Saturday 30 June 2012

What A Tangled Web Creationists Weave

Daniel Dennett
Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!
Sir Walter Scott

I came across this passage in Daniel Dennett's must read book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Darwin shows us that questions like "What is the difference between a variety and a species?" are like the question "What is the difference between a peninsula and an island?". Suppose you see an island half a mile offshore at high tide. If you can walk to it at low tide without getting your feet wet, is it still an island?. If you build a bridge to it, does it cease being an island?. What if you build a solid causeway? If you cut a canal across a peninsula (like the Cape Cod Canal), do you turn it into an island? What if a hurricane does the excavation work? This sort of enquiry is familiar to philosophers. It is the Socratic activity of definition-mongering or essence-hunting, looking for the "necessary and sufficient conditions" for being-an-X. Sometimes almost everyone can see the pointlessness of the quest - islands obviously don't have real essences, but only nominal essences at best. But at other times there can still seem to be a serious scientific question that needs answering.

Thursday 28 June 2012

How Fundamentalists Cope With Unwanted Facts

In this post I'm going to discuss the psychological process called 'cognitive dissonance' and how it can explain the often frankly bizarre reactions and 'reasoning' you get when trying to debate with religious fundamentalist.

Plenty has been written about cognitive dissonance so I won't go into too much detail. Briefly, humans try to maintain a coherent and consistent view of the world, so anything which conflicts with pre-existing beliefs sets up a conflict, often almost unconsciously. In modern parlance, the term 'getting my head round it' sums it up fairly well. A simple example is Aesop's fable of the fox and the grapes. The fox wants the grapes which are out of its reach, so after making an effort to get them and failing, he rationalises this by saying the grapes probably weren't ripe anyway and would have been too sour (sour grapes). In this way he is able to pass failure off as a success and so retain his pride. He could have got the grapes if he had really wanted to.

I remember an occasion in the 1960's when you could buy a (very) used car for as little as £50, a friend bought just such as car - a Standard 8 (no wing mirrors, no indicators, rusty wings and door sills, top speed about 60 mph and 25 miles to the gallon on a good day and often started first time in dry weather in summer). Of course, he'd make the 'perfect' decision to buy it, having spent his last penny. He became quite indignant when someone said they thought the E-type Jaguar was the best car on the road. "How can it be when mine is?" he shouted.

How we all laughed. We were very young in those days.

Monday 25 June 2012

Was The Bible Really About An Evil God?

Readers of this blog will remember how I posed the question, How Do You Know Satan Didn't Write The Bible?, and how it's still giving Christians a seemingly impossible challenge, judging by their inability to answer it. In a couple more blogs, Why God's First Words to Adam Was A Lie and How God Learned About Justice I've shown how this early god in the creation and origin myths of the Hebrews was not presented as an omniscient, benevolent, or even moral god. In fact, these two tales suggest something rather intriguing:
  • The very curious tale of the lie to Adam about the consequences of acquiring knowledge and the irritation with the 'serpent' who tells Eve the truth, suggests a god who doesn't want mankind to have 'knowledge' and who will lie to prevent it.
  • The equally curious tale of the casual destruction of two cities with all their inhabitants by a god who doesn't seem to know what's going on, has no concept of justice and who is perfectly okay with virgin daughters being offered to a mob as a bargaining ploy, drunkenness and incest between father and daughters, suggests a malignant god indistinguishable from an evil one.
This is reinforced by the inescapable impression that it was an arbitrary and brutal god with the accounts of apparently random dress codes, food taboos, ritual slaughter of sacrificial animals, scapegoating, and genocides and where the consequences of transgressing its rules was usually a rather nasty death.

Of course, we are dealing with a developing mythology which was working for the rulers and priest class as well but the god they were using is clearly based on an amoral and far from omniscient one.

The reason this is so intriguing is because of the way Gnosticism presented this god. First a little about Gnosticism which was itself a major contributor to the medieval 'heresy', Catharism, also called Albigensianism, the persecution of which I described in Feel That Christian Love!
A common characteristic of some of these [Gnostic] groups was the teaching that the realisation of Gnosis (esoteric or intuitive knowledge) is the way to salvation of the soul from the material world. They saw the material world as created through an intermediary being (demiurge) rather than directly by God. In most of the systems, this demiurge was seen as imperfect, in others even as evil [my emphasis]. Different gnostic schools sometimes identified the demiurge as Adam Kadmon, Ahriman, El, Saklas, Samael, Satan, Choronzon, Yaldabaoth, or Yahweh.

Jesus is identified by some Gnostics as an embodiment of the supreme being who became incarnate to bring gnōsis to the earth. Others adamantly deny that the supreme being came in the flesh, claiming Jesus to be merely a human who attained divinity through gnosis and taught his disciples to do the same. Among the Mandaeans, Jesus was considered a mšiha kdaba or "false messiah" who perverted the teachings entrusted to him by John the Baptist. Still other traditions identify Mani and Seth, third son of Adam and Eve, as salvific figures.

The Christian groups first called "gnostic" a branch of Christianity, however Joseph Jacobs and Ludwig Blau (Jewish Encyclopedia, 1911) note that much of the terminology employed is Jewish and note that this "proves at least that the principal elements of gnosticism were derived from Jewish speculation, while it does not preclude the possibility of new wine having been poured into old bottles."

The movement spread in areas controlled by the Roman Empire and Arian Goths, and the Persian Empire; it continued to develop in the Mediterranean and Middle East before and during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Conversion to Islam and the Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229) greatly reduced the remaining number of Gnostics throughout the Middle Ages, though a few Mandaean communities still exist. Gnostic and pseudo-gnostic ideas became influential in some of the philosophies of various esoteric mystical movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and North America, including some that explicitly identify themselves as revivals or even continuations of earlier gnostic groups.

So, the question is, were these stories originally written to show the 'creator' as an imperfect, malevolent lesser god whose motive is to prevent mankind acquiring knowledge?

In other words, were these stories derived from ones designed to show Yahweh as an evil god? Have they been changed and adapted to try to conceal that message? It certainly suggests a reason for the otherwise strange story of John the Baptist where, inexplicably, Jesus seems to have needed a human to 'prepare the way' and 'baptise' him. With John as a Gnostic teacher, 'baptism' could be merely a metaphor for teaching 'the knowledge'. If so, it's a shame that later writers changed Jesus into something else, especially since Jesus seems to have hinted that we should ignore Yahweh's laws when he talked about them only being administered by 'those without sin', which renders them all unenforceable, if you subscribe to the 'original sin' idea, that is (=created by Satan?).

So, Christians, three simple questions for you.
  1. How do you know Satan didn't create the world?
  2. How do you know Satan hasn't rewritten the Bible to fool you?
  3. How do you know the real god didn't give you science so you can discover Satan's lies?
Makes you think, eh?

I'm glad I'm not superstitious so I don't have these sorts of problems to keep me awake at night wondering if I've been deceived by the 'Great Deceiver'.

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Saturday 23 June 2012

How God Learned About Justice

Here's another curious tale from the Bible. It's about two cities called Sodom and Gomorrah (which sound more like an Irish curse). It seems to be where God was taught the rudiments of justice by Man.

We are told that God was annoyed that the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the LORD exceedingly - Genesis 13:13. (Unlucky 13 or what?!) So God decided he was going to destroy these cities and everyone in them. Anyway, after a somewhat protracted tale about battles and things and people being chased unto Dan, a place which won't exist for several hundred more years (time travel?) - the Bible eventually gets to the point where God is about to carry out this destruction.

However, a man called Abraham has a word with him:

And the LORD said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.
Genesis 18:20-21

Nothing surprising there then. Of course, an omniscient, omnipresent god would need to go into a city to find out what was going on.

But what's this?

And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the Lord. And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?

And the Lord said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.

Genesis 18:22-26

Phew! Good thing Abraham was in with God and was able to give him a bit of wise counsel there, then.

But why 50? Why just pick an arbitrary number out of the air? Good old Abraham spots this and gradually leads God towards a slightly more humanitarian solution by, each time God thinks he's got it about right, setting doubt in his mind and making him see the arbitrary nature of his 'justice'.

Watch this; it's hilarious. Remember, this god is supposed to be the fount of all wisdom, the source of all morals, omniscient and inerrant. It's a bit like watching a wise old sergeant leading the still-wet-behind-the-ears young captain fresh out of cadet school:

And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes: Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five? And he said, If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it.

And he spake unto him yet again, and said, Peradventure there shall be forty found there. And he said, I will not do it for forty's sake.

And he said unto him, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: Peradventure there shall thirty be found there. And he said, I will not do it, if I find thirty there.

And he said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for twenty's sake.

And he said, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten's sake.

And the Lord went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place.

Genesis 18:27-33

So, after five changes of mind and after being given a lesson in justice, this omniscient, inerrant source of morals has agreed to spare the cities if they can find just ten righteous people in them.

It still hasn't learned to forgive it's enemies or show mercy. That'll have to wait for another day.

Nor does it keep it's promises, apparently, as it destroys the cities anyway.

Lot's Daughters; Jan Muller c.1600
But let's press on with this tale because there is another curious incident. It happens when God has sent a couple of angels to carry out his orders and these angels have taken refuge in Lot's house (as they do) which is now surrounded by an angry mob, demanding to be let in to bugger the angels. Lot thinks he has to save them. Even though they are shortly going to destroy two cities and all the people in them, a band of randy gay men is too much for them to deal with, apparently.

But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter: And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them.

And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him, And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.

Genesis 19:4-8

So, righteous Lot has actually offered his two virgin daughters to to be 'used' by a sex-crazed mob!

And this is someone of whom God approves!

Still, at least when Lot has an incestuous relationship with his, up to then, still virgin daughters a bit later on(Genesis 19:30-36), his unfortunate wife having been turned into salt, there no risk of him catching something nasty what with penicillin not having been discovered yet.

Good to see though, that the source of all morals was such a stickler for righteousness, and felt able to teach those wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah how to behave. Obviously, there was still a long way to go before this god was up to speed with normal humanitarian morality. Perhaps that was why it needed to put in so many appearances in those days.

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Friday 22 June 2012

Why God's First Words to Adam Were Lies

Now here's a funny thing.

Browsing my King James Bible, I came across this curious tale. Maybe you've heard of it. It's the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. It makes you wonder just what sort of god the author was writing about. It soon becomes all too obvious why he was writing it in the first place though - and I do mean he.

Firstly, this god is supposed to have created the Garden of Eden, complete with fruit trees for food, and put Adam into it.

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Genesis 2:8-9

Thursday 21 June 2012

No Answers In Genesis - Project Steve

Ken Ham
Attempting to compensate for the fact that few serious scientists agree with a literal interpretation of Genesis, including creation of the universe and all species, extinct or living in a single act of creation 6000 years ago, creationist organisation such as Ken Ham's and the Institute for Creation Research have put together a list of nearly 200 scientists whom they claim support a literal interpretation Genesis.

The list includes Dr Paul D. Ackerman, the psychologist responsible for the appallingly bad creationist 'science' book,"It's A Young World After All" which I have comprehensively demolished in a series of blogs listed in "It's An Old World After All"

A quick Google search on a random selection of these scientists shows that Ackerman is not the only one who has no higher academic qualifications in the subject on which he writes, and who has never published a paper on any of those subjects in a peer-reviewed journal nor presented a paper on any of them to an audience of specialists in these subjects.

Patriot Bible 'University' - Kent Hovind's Alma Mater.
Some of them appear to have obtained 'degrees' from various creationist and Bible 'colleges' similar to the shed from which Kent Hovind obtained his 'doctorate'. Google any name on the list and you will discover that many of them are famous merely for appearing on the list and appear to have done very little else of note.

This list, which was drawn up by the Discovery Institute, is of course, intended to convey the idea that the Theory of Evolution is a science in crises and is being rejected by mainstream scientists rather than being accepted by all serious biologists as the best available explanation for the observable fact of evolution. It is clearly aimed at people who are impressed by letters after a name and who imagine one degree is much like another and a science degree indicates expertise in all sciences, or that a psychology degree or doctorate in Bible Studies bought from a diploma mill, for example, qualifies someone to write knowledgeably on biology, physics or cosmology.

By way of contrast, Project Steve, run by the US National Center for Science Education aims to compile a list of scientists called Steve (or it's various forms like Stephen, Stephanie, etc) who subscribe to the statement:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to "intelligent design," to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation's public schools.

Stephen Jay Gould. An evolutionist called Steve
The name 'Steve' was chosen as a tribute to the late palaeontologist, evolutionist and author, Stephen J. Gould. As such is restricts the number of scientists eligible to sign up to about 1% of all scientists.

To date, the number of scientists called 'Steve' who have signed up to this statements is about 1230, two of whom are the only Nobel Prize winning Steves. Scaled up this represents about 99.85% of all scientists who have expressed an opinion. Noticeably, the proportion of biologists on this list exceeds 51% of the total compared to the few biologists on the Creationist list.

Infuriated by this, the Creationist mathematician, William Dembski, Fellow of the Discovery Institute, attempting to widen the net, set up a rival list of scientists who 'reject a naturalistic conception of evolution' rather than just supporting a literal interpretation of Genesis. In two years he signed up just 0.023% of the world's scientists, eight of whom were called Steve. Remember: as a professional propagandist for the Discovery Institute, Dembski is forbidden from claiming 'God did it!' because that would give the game away that the Discovery Institute is not a science body but a front organisation for fundamentalist Christianity which needs to keep its religious and subversive political agenda well hidden.

Inspired by Project Steve, and motivated by media coverage of the Discovery Institute's "Dissent From Darwinism" list, during the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, R. Joe Brandon initiated a four-day, word-of-mouth petition of scientists in support of evolution in October 2005. During the four-day drive A Scientific Support For Darwinism And For Public Schools Not To Teach Intelligent Design As Science gathered 7733 signatures of verifiable scientists. During the four days of the petition, A Scientific Support for Darwinism received signatures at a rate 697,000 percent higher than the Discovery Institute's petition, A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism, according to archaeologist R. Joe Brandon.

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Wednesday 20 June 2012

Francis Collins - A Case-Study In Self-Delusion.

This is the final blog dealing with Francis Collins' book The Language Of God. In this I look at the section in Chapter Ten headed What Is Theistic Evolution. Here is what Collins has to say:

Mountains of material, in fact entire library shelves, are devoted to the topics of Darwinian evolution, creationism, and Intelligent Design. Yet few scientists or believers are familiar with the term "theistic evolution", sometimes abbreviated "TE". By the now standard criterion of Google search engine entries, there is only one mention of theistic evolution for every ten about creationism and every 140 about Intelligent Design.

Yet theistic evolution is the dominant position of serious biologists who are also serious believers. That includes Asa Gray, Darwin’s chief advocate in the United States, and Theodosius Dobzhansky, the twentieth-century architect of evolutionary thinking. It is the view espoused by many Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians, including Pope John Paul II. While it is risky to make presumptions about historical figures, I believe that this is also the view that Maimonides (the highly regarded twelfth-century Jewish philosopher) and Saint Augustine would espouse today if they were presented with the scientific evidence for evolution.

Saturday 16 June 2012

The Cherry-Picker's Bible

To be fair to Francis Collins, of whom I have been critical, though I think not unjustly here and here, it would be wrong of me not to acknowledge the following:

Thus, by any reasonable standard, Young Earth Creationism has reached a point of intellectual bankruptcy, both in its science and in its theology. Its persistence is thus one of the great puzzles and great tragedies of our time. By attacking the fundamentals of virtually every branch of science, it widens the chasm between the scientific and spiritual worldviews, just at a time where a pathway toward harmony is desperately needed. By sending a message to young people that science is dangerous, and that pursuing science may well mean rejecting religious faith, Young Earth Creationism may be depriving science of some of its most promising future talents.

Believing Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

In a recent blog, Francis Collins - The Language Of God Delusion I showed how Francis Collins needed to use double standards to maintain the compartmentalised thinking it takes to be both a devout Christian and a scientist, and how he uses the very same straw man fallacy he accuses others of using, albeit possibly subconsciously.

Another example of this can be found in his book "The Language Of God"

The major and inescapable flaw of Dawkins's claim that science demands atheism is that it goes beyond the evidence. If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence. Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason.

What Collins ignores in this arguments is that, if God is outside of nature and so beyond the reach of science, this can only be because it cannot interact with nature in any way. If it can interact, then this interaction would be detectable by science and God would be part of nature, and so open to examination by scientific methods.

"There's no use in trying", said Alice: "One can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Lewis Carroll, Through a Looking Glass
Collins appears to hold to two mutually contradictory beliefs simultaneously:
  1. God can interact with and influence nature and we can interact with and influence God.
  2. God cannot interact with nature and we cannot interact with God.
This ability to hold opposite views simultaneously, and often with equal conviction, is a characteristic of delusional doublethink and compartmentalised thinking. It is a psychological strategy to enables religious people to cope with cognitive dissonance and behave like perfectly normal, rational adults, and yet still believe in the magic invisible friends their parents told them about when they were gullible and susceptible to indoctrination.

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If Doctors Behaved Like Priests.

We depend on our doctor.

We rely on their expertise because medicine is a huge, complex and ever-changing subject that most of us simply don't have the time to learn in enough detail, or to keep up to date with. We depend on their professional integrity, on their diagnostic skills, on their knowledge of the latest medicines and treatment regimes for illness and from where this can be obtained.

We expect their judgements to be rational, informed, evidence-based, impartial and, if required, demonstrably justified. In short, we expect them to be scientific.

But what if they behaved like priests?

What if they told you you must be suffering from an illness because it said so in a 3500 year-old book, and that you needed to say special words and incantations to be saved from it?

What if they told you that, even though there was no evidence for cancer, they were going to prescribe a course of chemo- and radio-therapy anyway because absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so it is best to assume cancer, just in case?

What if you went to them with a headache and they told you it must be imaginary because they had faith that there was nothing wrong with you and that your problem was that your faith wasn't strong enough and your headache was just a test?

What if you went to them for contraceptive advice and they told you you were evil and should say magic spells to prevent something nasty happening to you later? And no, you just have to have more babies or stop having sex.

What if your were diabetic and they said they would cast some magic words over your because that would be better than medication?

What if they told you that incantations, special hand movements and sprinklings of magic water would cure your child of a virus infection?

What if they told you bunions were caused by an evil spirit which you had allowed to enter your body, so it was your own fault?

What if they told you that modern medicines were not mentioned in their favourite old book of Bronze Age origin myths so they were no good and should not be taken?

What if they told you that they got all their information from an old book which had not been updated for nearly 2000 years; that they never read any modern books on medicine because they were all lies and they knew this because they disagreed with their favourite old book?

And what if you were clearly disturbed and felt compelled to go to them every week and give them a lot of money, and they told you this was a good thing and that you should give them as much as you could afford, at least 10% of your income?

Would you think you have a really good doctor, or would you look for a proper one and report this one for malpractice?

Strange then that exactly this behaviour is tolerated in priests, pastors, vicars, imams, rabbis and other people who make a living as religious clerics.

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Friday 15 June 2012

A Mind Of Sufficient Grasp

Charles Robert Darwin, FRS (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882)
Reading Daniel Dennett's must read book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea I came across this little snippet of information.

Back in 1859, Darwin set out the formal logic of his theory in the first edition of "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life", popularly know by its later title "The Origin Of Species". It was:

If, during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organization, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometric powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being's own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterized will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterized. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.

Charles Darwin, Origin, p. 127

So, which Creationist is going to come forward and explain the fault in that logic. What statement of fact is wrong? What deduction does not flow inevitably from that fact? Because, if you can't you have absolutely no basis whatsoever for denying the fact of evolution by natural selection and the conclusion that it explains the present and past diversity of life on earth.

No, I don't mean which Creationist is going to come forward and try to obscure the argument with quibbles over the meaning of words, or to assert that it can't be right because an old book says so, or that their 'faith' trumps logic and we should just believe what they say. I mean which Creationist is actually going to go through the logic, step by step, and explain why it is faulty.

Because, if you can't you have no basis on which to doubt the truth of Darwin's theory as set out here. You have no real reason to dispute the conclusion that this short piece of undeniable logic was arguably the most profound in all of science.

And, perhaps most importantly, you have no option but to agree with Darwin's statement that, "I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being's own welfare". What Darwin is saying here is that, if this logic holds, it would be extraordinary if evolution did not occur.

In fact, it is true to say that evolution not occurring would be as extraordinary as a stone remaining hovering in the air when released and not falling towards the centre of gravity.

The extraordinary thing, and something that might need a supernatural being in the explanation if it were true, would be if there were no bio-diversity. It would be as difficult for science to explain as a stone hovering three feet above the ground. It's not ever going to be true though because, as Darwin's logic shows, evolution is as inevitable as is a stone's movement in response to gravity.

In Thomas Huxley's words on reading Origin, "How stupid not to have thought of it oneself!".

Patrick Matthew (20 October 1790 – 8 June 1874)
Maybe the stark-staring obviousness of Evolution by Natural Selection can be gauged from the words of Patrick Matthew. Matthew had actually described evolution by natural selection in 1831, but as an appendix to his book, "Naval Timber and Arboriculture". Learning of Darwin's rising fame as the 'discoverer' of it, he published a letter in Gardeners' Chronicle (ever the master of choosing obscure publications) claiming his priority, which Darwin graciously conceded but excused his ignorance on the obscurity of Matthew's choice of venue. Matthew's response was revealing:

To me the concept of this law of Nature came intuitively as a self-evident fact, almost without an effort of concentrated thought. Mr Darwin here seems to have more merit in the discovery than I have had - to me it did not appear a discovery. He seems to have worked it out by inductive reason, slowly and with due caution to have made his way synthetically from fact to fact onwards; while with me it was by a general glance at the scheme of Nature that I estimated this select production of species as an a priori recognizable fact - an axiom, requiring only to be pointed out to be admitted by unprejudiced minds of sufficient grasp."

So, if you can't fault Darwin's logic and yet still won't accept Darwinian Evolution, maybe Patrick Matthew offers an explanation: you lack an "unprejudiced mind of sufficient grasp".

So, over to you Creationists. It's time to put your money where your mouth is. Do any of you have sufficient confidence in your belief to take up this challenge and show you have an unprejudiced mind of sufficient grasp?

I think people will understand if you haven't.

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Thursday 14 June 2012

Francis Collins - The Language Of God Delusion

Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950)
I've been asked (or was it challenged?) to look at the book "The Language Of God" by Francis Collins, in which he attempts to argue that it is possible to reconcile Christian belief with science.

Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950), is an American physician-geneticist, noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP). He currently serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Prior to being appointed Director, he founded and was president of the BioLogos Foundation. Collins has written a book about his Christian faith, and Pope Benedict XVI appointed Francis Collins to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

The first impression is that this is merely another God of the Gaps book and, as such, shows the abandonment of science one would expect of someone who needs the compartmentalised thinking required to hold to a belief in magic, and to live a normal professional life simultaneously. It thus represents a substantive example of the delusional nature of religious faith and particularly the Abrahamic versions of it. But more of that possibly later, in a longer blog reviewing Collins' book in greater depth.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

What Has Marriage Got To Do With Religion?

One of the issues currently causing near hysteria in religious circles is that of marriage. The Catholic Church especially is almost besides itself with rage and now the Anglican Church seems to have joined in the mass hysteria. All this is because, like several other countries, the government is considering introducing legislation to end the discrimination against homosexual couples and allow them to marry like heterosexual couples.

Currently, civil ceremonies are permitted between same-sex couples but these are not called marriages and are not legally recognised as such. By some bizarre form of logic, one Tory MP, Karl McCartney, has concluded that it will lead to child marriages.

In England and Wales recently, Catholic priests were ordered by the Archbishop of Westminster to read out a letter condemning the idea of marriage between people of the same sex.

A full transcript of the letter can be read here. In it, the authors clearly lay claim not only to the institution of marriage and the right to define both its form and its purpose, but also to the right to dictate what form our society should take with:

The law helps to shape and form social and cultural values. A change in the law would gradually and inevitably transform society’s understanding of the purpose of marriage. There would be no recognition of the complementarity of male and female or that marriage is intended for the procreation and education of children.

The arrogance of this is breath-taking in its audacity. No one elected them; they did not consult anyone; they are accountable to no one other than their own self-appointed church hierarchy yet they feel competent to dictate to us on matters of personal relationships and the form of society in which we are to live.

Abolishing one of the last vestiges of the times when clerics dispensed morality to the rest of us (often dispensing with it altogether for themselves) and meddled in the most private details of our lives, would be a major step on the road to freeing ourselves from the leash they had us on for centuries.

Marriage should be something people can freely enter into in whatever form they wish. If we want to incorporate some form of superstition in the process or base it on some ancient rites and rituals, we should be free to do so.

Likewise, if we want it to take some other, formal or informal form, or not have a marriage of any sort we should be free to do so. There is no reason save superstitious bigotry why a contract between people to hold goods and property in common should be restricted to just two people of different genders. There is no real reason why it should not be between any number of consenting adults of whatever gender. The physical relationships within that arrangement should be left to the individuals themselves.

There is no reason for any ceremony if none is wanted. There is no reason a marriage could not be registered by completing a form obtainable from the Post Office or posting a notice in the local newspaper, if the participants wish to make it official in some way. It could even be marked by drinks down the local.

And of course people should be free to leave it as and when they wish.

The only considerations where the state need be involved are those concerning care and welfare of any children and a framework of contract law by which agreements can be made and disputes settled if need be. Beyond that there is no place for the state to interfere in consensual personal relationships freely entered into. The state should not be in the business of creating victimless crimes just to give meddling bigots an element of control over our lives.

So what's causing the current hysteria? Why are these superstitious people so upset by the thought that we might be doing what we want to do, rather than what they want us to do?

The answer lies in the question: they want us to do what they want us to do because they want to control us. It's what they are using fear and superstition for. Making this bid for independence is undermining their power and authority. That goes against everything that religions were invented for in the first place.

It's time they accepted that they have lost the argument and have lost control. Civilised societies are quickly ridding themselves of the primitive, inhuman barbarities and meddling interference with which religions struggle to keep us in the dark ages the better to control us and the easier to earn a living 'ministering' to the damage cause by the superstitious ignorance they assiduously promulgate.

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Saturday 9 June 2012

Hey Christians! Is Matthew For Real?

When asked for evidence of the historicity of Jesus, many Christians will trot out the standard dogma that the 'Gospels' of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are contemporaneous accounts written by witnesses to the events they relate, and so are good historical sources.

This ignores the fact that they are contradictory in many places and relate details of the conception and birth of Jesus of which they could not have been eye-witnesses, but that's not the main point of this blog.

As Jonathan MS Pearce points out in Matthew and the guards at the tomb, and as is pointed out in the comments to that excellent blog, Matthew effectively debunks that argument itself, as does Luke. The most sensible conclusion is that the claim of being eye-witness accounts was a later claim and not intended by the author. Indeed, no where does Matthew claim to have been an eye-witness to the events he describes and he always writes in the third person, using 'they' not 'we'.

Infinitely Impossible Gods

Thinking more on how William Lane Craig was again caught misleading his audience, this time with a simple mathematical error, as exposed by DoctorFreed here and about which I wrote a couple of days ago (William Lane Craig's Cock-up) I began to think about how else probability theory can be used either for or against any idea. Imagine my delight when I realised William Lane Craig's blunder had lead me to understand better why his (or any other) 'eternal' god can't possibly have done what he claims it to have done.

We'll stick to the idea of a god here but of course we could be dealing with any other absurd notion for which there is no definitive evidence so we are having to try to get round it the way religious apologists need to, and for which apologetics was invented in the first place.

Now, one of the standard escape clauses apologists use when you ask them to subject their favourite god to the same tests they demand science passes, like explaining where it came from, what it's made of, who created it and whatever and wherever that came from in the first place; how gods can come from nothing when they insist that nothing can - that sort of thing - is to invoke infinity.

They simply assert that their favourite god has always existed so they don't need to explain its origins. This neatly absolves them of having to apply the same standards they demand of science and, if you fall for it, allows them to get away with a much lower standard of proof whilst you try to meet their impossibly high, and usually shifting, standard.

But, let's apply probability theory to this claim, in particular the probability that this hypothetical god could even decide to do something, let alone actually do it.

Thursday 7 June 2012

William Lane Craig's Cock-Up.

Here's a fascinating example of how William Lane Craig tries to bamboozles his lay audience with highly technical arguments and how he relies on their ignorance and credulity to get away with it.

In this example he uses a statistical theorem which will be obscure if not unknown to his audience, Baye's Theorem, and purports to show that it 'proves' the resurrection of Jesus was hugely more likely than unlikely.

Unfortunately, as Dr Freed, who understands this stuff, shows, his method actually showed that the resurrection could also be shown to be almost impossible using precisely the same technique, and how Lane Craig either deliberately, or through incompetence, made a schoolboy error. No one in the audience appeared to notice the sleight of hand, or, if they did, they didn't have the courage to speak out.

Watch it now, and I'll discuss it more in a few minutes to see what conclusions we can draw about William Lane Craig and religious apologetics in general.


Hallelujah! Er... or not.
So, by the simple trick of concentrating on just one variable in the equation, Lane Craig seems, to the uneducated, to show that the probability of the resurrection of Jesus actually happening approaches 1 (certainty).

However, his reason for choosing this variable seems to be because it gives the answer he wants, or at least the answer he wants his audience to believe. Had he included the other variable, as he should have done, he would have shown that the probability of the resurrection of Jesus being true approaches zero (impossible).

In fact, of course, you can play exactly the same trick with any mythical event and 'prove' it is hugely likely to have really happened, especially if your audience is credulous and eager to believe it.

So, what can we conclude here?

William Lane Craig has implicitly presented himself as an expert in maths and as someone who understands Bayes' Theorem, and his audience is suitably impressed with this. Here is a 'brilliant thinker, Christian apologist and mathematician' using maths to prove Jesus almost certainly rose from the dead, just as the Bible claims.

So, there are two possibilities here, neither of which are to Lane Craig's credit:
  1. He is as clever as his audience has been lead to believe, and he is deliberately misleading them.
  2. He is misleading the audience about his cleverness in order to fool them.
It is unrealistic to assume that William Lane Craig does not know his audience well, and knows what he can and can't get away with so we can be sure that either one or other of these deceptions was deliberate.

It actually matters not which. The effect was the same: to trick his audience into thinking they had just watched a very clever argument by one of the leading Christian apologists which proved that the resurrection of Jesus was almost certainly true. In fact, all they had witnessed was a trick worthy of any conjurer, snake-oil pedlar, or confidence trickster. Lane Craig knew well enough that the wool between their ears could be pulled down over their eyes, and he knew exactly how to do it.

There is one more thing that this tells us about William Lane Craig and his commitment to truth, honesty and integrity. He claimed, apparently in all seriousness, that Bayes' Theorem, as he presented it, was a compelling argument that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead just as the Bible says. Certainly his audience were convinced by it and he did nothing to disavow them them of that belief.

Why then, now the mathematical error has been pointed out, and Bayes' Theorem has shown, by Lane Craig's own method but without the school-boy error, that Jesus almost certainly didn't rise from the dead, is this suddenly not the evidence it once was? Why is William Lane Craig not touring the country showing how Bayes' Theorem refutes the Christian Bible and the central Christian dogma? He wouldn't be selecting his data would he?

Is this a seeker after truth at work, or a seeker after book sales, speaking engagement fees and TV appearance money?

No prizes for the best answer.

What of the audience?

Well, we know that none of them pointed out Lane Craig's error so either they lacked the maths to spot it or lacked the courage to speak out. One of the tricks religious apologists employ is the 'Emperor's New Clothes' trick. This depends on people either not speaking out because they either don't have the courage to go against the crowd - probably through fear of what the crowd might do to them - or because they persuade themselves that maybe it's they who have the problem; that they saw the mistake or deception but think they are mistaken because no one else has seen it, so they keep quiet rather than look silly.

In effect, it's a form of passive-aggressive mob bullying or peer pressure. One wonders how many people come out of a William Lane Craig lecture wondering to themselves why they couldn't follow the intricacies of his reasoning but agreeing with everyone else how brilliant had been his argument, how unarguable had been his conclusions, and how right they are to hold the 'faith' they've just had so brilliantly 'proved' true.

This is a very powerful trick to use on an audience and accounts, at least in part, for so many charlatans getting away with it so often. It's the same trick as is used by preachers and priests on their congregation and by dishonest politician on their voters.

Religious apologists almost invariably talk to audiences composed largely of people who agree with them already and who are there simply to enjoy a celebrity apologist 'confirming' what they already know and to share in that nice warm, self-affirming glow of a shared experience and sense of being part of the in-group. In other words, the audience is already receptive and keen to agree with the speaker. The last thing they are looking for is dishonesty and sleight of hand. Apologists almost invariably speak to credulous audiences eager to agree and have any little doubts dispelled. It's what they are buying and the apologist knows well what he's selling.

Further reading:
Fooling A Lot Of People All Of The Time

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The Fundomatic God Prover™

Fundamentalists seem to have been having a bad time recently as more and more people laugh at their arguments and counter them with reason, facts and logic.

I've always thought it a little unfair that fundamentalists, and especially Creationists have to cope with not having any evidence to support their claims, as though having to put up with an inability to think rationally and being inhibited by theophobia from thinking critically were not handicap enough.

So, to redress this imbalance, I bring you the Fundomatic Deity Prover©. Works for any god, even new ones.

Just pick any line at random to begin proving your favourite deity is real, then either follow the cross-references to join the others into a longer sentence by putting 'because' between them or wait till your opponent asks you for evidence for that assertion and use the next one to answer it. Don't forget to fill in the name of the god and your holy book correctly or you could be proving the wrong god. Remember to keep track of your position otherwise your proof might start to look like it's not joined up. When it starts to go round in circles tell your opponent that he/she keeps asking the same questions and break off the debate claiming victory. The best arguments are circular ones anyway because they keep proving themselves right and you don't need any real evidence.

After you've provided three or four of these proofs your opponent will probably realise he/she is not going to get very far with you and you will have won! Remember to always have the last word because that's what really counts.

What could be easier?

Any fundamentalist who thinks their best killer argument has been left out can add it to the comment section below. If they are new I'll adjust the F.D.P. to include them. Remember, they don't have to be provable.

The Fundomatic Deity Prover©
  1. I believe in [favourite god] so it must be true. (Go to 12)
  2. It's in the [favourite holy book] so it must be true. (Go to 9)
  3. [favourite god] created everything so he must exist. (Go to 21)
  4. Other Creationists say so, and I believe them. (Go to 1)
  5. There are lots of things we don't know or understand so it must have been [favourite god]. (Go to 18)
  6. There is only one god so it must be have been [favourite god]. (Go to 2)
  7. Earth is only 6000 years old so evolution is impossible. (Go to 4)
  8. You'll burn in Hell if you don't believe it. (Go to 20)
  9. It wouldn't be in the [favourite holy book] if it wasn't true. (Go to 8)
  10. You must be a fool not to believe it. (Go to 8)
  11. You're stupid if you don't believe in [favourite god]. (Go to 14)
  12. You can't prove [favourite god] is not true, so that proves it is. (Go to 16)
  13. All my friends believe it. (Go to 2)
  14. Millions of people can't be wrong about [favourite god] but they all are about the others. (Go to 10)
  15. Some famous scientists believed it. (Go to 5)
  16. Absence of evidence is not proof of absence, so it must be proof of presence. (Go to 14)
  17. You wouldn't know right from wrong otherwise. (Go to 4)
  18. You can't get something out of nothing, so it must have been [favourite god] who came from nothing and made everything from nothing. (Go to 4)
  19. The Second Law of Thermodynamics proves it. (Go to 15)
  20. Science is wrong. (Go to 19)
  21. Science has proved [favourite god] exists. (Go to 19)

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Shifting The Burden

You see, if, in all seriousness, I claimed I have an undetectable hippo in my loft, challenged you to prove it didn't exist, and then claimed it must exist because you can't prove it doesn't, you'd probably think I was off my trolley and had lost my marbles.

Unless you're a religious fundamentalist that is.

If you are, you'd immediately recognise this argument as identical to the one you very probably use when confronted by Atheists. Almost invariably, you'll insist your god exists and challenge them to prove it doesn't, then claim it must exist if it can't be disproved.

If you're an honest religious fundamentalist, that is.

If you're a dishonest one you'll deny your argument is identical in logic to my silly hippo-in-my-loft argument and then try to bring in other arguments, change the subject and avoid dealing with the logical fallacy you've been caught trying to get away with.

Actually, it's not so much a logical fallacy as a dishonest tactic designed to overcome the fact that the perpetrator believe in something for which they have no supporting evidence. It betrays the fact that they know they have as much evidence for their god as they have for fairies, or I for my undetectable loft-hippo.

It's called shifting the burden. It's the tactic of making a claim you know you can't substantiate and then trying to divest yourself of the moral obligation to substantiate it. It's no different morally to going into court and claiming the accused is guilty, then challenging them to prove their innocence because you know you have no evidence. Another name for this tactic is 'bearing false witness'. It's implicitly claiming you have evidence for something for which you know you have no evidence.

Some examples of fundamentalists bearing false witness can be seen here:

For example, 18.How do we know the supernatural does not exist? The answer of course is that we don't. Dr Saunders is implicitly claiming it does and divesting himself of the responsibility of substantiating his claim, almost certainly because he knows he can't.

Here's the great Mat Dillahunty dealing with someone who's trying it on him:

To be fair to many fundamentalists, they probably don't realise they're being intellectually dishonest. They're probably just aping the tactics of the charlatan who fooled them with it in the first place and lack the intellectual integrity or ability to analyse the tactic and see it for the trick it really is.

You can see these unfortunate people almost daily rushing onto Twitter, Facebook, or other social media eager to try out their new killer argument having seen one of their heroes use it.

Hopefully, this article will help them see where they've been fooled and maybe come to terms with the fact that this is probably their best 'argument' for their god's existence and it simply serves to highlight the fact that they don't have one.

So, here's my top tip for fundamentalists who may be tempted to try this shifting the burden trick. If you can think of a logical reason why my claim to have an undetectable hippo in my loft isn't proven just because you can't disprove it, neither is your claim proven by me failing to disprove it. Your claim to have a god is only proven by you producing definitive, authenticated and indisputable evidence for it. Just because that is impossible for you does not excuse trying to fool people with a dishonest tactic and false witnessing.

If you ever feel tempted to try the shifting burden trick because you've been caught making a claim you can't justify, try changing the word 'god' or 'life after death' or 'sin' or 'soul' or whatever daft idea you're trying to get away with, for 'undetectable hippo in Rosa's loft' and see if it convinces you. If it doesn't, your trick won't fool normal people. It might fool another fundamentalist but that's kinda cheating. The tactic will simply betray your moral bankruptcy and the fact that you know you are making a false claim. The only way to escape that charge is to believe in my undetectable hippo, fairies, all the gods other people do or have believed in, pink unicorns and any daft notion you or anyone else can dream up because no one can prove a negative, which is why the trick is so beloved of religious apologists who need to earn a living somehow.

Of course, this will render you incapable of living a normal existence without close adult supervision but that's the price you may have to accept to avoid the charge that you tried a deception and failed to get away with it.

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Tuesday 5 June 2012

Why Evolution Is Not Random.

One of the tricks Creationists like William Dembski use is to tell their victims that evolution would need a hugely unlikely sequence of random chance events to occur to produce any given evolved entity, like a cell, a metabolic process or an organism such as a human being. They then produce some simple maths to seemingly show that the probability of this parody arising by chance is virtually indistinguishable from zero by multiplying all these tiny fractions together to get even smaller ones, and claim this shows evolution is, for all practical purposes, impossible.

Of course, this ignores all the principles of the real

Creationist 'Logic'.

Australopithicus afarensis (artist's impression)
Browsing idly through the hilarious Creationist website, (always worth a few minutes if you've nothing worthwhile to do) I came across this stunning example of doublethink creationist 'logic' entitled ‘Oldest’ Hominid Footprints Show No Evolution! by one Alexander R. Williams, concerning the 1978 discovery of human-like footprints in volcanic ash at Laetoli in Kenya.
In 1974[sic], famous fossil hunter Dr Mary Leakey and her team were reported to have uncovered the oldest set of manlike (hominid) footprints ever found, supposedly 3.5 million years old, at Laetoli in East Africa. Most experts agree that these fossils are among the oldest evidence (on their own time-scale) that we have of man and his immediate ancestors. The majority of man-like fossils are all regarded as being younger than these.

In 1987 Mary Leakey published a book on the Laetoli finds.1 At the back of this book, R. H. Tuttle reported a study he had made on the footprints.2 Under a heading ‘Evolutionary Implications’ Tuttle says,
‘Strictly on the basis of the morphology of the G prints [prints found at a site labelled ‘G’], their makers could be classified as Homo sp. because they are so similar to those of Homo sapiens, but their early date would probably deter many paleoanthropologists from accepting this assignment. I suspect that if the prints were undated, or if they had been given younger dates, most experts would probably accept them as having been made by Homo . . . .

‘If the prints were produced by a small species of Australopithecus (southern ape) then we must conclude that it had virtually human feet which . . . were used in a manner indistinguishable from those of slowly walking humans. . . . The feet that produced the G trails are in no discernible features transitional between the feet of apes . . . and those of Homo sapiens. They are like small barefoot Homo sapiens.’
Tuttle then goes on to speculate about when man's ape-like ancestors began to walk upright.

We could not wish for clearer evidence from an evolutionist that it is only his (and his colleagues’) evolutionary assumptions that force him to reach evolutionary conclusions.

There are many similarities between apes and man, but one of the most distinctive differences is the feet. Ape feet are like our hands, with an opposable big toe (like our thumb). Human feet are different from any in the animal world—no other has feet like ours.

So the Laetoli footprints are clearly telling us that man was walking around as he does today when he first appeared in the fossil record. There is no sign of evolution here!
So, there we have it. Obviously, the fact that the human foot and bipedalism had evolved in a possible human ancestor 3.5 million years ago proves that the earth is only 6000 years old and evolution never happened.

The late Alexander R. Williams was a botanist.

How can science compete with devastating logic of this calibre?

1. M.D. Leakey and J.M. Harris, eds., LAETOLI—A Pliocene site in Northern Tanzania, Clarendon Press, London, 1987.
2. R. H. Tuttle, ‘Kinesiological inferences and evolutionary implications from Laetoli bipedal trails G-1, G-2/3 and A’, Leakey and Harris, Ref. 1, Chapter 13.3, pp. 503—523.

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