Monday, December 31, 2007

Superstition in Hollywood

Last night I went to see the new animated "Bee movie". It was a cute entertaining movie and I would recommend it to anyone, however, one thing in the movie bugged me =). In the very beginning of the movie there was a black screen and on it they wrote the infamous myth that "According to all known laws of aviation the bee should not be able to fly, but unaware of this fact, the bee continues to fly anyway.

This is of course nonsense, and it annoys me a little bit that they could not do a Google search to find out whether their claim is true or false… So Seinfeld, if you read this, Bees have been studied intensively, and according to the laws of aerodynamics they can fly. The citation above is based on the assumption that insects fly like airplanes and thus need same wing-area, an assumption which is simply not true. Bees and insects in general are small compared to airplanes and they accomplish their lifting force in qualitatively different ways. We do not know the details of how all insects fly, however, bees have in fact been studied rather intensively, and they can fly. If you are still in doubt take a look at any one of these links:

Caltech – Transcript of the original research

Wikipedia – Go to "bee flight"

Live Science

Ask Dr. Galapagos – Detailed analysis of this question

Skepticality discussion board – Discussion on all explicit and implicit claims in Bee Movie

Seinfeld and his friends are hardly the sole perpetrators when it comes to spreading superstitions. I have always been a fan of the series X-files. In the X-files (which I have heard is based on real cases) you have two FBI agents, Mulder and Scully. In a typical episode Mulder and Scully gets a case with weird circumstances and they go to investigate. Mulder always come up with a supernatural explanation, often involving grey aliens with pear-shaped heads, whereas Scully always comes up with a scientific explanation involving hallucinations and rare scientific phenomenon. Sounds like a perfect setting right?

The only problem is that in every episode Scully's scientific explanation is always ridiculed. In the series you often see the supernatural events actually occurring, sometimes they happen right in front of Scully, and yet she sticks with her scientific dogmatism – looking really dumb in the process.

My worry here is simply that a lot of people will walk away from their screens believing that scientists are extremely narrow minded people, even though they are not. I would bet that no scientist would ever claim that bees cannot fly – we see that they do. Just because there currently is no satisfactory theoretical explanation for a certain phenomenon does not mean that one has to deny its existence, and I don't know any scientist who would think like that. As a student of the brain I constantly come across examples where a phenomenon has been detected "e.g. consciousness", and yet there is no good theoretical account of how that phenomenon is caused. Much of science is devoted to finding such explanations – how are bees able to fly even though they have so small wings?, how does this thing that we call consciousness come about in the brain? Scientists do not deny inexplicable phenomenon, they study them and try to come up with an answer, a noble endeavor indeed.

Ps: My productivity has been a little poor lately. The reason is simply that I have been extremely busy. My blog is not about to die…

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Do we have a soul?

It is easy to get lost in a discussion about the existence or nonexistence of the soul. However, quite frequently conflicts do not arise because people disagree, but rather because they are using different definitions of the soul. Depending on the definition used I either believe or do not believe in the existence of a soul. A common though not very useful definition of "the soul" is what we really are, the core of our selves, or something like that. I would perhaps be inclined to call this "personality" rather than soul, but if that is what is meant by soul then yes, I think I do have one.

If on the other hand the soul is seen as something which is necessarily immaterial, then I do not believe in it. Hypothetically, should someone make an exact replica of me, with the exact same atoms in the exact same places, nothing more would be required. The replica and I would be impossible to distinguish from each other. The replica would react to any stimuli like me, would have the same childhood memories, be attracted to the same things, and just like me the replica would be disgusted by the smell of an orange.

This would not last long though. If me and my replica would continue our lives, then gradually subtle environmental differences would form us in non-identical ways, resulting in some small differences. These differences would ultimately affect the choices of me and my replica and consequently our preference would diverge. This, in turn, would lead to escalating environmental differences and increasingly different personalities or, if you prefer, souls. The resulting differences between me and my replica would be reflected in the way our atoms are put together, so we would no longer contain the exact same atoms. Nevertheless, there would probably be many striking similarities as well. There are examples of genetically identical twins that have grown up in very different environment, and still similarities have been extremely apparent.

What do I base this belief on? My main piece of evidence is that there does not seem to be any part of the personality that cannot be affected by brain injury. In my neuropsychology course I read about many patients with exotic brain injuries. A famous patient called HM, who is still alive, is unable to form any new memories. As a result he still thinks that he is 25 years old and he does not recognize the researchers who have visited him every day for several decades. Another older case is that of Phineas Gage who got a metal stick shot up through the frontal part of the brain. To everyone's amazement Gage did not die from the injury, however, according to his colleagues he was not the same after the injury. Following the injury he started swearing and behaved inappropriately to the extent that he lost his job. However, the most striking case that I can remember only vaguely is that of a responsible normal woman with three kids. Due to a tumor in her brain she suddenly underwent a radical personality change. Her behavior went from normative to completely reckless, and from being a good and faithful wife, she became extremely uninhibited and promiscuous…

One needs merely to take a look at a severe case of Alzheimer disease to see that material changes in the brain can change a person beyond recognition. Some would say that there is always something left, that even though Anna is now eating her own feces and hitting her children when they come to visit, she is still Anna, somewhere inside. I don't think so. Sure, she is still called Anna, and one can still recognize her appearance, but other than that Anna is not Anna anymore. The soul of Anna is very different from the soul Anna used to have before she got Alzheimer.

In sum, due to the fact that there seems to be no sacred part of the personality, nothing which cannot be affected by changes of a material nature. Due to this I do not believe that we have an immaterial soul. Normally I try to avoid the word altogether because of the confusion that arises, but this is my current thoughts on this issue. The discussion here has many important implications, for instance it should affect how to think about free will vs. determinism. I have written about that here.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

My review of Richard Dawkins "The God Delusion"

I have now completed my extensive review of Richard Dawkins latest book, The God Delusion. My word counter tells me that the entire review is about 10,000 words long. The book has received massive attention, and Dawkins has visited many Universities as well as talkshows to speak about his book. You can take part of some of it by going here.

Here follows links to my reviews on all the different chapters...

Chapter 1 - A deeply religious non-believer
Chapter 2 - The God hypothesis
Chapter 3 - Arguments for God's existence
Chapter 4 - Why there is almost certainly no God
Chapter 5 - The roots of religion
Chapter 6 - The roots of morality
Chapter 7 - The good book and the changing moral zeitgeist
Chapter 8 - What's wrong with religion? Why be so hostile
Chapter 9 - Childhood, abuse, and escape from religion
Chapter 10 - A much needed gap?

Happy reading!

Monday, November 26, 2007

The God Delusion, Chapter 10 – A much needed gap?

Is a belief in God beneficial? Do we need God in our lives? Richard Dawkins discusses this issue in chapter 10 of the God Delusion. The first point he makes is that, whether or not a belief in God is beneficial in terms of psychological health or whatever, says nothing about the existence of God. There are studies indicating that religious people, on average are happier and healthier than atheists. The difference was not big but it was significant. However, it would be very erroneous to conclude that just because religion is correlated with happiness, God must exist… Dawkins writes:

"Religion's power to console doesn't make it true. Even if we make a huge concession; even if it were conclusively demonstrated that belief in God's existence is completely essential to human psychological and emotional well-being; even if all atheists were despairing neurotics driven to suicide by relentless cosmic angst - none of this would contribute the tiniest jot or tittle of evidence that religious belief is true. It might be evidence in favour of the desirability of convincing yourself that God exists, even if he doesn't."

Personally I do think that the world would be a better place if people would have an evidence based world view. Politicians today often get stuck when religious arguments are brought to the table. Should Jerusalem be in the possession of the Israeli, or the Palestinian's? How do you argue with Bush when he claims that the Iraq invasion was a mission given to him by God? There is just not so much you can say in response to such an argument. To be fair, this was not his primary argument for going to war, but my point stands nevertheless.

I do not believe in God, yet I consider myself happy and I enjoy my life. When I face misfortunes I do not pray to God to help me, rather I try to come up with a concrete and effective solution to whatever it is I am facing. I realize of course that I have been born in a wealthy part of the world and that my miseries are nothing compared to the miseries that the average human being must face, yet even for them I think that it would be better not to rely on God to console and fix things. An additional bonus that you get as an atheist, at least to the extent that atheists do not believe in reincarnation, is that you value your time here on earth more. I do not believe that I will be reborn when I die, therefore I want to make the best of the time that I have here on this planet. For this reason I am also unlikely to end up as a suicide bomber. Only a very religious person would sacrifice something as valuable as his or her own life in order to kill other innocent people.

In short, there are plenty of reasons to be grateful for our time here on earth. One does not need God to have some substance in life. My life is filled with substance, and I think that for most people, even for religious people, the principal sources of happiness lie outside of the realm of religion. I end with these words from the God Delusion which illustrates my point well.

"But could it be that God clutters up a gap that we'd be better off filling with something else? Science, perhaps? Art? Human friendship? Humanism? Love of this life in the real world, giving no credence to other lives beyond the grave? A love of nature, or what the great entomologist E. O. Wilson has called Biophilia"

Monday, October 22, 2007

The God Delusion, Part 9 – Childhood, abuse, and escape from religion

Chapter nine in The God Delusion, as the name suggests, deals with the way in which children are indoctrinated into faiths. In my opinion chapter nine is the most controversial one in the entire book. Personally I agree with most of what Dawkins writes, though occasionally I can have some understanding for a certain degree of child indoctrination. It is after all difficult to act in a completely neutral way towards children without letting your ideology shine through at all. I expect that it is even more difficult if you believe passionately in something as many religious people do. Personally when a child asks me about my beliefs I always say that I do not believe in any God, but I am also quick to point out that there are people who thinks otherwise. I will gladly explain why I do not believe in a God, but I try to not force the child into adapting my views. I also try to ask children what they think, thus encouraging them to think for themselves. These are my ideals, but I admit that sometimes I don't live up to them entirely, and I cannot expect religious people to do so if I do not… Dawkins writes (and I think he may be going a bit too far here).

"In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense, and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children's teeth out or lock them in a dungeon."

Nevertheless, the damage that results form child labeling and child indoctrination is undeniable. Suicide bombers often commit their deeds because it will bring financial support to their family, however, I do not think they would have done what they do was it not for their strong religious faith. As Dawkins often points out, it is also very weird that we label children as Muslim or Christian considering how complicated belief systems really are. Have they read the bible and reflected on its validity? I seriously doubt it… It is entirely equivalent to labeling children according to some political affiliation, e.g. "a communist child", or a "social democrat child". Children should be taught how to think, not what to think. Dawkins writes:

"I thank my own parents for taking the view that children should be taught not so much what to think as how to think. If, having been fairly and properly exposed to all the scientific evidence, they grow up and decide that the Bible is literally true or that the movements of the planets rule their lives, that is their privilege. The important point is that it is their privilege to decide what they shall think, and not their parents' privilege to impose it by force majeure."

In Sweden there is an ongoing debate (S) about whether confessional private schools should be allowed or not. Today we have a compromise in which religious movements are allowed to run schools as long as they do not have any religious perspectives in the normal subjects. They are however allowed to have some isolated religious events such as morning-prayer. As a liberal I find it hard to have a strong opinion in this debate. The essential question for me is how much the religious events in these schools contribute to indoctrination of children as well as whether going to such a school will prevent the children from meeting people with different ideologies. For instance, the Plymouth Brothers (S), a sect that has been allowed to start a private school in Sweden, have an ideology that explicitly says that it is not allowed to eat in the company of a "devil worshipper" like myself. Dawkins writes (and this I agree with completely):

"Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility, and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility. As for whether any are 'valid', let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so."

Another theme in chapter nine is the obsession that some people have with preservation of religious diversity which they see as positive seemingly independent of the consequences. The argument goes something like this. Who are we to judge that say female circumcision is wrong - that is their culture and we should respect that. In one American TV-program the ritual sacrifice of a young Inca girl was hailed as being exotic and a wonderful example of cultural diversity (the event took place about 500 years ago). Dawkins writes:

"Humphrey's point - and mine - is that, regardless of whether she was a willing victim or not, there is strong reason to suppose that she would not have been willing if she had been in full possession of the facts. For example, suppose she had known that the sun is really a ball of hydrogen, hotter than a million degrees Kelvin, converting itself into helium by nuclear fusion, and that it originally formed from a disc of gas out of which the rest of the solar system, including Earth, also condensed . . . Presumably, then, she would not have worshipped it as a god, and this would have altered her perspective on being sacrificed to propitiate it."…

"Humphrey makes the point that no adult woman who has somehow missed out on circumcision as a child volunteers for the operation later in life."

To sum everything up, though I think it is categorically wrong to impose your view on children I can understand that in practice this may be difficult to attain to a perfect degree. Beliefs will inevitably shine through. However, I cheer everyone who encourages autonomous thought in children. Ask them what do you think?, do you believe in God?, how do you think the world came to be?, and other questions like that? Let them have their say and let them know that they can believe what they want. At the very least, don't be like pastor Roberts who is running a Hell House in which children are taught what will happen to them if they would be so evil as to have an abortion (they have very generous age limits compared to for instance Hollywood, see picture). Pastor Roberts says:

"I would rather for them to understand that Hell is a place that they absolutely do not want to go. I would rather reach them with that message at twelve than to not reach them with that message and have them live a life of sin and to never find the Lord Jesus Christ. And if they end up having nightmares, as a result of experiencing this, I think there's a higher good that would ultimately be achieved and accomplished in their life than simply having nightmares."

Friday, October 12, 2007

What would be your choice of death?

When I was little I often contemplated and discussed with my friends what would be the best way to end your days? I actually still think about this sometimes. I have often thought to myself that a high fall would be pretty neat, but then again, maybe you don't enjoy that kind of fall the same way you enjoy a rollercoaster… Floating into space is another alternative which have seemed like an attractive one to me. Until today all my reflections had been built on nothing, however, now that I have discovered this article from New Scientist, I am able to make a more informed choice about my preferred death scenario.

According to the article written by Anna Gosline, death is almost invariable caused by a lack of oxygen in the brain. How this oxygen deprivation arises is different from case to case. In the article ten different means of dying are discussed: drowning, heart attack, bleeding to death, fire, decapitation, electrocution, fall from a height, hanging, lethal injection, and explosive decompression. If your main priority is to not experience pain then your choice should be decapitation (a good decapitator is a requirement though), or fall from height. If conducted properly, these two methods will result in a rapid death and hence a minimum amount of suffering. Things can go wrong though. When Mary Queen of Scots was decapitated (see picture), the axeman failed to completely separate the head from the rest of the body in his first three attempts. He eventually finished the job with a dagger… Decapitation is probably the fastest way of dying, however, even an isolated head contains enough oxygen to function for about ten seconds. Hence, just like chickens can run around headless following decapitation, humans can operate their facial muscles. I don't know whether they can also experience consciousness, but I cannot see any reason why not (I wonder what it would feel like to just be a head)…

The "float into space scenario" has become a lot less attractive after reading the article. It seems to be a lot like drowning where you panic because you cannot get any oxygen. Additionally, your body will swell up like in the movie Total Recall (though they probably exaggerated a bit), not very pleasant in other words. Likewise, electrocution and lethal injection, seems to be rather unattractive choices. Electrocution is supposed to knock out the brain swiftly, however, whether this really happens is a matter of debate (the cranium is a good insulator and may thus prevent the bulk of electricity from entering the brain). An active brain will experience horrible pains as a result of the burns and the high current flowing through the body.

In the light of this, lethal injection seem like a much better alternative, at least if the dosing is right. Before getting the actual killer substance convicts are given a large dose of anesthesia and after that they won't feel a thing. The problem is just that occasionally the given dose is too small and then this alternative is no longer very attractive. Finally, falling from height does seem to be a fairly good alternative. At terminal velocity (the velocity you reach before the wind resistance balances the gravitational force), which is about 200km/h, the blow that you experience upon landing is so great that you can be fairly certain of a swift fatal dysfunction in your body, either the heart or the lungs explode or you crack your spine. If you try landing on your head results will be even "better"…

What would you choose?

Ps: I am not suicidal, I find life too facinating to want to kill myself, so you don't need to call any agencies...

Friday, October 5, 2007

Complementary and alternative medicine - Spontaneous recovery from disease

Alternative and complementary medicine refers to products and practices which are not part of the standard medical procedure that you get when you go to a hospital. Though the terms are often used interchangeably, alternative refers to when a practice aspires to replace standard medical care whereas complementary practices only aspire to complement standard medical procedure. For sure, for sure, medical research is far from a complete understanding of the physiology and anatomy of humans, and there are almost certainly many effective remedies which are not a part of the standard repertoire today. In the future we will no doubt see many advances in science and in consequence, new therapies to treat disease.

Having said this, complementary and alternative medicine suffers from what I consider to be a much more serious problem. First of, many of the techniques and practices used in alternative and complementary medicine have never been tested, or have not gained any support, in controlled studies and hence they have never proved to have any "real effect" (as opposed to placebo effect which they probably do have). Even more serious, because alternative therapies have often not been tested properly, it is hard to tell whether they have any serious side effects. What is almost certain is that if a particular substance has any effect at all, then it is more than likely to have side effects as well (see table at bottom of this article).

Sometimes alternative practices turn out to be effective and when they do they are eventually assimilated into standard medical practices. To be fair, this assimilation process can sometimes be agonizingly slow and some doctors are probably too conservative, however, the essence of the matter is that when an alternative treatment or therapy has gained enough support in studies it will cease to be "alternative" and become "standard". This is to some extent true for acupuncture, which is now used occasionally as a treatment for various conditions even though it has long been controversial. However, importantly, the mechanism that makes acupuncture work seems to be different from what has been claimed by those who have used this procedure in the past. No meridians have ever been demonstrated. Instead it seems that acupuncture stimulate pain sensing nerve endings. These nerve endings in turn exercise a form of lateral inhibition meaning that they block other pain sensing nerve endings around them, thus preventing the patient from experiencing pain in that area.

Complementary and alternative practices can often give the illusion of being effective because we recover spontaneously from diseases. We have an impressive immune system, which deals with seemingly limitless pathogens in an extremely efficient and competent manner. I am making up the numbers here, but say that after taking a certain herb 90% of all people recover from the flue within a week. Wow, surely there must be something to it then? But wait a minute. Almost everyone (say 90%) recovers from the flue within a week if they just stay home in bed. Suddenly these herbs do not seem that fantastic, and they seem even less attractive if you take into account the often excessive price tags.

Back pain is another example that deserves mention, and these figures I am not making up (they come from a lecture I attended recently). Nine out of ten (90% that is) cases of acute back pain will go away after one week. Combine this with the fact that 60-80% of all individuals will experience back pain sometime in their lifetime and what you get is an awful lot of cases of back pain that goes away in one week. Not surprisingly, at least not to a cynic like me, there are a huge number of alternative or complementary therapies for back pain, and they all seem really successful as long as you do not compare them to no treatment at all…

Here is my advice, my alternative therapy if you like. If you experience back pain, and don't have any other serious symptoms such as your vertebrae penetrating your back muscles (in which case I would advice going to a doctor), don't spend your money on all sorts of alternative/complementary therapies, rather relax for one week and see if the pain simple goes away (in most cases it will). Once you have recovered, use the money you would have spent on a therapy on something nice, such taking your girlfriend to a cozy restaurant. If the pain does not go away after one week, go see a doctor and have your back checked up…

Writing about alternative medicines is something that really warms my heart. I have written about homeopathy here, here and here, and here I have written about the role of the placebo effect.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Blog marketing tips – Building traffic and getting stats

I am now 62 posts into my life as a blogger. Some weeks have been more productive than others but overall I am happy with my publishing frequency. If you have a blog which you want people to read then it is not always enough to write superb posts. In order to get people to view your blog you need to market yourself, otherwise people will not find your blog. So far I have not found any method that gives me loads of visitors without me having to do anything, however, some ways work better than others. Here are my tips.

The most basic tip of all is to keep writing. If you do not update your blog frequently, people will not visit your blog frequently. It is also very important to establish some contacts. Go to other blogs and comment on their posts. If you appreciate a particular blog you can add a link to it on your blog and then ask them if they want to do the same. Commenting a lot on other blogs also spreads your name and in consequence makes people interested in what you have to say.

The next step is to get your blog indexed by search engines and blog catalogues. The easiest way to do this is to use a pinging service. Personally I use Pingoat and Ping-o-matic. Both of these pinging services announce your new posts to a few dozen search engines and blog catalogues.

If you have accomplished the basics above (not a trivial feat), then you can start to look at different web-applications that will help you build traffic. If you have a blog in English, some time to spend, and want to build traffic, then my best tip is to sign up for Blogexplosion. The concept is simple, if you read other peoples' blogs then they will read your blog. At blogexplosion you get 0.5 visitors for every 30s visit you make on a blog. Every now and then you also get so called "mystery credits", which is just a kind of bonus. So you really get a little bit more than 0.5 visitors on your blog for every 30s visit to another blog. There are various similar services, including Blogmad and Blogadvance, but Blogexplosion has worked best for me so far.

It is nice to be able to see how traffic builds on your new blog, and there are some neat ways of visualizing the trends. For basic stats and trends (see picture above) I use Blogflux topsites, which generates charts showing how many visitors I have had for the last month. Blogflux mapstats (see picture below) is another excellent service which allows you to see the location of the people who have visited your blog as well as the site from which they came, or alternatively, what they put into their search engine to find you. ClustrMaps (see picture far above) is a similar service which has the extra positive aspect of accumulating statistics – it does not throw away all the stats every day. However, ClustrMaps does not give you as much details as Blogflux mapstats, so it is up to you to decide.

There are of course countless additional tips, however, so far these have served me the best.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The God Delusion, part 8 – What’s wrong with religion? Why be so hostile

I do not think that religion is the only source of evil in this world. Humans have an instinct to form groups, and to amplify the differences between the in-group and the out-group. I am myself a fan of Manchester United, and for some weird reason I can get a little bit upset when someone criticize a player in the team or something similarly harmless. Now, I would never act on such feeling, however, there are fans or hooligans who in fact get into fights for such reasons, unbelievable as that may sound… I think that mankind will probably always find something to fight about, however, I also think that religion is the worst culprit of all when it comes to creating conflicts between groups. In chapter eight of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins addresses the very frequent question "what is wrong with religion"?

The danger of Islamic fundamentalism is obvious to most people. Last weekend I watched the movie United 93. Even though I have seen those planes fly into the world trade center thousands of times I still just cannot understand or accept that any human being can plan and execute such a deed which intentionally strikes against civilians, many of whom have had absolutely nothing to do with the miseries that the Muslim world has experienced. To take a plane full of civilians in great despair and then fly that plane right into a building with more such civilians is an act that must require a lot of faith. 9/11 was no zenith of terrorism. According to “The Religion of” Islamic terrorists have carried out more than 9500 deadly terror attacks since 9/11.

Islam is not the only religion with blood on its hands though. In Africa, countless massacres has been carried out in the name of Christianity. See for example Joseph Kony (see picture), proclaimed spirit medium and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

So where does religious extremism stem from, what causes it? I have not read any studies on this, and if someone could enlighten me then I would be grateful. However, I think it is beyond reasonable doubt that religion has to take part of the blame. In particular, the problem with almost all religions is that they teach the young that blind faith is a virtue. To doubt in God when there is no evidence is for some reason a horrible crime. As a consequence, religious people often cannot tell you what it would take for them to stop believing. This is one of the things that separates science and religion. Dawkins writes:

But my belief in evolution is not fundamentalism, and it is not faith, because I know what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming.

There are well documented differences in peoples' tendency to be open minded. Some individuals are born with a taste for absolute rules and principles and a great dislike for grey-scale ethics and knowledge. One could add to the speculation above that if individuals of this kind, who score low on openness, is brought up in say a Christian family, then it is probable that this individual will become more extreme in his/her faith than the parents. Maybe, unlike the parents, the youngster decides that the bible must be read literally and then he read from the bible that “He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the LORD only, he shall be utterly destroyed” (Exodus 22.20), right there you have the birth of an extremist. Dawkins explains it perhaps more elegantly than me when he writes:

The teachings of 'moderate' religion, though not extremist in themselves are an open invitation to extremism.

The religious movement in the United States seems to have abandoned the founding fathers' ideal of a true secular state. The intelligent design movement tries to bring religion into the classroom, a goal which may become a problem for them since the creator is not specified. Meanwhile there are the so called pro-life politicians (ironically, the same politicians tends to be strong proponents of the death penalty), who want a ban on abortion for faith based reasons. The religious movement in America has culminated (I hope) in a group referred to by outsiders as The American Taliban. I can find no difference between their rhetoric and that of Osama Bin Laden. According to Ann Coulter:

"We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That's war. And this is war."

Anyways, the main problem with faith and the answer to the question "what is wrong with religion" is that it idealizes faith without evidence. It is really hard to argue with someone who merely says "this is what I believe, and nothing can change that". Such an attitude makes it impossible to have discussion that is of any use. I will end with the following quote from Bertrand Russell (see picture) (which can also be found in The God Delusion):

Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


It is of course true that we cannot know anything for certain. For all we know, we may be living in "The Matrix", and everything we see is mere computer simulations. Likewise, we can never know for sure that a theory is true in an objective sense. I consider these two statements as uncontroversial, however, when relativists go one step further and argue that all theories are equivalent since no theory can be proven, that is when I must disagree…

People who use this reasoning have completely forgotten about the concept of evidence and prediction. Though a theory can never be proven in the absolute sense it can be better or worse at describing reality. Just as simple example there are people who claim that the world is spherical (or almost spherical), and there are those who claim that it is flat (based on religious reasoning I might add). What predictions does each of these two theories make? Well, one very simple prediction is that a round earth should cast "round" or banana shaped shadows on the moon when the earth is between the sun and the moon. If the earth was flat on the other hand, the shadow should be flat as well. Everyone who has ever gone out to watch the moon knows that the round earth theory gives the more accurate prediction. We cannot know for certain that the earth is round, but the predictions it makes agree with what we see. When a prediction is correct we can call that evidence. My point is simply that people do not walk around and think that the earth being flat and the earth being round are two equivalent theories just because neither can be proven. Almost everyone believes that the earth is round because there is so much evidence in favor of that theory.

I have previously argued that in fact it does not really matter whether a theory is true in the objective sense. As long as a particular theory is very good at predicting the world as we see it, it is a good theory and we should simply act as if it was true. It is this mentality together with the scientific method, which reduces the risk of seeing evidence where there is none that has brought us to where we are today. Here it is important to remember that if a theory is true in the objective sense, then all predictions derived from that theory would have to be true as well.

Relativists also like to point fingers at the scientific method. One frequent argument that you hear from relativists is that throughout history there has been paradigm shifts in almost all sciences. In astronomy for example we have gone from the Copernican system, to the Newtonian, to Einstein's relativity. Furthermore they claim that these paradigm shifts occur, not because latter theories are more accurate, but due to cultural factors. Relativists who use this argument, first of all, forget that history is also a science. They are using evidence which has been produced using the scientific method – the very same method which they are criticizing. Clearly hypocritical...

Besides, it is clear to me that all shifts in astronomy have been progressive. The details of the various paradigm shifts may have been influenced by sociological factors, however, the main reason for all the shifts have been that they make better predictions. Newton's theory of gravitation gives a better description than Copernicus theory, and Einstein's theory of relativity make better predictions than Newton's theory. Old theories are exchanged with new ones when the new ones are better at describing the world as we perceive it.

This will be all I write about relativism for now, but check back later if you want to read more. For some reason I end up in discussions about relativism very often, and therefore I also have many thoughts on the subject. Many of the arguments that I present here have been influenced by this book (see picture above), which I recommend to everyone.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


A big step for me and a tiny step for humanity… I have recently come to realize that a significant event in my career has occurred. For the first time in my life I have been plagiarized! Even though I am supposed to be upset I actually feel a bit honored, I mean, someone actually thought my writing was so good that she pretended it was her own.

What is plagiarism? Plagiarism is one of the worst crimes you can do in academia. The term is taken from the Latin term Plagiare which means "to kidnap". Essentially you plagiarize someone when you take their idea, theory or text, and reproduce it as if it was your own idea, theory, or text. Someone who is caught expressing other peoples' view as their own without proper acknowledgement are usually punished with suspension or even termination of their job as well as a very bad reputation. Plagiarism indeed, is a big No No in academia.

It is of course not always that easy to tell whether you are plagiarizing something. Although I try to give acknowledgements to the people who inspire this blog, I am relatively sloppy when it comes to doing exhaustive explorations of the literature. Therefore it is possible that some of the ideas I express as my own have actually been thought up before by someone else. I do not do this on purpose however, and I see that as essential. I sometimes copy texts that Richard Dawkins have written, but when I do I write "Richard Dawkins says…". I try not to leave the reader with the impression that it is my thoughts.

When checking Technocrati last time was happy to see that my blog continues to generate reactions, that is after all one of my goals i.e. to get people to discuss things. However, on one blog written by a woman called Abida, my work was not cited, it was plagiarized, stolen without any reference, link, or acknowledgement whatsoever of my work. So what Abida did was not "accidental plagiarism". She wrote one paragraph about The God Delusion, and the she used ctrl+c and ctrl+v for the rest of the text. A rather embarrassing behavior I think, at least when it is discovered or written about on another blog…

Ps: If you happen to read this Abida, perhaps you can put in a tiny little reference in "your" review, and all will be forgotten, and not to forget, you can sleep well at night without fear of the eternal fire in that special place in hell designated to plagiarists J.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The God Delusion, Part 7 – The Good book and the changing moral zeitgeist

In chapter seven of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins attacks the book from which some Christians claim to get their moral code from, I am speaking of course about the Old Testament. However, Dawkins makes it clear that he is not criticizing the moral or conduct of Christians per say, rather, he argues that Christians, like other mortals in fact do not derive their morals from the bible…

"We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories. Such picking and choosing is a matter of personal decision, just as much, or as little, as the atheist's decision to follow this moral precept or that was a personal decision, without an absolute foundation."

That people "pick and choose" among the moral guidelines in the bible becomes extremely obvious when you take into account what is actually advocated in the Old Testament. I believe that not even fundamentalist a Christians would send his or her daughter into the hands of rapists and murders (see Judges 19:23-4). I also wonder how many fundamentalist Christians actually think that God is doing the right thing when he commands the stoning of a poor man who worked on the Sabbath!? And then again there are people who believe strongly in their own interpretation of the bible, and based on that interpretation they commit horrible crimes… Richard Dawkins writes:

"As the Nobel Prize-winning American physicist Steven Weinberg said, 'Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.' Blaise Pascal (he of the wager) said something similar: 'Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."

Criticizing the Old Testament is like shooting a dead elephant, not very difficult. To me it is quite incomprehensible how people today can believe literally everything that is written in the Old Testament. It is even more difficult for me to understand why someone would want to get their morals from this book. Luckily Yahweh's son(?) Jesus came along. I hope that those who believe that Richard Dawkins is a fundamentalist atheist who hits out at anything and everything associated with religion, will read the following quote carefully…

Well, there's no denying that, from a moral point of view, Jesus is a huge improvement over the cruel ogre of the Old Testament. Indeed Jesus, if he existed (or whoever wrote his script if he didn't) was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history. The Sermon on the Mount is way ahead of its time. His 'turn the other cheek' anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years. It was not for nothing that I wrote an article called 'Atheists for Jesus' (and was later delighted to be presented with a T-shirt bearing the legend).

I also see Jesus as a role model in more than one respect and I think his philosophy is good, albeit not perfect. I admire Jesus in the same way that I admire other philosophers such Bentham, Mill, Rawls and Kant. All these men have influenced the way I think about good and bad, but I don't think any of these men have THE ethical philosophy. Similarly, Jesus as he is described in the New Testament has many good ideas and thoughts, but he is not always an example to follow. Dawkins writes.

Jesus' family values, it has to be admitted, were not such as one might wish to focus on. He was short, to the point of brusqueness, with his own mother, and he encouraged his disciples to abandon their families to follow him. 'If any man come to me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

Speaking about Jesus, I have also always asked myself why? Why did God have to incarnate himself, ridicule his incarnation, and then finally have him crucified just in order to forgive us? Why couldn't God, who is after all omnipotent and omniscient, just forgive our sins without going through all the trouble? I don't think I have ever gotten a straight answer to that question…

A couple a weeks ago I was asked the question which always pops up in discussions such as this one: What about Stalin and Hitler, they were atheists and they were evil!? Doesn't that mean that atheism makes people evil? No it doesn't. In my mind it is not important what a particular person or dictator believes. What matters to me is the behavior and actions of the person in question. Quite often a person's beliefs influence the behavior of the believer and then the beliefs becomes relevant. Religion I believe, in general, has a bad influence on people's behavior, in particular when we are talking about world leaders since they become more rigid and difficult to negotiate with. Atheism, I would argue, has no such effect on behavior. Hitler probably was religious (read the book if you want further justification of this point), but Joseph Stalin was certainly an atheist. Did atheism make Stalin commit his crimes, I believe not. Did his Islamic conviction make Osama Bin Laden commit his crimes, yes they probably did…

What matters is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


I have not updated my blog for a while now. This is not because I have been slagging, quite the contrary in fact. The 28th of July I got married (see our wedding picture above). We had a big wedding with I believe 158 guests attending. A little advice to anyone who is planning a big party and don't want to ruin their family in the process: hire catering! Even if it means you will be in dept for decades, use catering (and a wedding planner)!
After getting married we have moved to our new home in Lund. Finally I will not have to sit on a train for four hours to see my girlfriend… I mean wife J. We are now living in a real mess with boxes everywhere, but we are happy and it is nice to know that we will be here henceforth. When we have settled down a little bit I promise to keep writing on all the issues that I find interesting and important… Check back soon!

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The God Delusion, Part 6 – Roots of morality

In chapter six of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins deals with the roots of morality. There seems to be a major concern amongst religious people that should people become atheists there would no longer be any reason to behave morally. After all, why would anyone behave in a good way if there was no after-life reward, and if there was no hell fire, what would stop people from murder and rape??? On the question, "If there is no God, why be good?" Dawkins writes:

Posed like that, the question sounds positively ignoble. When a religious person puts it to me in this way (and many of them do), my immediate temptation is to issue the following challenge: 'Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment? That's not morality, that's just sucking up, applepolishing, looking over your shoulder at the great surveillance camera in the sky, or the still small wiretap inside your head, monitoring your every move, even your every base thought.' As Einstein said, 'If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.'

So what is the danger associated with atheism and in particular, a belief in the Theory of Evolution? It seems to me that many people mistakenly believe that the theory of evolution teaches us how to maximize fitness and perhaps more dangerously that maximizing fitness is necessarily a good thing…. There is nothing in the theory of evolution which tells us how we should act, that is for us to decide. Dawkins writes:

A great deal of the opposition to the teaching of evolution has no connection with evolution itself, or with anything scientific, but is spurred on by moral outrage. This ranges from the naive 'If you teach children that they evolved from monkeys, then they will act like monkeys…

I have written about this before in my post "Ethics of an atheist", but it is important so I will say it again. I think that the role of the Theory of Evolution is not to tell us how to act i.e. we should not derive our morality from the theory of evolution. Rather, I think, the theory of evolution can be used to make informed guessed about how people are likely to act in various situations. On a larger scale, I think that Evolution can help us predict which policies are likely to succeed as well as which ones are likely to fail because they violate our instincts? I think that in many ways a communistic society, as it is described in theory, would be quite nice. Marx's (see picture) slogan "From each according to his ability to each according to his needs" may be sexist, but aside from that it sounds like a very sensible principle to my ears. Unfortunately I think that a society based on this principle would never work, simply because it is human nature to want more than one need (this is probably the reason it never has worked to)… Largely for this reason I favor a market-based society. For those who are interested in this line of thought I recommend Matt Ridley's The Origins of Virtue (the last chapter is about implications for society). Dawkins writes that:

A great majority of religious people, I am sure, are moral and responsible human beings. However, the following letter to Brian Flemming, as well as countless historical episodes (9/11, Crusades, Inquisition etc), shows that religious belief indeed does not make people immune from primitive "ape like" behavior…

You've definitely got some nerve. I'd love to take a knife, gut you fools, and scream with joy as your insides spill out in front of you. You are attempting to ignite a holy war in which some day I, and others like me, may have the pleasure of taking action like the above mentioned…

Dawkins then points out the absurdity in defending an omnipotent omniscient God. Isn't it enough that all atheists will burn in hell forever after we die? Can't your God just punish us if he wants to, or perhaps this is where your faith breaks down? My advice to those who feel the need to fight in the name of God is, why not let God take care of it, should he exist then it should be a piece of cake…

So where does morality come from? Without going into the details the Theory of Evolution provides a perfectly valid explanation of the phenomenon. In experiments where people are given ethical dilemmas, religious people and atheists give pretty much the same answers, again suggesting that religion doesn't make you more moral... How did morality evolve? Here, to confine the length of this post, I will simply refer to Matt Ridley's The Origin of Virtue, which deals exhaustively with the subject...

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Irrational fear 2: Nuclear power

Last time I wrote about pesticides and how we are worried to death about 0.01% of the pesticides that we ingest (the synthetic ones) instead of the 99% which seem to be as bad if not worse. Another area which I think is often associated with irrational fear is nuclear power. The word "nuclear" seems to elicit a knee-jerk kind of reaction in many people. Take for instance Nuclear Magnetic Resonance imaging (NMR for short), a very powerful and quite safe diagnostic method. People were very reluctant to use this method, seemingly only because it had "Nuclear" in the name. In part because of this fear they have now changed the name to Magnetic Resonace Imaging (MRI for short), and the technology has been a major boost to diagnostics as well as to research.

The following arguments are to a large extent a reflection on Richard Muller's (see picture below) paper with the title "The witch of Yucca Mountain". I can warmly recommend the article but if you want the same information in video format you can go here and forward to 47min and listen to the rest of the lecture (it is very entertaining).

It is no secret that we are facing an energy crisis. I am personally not convinced that CO2 emissions is an important contributing factor when it comes to Global warming, however, the fact of the matter is that our fossil fuels will eventually be used up and when there is none left we will need a different source of energy. Fission of uranium and plutonium is not an endless source of energy, however, it would provide us with energy for quite a while. Yet many countries do not want to build these Nuclear power plants, largely because of what I think is irrational fear…

Before I encountered Muller I associated nuclear power plant accidents with Chernobyl (see picture). However, Chernobyl was not a typical nuclear power plant. Its design was the worst imaginable and as Muller explains in his lecture such a design is completely prohibited today. The worst case scenario for a modern nuclear power plant is the nuclear meltdown. For a meltdown to occur, it is required that 4 different independent security systems which are inspected regularly, break down simultaneously which is not at all likely. If however, the highly unlikely worst case scenario would occur, and the radioactive material would penetrate meters of steel and concrete and go into the ground and the gases escape we would still not have anywhere near the same levels of radioactivity that were present after Chernobyl because the radioactivity leaks out into the ground instead of being blown up into the sky. I can understand that people want Nuclear Powerplants to be safe, however, there seems to be some sort of obsession here. People seem not to worry about other types of dangers. What if a chemical plant blew up? What is the worst case scenario there? Or what about the laboratories where they deal with the Ebola virus, what would happen if all their security systems broke down?

There is also a major concern about nuclear waste. The plutonium waste coming from a nuclear power plant has a half life of about 24.000 years meaning that after 96.000 years 1/16 of the radioactive waste will still remain. The question which does not yet have an answer is, where are we going to store this waste? In United States, Yucca Mountain, a place with very few earthquakes, was chosen as an ideal storage site. If the unthinkable would happen at Yucca Mountain, and all the radioactive waste would leak out, it would still be in small non-water soluble glass-pellets, so it would not mix with the ground water. Furthermore, even if Yucca Mountain was filled to its capacity limit and all the radioactive waste leaked out into the ground water and then out of the pellets in which it is cotained (this scenario has already passed into science fiction), the water would still not reach even a fraction of the radioactivity levels present in the Los Angeles drinking water! The drinking water that the citizens of Los Angeles are drinking is from the Colorado river which flows through many valleys with Granite. Granite contains some fraction of percentage of uranium which is slowly dissolved in the drinking water, thus making it radioactive. Because there is no agreement on where to store the waste today, today the radioactive material is simply sitting in a building next to the nuclear plant, not an ideal storage site.

To sum up, instead of storing the nuclear waste in the safest imaginable location where it has virtually no chance of leaking out, and even if it would leak out it would not be a major disaster, it is stored in buildings next to the power plants, which is a much less safe location, all because of the irrational fear among the public.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Irrational fear 1: Pesticides

About three months ago I wrote a post on natural foods and the highly exaggerated danger associated with pesticides. I cited research done by Bruce Ames (see picture), Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at UC Berkeley. In this very interesting interview, Bruce Ames gives his view on organic foods. In the following excerpt from this interview Ames explains that the reason why he is against spending more resources on natural foods is not that it contains more carcinogens but rather that the production and in consequence also the products is more expensive. More expensive fruits and vegetables means less consumption which will result in more cancers:

Ames: Yes. I'm much more interested in preventing cancer. Then we have to get out to the public what's important. If you tell them about trivia all the time, they get completely confused, and it's counterproductive. I just think all this business of organic food is nonsense basically. We should be eating more fruits and vegetables, so the main way to do that is to make them cheaper. Anything that makes fruits and vegetables more expensive may increase cancer.

When I cite this information people often ask where Bruce Ames gets his money from. Is he really trustworthy? This is a fair question when you take into account the fact that the food industry is a big industry, and if organic foods would suddenly become the public choice it would certainly be rather detrimental to many companies. What many people seem to forget though is that producers of organic foods also have money waiting for them, should they manage to sway the public opinion. Unless it is suggested that organic food producers have a superior morality, immune to economic incentives, this is not a valid argument, after all the economic incentive is there for both sides. Maybe those the people who tell us that organic is the way to go do so because they would get rich if people followed their advice?

I feel quite confident that Bruce Ames is not bought by the food industry. Why? Partially, I believe Ames is a good guy because of what my intuition tells me. When I read the interview (referenced above) with this scientist he just doesn't strike me as a man who has sold his soul to the devil, quite the contrary in fact. However, the main reason why I don't think Ames is bought by the food industry is that he is also the man who first proved that many synthetic pesticides are carcinogenic. For quite a while he was a hero to all the natural food proponents.

Bruce Ames showed that indeed many man made chemicals are carcinogenic, but what reason do we have to assume that natural pesticides aren't also carcinogenic? Ames did not make this assumption and when he tested natural pesticides, which are created by the plants themselves as a protection, he found that pretty much the same proportion of natural pesticides was carcinogenic. Furthermore, Ames discovered that plants which are not treated with synthetic pesticides (i.e. natural foods) contain more potent carcinogens than plants which have been treated with pesticides. (Things can be more or less carcinogenic; for example, even though mushrooms contain 50% carcinogens they are very weak and therefore doesn't do a lot of damage whereas coffee contains much stronger carcinogens.) Read my previous post if you want to understand why. Add to this that 99.9% of the pesticides that we ingest are natural pesticides and you will understand why this post is about irrational fear.

Here we are worrying about 0.1% of the pesticides we ingest which according to the data are, if anything, less mutagenic than the other 99.9%. That is what I would call irrational fear…

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The God Delusion, Part 5 – The roots of religion

Ok Richard, now you have spent four chapters arguing that religious faith is irrational and based on invalid argumentation. Say that we believe this, what is the alternative? How can it be that something as irrational and destructive as religion has been apart of every culture since the birth of humankind? Doesn't that suggest that there is something to it? What is your alternative? Why do you think religion is so widespread? These are the questions that Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, take on in the fifth chapter. Dawkins writes:

The fact that religion is ubiquitous probably means that it has worked to the benefit of something, but it may not be us or our genes. It may be to the benefit of only the religious ideas themselves, to the extent that they behave in a somewhat gene-like way, as replicators.

Allotetraploid recently posted a video in which Daniel Dennett (see picture) dealt with this issue. He used the analogy of the common cold. It too has existed in all cultures at all times, since the birth of the human race (and even before that), but we do not say that, "the common cold must be good for something" just because it is so common. You might complain that the common cold is a disease whereas religion is more like a choice, and I would think that is a valid argument if the meme theory is wrong. However, if there is something to memes, then it is definitely a valid argument.

My point here is simply that because something has been shared in a lot of different cultures and for many millennia, it doesn't follow that it is necessarily a good thing. Some people seem to think that just because astrology has been around for so long there must be something to it, but if you look at the evidence this is not case. Religion may exist just because it is beneficial to itself, just like the common cold is good for the bacteria causing the common cold. Plausible as this may be, Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion advocates a different position, namely that religion is a by-product of another mechanism which is beneficial. Dawkins writes:

Perhaps the feature we are interested in (religion in this case) doesn't have a direct survival value of its own, but is a by-product of something else that does. I find it helpful to introduce the by-product idea with an analogy from my own field of animal behaviour.

In the following paragraph Dawkins introduces the analogy of a moth which, as we all know, is extremely attracted to light. Either they fly into your light bulb a thousand times in a night, making is virtually impossible to sleep, or they come diving into your campfire like a genuine kamikaze pilot. What could possible be the point of this behavior (read here for an answer)? I was told another similar analogy by Mike Majerus in Cambridge. Apparently one of his Australian friends had a garden in which he had lit up a small path using lights imbedded in stones. At dusk, a bunch of clever frogs would appear on these paths standing next to the lights which lit up the path. Insects, because they are also (like Moths) attracted to light would fly towards light and there the waiting frogs would spurt out their tongue and capture a nice meal. Yet the frogs' intellectual capacity did have a limit. One day when the owner of this house accidentally dropped a ping pong ball on the path he saw to his surprise how one frog's tongue fired out, grabbed the ball, and swiftly drove it right down the stomach. The frog seemed happy enough and would gladly eat more ping pong balls, all of which would sooner or later come out the other end (somewhat messed up). These frogs could not distinguish between ping poll balls and insects. It is as if they have a mechanism in their head telling them "swallow anything mobile in proximity to the lights". Had it not been for us humans throwing ping pong balls around, this adaptation would have been highly successful (perhaps it is anyways)…

Is religion the equivalence of eating ping pong balls? Richard Dawkins seems to think so and I think it is also a plausible explanation. He writes:

My specific hypothesis is about children. More than any other species, we survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations, and that experience needs to be passed on to children for their protection and well-being. Theoretically, children might learn from personal experience not to go too near a cliff edge, not to eat untried red berries, not to swim in crocodile-infested waters. But, to say the least, there will be a selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you. Obey your parents; obey the tribal elders, especially when they adopt a solemn, minatory tone. Trust your elders without question. This is a generally valuable rule for a child. But, as with the moths, it can go wrong.

So perhaps children who are taught by elders that God exists, that you better pray to God, and that you better go to church if you don't want to fry in hell, will accept this simply because they are told so by people who are supposed to know a lot about the world. This would explain the extremely high correlation between the religion of parents and their children, as well as the fact that virtually all religious conversions are to religions which are present in the culture in which the converter lives (there are not many people who move from say Iran to Sweden and suddenly convert to Hindu).

But wait! This only explains how religion can be passed on. How did it come about in the first place? Richard Dawkins, in order to explain this, suggests that it might have to do with our "Hyperactive agent detection device":

Justin Barrett coined the acronym HADD, for hyperactive agent detection device. We hyperactively detect agents where there are none, and this makes us suspect malice or benignity where, in fact, nature is only indifferent. I catch myself momentarily harbouring savage resentment against some blameless inanimate such as my bicycle chain.

I don't think I risk any overstatement when I say that people blame "things" for all kinds of stuff. My mother often calls me when she needs help with her computer and she is always certain that she did indeed not do anything to mess up the system, that option is unthinkable. No, the system messed it self up, intentionally… Well, maybe that is why we have religion. Who are we to blame when it rains on our wedding day?, who are we to blame when the alarm clock stops working the day when you were going to that really important meeting?, and who are we to blame when a tsunami has swept away your entire family? Surely there must be an agent who influences these events? I think that we probably have a mechanism in us which biases us towards such explanations. Hence religion.

Ps: For some "good news" see the Guardian article "Atheists top book charts by deconstructing God"

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Equal opportunity design

Intelligent design proponents tell us that evolution lacks evidence and that the alternative, a creator God who designed all creatures as we see them today, is equally likely. Their favorite analogy is the clockmaker analogy which basically says that our intuition tells us that everything complex have a designer, therefore humans must have a designer. A little sidetrack: even though our intuition often leads us in the right direction it can sometimes be quite wrong to. Read here.

I have already dealt with the essentials of Intelligent design, and why I think that it is wrong in a previous post. Here I want to focus on a consequence of the intelligent design argument that only became apparent to me after reading an article in the latest issue of my favorite magazine "Skeptic". The article is called "Who designed that?" and is written by Tom McIver. The problem that ID proponents face is the following.

In order to avoid being deemed a religion, intelligent design cannot say that any particular God is the designer, after all there is no rational argument why it should be Yahweh or Allah rather than any other God who designed us and our planet. Now, ID proponents are eager to take their theory into the classrooms to be taught in the biology lessons as an alternative theory to the theory of evolution. In practice, what they really want (in the US at least) is to read from the Bible during biology sessions, and that is where the problem is. Since any designer God is equally unlikely, any religion could claim their time in the classroom and their chance to convert today's students. In essence, Christianity would have to be taught side by side with Islam, Gnosticism, and even the silly religion of Scientology (man I lost my respect for Tom Cruise and John Travolta when I learned that they belonged to this church). In their morning biology session students would be taught about how God created plants and then came the light (have you noticed the severe conflict with science in this?), and then later on came Adam, and from his rib came Eve. In their afternoon biology session the same student would be taught the following.

"The Gnostics taught that God was a mad scientist named Yaldabaoth who had been created by accident and built the earth as a prison for pre-existent human souls. He cloned Adam, raped Eve and kicked them both out of paradise when Christ came in the form of a serpent to liberate them" (excerpt from "Skeptic magazine" number 2, 2007, p.60).

The next fifty biology sessions would be spent going through everyone of these, all equally plausible, alternatives to the theory of evolution. Needless to say, this would be a preposterous scenario. Evolution does have loads of supporting evidence. If you don't believe me, read about an experiment here or about AIDS here. Intelligent design, on the other hand, merely bring up another problem, namely who designed the designer?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The God Delusion, Part 4, Why there is almost certainly no God

I am not the only blogger who is discussing The God Delusion. If you want a view that is really different from mine you can go to the Apologetics homepage where you will find comprehensive criticism of Richard Dawkins latest book. Deepak Chopra whom I recently criticized for his abuse of quantum physics also taken the challenge of trying to break the arguments put forth in The God Delusion. Needless to say I don't think that the Apologetics or Chopra are able to break the very strong message in the God delusion, but that should be up to you readers to decide.

After having met the many arguments or proofs for God, one by one, in chapter four Richard Dawkins goes on to describe not only why we do not need a God to describe our world but also why such a God in fact is quite implausible.

He starts out by explaining why the alternative to a creator God, Charles Darwin's (see picture) Theory of Evolution, is not, as many people tend to think, the same as blind chance. It is really quite wearisome to hear people say "so you think we just popped into existence" when you say you believe in evolution, but I have already written about this issue in my blog post Evolution is NOT blind chance. Dawkins also points out that to call upon a creator in order to explain complexities which we have not yet understood does not solve nothing, all it does is to invent another complexity that needs to be explained. I would like the ID proponents to suggest an empirical test, similar to the one below, which if it succeeded would support their "theory" and if it failed would falsify it. Dawkins writes:

"Darwin himself said as much: 'If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find no such case.' Darwin could find no such case, and nor has anybody since Darwin's time, despite strenuous, indeed desperate, efforts. Many candidates for this holy grail of creationism have been proposed. None has stood up to analysis"

Another common tactic used by religious people is "The worship of gaps". Whenever there is something science cannot explain such as for instance language, certain religious people take this as proof of God's existence. After all, if science doesn't have the explanation, then it has to God right, right?

"The logic turns out to be no more convincing than this: 'I [insert own name] am personally unable to think of any way in which [insert biological phenomenon] could have been built up step by step. Therefore it is irreducibly complex. That means it is designed."

But what about the Universe and what about us humans? Why should there be a Universe? Why should we exist? Surely someone must have wanted us to exist? No not of necessity. Though I am still merely an amateur astronomer (I am trying to help that by following a lecture series by Professor Alex Filippenko available at Berkeley's webcast), I know that there are theories out there which could potentially elucidate why our Universe looks the way it does. There are also good attempts to explain how the first cells arose. These theories I admit can sound a bit far fetched an even unlikely. However, it seems that we are also relatively lonely in our Universe and so the unlikely event of a cell (see below) forming spontaneously from various organic constituents only had to happen once for us to exist. If you throw a dice billions and billions of times you are likely to at least once get say 10 sixes in a row even though the probability of this series is as low as 0.00000002.

We humans are also ill equipped to accept hard nosed scientific theories instead of explanations that invoke an agent such as God. Humans have a natural tendency to see agents everywhere. Dawkins writes:

"Maybe the psychological reason for this amazing blindness has something to do with the fact that many people have not had their consciousness raised, as biologists have, by natural selection and its power to tame improbability. J. Anderson Thomson, from his perspective as an evolutionary psychiatrist, points me to an additional reason, the psychological bias that we all have towards personifying inanimate objects as agents. As Thomson says, we are more inclined to mistake a shadow for a burglar than a burglar for a shadow. A false positive might be a waste of time. A false negative could be fatal. In a letter to me, he suggested that, in our ancestral past, our greatest challenge in our environment came from each other. 'The legacy of that is the default assumption, often fear, of human intention. We have a great deal of difficulty seeing anything other than human causation.' We naturally generalized that to divine intention."

In summary, chapter four in The God Delusion, bring up a few quite important points. It is shown that a creator God is really an inadequate answer since it merely brings up another problem namely who created the creator, or who designed the designer? The best theory we have to explain our own existence without invoking an agent is the beautiful and simple Theory of Evolution.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

The God Delusion, Part 3 – Arguments for God’s existence

In the third chapter of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins meets all the most famous arguments that theologians through time have put forth to validate their belief in God. On the first few pages Dawkins goes through Thomas Aquinas (see picture) five proofs of God. The first three are essentially the same and all says that something cannot be created from nothing, ergo God. The response here is simply that God is also something and therefore, according to the logics, cannot come from nothing so this is not really a solution. Dawkins also finds space to cite what I think was a funny little paradox that Karen Owens once posted.

Can omniscient God, who Knows the future, find The omnipotence to Change His future mind?

An omniscient God must know what will happen in the future, including what he will, himself, do. If the entire future is already spelled out, then it should be pretty hard to change your mind right? Aquinas also gave the argument from degree which is not really an argument and then he posed an argument from design which I have already dealt with in a previous post.

A little sidetrack… In the most recent number of my favorite magazine "The Skeptic", there was an article about ID in which an aspect that I have not previously thought about was brought up. Christian proponents of the ID theory in are in a sense shooting themselves in the foot. Since they have not and of course cannot name their own God as the designer God, there is an opening for all religions to claim their place in the classroom, and they have. There is nothing the Christians can do to hinder this. If they say that, no it can only be Yahweh, then ID is no longer a "scientific theory" (as if it ever was), and as long as there is just a anonymous designer it might as well be Zeus or Odin…

Next there is the argument which was put forth by St Anselm of Canterbury, which I have discussed a little bit on Z's blog. Translated into playground language it is as follows. Dawkins writes:

'Bet you I can prove God exists.'

'Bet you can't.'

'Right then, imagine the most perfect perfect perfect thing possible.'

'Okay, now what?'

'Now, is that perfect perfect perfect thing real? Does it exist?'

'No, it's only in my mind.'

'But if it was real it would be even more perfect, because a really really perfect thing would have to be better than a silly old imaginary thing. So I've proved that God exists. Nur Nurny Nur Nur. All atheists are fools.'

I will admit that I did not myself find the fallacy in this argument. I thought it sounded wrong from the beginning, but it is hard to point out the exact fallacy (Bertrand Russell thought so too). The fallacy of this argument lies in the fact that something is not "better" because it exists. Imagine your dream house. Now is that house a better house if it exists? What a meaningless question right? "Betterness" is not a dimension that can be applied to this distinction between mental and real things.

Personal experience is often used as a proof of God. This reminds me of once when I got a tape from a religious woman who was probably trying to save my soul. On the tape there was a number of interview with people who had "found God". Most of them could recall a particular episode in their life when God first spoke to them and I think there was no doubt in their mind about God's existence. Such "I spoke to God" arguments I don't find very convincing. Maybe they are making it up, maybe they are hallucinating or maybe they are just interpreting inner speech which we all have as the voice of God. It also seems strange that people from different religions always have revelations about their own God. If there was only one true God, one would that people from different cultures would experience the same God…

Perhaps more convincing are the so called miracles where many people have seen something seemingly supernatural. For example, the miracle of the sun in which the sun reportedly fell towards the earth, was observed by fifty to a hundred thousand people in Portugal and was also covered in the newspapers. It is admittedly hard to explain how such a mass delusion could possibly occur. One person may be crazy and perhaps two persons can by chance get a similar illusion simultaneously, but thousands? Just doesn't seem so likely… However, it seems even more unlikely that the rest of the world would fail to notice that the sun was heading towards earth. Furthermore, I would suppose that if the sun would suddenly start to move in an unexpected way it should have some noticeable astronomical consequences, none were observed.

Many more arguments are discussed and eventually dismissed in chapter to of the God delusion, but I will limit myself to the ones I have presented here because I fear that people will get bored. If someone feels I have excluded an argument that proves that God exists then feel free to post that argument as a comment…