Sunday, 19 December 2010

Death is a Problem to Be Solved

Death is a Problem to Be Solved
by Luke Muehlhauser on December 17, 2010 in General Atheism

Atheists don’t believe in an afterlife. But people are afraid of the finality of death. So, they’re afraid atheism might be true. Even if the evidence supports atheism, they’d prefer to believe something that gives them some hope about death. So atheists have a marketing problem, and they address it by trying to make death look not quite so bad.

And they’re right to do so. Some fears about death are untrue, like the idea that it will be an“eternal blackness.” But some comforting responses to the problem of death are evasive. Consider the claim that eternal life would be thunderously boring, so we should embrace death. Really? I’m not sure I would mind eternal life. Gimme at least a thousand years, then. I’m pretty sure I could entertain myself for a thousand years, if not a trillion trillion trillion.

Or, consider Richard Dawkins’ point that “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones,” because the vast majority of possible people were never born. But this is beside the point. Everyone who is born will get sick, have moments of joy, have moments of loss, and die. The fact that we’re born doesn’t change the fact that moments of joy are nice, and we’d rather not get sick, have moments of loss, and die. Death remains something we’d very much like to avoid, like cancer.

Nobody says, “We could get cancer, and that makes us the lucky ones, because lots of possible people were never born to experience joy or sorrow.” Screw that. Cancer is terrible. Let’s cure cancer if we can.
The difference is that we can dream of curing cancer, but most people can’t dream of curing death. Cancer might be like smallpox (eradicated in 1977), but more difficult to eradicate. Maybe we can cure cancer. It’s definitely worth a try. But death is just part of the human condition. So we either invent the fantasy that death is not the end, or we rationalize it with statements like “the reality of death makes each day more meaningful” or “we are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.”

Let’s imagine that every human who had ever lived awoke in the morning with a terrible migraine just behind the eyes for one hour. Nobody could do any work during this time. We just had to endure for one hour, and when it dissipated, go about our business, and dread the next day’s migraine. There was no cure for the morning migraine, and none in sight. It was, unfortunately, fixed into the very nature of being human. I have no doubt we would soon begin to rationalize these morning migraines. We would tell ourselves that they make the rest of each day more wonderful by contrast, and that we would not properly appreciate the rest of each day were it not for the migraines. Someone might even venture to say that it’s the morning migraines which makes the rest of life meaningful. But now imagine that thousands of years pass, and very advanced scientists discover that morning migraines can be cured – with methods inconceivable to previous generations. Post-migraine generations look back on past generations and wonder: “How could they tolerate those awful morning migraines? What a horrible way to live, every day! Thank goodness we found a cure!”

I want to say the same about death. We rationalize death because we don’t think it can be avoided. But death is horrible, like cancer. Death thwarts an awful lot of desires. I don’t think much about death, and I don’t worry much about it, but I’m sure that when I lie on my deathbed I will have lots more I wanted to do with my life, and not being able to do those things will suck.

But here’s the good news. Death can be solved.

The causes of death are pretty well understood, and every year we develop new technologies that can address the problem. Aubrey de Grey and others are working on tissue repair. Medical researchers around the world are solving problems of disease and aging, while cognitive scientists are working to understand how the brain works so that we can augment its capacities with add-on hardware (or maybe “wetware”), or perhaps even transfer consciousness to a less vulnerable substrate, such as silicon. Many successful brain-computer interfaces have already been developed, and have, for example, restored sight to the blind.

Remember, too, that if it wasn’t for a thousand years of Christian Dark Ages, we might have been a thousand years more scientifically advanced right now than we actually are. If we had decided to take science seriously all along, we might have had death solved already. I’ve admitted that death is terrible. That’s rather gloomy. But here’s the good news about death. For the first time in human history, we understand there is a real hope that death can be solved.

What can you do about it? Promote science, not comforting superstitions about an afterlife. Superstition only retards our progress, and therefore commits billions more people to deaths they would give anything to avoid.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Belief, bombs and bullshit

You can tell a lot about a person depending on whether they believe in religion or not. Polls after polls reveal a high religiosity in most societies. Even outside of the surveys most people say they believe in something supernatural. In fact religion is said to greatly shape peoples actions. We could then safely assume that with more religious people come more religious actions. 

But polls can’t tell us much really. So what can they tell us? In my mind, a tendency to be religious is synonymous with being superstitious. To them, the world crawls with beings unseen and oozes invisible forces. Propitiations go first to the deity rather than human accomplishments. Many religious folk speak with scornful distrust about human and their medicine and science. But when the conversation turns inevitably to religion, a sure-fire way to gain respect among the religious is to simply say you believe. No need to explain anything else, just say you generally believe and that’s enough to get you in circle of trust. So what is it about the claims of the religious that bothers me so much? It’s that they very clearly do not believe what they claim to believe whenever pressed to confirm it in some convincing way.

Many scholars and theologians assume belief, beginning with the presupposition that if a religious person says they believe then they are telling the truth, and not misleading the scholars or lying. Perhaps the proper state of religious belief is not so clear cut; maybe those who ‘believe’ in god or the spiritual world are simply bellicose and shrill, willing others to believe as they do, but not personally actually believing any of what they say they do. Taken for granted then that if people who believe in Christianity or Islam are telling the truth, could certain clear displays of such conviction could reasonably be expected to happen all around us? Of course they would.

Why don’t I use a common and useful - if a little extreme - thought experiment and try to get a grip on where to go with this question. Think for a moment what a Martian would reasonably predict to see in our cities if, prior to his arrival, he only had the two holy texts of the Bible and the Koran to go on. Our Martian has never read Pascal’s Penses or Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, nor any of the possible books about humans which would give them added context of humans outside of the holy contents. 

So what would the Martian visitor expect if they were told billions of people roam our streets believing in those tomes? I refer to true believers. That’s those who believe without doubt. Those people who believe in an afterlife far superior than any worldly life, greater than even the most opulent starlet or king could ever experience. I think the Martian would be quite surprised if he began to observe us. I suspect the Martian would have to sift very carefully to find anyone who truly believed.

Now, I know some people out there who believe for purely understandable reasons. Family tradition, emotional feelings, personal experiences, or coercion are all perfectly acceptable reasons for explaining why you’re religious, but not if you actually believe any of that stuff. 

I find it very hard to accept that anyone can believe even a fraction of religion, but they say they do. When pressed, it almost always comes down to an intuition: a feeling, emotion, personal experience, something they can’t explain but they’re sure it’s the Seventh Day Adventist God not the Anglican God and definitely not the Sufi God... 

Boil away the all fluff and the feathers of any doomed ‘proofs’ for god and this is ground floor for the religious. I mean how many times have you talked to someone who said they believed because they felt god’s presence? It happens so often that it’s almost a boring answer, totally predictable. But since everyone and their dog who’s even remotely spiritual (and I mean the broadest category) claims wholeheartedly to ‘feel’ god’s presence, this is by no means a ringing endorsement of any particular religion. 

If Jane the Taoist claims to feel absolutely that her religion is truthful because she ‘feels’ it is, while Jack the Christian contrarily retorts that nay, it is his religion which holds the truth, how exactly does one decide an answer? Both Jane and Jack draw from the same pile of evidence. There simply isn't an independent criterion or test to verify any of these claims to arrive at an objective truth. I suspect that even Jane and Jack don’t know either. Religious wars are not fought just because one side knows they’re right. It's more complicated than that. The godly do battle against those who they think are clearly wrong. Almost as a way of self-encouragement that they’re way is correct after all, a form of the notorious self-serving bias: “Once all the heathens are purged, then our religion will be correct by default!” Way-to-go guys, I still can’t see any real belief here.

In the same vein, religious people are often caught saying, “God I believe in you” or “God, how I love you”. This smacks to me of insincerity at best. Surely if you really knew something 100% why feel the need to keep repeating it to yourself and those around you. It’s what always struck me as so strange in all those hymns and the way we gathered around to sing them, or even in the way prayers were offered. It’s as if we need to be there to support each other and sing those words until we believe them, not because we actually mean them.

A conviction should be just that. Beyond doubt. The beliefs I know are those without any need of periodic reminders. I don’t meet other people on a certain day of the week to remind myself of the truth that two plus two equals four. I know it's correct because it’s something I can prove any time with rocks, sticks or even fingers. I can set items up on the desk right here and show you that two plus two equal four. I can keep trying to convince others of my belief that two plus two equal four, showing them my sticks and rocks, but once I personally pass the point to belief there’s no need to keep reminding myself of what it is. If I heard someone mutter to themselves or sing out loud with their mates that two plus two equal four I would begin to question their education, and probably suspect that if they said they believed that two plus two equalled four, they may actually be lying.

For this reason I don’t see the need for any distinction between one’s knowledge about mathematics and their ‘knowledge’ about religion. I disagree with Stephen Jay Gould’s assertion that science and religion are non-overlapping magisterial (NOMA). That is, religion and science occupy two realms of ‘knowing’ and getting at the truth. I think it’s quite clear that when religion makes claims about our world it regards itself as part of this world in the same way physics and biology does. To make the claim about believing some fact or theory about the natural sciences should require the same standard of evidence as any claim from religion. 

Scientists and those who respect King Evidence when determining truth have two options when confronted by contradiction. Either they run from it - stubbornly throwing up wall after wall in vain hope of warding off failure - or they comfortably accept their findings and rearrange their theories to reflect more accurately the new data. On the other hand, the religious rarely experience any actual need to test their beliefs. Finding themselves with a vague notion of belief they can’t help but proclaim is real. If this is the case there really is nothing to these beliefs. No substance, no rhyme, or reason just plain old habit.

I don’t want to be accused of setting up a straw-man here so I’ll ask the question before I get too far ahead: What is it that religious people are supposed to believe when they say they do? Well let’s take the Christian God for a start. 

The triune god of Abraham is an interesting idea. This deity is supposedly the biggest, baddest dude in the universe who apparently made everything. Quite a resume. This God’s knows everything you do and everything there is possible to know. Every human on the surface of the earth, and beneath it, is submitted to permanent and unending supervision. This God could easily convict someone of any crime; there is no possible way to hide from his administration. 

Resulting from this supervision appear the twin consequences of Heaven and Hell. If you do what the Christian God says is right and shy from what he says is wrong then you will go to Heaven. Otherwise a place of burning, torture, pain, suffering, crying and gnashing of teeth awaits you. How should such things affect the mind of the person who believes this? If believers gleefully proclaim their god is just. And if god can see and convict you at a 100% rate, (that’s this time and every time, no exceptions) then obvious signs of people who truly believe in this celestial judge should be apparent.

To show my thinking here, let’s take that earlier analogy of crime conviction. If you do even a modicum of research into crime deterrence factors you’ll see there are a number of legal processes to effectively cut crime rates. One of these is an increase in the percentage of crime convictions among cases brought before the court system. Basically, if criminals are being sent to prison on a more regular basis then new crime declines as a result. 

What does this tell us about the human mind? It shows that humans tend to respond to deterrence. In something like a classic carrot and stick experiment, criminals will rather not run the risk of going to jail for a measly few dollars from a petrol station. The successful conviction rate doesn't even have to go up too far. A small rise should do the trick (say 31.5% in June, up from 27.2% in February). But just being caught doesn't cut it. People must be sent to prison to instigate a feedback effect on society as a whole.

Now, what does this have to do with god and believers? The potentiality of a 100% conviction rate should render true believers as the best behaved humans ever to walk the planet. Seeing that the data suggests when humans are threatened with a conviction rate higher than previously anticipated, the crime rate responds by decreasing markedly. How much more would a person who believed every bad deed was watched try to be a good person? The people holding the deepest faith would be those occupying the lowest societal crime rates! 

But survey after poll after interview each find Christians just as likely to divorce, abuse, hate, discriminate, and fight as almost any other societal groups. Could it be that these people don’t actually believe nearly as much as they say they do? I think that's one appropriate explanation.

After all how could the meagre loot of a dairy owner really be worth an eternity of Hell? How could the loud street corner demonstration against gay marriage (as they casually consume seafood...) could really be worth condemnation to fire? Let’s not forget the futility of amassing piles of wealth stolen from credulous and trusting people if torment is all that awaits you? 

I hear you say that people willing to rob a bank are notoriously short sighted and they probably won’t take into account the threat of eternal torture when pulling on the smelly, sweaty balaclava and huffing and puffing to get the adrenaline flowing. But like I said above, this retort goes against all we know about how deterrence works.

Stephen E. Landsburg asks us to consider questioning a religious person if their religion were absolutely true. And that somehow - perhaps in a hostage scenario - the life of their child hangs in the balance, depending on their answer. Mr Landsburg predicts to hear the convincing answer of a freshly minted atheist. Because when the time comes to have their beliefs tested when they really have power over things that matter, one begins to see which beliefs one really considers true.

And this goes for all the religious folk who believe in an afterlife where everything supposedly gets better. The assurance of an afterlife could be said to be the ultimate insurance policy. Yet when was the last time you saw a Christian who refused to wear sunscreen, who didn't bother clipping in their seatbelt? Or who tries to hurry along a terminal illness rather than visit a doctor? Or who doesn't think twice about walking to work on the motorway? When was the last time you saw a Christian enjoying fitting their head inside a shark’s mouth on a Tuesday afternoon? None recently? Well, those claiming to believe in an afterlife are beginning to sound a bit like cheaters then, aren't they? 

Surely, no reason could possibly convince a true believer to stay in this life when such a perfect place awaits them after death? 

But perhaps the fact that there are some people who are willing to actually die for what they believe - like suicide bombers - is proof enough of the sincerity of some people’s beliefs? Alright then, consider for a moment all the suicide bombings committed by people of the Islamic faith. 

Now I know not all suicide bombers are Islamic in origin but I’ll come to that later. Muslims believe their religion is the sole true faith, that Allah is god and Mohammed is his prophet. As with the Christians, Muslims believe in the reality of their God and the assurance of life after death. And that some of them have a chance to enter wonderful Paradise. However, Muslims differ slightly from modern-day Christians. If you are a Muslim martyr your reward will be far greater than if you simply just believe in Islam. 

But if Heaven is so fantastical why is the amount of successful suicide and martyrdom so statistically low amongst believing Muslims? Consider that only a few thousand suicide bombings occurred in the past twenty years, while well over a billion Muslims are alive today. I think the best explanation is, again, that the vast majority of those claiming to be Muslim don’t actually believe in in fundamentals of Islam. They're tourists, just like the majority of Christians. 

Also, it’s fairly commonly known that among the bunch of guys who flew aircraft into buildings on 9/11, only a few were so devout in their beliefs they didn't plan anything beyond that fateful day. The rest were deviously told they would be coming home. They at least expected to return to their lives after the attack. 

If you believe that true belief is common in the world you've really got to ask yourself, why couldn't the world’s foremost Islamic terror organisation find a measly 19 devout boys who believed in the seventy virgins story? Instead they had to co-opt most of those men into the attack with lies and deceit.

I certainly wouldn't want to sit next to an average Muslim when they confront this ‘Allah’ after death (if they ever do). They’d have some pretty hasty explaining to accomplish to tell him why they didn't follow his Holy Book’s instructions and went to the movies on weekends instead. It would be a pretty awkward reception. 

I understand you don’t only need religion to blow yourself up, some people are motivated by politics. But even after boiling away these players you’re left with only a couple hundred (maybe) purely religious explosive idiots. This doesn't bode very well for taking seriously the claim that a billion Muslims are serious when the say their god exists. So what is it that these people actually believe?

To be honest, I can’t tell. There are so many sects and denominations in Christianity alone that I fear even the religious don’t know what they believe. 

One thing is clear, the vast majority of the religious can’t believe what they say they do. There are too many unfulfilled predictions and expectations of such beliefs. Instead there must be, as Daniel Dennet says, an instinct to religion rather than a belief in religion. Many people are religious because they're biologically tuned to be that way, not because of any objective belief. It is this idea that religion is an instinct, much like pattern seeking, that captures me and offers an answer. The people with the deepest feelings of god’s existence could only be experiencing an in-built and traditionally-nurtured idea of god and the transcendent. 

Perhaps the instinct to religion gets confused with the “truth” of religion, but the two are not the same. The instinct of religion lies only in the sense that the world is infinitely more complex than we humans can possibly experience. On the other hand, thinking there is actually a deity at the foundation of everything who cares about what you think is nothing more than solipsistic and anthropocentric narcissism. The transcendent is a real biological feeling, attributable to no god.

Very few people truly believe in their religion. True belief’s implications lead to expectations of certain behaviour and patterns in humans which we simply do not see. 

Religious people should commit fewer crimes if they believe in the consequence of Hell and assured conviction. But they don’t offend less. 

If one believes in Heaven - as almost 3 billion (if not more) humans say they do - then more people should take riskier and riskier chances in everyday life, not caring about the consequences. But they aren't taking these risks. 

Indeed, one can say what one wishes to the pollsters or survey administrators but I would bet that deep down, when people really assess their religious beliefs, they come up empty on a lot of things. One day, perhaps, the religious may look at themselves and wonder why those who commit some of the most terrible acts are professing to truly believe the very same religion as them. Perhaps this is why the so-called moderates are mostly silent on these events.

When pressed, the beliefs one supposedly holds as a Christian or Muslim are more likely to be discarded than not. It’s a pity this reflection doesn't occur often enough for most people and they waste the only life they know they have on what appears to be an ill-considered belief. But, such is life.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Eliezer Yudkowsky, The Twelve Virtues of Rationality

The first virtue is curiosity. A burning itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pursue truth… Be wary of those who speak of being open-minded and modestly confess their ignorance. There is a time to confess your ignorance and a time to relinquish your ignorance.

The second virtue is relinquishment. P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs…

The third virtue is lightness. Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own… Surrender to the truth as quickly as you can.

The fourth virtue is evenness. One who wishes to believe says, “Does the evidence permit me to believe?” One who wishes to disbelieve asks, “Does the evidence force me to believe?” Beware lest you place huge burdens of proof only on propositions you dislike, and then defend yourself by saying: “But it is good to be skeptical.” …Therefore do not seek to argue for one side or another, for if you knew your destination, you would already be there.

The fifth virtue is argument. Those who wish to fail must first prevent their friends from helping them. Those who smile wisely and say: “I will not argue” remove themselves from help, and withdraw from the communal effort… Seek a test that lets reality judge between you.

The sixth virtue is empiricism. The roots of knowledge are in observation and its fruit is prediction… Do not ask which beliefs to profess, but which experiences to anticipate. Always know which difference of experience you argue about. Do not let the argument wander and become about something else, such as someone’s virtue as a rationalist. Jerry Cleaver said: “What does you in is not failure to apply some high-level, intricate, complicated technique. It’s overlooking the basics. Not keeping your eye on the ball.” Do not be blinded by words. When words are subtracted, anticipation remains.

The seventh virtue is simplicity… When you profess a huge belief with many details, each additional detail is another chance for the belief to be wrong. Each specification adds to your burden; if you can lighten your burden you must do so…

The eighth virtue is humility. To be humble is to take specific actions in anticipation of your own errors. To confess your fallibility and then do nothing about it is not humble; it is boasting of your modesty. Who are most humble? Those who most skillfully prepare for the deepest and most catastrophic errors in their own beliefs and plans…

The ninth virtue is perfectionism. The more errors you correct in yourself, the more you notice… If you tolerate the error rather than correcting it, you will not advance to the next level and you will not gain the skill to notice new errors… Hold yourself to the highest standard you can imagine, and look for one still higher…

The tenth virtue is precision. One comes and says: The quantity is between 1 and 100. Another says: the quantity is between 40 and 50. If the quantity is 42 they are both correct, but the second prediction was more useful and exposed itself to a stricter test… Each piece of evidence shifts your beliefs by exactly the right amount, neither more nor less. What is exactly the right amount? To calculate this you must study probability theory…

The eleventh virtue is scholarship. Study many sciences and absorb their power as your own. Each field that you consume makes you larger. If you swallow enough sciences the gaps between them will diminish and your knowledge will become a unified whole…

Before these eleven virtues is a virtue which is nameless.

…Every step of your reasoning must cut through to the correct answer in the same movement. More than anything, you must think of carrying your map through to reflecting the territory.

…Do not ask whether it is “the Way” to do this or that. Ask whether the sky is blue or green. If you speak overmuch of the Way you will not attain it.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Round two

Hi Peter,

Regarding Dawkins' working definition of the word 'faith' as used by most believers, I would suggest he is confusing the term with blind faith. This notion of blind faith (as far as I can tell) asserts certain things without evidence and "in the teeth of evidence", to quote the man. Dawkins goes too far in presuming this is how all religious believers think. But I don’t think he does this across the board, he reserves his accusations of blind faith to those believers who fit the criteria, he knows that others believe for actual reasons and because of positive evidence. Like him, I do think these believers deserve less respect if they choose the word faith to describe their position. I’m not sure what it should be called, but claiming to have evidence or reasoning for what you believe means you don’t need faith. It becomes provable.

But I want to press you a little further on your equation of faith as being "the sum of all evidence, experience, and logical thinking regarding the Christian god" (correct me if I’m wrong here, but that does appear to be what you are saying). If this is what you mean by faith (you call it "trust") then you will always be on shifting sands. I fail to see how you can call the collection, collation, and weighing of evidence the obviously incorrect term "faith". If the process you use (evidence and reason) has lead you to believe there is a god, then don't call it faith. Call it something else because otherwise you muddy the waters too much. Dawkins only addresses the common definition of faith (as the apostle Paul described it " things unseen") rather than Swinburne's version that would have him constantly readdressing a slightly altered idea as new opponents arrive. To explain it another way, I do not need faith when proposing that atoms make up matter. All I need to do is test the evidence surrounding the atomic theory and accept it if it explains what I'm seeing in the best way. No amount of faith is necessary nor would it change the facts on the ground. If you call the testing of evidence surrounding god your faith, it is more appropriate to accept the “theory of god” surely than to use the term faith. But I’m repeating myself.
You say, "but Dawkins et al claim that faith means setting aside any notion of rational warrant for one’s beliefs – and this is a demonstrably false claim"

But how is this so? As far as I can see, the notion of having faith is getting to the point in the journey where rational inquiry and evidence is not forthcoming. If these appeared we would call it science or empiricism, not faith. Having faith does not mean, as you are right to point out, that one 'sets aside' reasoning. In that scenario, there simply isn't anywhere left to go with one's reasoning, and so you need faith. Hence the reason the old phrase, ‘leap of faith’ is neither negative nor positive, but a verb regarding a necessary action. Please advise if this is incorrect.

You say, "I don’t see why the mere fact that people’s apparent experience of the natural world precedes people’s apparent experience of God should make the latter experience suspect."

To someone like yourself I can see how it would be difficult to view the world without any supernatural aspect. It's not so much that the material world works beautifully by itself but the miracle, as Einstein pointed out, is that there are no miracles and the world ticks on using natural processes. You see, you can inject your god in there if you like but the deity appears completely unnecessary for the universe to function. Disregarding a few 'unknowns" such as the beginning of time and space or the origin of life (amongst others) the universe just doesn't require any intervening hand nor any guidance from a celestial being. The idea of a god is simply unnecessary and completely subjective. I will stand by my statement that the natural world is prima facie and the idea of god is suggested to an infant or adult proceeding first experiences, it is not intrinsic. The idea of god is told, passed down, inherited if you will, through conversation and verbal cues. It is far from obvious in the natural order, this assertion is reinforced by a glance at many animist or polytheists living in sodden jungles or sweeping plains. They do not ‘see’ this god by themselves as a child does not ‘see’ it. Besides, if the natural world is not the objective base foundation for perception then which religion objectively replaces that role?

I'm only reticent about calling metaphysical naturalism 'true' because I view the term ‘reality’ as a synonym to the natural order, whatever that means. This in part answers your very last question regarding my personal nomenclature. I am only an atheist in the sense that there has been no evidence provided me to unambiguously show the existence of a deity. I hold that the possibility indeed remains but I have no reason to believe in any god (hence my soft-spot for deism). This is why I view the supernatural as a human addition to clear reality rather than the cause of it. 

I will definitely refute the idea of the world looking designed by saying that it is absurd to pronounce such a conclusion using an n size of 1. We simply have no other world or universe to compare to make that assertion (yet). The appearance of the universe and the world as 'designed' is entirely subjective and far from a reality in any sense of the term apart from personal. It's not that naturalism is a simple explanation it's that the supernatural is an exorbitantly unnecessary and redundant explanation. I thoroughly concede that naturalism may not have a "significant explanatory value of adequacy" but simply not feeling good about the conclusions, meanings or implications of a view does not make it incorrect. The world has currently about 560 billion tonnes of life. This is compared to the total mass of the earth 1,877.29 Billion tonnes. Giving it figure of approximately 9% of the earth’s mass as life. If you think that this proves life is fine-tuned or designed for this earth, you’ll also agree that finding an a group of iron atom in a rock the size of Russia is proof that the rock is designed to be a Ferrari. The numbers are even smaller if you take into account our solar system’s planetary mass. And as for the assertion that this planet is 'designed for human', don’t even get me started on the amount of humans compared to cynobacteria...

I would also challenge you, as mentioned somewhere above, to point out the convincing proof that your particular god or supernatural view is responsible for this so-called "going with what we see as being real". If there is such obvious evidence for the truth of the supernatural then why are there so many differing opinions about god, each opinion holder grasping as tightly as the next to their particular views on religion? 

But this also partly answers your musings on the validity of personal experiences. If you think, as you must, that your own experiences and those of others with a similar mindset provide validation for your god or religion then you must also take every personal supernatural experience as positive proof for their respective experiences. Otherwise, give me a cogent reason why your experiences outweigh those of others' (and specifically a criterion to objectively perform an unbiased test to establish the validity of your claims). I am forced to say that claims made without supporting evidence can be dismissed without supporting evidence.

Naturalism does carry the burden of proof, no doubt about it. This doesn't surprise me in the slightest. The difference between the supernatural and the natural lies in the eminent testability of the latter and the total lack of detection of the former. This is where you and I depart. I have no issues with the testing of the natural world because so far as we can assume, it exists; it's the supernatural world that needs to be definitively uncovered and that fails the burden of proof. Naturalism succeeds because everything that we experience through our senses in this universe stems from natural causes. Any recourse to blame supernatural causes only stagnates progress and kicks the can further down the road. Indeed, as history shows whenever we've thought an event was the responsibility of this or that godhead it always turns out to be of natural causes. There's an old saying that goes, "Before you assert that an event was out of this world, make sure it is not of this world". 

No, my assertion of a claim-less atheism does not make it equivalent to agnosticism (a slippery term at best and one that supports atheism rather than theism, also sometimes called 'weak-atheism'). I am an atheist because I say no convincing argument given nor any evidence presented has ever established the existence of god/s. I can only speak for myself when I say that I am open and willing to change my mind if sufficient evidence is provided. This is a difficult target to hit for a supernatural entity though, because as the classification belies, any interdiction or presentation from this being would require it to follow natural processes in order for me to experience it. This action immediately shoots the supernatural deity in the metaphorical foot by transforming the supernatural into the natural, making any evidence for the supernatural definitively impossible. I'm sure this god could think of something to get around this dilemma but I would be simply imagining things, making stuff up in other words. 

A convincing argument for god is not entirely a different story however. Plenty of people have made rather good, cogent syllogisms establishing their god’s existence. I would suggest however that no mammalian primate could ever claim to know or prove the existence of a supernatural being on principle. Further, any Christian's claim to prove the existence of their god by argument ultimately achieves nothing and is worse than futile. All their work lies ahead of them still to prove their personal, interdicting, miracle-working, son-sending god. All anyone can ever do with argument is to make the existence of a deist god appear at least plausible. 

I will peruse your archives and read more of your opinions about theological matters though, for sure.


Peter S. Williams reply to me

Here's the first reply from Peter. If you feel you have anything to say about this, feel free to leave a comment below.

Dear Nathan,

Nice to hear from you.

I agree with you that Dawkins strays too far from his expertise in biology when addressing metaphysical questions and that he too readily asserts ‘that science can disprove the idea of god or that the god concept is provably illusory’ :-)

I obvisouly have a lower opinion of Dawkin’s excursus into theology and philosophy than you do, but I doubt it would be worth our time to get sidetracked into the detail of such a non-substantive disagreement. I would simply observe, on the one hand, that many atheist philosophers (such as Julian Baggini, Michael Ruse and Thomas Nagel) have been critical of Dawkins’ approach; and, on the other hand, that that there are atheist critics of theism outside the neo-atheist camp whose arguments I think are far more subtle and informed.

If Dawkins is only aiming to critique the ‘most common and most foundational ideas about religion held by most lay-people’ I could critique him for asserting things about the beliefs of lay people that don’t apply to many ‘lay people’ that I know; or I could simply set aside his whole project as irrelevant to the questions of whether theism and/or Christianity is true, or a rational belief system, at a more advanced level of discourse.

For example, along with other new-atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, A.C. Grayling and Victor J. Stenger, Dawkins would clearly endorse your statement that ‘as every believer asserts, they do not rest their belief on evidence, argument, or logic but on a completely subjective "experience" of their god (whatever that means!).’ Even setting to one side the question of religious experience and whether or not it is accurate to dismiss it as a completely subjective experience, rather than as evidence that must be taken into account, this statement is false - even when applied to lay people. I know, and have known, a great many 'lay people' in many churches over many years (I am one myself), and I know that this assertion isn’t true. I rest my faith (i.e. trust) on experience, evidence, argument and logic. Of course, my experience may be a delusion, my evidence may likewise be a delusion, or be incorrectly interpreted, or be insufficient, my arguments may be unsound and my logic invalid – but Dawkins et al claim that faith means setting aside any notion of rational warrant for one’s beliefs – and this is a demonstrably false claim. Whether or not faith is warranted, many believers (I’m not disputing the existence of some fideists) take it that their faith is warranted by evidence, argument, etc.

As for experience and the burden of proof, I totally agree with you that ‘we simply have to go with what we see as being real’ – or as philosopher Richard Swinburne puts this 'principle of credulity': we should take things to be the way they seem to us to be in the absence of sufficient counter-evidence. I don’t see why the mere fact that people’s apparent experience of the natural world precedes people’s apparent experience of God should make the latter experience suspect.

I agree with you that the natural world exists, of course, but I don’t think that it is the only kind of reality that exists; that is, I do not think that metaphysical naturalism is a true worldview.

It seems that you are reticent about claiming that naturalism is a true description of reality: ‘is metaphysical naturalism true? I'm not sure the word “true” is accurate here.’ But you do want to make naturalism your default position: ‘This is none other than the default position, a base assertion if you will.’ I wonder if the principle of credulity, when applied to the evident reality of your own consciousness, doesn’t imply a distinction between that consciousness and the apparently non-conscious realities of the natural, material world around you. In other words, I think that metaphysical naturalism is not warranted prima facie as a worldview even if we set aside the question of God, because the principle of credulity is against it when it comes to our experience of ourselves as feeling, reasoning, choosing beings. Perhaps naturalism will meet this burden of proof (I personally doubt it), but it seems to me that the prima facie, default position here is not the naturalistic one.

Indeed, as many philosophers have pointed out, it is our experience of our own conscious awareness, thought etc. that is the primordial experience, and the reality of non-conscious realities in the material universe is something only known through the experience of consciousness.

Naturalism is in effect an error theory, which says that ‘Although it looks like mind isn’t the same as matter, although it looks like the world is the product of design, etc., actually that appearance is misleading and everything can be accounted for by a simple naturalistic worldview.’

Now, I grant that naturalism has the explanatory value of simplicity – but I doubt it has the more significant explanatory value of adequacy; and simply in terms of going with what we see as being real, it seems to me that naturalism starts off on the back foot, whether or not it can push back against this opening disadvantage.

Whether or not atheism carries the burden of proof for someone who lacks a relevant religious experience (a matter that would depend upon how strong you thought the extension of the ‘principle of credulity’ to taking seriously other people’s reported experiences via the ‘principle of testimony’ was), it seems to me that naturalism does carry the burden of proof.

Your definition of atheism as making no claim about the existence or non-existence of God - ‘The atheist does not make any claim, full stop… the atheist makes no claim.’ – surely makes atheism indistinguishable from agnosticism. So I’d be interested to know if you consider yourself an atheist or an agnostic?

As for objective evidence for theism, I refer you to the sources listed in my original e-mail.

Yours truly,

Peter S. Williams

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Science Saved My Soul

Credited to

Science Saved My Soul transcript

I ran across a new video on YouTube this week entitled Science Saved My Soul. It is such a compelling multimedia experience that I decided to take the time to transcribe it. In short, it is one part galactic, scientific, poetic “mindgasm”; one part exposition on religion; and one part Arcade Fire music video. (Note that, while educational, there are two uses of profanity.) I will save any other analysis of the video for a different blog post. I don’t know the proper formatting for transcription, and I’ve made at least one guess during a part that I couldn’t understand (it’s underlined).

This is the first time I’ve come across a video from YouTube user philhellenes and he does not include any information about himself (that I could find). His channel page reads, “ANYONE can download, copy or mirror ANY of my stuff without asking for permission,” so I’ve included my own copy of the Flash file here, as well; sorry, I didn’t feel like finding conversion software to make it into an AVI.

Science Saved My Soul, YouTube image

The video description on YouTube (posted November 1, 2010; 14:59 long):
Yes, many of those thinkers to whom I owe my mental freedom were religious, like Newton, a Christian, who believed God made the Earth but who then showed me why the Earth would have formed without a god’s help. Or Plank and Schrodinger, two more Christians, who believed God ruled the Universe but showed me how God could not control a single electron. The discoveries these and many other people made, the laws they are famous for, are the very things that make gods getting humans pregnant, or angels whispering to prophets in caves, look infantile. I could never and would never question their intelligence. Their honesty and intellectual consistency are a different matter.
I can stand on the shoulders of giants and see what even they seemingly could not.
I’m not against the Creator(s), if they exist, if they ever existed. I’m not against the search for the Creator(s). What blows MY mind is that people think religion has anything to do with it at all.
My transcription. Please let me know of any mistakes and I will do my best to correct them. Also, if anyone cares to identify the celebrities (starting at the 11:59 mark), I can add their names to the transcript in the appropriate places.

Three summers ago, I was staying in a caravan a long way from the nearest city. It was usually pitch black at night. I had given my word that I would not smoke inside, so at 1 a.m. I stepped outside for a cigarette.

After a few minutes of standing in the darkness, I realized that I could see my hand quite clearly—something I’d noticed that I could not do on previous nights—so I looked up, expecting to see the glow of the full moon, but the moon was nowhere in sight.

Instead, there was a long glowing cloud directly overhead. The Romans called it the Via Galactica (the Road of Milk); today we call it the Milky Way. For those who missed the lesson at school that day, the basic facts are these:
  • Remembering that 1 light year is equivalent to 6 trillion miles, our galaxy has a total diameter of somewhere around 100 thousand light years.
  • Our Sun is located towards the edge of one of the galaxy’s spiral arms—about 26 thousand light years out from the central bulge of the galaxy. It takes 200 to 250 million years for the Sun to complete one orbit of the central bulge.
  • Surrounding the galaxy, above and below the disc in a spherical halo, there are approximately 200 globular clusters which may contain up to a million stars each. The Milky Way itself contains 200 billion stars, give or take.
These numbers are essential to understanding what a galaxy is, but when contemplating them, some part of the human mind protests that it cannot be so. Yet an examination of the evidence brings you to the conclusion that it is. And if you take that conclusion out on a clear dark night and look up, you might see something that will change your life.
Science Saved My Soul screenshot
Science Saved My Soul screenshot (@ 2:26)
This is what a galaxy looks like. From the inside. From the suburbs of our Sun.

Through binoculars, for every star you can see with your naked eye you can see 100 around it, all suspended in a gray blue mist. But through a modest telescope, if you wait for your eyes to adjust to the dark and get the focus just right… you will see that mist for what it really is: More stars. Like dust, fading into what tastes like infinity.
But you’ve got to have the knowledge. Seeing is only half of it.
That night three years ago, I knew a small part of what’s out there—the kinds of things, the scale of things, the age of things, the violence and destruction, appalling energy, hopeless gravity, and the despair of distance—but I feel safe, because I know my world is protected by the very distance that others fear. It’s like the universe screams in your face, “Do you know what I am? How grand I am? How old I am? Can you even comprehend what I am? What are you, compared to me?” And when you know enough science, you can just smile up at the universe and reply, “Dude, I am you.”

When I looked at the galaxy that night, I knew the faintest twinkle of starlight was a real connection between my comprehending eye along a narrow beam of light to the surface of another sun. The photons my eyes detect (the light I see, the energy with which my nerves interact) came from that star. I thought I could never touch it, yet something from it crosses the void and touches me. I might never have known. My eyes saw only a tiny point of light, but my mind saw so much more.

I see the invisible bursts of gamma radiation from giant stars converting into pure energy by their own mass. The flashes that flashed from the far side of the universe long before Earth had even formed. I can see the invisible microwave glow of the background radiation leftover from the Big Bang. I see stars drifting aimlessly at hundreds of kilometers per second, and the space-time curving around them. I can even see millions of years into the future.
That blue twinkle will blow up one day, sterilizing any nearby solar systems in an apocalypse that makes the wrath of human gods seem pitiful by comparison—yet it wasfrom such destruction that I was formed. Stars must die so that I can live.

I stepped out of a supernova… And so did you.

In light of this inarguable fact (this hard-earned knowledge, this partial but informative truth), what place then in the 21st century and beyond for the magical claims of organized religion?

The first religions were primitive by any definition. For reasons of limited population, communication, and plain old geography, they never grew to be anything other than a local concern. But religions mutate in time and grow in sophistication as each generation of holy men learn what works and what doesn’t. What makes people obedient and what causes rebellion. What ideas people can easily escape and which will haunt them until they have to pray just to stop the nagging fear.

When populations grew due to the slow but steady growth of knowledge, as if confronted by a bumper harvest, the religions went into an arms race with each other. From gods of wind and thunder and sea, the threats, incentives, and claims of power escalate until every dominant organized religion has a god that is all-powerful, all-loving, all-seeing, and words like “infinity” and “eternity” are deployed cheaply while all other words are open to abuse until they mean exactly what the religions want them to mean.

That night under the Milky Way, I who experienced it cannot call the experience a religious experience, for I know it was not religious in any way. I was thinking about facts and physics, trying to visualize what is, not what I would like there to be. There’s no word for such experiences that come through scientific and not mystical revelation. The reason for that is that every time someone has such a “mindgasm”, religion steals it simply by saying, “Ahh, you had a religious experience.” And spiritualists will pull the same shit. And both camps get angry when an atheist like me tells you that I only ever had these experiences after rejecting everything supernatural. But I do admit that after such experiences (the moments when reality hits me like a winning lottery ticket) I often think about religion… and how lucky I am that I am not religious. You want to learn something about God? Okay, this is one galaxy.

If God exists, God made this. Look at it. Face it. Accept it. Adjust to it, because this is the truth and it’s probably not going to change very much. This is how God works. God would probably want you to look at it. To learn about it. To try to understand it. But if you can’t look—if you won’t even try to understand—what does that say about your religion? As Bishop Lancelot Andrewes once said, “The nearer the church, the further from God.”

Maybe you need to run. Away from the mosque. Away from the church. Away from the priests and the Imams. Away from the Books to have any chance of finding God. Squeeze a fraction of a galaxy into your mind and then you’ll have a better idea of what you’re looking for. To even partially comprehend the scale of a single galaxy is to almost disappear. And when you remember all the other galaxies, you shrink 100 billion times smaller still—but then you remember what you are.  The same facts that made you feel so insignificant also tell you how you got here. It’s like you become more real—or maybe the universe becomes more real. You suddenly fit. You suddenly belong. You do not have to bow down. You do not have to look away. In such moments, all you have to do is remember to keep breathing.

The body of a newborn baby is as old as the cosmos. The form is new and unique, but the materials are 13.7 billion years old, processed by nuclear fusion in stars, fashioned by electromagnetism. Cold words for amazing processes. And that baby was you. Is you.You’re amazing. Not only alive, but with a mind. What fool would exchange this for everywinning lottery ticket ever drawn? When I compare what scientific knowledge has done for me and what religion tried to do to me, I sometimes literally shiver.

Religions tell children they might go to hell and they must believe, while science tells children they came from the stars and presents reasoning they can believe. I’ve told plenty of young kids about stars and atoms and galaxies and the Big Bang and I have never seen fear in their eyes—only amazement and curiosity. They want more. Why do kids swim in it and adults drown in it? What happens to reality between our youngest years and adulthood? Could it be that someone promised us something so beautiful that our universe seems dull, empty, even frightening by comparison? It might still be made by a Creator of some kind but religion has made it look ugly. Religion paints everything not of itself as unholy and sinful while it beautifies and dignifies its areas, lies, and bigotry (like a pig wearing the finest robes). In its efforts to stop us facing reality, religion has become the reality we cannot face. Look at what religion has made us do, to ourselves and to each other. Religion stole our love and our loyalty and gave it to a book—to a telepathic father that tells his children that love means kneeling before him. Now I’m not a parent, but I say that those kids are gonna turn out messed up—it cannot be healthy for a child or a species.

We were told long ago and for a long time that there was only the Earth—that we were the center of everything. That turned out to be wrong. We still haven’t fully adjusted. We’re still in shock. The universe is not what we expected it to be. It’s not what they told us it would be. This cosmic understanding is all new to us. But there’s nothing to fear. We’re stillspecial. We’re still blessed. And there might yet be a heaven, but it isn’t going to be perfect. And we’re going to have to build it ourselves.

If I have something that could be called a soul that needed saving, then science saved it… from religion.

There are too many people, to many moments to thank.

Some people find it, really, very depressing that the universe can only support life for another 30 billion years—

30. Billion. Years. Are you fucking kidding me?

Something filled up
My heart with nothing
Someone told me not to cry
But now that I’m older
My heart’s colder
And I can see that it’s a lie
Children, wake up
Hold your mistake up
Before they turn the summer into dust
I guess we’ll just have to adjust

3.9 Mpc/h
7.8 Mpc/h
15.6 Mpc/h
31.25 Mpc/h
62.5 Mpc/h
125 Mpc/h
250 Mpc/h

Science saved my soul…
…from religion
500 Mpc/h
1 Gpc/h

Some rights reserved CC BY 

Creationist Bill Dembksi forced to recant science, or lose job

It is with a mix of intrigue and humour that I stumbled across this story. It’s quite revealing, pointing unambiguously to the ideology of utter science rejection in the Creationist camp. Most people have known about this for a while but this very public chapter has highlighted the ongoing suspicion that Creationism is actually pseudoscience. Not content to attack the scientific establishment any more (although I’m it will continue) the Discovery Institute has rabidly turned on a senior member, William Dembski. As the article states Dembski is a princely figure amongst Creationists,

And make no mistake about it; William Dembski is a first order star in the intelligent design firmament. He is a prolific author who has earned both a Ph.D. in mathematics as well as a Masters of Divinity degree. He is a fellow of the Discovery Institute and a professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Indeed, you can't read anything about intelligent design without encountering Dembski's arguments in support of this version of creationism. 

Dembski's own views were simply over-ridden by the so-called "truth" of biblical inerrancy, and by the very human directors of the Discovery Institute intent on reinforcing their large pay packet from generous American Christians who obviously were unimpressed by Dembski’s metaphorical reading of the Bible. Of course Creationism has nothing to do with science, this is obvious (and neither does it's step daughter ID), but the way Dembski has portrayed it in the past ten years or so as being entirely scientific is a lesson in dishonesty. For a man with legitimate training in the sciences his behaviour in trying to 'wedge' his beliefs into the school and academic systems are scorn-worthy.

Which of Dembski's ideas were up for revision? Not the one's you'd expect, e.g. irreducible complexity or the vast conflagration of numbers and boggling statistics that somehow 'disprove' evolution and empirical scientific study, instead: 

At issue were two of Dembski's beliefs, as expressed in his latest book The End of Christianity and elsewhere: that the earth is 4.5 billion years old and the universe 14 billion years, and that Noah's flood was regional rather than worldwide...

Patterson went on to say, "Had I had any inkling that Dr. Dembski was actually denying the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible, then that would have, of course, ended his relationship with the school."

In my humble opinion this sets the Discovery Institute further apart from reality than they perhaps already were. It also serves as a poignant reminder to recall how science really works. We do not rely on some holy text written by nomadic sheep farmers in Bronze-age Palestine, or any text for that matter. The writings we rely on are tested constantly by eminently transparent instruments and methods, always subject to new and unexpected evidence. Our 'truth', if such a word is indeed appropriate here, is provisional and it changes, no, refines over the centuries. Rather than becoming mired in the belligerently unshifting clays of dogma, the tool of science progresses towards what can only be described as a better view of reality. Creationists start with their answer cutting the puzzle-pieces up to make the picture fit, leaving a distorted and fudged scene.  

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said, "Theologically, the historical Adam as the common ancestor of the human race is the most important issue. But the question is, how in the world do you end up with an historical Adam if you have an old earth? It's becoming increasingly clear that an old earth implies something other than an historical Adam."

As an aside, this paragraph does cut to the core of the issue for Dembski. It is simply untenable to hold what he considers are compatible views, old earth = genesis account, then when the implications of our planet’s age (let alone the galaxy and universe) make the story one of impossibility. There was neither any 'first man' nor any 'first woman' (made chauvinistically from the male's rib of course) that began our species. Such a small number would mean certain inescapable implications for genetics and medicine we should have discovered by now, but so far we have not. One must only consider the Cheetah, a species that historically has undergone such a sharp population bottle-neck (down to perhaps a few hundred cats at most) that today skin grafts from any individual feline around the world can be successfully transferred to any other Cheetah due to their tight genetic similarity that resulted. This simply cannot be done with most other species, let alone through our diverse human population. Two humans begetting what would eventually become c7 billion individuals today would be obvious to genetic sequencers.   

But a world without Adam has further caustic implications for the Christian faith, implications Dembski may find it beneficial to consider. According to the myth Adam was the first man with sin, a fallen man once promised paradise. Without this original transgression one presumes the concept of sin (variously defined by different Christians of course) would never have entered our world. Be that as it may, Jesus specifically came to earth, died, and rose again to save us from these sins. I propose that if the story of Adam is legend, the story of the fall and subsequent introduction of sin is incoherent at best and utter nonsense at worst. It simply didn’t happen. From whence then doth sin arise, if not from the actions of our ghostly hero Adam and his betrothed Eve, then where? Therefore if the story of original sin is a fable Jesus' mission to remove the disease 'sin' was worse than futile. Christianity fails at the first chapter of the first book of its most holy tome. 

I do feel slightly sorry for Bill, after all, as the article correctly suggests, he is subject to day-to-day issues of providing for his family. Retention of his job would have been of primary importance for him coming into that boardroom, and so it should have been. Bill actually displayed some semblance of understanding reality as he recanted his blasphemous views on the history of our universe. If there's anything good to take away from this story it is here.