Friday, June 29, 2007

The God Delusion, Part 2 - The God hypothesis

In the second chapter of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins defines the concepts that he will later use throughout his book. Concepts such as religion, God, and faith will be defined in quite diverse ways depending on who you ask. I have met many people who claim that science, like religion, is just another form of faith. However, there is an important difference that is always overlooked by people making such claims, namely that scientific theories will change if evidence requires it to. Yes, yes, there is often a lag due to traditions, politics, and economics, but the scientific community did eventually accept that the earth was round, that the earth is about 5 billion years old and that the earth is not the center of the Universe etc. What is faith? Dawkins puts it well in The Selfish Gene:

"But that, after all, is faith? It is a state of mind that leads people to believe something—it doesn't matter what—in the total absence of supporting evidence. If there were good supporting evidence then faith would be superfluous, for the evidence would compel us to believe it anyway. It is this that makes the often-parroted claim that 'evolution itself is a matter of faith' so silly. People believe in evolution not because they arbitrarily want to believe it but because of overwhelming, publicly available evidence..."

Science is not a religion, science is a method in which all the available evidence is organized into theories that hopefully describes and predicts the world as we know it. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins treats religious faith as if it was a scientific hypothesis. I think this is the correct approach, however, I know that many people will object and say that science and faith are two separate realms that we should not or cannot mix together. I think that such a view will lead us nowhere. Dawkins defines the God Hypothesis as follows:

"Instead I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution."

One point that Dawkins makes again and again in interviews is that he is not a lonely atheist. In fact it is a fair bet to assert that every human being is an atheist when it comes to most Gods. Not many people believe in Odin and Thor, and if you live in a western country it is also very unlikely that you believe in Shiva or some Voodoo God. In other words, everyone are atheists when it comes to most Gods, we who call ourselves atheists just go one God further… The following sentence I include just because I think it is hilarious. Though while causing me a pleasant laugh it also illustrates how illogical some of the reasoning among theists is:

"The Trinity: Do we have one God in three parts, or three Gods in one? The Catholic Encyclopedia clears up the matter for us, in a master piece of theological close reasoning: In the unity of the Godhead there are three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, these Three Persons being truly distinct one from another. Thus, in the words of the Athanasian Creed: 'the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God."

Does Christians believe in one God or three Gods? Please inform me someone, cause the catholic encyclopedia fails to enlighten me… This post cannot, of course, cover even a fraction of what is written in chapter two of The God Delusion, there is however one more issue that I find important and that I would therefore like to discuss. Socrates once said that the only thing that he knew for sure for sure, is that he doesn't know anything. It is possible that we are all in the Matrix. For this reason it kind of annoys me when people say that they know that God exists, in my mind that is impossible, just like it is impossible for me to know that God does not exist, or that the theory of evolution is true. Sure, on a regular day know doesn't really mean know, but many Christians claim to know that God exists even after this distinction has been brought up.

I think that God does not exist, I don't know that he doesn't exists, but I don't think it is 50/50 either (in which case I would call myself an agnostic). I put myself in the same category as Richard Dawkins:

"Very low probability [that God exists], but short of zero. De facto atheist. 'I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Deepak Chopra, “quantum”, and Ig Nobel prizes

For all science fans out there who have not heard about the Ig Nobel prizes yet, I hereby order you to go and buy the book: The Ig Nobel Prizes: The Annals of Improbable Research! The Ig Nobel prizes are dealt out annually at Harvard University, for indisputably ingenious research. Forget stem cells and neutrinos, and instead read about how pigeons have been trained to discriminate between paintings by Picasso and Monet, how scientist have created a computer program that detects when your cat walks on your keyboard, the optimal way of dunking your biscuit, or about solid evidence for the already well known fact that if you drop your sandwich it will fall with the butter side down!

One man who has been honored with an Ig Nobel Prize is my great idol, Deepak Chopra. The official statement said the following: "Deepak Chopra of the Chopra center for well being, La Jolla, California, for his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness".

Physicists stand beside with saliva dripping out of their mouths while Deepak take their theories to new unimaginable heights. Here are a few quotations that illustrate the creativity of Deepak Chopra when it comes to the implications of quantum physics.

(1) "The most important routine to follow is transcending: the act of getting in touch with the quantum level of yourself"

(2) "Quantum health is based on the idea that we are always, forever, in transition.

(3) "The universe consists of a "field of all possibilities" called the "field of pure potentiality", and also the "quantum soup"

Deepak Chopra has also founded the American academy of quantum medicine where he educates his victims in "quantum nutrition". On a blog to which he contributes Deepak himself has observed that "Skeptics generally leap to the conclusion that I am naive, self-deluded, or simply unread in the sciences", and that "Skeptics believe that doubt is a positive attribute". I would sign under to both of these statements. Doubt is a valuable virtue when people like Chopra are inventing (and earning tons of money on) concepts such as "quantum nutrition", "quantum health", or the "quantum level of yourself".

I find this to be an ideal place to quote Carl Sagan, a man who can hardly be accused of being narrow minded: "Be open-minded, but not so open minded that your brains fall out"

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Other Blogs

As an inspiration for my Blog I often read other blogs. Even though I would like everyone to read my blog more than anyone elses' I feel obligated to admit that there are a lot of good blogs out there. I thought I would list a few of them here. I want to apologize in advance to my English speaking readers for the fact that many of the blogs that I read are in Swedish.

There are many blogs out there that, like my own, discusses atheism, religion, and evolution. One excellent, recently born blog is Allotetraploid. The author of this blog not only lives in the same city as I, he is also interested in the exact same things, religion, psychology and biology. I look forward to taking a beer with him someday J.

I am a member of the Swedish organization Humanisterna, and it is good news that Felicia Giljam, the organizer of Humanisternas youth group has once again, after a long pause, started posting on her Blog Furiku. The day before yesterday I received a comment on my post from another blogger living in my vicinity. Her name is Anna Bjurström, and on her blog "Anna Does Malmö" she has a very nice mix of interesting everyday observations and more philosophical subjects. I can only give my warmest recomendations.

For those who do not speak Swedish I recommend Rationally Speaking. Author Massimo Pigilucci who is professor in evolution and ecology always publish well written and inspiring posts on his blog (maybe he is helped by his editor!). See for instance his criticism of the God Delusion here.

Finally I would like to recommend Z's blog. She and I probably disagree about a lot, most noticeably, she believes in God whereas I do not. However, her posts are always interesting and she has my admiration for her willingness to discuss and defend her beliefs without being offended by my God-forsaken comments. I am all for different points of view, and Z provides a different perspective worthy of your attention...

If you want more recommendations, scroll down and see the list "recommended blogs".

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The God Delusion, Part 1 - A deeply religious non-believer

My intention with this short series of blog posts is to discuss Richard Dawkins latest book The God Delusion (see picture). I think that The God Delusion is a good book, and I think that it is a book that should be read, especially if you are interested in science and religion and the relation between the two. You can accuse Richard Dawkins of a lot of things, but I have never seen anyone claiming that he is a bad writer. Indeed his clear and lucid style is some of the best I have ever read. If that is not reason enough for you, then consider the impact that this book has already had. Go to YouTube and search for Dawkins and you will see that he has been invited to every imaginable talk show to discuss his latest work. Here, for example, you will find a heated discussion with the renowned Bill O'Reily (not a very pleasant man if you ask me).

I would not claim that The God Delusion is a very original book. Most of the arguments and discussions in the book have appeared elsewhere before. However, The God Delusion is a comprehensive book which I think covers most the relevant arguments and discussions concerning science and religion. One influential (fundamentalist?) blog that I read recently complained that atheists cannot decide whether to attack religion because they think it is false or because they think it lead to evil. My response is that, religion should be criticized because it is plausibly false and because it is a source of evil. It is not a good defense to point out that your stance can be criticized from several different perspectives.

In the first chapter of his book Dawkins defines what he means by God. After all, God is defined in very different ways depending on who you ask. For example, there are many people who see God, not as an omnipotent, omniscient man in the sky, but rather they claim that God is the natural laws, or God is in everything. Personally, I think that semantics (the meaning of words), in essence is a democratic endeavor. I think that a word means what most people think it means. If you are not happy with that then come up with a new word. In any case, Dawkins makes it clear that he writes about the God as he is defined in the religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam i.e. the God in the Old Testament (Yahweh).

Why should we respect a religious hypothesis more than any other hypothesis? That is the next issue brought up in The God Delusion. In my relatively short career I have only yet been part of one article submission. The way it works is that when you send in your article to a peer reviewed journal, the editors will read it and possibly send it right back with a "we won't publish this crap" note attached. If you are lucky the editor thinks that your article has a chance of being published in their journal. If so, the editor sends the article to two or three reviewers, typically your worst critics. The reviewers read the article and send their comments back to the editor. They also say whether they think the article is good enough to be published in the journal or not. After all these turns which usually takes two or three months (sometimes more), you get your article back along with all the criticism and ad hominim attacks (which occur every now and then) and more often than not with a negative response. Then, for a couple of weeks, you feel devastated and contemplate whether you should perhaps start working with garbage disposal or something else that suits your mental capacity better, and then you get back on the horse and send your article to a less prestigious journal.

Dawkins writes:

"A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts - the non-religious included - is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other."

I could not agree more. To criticize religion in the same fashion that scientific discoveries are criticized is completely taboo. I think this is strange because as I see it believing in a God is no different from believing that a classically conditioned memory trace sits in the Purkinje cell in the Cerebellum. Of course there is one important difference. Religion is often much more a part of a person than is for instance a scientific hypothesis. It is probably easier to really hurt someone by criticizing their religion than by criticizing something else, and I think one should take this issue into account, though not to the extent that we do today.

To illustrate the reactions that can occur when religion is criticized, Richard Dawkins, writes about the Muslims reaction to the cartoons that were published in Jyllands Posten. Sure they were probably tasteless and all that, but compared to the way Richard Dawkins was depicted in South Park (season 10, episode 12), it is nothing (I am a big south park fan by the way). In response to the cartoons in Jyllands posten one (fundamentalist) Muslim responded in a tragicomic fashion:

"Behead those who say Islam is a violent religion'."

Thursday, June 14, 2007

American’s belief in Heaven and Hell

A few days ago I wrote about a Gallup poll which asked about the American peoples' belief in the theory of evolution. On today's daily briefing yet another interesting poll was presented. This time Gallup had asked whether people believe in God as well as other deities. Depending on how the question was phrased 86-76% of the American people say that they believe in God (you get the lower figure if you distinguish between God and "A universal spirit".

A perhaps more interesting result appeared when people were asked whether they believe in God, Heaven, Angles, the Devil, and Hell. You can see the results of this question in the figure above. Apparently, more people believe in Heaven than in Hell. I would like to ask any Christians out there how this result can be explained. If good people go to Heaven when they die, shouldn't bad people (or atheists like my self) logically go to hell? How can you believe in one and not the other? Don't get me wrong though, I think it is good that people pick the nicer parts of religion, it just seems odd.

Another question that I ask myself is what people think hell is like? Do they really believe in a hell where the devil is forever tormenting you (like in south park), or is it something of a more metaphysical nature? Do they believe in it just as an abstraction (whatever that means)? It is probably superfluous of me to state my opinion here, but I will do so anyway. I think that the idea of hell is extremely unlikely and really quite ridiculous. Enough so that I am never afraid of what is going to happen to me after I die. But if any of you hell believers out there are right, I guess it will please you to know that my afterlife will consist of eternal torture…

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Americans’ belief in evolution

I would very much like to recommend Gallups daily briefings which presents, in video format, interesting data from Gallup polls on a daily basis. Today for example, Gallup presents the latest figures on the 2008 presidential election. They ask, "who would you vote for today, Clinton or Gulliani (the two front runners for either party).

In yesterdays briefing Gallup presented a survey probing about Americans' belief in the theory of evolution. Apparently, three of the republican presidential candidates claimed not to believe in evolution (none of the front runners thank God). I am almost hoping that they said so only because of their voters. An unbelievable 48% of the Americans' who were asked in this survey said that they did not believe in evolution. Why do some people not believe in the extremely well established theory of evolution? When you ask those who do not believe in evolution a large majority says that evolution contradicts their religious beliefs. In other words they chose to base their world view on faith rather than on evidence. These figures are an inspiration to me to keep writing on this blog.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the more educated you are, the higher the probability that you believe in the well established theory of evolution. Also not surprising republicans deny evolution more often than democrats (68% of republicans claim not to believe in evolution).

Monday, June 11, 2007


If you would press me I would have to admit to being a pragmatic. It is, if you will, my preferred philosophy of science. Pragmatism in a nutshell simply says that if a theory is good at predicting the world as we perceive it and if it is useful in the sense that it allows us to create new technologies, then we will accept that theory and use it as if it was true.

Sometimes pragmatic theories are false even though they are pragmatic. Take Newtonian physics for example. Newton's laws can explain an almost limitless amount of experimental observations. The only problem is that it is false. Experiments which are designed so that one outcome would support Newton's theory and the other outcome Einstein's theory shows clearly that the latter set of laws provide you with the more accurate predictions. Yet, because they are so practical, we still use Newton's much less confusing laws for a lot of approximations. So in this case we say that because Newton's laws works really well for almost any calculations we don't care that they are not really true.

What then are we to make of the completely absurd and mind twisting theories of quantum physics, dark energy and the like? These theories, may I remind you, shape the foundation of most new technologies today, and the accuracy of predictions derived from quantum physics is equivalent to measuring the width of the United States with an error margin of about the width of a human hair!!! However, quantum physics also predicts that if there is a cat in a box (Schrödinger's cat, see above), it can be dead and alive at the same time!? To me this sounds like nonsense. I have certainly never seen a cat that is both dead and alive and if someone would say to me that they had seen such a cat I would feel obliged to call a mental institution. In my opinion, the only sensible conclusion is to say that, yes these are absurd theories, but they are indeed incredibly practical, so lets just use them as if they were true until we find something better (if we ever will that is).

I don't think that I am contradicting myself when I say that I also believe and care about what is true in an objective sense. Being a pragmatist, I think, is a progressive way of thinking. After all, if a theory was true in the objective sense then all predictions derived from that theory would also have to be true. To put it another way, the most practical theory of all would be the one that got it right…

I am personally hoping that some day a theory that I can understand and which does not make my head hurt, will come and replace quantum physics, dark energy and other similar theories. But for now I will accept these theories because of the fact that they are practical.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Mating Act of a Ladybird

To describe the copulative behavior of a ladybird, or a coccinellidae as it is called among scientists, is actually quite hard due to the fact that the category contains at least 5000 different species (I wonder if they can tell the difference between us and say a gorilla). The account that I will give here will no doubt be oversimplified and perhaps only applies to a fraction of the 5000 different species, but it is nevertheless a fascinating type behavior.

So imagine that you are a female ladybird. Because you are already four days old you feel it is really about time that you get a hold of yourself and cease to live your life in an aimless fashion. You feel that it is time to get pregnant. While wandering about on your green plant reflecting on where your life has gone you suddenly look up and see an attractive male about 2 cm ahead (which is about how far a ladybird can see). You feel really flattered when this handsome stud mounts you, but then, when he is just about to insert his thing you instinctively start to run around, kicking forcefully backwards to get him off. This stud won't give up that easily though so in spite of the rather uncomfortable ride he hangs on. You therefore switch to a different strategy. Almost to your own amazement you throw yourself of the green plant and falls towards the ground. You make your handsome stud lands first thus making him absorb the long fall. For a second the male lets go of you and you try to escape, but luckily for the male he retains his consciousness before you have been able to run more than 2 cm away in which case he would not have been able to find you.

The stud mounts again and this time you don't fight. Instead you think to yourself, this guy can copulate right after falling down an equivalent of ten floors, now that is a trait I want my ladybird offspring to have. So the romance begins, and since you are ladybirds, and since ladybirds are fond of copulating you go on for a long time. (Here is a video of two ladybirds getting it on to the tunes of Donald Crawford's "You Know I Know".)

If both the male and the female have not mated recently they will keep going for about 275 minutes, or 4.5 hours. However, if both have had sex recently and thus feel a bit tired or drowsy or satisfied, then they will limit they will stop after only 176 minutes or 3 hours.

Following not so much cuddling you depart, exhausted but happy… However, for a ladybird sex is not just joy. Because ladybirds are really really promiscuous animals they are also very often the victims of sexually transmitted diseases, in fact the ladybird has more STDs than any other insect. According to one estimate that I found, up to 90% of some populations of ladybirds can be affected, so you better use the condom (or become a ladybird nun).

Most of what you have read here is my recollection of a lecture that was given to me by Professor Mike Majerus at Cambridge University, UK. In 2004 I attended a science summer school at Fitzwillam college and there I had the great privilege of taking a course called "sex and aggression in insects" taught by this extraordinarily entertaining ladybird world authority (I would vote for him to take over after David Attenborough if he ever quits). Though I have not read his books he has written several, so if you are interested in ladybirds and evolution I am sure that the following books are probably really good references.

Melanism: Evolution in Action: In this book majerus decribes the evolutionary forces that has given rise to melanism, or skin color. I'll bet that many of the examples are on the somewhat rare black ladybirds which he talked alot about during his course.

Guide to Ladybirds of the British Isles: As the title suggests this is a short (8 pages) guide to ladybirds.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Benefits of Omega 3 supplements?

Yesterday a woman from a company that sells Omega 3 fatty acid (see picture) capsules called me up and gave me a nice cheap offer that I would later accept. I have been taking Omega 3 supplement in different periods in my life and think I have experienced some sight improvement in my overall health. Whether this experience is due to the Omega 3 fatty acids, the placebo effect or just me fooling myself into believing that they do something to me, I don't know and I would certainly not make any strong claims about their efficacy based on what I have felt. I have reasoned that they are probably not harmful, I don't eat a lot of fish, and well they might be good for you, so I will try it.

Just for the fun of it I asked the woman how omega3 could help me. I was, I must admit, astonished by the list she provided me with. Here are some of her suggestions: "It stabilizes mood", "It makes you sleep better", "I reduces cholesterol", "I reduces the risk of dying from heart problems", "it brings oxygen to your muscles", "It improves the effect of exercise", "it help you concentrate" and she went on and on and on… To see whether the company also knew something about the mechanisms that give rise to these astounding changes I asked the woman how Omega 3 helps give oxygen to muscles, because I had never heard that claim before. Her answer was not very satisfactory, she said "well you know, the Omega3 goes to the muscles, and then more oxygen goes there as well", hmmm I kind of asked why but never mind that…

Now I do not claim to be an Omega 3 expert, but I am almost a hundred percent sure that the woman's claims were at least a little bit inflated as well as biased. Take her claim that Omega 3 stabilize mood. A quick search for the words Omega 3 and mood on PubMed gave me a couple of articles, and sure enough it seems that people with Omega 3 deficiency have a higher incidence of mood disorders. But wait, maybe everyone does not have a deficiency!? I was told that Omega 3 is good for mood, but this appears to hold only if I have too little of it. Not what I was told! Furthermore, the sources I have reviewed they invariably say that definite conclusions about the efficacy of Omega 3 are premature (which is of course not the same as saying that it doen't have an effect). The claim that there are no bad side effects associated with Omega 3 supplements is also false. According to Wikipedia Omega 3 can, increase bleeding, increase the probability of stroke (though I have also seen sources claiming the opposite), give rise to more oxidative agents which makes you old and causes cancer, and suppress immune function. I know Wikipedia is not the most reliable source so please correct me if I am wrong. When I explicitly asked the woman whether there were any side effects I got a simple no, then a nervous laughter, and then she said "sound like it is too good to be true right". Indeed it does I thought to myself.

I am not suggesting that people should not use Omega 3 supplements. Omega 3 has many important functions in the body and we are only able to get it via the diet (it is an essential fatty acid). What makes me react though is the enormous exaggeration of benefits that is so common when it comes to dietary supplements. Go into any "Hälsokost" store and you will see various natural products which when explained to you sound no less than miraculous. If everything they said was true I will bet you that these products would be used at hospitals as well. Or as one skeptical doctor put it, there is no doctor who would not give his or her right arm or first borne son for the type of miracles that some supplements offers according to those who sell them. Some readers will probably object here and say that it is in the interest of hospitals not to cure people (because you don't get money from people who are healthy), but I think this argument falls when you take into account the fact that hospitals has gotten better and better over time. Furthermore, people will pay for health care that actually help them, so if a hospital would go to far, say stop using antibiotics, then people would stop going to that hospital (except perhaps the Amish).

So go on, eat Omega 3, it might do you good. But remain skeptical about the claims made concerning its efficacy.