Monday, 29 September 2008

I'll Pray For You

I've noticed many times when talking with theists online that eventually I'll see the line "I'll pray for you" and they'll be gone, well most of the time anyway. Some seem to come back for another round, possibly checking to see if their prayers actually worked. Of course, if they are praying to an omnipotent deity in order to change my behaviour, they don't need to tell me they are praying for me. In fact it would probably be better for them if they didn't tell me they were praying for me and instead just used it as a marker of falsification. So why mention it at all? Because it's not for me to acknowledge your grand gesture, it's to condemn me by using a passive-aggressive invocation to a moral authority.

Yes, it's all a big farce; implicit condemnation masquerading as a positive gesture. It's a means of ascertaining the moral high ground, to allow one to act with moral superiority. Judgementalists For Jesus™ we can call them, ones who will leave God as the eternal judge but secretly wish they had the gig. Maybe they are putting together a resume now for the afterlife, trying to show God just how Judgemental and cruel they can be while trying to appear loving and concerned. It seems to be the Christian way. Of course it could be worse, at least we aren't expecting some kind of Spanish Inquisition. Now it seems guilt is the chief weapon. Guilt, persecution complex... No wait, that's two weapons. The two chief weapons are guilt, persecution complex, a delusion that religious moral code is still relevant. Three, three chief weapons. Fuck it, let's start over.

I can see why the religious cling to it as their weapon of choice, but it makes no difference to an atheist. It's basically an appeal to the authority of God, that scary dude in the sky who will torture you for all eternity if you piss him off. Having that up your sleeve as a weapon of condemnation can only be effective against those who believe in such rot. Instead to those immune from God's judgement, this exposes a defensive frailty in the caster of the incantation. It exposes their fear of judgement; that their behavioural code is not based on the kindness of their nature, instead it's the fear of punishment that is the force behind their sense of right and wrong. These aren't good people, they are petty, weak people who need God to fight their battles for them. Instead of being able to make any decisions of their own, they leave it up to an invisible force (or more accurately a holy book, or even more accurately what other people tell them the holy book means) in order to guide their sense of right and wrong.

So what does it matter to me? On a personal level, it doesn't. If people want to pray for me, to light candles, use a voodoo doll, or even sacrifice a goat (though I'd prefer no animal cruelty), that's their choice. None of it is going to affect me one bit. If they want to use it as a passive-aggressive means of ascertaining the moral high ground in a discussion, then I have a problem with the expression. Those four words coming from a close relative who only wants your safety is sweet, from a complete stranger on a semi-anonymous medium is underhanded. If any of you genuinely believe that casting an incantation will rouse an omnipotent sky-daddy to come and change my ways, you are more than welcome to try. Just don't tell me about it please, I don't want you to rub your insecurities onto me.

Elitist Memes

I want to delve into the speculative for a moment, and highlight my inner struggle over the role of society & culture. The struggle exists in how ideas are to be preserved throughout time. Memes have a propagating tool of their own, but I sometimes wonder if commercialism is pushing society towards an idiocracy where memes previously of cultural significance will be starved by their aggressively pushed counterparts; where feeding the selfish gene on a most basic level will do away with the complex yet subtle landmarks of our time. My personal struggle is reconciling the notion that the population decides it's culture with the value of elitism.

The culture explosion
A look back at culture over the last 500 or so years is a monument to the creativity of the human race. The Da Vincis, the Shakespeares, the Bachs & Beethovens, the legacy of those few who shaped our cultural landscape will be immortal as long as western society survives. We've even gone beyond that and preserved their legacy in digital code, thanks to possibly the most important cultural legacy of all: science. Now while science has done it's best to preserve the past, the mechanisms which it has used are now the fundamental way that society as a whole communicates. The method of preservation that once only catered for the most elite ideas is now recording every piece of cultural significance. In effect, while the preservation culture for centuries has been at the discretion of the societal elites, now it's in the hands of the masses.

From this point of view I can see the merits to post-modern thought on culture. The worth is in the eye of the beholder, and art becomes equally valid. If someone asked me to name what I felt the most significant music of the current decade, my answer would be different to most other peoples. Of course I could feel what I chose is better, and I could give reasons that justify that position. Ultimately my choice is subjective, just as all the choices of others are. In that sense it's all equally valid, but ultimately there are winners and losers on the culture front. Some memes survive long after others, they can transcend cultural boundaries and time-frames. Where in a consumer model everything has a shelf-life, the memes survive well beyond their allotted lifespan.

Now a meme's ability to survive is itself a gauge of it's worth. While some memes can propagate very successfully and rapidly, the longevity is the key. Ideas with worth will survive longer, the cultural imprints that have either a representative quality of their era or a timeless characteristic will be ultimately successful and therefore of cultural worth. This is not the only gauge of it's worth, and there is room for that one nefarious character in our society: the expert.

The importance of being elitist

Sam Harris recently wrote an excellent article on the role of elitism and politics, it seems that being elitist is something as a society we explicitly reject on a personal level yet strive towards on a daily basis. By and large people do realise the important role that the experts play, just look at the creationists who will appeal to any scientist who will validate their position. Where the role of the expert comes in is where there is a realisation that some people know more than others about a subject. While most people could tell the difference between a $100 bottle of wine and a $5 cask, there are only a few with trained palettes that can describe in great depth of the balance between flavours and assess the comparative quality of similar wines. Same goes for critics of all cultural phenomena, their time and dedication into learning the intricacies of their particular field puts their views as being worth more.

This does not mean that the elitists are authoritative or dictating culture, their views come from an educated background but are still subjective. One doesn't have to agree with an expert, it's opinion (educated opinion) and not science. What it does is set up a separate rung for memes to sit on, and gives an option for culture that the elites consider worthwhile a chance to survive in a marketplace where it would go over the heads of most people. Now this is the difference that the last 100 years has to the 450 before it; before it was purely those in the know; the elites of society, who would decide culture. The memes existed purely in upper class circles, where education and resources meant only a select few were the culture of propagation. Now the mass-market decides the worth.

So often art these days has to go after the lowest common denominator. It's a product, and it's one that must sell in order to sustain itself. So much of commercial television these days is mediocre at best, I struggle to see how people can watch these shows of no style or substance. Even the shows with something often descend into predictability and resorting to gimmicks. I wonder how much it's on the back of every artist's mind that when creating a work of art it has to be sellable. Does this have an effect on the final product even before the producers get their hands on it? Gaming since it's a new artform can give insight into this. As the market has exploded and the audience is now mainstream, companies that want to stay afloat have to target the main market. While Bioshock was a great game in it's own right, many of the elements from it's spiritual predecessor, System Shock 2, were either simplified or cut out to make the game more accessible to the general audience. It made for a more streamlined game, though less of an immersive world.

It's now hard to think of art as anything other than entertainment, it's ability to sell is the propagation tool. The role of the expert is to take that entertainment and determine what is worthy of preservation given it's content, context and competition. Is the content of the art groundbreaking or profound? Is it contextual and symbolic of the time it was made? Does it stand above the competition and what makes it so? There is still art, while being entertainment, that has the memetic traits to compete in the environment of the experts. While this market is maintained, culture should preserve memes both popular and the profound. The danger is that in a society where everyone rates themselves an expert that the voices of those who are truly in the know will be drowned out.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Were You There?

Recently I sat down and watched the excellent PBS series Evolution. It was a very well-made series, it explained a lot of the basic concepts and gave a fairly comprehensive overview of the theory itself. The final episode was devoted to the question "what about God?". The episode was not to give an answer on the question, rather to show the struggle in the community and especially with fundamentalist Christians of the reconciliation of their belief in a divine being and the science behind the process. The man who epitomises the outright ignorance of the general population is Ken Ham, and his way of hardening believers against any 'evolutionist' was to ask them the question "where you there?". Now aside from treating his congregation like 4 month old babies with downs syndrome, the question is outright fallacious and misleading. Only a fool would expect this to actually be an answer; it's the logical equivalent to Goddidit. But there he is, getting the sheeple to mimic his poor reasoning.

Absurdity manifested
The question itself is absurd, it puts an incredible amount of focus on direct observation as the only form of tangible evidence. This is akin to saying that a murder with no witnesses is unsolvable, after all no-one saw the crime take place. In courts, it turns out that anecdotal evidence is unreliable; an eyewitness tale must be consistent with the evidence gathered at the crime scene. That forensic evidence, gathered after the event, is the cornerstone of any murder trial. This is precisely what happens in science.

In a murder trial, all pieces evidence are facts. Facts on their own are meaningless, it's the narrative that strings them together. The narrative is the theory of events, it must be consistent with all the facts. An inconsistent narrative that is contradicted by facts will lead to an acquittal. Likewise in science, observable facts are all around us; they are the end product of cause and effect. It's a theory that seeks to explain the facts and any inconsistent theory is thrown out. If the man accused of murder has proof he was in another state at the time the murder took place, then the theory that he committed the murder is wrong.

Evolution is the narrative of life that best matches all the facts that are observed now. Why should the small variation that's seen now be any different on a long term scale? This is why creationists fail when they try to distinguish between micro and macroevolution - it's the same process over a longer time frame. Macroevolution has been observed both in the lab and in nature, where genetic variation has become so large that two different populations can no longer reproduce. Over a longer time frame, the variation will only increase even further as both populations will sit forever genetically isolated but continue to mutate.

When looking at the fossil record, it tells it's own narrative of the types of species that lived at that part of history and the progress of evolution. When we look back at early Cambrian rocks, there are no humans let alone vertebrates; there are only invertebrates. Looking a bit closer to the present, there are fish and arthropods, but no land animals of any kind. Around 380 million years ago, the first amphibians emerge. This tale goes on and on. The narrative of the fossil record only makes sense when it's put in the context of evolution. The mechanisms under which evolution works are the only tangible explanation for the fossil record the way it is.

Who wrote the bible?

Maybe the argument needs to be thrown back on those making the argument. Since they use the bible as the infallible word of God, maybe the question needs to be asked "where you there?". Of course you just can't ask God whether he wrote the bible or not, ever since he came down as Jesus he's not taking calls any more. So how was the bible written? Unless God came to earth and wrote endless pages of text, did all subsequent copies, revisions and translations, then the bible is the work of man and thus subjected to the same fallibility as creationists like Ken Ham talk about with science.

Of course man wrote down the stories, even if they were divinely inspired, it was still a book written by men, revised by men, and translated by men. All holy texts can at best be divinely inspired; manifestations of messages handed through mental manipulations by a divine being. To have a deity write their own holy book would be impossible, everything cultural we know is a man-made device. For the Torah it wasn't even one man who wrote it, there were four different sources it was all compiled from. Just read Genesis chapters 1 and 2 to see the different authorship, there are two different versions of the creation story in the first two chapters of the book. Now did man come before animals or did animals come before man?

The problem with the man-made stories of Genesis is that no-one was there to view them. It was not a first-hand eyewitness account, no-one was there to see God making the world and everything in it. Likewise it suffers from the same falsehood as creationists are trying to say about science: no-one was there to see it. The belief that the holy books are indeed inerrant relies deeply on faith and it propagates on naïvety, there's nothing in the the bible to suggest it's the inerrant work of an infallible deity. Rather the glaring contradictions, the inconsistencies, the poor language and having nothing in the bible that couldn't have been written by 1st century authors, would all tend to point at the fact that the book is a man-made socially-constructed volume.

There's one place to turn to which can shed light on the historicity of a document: archaeological evidence. It turns out that Israel weren't the only tribe keeping notes about events in the middle east 3,000 years ago, so some of the stories can be checked against the records of others. People and places can be independently confirmed through impartial evidence; this evidence can be dated by a variety of methods such as carbon dating or the types of technology. Looking at the Jesus story, those who wrote the gospels had never seen Jesus in the flesh, they were most likely not even born when Jesus lived. They certainly weren't there to witness the birth of Jesus, which is why one story has an age no later than 4BCE and the other would put the birth at 6CE. These stories would have been derived from the Gospel of Mark which was written at least after 70CE.
So were the authors of the gospels there for Jesus? No, that would explain why the books don't align with history. Just as the authors of the Torah weren't there on the history of the planet, which would explain why the science and the text doesn't add up. When the facts don't fit the narrative, the narrative must be wrong. The bible is the inerrant word of God in the same way as a holy being that commits infanticide can be considered all-loving.
If the Bible is telling the truth, then God is either untruthful or incompetent. If God is truthful, then the Bible is either untruthful or erroneous. - Rev. Donald Morgan

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Miracles and Statistics

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." - Benjamin Disraeli
Highly improbable events can often seem miraculous, our minds are not equipped for intense statistical analysis and certainly not for dealing with large numbers. Couple this with the very limited scope in which to view the world and suddenly blind chance can seem fate, divine intervention looks to be the only explanation. Certainly some events are too statistically improbable to happen by chance, and in those intelligence must be sought as an explanation. But given enough time and enough of a sample base, miraculous events can and do happen in every walk of life.

Winning the Lottery
Now this is a statistically improbable event. In a system where 6 of 44 numbers are drawn out, the chance of winning is approximately 1 in 5 billion. Given that in the Australian lottery system each ticket has 12 different combinations printed on it, that chance drops to about 1 in 40 million. So if there were a million tickets bought each week, it would take about 40 weeks for the statistical probability to match the unlikelihood. Run the lottery enough times and there's bound to be a winner somewhere.

Now what would it look like from the winner's perspective? They have won something that is incredibly unlikely, a statistical fluke. The pay-off for that statistical fluke is a huge financial gain and the cost was very little. Buying a ticket each week certainly improves the odds, but not by enough for it to be considered anything other than a statistical fluke. If someone bought a ticket every week for two decades, the chance of winning once is approximately 1 in 40,000. So while it's a far better chance than just buying one ticket once, the difference in likelihood of outcome is practically the same. So the person who wins had an extreme bit of luck, it's nothing more than the inevitability that someone has to win some time. For the extremely fortunate individual this could be taken as a significant event, as something more than blind chance.

This is how in the ordinary course of events, people can lead extraordinary lives. The luck that a few have is inevitable in a large enough population size; the scope of statistical insignificance is wiped out. It's with the global media that improbable events are broadcast into our daily lives. We are exposed on a daily basis thanks to the news, something that almost never happens is being portrayed to us as a regular occurrence. So by extension, winning the lottery would sound a lot more a frequent purely because the sample size is extraordinary. This can be applied further.

On a simplistic level, take rolling the dice. Now guessing one roll is 1 in 6. Guessing two rolls is 1 in 36, three rolls is 1 in 216, 10 rolls is 60,466,776. Now if everyone in the world were to guess the sequence, it's inevitable that people would be able to guess the exact sequence. It would be unlikely that no-one was able to guess it; statistically it should have happened 100 times over. This is why picking a single individual event is a good indication of psychic power. Statistically the improbable does occasionally happen, it's only with consistency that meaning can be derived.

Meaning from consistency
Now given the premise that an individual can experience improbable occurrences given a large enough sample size and time, the role of causality needs to be explored. While there certainly are events that befall one for simply nothing more than being in the right place at the right time, there is also the possibility that the individual is rigging the results. This is the train of thought leading to psychic powers, that there are those who can mentally affect the selected outcomes through divine insights. It can also lead to the belief in a personal God (or guardian angel) is watching over the affected individual.

Having a one-off event of improbable chance is statistically explainable; having repeated bouts of chance would indicate there has to be some underlying cause. Say for instance if someone could correctly predict a shuffled deck of cards in order with no foresight (1 in 8.0658*10^67) there must be something to explain it. The obvious answer is that the deck was rigged, that the person knew in advance what order the cards were in. Without that, there is calls for further study to find out why.

As noted previously, appealing to the paranormal is not an explanation; it explains nothing and just raises further questions. Rather a mechanism of how someone could see into the future needs to be explored. But in order to get to that state, there needs to be some consistent statistical significance. Without the ability to reproduce improbable events, then chance is the only viable explanation. We don't ever get something like 52 cards being picked, instead events with higher probability are sought after. Instead it might be something like the value on the card (1 in 13) or pick the suit on the card (1 in 4). It makes the probability of having hits higher, but it also takes away from the significance of picking an incredibly improbable event.

Take picking the suit on the card. For a deck there the average person should pick 13 of the 52 cards by guessing before any card is dealt. If the predictions are made after each card, the odds would change (i.e. if 51 cards are picked out, the observer should be able to deduce the final card's suit). So there should be scores around 13, but not everyone will fall exactly on 13. There should be people who score 15 or 16, some who score 8 or 9, there may be one who scores a 24. If that individual consistently scores in the 20s while others average out over a long period of time to around chance, then there is something significant to derive from the event. If someone scores 22 one turn then 11 the next, then it falls within the normal course of events.

Consistency is the only way to gain meaning from statistics, it's the foundation of statistical analysis. The problem when looking at the paranormal is the tautological nature of the phenomena; it's never that the phenomena doesn't work, it's that the user wasn't in the right frame of mind. As the saying goes: If someone wants to use statistics to appeal to the credence of a phenomena, then all statistics and their context must be shown. If someone can pick the suit of a card 1 in 2 times as opposed to 1 in 4 consistently, then there is good cause to trumpet that stat. But if it happened once and the rest it averages out to 1 in 4, then there is nothing special to report. The improbable does happen, it can adequately be explained by statistics. The sooner people learn to use stats properly the better.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Monday, 15 September 2008

The Finely Tuned Universe

A few months ago, I wrote an entry where I analysed at a few of the more popular arguments for God and why they weren't valid. One argument I covered was the appeal to fine-tuning;that we are so unbelievably complex yet well-adapted to the environment that there must be a designer behind it all. While last time I talked of the logical inconsistencies of the argument, this time I want to delve into the science of it all and put the argument into a perspective with the observable facts of the universe.

The sentient matter
imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. - Douglas Adams
It needs to be addressed that the environment is no more created for life than a hole is created for water. Just as a hole can fill with water, so too can life exist on earth without the earth being created for life. No matter what shape a hole is, it has the capacity to be filled perfectly by a body of water. If the water were sentient, would it conclude that the hole was created specifically so it could exist? While it's a simplistic analogy, it's appropriate to demonstrate the link between life on earth and the environment around us. Life fits so well in the environment because it was created for the environment, through the natural process of evolution.

The glaring difference between a puddle and life is the incredibly complexity of life. As complex agents, there must have been design at work in order to become finely tuned. To try to stem off a debate on semantics, it's clear that design infers intent and that is far from the truth. The use of the word design here is through lack of a better word to describe the emergent adaptation. It's in that emergent adaptation that there is the end product of design, it's in effect a trial and error process where improved designs survived over static or weakened designs. This is what Dawkins calls The Blind Watchmaker. Right now there are 6 million species alive that have been successful in emergent adaptation. Each of these 6 million species has it's own solution, each one fine-tuned to it's environment. Each one has it's own evolutionary path, but they all come back to a common ancestor.

A species becomes finely tuned as those improved designs mean a greater chance to survive. A bat with better hearing would fare better in a dark environment, just like a mole with better smell would find food more readily underground. Birds of prey with better sight would be able to spot dinner more easily from higher distances, while apes with finer motor skills could use their hands more effectively. In that sense, humans like all others are indeed finely tuned. But the fine tuning is a natural process, so it can only work on what is already there. As a result, imperfections are left as the design can only optimise what is already there. It can't rebuild an eye from scratch each successive generation, only modify the design that's already there.

The place for humanity on the tree of life is but one twig on the end of a branch, we are not the inevitable consequence rather we are just one solution to the problem of survival. There have been billions of species before us that have long since died out, some of those are the ancestors of species that are alive today, most of which are not. They all were at one time finely tuned to their environment, but the environment is never static. The climate, the food supply, the evolution of new predators, any catastrophic shift can spell the end to one of these lineages. It's important that our place in the animal kingdom be recognised because we are not above that same struggle for existence. We are finely tuned for the current environment, it could be a genuine disadvantage if the environment changed.

Pale blue dot
That iconic photograph taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 was from a distance of more than 6.4 billion kilometres away. It took the light approximately 6 hours to travel across the solar system to the satellite's camera. As Carl Sagan commentated
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
On a cosmological perspective, the earth becomes suddenly very small. The earth is one of 8 planets orbiting the sun. The sun is itself orbiting the centre of the galaxy, it's one of approximately 200,000,000,000 stars that do so. And the Milky way isn't the only galaxy either, satellite galaxies all with billions of stars orbiting it. On the fringes of our local group there is the Andromeda galaxy; a galaxy larger than ours with many more stars. Beyond us, there are an estimated 125,000,000,000 galaxies that exist in the known universe. How many of these stars have planets? How many of those planets have life? Has intelligence evolved elsewhere in the universe?

It begs the question about what is so special about this tiny pocket of the universe, and it seems the only answer is we live here. Perhaps we are more like the sentient puddle than we would like to admit. It's not like we can't see beyond the hole either, the puddle is only aware of it's own existence while we are aware of the greater environment around us. The biblical tradition of the earth being the centre of the universe has been replaced in time with the sun, then it's been realised that we are not the centre of the universe or even the galaxy we reside in. Likewise humanity is not special, we are just another organism geared towards survival with a somewhat unique (but still evolved) survival strategy.

To gauge the role of a sapient designer, it might be pertinent to ask what would a designed universe look like? To say it would look like the universe we have now would be a tautological statement, nothing more than speculation. Rather there needs to be an objective look at what role a designer would play if it was for the one species of animal on one planet. Surely a designer would not spend time making anything that is superfluous, especially given the whimsical nature of mankind as described by the bible: life is just a brief test for an eternal afterlife. Why would a designer go to the trouble of making galaxies that are 13 billion light years away? Why make species after species that would go extinct? This is not to demonstrate there isn't a designer, just that the argument from design is not a strong one. In a universe where we are just one end-product of many natural phenomena, why does a designer need to be invoked for anything other than personal reasons? There simply is no need to invoke a magic sky daddy to explain it all, there is certainly no justification as using the finely-tuned nature of reality as proof of that magic sky daddy.

Friday, 12 September 2008

God Defies Gravity?

A bit of a laugh on a friday night

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Dial 9.11 for truth

Right now in Australia, it's the 11th of September. It's been 7 years now since the terrorist attacks on American soil that was the catalyst of a global shift in attitudes on liberty, security and the threat of religious zealots. But this isn't about that, this is about the historical revisionism done by conspiracy theorists trying to redefine one of the most significant and tightly analysed events in recent memory as the work of their own government. There are problems for the 9/11 truthers though: a lack of evidence, a theory that defies common sense, and the tautological nature of conspiracy theories. It can never be shown to be false, because that would be evidence of a cover-up. Rather it's important to show why the narrative they have isn't remotely plausible.

The Third Tower
No-one needs a lesson in history here, tower 7 fell several hours after the twin towers that were struck by aircraft fell themselves. The reason tower 7 fell was a mystery at the time, and has thus been the weapon of choice in the 9/11 truther arsenal. It's allowed for speculation that it and the twin towers were controlled demolitions with the jets being just a decoy. It all seems quite elaborate, it all seems very incredulous, yet this story is already widely believed and becoming more widespread. It seems to defy logic how something so speculative can be so willingly believed. This isn't speculations on the supernatural at all, this is gross historical revisionism on an event that happened but a few years ago.

A cause for the fall of tower 7 is needed, that much I can agree upon with the truthers. This is why there has been investigations into just what caused the collapse of not only tower 7, but all the towers. Investigations don't happen overnight, they have to be thorough, and they have to be sure of what went wrong before doing the reports. It was only in the last month that the report came out explaining just how tower 7 collapsed: an out of control fire caused by falling debris that was left unchecked due to a failure in the sprinkler system. No need for a controlled demolition story, no evidence of a controlled demolition, just a building with weakened structural integrity burning out of control.

Once there is some thought put into the idea of the conspiracy, why would a government destroy tower 7 without giving it an obvious cause? What purpose would bringing down that building do if the government was trying to hide their activities? It seems that tower 7 rather than being a blessing to the theory is a hindrance. The idea of a government that can mastermind and cover up such an event yet blow up something seemingly inconsequential? Now that's a far-fetched story. It would seem the government is messing with people's minds; it's collapse is to the 9/11 conspiracy as dinosaur bones are to creationism. It would take quite a contortionist to try and adequately explain it. Yet the explanation is the equivalent of "God hid the fossils to test our faith", likewise with the creationist movement people are willing to eat up the explanation without putting much thought into it.

Orwell's hell
Again, no need to state the obvious in history. When looking at post-9/11 actions taken by the government, wars and legislation, there is definitely causal links back to the event itself. What the mistake of the truthers seems to be is seeing those actions as reason rather than as a reaction. There may have been members of the government who wanted to go into Iraq long before 9/11, but it would be a mistake to think that the 2003 war was cause for 9/11. It allowed for the opportunity for invasion, just like it allowed for the opportunity for draconian legislation like the PATRIOT Act to be passed in the interests of national security. The catalyst for these reactions was the terrorist attacks, there's nothing to suggest it was anything more than opportunism by a government.

And therein lies another fault in the 9/11 truth movement reasoning. The same people who believe it was the work of the government are the same people who think Dubya and his administration are the most incompetent administration in American history. It does seem as if the movement of 9/11 conspiracies has risen as voter dissatisfaction with the war has also risen. So on the one hand, he and his administration are criminal masterminds, on the other blundering idiots who can scarcely run a military operation. Talk about having your theory and eating it too...

It's a mistake to take the consequences of 9/11 as the cause, it's important to be able to recognise action and reaction, cause and effect. The terrorists attacking was the catalyst for many subsequent reactions. To think the US government was behind it without any evidence to suggest they are is to reject the truth of so much evidence, but that's the nature of the conspiracy theory.

A game of mathematical improbability
Quite simply, this comes down to numbers. You have about 3,000 people who died that day: people who worked in the WTC, in the Pentagon, and who were on those flights. Now that is 3,000 people who are unaccounted for, and there is no indication that any of them are alive at all. There's no-one who has come forward and demanded protection in exchange for information, no-one who is trying to reconcile with their loved ones, no-one who has any moral sense to report the truth. Now why is that?

Now take all the people who work in the 3 different buildings of the WTC. How did no-one recognise the explosives that would have lined the buildings? There were fire-fighters who ran into building 7 to save it. How is it that none of them reported any explosives? Not to mention the workers who normally inhabit the building. We live in an age where everyone is just a press of a button away from instant communication. For there to be no evidence whatsoever is incredibly damning to the credulity of the narrative. And what of all the people in the government, in security, in the military who would have to be involved to pull off a stunt like that? The sheer number of people to pull off such a cover-up would be astounding, and the fact that not one has come forward is again damning.

The amount of people who would have to be involved in a cover-up makes it too incredible to believe it could happen. It's a blight on human behaviour to think that not a single person of the many thousands who would have to be involved that not one has come forward. To think that none of the supposed dead have tried to reconcile with their families. That no-one in the government would speak out against the crime against humanity. 3000 people died and this is the memory that is honoured for them?!? It's movements like this that destroy human dignity, it cheapens disastrous events and brings misdirected anger. There are two wars going on now, thousands of people dying as a result, families suffering unspeakable losses, yet the anti-war movement is using a conspiracy theory in order to display their anger? This is not right, something is very wrong in the thinking of a population when an idea like this can become so widespread. What happened in 2001 was a tragedy, the aftermath was a tragedy, but the greatest tragedy is how cheaply it's exploited by an anti-government movement with no regard for truth.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Doomsday Collider

Tomorrow is the big day, the Large Hadron Collider becomes operational. It could be validation of some proposed theoretical physics, lead us to a fundamental rethink of the nature of the basic building blocks, or if you believe the soothsayers it will destroy the earth. Though to be fair to the people claiming Armageddon, out of all the different ways it's claimed end times will come this one probably has the most grounding in reality. It's a shame that the media has played up the potential for devastation, there's no justifiable grounds to even mention it. Short of going on a rant about media sensationalism (I'll save that for later), it's a good chance to look at why people come to buy stories like these as plausible alternatives.

The end is nigh...
Stories of Armageddon, end times, and doomsday scenarios are part and parcel of human culture. It's in this modern times where thanks to a free press and an imaginative species that the number of different narratives we are subjected to has grown considerably. Consider 100 years ago, the only thing to worry about was the rapture. Then on came the science fiction revolution, and suddenly aliens were a threat too. Then it was nuclear annihilation, then global warming, and that mysterious Planet X. Remember the SARS outbreak? Next will be bird flu if we aren't careful. It's not to say that some of these aren't a problem. We will need to do our best to contain the bird flu and hope it doesn't mutate for human-to-human transmission, we will need to work towards limiting the ecological impact we have on the environment around us, and working towards nuclear disarmament. But as triggers in our mind of impending doom, the immediate threat to our safety is on the line.

So with the LHC, there is no real difference in the way of thinking. It sounds scary because the ramifications are immense. It's not only our non-existence but the non-existence of everything we know. It signals the end to everything we find beautiful, everything that gives us meaning, it's confronting our own mortality on a grand scale. If there was the real chance of something going wrong at CERN, then surely it's irresponsible for scientists to risk everything on the back of the pursuit for knowledge. It seems the cliche mad scientist stereotype is still present in many people's minds. The experts are saying it's safe, there really is no reason to believe it is not.
The LHC, like other particle accelerators, recreates the natural phenomena of cosmic rays under controlled laboratory conditions, enabling them to be studied in more detail. Cosmic rays are particles produced in outer space, some of which are accelerated to energies far exceeding those of the LHC. The energy and the rate at which they reach the Earth’s atmosphere have been measured in experiments for some 70 years. Over the past billions of years, Nature has already generated on Earth as many collisions as about a million LHC experiments – and the planet still exists. Astronomers observe an enormous number of larger astronomical bodies throughout the Universe, all of which are also struck by cosmic rays. The Universe as a whole conducts more than 10 million million LHC-like experiments per second. The possibility of any dangerous consequences contradicts what astronomers see - stars and galaxies still exist.
There really is no reason to be afraid of the consequences. If there was going to be a problem from such an experiment, then the universe would have died long before earth came to be. It's an appeal to the base instinct of our nature: survival. These catastrophic events will threaten the immortality of our genes. Yet one day, there will be an end time. In about 5 billion years, the sun run out of hydrogen then expand to beyond earth's orbit. Given humans have been on earth for around 200,000 years, it would seem unlikely that we'll survive to that point in the first place. But that is the very essence of why experiments like that at the LHC are so important. The better understanding we have of nature, the better chance we have of being able to survive for longer as a species. In that respect, it's ironic that people are afraid of the very tool that could lead us away from a real doomsday scenario.

The need for the experiment
The LHC has cost about $10 billion to make, and there is no guarantee that it will find anything. Many people with a non-scientific background surely have to wonder why it's so important. With the money it costs to fund it, it's important to put it into perspective. In 2007, the US spent $626 billion on military related expenditure; $439 billion of that on direct military expenditure. And that's just one country, in total the world spends $1.2 trillion each year on military expenditure. A $10 billion dollar investment in furthering the knowledge of humanity seems but a small amount that's dedicated to killing each other.

Like every area of science, there is so much to learn about particle physics. There are 4 fundamental forces, yet no theory to unify them. There is a relationship between mass and energy, but no means for mass in particles. There is both matter and anti-matter that should be in equal amounts in the universe, yet all that we know is made of matter. Gravity is so much weaker than the other 3 fundamental forces, but without reason. Then there is the nature of both dark matter and dark energy, theoretical concepts that exist to explain where observation doesn't match the standard model. Not to mention there are many different theories born out of theoretical physics to explain the unknown with no observed data.

Being able to answer any question above is just cause to do such an experiment. Some concepts could be validated or falsified, some current laws and theories may have to be rewritten if the data doesn't match any prediction. There won't be an immediate answer to this. Tomorrow marks the first attempt to send a particle right around the LHC, it will be 6 weeks until the first high energy collision takes place. Tests will be done on the LHC for the next decade or so, all the while data is being collected. That data has to be analysed & scrutinised, so it won't be for a while yet until some precise feedback is presented to the public. Even so, tomorrow is still a very exciting achievement: the most advanced scientific tool in the world is coming into operation. In that 27km of machinery under the French / Swiss border could lie the answers to the secrets of the universe. It's all very exciting stuff, too bad that some are too focused on the doomsday scenario to appreciate what it's going to do for physics.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Science vs Religion

I have advocated the position on nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) for a long time in the science / religion debate, the two ideas should not be in conflict. But taking a diplomatic position on what ought to be should not take away from the reality of what is. There is a huge conflict between science and religion, there has been since the beginning of science and there will be until the end of our species. It's not really so much about the two concepts on their own, rather it's that there are opposing ideas that do indeed overlap.

A war of ideas
It needs to be said that there are many theists who have no problem having a scientific worldview and a religious worldview together. Likewise there are many atheists who reject a scientific worldview on some level. This is not directed at them, rather it's at those theists who do put religion as an ultimate truth ahead of empiricism and those atheists who refuse to recognise that there can ever be such a reconciliation between the two different ideas.
I think that Gould's separate compartments was a purely political ploy to win middle-of-the-road religious people to the science camp. But it's a very empty idea. There are plenty of places where religion does not keep off the scientific turf. Any belief in miracles is flat contradictory not just to the facts of science but to the spirit of science.
Richard Dawkins (in that quotation above) is spot on is showing the folly of NOMA, he's picked apart exactly why the position cannot be taken on it's own in the current war of ideas. It must be understood that religion did have first domain over the workings of the world. It's with great strides over many centuries that our investigative nature as yielded a holistic and plausible worldview that can adequately explain the natural workings of the universe. From there, our society has come to regard science as the tool in which to explain natural phenomena. So it's not so much that religion is treading on science turf, it's that science has pulled the turf from under religion and expecting them to leave without hostility.

Science does have claim to that domain, however. An unbiased method of understanding reality that transcends culture and can bring about progress is needed for liberal democracy to survive. In a pluralist society there needs to be a means of discerning one idea from another, having a single authoritative point of knowledge won't satisfy a diverse crowd. With many men and women fascinated by the natural world gathering knowledge, it was only inevitable that the Church's role in historical truth would eventually be usurped. To cut a long story short, the reason I can write this from a desk in Australia and have it instantly broadcast all over the world is thanks to the scientific progress in the last 300 years. How the natural world works is now firmly under the scientific domain.

The position of "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" is disturbing beyond words; well my linguistic capacity anyway. It's telling people not to think, not to understand, because the answer is already there: Goddidit. As a cause (the whole point of science) it's the intellectual equivalent of saying "aliens did it", it tells us nothing of how aliens did it. The brief description given in Genesis is not a scientific guide, it's not even consistent with itself. It's a spiritual guide shaping God's relationship with mankind. So it surprises me that people take the clay golem story so literally. The sad thing is that any admission of fallibility in the scriptures means that God is too infallible. And even though the bible is riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies and absurdities, to question the inerrant nature of the scripture is to question God. Yet if God's creation is fallible, then surely the book that his creation made is fallible too. If God is perfect, then man should be as perfect as any text subscribed to God. This is not to show that God doesn't exist, just to highlight why those causing conflict between science and scripture have broken thinking.

While religion still carries the burden of dogma, it's safe to say the conflict between science and religion will remain. In very simple term, science answers the how, religion (or philosophy) answers the why. By trying to answer the how the dogma puts the religious belief into a falsifiable state; something that is easily done with evidence. Where some atheists fail in thinking is precisely the same, seeing dogma as incompatible with science. If God is taken out of that dogmatic structure and put in a supernatural position, it's completely unfalsifiable. It also leaves the belief as nothing more than speculation, but that's what faith is in the first place. The greatest mistake an atheist could make is to deny that people can take this transcendental view of the workings of God, that he works through nature as opposed to against it. There may be nothing to the argument philosophically, but beliefs are always going to exist about the dualist nature of reality. It's best to recognise that they can be (and have been) reconciled with a wholly scientific view of the world.
Our evolved brains empower us to rebel against our selfish genes. - Richard Dawkins
Just as we can rebel against our selfish genes, surely a theist can rebel against the dogma of their religion and still encompass a view of God. The belief itself may be absurd, but the position is exactly what NOMA encompasses. There is no need to kill religion to advance a scientific view of the world, there are so many theists these days who have found a means to keep their God and look to science to explain reality that it's unhelpful to go after religion in that manner.

The selfish meme
It's probably best to look at religion in the way we look at organisms. It was even Dawkins who proposed this back in the 1970s. Humans, like all other creatures, are individuals. Yet we can be broken down into the summation of our parts. We have arms, legs, head, torso, etc. Now those can be broken down into parts, like the face can be broken down into eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hair, etc. Now we can take the eye and break that down into smaller parts: iris, lens, cornea, pupil, optic nerve and so on. If we go down far enough, we get to the building blocks of cells: our chromosomes, genes and ultimately DNA. This is not to demonstrate the complexity of the body, rather to show that an individual is a collection of other individuals all the way back if you will to subatomic particles.

A meme can be viewed this way as well. So in this sense, we can look at smaller parts of religion itself that make up the whole. Dogma is just one of those parts, and that itself can be reduced to a collection of stories. In this sense, maybe dogma is the memetic equivalent to junk DNA. It once had a purpose, but it's largely been superseded by more specialised functionality. Upon replication, the dogma still remains, but the meme itself has little need for it anymore to propagate. Rather, it can be a hindrance at times. The religions in this modern age that adapt to the social environment it needs to propagate in will survive better than those that don't. So a religion can survive perfectly well because it offers more than just a mythology for the planet. It has meaning, purpose, morality, a guide to better living. While there are surely better philosophical guides out there, the works of David Hume barely reach the masses. It's not propagating anywhere near as successfully as the message of Jesus, so while that message may be coupled with the dogma that is no longer relevant, it still survives as per the environment.

I'm trying to say here that it's not wise to throw the baby out with the bathwater. While religion in it's most extreme can give rise to dangerous fundamentalists that lead innocent well-meaning people down the path of intolerance, an explicit rejection of the very notion of religion as being completely incompatible is going against the very science we look to. If an organism can adapt to it's environment in order to survive, then surely an idea that propagates has to do the same. Natural selection will take dogma away as long as there is pressure on the dogma itself. It's a formidable organism to try and starve completely, why not work to creating an environment where the unfavourable parts don't propagate but the more favourable parts do? Direct hostility from atheists is not going to endear believers to science, it's unnecessary. Instead, make memes that individually are more successful than religion is for the same task. Soon religion will have to adapt to survive. Darwinian selection at finest.

Teaching the controversy

I've been casually following the events of the RNC and listening to the kinds of people who could potentially be running the free world come 2009. The Sarah Palin pick was shocking in a way, it came out of nowhere. Apparently Maverick McCain wanted Lieberman, but because that would isolate the evangelical supporters in the republican party, he's now got an evangelical Christian from Alaska. And from there comes the inevitable "teach the controversy" position that conservatives have been pussyfooting around to woo a population that accepts a myth over scientific fact. And it seems to be working, though there's just one problem: there is no scientific controversy about evolution.

Controversy, what controversy?
Quite simply, there is no debate in academia about whether evolution is wrong or creationism is true. Because there is no need for that debate, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. It's one of the strongest theories in science today, right up there with heliocentrism in regard to the degree of certainty the scientific community has. Yet the Creationist community misrepresents this in two ways: by trying to discredit evolution as unscientific, and using the public arena to gain support of an idea that has no scientific credibility.

The first tactic is shooting themselves in the foot. By trying to cast evolution as unscientific, they are trying to make it comparable to creationism. But then they both shouldn't be taught as they are not science. But evolution is science while Creationism isn't. Evolution is a theory that explains lines of evidence across multiple fields, while creationism is a conclusion that's taken from a book of mythology. Evolution is not circular, it fits in with explanations from other fields; Creationism not only doesn't fit the evidence but it contradicts almost all that we know. Again, it's important to stress that knocking down evolution won't make Creationism any more plausible scientifically. But it's not really about being right, it's about resolving one's inerrant mythology with a body of evidence that says otherwise.

The second tactic is taking that first tactic to the population: appealing to people's emotion, their beliefs, and by misrepresenting the science behind evolution. By saying that there is controversy, they are creating it in the community. It's the academic equivalent of holocaust denier, though it's playing to a much more receptive crowd. Science is an open process, anyone can contribute. But all battles for science should be fought in the academic arena. Taking an idea public without academic scrutiny is subverting the system. Taking it public after it's been rejected in the academic arena is downright dishonest. Quite simply, the system exists for a reason: it weeds out the bad ideas.

Teach the lunacy

Ned Flanders: We want you to teach alternative theories to Darwinian evolution.
Principal Skinner: You mean Lamarckian evolution?
Reverend Lovejoy: No! The Adam and Eve one!

About 99% of the population of scientists agree with evolutionary theory. There are more historians who deny the holocaust than scientists who deny evolution. Quite simply there is no controversy, we evolved just like every other life form on this planet. If a believer's need for God hinges on Genesis being literally true, then that God is dead (in the Nietzsche sense of the phrase). Welcome in the new age of theological nihilism, as all meaning from the universe has gone now that we are biological entities as opposed to hand-crafted clay golems. It's not God who dies, it's the scripture. It says more about the tight coupling between God and scripture than anything else, that God isn't the holy entity rather it's the bible that people worship.

If Creationism were to be taught in schools, what kind of precedent would it set? Surely if Creationism were to be taught in science, holocaust denial should be taught in history. After all, it has more support among the historical community. We could bring arithmancy to mathematics, teach psychokinesis in metalwork, make aliens the cause of the pyramids, put in conspiracy theories as a valid historical narrative, and so on. Why not teach all these concepts? After all, they all do enjoy support at some level from a good portion of the community. The reason we don't is simple: ideas can be (and often are) wrong.

It turns out when people say "teach the controversy", they don't want every fringe idea taught to students. They only want the fringe idea that they believe in taught. The problem by ignoring it is the accusation on censorship. And it's a somewhat valid argument to make. Letting the children decide is an important step. But therein lies the problem. To let them decide, it means teaching two ideas in equal light. But quite simply, when there is mountains of evidence to support one idea, and the other idea contradicts that evidence, how can the teachers fairly address it? If we taught Creationism in science, then it would only be fair based on the evidence to utterly destroy the idea. But of course that won't do for the creationists either.

Schools have a huge amount of information they can present to students and a very small amount of time in which to do so. To spend some of that time on theories with no academic credibility would detract from the many things that could be taught instead. The more time that is spent teaching Creationism in science, the less time it leaves for actual scientific ideas. This is why disputes are fought out in the academic arena, where people have decades of training and are qualified to be able to judge based on the evidence presented. Children with very little exposure to the scientific method are not qualified.

While there's no controversy in the academic community, we should not create one in the classroom. The academic community may be wrong, but that's for the evidence to decide. The academic community is open to anyone, it's a vicious group that attacks any idea contrary to what we know about reality, but that's there to get rid of the bad ideas, to weed out charlatans, frauds and bad scientists. Darwin faced incredible opposition from the scientific community when he brought out The Origin Of Species but the idea lasted because the evidence backed it. Likewise Einstein was not taken seriously for his theory on relativity until it was verified by experiments. Ultimately the evidence decides the credulity of a scientific hypothesis, crying persecution and demanding equal status is not the way of going about gaining acceptance.

The official Kelosophy bookclub

Recently my work environment shifted across the city, so instead of having a leisurely 30 minutes walk to work, I now take public transport. This opportunity to sit and read is one I've taken gladly, currently I've got a large pile of accumulated unread books that have been neglected in favour of a much more handy source. So starting last month, I've picked up one of the more appealing books in my growing unread collection and took a read. Now a month later, I'm onto my third book.

Book 1: Dr Michael Shermer - Why People Believe Weird Things
I was introduced to Dr. Shermer through an episode of Penn & Teller, and since then I've sought out his work with Skeptic magazine, online and whatever I could get my hand on. His essay on Captain Bligh in Science Friction was one of the most captivating pieces of historical analysis I have ever read. So when it came to looking for a good book on scepticism, this book sang out as a must read.

What struck me as the strongest element the book is that it's purpose is beyond just trying to get to the bottom of certain claims. Rather the book's strongest point was it's exercise in critical thinking. Although it did discuss some areas at length, it wasn't exactly to show a comprehensive worldview. Rather it was the medium in which to guide the reader into thinking critically. It was comprehensive in explaining the ways thinking can go wrote, the kinds of fallacies to look out for, and how our current modes of thinking can lead us away from the problems the human mind creates. The only problem I see is that it's direct confrontational nature of ideas may be a drawback to those who need that critical thinking most, but it's a minor point. For anyone who wants a good sceptical guide to exploring reality, the book stands on it's own.

Book 2: Dr Michael Shermer - The Science Of Good and Evil
I've been meaning to explore the origins of morality for quite a while on here, but every time I do I've found my view to be lacking something fundamental. I hoped this book would either give me some insight into where my view was lacking or provide me with the clarity to tie seemingly opposing ideas between the individual and the constraints (both social and genetic) they are bound by. Taking God out of the equation of morality needs an adequate explanation.

The book itself is a great overview of the necessity for morality as a species, and the fundamental drives that helped us achieve it. It lays the case out for exactly why "moral" traits have survived and "immoral" traits have persisted. As far as the science is concerned, the book was a little light on actual data. Rather it took snippets of information to help with the overall narrative. Although this did somewhat diminish the title, it by no means detracted from the actual argument. It successfully answered the question "can we be good without God?" and took it one step further: outlining the dangers absolute morality poses on a society. The explanation of provisional ethics is one that society would be better for taking on. It's not an all or nothing between God and nihilism, and Shermer wrote with great care and precision to explain exactly why that's a false dichotomy.

Next book: Richard Dawkins - The Blind Watchmaker

Friday, 5 September 2008

The F word

This is something that keeps coming up by theists who don't know better: atheism is a faith. Now given that faith is a virtue in theism, maybe a theist wouldn't be so quick to paint atheism with the same brush. Could it be that believing without evidence is no longer a good idea in this age of reason, so instead of abandoning faith they wish to paint non-believers with the same brush. The post-modern approach to philosophy. "I believe in something crazy, but it's fine because you do too." Now it must be recognised why this is such a poor argument, not only misrepresenting the atheist position, but incorrectly using the word faith.

Facts and faith
First and foremost it should be established that a theists believes in a personal deity. Atheism is the rejection of that belief, it's the "not belief". So there are two sides of the coin here: on one side a belief in God existence, on the other God's non-existence. So because a theist makes a leap of faith in the absence of evidence, surely an atheist does too right? Well, no. Faith is indeed belief in the absence of evidence, and there is as much evidence of God's existence as there is of God's non-existence. i.e. no evidence at all. But there is no evidence for Thor. Nor is there any evidence for Zeus. Nor Santa. Nor Ziltoid The Omniscient. Turns out there isn't any evidence for any supernatural entity at all. So is it a leap of faith not to believe in Ziltoid? This is where two fundamental laws in logic come in.
  1. Positive claims require positive evidence
  2. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence
For the first point, it comes about because absence of evidence doesn't equate to evidence of absence. Yet the two look so strikingly similar that it's impossible to tell the difference. So taking a position of ambivalence and using coin flip logic will mean the existence for God will never drop below 0.5. But the same could be said of any deity, pantheon or paranormal entity. That's why the burden of proof is on the one making the claim. Right now we have knowledge of the natural world, the facts that we have gained through empirical observation. While our interpretation of those facts may not be perfect, they are are a gauge of how credulous subsequent ideas are. The further transposed from reality, the more evidence that is needed. So claiming the existence of something that goes against everything we know about reality or is not tied to the bounds of our reality requires some extraordinary evidence to support it.

So where does that leave atheism in the question of faith? Belief in it's most basic form is a binary option. Either you believe in a proposition or you don't. In that, atheism is simply a descriptor for someone who doesn't believe in God. God is the positive claim, atheism is the position of not being convinced by the proposition. Just as if we were in an Islamic country and Allah was the positive claim. Atheism is simply the position of being without faith. But while belief can be simply a matter of a binary decision, the unbelievable complexity of how and why people come to those beliefs and the ramifications for what they mean show that the question of belief and not belief is inadequate on it's own to explain that position.

Knowing the unknown
Agnosticism is not a state of of fence sitting between theism and atheism. It's another question entirely, it deals with the state of knowing. Now with this term the context of atheism can be defined. Since God is defined as supernatural and beyond our realm, that puts the question of God into a strong agnostic position. As natural creatures, we can't know the supernatural. Any attribution to God (omnipotence, omniscience, etc.) is just giving attributes to an unknown entity. There's no way we can know an entity that's beyond all human measure.

Though while theists state that God is this way, it's not entirely certain that many believe it. Otherwise, how would they come to know God at all? A theist god is an interventionist god, and this god would have to change the universe in order to perform. People attribute many events to this kind of god across many cultures. We call these miracles. A miracle would be great evidence for a god if there was one. This brings the discussion to weak agnosticism. In the face of no evidence at all, a position of weak agnosticism should preferred. But when something interacts with the natural world, then predictions become falsifiable.

So when people say that God answers prayers, and praying seems to have no effect, then that seems to indicate an absence. Likewise calling God all-loving in a world full of chaos and indiscriminate suffering would indicate that such a God isn't there. There's always the problem of evil, again indicating that a personal God cannot logically be given some of the parameters of this world. An all-powerful God can cause cancer to go into remission while it can't regenerate lost limbs? Even a salamander can do that. So this points to more and more the unlikelihood that such a God exists. Of course we can't say for sure that God doesn't exist, just that such a deity is incredibly unlikely.

A theist fires back that God is beyond all measure, but that only puts God into the realm of strong agnosticism again. To make God untestable is to make God unknowable, to make God unknowable means any attribution is nothing short of speculation. And with that comes the unlikely question: what does the word God mean anyway?

Who is this God guy, anyway
Now to explore one other area of non-belief: the position of ignositicism. This is a form of agnosticism that instead of answering the question in regards to belief, it's defers it for lack of clarity. So in effect, without having a coherent definition of the concept of God, asking "do you believe in God" is a meaningless question. It's a very pertinent point to make, that we can't be clear on what position to take without knowledge of what the concept even means. This is not to say that no position on God could ever be established. There are many who have defined coherent definitions of not only the entity called God but what role that God plays in the universe. On this grounds a decision can be made. I need not ask for a coherent definition of the Judeo-Christian God, it's quite clearly defined in the bible and by it's followers.

Consider the following quote by Carl Sagan:
The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying... it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.
This is the true nature of the question. What do we define God as? Do we take the personal deity of the bible? What about Thomas Jefferson's deistic view of God? Spinoza's pantheistic view? Is the term God a description of the limitations and laws to the universe as Sagan suggests? Or even further still, is God simply the transcendent nature of humanity? Certainly there is no universal meaning to the word, it's incredibly subjective and culture-specific. We can't answer a question of belief without anything to define it. So while for specific incarnations of the concept both a position of atheism and agnosticism can apply, for the term itself, there's no way to be able to answer that question in a meaningful way without a meaningful definition.