Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Faith Fallacy

What’s so good about Faith?

Faith: The thing held most dearly and proudly by the ‘faithful’; the means by which the ‘faithful’ know things without evidence; the means by which no evidence is needed to believe in a god, the nature of gods, and that the things attributed to gods were indeed performed by them.

Faith: The knowledge of things not seen.

For a Christian, faith is the means by which they know with complete confidence that there is a god and a heaven and the ONLY way to get to Heaven is by acceptance of God’s son, Jesus and by following his teaching as revealed in the Bible which faith tells them was unquestionably either dictated by or at least inspired by the god in Heaven.

Faith is also the means by which Christians know with absolute confidence that all the other religions are wrong.

For a Moslem, faith is the means by which they know with complete confidence that there is a god and a heaven and the ONLY way to get to Heaven is by acceptance that Mohammed was the last prophet of that god and wrote a book with clear and concise instructions which must be followed without question.

Faith is also the means by which Muslims know with absolute confidence that all the other religions are wrong.

For a Jew, faith is the means by which they know with complete confidence that there is a god and a heaven and the ONLY way to get to Heaven is by following the laws and rules as revealed by God to Moses, Elijah and other prophets and which include strict dietary rules, dress codes and observance of special days when life is lived differently to normal days.

Faith is also the means by which Jews know with absolute confidence that all the other religions are wrong.

For a Sikh... but you're probably getting bored by now and have recognised a pattern here.

But hold on! If faith is telling different people completely contradictory things and leading them to mutually exclusive conclusions, how can it be the sure and certain way to know the truth?

Clearly it can't, so what good is faith as a measure of physical reality, or even of mystical ‘transcendent reality’?

Let’s do a little mind experiment.

Imagine you’re the unfortunate victim of mistaken identity and find yourself in a court of law, charged with some offence or other of which you are completely innocent. Your defence team has brought in expert witnesses who have presented undeniable scientific evidence showing that, not only could you not have committed the crime, but you weren’t even in the same town at the time the offence was committed.

Well, that’s just about clinched it, hasn't it? Innocence proved beyond a shadow of a doubt. Case dismissed! Phew! I expect you’re wondering why you were ever prosecuted in the first place. And you WOULD be so acquitted in a society in which guilt or innocence is decided by a rational examination of evidence and logically deduced conclusions from that examination.

Imagine now you live in a society which holds that faith is a superior form of knowledge; that faith is a sure and certain way to determine the truth. So sure and certain in fact that evidence is regarded as inferior and not to be trusted, especially when it contradicts faith; a society which is, in fact, founded on good Christian, Islamic and/or Jewish principles; principles which were used to justify the society having that form in the first place. A society founded on the faith of the faithful.

The prosecution have put up a witness who has sworn on a holy book that he has faith that you are guilty. He freely admits he has no evidence but explains that his faith is strong; he has no doubt at all that you are guilty because this has been revealed to him by faith. Since faith is superior to evidence as a measure of reality, the jury should ignore the defence evidence and go with faith. In fact, he argues, it would show a lack of faith amounting to heresy to believe mere scientific evidence in the face of strong faith. So weak is mere evidence compared to faith that he did not look for it nor at the defence evidence. He had no need. His faith is strong.  The jury should understand, as good followers of the faith, that all the so-called defence 'evidence' shows is just how misleading science is and why it should not be trusted... and anyone who doesn't see that is showing suspiciously heretical arrogance and is betraying the oath they swore when they entered the jury box...

Who would you want the jury to believe?

Suddenly faith is not so reliable after all. Faith can lead to completely wrong conclusions. Faith can convict the innocent and free the guilty. Faith can lead to wrong being mistaken for right.

Faith can lead the faithful to convict those with the 'wrong' faith of being unfaithful...

That’s why the same process of faith leads Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and all the other religions, and every different sect to conclude that they, and they alone, are right and all the others are wrong.

Faith is a trap set to catch the unwary. It was invented by religious leaders because they had no evidence.  Had they had real evidence, you can be sure they would be forever trumpeting that fact and citing it at every opportunity. Children the world over would be herded in droves to see this wonderful evidence. "There's your reason to believe", the priests would shout. "You don't need 'faith'! We have the evidence!"

Faith is not a virtue; faith is unquestioning obedience to dogma, and that is a sin.

To believe through faith alone is to make the assumption that something MUST be true just because you believe it. The arrogance of that belief would be breathtaking if the notion of faith had not poisoned our culture to the extent that this arrogance is considered an admirable quality; that being ‘faithful’ is assumed to equate to being good.

Faith is the trick by which the unscrupulous control the credulous and gullible, and make people ashamed and guilty for having doubt and asking questions.

Faith is the means by which Jewish, Islamic, Christian and other religion’s clerics and theologians have sought to exercise control and hold back human cultural, ethical and scientific development to a level it attained in the Bronze Age, at the nomadic pastoralist stage, when the myths and superstitions were first written down.

Faith is the means by which charlatans seek to prevent us asking the questions and accepting the answers which would break their grip on society.

Faith is the mind-numbing toxin of the religion parasite, in all it's different varieties.

Do not have faith in faith for that way leads to insanity.

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Friday, 5 November 2010

On Omniscience and Freewill

Despite my blog exposing the logical fallacy of an inerrantly omniscient god and free will, it seems the full implications of this have gone unnoticed by many.

Let’s recap:

We are discussing the god of the Bible which Christians, Jews and Moslem all regard as omniscient (all-knowing) and whom they believe has granted mankind free will.

Following from this is the idea that, by exercising this free will, mankind committed the ultimate sin of disobeying God and must now seek God’s forgiveness. God does not pre-ordain our decisions so we bear sole responsibility for our own actions and are accountable to God for them. At the same time, God is all knowing and inerrant and so knows everything with absolute certainty. He knows everything about the past, present and future and is never wrong, ever.

Christians, Jews and Muslims and their various sects all believe they alone know the special secrets for gaining this god’s forgiveness for this supposed supreme sin of disobeying God. The only way to achieve this is by joining them, accepting their dogmas and following their rituals.

Furthermore, mankind knows about this sin, about God’s inerrant omniscience, about mankind’s free will and about the need for forgiveness, because it’s all written down in a book either written by, dictated by or inspired by this inerrant (and perfect) god, so it too is inerrant and absolutely true.

Surprisingly though, a simple question which can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” answer seems to put Christians, Jews and Muslims all into the same flat panic.

The simple question is:

If God has always known what you will have for breakfast tomorrow, can you choose to have something else instead?

So what exactly is the problem here?

Let’s consider the possible answers:

Answer 1. Yes.

Ah! Then something can happen that God didn’t know about, so God is not omniscient or inerrant. God got it wrong, and god didn’t know your eventual choice.

And the Bible is wrong about the god described in it.


Answer 2. No.

Ah! So you can't chose to do something other than what God has known you’ll do, and had known for ever that you’ll do, even from before he (so it is believe) created you.

In that case, God’s inerrant omniscience means you don't have free will and your actions have all been pre-determined for you by God’s prior knowledge of your actions. In effect, you are no different to an automaton.

And, as a mere automaton of course, you can’t be held responsible for you actions. Accountability lies with the person controlling you – which is er... God.

And that means all this stuff about human disobedience, sin and needing to beg God for forgiveness is wrong.


So how to resolve this paradox?

Well, we could always argue that this God isn’t actually inerrantly omniscient. That restores human free will and our accountability for our own actions, but where does it leave God?

It leaves God as someone who is less than perfect, who makes mistakes and doesn’t actually know everything. In fact, it makes God unfit to judge us humans and condemn us for making mistakes, being less than perfect and not knowing everything. In fact, it places God on an equal footing to humans.

Perhaps there are Christians, Muslims and Jews who can accept that, but where does it leave the Bible?

The Bible is no longer the inerrant word of an omniscient god. In fact it’s wrong on at least one, if not both, the central tenets of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It’s either wrong about the nature of God, or about human free will, or both. Moreover, the moral judgement of the god described in it is now in question. This god has apparently judged humans to be sinful when it is also capable of doing wrong. Let him who is without guilt cast the first stone.

The Bible is no more reliable as a guide to truth and morality than had it been written by mere humans, (which of course is precisely who wrote it and why it can be safely dismissed as a guide to truth and morality).

Clearly there is no satisfactory way to resolve this problem.

And the entire foundation of three major world religions has just collapsed under its own internal contradiction. The thread upon which the whole edifice dangled has just vanished, if you'll excuse a slightly mixed metaphor.

And, when you ask a Christian, Jew or Moslem that simple little question, requiring a simple yes or no answer, you will quickly discover that either they have never thought about the central tenets of their ‘faith’, or they are only too well aware of the lie at the heart of it. They will either blunder into an answer, and then squirm as you point out the implication of it, or, much more likely, they will wriggle and squirm and do anything but give an honest answer.

A very nice example of this can bee seen at Chirpstory - Christian Dishonesty where a fundamentalist Christian starts off confidently answering a question until he realises where it's leading, then nothing will induce him to give a straight yes or no answer to a simple question. Clearly he knows whichever answer he gives will expose the lie he knows exists at the very heart of his 'faith'.

These latter ones are the ones who are well aware that their professed ‘faith’ is a lie. These will usually be the ones who are actively trying to persuade others into believing something they know to be false. These will be those proudly pious people who make smugly condescending pronouncements about the shortcomings of others and about their special relationship with God and how this gives them a short-cut to knowledge which is unquestionably superior to that gained through diligent learning and reason. They may also be the priests, pastors, preachers, clerics, rabbis, imams and other snake-oil salesmen who have a vested interest in trying to control you through the fear and superstition they themselves know to be untrue.

These will be the ones claiming to know the magic spells, rituals and incantations which will help you gain this god’s forgiveness; a forgiveness they know to be unnecessary for a guilt they know to be unjustified from a god they know does not exist.

This central logical contradiction at the heart of all the Abrahamic, guilt-based religions betrays their human origins and the desire to exert control over others which motivated them.

And it takes only a simple little question to expose the many charlatans who feast off the opportunities it creates for controlling others and the many phoney pious Christians, Muslims and Jews who know their 'faith' is a lie but none-the-less continue to piously profess it because it allows them to pose as superior to the rest of us.

These morally bankrupt Atheists (for that is what they are) are a disgrace to humanity. As a fellow Atheist I am ashamed of them and their moral degeneracy. As a human being I am angry at the harm they've done to people, to human culture and to the societies they've perverted for their own nefarious purposes.

We can be better than that. For the sake of humanity we should do better than that.

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Saturday, 23 October 2010

On Quantum Cats and Future History

Hold onto your hat. This could get a little rough.

At the heart of quantum mechanics lies a paradox. All experimentation has shown that a particle has a dual nature - the so-called quantum duality. It is, at the same time, a particle or 'quanta' of energy, and a wave. It has been shown that a single photon, fired at two slits in a screen, passes through both slits simultaneously and creates an interference pattern with itself on a photosensitive detector behind the slits. And it's not just two slits. The same effect will be seen with three, four, five slits or as many slits as you like.

Furthermore, it has also been shown that, when we try to observe a particle on its journey through the two slits, by placing a detector behind one of them, the interference pattern disappears and the particle behaves like a perfectly respectable single entity and passes dutifully through the slit with the detector and not through the other one.

Observation has (apparently) caused the waveform to collapse into a particle. Seemingly, our observation of it has changed the nature of reality with respect to the particle being observed and it now only has one future.

The conclusion is inescapable, even if a little disturbing. All particles have many futures, possibly infinitely many futures, and they all take all of them.

The experimental data showing the collapse of the wave into a single future by our observation of it has also lead some people to conclude that somehow we create reality by detecting it, even leading some to speculate that there was no reality until mankind was there to observe it.

This conclusion is the 'Copenhagen Interpretation' of quantum duality and has lead to the multiverse hypothesis, where all possible universes, representing all possible futures potentially co-exist but we determine which one by our observation.

Cue, Schrödinger's Cat.

In an attempt to repudiate this view, Erwin Schrödinger devised a thought experiment in which a live cat is placed in a sealed box, with air, food and water, and a phial of cyanide linked to a device which breaks it, so killing the cat, on detecting a particle emitted by a single atom of a radioactive isotope.

In this system, the cat's future is inevitably linked to a single quantum event - a radioactive decay - which is purely random and independent of any other event. The future of the isotope is either decayed or not and the future of the cat is either alive or dead. However, since the emitted particle will exist simultaneously in both possible futures, and the isotope will thus be both decayed and not decayed at the same time, so the cat will be simultaneously both alive and dead.

However, if the Copenhagen Interpretation is correct, this paradox will only be resolved when we open the box and observe the state of the isotope. Only then will the cat's future be determined; until that point, according Copenhagen, the cat will be both dead and alive.

This, of course, is a highly anthropocentric view of reality and assumes that observation is a uniquely human ability. In fact, it's naive. 'Observation' is carried out by detecting the effect(s) of a particle interacting with one or more other particles. Observation is witnessing the effects of quantum entanglement, when the future of one particle becomes entangled with that of another, and this has been happening since the beginning of time regardless of whether humans were present to witness it or not.

Schrödinger had intended his thought experiment to show the illogicality of the Copenhagen Interpretation but it failed to do that. What it lead people to conclude is that we discover which future we are in when we observe reality. When we open the box we discover whether we are in a future in which the cat is alive, or one in which it is dead. The multiverse hypothesis is not scratched by Schrödinger's cat.

The late, great Richard Feynman, working at Caltech, went some way towards resolving this problem. He showed that all possible histories with respect to a single particle can be expressed as a probability distribution expressing the 'sum over histories' and that this distribution is the wave we see when we observe the wave nature of a quantum event.

He has also shown that for complex systems, these waves 'decohere' to produce what may be a single future. This apparently refutes the multiverse hypothesis, but it may not do. It is still possible to view the future histories of small objects like atoms and molecules as having multiple possible futures because we know they, like particles, take all possible paths through spacetime. It could be that decoherence occurs only above a certain level of complexity.

The largest objects which have been shown to pass simultaneously through both slits in a two slit experiment are molecules of buckminsterfullerene (C60) consisting of sixty carbon atoms arranged in a geodesic - the dome-shaped structures designed by the architect Buckminster Fuller. Sixty atoms is large for inorganic molecules but still quite small for organic molecules, and many orders of magnitude smaller than an organism such as a cat, dead or alive. And we know that if we throw a dead cat at a couple of slots in a wall, it won't go through both, don't we? In fact, unless our aim is good, it'll most likely go through neither and we'll see the dead cat bounce.

So what do we make of this? Small objects have many possible futures, yet larger objects have only one - and we don't yet know where the dividing line is...

Rosa's speculation:
It could also be that what we see as 'now' is an advancing front of decoherence as we move into an array of futures. That NOW is only the interface between our macro-reality and micro-futures operating at the quantum level.

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Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Joy of Living

The Joy of Living - although this was not the last song Ewan MacColl wrote, it was meant as a farewell to the world and to the people he loved.

Farewell you northern hills, you mountains all goodbye
Moorlands and stony ridges, crags and peaks goodbye
Glyder Fach farewell, Culbeg, Scafell, cloud bearing Suilven
Sun warmed rocks and the cold of Bleaklow's frozen sea
The snow and the wind and the rain of hills and mountains
Days in the sun and the tempered wind and the air like wine
And you drink and you drink till you’re drunk on the joy of living

Farewell to you my love, my time is almost done
Lie in my arms once more until the darkness comes
You filled all my days, held the night at bay, dearest companion
Years pass by and they're gone with the speed of birds in flight
Our lives like the verse of a song heard in the mountains
Give me your hand and love and join your voice with mine
And we'll sing of the hurt and the pain and the joy of living

Farewell to you my chicks, soon you must fly alone
Flesh of my flesh, my future life, bone of my bone
May your wings be strong, may your days be long, safe be your journey
Each of you bears inside of you the gift of love
May it bring you light and warmth and the pleasure of giving
Eagerly savour each new day and the taste of its mouth
Never lose sight of the thrill and the joy of living

Take me to some high place of heather, rock and ling
Scatter my dust and ashes, feed me to the wind
So that I may be part of all you see, the air you are breathing
I'll be part of the curlew's cry and the soaring hawk
The blue milkwort and the sundew hung with diamonds
I'll be riding the gentle wind that blows through your hair
Reminding you how we shared in the joy of living

© Ewan MacColl Ltd 1986. Black And White

Ewan MacColl, whom I had the pleasure of meeting twice, spending a great couple of evenings with him and his partner Peggy Seeger, died in 1989, aged 74.

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Monday, 27 September 2010

What Makes You So Special?

Your Story

[Edit. This article has now been greatly expanded into my book, What Makes You So Special? : From the Big Bang to You, available in paperback or ebook for Kindle]

Bear with me a while because yours is a long story but it's a story very much worth telling.

About 13.7 billion years ago the universe came into existence as a singularity. We know this because the universe is expanding in all directions at a measurable rate. Projecting this backwards leads to a time when the entire universe occupied a single point of nearly infinite density; a black hole or singularity.

We also know that time and space are part of the universe and do not exist independently of it, so there is no sense in which we can talk of where and when this singularity occurred in some pre-existing space-time dimension.

Quantum mechanics tells us that a single particle takes all possible paths through space-time. What we see as a wave is the resultant sum over histories for that particle. The shape of the wave is the probability distribution of that particle occupying any single point in space-time.

So it was for the singularity. It was not a single universe which came into existence but all possible universes, each with its own set of initial conditions – what scientists call quantum foam.

Some of these universes would have decayed immediately; some may have existed for a few milliseconds; some maybe for longer, and some, like our universe, would have had initial conditions which allowed it to expand rapidly under the outward pressure of forces from which gravity had been stripped.

We know that there is a minimum unit of space, (the Planck length). There is also a minimum length of time (the Planck time) 10-43 seconds (10 to the power of -43 or 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 of a second). This means that immediately the universe came into existence it was already 10-43 seconds old. This time, for our universe, was enough for gravity to be stripped off from the other three forms of energy – weak and strong nuclear forces and electromagnetic force – which are the forms of energy of which, in one manifestation or another our universe is composed.

Why did all this happen? Why did quantum foam form in the first place and so a universe in which we can ask questions arise? The answer need be nothing more complicated than a quantum fluctuation. At the quantum level there is no such thing as an absolute; all things fluctuate within a range of probabilities which is actually unbounded. At the quantum level all possible events will occur. If it is possible it WILL happen. And of course, in order for us to be asking these questions in the first place there MUST be a universe in which to ask them, and this universe MUST be capable of containing intelligent life capable of asking such questions.

In this universe all observations confirm that gravity is equal to the sum of the other three forms of energy and that, if gravity is the opposing form of the other three, the grand total of energy in the universe is zero. In total energy terms the universe is nothing.

And here we have answered three question which are often thrown at science by those who have never tried to understand it; by theologians and philosophers who struggle to understand why there is a universe instead of nothing, how a universe could come from nothing and why it appears to be 'fine tuned' for the existence of life.

Quantum foam explains all these things and removes any gaps in which those seeking to include one in the explanation can fit their favourite god. There is no need for a 'prime cause' and so no need for a prime causer.

Creationists may wish to breathe a huge sigh of relief at this point because it removes the obligation on them to explain the origins of their assumed creator without invoking a sub-prime cause, ad infinitum, so rendering absurd their prime cause hypothesis. Something which has caused them huge embarrassment and lead to all manner of increasingly ludicrous attempts to work around the problem and still retain the prime-cause hypothesis whilst simultaneously destroying it.

But let's leave creationists to come to terms with the destruction of their favourite hypothesis and the simultaneous relief from the embarrassment of it. Your story now moves on to what happened to all that energy which was made available.

About one ten thousandth of a second after the Big Bang, energy was electromagnetic radiation in the form of high-energy photons. At this stage the universe’s density would have been about a hundred trillion times as dense as water with a temperature of about 1 trillion degrees Celsius. In these extreme conditions, photons would have been moving with enormous energy but would hardly travel any distance before smashing into each other. The collision force would have been enough to create more elementary particles such as neutrons which would then have been smashed again to produce protons and electrons. But things were changing rapidly.

When the universe was just one second old its density had fallen to about 380,000 times that of water, its temperature was down to about ten billion degrees. The number of neutrons now being destroyed exceeded the number being created since photons were still powerful enough to smash them but lacked the energy to create new ones.

At about three minutes old the temperature was down to about a billion degrees (seventy times as hot as the sun) and the rate of change was also slowing.

If the universe had remained in that state for just a few more minutes, all the neutrons would have decayed to protons and electrons, and that would have been that. In some of the universe’s histories in the quantum foam, this is indeed what will have happened, but in this particular history, the one in which we live and ask questions about its origins, and maybe in an unknown number of other histories, the temperature cooled enough for some neutrons to stick to protons to form helium nuclei (or alpha particles). Neutrons had become stabilised and your universe entered its next phase.

We were just a few minutes away from never having existed!

This phase lasted for several hundred thousand years during which it was still too hot for the electrons to stick to the protons and alpha particles to form atoms. Instead they were free to zig-zag about in the expanding and slowly cooling universe, interacting with the electromagnetic radiation which still filled the universe. This final phase of the Big Bang continued until the next major change which occurred some 300,000 to 500,000 years after the beginning when the universe had cooled to a mere 6,000 degrees, or about the same temperature as the surface of the sun. At this temperature, negatively charged electrons become captured by positively charged protons and alpha particles to form electrically neutral atoms of hydrogen and helium respectively. Your universe had given birth to atoms.

The birth of atoms marks the end of the Big Bang and the beginning of atomic matter as we know and understand it. Moreover, since these neutrally charged particles hardly interact with electromagnetic radiation, the universe had become transparent. Photons were now free to stream almost uninterrupted through the universe and atoms were free to clump together under the influence of their own gravity, undisturbed by photons continually stirring them up and knocking them into different paths so ensuring a chaotic distribution of atoms. So clouds of gas could form in an otherwise amorphous universe. The universe was becoming grainy as centres of gravitational attraction were forming; structure was beginning to form under the influence of nothing more complicated than gravity.

Order was forming out of chaos and the whole process was inevitable. And now we have answered another question frequently asked of science, especially by Creationists pursuing a religious agenda. How did order come from chaos? The answer is quite simple - gravity.

Your story now moves on to the story of stars which are the end-point of collapsing clouds of hydrogen and helium, then the only atoms which exist in your still young universe. Under gravity, the gas clouds collapse and release some of the energy stored up in gravity to produce heat, so the collapsing gas clouds heat up. The rate of collapse increases as more and more atoms of gas are pulled towards the centre and, as more and more mass is added, so the gravity increases.

Clusters of stars form into galaxies of billions or trillions of stars which begin to spiral inwards towards a centre of gravity and, as the rate of collapse increases so the rate of rotation also increases until the centrifugal force tending to push bodies outwards equals the gravitational (centripetal) force tending to pull them inwards. Once again a degree of order is emerging in your universe from the chaos of unevenly distributed balls of collapsing gas clouds. A new structure is inevitably being imposed on the universe by the action of a simple forces on chaos and that force is once again gravity. And a third level or order is also emerging as galaxies form super-cluster.

But your story is still being written in the centres of these young suns. The precise details will depend on the size of the original gas cloud out of which the sun was formed. All suns will follow more or less the same process but what happens at the end of their life, and how quickly that end is reached will vary. Let us take a sun rather like our own in size and about which we know rather a lot and which is known to be a rather average sun. Gravity here has produced a temperature of around fifteen million degrees Celsius and hydrogen nuclei (or protons) are being forced together to form helium nuclei and releasing energy as they do so in a huge nuclear fusion reactor.

This process will continue until the star has used up all the hydrogen in its core, where the temperature is hot enough for the fusion reaction to proceed. At that point, with no energy being produced and so nothing pushing the helium outwards, the core will undergo a further collapse forcing helium atoms to fuse together to form carbon, and the temperature will rise to one hundred million degrees Celsius. The outer layer will swell enormously and dim so that the sun will become a red giant.

Eventually the helium supply will run out too and, in a final cataclysm, the core will collapse in one more time and carbon atoms will fuse to form larger atoms in a final, short-lived burst of activity, and a release of energy so violent it will force the sun to fly apart to form a super nova, the products of its reactor being thrown out into space to form interstellar dust and, together with hydrogen and helium, a new cloud out of which second generation suns will form, but clouds which now containing heavier elements than the hydrogen and helium out of which first generation stars were formed.

Not all suns have this ending. If they are large enough they will continue to collapse under their own gravity eventually forming a singularity with a gravity field so powerful that not even photons can escape it. They will form black holes and, at that local level, gravity will have regained control and that part of the universe will again be nothing. And it will be a suitable place for another quantum foam of universes to arise, each with its own space and time existing outside our universe.

Some stars may be too large to form red giants and supernovae and too small to become black holes. These will collapse to a density in which all atoms again break down and all electrons and protons are forced together to form neutrons. The neutron stars.

But your story continues not in a super-massive star destined to be a black hole or a massive star destined to become a spinning ball of super-dense neutrons. Your sun is a second or maybe third generation sun. It was formed from a collapsing cloud of gas and interstellar star dust formed in earlier suns and containing the elements with which you will be made; the carbon, nitrogen, sulphur and oxygen in your proteins; the iron in your blood, the phosphorus and calcium in your bones; the sodium and potassium in your cells. You are made of stardust, formed in nuclear fusion reactors and exploding supernovae out of the elementary particles formed out of pure energy during the Big Bang.

But we still have a few chapters of your story to tell. Your story now moves to the formation of this solar system centred on a rather ordinary star in an outer arm of an unremarkable galaxy in a cosmos containing perhaps a trillion galaxies each with maybe a trillion suns. This chapter begins about 4 billion years ago by which time the universe was about 10 billion years old.

Relief Map of the Moon Showing Impact Craters
As the rotating cloud of gas and dust collapsed to form a new sun, the heavier elements would have been thrown outwards again as the nuclear fusion machine switched on. These would have formed a disc of debris consisting of atoms and molecules of heavier elements which would have begun to condense around stable centres orbiting the sun – a so-called accretion disc. Radiant energy from the sun would have driven the lighter gasses further out so that the outer planets are gas giants consisting mostly of gases with a rocky core and the inner planets are rocky. The accretion process was by no means a steady gradual process but, as clumps of matter grew larger so the impacts of accretion grew larger. On bodies like the moon and Mars with their stable outer layers, we can see the craters which resulted from the impacts of large bodies such as asteroids.

One collision involving Earth early in the life of the solar system was with a very large object, possibly a small planet, which tilted Earth on its axis of rotation and threw enough material out of Earth's gravity to give rise to a small accretion disc of its own. The relatively large Moon was formed out of this debris. For all practical purposes the Earth and Moon form a twin planet, formed out of the remains of these two earlier planets.

This event had huge significance for your story. The tilt of Earth’s axis has produced seasons and the close proximity of another relatively large body has produced tides. It is probable that both these contribute to Earth being a suitable place on which life could exist. But we still have another chapter in your story to tell.

About 3.5 billion years ago, on this little planet orbiting a very ordinary sun situated on an outer arm of a very ordinary galaxy, something quite extraordinary happened. We don’t know exactly how, though we have several theories, and we don’t know if it was unique. It might well have happened on other planets in other galaxies maybe a trillion times but, as the distances between galaxies and even across galaxies are so vast, we may never find out.

Here on our tiny bright blue dot, a replicator arose. A replicator is a chemical which can produce copies of itself. We don’t know exactly what the first replicator was; one theory is that it may have been crystalline structures in clay; another is that it may have been ribonucleic acid (RNA). It is generally agreed that RNA came into it fairly early on, maybe from the outset, maybe riding on the back of some other chemical in an evolutionary process in which those replicators better at replicating will produce more descendants. There are still some organisms like viruses which depend on RNA and RNA is certainly still involved even where the main genetic material is deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). However this replicator started, it seems to have fairly quickly evolved into a DNA-based one.

For a general outline of what probably happened, see How Did Life Originate.

Each of your cells, with the exception of your red blood cells, contains DNA which contains all the instructions for making you and making the protein enzymes which control your body’s metabolism. DNA is organised into genes which carry instructions. Without going into detail (whole books are devoted to how DNA works as a store for information and how it is organised into genes, but the details are very well understood), these genes are the basic building blocks of life and are the replicators which carry your information from your parents, through you and into your children. Your story is the story of your genes which, over billions of years have built survival machines for replicating themselves through time. You are a gene survival machine with a body superbly fashioned to survive and reproduce and so pass on your genes to the next generation.

Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, every hopeful child, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

Carl Sagan
Replicators are very good at replicating but occasionally they produce slightly different copies of themselves and these slight differences give rise to slight variations between individuals. Some of these will make the individual less fitted to survive and some will make it more fitted; the vast majority however will make no noticeable difference as they take place in the accumulated redundant DNA which all organisms contain.

Where the variation makes a difference, however, the environment will determine whether it gives an advantage or a disadvantage, or, in fact makes no difference in terms of success, even where there is a difference. It will tend to select for individuals carrying genes which make it more able to survive and against those less able. Those which tend to survive will tend to produce more descendants, in that environment, and those descendants will inherit the advantageous genes. Natural selection acts like a sieve at each generation tending to filter out those characteristics which act against survival and allowing through those which enhance it. In this way the gene pool of a species tends to adapt to its local environment and, where the gene pool is split amongst several different environments, tends to produce diversity. Diversity will eventually lead to speciation if separation is maintained for long enough.

So what does this mean for you and your story? You are the end-point of your own genes' evolution. You are the descendant of survivors, each of whom bred successfully and never once failed – for 3.5 billion years!

Think about that for a moment. In a world in which, for very many individuals, an early death and failure to breed were by far the most likely outcome, not one single one of your ancestors failed to produce at least one offspring. If they had failed, your gene-line would have ended there and then.

You are the product of billions of passes through the sieve of selection and at every pass your gene-line passed the fitness test. You are good at surviving; and you are unique in the history of the cosmos. The likelihood of you being alive at all is almost vanishingly small and yet here you are. Never before has anyone with your individual combination of genes, your individual collection of atoms and your history existed.

And you never will again.

Your ancestors were there when Europe and Africa split off from the Americas. They were there as small mammal-like reptiles when dinosaurs ruled the earth. They saw pterodactyls flying overhead. They survived the mass-extinction which ended the dinosaurs reign.

Your ancestors swam in the pre-Cambrian seas and crawled out onto the land as early air-breathing fish destined to become land-based animals. Your ancestors lived through the Carboniferous era when dense forests of tree ferns grew in steaming jungles where dragonflies with meter-wide wings flew. The trees then fell and formed the deposits destined to be coal as the climate changed. They saw the first flowering plants as plants and insects formed their mutual-benefit society.

Your ancestors lived through the first great toxic waste disaster when the blue-green algae produced oxygen and triggered a mass extinction; and they learned to turn it to their advantage by evolving aerobic respiration.

Your ancestors were bacteria; they were archaea; they may have been the strange Ediacarans which were the earliest known multi-cellular organisms. In almost every one of your cells, in your genes, you carry a record of your evolution, of the entire human evolution story, and of a great deal of the evolution story of every other living thing.

Your journey through space and time has been an adventure of disasters, adaptation, survival and recovery, many, many time you will have been on the brink of extinction - the fate of 99% of all known ancient species - yet your ancestors survived and because they were good at surviving you are here and now.

You will live for a mere flash in the time-scale of the universe but in the vast darkness of the cosmos there can surely be few flashes as bright as your bright spark of consciousness.

Be proud. Be very proud. But at the same time be humbled by the enormity of the events which produced you and the fragility of it all.

Stars died and because they died, you live. You are made by stars out of stardust and in a very real sense, because you are made of the same stuff the universe is made of and are a part of it, there is something even more wonderful about you. Through you, though not just through you, and maybe not just here on this small planet, the universe has gained self awareness and can begin to understand itself. Through you it can stand on the surface of this beautiful little jewel in the cosmos, can look up in awe at itself and think "Wow!"

You’re special. You are unique and you were nearly 14 billion years in the making.

That’s your story. Enjoy it while it lasts.

And please bear in mind also that every other human being; every mammal; every bird, insect, spider, fish, or worm; every plant; indeed, every other living thing, has made the same journey you have made. Each is unique and the descendant of survivors. Each has an unbroken gene-line going right back to the first replicator. They are your relatives. Like you they are part of the whole web of interdependent things we call life on earth.

To end their life will end their gene-line for the first and only time in the history of the universe. Something which has taken nearly 14 billion years to produce and 3.5 billion years to perfect will have been extinguished forever.

Each of them is worthy of respect and each of them deserves the one opportunity to experience life that chance has given them.

Life is too rare, precious and wonderful a thing to take lightly.

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Friday, 10 September 2010

Reasons to Speak Out [Updated 16-April-2013]

A short collection of writings, poems and other stuff.

First they came...,

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
after all I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
after all I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
after all I was not a trade unionist.

[When they came for the Jews and the Romani
I did not speak out;
after all I was not a Jew or a Roma]

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

Pastor Martin Niemöller (with additional verse by me)

Introduction to Age of Reason


I PUT the following work under your protection. It contains my opinions upon Religion. You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.

The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

Your affectionate friend and fellow-citizen,


Luxembourg, 8th Pluviose, Second Year of the French Republic, one and indivisible.

January 27, O. S. 1794.

I'll tell you what you did with Atheists for about 1500 years. You outlawed them from the universities, or any teaching careers, besmirched their reputations, banned or burned their books or their writings of any kind, drove them into exile, humiliated them, seized their properties, arrested them for blasphemy. You dehumanized them with beatings and exquisite torture, gouged out their eyes, slit their tongues, stretched, crushed, or broke their limbs, tore off their breasts if they were a woman, crushed their scrotums if they were men, imprisoned them, stabbed them, disembowelled them, hung them, burned them alive. And you have the nerve enough to complain to me that I laugh at you?

Madalyn Murry O'Hair On Civility.

Facebook Status following the Boston Marathon Bombing:

Boston. Fucking horrible.

I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, "Well, I've had it with humanity."

But I was wrong. I don't know what's going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.

But here's what I DO know. If it's one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me). This is a giant planet and we're lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they're pointed towards darkness.

But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We'd have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, "The good outnumber you, and we always will."

Patton Oswalt, American Comedian

From "Pale Blue Dot"

Earth is a bright pixel when photographed from "Voyager 1"
six billion kilometres out (past Pluto).
From this distant vantage point the earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, every hopeful child, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves…… It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

The late, great Carl Sagan. (November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996)

"All that is necessary for the triumph of bad people is that good people do nothing."

(with apologies to Edmund Burke)

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

John Donne 1624

"We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better."

JK Rowling

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 4:8

Dear fellow-unbelievers,

Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death. Nobody ever wins this argument, though there are some solid points to be made while the discussion goes on. I have found, as the enemy becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before. I hope to help defend and pass on the lessons of this for many years to come, but for now I have found my trust better placed in two things: the skill and principle of advanced medical science, and the comradeship of innumerable friends and family, all of them immune to the false consolations of religion. It is these forces among others which will speed the day when humanity emancipates itself from the mind-forged manacles of servility and superstition. It is our innate solidarity, and not some despotism of the sky, which is the source of our morality and our sense of decency.

That essential sense of decency is outraged every day. Our theocratic enemy is in plain view. Protean in form, it extends from the overt menace of nuclear-armed mullahs to the insidious campaigns to have stultifying pseudo-science taught in American schools. But in the past few years, there have been heartening signs of a genuine and spontaneous resistance to this sinister nonsense: a resistance which repudiates the right of bullies and tyrants to make the absurd claim that they have god on their side. To have had a small part in this resistance has been the greatest honor of my lifetime: the pattern and original of all dictatorship is the surrender of reason to absolutism and the abandonment of critical, objective inquiry. The cheap name for this lethal delusion is religion, and we must learn new ways of combating it in the public sphere, just as we have learned to free ourselves of it in private.

Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation (and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need). Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations.

As the heirs of a secular revolution, American atheists have a special responsibility to defend and uphold the Constitution that patrols the boundary between Church and State. This, too, is an honor and a privilege. Believe me when I say that I am present with you, even if not corporeally (and only metaphorically in spirit...)

Resolve to build up Mr Jefferson's wall of separation. And don't keep the faith.

Christopher Hitchens
Letter to American Atheist Conference, 2011

When the Christian missionaries came to Africa we had the land and they had Bibles.  They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, we saw they had the land and we had the Bibles.

Jomo Kenyatta, first president of post-colonial Kenya.

As you grow up, always tell the truth, do no harm to others, and don't think you are the most important being on earth. Rich or poor, you then can look anyone in the eye and say, "I'm probably no better than you, but I'm certainly your equal."

Harper Lee (Letter to a young fan,07 July 2006)

Once you start asking yourself questions like, ‘How do I really know there is a God?’ you are already on the path to unbelief. During my documentary on St Paul, some experts raised the possibility that his spectacular conversion on the road to Damascus might have been caused by an epileptic fit. It made me realise that I had taken things for granted that were taught to me as a child without subjecting them to any kind of analysis. When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God.”

Jonathan Edwards, Olympic Gold Medallist, Atheist.
Former Evangelical Christian and presenter of BBC TV religious programmes.

When I became convinced that the Universe is natural-that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light, and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world-not even in infinite space. I was free: free to think, to express my thoughts; free to live to my own ideal; free to live for myself and those I loved; free to use all my faculties, all my senses; free to spread imaginations wings; free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope; free to judge and determine for myself; free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the "inspired" books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past; free from popes and priests; free from all the "called" and "set apart"; free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies; free from the fear of eternal pain; free from the winged monsters of the night; free from devils, ghosts, and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought, no air no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings; no chains for my limbs; no lashes for my back; no fires for my flesh; no masters frown or threat; no following another's steps; no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain-for the freedom of labor and thought-to those who fell in the fierce fields of war, to those who died in dungeons bound with chains-to those who proudly mounted scaffold's stairs-to those whose bones were crushed, whose flesh was scarred and torn-to those by fire consumed-to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men. And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.

Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899)

To my dearest daughter,

Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the Sun and very far away? And how do we know that the Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the Sun?
The answer to these questions is ‘evidence’.

Sometimes evidence means actually seeing (or hearing, feeling, smelling….) that something is true. Astronauts have traveled far enough from the Earth to see with their own eyes that it is round. Sometimes our eyes need help. The ‘evening star’ looks like a bright twinkle in the sky but with a telescope you can see that it is a beautiful ball – the planet we call Venus. Something that you learn by direct seeing (or hearing or feeling…) is called an observation.

Often evidence isn't just observation on its own, but observation always lies at the back of it. If there’s been a murder, often nobody (except the murderer and the dead person!) actually observed it. But detectives can gather together lots of other observations which may all point towards a particular suspect. If a person’s fingerprints match those found on a dagger, this is evidence that he touched it. It doesn't prove that he did the murder, but it can help when it’s joined up with lots of other evidence. Sometimes a detective can think about a whole lot of observations and suddenly realize that they all fall into place and make sense if so-and-so did the murder.

Scientists – the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe – often work like detectives. They make a guess (called a hypothesis) about what might be true. They then say to themselves: if that were really true, we ought to see so-and-so. This is called a prediction. For example, if the world is really round, we can predict that a traveler, going on and on in the same direction, should eventually find himself back where he started. When a doctor says that you have measles he doesn’t take one look at you and see measles. His first look gives him a hypothesis that you may have measles. Then he says to himself: if she really has measles, I ought to see… Then he runs through his list of predictions and tests them with his eyes (have you got spots?), his hands (is your forehead hot?), and his ears (does your chest wheeze in a measly way?). Only then does he make his decision and say, ‘I diagnose that the child has measles.’ Sometimes doctors need to do other tests like blood tests or X-rays, which help their eyes, hands and ears to make observations.

The way scientists use evidence to learn about the world is much cleverer and more complicated than I can say in a short letter. But now I want to move on from evidence, which is a good reason for believing something, and warn you against three bad reasons for believing anything. They are called ‘tradition’, ‘authority’, and ‘revelation’.

First, tradition. A few months ago, I went on television to have a discussion with about 50 children. These children were invited because they’d been brought up in lots of different religions. Some had been brought up as Christians, others as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs. The man with the microphone went from child to child, asking them what they believed. What they said shows up exactly what I mean by ‘tradition’. Their beliefs turned out to have no connection with evidence. They just trotted out the beliefs of their parents and grandparents, which, in turn, were not based upon evidence either. They said things like, ‘We Hindus believe so and so.’ ‘We Muslims believe such and such.’ ‘We Christians believe something else.’ Of course, since they all believed different things, they couldn't all be right. The man with the microphone seemed to think this quite proper, and he didn't even try to get them to argue out their differences with each other. But that isn't the point I want to make. I simply want to ask where their beliefs came from. They came from tradition. Tradition means beliefs handed down from grandparent to parent to child, and so on. Or from books handed down through the centuries. Traditional beliefs often start from almost nothing; perhaps somebody just makes them up originally, like the stories about Thor and Zeus. But after they've been handed down over some centuries, the mere fact that they are so old makes them seem special. People believe things simply because people have believed the same thing over centuries. That’s tradition.

The trouble with tradition is that, no matter how long ago a story was made up, it is still exactly as true or untrue as the original story was. If you make up a story that isn't true, handing it down over any number of centuries doesn’t make it any truer!

Most people in England have been baptized into the Church of England, but this is only one of many branches of the Christian religion. There are other branches such as the Russian Orthodox, the Roman Catholic and the Methodist churches. They all believe different things. The Jewish religion and the Muslim religion are a bit more different still; and there are different kinds of Jews and of Muslims. People who believe even slightly different things from each other often go to war over their disagreements. So you might think that they must have some pretty good reasons – evidence – for believing what they believe. But actually their different beliefs are entirely due to different traditions.

Let’s talk about one particular tradition. Roman Catholics believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was so special that she didn't die but was lifted bodily into Heaven. Other Christian traditions disagree, saying that Mary did die like anybody else. These other religions don't talk about her much and, unlike Roman Catholics, they don't call her the ‘Queen of Heaven’. The tradition that Mary’s body was lifted into Heaven is not a very old one. The Bible says nothing about how or when she died; in fact the poor woman is scarcely mentioned in the Bible at all. The belief that her body was lifted into Heaven wasn't invented until about six centuries after Jesus’s time. At first it was just made up, in the same way as any story like Snow White was made up. But, over the centuries, it grew into a tradition and people started to take it seriously simply because the story had been handed down over so many generations. The older the tradition became, the more people took it seriously. It finally was written down as an official Roman Catholic belief only very recently, in 1950. But the story was no more true in 1950 than it was when it was first invented 600 years after Mary’s death.

I’ll come back to tradition at the end of my letter, and look at it in another way. But first I must deal with the two other bad reasons for believing in anything: authority and revelation.

Authority, as a reason for believing something, means believing it because you are told to believe it by somebody important. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope is the most important person, and people believe he must be right just because he is the Pope. In one branch of the Muslim religion, the important people are old men with beards called Ayatollahs. Lots of young Muslims are prepared to commit murder, purely because the Ayatollahs in a faraway country tell them to.

When I say that it was only in 1950 that Roman Catholics were finally told that they had to believe that Mary’s body shot off to Heaven, what I mean is that in 1950 the Pope told people that they had to believe it. That was it. The Pope said it was true, so it had to be true! Now, probably some of the things that Pope said in his life were true and some were not true. There is no good reason why, just because he was the Pope, you should believe everything he said, any more than you believe everything that lots of other people say. The present Pope has ordered his followers not to limit the number of babies they have. If people follow his authority as slavishly as he would wish, the results could be terrible famines, diseases and wars, caused by overcrowding.

Of course, even in science, sometimes we haven’t seen the evidence ourselves and we have to take somebody else’s word for it. I haven’t with my own eyes, seen the evidence that light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles per second. Instead, I believe books that tell me the speed of light. This looks like ‘authority’. But actually it is much better than authority because the people who wrote the books have seen the evidence and anyone is free to look carefully at the evidence whenever they want. That is very comforting. But not even the priests claim that there is any evidence for their story about Mary’s body zooming off to Heaven.

The third kind of bad reason for believing anything is called ‘revelation’. If you had asked the Pope in 1950 how he knew that Mary’s body disappeared into Heaven, he would probably have said that it had been ‘revealed’ to him. He shut himself in his room and prayed for guidance. He thought and thought, all by himself, and he became more and more sure inside himself. When religious people just have a feeling inside themselves that something must be true, even though there is no evidence that it is true, they call their feeling ‘revelation’. It isn’t only popes who claim to have revelations. Lots of religious people do. It is one of their main reasons for believing the things that they do believe. But is it a good reason?

Suppose I told you that your dog was dead. You’d be very upset, and you’d probably say, ‘Are you sure? How do you know? How did it happen?’ Now suppose I answered: ‘I don’t actually know that Pepe is dead. I have no evidence. I just have this funny feeling deep inside me that he is dead.’ You’d be pretty cross with me for scaring you, because you’d know that an inside ‘feeling’ on its own is not a good reason for believing that a whippet is dead. You need evidence. We all have inside feelings from time to time, and sometimes they turn out to be right and sometimes they don’t. Anyway, different people have opposite feelings, so how are we to decide whose feeling is right? The only way to be sure that a dog is dead is to see him dead, or hear that his heart has stopped; or be told by somebody who has seen or heard some real evidence that he is dead.

People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise you’d never be confident of things like ‘My wife loves me’. But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

Sometimes people have a strong inside feeling that somebody loves them when it is not based upon any evidence, and then they are likely to be completely wrong. There are people with a strong inside feeling that a famous film star loves them, when really the film star hasn’t even met them. People like that are ill in their minds. Inside feelings must be backed up by evidence, otherwise you just can’t trust them.

Inside feelings are valuable in science too, but only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence. A scientist can have a ‘hunch’ about an idea that just ‘feels’ right. In itself, this is not a good reason for believing something. But it can be a good reason for spending some time doing a particular experiment, or looking in a particular way for evidence. Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence.

I promised that I’d come back to tradition, and look at it in another way. I want to try to explain why tradition is so important to us. All animals are built (by the process called evolution) to survive in the normal place in which their kind live. Lions are built to be good at surviving on the plains of Africa. Crayfish are built to be good at surviving in fresh water, while lobsters are built to be good at surviving in the salt sea. People are animals too, and we are built to be good at surviving in a world full of … other people. Most of us don’t hunt for our own food like lions or lobsters, we buy it from other people who have bought it from yet other people. We ‘swim’ through a ‘sea of people’. Just as a fish needs gills to survive in water, people need brains that make them able to deal with other people. Just as the sea is full of salt water, the sea of people is full of difficult things to learn. Like language.

You speak English but your friend speaks German. You each speak the language that fits you to ‘swim about’ in your own separate ‘people sea’. Language is passed down by tradition. There is no other way. In England, Pepe is a dog. In Germany he is ein Hund. Neither of these words is more correct, or more truer than the other. Both are simply handed down. In order to be good at ‘swimming about in their people sea’, children have to learn the language of their own country, and lots of other things about their own people; and this means that they have to absorb, like blotting paper, an enormous amount of traditional information. (Remember that traditional information just means things that are handed down from grandparents to parents to children.) The child’s brain has to be a sucker for traditional information. And the child can’t be expected to sort out good and useful traditional information, like the words of a language, from bad or silly traditional information, like believing in witches and devils and ever-living virgins.

It’s a pity, but it can’t help being the case, that because children have to be suckers for traditional information, they are likely to believe anything the grown-ups tell them, whether true or false, right or wrong. Lots of what grown-ups tell them is true and based on evidence or at least sensible. But if some of it is false, silly or even wicked, there is nothing to stop the children believing that too. Now, when the children grow up, what do they do? Well, of course, they tell it to the next generation of children. So, once something gets itself strongly believed – even if its completely untrue and there never was any reason to believe it in the first place – it can go on forever.

Could this be what happened with religions? Belief that there is a god or gods, belief in Heaven, belief that Mary never died, belief that Jesus never had a human father, belief that prayers are answered, belief that wine turns into blood – not one of these beliefs is backed up by any good evidence. Yet millions of people believe them. Perhaps this is because they were told to believe them when they were young enough to believe anything.

Millions of other people believe quite different things, because they were told different things when they were children. Muslim children are told different things from Christian children, and both grow up utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. Even within Christians, Roman Catholics believe different things from Church of England people or Episcopalians, Shakers or Quakers, Mormons or Holy Rollers, and all are utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. They believe different things for exactly the same kind of reason as you speak English and someone speaks German.

Both languages are, in their own country, the right language to speak. But it can’t be true that different religions are right in their own countries, because different religions claim that opposite things are true. Mary can’t be alive in the Catholic Republic but dead in Protestant Northern Ireland.

What can we do about all this? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

Your loving,

Richard Dawkins - Letter to his daughter. Published in "The God Delusion".

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Friday, 20 August 2010

The Doublethink of the God Delusion

Doublethink or the ability to simultaneously hold two mutually contradictory opinions.
This blog is a response to the challenge from @TweetMinistries on Twitter to comment on a blog by Gary Gutting, a philosophy teacher at the University of Notre Dame. The blog was a critique of, “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins.

Gutting's orginal blog may be read at:

Gutting starts off badly and shows he hasn't understood what he is criticising by summarising Dawkins as saying natural selection explains the complexity of the universe. Dawkins only ever argues that natural selection accounts for the diversity and complexity of life, not of the universe. However, this is not the central argument of Gutting’s case.

The central argument is that Dawkins failed to take into account the theological argument that God is a special case and can be regarded as irrational, therefore it should be exempt from arguments aimed at showing there is no rational basis for a belief in one.

Gutting correctly points out that Dawkins' argument is that a creator god would necessarily be more complex than the universe it created, therefore the argument for a god from complexity is unsatisfactory in that it simply introduces another unexplained layer of complexity, so not only failing to solve the problem but actually making it worse.

He then complains that Dawkins never addressed the fact that, “philosophers from Thomas Aquinas through contemporary thinkers have offered detailed discussions of the question that provide intelligent suggestions about how to think coherently about a simple substance that has the power and knowledge attributed to God”.

This neatly sidesteps the problem of the necessary knowledge and information required to create a universe with all its complexity. The definition of God is shifted dramatically away from an omniscient, omnipotent god capable of emotions such as love and anger, able to formulate morality, hand down laws of behaviour and to monitor and record our thoughts, and in whose image we were created, to something much easier to fit into the debate at hand. This god is now a simple substance, presumably having no complexity whatsoever, yet still has the “power and knowledge attributed to it”.

In other words, this god has complexity without having complexity. Yep! That IS irrational, but that’s not a problem either. You see there is always “the possibility that God is a necessary being (that is, a being that, by its very nature, must exist, no matter what). On this traditional view, God’s existence would be, so to speak, self-explanatory and so need no explanation...”, something Gutting also complains that Dawkins didn’t take into account.

What Gutting is complaining of here is that Dawkins should have accepted the workarounds for the difficult questions which theologians have assiduously devised to help them ignore them, and that he cheated by not allowing for them.

Yes indeed, Dawkins, in his argument that there was no rational explanation for a god did not take into account that there is an irrational explanation which should have been regarded as rational because it’s not fair to subject it to rational analysis (because it would fail that test).

Gutting then attempts to support this view by reference to Bertrand Russell’s point that we would require very strong evidence to believe that there is a teapot in orbit around the sun. Dawkins agrees with Russell that an extraordinary claim such as that requires an extraordinary level of supporting evidence to justify its acceptance.

He points out that, if astronauts had reported a teapot shaped object in orbit and satellite data had strongly suggested that there was indeed a teapot in orbit, this would be sufficient evidence to at least cause us to allow for the possibility of the teapot hypothesis being correct.

Gutting then tries to argue that there is indeed just such strong evidence to support the god hypothesis. Unfortunately the only evidence he has to offer is, “There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being”, neglecting to point out that none have ever produced evidence of a reality, and, “there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence”, as though arguments from authority are a good as real evidence.

What Gutting is attempting to do here is to suggest that somehow, the subjective interpretations of perception and the opinions of philosophers should be place on an equal footing with scientific data and independent eye-witness accounts. This is, of course, nothing more than special pleading again. The god hypothesis will only work if you exempt it from the normal tests you apply to other hypotheses, therefore it should be granted these exemption without further justification.

Gutting reinforces this claim with, “But religious believers will plausibly reply that science is suited to discover only what is material (indeed, the best definition of “material” may be just “the sort of thing that science can discover”). They will also cite our experiences of our own conscious life (thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.) as excellent evidence for the existence of immaterial realities that cannot be fully understood by science”.

He has ignored the fact that neurophysiology is material and so consciousness, thoughts, feelings, etc, are not evidence of the immaterial at all (‘plausible’ seems to mean ‘convenient’ in this context). And there again is that plea of special status for the god hypothesis. Now the reason is that this god should be exempt from ALL tests of existence because it is now assumed to be immaterial and so beyond the reach of science.

In summary then, Gutting is arguing that Dawkins was wrong to argue that there is no rational basis for belief in a god because belief in god is irrational and Dawkins should have accepted that as er... rational.

Presumably this form of 'logic' is perfectly acceptable in theological circles.

We also have here yet another example of the special pleading which theologians use to defend their god hypothesis. Their little hypothesis wants to play with the big boys of science and compete on an equal footing, but it needs affirmative action and special assistance to get by. It’s not fair that it should have to take the same tests scientific hypotheses have to pass. It’s perfectly fair to claim it is as rational as scientific hypotheses even though it is irrational.

This compartmentalised doublethink is a perfect example of Dawkins’ God Delusion.

It's really rather sad that humans, in attempting to create a god, have only managed to create a seriously handicapped one.

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Thursday, 19 August 2010

Refuting the Arguments For God

These arguments for God appear on .

This blog examines them one by one and shows the fallacy behind them.

“If you live in a desert and never leave it, you won't find a shred of evidence for the existence for polar ice caps or polar bears.”

True, but if you had never heard of polar icecaps and bears, why would you even think of looking for them? You won’t find any evidence of Martians either but is that a reason to believe they exist? Of course not. Whilst absence of evidence is far from being proof of absence, it is most certainly supporting evidence for the idea of absence.  It is a very long way from being proof or even evidence of presence.

The extraordinary thing is that the blogger opens his blog with what amounts to a claim that the absence of evidence is in some way evidence of presence!

The temptation is to walk away right now.  Let’s hope things get better...

“If you live a world apart from God and never venture beyond it, you won't find a shred of evidence for God.”

Crikey! So, if you accept any ‘evidence’ a priori as evidence for God, whatever and wherever it might be, you will er... find evidence for God. Now why didn’t I think of that when I was doing biological research? “Look professor! If only you would accept a priori any evidence as evidence that my hypothesis is correct, you will see that I have validated it. Why won’t you be reasonable and agree with me?”

It would have made life SO much easier not having to bother with actual evidence or logical interpretation of results.

It’s nonsense of course. This is an example of special pleading. The God hypothesis can’t be expected to stand the same rigorous test that science requires of other hypotheses. It has special needs.

“A universe that is very precisely tuned to support life, from the very unique properties of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and other elements that form life to the physical laws that allow matter to exist in a delicate balance between black holes and plasma.”

Intelligent life, capable of formulating questions about the origins of life and of the universe, and asking questions about why the universe is as it is, can ONLY exist in a universe in which it is capable of existing. This simple truism means that you can only ask why the universe supports intelligent life in a universe which supports intelligent life.  In other words, the universe is not as it is so you can question it, but rather you can question it BECAUSE it is the way it is.

Now, as to the science behind the universe which makes it capable of supporting intelligent life, this may be because of  the initial conditions at the moment of the Big Bang.  Quite simply, we do not yet know why the initial conditions in the Big Bang were as they were and we don’t yet know whether they were inevitable or not, however, as the Feynman equation seems to show, it is entirely likely that all possible universes came into existence in a so-called quantum foam, each with its own self-contained space-time. The fact that we can ask these questions means we MUST be in a universe in which the intial conditions were those necessary to allow the evolution of intelligence.

In essence, this argument is another fallacious ‘god of the gaps’ argument, which says that, if there is something science hasn’t yet explained, it will never explain it, and the only explanation MUST be that [insert your favourite god] must have done it. The argument is fallacious for two reasons:
  • Because science hasn’t YET explained something does NOT mean it’s beyond explanation. Note here the dishonest implication that science has discovered everything discoverable.  No scientist has ever made that claim.
  • Even if this WERE true it would not prove the only explanation is the one claimed. This is the false dichotomy fallacy and betrays again the underlying dishonesty of the religious argument.  The argument is never about whether the conclusion is supported by the evidence and the logic but about whether it arrives at the desired conclusion.
What the blogger needs to show is that a natural explanation for the universe being the way it is, and for living things to have evolved in this tiny part of it, is impossible. Only then is it logical to look for a supernatural explanation. Of course he has done none of that but is merely relying on the reader's underlying cultural assumption that a supernatural explanation must be required because he/she can't think of a natural one.

And we haven't even considered which of the infinite array of hypothetical supernatural explanations it might be. Again, there is the dependence on cultural assumption, in this case that the only possible supernatural explanation is the locally popular god. This is nothing more than a cynical attempt to use the reader's ignorance to pull the wool over his/her eyes.

“Life itself, which is not just a mere assemblage of the right chemicals, but a system of hundreds of interrelated components working in harmony to create the miracle we call life, all precisely coded in the DNA of every cell.”

This is simply a statement of the obvious. There is no mystery to be explained here and nothing which requires a supernatural explanation. I suspect the blogger either believes, or wants you to believe, that living things are thought by science to have arisen, fully formed, in their present state, so is asking us to explain how this could all have happened ‘by chance’.

Of course, science says no such thing. The theory of evolution explains why living things appear to be designed. They ARE designed by a natural, unthinking and undirected, yet inevitable, process called natural selection which, at every generation acts as a filter to ensure those best able to reproduce successfully are those more likely to produce offspring which inherit those abilities.

Design CAN be natural and undirected, and, given the huge timescale over which it operates, can produce amazing refinement, but the design is only and always towards improving the ability to replicate in a changing environment.  Most evolutionary chains eventually lead to extinction so one thing we can say with some degree of certainty is that species are NOT designed for indefinite survival.  Evolution does not have goals.  Just as a falling stone is not intentionally trying to reach the ground, so evolving life it not trying to reach any particular design criterion.  It is being driven by an unthinking yet inevitable force. 

The notion that somehow evolution is directed towards a particular goal is a manifestation of anthropocentrism - the notion that the purpose of everything is to allow humans to exist.  This is a religious, not a scientific point of view.  There is no requirement for science to explain it in those terms.

Living things are essentially vehicles for the replicators they play host too. These replicators, in turn, have evolved vehicles capable of replicating them.

This argument is either
  • the argument from ignorance fallacy – I don’t know how it happened so it must have been done by my favourite god
  • the argument from design fallacy – If something looks as though it was designed, and it wasn’t designed by a human, it must have been designed by my favourite god.
And then, of course, there is the ever-popular false dichotomy fallacy which always concludes with, ‘so it must have been my god’.

“Innate and unique characteristics of human beings which are not readily explained by adaptation, such as artistic creativity, a sense or moral right and wrong which often contradicts "survival of the fittest" and a desire to seek answers about God, even among those who say they do not believe.”

Er... except that they are if we include memetic evolution. Again, though, we have the argument from ignorance combined with our old friend, the false dichotomy.

“Veracity of Scripture in prophecy, history and scientific information “

Such a shame the blogger didn’t see fit to back up this assertion with authenticated examples, but that’s probably asking too much, even for a book which was written or edited AFTER the events it purports to prophesy. In fact, any reading of the Bible will reveal a very large number of prophesies which didn't come true, including a prediction that the Nile would dry up and Egypt would be destroyed.

“People and events in the Bible which have been corroborated by historical and archeological (sic) evidence.”

Right! So every book which mentions actual people and/or events is gospel truth is it? This would be a laughable claim if it wasn’t made so frequently and in all seriousness by otherwise intelligent people. Even so, it is factually incorrect in many instances. There is no archaeological evidence nor Egyptian historical records, for any of the events described in Exodus, for example. The archaeological evidence shows that the town of Jericho never had walls in the period when it was allegedly captured by the Israelites, for example. The Census at the time of Jesus supposed birth occurred in 6 CE. King Herod died in 4 BCE, etc, etc.

“The consistency of the message found in the scriptures of almost all religions. The Bible, for instance, was written by 40 diverse men who lived over a span of 1,500 years, kept separate records and recorded events independently, yet it tells a remarkably consistent story.”

Consistent, as in forbidding killing then ordering it? Consistent, as in telling us to take an eye for an eye AND to forgive our enemies and turn the other cheek? Consistent, as in telling us to honour our mother and father AND to forsake them?

And, as Bart D. Ehrlman shows in his book, "Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible", a horizontal reading of the Bible shows it is remarkably inconsistent and often contradictory with the Gospels often making diametrically opposite claims, even about the very fundamentals of Christian belief such as the nature of Jesus and how to get to Heaven.

This is the cherry-picking fallacy. Because I can find some bits in the Bible I agree with it must have been inspired (or written) by my favourite god, and especially if I ignore the bits which don’t support my argument. And of course, where the Bible IS consistent in its morality, it is merely plagiarising Humanist morality, found in all cultures at all times, and claiming it as its own. The idea that people habitually murdered one another and stole their neighbours goods until a god told them not to is idiotic. Human societies have always had cultures which sanctioned cooperation and mutual support and in which selfishness is penalised.

“Prophecies recorded in scripture that were fulfilled in detail hundreds of years later, most notably in the life of Jesus Christ.”

No examples again. And again the apparent, or feigned, ignorance over the history of the Bible itself. And of course, no recognition of the fact that the stories about Jesus were written by people who knew these prophesies and who had an interest in presenting Jesus as having fulfilled them.

“Revelations in scripture about scientific facts that were not discovered by mankind until recently. As an example, practices to control infectious diseases that were not discovered by science until the late 1800's were recorded as laws given to Moses by God in Leviticus around 1400 B.C. The Quran also contains many references to knowledge that was not discovered by science until many centuries later.”

Well, well! By 3,500 years ago man had learned to associate cleanliness with health. And this is evidence for a god how, exactly? Well it's evidence because the blogger asserts it is, that's how.

Of course, neither the Bible nor the Quran explain infection in terms of microscopic bacteria or viruses; neither of them enunciate Koch's Postulates; neither of them mention antiseptics or antibiotics; and nowhere is there any discussion of immunity, vaccination or how to produce vaccines. In short, neither of them actually deal with the science of infection and infection control, but why spoil a good claim with evidence, eh?

There is no instance of anyone ever reading the Bible or Qur'an and forecasting the next scientific discovery. There is a very good reason for this. They are only good for 'forecasting' past events, and then only with an enormous stretch of the imagination often bending the meaning of words to breaking point.

“The account of the life of Jesus Christ. Many, even atheists, who have studied the gospels have come away concluding, based on reason and historical evidence, that the best explanation is that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Christ, sent by God to reveal Himself to mankind.”

Argumentum ad assertum. No evidence of these converted atheists is necessary. We are just expected to believe they existed and were converted. But, for every claimed converted atheist there are probably hundreds of former Christians who became atheists, many of them BECAUSE they read the Bible and stopped just accepting what they were told it contained. Instead of the inspired and inspiring word of an omniscient and inerrant loving god they found:
  • a muddle of old origin myths involving a volcano god
  • the ramblings of schizophrenics
  • some early attempts to formulate laws for living in the desert in a misogynistic and brutal society which regarded half its members as sub-human and all other peoples as lesser being
  • a story of Egyptian origins which the Egyptians seem not to have noticed despite an alleged mass-slaughter of children in a single night and the entire destruction of the army
  • a brutal and often arbitrary set of rules which would result in arrest and imprisonment in any civilised country for anyone who tried to follow them today
  • some romanticised histories of early kings
  • a collection of obviously plagiarised, but often contradictory and confused accounts of one or more Jewish rabbinical activists, embroidered and tailored to meet the needs of the ruling class of an empire in terminal decline, by incorporating it with other popular cults such as Mithraism and the various animist cults popular in Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and other centres of the old empire
“Personal experiences of prayer, healings, spiritual encounters and changed lives.

"Answers to prayer which go beyond anything that can be rationally attributed to chance or coincidence."

"Unexplained medical healings that occur in conjunction with spiritual experiences."

"Accounts by rational, mature individuals of hearing a voice within that is beyond their own thoughts, of seeing angels or of having visions."

"People whose lives have been dramatically changed through experiences that they can only describe as having been touched by a power beyond themselves, or as one of experiencing God."

"These are at least evidences of God, are they not?”

No. They are evidence only of some people’s ability to place whatever interpretation they want on events, in order to reinforce their own sense of self-importance. God answered my prayer because he likes me; God healed me because I’m special; my ‘voices’ mean I’ve been chosen by a god, etc, etc, etc.

The argument that it must have been my god because it can’t have been [insert whatever you don’t want it to have been] is not an argument for a god; it is an argument for the god delusion.

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