Saturday, 31 July 2010

Kent Hovind's Ten Most Ignorant Questions

The convicted fraudster and Young Earth Creationist, Dr Kent Hovind, (or to give him his proper academic title, Mr Kent Hovind) claims to have ten questions which Evolutionists cannot/will not answer.

Various estimates put Hovind's income from his idiosyncratic biological, geophysical and cosmological claims and lecture tours at $1-2 million dollars per annum.

Hovind's doctorate (which was in Christian Education, not, as has been claimed, in a science subject of any sort) was the result of a short correspondence course with an unaccredited Bible college, Patriot Bible University.

Patriot Bible Shed, Colorado, USA
The college refuses to release his dissertation but those who have managed to see a copy report that it is incomplete, repetitions, unoriginal, lacking references with very little academic merit, and shows a lack of basic understanding and knowledge of science. Hovind claims to be a scientist but his sole science 'qualification' appears to be that he taught 'science' in private high-schools, all of which were fundamentalist Christian schools, some of which Hovind himself owned.

[Later note: A copy of Kent Hovind's doctoral 'dissertation' is now available on Wikileaks at http://wikileaks.org/wiki/Young-earth_creationist_Kent_Hovind's_doctoral_dissertation. As readers can see, this is barely up to the standard required for an 'A' level assignment report and shows no evidence of having been submitted for peer review.]

This blog both answers Hovind’s ten questions and exposes the attempted deception behind them.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Evolution of God

Whenever you’re wondering about the origins of something in human evolution or human culture, think 'East African plains'. The East African plains are where almost all our modern characteristics evolved. That's where we evolved upright walking, fully opposable thumbs and, perhaps most importantly, our brains.

As our brains developed we developed pattern-recognition, maybe firstly for facial recognition, which led us later to develop reading and writing skills, amongst other things. Early on however, it helped us to track animals by recognising the footprints of the different prey and predator species. We are probably the only species which can look at a set of footprints and ‘read’ the information in them. We can tell the species, or at least the family – big cat, dog, antelope, ostrich, etc - and we can tell where it came from, where it was going and, with a little learning, how long ago it passed by.

All this is invaluable information for both catching lunch and avoiding becoming something else’s lunch. Inheritors of these skills, in the presence of a powerful brain, would have had enormous advantage, so the genetic variations which facilitated them would have spread rapidly through the gene-pool.

Our brain allowed us to learn these skills and to pass them on to the next generation, and the ability to teach and to learn also allowed us to develop cultures by establishing group norms and ethics, and to pass these on to the next generation. Group cohesion and, especially, group identity would have been enhanced by these cultural norms, inculcated from birth and accepted as ‘right’ by the whole group. Failure to comply would have meant exclusion from the group – not a very attractive prospect for a species which is relatively weak as an individual but immensely strong when part of a coordinated group.

Incidentally, Man is not alone in developing cultures which are passed from one generation to the next. The other African apes all have observable cultural differences between groups, as do some more distantly related simian species such as macaques, and baboons. Dolphins and killer whales also have distinct cultural groups and even some species of bird have local (i.e., cultural) calls and songs.

But I digress.

Early humans were now inheriting two different sorts of replicators. They were inheriting biological genes which determined their physical form and they were inheriting cultural or 'memory genes', more correctly now known as memes, which determined their culture, group norms and ethics.

Just as with the other African ape species, we would probably have lived in small groups of related individuals, each group dominated by an alpha male. This alpha male would have won his ‘right’ to be leader and the size of the group would have been related to how many individuals this alpha male (and maybe his alpha female mate) could exert control over. The alpha male would have had first pick of the females and would have enforced this right, maybe through a group of loyal supporters, by the sanction of physical punishment against those who infringed his right or who threatened his dominance. The idea that the alpha male had this right would have been passed on from one generation to the next as a group norm or ethic.

In evolutionary terms, there would be an advantage in the alpha male passing on the genes which enabled him to dominate and the group would have benefited by being more likely to be led by a strong male able to dominate and lead. However, there would have been an evolutionary arms race between these ‘alpha male’ genes and genes which predisposed to illicit sexual activity, since these genes would have enjoyed the protection of the alpha male. Whether these ‘genes’ were actual DNA genes or memes, inherited as part of group culture, is immaterial. The fact is that human groups would have been evolving by gene-meme co-evolution. Replicators have no concern for the nature of the other replicators with which they form alliances.

Now, place yourself in such a group in the plains of East Africa. The plains of East Africa have very many rocky out-crops which offer shelter and which are good vantage points from which to survey the surrounding plain. These outcrops also give the alpha male good vantage points from which to survey the group and keep an eye on what’s going on: who’s doing what and with whom, with particular regard to illicit sexual activity. Alternatively, other males and females will be trying to evade his watchful eye, and those of his supporters.

It is easy to see how this idea of a dominant alpha male, who is at the same time, the strong leader on whom the group depends, and the vengeful deliverer of pain and suffering for any transgression of the group norms, came to evolve in human culture. It is also easy to see why this alpha male takes a special interest in the sexual activities of his 'subjects', and is especially concerned that females remain inactive until he's had his turn, or at least sanctioned their mating.

Domination of his group through controlling their sexual activity ensures his genes get priority and he can also use this control as a reward system to ensure obedience. Meanwhile other selection forces are ensuring continued 'illicit' sexual activity, even making this thrilling and exciting.

Now, move on two or three hundred thousand years and remove man from the East African plains. Place him now in larger nomadic tribes or into settled farming communities and towns across Africa, Europe, Asia and into the Americas. Now there is no place for a single alpha male to sit and watch the whole group and the group is too large or diverse for him to dominate it, yet he still exists in the culture. The memes which arose on the plains of East Africa are still being replicated down through the generations. So many of our cultural ideas have been conditioned by the alpha male's presence and have evolved in an environment in which he exists, but the physical reality of the alpha male has now been replaced by the cultural idea of one.

The alpha male now sits on some imaginary vantage point overlooking the tribe, still the benevolent protector and leader, the guardian of the law, and the vengeful enforcer of his right to grant permission for sexual activity and for whose permission all, but especially the females, must wait until he grants it through the symbolic ceremony of marriage.

His loyal supporters who act as his enforcers, still exist though. They have become a self-selecting band who act as though the alpha male still exists and whose claim to power and authority is that they represent him and are doing his bidding. They have become his priesthood.

Welcome to the god hypothesis: the imaginary benevolent leader who is also the object of fear; the loving protector who punishes transgression and who takes a special interest in our sexual activities. The man whose authority to rule is now so deeply embedded in human culture that many regard it as a sin punishable by unimaginable pain and suffering and withdrawal of the alpha male's 'love' even to question it. And the leader who may just take it into his head to show us his power by some random act of indiscriminate violence if we're not very careful.

God: a cultural idea which is a fossil relic of our evolution as an ape on the plains of East Africa.

Cultural evolution explains both the origin of the idea of a god and its fallacy. The cultural idea of a god is evidence of human evolution as an ape on the plains of East Africa.





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Thursday, 22 July 2010

The Nature of Atheist Belief

A charge frequently levelled at Atheist is that Atheism is a belief system just like religion, so let’s look at what 'belief' actually means.

Scientific belief is not an absolute position, but is always subject to review, revision and, when justified by evidence or logical deduction, abandonment. No scientific belief is sacred and unchallengeable, save perhaps the belief that no scientific belief is sacred and unchallengeable.

1. Strong scientific belief
I believe that, when I drop a stone it will fall towards earth. This belief is based on a life-time of experience, the knowledge that Earth has gravity and that gravity will cause it to happen, based in turn on the acceptance of the body of scientific opinion that gravity will cause a small object to fall towards a large one (though this latter explains how gravity works and so only explains what I can observe for myself).

My belief that a stone will always fall under gravity is strong because it is evidence-based and can be repeatedly tested in experiments. However, it allows for the possibility that one day a stone may fail to fall and so overthrow the entire theory of gravity, necessitating a complete revision of some basic scientific principles. And, of course, in the special circumstances which might prevail at some future state of the Universe, there may be no gravity so a stone would not then fall to Earth, although in such circumstances there would be no Earth, no stone and no-one to drop it.

2. Weak scientific belief.
I believe that Manchester United could win the Premier League next season. This belief is derived from the fact that there IS a Premier League in which Football teams compete and that Manchester United is a team in that league. These are factual observations which can be independently verified. I also believe that Manchester United have a team capable of winning the Premier League. This is based on the evidence of past results.

However, this belief in a possible outcome is NOT a strong belief because I also have a belief in several possible, mutually exclusive, alternative outcomes. I also believe that any other team in the Premiership could win the title. Given sufficient time and information, the probability of any one of them doing so could be ranked in order of probability, though maybe never accurately since some of the required information is itself subject to probability and uncertainty. However, it MAY be possible to reach a broad measure of confidence in the approximate final position of most teams, so my belief that Manchester United could win the title can be given an approximate measure of confidence.

Note: this latter belief differs from my belief in gravity only in the degree of confidence. Both are observation-based and can be scientifically verified, yet both are subject to probability and both allow for the possibility of being wrong. The probability of a stone not falling under gravity is very low (almost, but not quite, zero); the probability of Manchester United winning the Premiership may be less than 50%, however, my belief is only in the POSSIBILITY of it happening, not in the certainty of it, so I have complete confidence that it is possible, though it may not be probable.

3. Religious belief
Religious belief never allows for the possibility of being wrong. Faith is certainty, based on unchallengeable ‘truths’ which must be accepted a priori. No observations or experimental testing is required. Indeed, the act of doing so is an act of doubt which is contrary to faith and tantamount to heresy. Given the choice between faith-based ‘knowledge’ and evidence which refutes that knowledge, the true believer will choose faith and dismiss the contrary evidence.

4. The difference
So what is the fundamental difference between scientific belief and religious belief?

With scientific belief, the observer adopts a position subservient to the factual, observable, or logically deducible evidence and bases their belief, and their confidence in that belief in that evidence. The believer is subservient to, and is humbled by, the evidence.

A consequence of this subservience is that there can be no belief in its absence. Evidence drives belief, so, with no evidential drivers there can be no belief. This is where atheist arrive at their belief that there are no gods. There is no evidence for them so no belief that they exist. To believe they do so would be the equivalent of believing in a force which moves a stone horizontally when dropped. To believe in the absence of evidence is to adopt the religious position.

With religious belief, the ‘observer’ adopts a superior position and holds the view that something MUST be true simply because they believe it. The ‘knowledge’ they derive from their faith needs no evidential or logical support. Indeed, observational evidence is immaterial and irrelevant. The observer is superior to the evidence and can determine ‘truth’ by belief alone. In effect, religious belief is the assumption that the Universe is subservient to the will of the believer and facts only exist if permitted so to do.

As an Atheist, I find the arrogance of the religious position to be an affront to the Universe and an abuse of what must be one of the greatest creations of evolution – the human brain and the mind it allows us to have. It is an affront to humanity.

In the unlikely event that there is a sentient creator of the Universe, it is difficult to believe that it would not also be affronted by the arrogance of religious belief.
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