F Rosa Rubicondior: February 2013

Thursday 28 February 2013

On The Eighth Day God Had His Appraisal Interview

Scene: Outside a large office block. Slightly dilapidated sign reads "Universe Constructions, Inc."

Scene moves into austere wood-panelled office. Desk; two chairs: One large, leather with arms; one small wooden, wobbly.

Important-looking man in suit (Zeus) open door for long-haired, youth dressed in white toga and sandals and holding a staff for no apparent good reason. Has a superior looking smirk, and a slight twitch in one eye.

Zeus: Ah! Yahweh. Nice to see you. Take a seat... No! That one is mine. That one, please.

Okay! Now the purpose of this chat is to give you a some feedback on how your probationary period is going, and for you to let us know if you're having any problems. Sort of two-way process keeping everything on track so to speak. The HR department insist on it but we all have our cross to bear, don't we, and the head of HR can get really cross. Ha ha ha!

I like to keep it informal but the important thing is that we are both frank and honest with one another. No elephants in the corner so to speak. Ha ha.

Monday 25 February 2013

Why Your God Doesn't Exist

It's quite easy to prove logically that your god doesn't exist.

The proof is a simple deduction from certain basic assumptions which themselves are only assumptions in the sense of assuming the description you use for your god is true in the first instance. It goes without saying that if your description of your god is false then the god you are describing is also false.

Let's assume your god is real and has the following notional characteristics.

God is:
  • Omnipotent - all powerful - there is nothing your god can't do.
  • Omniscient - all knowing - there is nothing your god doesn't know.
  • Omni-benevolent - all-loving - there is nothing your god wouldn't do to defend and protect its creation.

Okay so far? Is there anything you disagree with here? Is there something your god can't do if it has a mind to? Is there anything your god doesn't know? How about all loving? Is there anything or anyone your god doesn't love and for whom it has anything less than the greatest possible concern?

If all these were true there would be no suffering in the world because your god would be aware of it, would want to prevent it and would have the power to do so.

It also follows that, if there is suffering in the world, at least one of the above must be false and if one of the above is false, the god you believe in does not have the characteristics you believe it has; in other words, the god you believe in does not exist

And yet we can see suffering exists. This is an observable, undeniable, inescapable fact.

For suffering to exist, your god must be deficient in at least one of the above. At least one of the following must be true. God is:
  • Unable to prevent it, so it isn't omnipotent.
  • Unaware of it, so it isn't omniscient.
  • Unconcerned about it, so it isn't all-loving

So, the undeniable existence of suffering in the world proves your god as described above does not exist.

Strange then that so much of your time is spent asking your god to either stop, reduce or prevent suffering, which is nothing more than tacit acceptance that an omniscience, omnipotent, omni-benevolent god doesn't exist.

Of course, you can escape the above logic by saying your god isn't omnipotent, isn't omniscience and/or isn't omni-benevolent, but a god who can't change things, doesn't know when they need to be changed and/or isn't bothered anyway, isn't much of a god and certainly not one worthy of worship. In fact, it's hard to imagine how we could distinguish such a god from a non-existent one.

I love these simple little proofs that gods don't exist. They are so much more elegant and simple than the cumbersome, convoluted and illogical 'proofs' which religious apologists have to try to get away with. That's the great thing about being supported by evidence, reason, logic and truth, and so not needing to fall back on the fallacy of faith and having to employ charlatans to make you feel better about being superstitious.

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Thursday 21 February 2013

Does God Hate Bees?

Something nasty is attacking our honey bees.

If you believe a benevolent, loving god created Earth and all the creatures on it for mankind, then you have to be able to explain what's going on here and how it's all to the good.

First a brief outline of what bees do and why they are important to us and the world we live in, apart from providing us with honey. To understand this we need to go back to a time before there were flowering plants and before there was nectar out of which bees could make honey or pollen from which they make the wax to build their honeycomb with.

We need to go back to a time when the most advanced plants were the ferns which dominated the Carboniferous forests as large tree-ferns. Ferns, along with their more primitive ancestors, the mosses and liverworts do not produce flowers or pollen; instead they produce 'male' and 'female' gamete which depend on the 'male' gametes or sperms (yes, some plants have sperm too) being motile (i.e. able to swim with a flagellum) and finding a 'female' gamete with which to unite, rather like the system used by most higher animals. This means that ferns do best in a moist environment where the motile gamete has moisture to swim in, tied as it still is to the water in which green plants first evolved, with an aquatic form of locomotion.

This requirement to live in moist conditions obviously restricted the range of mosses, liverworts and ferns and made much of the planet inaccessible to them. However, there was a solution available in the form of the very many arthropods - insects, etc, which had colonised the land early on and had proliferated in the hot, moist, oxygen-rich conditions which prevailed in the Carboniferous Era. Clearly, anything which helped a fern sperm find a fern egg, and especially if this worked in dry conditions, would help ferns colonise new niches and would help ensure their success. So, something which attracted insects to crawl over the reproductive structures, picking up sperm on its body and transferring it to the egg would produce more ferns, and what better to do that with than a sugar-rich secretion which the insects were going to actively seek out?

So the symbiotic link between some insects and some plants was probably established which pushed the plants into producing more attractive reproductive structures at the cost of losing some of the pollen as food as well as supplying the sugars in the nectar in return for greater breeding success and being able to move into a whole range of new niches.

And so the class of flowering plants we call the angiosperms evolved and diversified into the vast number of different species we have today in which the motile male sperms have become passive pollen grains, and so a whole variety of insects species co-evolved, most, but not all of them, as flying insects like the bees.

This process has produced a complex system of mutual interdependence in a process so typical of mindless, unplanned, undirected evolution which can so specialise a species that it only takes a small change to put it into extinction mode. This is one reason why 99% of all species which ever existed are extinct.

Now very many plants are dependent on bees to be pollinated, some of them important crops to humans who have themselves co-evolved dependent on plants that are dependent on bees. Without bees, there will not be a next generation of these crops unless we adopt the hugely expensive and labour intensive method of hand pollination we now use for very careful plant breeding.

So, if you believe in an intelligently designed world, you're probably marvelling at the wonderful system which this has provided for us, though you may have had to find a reason to dismiss the evolutionary process I described as having produced it. Asked for evidence for your creator god you will point to 'everything'; you will point to our crops, to bees and flowers and to nature but for some reason you only ever point to the good, the positive and the beneficial.

Now you have to explain something else.

You have to explain a little mite, the Varroa destructor mite to be precise. V. destructor is busy wiping out honey bee colonies, apparently for no other reason than to produce more V. destructor mites. Not for humans, or bees, or flowering plants but for V. destructor. It's almost as though an intelligent designer has designed a system because it loves V.destructor mites. That's if you believe in intelligent design, that is.

You see, back in the Carboniferous, other arthropods, including the arachnids and their close relatives the mites were also evolving by a process which exploits the potential of new niches as they arise and become accessible. The mites evolved out of, probably, sap-sucking arthropods which learned to suck not plants but animals. Some of them were later to evolved to be parasites on mammals, such as tics; some evolved to be the normally harmless little mites that live in your eyelash follicles (yes yours!) and some of them evolved to suck the body fluids from insects, especially those which live in crowded colonies like bees do.

But that's not the worst of it. Bees could possibly survive the need to feed a few mites as well as themselves but what they can't survive is an even nastier little thing. V. destructor is host to an RNA virus which it almost seems to be designed to pass on to its victims. It causes deformity in bees wings so they can't fly. Other viruses they carry harm bees in other ways. Basically, a hive of bees which becomes infested with V. destructor has been given a death sentence unless drastic action is taken, but often it is discovered only when the colony collapses and dies.

Without honey bees many of our crops, as well as many wild plants on which other species and other ecosystems depend, will fail. The Varroa mite has pushed entire ecosystems to the edge of an extinction precipice, and, given the mindlessness of evolution, it is perfectly capable of going over the cliff and taking everything with it. If they go over the edge, the effects will be catastrophic not just for humans for but for much of the planet. The planet, of course, will recover and life will go on as though nothing has happened. New species will evolve and move into vacant niches and life will continue, leaving only vague fossil records that anything significant happened. But no species has a guaranteed right to be involved in its future. The future does not care whether we are there or not. It's up to us to ensure we are.

So, if you are an intelligent design proponent you can't escape the Varroa mite. You have to explain why it was designed and how it fits into your intelligently designed universe; designed as you believe by a benevolent god because it loves us. Regrettably, your inability to let go of that cosy simplistic answer may prevent us taking responsibility for our own continued existence and so may ensure we never do.


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How The Eel Was Designed

The European Eel (Anguilla anguilla) is a wonderful example of how God, sorry, the Intelligent Designer works.

One day the Intelligent Designer decided to make a strange creature that looked like a snake but which lived in water like a fish. He used gills like he had used for other fish so they could breathe in water and which He had decided not to use for some other animals which live in water, like seals, whales and turtles and He decided to include some small scales on their skin which don't seem to have any purpose because he designed them with a tough, slimy skin, but obviously these scales weren't there by accident.

But His most brilliant idea was how they were going to breed. He made it so they needed to spend many years living in rivers and lakes and places like paddy fields and even sewers to put on enough weight so they could go on a very long journey across the Atlantic all the way to the Sargasso Sea near America to lay their eggs, so the young eels have to travel all the way back to Europe again. This is obviously much more sensible than just laying their eggs in the rivers where they live, like most other fish do.

To make this journey, He designed eels so that, come the time for breeding, they strip their bodies down to the bare essentials - basically just the equipment for swimming, a large store of fat for the journey and a pair of gonads for reproducing. They have to take up to fifteen years getting fat enough before they do the journey and then they digest their own digestive system to make themselves lighter. This is obviously much better than needing to bother with eating on the journey through an ocean teeming with the sort of food they had been eating in the rivers they grew up in. As any experienced back-packer will tell you, it's obviously much better to be really big and fat before you start a long journey to save you having to bother eating on the way, and then doing away with your digestive system to make you lighter.

In fact, He brilliantly designed them to look like you would expect if they had once been sea-living at a time when their spawning ground was much closer to Europe but now someone had moved it all the way to America as though they were moving the sea bed around. The fact that very many of them don't survive the journey to the Sargasso Sea is all part of the plan obviously because this ensures that only those best at swimming to the Sargasso Sea get rewarded with breeding - and you can't say fairer than that.

He also made sure that they have no hope of ever returning once they've spawned because they can't eat and have used up all their fat, and He had another brilliant plan for them to go to all this trouble so most of their offspring would be eaten by other things on their journey back to Europe just as though their real purpose was to be food for other creatures.

Then, in a brilliant final move, the Intelligent Designer had the brilliant idea of designing a parasitic nematode worm which used to live only in a Japanese relative of the European eel but which He has now changed slightly so it now infects 80-100% of European eels, making it difficult for them to use the swim-bladders he had given them to make swimming easier, so the European eel is now an endangered species, as the number of young reaching Europe from the Sargasso Sea is down to a mere 2% of its former numbers in some places. But then who wants a lot of those ghastly slimy eels around, eh?

You have to hand it to God the Intelligent designer when He can come up with designs like that, don't you. Obviously nothing like that could be produced by a mindless, natural, undirected, purposeless process like that silly Charles Darwin invented.

(Er... no Creationists! That wasn't really a pro-ID blog. It's satire.)

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The Universe Is A Zero Sum Game

One question which seems to baffle creationists most is how can you get a Universe from nothing. I'm going to explain that now, so if you're a creationist who values your ignorance because it makes you think asking questions like that means you are cleverer than scientists who obviously have never thought of that before, stop reading now.

Ignoring the obvious questions, "How can you get a god from nothing, and what did it make everything out of when there was nothing to make it from?" creationists settle for the most infantile of all 'answers', "It must have been magic!". And of course it goes without saying that there must have been a magic man to do the magicking and that magic man must have been the locally popular one that mummy and daddy told them about.

This comes from the arrogant assumption that the Universe should be easy to understand without needing to learn anything and from the resulting ignorance about the nature of the Universe and in particular that the Universe is actually made not of 'stuff' but of energy. 'Stuff' is made of energy, as Einstein showed. Everyone can quote Einstein's e = mc2 and yet creationists in particular seem incapable of understanding what it means.

e = mc2 is the relationship between energy and matter and shows how they are the same thing. In fact, it shows that matter is simply a form of energy. 'c' being the velocity of light, which is very large, means that it takes lots of energy to make a small amount of matter and a little bit of matter contains lots of energy. Basically, that's why atom bombs are powerful.

So where did all this energy come from and why does it show how you get a Universe from nothing?

Well, the Universe appears to be made of four fundamental forms of energy which manifest as four basic forces:
  1. The Strong Force - which can hold a nucleus together against the enormous forces of repulsion of the protons.
  2. The Electromagnetic Force - manifests itself through the forces between charges and the magnetic force. Fundamentally, both magnetic and electric forces are manifestations of an exchange force involving the exchange of photons.
  3. The Weak Force - a force involving exchange of elementary particles in the atomic nucleus.
  4. Gravity - an attractive force proportional to the mass of an object.
Both the strong and weak forces have a very short range, while the electromagnetic force and gravity have a theoretically infinite range, but the important thing for understanding the fundamentals of where the Universe came from is that the first three in this list together total the force of gravity. Gravity is a negative force totalling the sum of the other three forces.

Gravity is actually a very weak force but it acts over a theoretically infinite distance. Consider Newton's apocryphal apple clinging to it tree by the nuclear forces holding the molecules of its slender stalk together and yet able to resist the entire gravitational force exerted by Earth. Yet everything that has mass has gravity so the sum total of the Universe is, well, massive.

One explanation for what happened in the initial 10-43 seconds is that a quantum fluctuation large enough for relatively weak gravity to become stripped away from the other three forces and 10-43 seconds was enough for this to cause a hyperinflation in which almost unlimited positive and negative energy could be created but always totalling zero. This Plank Time is the minimum time that can exist so the instant the Universe came into existence, it was immediately 1*10-43 seconds old.

The sum total of all the energy in the Universe is zero.

The Universe is literally nothing. Not something, but nothing has come from nothing!

It's a bit like borrowing from a bank. The Bank lends you $1000. You now have $1000; the Bank has -$1000. You both have an asset which you can use (the Bank can actually sell your debt as an asset because it represents a bit of your future earning that the bank now owns and you can use the $1000 for whatever you borrowed it for) and yet no wealth was created by that transaction.

What followed after this initial 10-43 seconds is now very well understood and can be read in the first part of my blog, What Makes You So Special?

So when creationists ask how the Universe came from nothing, all they do is betray the ignorance upon which their superstition depends. That they are primed to ask these sorts of questions by the pseudo-scientists who feed them this ignorance in return for money speaks not so much of their credulous gullibility as of the criminal dishonesty of those cheats who sell them the stuff.

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Sunday 17 February 2013

Dear Christians

An open letter to Christians.
The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism
Dear Christians.

You seem puzzled and shocked by the recent change in Atheists and appear to be mystified and confused because we have stopped being deferential and 'respecting' your right to be above questioning, and politely exempting you from the need to justify your beliefs and the claims to power and privilege you have traditionally exercised, unchallenged, for many centuries.

You appear to be affronted by, and indignant at, our sudden perceived 'rudeness', as though we are like surly servants who have suddenly refused to be servile and have declined to be at your beck and call.

This letter is my attempt to explain why this has happened. I speak for myself though I hope my fellow Atheists agree with me.

You may have heard it called 'New Atheism'. It is really just the same old Atheism but now without the polite and considerate deference to your sensitivities and your strange allergy to questions like how?, why? and what? to which you had for long been accustomed.

You see, we have realised you were simply taking advantage of our politeness - not so much because you saw it as your right to deference and to be immune from having to justify yourselves, though you undoubtedly did see it as your right - but because you saw it as a weakness in us to be exploited. You exploited our polite consideration by making us feel guilty for asking you these very reasonable questions.

We no longer feel guilty for upsetting you with questions which you should be able to answer if your reasons are honest, but which you self-evidently can't answer, hence your frequently loud indignation and cries of foul. You may not like it; you might kick and scream like a spoiled trustafarian Sloan Square brat, but you are now required to justify your claim to power and privilege; it is no longer yours by right.

Thursday 14 February 2013

Saint Valentine

St Valentine Kneeling In Supplication, David Teniers III (1638-1685)
Saint Valentine is one of many similar legendary saints of the Christian Church who appear to have been invented or is at best based on highly embroidered and increasingly elaborated accounts of one or more ancient people.

He first makes an appearance as a saint in 496 when Pope Gelasius I designated February 14 as his feast day, saying of him, apparently without the slightest hint of irony, that he is amongst those "... whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God." In other words, they're great men who undoubtedly should be revered - but we just don't know what they actually did.

'Knowledge' without any evidence was just as common amongst religious people, especially clerics, in those days as it is today it seems.

There are various accounts associating Valentine or Valentinus with being executed by the Emperor Claudius II in around about 270. In fact there appear to be at least three claimants to the title.
  • A Bishop of Interamna (modern Terni)
  • A Roman priest
  • Someone called Valentinus who was killed along with several companions in the Roman province of Africa.

All these are reputed to have been martyred on February 14 but, as is often the case with church 'history', when a saint is designated as having died on a given date that becomes the date on which they died, so it's hardly surprising that all three contenders for the title 'Saint Valentine' are now said to have dutifully been martyred on the official date. How dare it have been otherwise? The first two are also claimed to have been executed by Claudius II outside the Flaminium Gate but, again, how much of that is official church 'truth' and how much is real truth is probably impossible to say.

It has been suggested by the eighteenth century English antiquarians Alban Butler and Francis Douce that the Feast of St Valentine may have been an attempt to supplant the mid-February pagan feast of Lupercalia with a Christian one.

Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.

Plutarch - Life of Caesar

So the connection with love and fertility may come from an ancient, even pre-Roman, pagan festival which subsumed the even earlier Februa from which we get 'February'.

Most of the traditions now associated with Saint Valentine's Day in the English-speaking world are believed to have come from Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Foules which is set in the context of a fictional tradition. There does not appear to be any basis for associating Valentine with lovers and a fourteenth century French Vies des Saintes has Valentine overseeing the building of his basilica at Terni but makes no mention of him being a patron of lovers. Of course, a great deal also owes it's origins to the commercial interests of the greetings card and chocolate industries.

Like so many early Christian martyr and saints, Valentine seems to have contrived to die in a way which provided the hundreds of relics which are now scattered throughout the Christian world. Valentine's various body parts can be found in Prague in the Czech Republic, Rome in Italy, Dublin in Ireland, Glasgow in Scotland, Birmingham in England, Roquemaure in France, Vienna in Austria, and Balzan in Malta, where they continue to attract visitors with gifts of money to show their devotion and to buy the cheaply-made tacky and mawkishly sentimental souvenirs.

As with so much else about the Catholic Church in particular, and Christianity in general, the distinction between legend, myth, invention and fact is obscure, irrelevant and merely incidental. The important thing is to keep the people ignorant, credulous, superstitious, fearful and in awe of the priesthood as the only means by which they can hope for jam tomorrow whilst accepting the hopelessness of today, and allowing the priesthood to get away with it.

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The Miracle of Miracles

Lourdes - A nice little earner.
Sorry theists but religions like Catholicism which rely heavily on claimed miracles are hoist by their own petard. Their over-dependence on miracles betrays their awareness of the lack of any substantive evidence.

With the Catholic Church, as with other superstitions, miracles are a way to keep simple, credulous people in awe of the supernatural and the mysterious which they need the Church and its priesthood to explain. Miraculously, they always play into the hands of the Church and its priesthood and almost always encourage the inward flow of money.

By definition, a miracle can never be proven, hence it can never be evidence for anything, for the simple fact that, to qualify as a miracle, there can be no natural explanation for the phenomenon, otherwise it's just an unusual event. The mathematician J. E. Littlewood calculated that the average person should experience a million-to-one event about once a month - in other words, the highly unusual is actually commonplace.

There can be no verifiable evidence for a miracle simply because, by definition, it wasn't natural. The only thing to go on is the word of someone else, and their unverifiable claim that they saw something which couldn't have a natural cause. As Elbert Hubbard said, "A miracle is an event described by those to whom it was told by people who did not see it."

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact which it endeavours to establish.

David Hume
So, religions which rely on miracles and claim to have evidence for them are actually saying their evidence... er.... isn't.

A miracle which can be proved is not a miracle.
A miracle which cannot be proved is not evidence for anything.

Some claimed miracles are so patently absurd they can be dismissed as mass hallucination, Emperor's new clothes, or downright lies; claims that the sun did something strange for example.

It is inconceivable that a handful of villagers, or a couple of peasant girls saw the sun zigzagging across the sky when no one else on earth saw it, and yet the Catholic Church doesn't hesitate to promote these plainly absurd 'miracles' as real events. And of course, they attract eager visitors keen to see the site of this wondrous miracle, and to buy the tacky, mass-produced, crudely made plastic souvenirs to carry the magic home in.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

In Darwin's Day

Charles Darwin
When Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace jointly submitted their papers to the Linnean Society in 1859, few people could argue with the fundamental truth of their argument.

There is undoubtedly variation in living things; the environment is undoubtedly selective and organisms compete for resource; and organisms undoubtedly reproduce. So all of Darwin's three prerequisites for evolution were present: variation, selection and reproduction.

It was so manifestly obvious to a mind of sufficient grasp that, as Huxley said on reading Origin, "How stupid not to have thought of it oneself!".

The physical evidence of kinship between closely related organisms, which becomes less as they become less closely related, is self-evident, so Carl Linne's classification system fitted with and is explained by the theory Darwin and Wallace were proposing. Cats, dogs and bears are more like one another than they are like humans and elephants; humans, chimps and gorillas are more like one another than they are like bats or whales; humans, bats, elephants, whales and dogs are more like one another than they are like birds or frogs or cabbages, so if you arrange organisms according to decreasing similarity you get a hierarchy, which can be explained by natural selection from small variation, accumulated over time, like the branching of an ever-growing tree all growing from a single origin.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Infallible Errors And Moving Mountains

Don't you just love it when a holy book shoots itself in its foot?

Here's one such passage from the Qur'an. You've probably seen it quoted or alluded to by fundamentalists who've been convinced that the Qur'an is a science book dictated by Allah and therefore whatever it say is genuine science. By that gloriously hilarious circularity of 'reasoning' with which fundamentalist comically reinforce their self-delusion, it follows that because the Qur'an has 'genuine' science in it it must be the word of Allah. It's the same trick Christians use for fooling themselves and their gullible victims with, in respect of the equally absurd Bible. It neatly circumvents the need to look for extra-koranic or extra-biblical evidence for either the god or that the book is real science.

Unfortunately, the test of whether something is genuine science is whether it equates to observable reality... or not.

This one fails that test big time. No one who knows more than the average five year-old about geology could mistake it for real science.

Have We not made the earth as a wide expanse, and the mountains as pegs?"

Qur'an 78:6-7

Um... well... No, actually!

The earth can't really be described as a vast expanse, because it all depends on your relative scale. On a cosmological scale earth is a tiny dot; an insignificant little speck that would go completely un-noticed by the rest of the Cosmos if it were to disapear tomorrow. You can't even describe the entire solar system as vast on a Cosmological scale, or even the entire Milky Way Galaxy for that matter.

But that's not the main problem here. We can maybe forgive the parochialism and lack of appreciation of the real vastness of the Cosmos as mere naivety, what with the state of scientific knowledge when the above was written. From the Arabian desert earth must have seemed both vast and flat.

The main problem is with the description of mountains as pegs.

Pegs to do what, exactly? Pegs to hold the ground down, maybe? Possibly like the wooden pegs in a dhow which held the planks together?

The problem is that we can't even stretch the definition of 'peg' to make it mean anything like what mountains really are and what they are for, if being 'for' something makes any sense when talking about geology. The earth's geology doesn't have function; it has form and what it does follows from that form. Mountains are folded up from the earth's crust by geological forces, mainly tectonic movement but also volcanic action (which is a consequence of tectonic action). There are merely consequences of other geological forces and have no function as such. The uplift of large sections of rock is due to potential energy being released by being converted into kinetic energy, so allowing two plates to move together of for one to slide under the other so the only function mountains could possible described as having is to act as energy dumps.

Mountain formation is not a mystery; it is something well-known to science and it has nothing whatever to do with pegs and mountains have no 'pegging' function by any stretch of the imagination.

Sorry, Muslims, but the only honest answer you can give to the question asked in 78:6-7, when you've subjected it to the test of comparing it to observable reality, is, "No!", or allowing for the superfluous 'not' in the first line, "Yes, you have not!"

In fact, you can only claim this verse equates to anything approaching reality if you give that 'not' a significance not normally accorded such hyperbole and translate this as stating that Allah has not done these things and is simply asking for your agreement. If it's being used in its normal English form as a short-hand for "Do you think I have not...?", then the only sane answer is, "Yes! You have not!". I hope the original Classical Arabic has a more logical grammatical structure than this clumsy English one.

What you make of the consequences of this error is up to you but error it undoubtedly is. There is no sense of the word 'peg' in which mountains can be so described. You can of course continue to pretend that the Qur'an is a book of science and the infallible word of an omniscient god, or you can accept the observable reality and the consequences which flow from it. What you can't in all honesty do, is hold both views simultaneously and claim to be a rational, honest person.

It would be astonishing is a god of truth and honesty required you to be dishonest to yourself, and to call the evidence you believe it created a lie, as a precondition for believing in it.

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Creationists, Flying In The Face Of Reason

A rather beautiful, but also rather nasty, large African fly bites Creationism, and especially its subversive undercover wing, 'Intelligent Design', on their exposed rear end.

Superficially, the tsetse fly resembles most other typical flies but, due to some important anatomical difference it is placed in its own separate family the Glossinidae. All 33 species belong to the single genus Glossina. Fossil tsetse flies have been found in 34 million year-old deposits in Colorado, USA, so we know the family is fairly ancient. In Africa, diseases carried and transmitted by tsetse flies kill an estimated 250,00 - 500,000 people a year, 3 million cattle a year and cost an estimated 1-1.2 billion US$ a year (2010 figures).

Thursday 7 February 2013

Papal Bull

Readers of this blog will already be aware that it is read in the Vatican (see As Read In The Vatican). It seems we may already have an answer to the question I raised there. In that blog I pointed out that the Papacy had survived schisms, usurpation by gangsters, corrupt, gluttonous, debauched and homicidally psychopathic popes and allegedly even a female imposter, relatively unscathed, but it had never had to cope with a Pope who suddenly found he could no longer live with the lies and self-deception needed to be a Catholic priest, let alone Pope, and who decided to come out as an Atheist.

In short, how would the Catholic Church cope with the first recorded honest Pope?

If this press release is to be believed we may have our answer, although there are some doubts about its authenticity:


In a surprise move yesterday, after a day or two reading the figures for the latest defection from the Catholic Church and yet more revelations of abuse by priests and nuns of children in their care and other vulnerable people, his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, henceforth to be known as Herr Joseph Ratzinger, or Benedict Ultimum to his friends, issued the following edict.






Honored Brothers and Dear Sons,
Health and Apostolic Benediction.

The Supreme Pontiff hereby renounces all claims to moral authority and acknowledges that our claims were fabricated and without foundation, rendering us morally bankrupt. We made these false claims for reasons which were selfish and motivated by greed, a desire to protect our privileges and maintain our hold on the power which we have shamelessly used to put us outside the law and free to act as we pleased, with no accountability to anyone but ourselves.

We now accept that these actions were corrupt and immoral and a gross abuse of power and trust; the acts not of guardians of morality but of corrupt and amoral psychopaths. Accordingly we now accept that our claims to moral leadership were fraudulent. For this we are truly sorry and wish to make ammends.

We wish to make the following apologies to the people we abused throughout history and who suffered as a result of this disgraceful abuse of privilege and power. Our crimes against humanity have been frequent and far too numerous to list so the following is a sample of the major ones. We are no less sorry for all the others.

We are sorry for:
  1. Forging a book we deliberately misnamed The Holy Bible by compiling it from carefully selected, edited and amended documents, some of which we knew to be themselves forgeries, from various cults then common in the Eastern Roman Empire, and presenting it as the infallible word of a god.
  2. Brutally suppressing all the other cults and destroying their versions of the legends in case they took our followers away, and lest anyone used them to show the myths were the fanciful inventions of cult leaders with vested interests who were competing in a market place for members, and that some of them were frankly bizarre and rendered the entire 'faith' laughably absurd.
  3. Inserting wording into the 'Holy Bible' to make it look like a man-god had given his personal authority to the legendary founder of one of the above sects to have the sole authority to speak for this god, and for this protection to be passed on to his successors, so falsely insulating ourselves against the charge of being fallible, and making doubt a heresy.
  4. Editing historical records, notably that written by one Flavius Josephus, to make it look like the legendary man-god who gave us this authority had a basis in historical fact.
  5. Inventing the idea of eternal pain and suffering for doubt, for questioning the authority of priests and the truth of the 'Holy Bible' and for promulgating the idea that a magic, vindictive, man in the sky was reading even people's thoughts, to ensure unquestioned obedience so making it easier to control people and abuse our power.
  6. Promulgating the idea of an evil, malignant, demi-god who we could blame for planting doubt in the minds of people who thought for themselves and for planting inconvenient evidence to fool people, and to turn other people against those who dared to question our authority by threatening them with the stigma of being thought in league with this imaginary 'Satan'.
  7. Shamelessly using threats, fear of death, and purpose-built superstitions to control people.
  8. Brutally suppressing any dissent and giving ourselves the power of life and death and the right to use torture against anyone who raised questions or objections we found embarrassing or threatening, and so killing many tens of millions of people for our own selfish convenience.
  9. Delaying human progress by many centuries by suppressing the development of science for fear it would undermine the superstitions on which we relied and expose the lies we had been telling to the people, whom we had conspired to keep in ignorance, because knowledge and reason were the greatest threats to our power and privilege.
  10. Artificially creating a climate of fear when convenient to us by persecuting innocent and defenceless women as 'witches' to give the illusion that we were defending the people from Satan.
  11. Encouraging trade in human beings and treating some people as sub-human because it suited the greed of the rich and powerful and the expansionist ambitions of the colonial powers who were facilitating the spread of our cult.
  12. Encouraging racism, dehumanization and demonisation of people who subscribe to other cults and who had different labels pinned on them as children, and organizing frequent bouts of genocide, confiscation of property and denial of basic human rights against them on the pretext that we were defending people against the 'evil' we had invented for the purpose.
  13. Imposing guilt and fear on children before they were old enough to resist it, so ensuring they remained under our control for the rest of their lives, and accepted their position in life, any misfortune and any abuse we handed out, as just punishment for their unspeakably sinful nature.
  14. Promulgating the obscene idea that the ruling classes, who defend our privilege and tolerate our corruption in return, are appointed to their position by the legendary man-god who granted us infallibility and appointed us to lead, and who will punish severely, eternally and unimaginably painfully, anyone who questions his divine right to so appoint our rulers for us.
  15. Systematically sucking up the proceeds of their labour from the working people of the world and using it to buy privilege and a comfortable life for the clergy and to further the interests of the Catholic Church, and so helping to keep working people a position of poverty and dependency.
  16. Threatening poor people with eternal damnation if they planned their family size and so threatened the supply of large numbers of poor people to be inducted at an early age into the Catholic cult and so threatened this lucrative income stream and the large, poor, dependent population off which the Catholic Church and its clergy lives.
  17. Systematically demonising and mentally abusing women who demand equality with men and/or the right to control their own bodies and lay claim to reproductive rights because we found the thought of fifty percent of the people not being under the control of men a threat to our power and privilege and an affront to our institutionalised misogyny.
  18. Causing widespread famine, lingering deaths from preventable illness, and large numbers of orphans in the poorest parts of the world by lying to them about condoms and telling them that their use would result in an eternity of unendurable pain and suffering, just to ensure the continuing dependency of the people on the 'beneficent' clergy who help to keep them that way.
  19. Systematically using our power and authority over people to abuse them physically, sexually and psychologically and then shamelessly using the guilt we had inculcated them with to ensure their silence whilst we protected their abusers and gave them access to more victims.
  20. Lastly, we apologise to humanity for inventing the notion of Hell in order to justify creating it here on earth for most of the last two thousand years, to create the conditions in which we could wield unfettered power over people the better to serve our limitless greed and ambition.
The vast assets of the Vatican and the world-wide Catholic Church will be donated to the United Nations for promoting peace and understanding between all peoples and for the relief of poverty, famine and disease throughout the world.

Given at St. Peter's, Rome, on the 7th day of February, the feast of St. Ron the Protection Racketeer, in the year 2013, the seventh of Our pontificate (my how tempis fugit!)

Benedict XVI

I understand this was written on the side of a large pig which is currently flying round the world, spreading the good news that at last the Catholic Church has discovered the liberating effects of intellectual integrity.

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Wednesday 6 February 2013

Were You There?

Lunar Olivine Basalt, formed 3.3 billion years ago.
One of Creationist Ken Ham's proudest boasts is that he's tricked thousands of children into shutting down any discussion of evolution, the Big Bang, an old earth, or anything which might conflict with fundamentalist biblical creationism, in other words, almost all basic science, with the simple question, "Were you there?" and so helped them avoid learning because in their naivety they assume that we only know something if we see it ourselves.

In other words, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, Ken Ham teaches children to be satisfied with not knowing, and even to be proud of not finding things out.

So pleased is Ham of this achievement that he proudly displays this letter from one such nine year-old victim on his Answers In Genesis website through which he markets his wares:

I went to a NASA display of a moon rock and a lady said, "This Moon-rock is 3.75 billion years old!" Guess what I asked for the first time ever?

"Um, may I ask a question?"

And she said, "Of course."

I said, in my most polite voice, "Were you there?"

Love, Emma B

Ken Ham, being a devout Christian who believes a god of truth is watching his every thought, no doubt believes this himself. So it's reasonable to assume if he got up in the morning to find the ground outside all wet, with puddles here and there, and water on the outside of his window, he would lecture his unfortunate wife and children on how they can't assume it rained during the night because they didn't see it themselves. Obviously, they should assume that God put all that water there and realise that the theory of rain, which claims that the water on the ground starts out higher up and just falls down by chance, is just a theory with no supporting evidence which Satanic scientists use to try to turn them away from God.

Or maybe not. Maybe when there is no money to be made from fooling people he uses perfectly normal thinking and everyday logic, not the special version which he reserves for fooling children and infantile adults with.

Now, I should caution against using this 'devastating' argument against Creationists by asking if they were there when their god created the Universe and then flooded the earth, or even when Jesus was resurrected, because there is no reason we need to lower ourselves to Ken Ham's level. Besides, pointing out their double standards and hypocrisy has never stopped them before so it almost certainly won't work this time either. "Were you there?" is probably the most disingenuous and intellectually dishonest question in the Creationist's armoury.

The biologist Professor PZ Myers composed a long open reply to Emma B which highlighted the fundamental difference between science and Creationism. Some of the points he made were:

One serious problem with the "Were you there?" question is that it is not very sincere. You knew the answer already! You knew that woman had not been to the moon, and you definitely knew that she had not been around to see the rock forming 3.75 billion years ago. You knew the only answer she could give was "no," which is not very informative.

Another problem is that if we can only trust what we have seen with our own two eyes in our short lives, then there’s very little we can know at all. You probably know that there are penguins in Antarctica, and that the Civil War was fought in the 1860s, and that there are fish swimming deep in the ocean, and you also believe that Jesus was crucified two thousand years ago, but if I asked you "Were you there?" about each of those facts, you'd also have to answer "no" to each one. Does that mean they are all false?


I'd like to teach you a different easy question, one that is far, far more useful than Ken Ham’s silly "Were you there?" The question you can always ask is, "How do you know that?"

Right away, you should be able to see the difference. You already knew the answer to the "Were you there?" question, but you don’t know the answer to the "How do you know that?" question. That means the person answering it will tell you something you don't know, and you will learn something new. And that is the coolest thing ever.

"How do you know?" is probably the most terrifying question you can ask a Creationist, which is why they have this obsession with science and with preventing people from learning any. The basis of science is asking questions designed to find things out. "How do I now this?" is what every good scientist asks himself all the time and every time he thinks he knows something. If he can't answer it, he doesn't know what he thinks he knows and needs to re-think.

This is why the last thing Ken Ham wants is children asking constructive questions designed to elicit new information. The last think Ken Ham wants is children asking themselves how they know something. Instead, it's important to him (and his very large income) that they shut out any possibility of learning something new as quickly as possible, even at the expense of compromising their intellectual integrity by being disingenuous. The last thing he wants is children realising they don't actually know why they 'know' something because they might realise they've been conned.

And to think that poor Emma B's mother was actually proud of having taken her unfortunate daughter to a NASA display so she could demonstrate her skill at avoiding learning scientific information or, as she referred to it, "yada, yada, yada, blah, blah…"

It would probably be wrong to assume that all Creation pseudoscientists are so lacking in morals that they willingly, gleefully and proudly trick nine year-old children for money, like a heroin pusher outside a primary school gate, but, to be perfectly honest, I can't think of any at the moment and most of them support the Wedge Strategy aimed at sneaking their mind-controlling substance into schools disguised as science just to expand their potential market and to use the resulting ignorance to subvert the US Constitution and take the political power they are really after.

Maybe they are just keeping their heads down rather than be associated with the likes of Ken Ham, Eric Hovind, Michael Behe, et al.

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Sunday 3 February 2013

Pity The Poor Apologists.

Spare a thought for Christian apologists. It must be awful for them - apart, that is, from all the money that the more devious ones get from their credulous customers in return for cognitive dissonance trauma therapy in the form of books, speaking engagements and TV chat and televangelist show appearances. Imagine what it must be like having to promote fallacies for a living like, to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, "...an unctuous merchant in a bazaar come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, offering consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace".

But what makes it worse for them is that the Bible itself so frequently flatly contradicts them and pulls the rug out from under their feet, so they have to plough on regardless, hoping no one has noticed. Take, for instance the stock-in-trade fall-back position when all the logic has failed and every argument has been defeated yet again - that their god is eternal and exists outside space an time and so doesn't need to be explained because the evidence bar is at ground level, whereas science of course is required to jump an impossibly high bar and provide proof of the origins of everything, including, so it seems, the origin of the nothing before there was something, whilst conceding that there was time and space before there was space-time.

This tactic is used to make several apologetics 'arguments' look to the unsophisticated both logical and honest, particularly:

  1. The Cosmological Argument, where apologetic salesmen claim the right to assume that everything requires an explanation in terms of cause, except their god which is granted a free pass to make the logic work.

    1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
    2. The Universe began to exist.
    3. Therefore, the Universe had a cause.

    Originally devised by Al-Ghazali to 'prove' the existence of Allah (and therefore that the Qur'an is the literal word of Allah), it has since been purloined by William Lane Craig who earns his living using it to 'prove' the existence of the Christian God (and therefore that the Bible is the literal word of the Christian God).
  2. The Ontological Argument devised by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury under William II of England. Briefly, this argues that, because a necessary aspect of perfection is existence, and because one can conceive of a perfect god, such a god must exist. (No really!). Believe it or not, this is still trotted out despite being refuted by, amongst others, Thomas Aquinas, David Hume and Immanual Kant, and by being so obviously an absurd attempt to define God into existence which, if it were true, could be used to define anything one wishes into existence. Shame about the manifest fact that it only works for imaginary invisible things but never for real things.

    It is of course nothing more than the anthropocentrically arrogant view that a god must exist because one is necessary for the believer and a vindication of the view that man creates gods in his own image.
  3. The Teleological Argument, also known a 'Paley's Watch' which argues that the appearance of design implies a designer and, since living things look like they were designed, there must be a designer (which is of course, the Christian God if you're a Christian; Allah if you're a Muslim, and whichever your favourite creator god is if you happened to have parents brought up in a different 'faith').

    This was refuted by Darwin and Wallace in 1859 but is never-the-less still trotted out by and to people who have managed to remain ignorant of descent with modification and the power of natural selection to produce the semblance of design by a natural process. Some religious apologists earn their living by providing their customers with reason to maintain this ignorance and to convince themselves that this ignorance trumps anything science can produce.

    It ignores the obligation to apply the argument to their own god who is, naturally, granted an exemption from the need to have its design explained. "But [insert designer god] has always existed so doesn't need to have it's origins explained!"

The problem for all these standard arguments however, is that whoever wrote the Bible failed to anticipate that future apologists were going to need this fall-back, get-out-if-jail-free card in order to get round the fact that there was no evidential or logical support for the notion they were writing about, and promptly scuppered the whole thing with the following passage reporting what one of the prophets claimed God had told him:

Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me.

Isaiah 43:10


So, Isaiah says that God says that he had a beginning and will have an end, and that before him there were no gods and there will be none after him. God also says that gods are 'formed'. To make matters worse, this is the same prophet whom Christians love to claim prophesied the birth of Jesus, so 'proving' that Jesus was who they claim he was. Obviously what's happened here is that the writer assumed all that was then known was all that was going to be known, so never anticipated apologists coming up against the arguments science can now put forward, so never imagined so much would hinge on them getting away with persuading people that God is eternal as a escape clause.

So, Christian apologists, in view of the fact the God says he is not eternal and has not existed for ever, but was once 'formed', how do you answer the following:
  1. What caused God?
  2. How can a perfect god be imperfect in that one day it will cease to exist and once had no existence?
  3. Who or what designed God, or what natural process gave it the necessary complexity to be able to create the Universe and monitor and record all human thoughts and actions?

Alternatively you could explain why you disagree with what God said in the Bible and by what process do you came to know better than the god whom you claim created everything and knows all?

You might need to spend a while thinking up the answers, or maybe you could send the questions to William Lane Craig, or whomsoever is your current favourite 'leading' apologist, asking them to come up with an answer. It must be awful for you trying to eke out a living by denying the very thing you are being paid to promote and having to struggle to present arguments that even your supposedly omniscient god says are false.

I bet you sometimes wished you had chosen a more honest way to earn a living, don't you?

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Friday 1 February 2013

God Hates Figs!

The Accursed Fig Tree, James Tissot (1836-1902)
Here's a strange tale from the Bible in which Jesus shows himself to not only not be an all-knowing god but to be a petty, vindictive tyrant and a braggart too. Perhaps Christians can explain it and discern a moral in the story.
And they that went before, and they that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna; Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest. And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the eventide was come, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve.

And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.

And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple.
So, having been greeted by a multitude on his 'triumphal entry' into Jerusalem, Jesus can't find anyone to stump up a decent meal and has to go out hunter-gathering. But, even though he is allegedly the earthly form of an omniscient creator god he has to walk over to a fig tree to see if it has any figs.

On finding both the fig tree and his journey fruitless, and even though he has a reputation for being able to conjure up food for five thousand men plus their attendant women and children, and had, as God, at one time allegedly magicked up enough food and water to sustain three million Israelites for forty years in a desert, he can neither conjure up food for himself, nor make a fig tree bear fruit, so in a fit of peak he curses the fig tree and kills it, like a spoiled child having a tantrum.

Then, presumably still hungry and tetchy he goes back into Jerusalem and starts a riot in the temple for reasons which are not at all clear unless it was to make some obscure political point about socio-economic systems, ownership of capital or simply about trade and traders in general of which his adopted father was one. (See Was Jesus Against Capitalism?)

But it gets worse:
And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.

And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God. For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.
Then they go back to Jerusalem to see the aftermath of the riots from the day before.

So, having gone without food the previous day and caused a riot in Jerusalem, Jesus and his gang spend the following morning walking back to Bethany, apparently just to see if the curse has worked on the fig tree.

When it clearly has, Jesus starts bragging about how he can do these things because he believes he can and how he could even throw a mountain into the sea if he wanted to. Apparently, you can have anything you want if you just have enough faith in God and believe your wishes come true.

So there you are: when God doesn't answer your prayers by doing whatever you want, it is your fault for not being faithful enough. Must pray harder and give more money to the priests...

Curiously though, none of his gang think to ask Jesus why, if he can kill a fig tree with words, and throw mountains about, he can't make a tree bear fruit or think up a loaf of bread.

Then, having had to listen to Jesus bragging about his magic powers and what he could do if he wanted to, they all trot off back to Jerusalem to face the music for the previous day's behaviour. We are never told whether Jesus and his hapless band ever managed to find any food.

Matthew tells a different version of this same tale. For Matthew the entire thing happened much more economically. None of that walking out the day before to find food and cursing the fig tree, then having to go back the next morning to see if the curse has worked. This all takes place the day after that spot of bother in Jerusalem and the beating up of the traders. Presumably, this Jesus and his gang had been suitably fed and watered that night by the jubilant multitude.
Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away.

And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away! Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.
In this version, the most impressive thing from the gang members' point of view is the speed at which the tree was killed. For those in Mark's version, taking a day to work was taken for granted; what mattered was that Jesus had such marvellous powers - as though they were still not fully convinced by the other demonstrations of power.

Strange how two different 'eye-witness' accounts can differ so greatly in detail where they can't agree even on when in the day it happened and how many times they went to the fig tree. But there is that same assurance that you can have and do anything you want if you just pray hard enough and believe what the priests say, and if if doesn't work, you only have yourself to blame.

But then, if you believe any of that, I have this bridge for sale...

(Credit for the inspired title goes to @skeppy4eyes)


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