltdown. Many tourists flock to Europe each year so the entire conspiracy exists to feed the market back into itself. It's taking the money off citizens of the USA, Australia and Asia who are destroying the economy by spending that money elsewhere, and putting it back into the economy to fund the bailouts of the multimillionaires who destroyed it in the first place. It's how it's always been, it's how it always will be, and I've cracked the conspiracy. Europe doesn't exist, spread the word!
This is a tribute to an old housemate, because without him I wouldn't be where I am now - physically and sceptically. Thanks Mike, I owe you one.
Tuesday, 13 January 2009
The best way to sum up this behaviour is to describe it as Lying for Jesus™. Because while the 9th commandment clearly forbids lying, in political and public movements it seems that there are many who are intellectually dishonest enough to rationalise breaking that commandment in order further the cause of Christianity as they see it. The Dover trial was a prime example of this, despite the overtly religious reasons behind the decision to push ID they tried to conceal the religious motivations when it came to a court of law. The dishonesty for the sake of promoting religion is there for all to see.
The creationist movement is the most apparent case of Lying for Jesus, in the public constantly professional creationists will either wilfully ignore or misrepresent science in order too keep their position. Either they don't know better or they are hoping the target audience doesn't know better. Why hasn't Kirk Cameron asked a scientist why the Crocoduck hasn't been found in nature or what constitutes a transitional form? When Ken Ham gets a crowd of followers to echo "were you there?" he would first look at how historical knowledge is accumulated and fit into active observations we see today. These are extreme examples and easy targets to go after, but they are symptomatic of the rampant dishonesty that permeates through the professional creationist strategy.
The ironic thing about the message of Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort is they have an argument that goes "If you tell a lie, that makes you a liar." Well that makes Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron liars, their misrepresentation of science in the name of Jesus may be a noble cause to them, but that systematic dishonesty underpins their entire attack on evolution. It may be that Jesus saves and forgives all, but we aren't at the gates of heaven yet and lying has consequences in the real world. It deceives the ignorant, it angers the knowledgeable, and it labels them as hypocrites.
The Lying for Jesus™ doesn't stop at creationists either: there's televangelism, issues regarding separation of church and state, lies about contraceptives (especially in AIDS-ridden Africa,) or anything really that regards atheism. And all this comes from a religion where some claim that only those who follow it are moral. that the moral code is laid out by God in their holy book. The most important part of the moral code being the Ten Commandments, one of the ten being a commandment forbidding bearing false witness. I guess it's the same as "thou shalt not murder", it's only to be obeyed when it isn't in the name of Jesus.
The problem as I see it is that the qualification of salvation in Christianity has it's priorities wrong. Instead of being a good person, it condemns everyone as sinners so the only way to break that cycle is to believe that a Jewish carpenter / cult-leader 2000 years ago happened to be God in human form and by believing that it admonishes all sin - except of course denying the holy ghost. It's not up to living a good moral standard, a virtuous non-believer is an oxymoron. Rather it's about subservience, adhering to flock mentality and believing in something logically absurd. Lying for Jesus™ is a means to a justifiable end, it's a hypocritical means, but it's a means that will continue as long as Christianity and knowledge continue on their separate paths. Pulling people from the path of knowledge to the path of salvation is worth the price of throwing society back to the dark ages.
Monday, 12 January 2009
Stabbing in the dark
3,000 years ago, a child born in Egypt would be told of the Egyptian gods. These fantastic tales of deities are now relegated to myth status, and chances are that a child born in Egypt today will be taught the oneness of Allah. Likewise a Greek of 2500 years ago would be taught of the gods and goddesses, again the deities are relegated to myth while Greek children today are most likely told of the saviour in Christ.
The point is that what gods one believes in depends on the society they are born into. At one point in time there must have been a trigger for the shift in societal traditions regarding gods, and at some point gods that were cherished were relegated to the annals of history. What happened in those societies and the beliefs of the individuals within that society that changed? It's understandable why the likes of Dawkins and Dennett talk about memes in the context of religion, the Darwinian metaphor for survival can shed a basic light on the struggle for ideas. Though in many cases the shift of a religion would have nothing to do with the religion being better, rather I'd speculate that it was incidental and has more to do with war and population shifts.
To try and get a point out of all this, here it goes. Does one religion conquering another in the minds of a population mean that the religion is more truthful? In the memetic sense, it makes it more advantageous and better adapted at surviving. But of course there's a reason that appealing to the majority is a logical fallacy. Likewise these shifts happen in different parts of the world with different religions. If Islam is now the dominant religion in many countries while Christianity is the dominant in others, does it make one idea more truthful than another? I would contend not for the same reason.
What other factors would there be? Strength of conviction in the followers? Again fanaticism is seen across religions and even in non-religious dogmatic enterprises, all those people willing to sacrifice themselves for Allah now would make a more compelling case than the Christians who aren't. Then there are all those suicide cults that have sprung up repeatedly in the last century, the Jonestown cult had hundreds members willing to commit suicide. What about the alignment of mythology with current scientific understanding? If this were a good indicator then the eastern religions would have a better case than the western religions. The story of Brahman bursting forth into the universe then living in cycles for billions of years sounds very much like the cosmological model that physicists currently embrace.
Say an alien came to earth and saw all the different religions, past and present. Now an alien capable of travelling to earth would be one that has a far superior understanding of space-time than we do at this stage. What would that alien think? If an unbiased observer with superior understanding came about, would it see any difference between the myths of Odin and Thor with the myths of Christianity? It seems religion is stabbing in the dark, and the direction to stab is the
The one thing that struck me about the movie Religulous was just how strongly Bill Maher gave a message of strong agnosticism, the message of "I don't know and you don't either." I recently watched the latest Thunderf00t video on creationists, in there there was the message of VenonFangX complaining that atheists and the naturalist philosophy is limited to what is inside the box - that it's a limited worldview because it refuses to ask the question of what is outside the box. It's a false argument because many naturalists use cosmology and mathematics to try and derive what lies beyond the bubble universe we reside in, but suppose it is true that the naturalistic worldview stays grounded in this reality. Why is that?
Firstly there is so much to explore in this reality, so many unanswered questions, so many questions that haven't even been uncovered. The understanding of the universe in terms of a naturalistic approach has really only occurred in the last 500 years, and in that time the tools to understand it and the foundational theories in which it all works have changed drastically. Einstein's insight into how the universe operates gave a fundamental shift in understanding, as did Darwin, Newton and Galileo before him. The understanding of how the universe works has changed, and thus our insight to what lies beyond the universe has changed with it.
What this insight into the universe has taught is the limitation of measurement. The limit of observation seems to be the big bang, the beginning of the universe. But it hasn't stopped people from trying to work out what is beyond that point. With some mathematical calculations and a lot of theoretical physics, there have been some ideas of what lies beyond the beyond. Infinitely oscillating universe from bang to crunch, an infinite number of multiverses where every chance event plays out in a different way, or the multidimensional string theory. The possibilities are truly endless.
What lies beyond this universe cannot get much further than speculation. For theoretical physics it's informed speculation, but still speculation nevertheless. It's the uninformed speculation where the naturalists take issue. If one cannot know what is outside the scope of reality, then it's nothing more than wishful thinking to make any statement as such. And it's foolish to ascribe certainty to that unknown. What makes the notion that after you die you will be judged and based on what you believed in either spend eternity in bliss or torture any less speculative than the notion that after you die your soul will reincarnate with your new form taking on suffering from your actions in the past?
Wishful thinking can be comforting, it can be nice, but really wishful thinking without a basis for evidence will get us nowhere. The religious often talk of faith as a grounding for belief, but really if only faith plays a part then religion is a lottery where your ticket was bought for you by time and place of your birth. It can be exchanged or thrown away, but really most people stick to the ticket they've been given. It seems the entire endeavour of religion is the hope that somewhere back along the chain that someone had some insider information and happened to know the right number. It's best to just hope that the winning ticket wasn't lost in a bloody battle a few thousand years ago.
Friday, 9 January 2009
"There is plenty of evidence for God, from people's personal experience, to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural world.
"But there is scant evidence on the other side, so I think the advertisers are really going to struggle to show their claim is not an exaggeration or inaccurate, as the ASA code puts it."
Let me get this straight. An organisation complains that advertising regarding the existence of God is false advertising, then the best evidence they can come up with boils down to one of personal incredulity? It seems quite pathetic that was the best someone could come up with, no wonder the humanist association is not taking the complaint seriously.
I wonder if the Christian Voice will fight against all the billboards and advertising that says "Jesus loves you" or "There is a God" for being misleading? After all, we can't be sure that there is a God or that Jesus loves us.
The word 'theory' has many meanings, including: systematically organized knowledge; abstract reasoning; a speculative idea or plan; or a systematic statement of principles. Scientific theories are based on both observations of the natural world and assumptions about the natural world. They are always subject to change in view of new and confirmed observations.
This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things. No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered a theory.
Evolution refers to the unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced living things. There are many topics with unanswered questions about the origin of life which are not mentioned in your textbook, including: the sudden appearance of the major groups of animals in the fossil record (known as the Cambrian Explosion); the lack of new major groups of other living things appearing in the fossil record; the lack of transitional forms of major groups of plants and animals in the fossil record; and the complete and complex set of instructions for building a living body possessed by all living things.
Study hard and keep an open mind.
Now to anyone with any knowledge on the topic, it's easy to see why such a statement is incredibly misleading; doing a disservice to both science, and to the students. For a topic like evolution where there is controversy in the public arena, it's hard to explain why public controversy is not the same as academic controversy. But what if a similarly worded and toned sticker would be used on other textbooks. Take for example a book on world war 2:
The word 'theory' has many meanings, including: systematically organized knowledge; abstract reasoning; a speculative idea or plan; or a systematic statement of principles. Historical theories are based on both observations of the artefacts and assumptions about unrecorded events. They are always subject to change in view of new and confirmed observations.
This textbook discusses the holocaust, a controversial theory some historians present as a historical explanation for the genocide of the Jewish people. No one who was killed in the gas chambers survived to tell the tale. Therefore, any statement about the holocaust should be considered prone to error.
The holocaust refers to the unproven belief that there was a systematic and deliberate genocide committed by the Nazis on Jews. There are many topics with unanswered questions about the events that transpired in the concentration camp which are not mentioned in your textbook, including: the coercion Nazi officers post-WW2 into giving confessions; the lack of evidence of any explicit plan to commit such an atrocity; the lack of evidence that there was any bad treatment of the Jews by the Germans; and that there are many pieces of evidence that point to a Zionist conspiracy.
Study hard and keep an open mind.
It's important to remember that there are more historians who reject the holocaust than there are scientists who reject evolution. Once the argument is moved to another field where there's the same amount of academic controversy (i.e. essentially none) and no public controversy, the deceptiveness of the argument becomes apparent.
Thursday, 8 January 2009
Irreducibly complex systems
The straw-man argument for irreducibly complex systems is that irreducibly complex systems are not only expected to happen in nature, but were predicted almost a century ago by Hermann Muller. Two steps to making an irreducibly complex system:
1. add a part
2. make it necessary
When a creationist asserts that the eye is irreducibly complex or that the immune system is, it's really nothing more than picking up the latest creationist buzzword.
"gradual Darwinian evolution can easily produce irreducible complexity: all that's required is that parts that were once just favorable become, because of later changes, essential. " - H. Allen Orr
Chance and complexity
On arguments to do with the vast complexity seen in nature, the straw-man is that evolution is not a chance system. Mutations are random, but natural selection is non-random. Let's take an example of a game of chance that involves selection: Yahtzee. Each turn the player has 5 dice to roll and gets three rolls in order to roll one of many various combinations. To get a Yahtzee, the player must in those three rolls get all 5 dice to the same face value. To roll a Yahtzee on any one roll, it's a 1 in 64 (1 in 1296). Because the number of the first die can be any, it's only the other 4 dice that need to conform to it. So doing three rolls by scratch gives the chance to be 1 in 432. In a game there are 13 rounds so to roll a yahtzee over the course of a game purely by chance is around 1 in 33.
But Yahtzee is not played that way, the player has the ability to select dies from each roll in order to carry on. To roll two dice of the same number, it's a 671 in 1296 chance or ~0.52. This means for the next two rolls there are only three dice to roll. The odds suddenly become of rolling all three dice to that same number over two turns as 1 in 108. One rolls another of the kept number, that means on the last turn there is a 1 in 36 change of getting the Yahtzee. If on that 2nd turn two of the three dice are the same as the kept dice, then there's a 1 in 6 chance on the final dice.
A convoluted example, but it does show how cumulative selection can bring about immensely improbable events in relatively short periods. Selection is not random, life is not a product of chance alone.
There are no transitional forms
The denial of evidence is one thing, but the straw-man argument to do with transitional fossils is the type of forms that are criteria. For instance, the Crocoduck. The chimeras that are posited have not and do not exist in nature, it would be an evolutionary impossibility. Crocodile and a duck would also be a common ancestor to all birds and to all dinosaurs as well. To think that one creature 200 million years ago had all the avian features that hadn't evolved yet is absurd.
There are plenty of transitional fossils in the fossil record, archaeopteryx first discovered in 1861 of a bird that still had many saurian features. Likewise many other dinosaurs have now been discovered to have feathers as well as other intermediate forms like microraptor. The wealth of transitional fossils found is embarrassing for anyone who asserts that there are no transitional forms.
One species turning into another
The straw-man on the proposition that one species such as a cat could give birth to a species such as a dog is that it asserts an impossibility, really it's a similar straw-man attack to the crocoduck chimera attack. A cat can't give birth do a dog, it doesn't have the genetic code to do so. Instead a cat population could split into two and become two different species. Over time these differences will accumulate in the genepool.
Once there is mutation, selection, adaptation, genetic drift, and speciation, there are the mechanisms under which evolution acts. Speciation creates diversity and stops the spread of genes horizontally, and once you have a mechanism that stops gene flow then isolated populations can accumulate different mutations and over time will see very different paths. A cat can share it's genes with other cats, and over time isolated cat populations may no longer be able to breed, but the mutations in a cat will never make a dog.
The laws of thermodynamics
The straw-man of arguing that evolution violates the laws of thermodynamics (and in particular the 2nd law) is that evolution has nothing to do with the physics of heat. Evolution is no more a violation of the 2nd law of thermodynamics than a baby growing from a fertilised egg. To think of the process in basic terms, each time a baby is born there is slight variation from it's parents. This variation is inherited and then passed on to it's children. And so on down the line. How does any of this violate the dynamics of heat in a closed system?
Evolution is a religion
The straw-man of calling evolution is a religion is that just because something is a religion it doesn't mean it can be dismissed without consideration of the evidence. It should be made clear that evolution is not a religion, it's a scientific theory that is supported by evidence. Calling anyone who accepts the theory of evolution Dawrinists, or trying to cast doubt on the validity of the concept by saying Darwin recanted on his deathbed is trying to dismiss it the way a Christian would dismiss Islam. Science does not work that way.
Evolution is only a theory
The straw-man of calling evolution "only a theory" is that it uses the colloquial definition of the word theory when the scientific meaning of the word is vastly different. Evolution is a scientific theory, but what that implies is vastly different. While the informal use roughly means conjecture, in science it means a rigorously tested hypothesis that is supported by the evidence. Gravity is a theory, germ theory is a theory, a theory explains the facts.
The straw-man around saying evolution is wrong because it promotes immorality is that the behavioural consequences of teaching an idea has nothing to do with the truth of the idea. Even if (and it's a big if for a completely unsubstantiated claim) teaching evolution led to greater crime, the idea still has the same scientific merit. Same goes for eugenics, what people do in terms of artificial selection and augmentation does not stop evolution from being true. It's like arguing against the four fundamental forces because the atomic bomb kills people.
Besides, artificial selection has been around from before the time of agriculture. Dogs were domesticated around 15,000 years ago, about 5,000 years before crops. We've been selecting species as pets, as food and as transport for several millennia. Not to mention that immoral behaviour has been around ever since we derived systems of morality. The moral implications of teaching evolutionary theory are unfounded.
The origin of life
The straw-man surrounding arguments against evolution because it does not explain the origin of life is precisely that: evolution does not explain the origin of life. It's not an argument against evolution, any more than saying evolution doesn't explain gravity. Evolution is a theory on how life has changed and diversified over the course of life on earth, it's not a theory of how life came to be in the first place.
Take another scientific theory: plate tectonics. Plate tectonics talk about the movement of the earth's lithosphere. The observations have been made to confirm this phenomenon. But we don't know how the earth formed the lithosphere in the first place, does that invalidate plate tectonics despite the evidence that it's happening? The same applies for evolution, the origin of life is something that needs explaining but evolution doesn't need an explanation of the origin of life to be true.
The straw man involving God when it comes to evolution is that evolution has nothing to say on the existence of God. Those who say that if evolution happened then God doesn't exist are putting up a false dichotomy between the two options. If God is defeated by naturalistic explanations then a belief in God would have been killed long ago. Seasons, weather, natural disasters, planetary motion / formation, disease, all these have naturalistic explanations that were once attributed to various deities. What makes evolution a God-killer when gravity is not? Angels pushing the planets across the sky is a silly explanation for planetary movement, as is that God hand crafted us out of dirt then breathed life into us.
There are many more straw-man attacks that are used, those are just a few that I come across repeatedly. What it does is build up to the biggest straw-man of all: that knocking down evolution proves creation. Just as it would be a straw-man to think that by dispelling creationism that evolution is true. The truth of evolution or creation, or any other concept for that matter, is whether it's supported by the evidence. Evolution is, creationism isn't. Trying to beat one down to prove the other is poor arguing.