F Rosa Rubicondior: April 2013

Sunday 28 April 2013

Confirmation Bias

Er... But which god?
Confirmation bias is what causes people to say stupid things like, "Everything proves God/Allah". The Cosmological Argument and Teleological Argument depend on confirmation bias in the target audience - something of which religious apologists are only too well aware since they use it all the time.

Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

So what's this got to do with religion? You're probably thinking it doesn't apply to you. If you're religious you probably believe you have very good, objective reasons for your beliefs and you see evidence of your god all around you. The strange thing is, and what gives the lie to it being objective evidence, is that people of other religions see the same thing and think it's evidence for their god and their religion.

Well, you might say, we have proofs for our religion that can't be proofs for theirs. The problem is, so do they.

The strange thing is that your 'proofs' don't seem to convince people who don't already share your beliefs and their 'proofs' don't seem to convince you. Take a look at these which I came across researching for an article on miracles.

Any Muslims convinced by these and ready to accept Jesus as their personal saviour yet? Why not? Plenty of Christians are convinced.

How about these?

Have they got any Christians or Jews chanting, "There is no god but God and Mohamed is his Prophet", yet? How come? Millions of Muslims will tell you they are proof of Allah.

Isn't it strange how they only convince people who are already convinced?

You seen now why Atheists don't find any of these 'miraculous' appearances convincing at all? Just like Christians do with the Islamic 'evidence' and just like Muslims do with the 'miraculous' images of Jesus or Mary, we see them for what they are - evidence only of the human ability to see patterns and of the human ability to look for and find 'evidence' which 'confirms' pre-existing beliefs.

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Impossible Miracles

The problem with miracles is that no one can prove they happened - which is a bit of a drawback for a church like the Catholic Church which relies so heavily on miracles to impress the 'flock' and keep them in awe and wonder.

The problem is with the definition of a miracle in the first place. Here's what the Catholic Encyclopedia has to say:
(Latin miraculum, from mirari, "to wonder").

In general, a wonderful thing, the word being so used in classical Latin; in a specific sense, the Latin Vulgate designates by miracula wonders of a peculiar kind, expressed more clearly in the Greek text by the terms terata, dynameis, semeia, i.e., wonders performed by supernatural power as signs of some special mission or gift and explicitly ascribed to God...

The wonder of the miracle is due to the fact that its cause is hidden, and an effect is expected other than what actually takes place. Hence, by comparison with the ordinary course of things, the miracle is called extraordinary. In analyzing the difference between the extraordinary character of the miracle and the ordinary course of nature, the Fathers of the Church and theologians employ the terms above, contrary to, and outside nature. These terms express the manner in which the miracle is extraordinary.

A miracle is said to be above nature when the effect produced is above the native powers and forces in creatures of which the known laws of nature are the expression, as raising a dead man to life, e.g., Lazarus (John 11), the widow's son (1 Kings 17). A miracle is said to be outside, or beside, nature when natural forces may have the power to produce the effect, at least in part, but could not of themselves alone have produced it in the way it was actually brought about. Thus the effect in abundance far exceeds the power of natural forces, or it takes place instantaneously without the means or processes which nature employs. In illustration we have the multiplication of loaves by Jesus (John 6), the changing of water into wine at Cana (John 2) — for the moisture of the air by natural and artificial processes is changed into wine — or the sudden healing of a large extent of diseased tissue by a draught of water. A miracle is said to be contrary to nature when the effect produced is contrary to the natural course of things.

The term miracle here implies the direct opposition of the effect actually produced to the natural causes at work, and its imperfect understanding has given rise to much confusion in modern thought. Thus Spinoza calls a miracle a violation of the order of nature (proeverti, "Tract. Theol. Polit.", vi). Hume says it is a "violation" or an "infraction", and many writers — e.g., Martensen, Hodge, Baden-Powell, Theodore Parker — use the term for miracles as a whole. But every miracle is not of necessity contrary to nature, for there are miracles above or outside nature.

Source: The Catholic Encyclopedia (accesses 28 April 2013).
A cynic might think that the last sentence above is deliberately confused and designed to give the appearance of refuting Spinoza and Hume whilst not redefining a miracle to bring it within the realm of nature, and thus not miraculous. Both Spinoza and Hume had pointed out essentially the same thing - that miracles are, by definition, unnatural or 'super-natural' and are thus a violation of natural laws. To argue that a 'miracle' which is 'above or outside nature' is not contrary to nature is absurd if one accepts the normal definition of 'nature' as everything about the material Universe.
1. The material world and its phenomena.
2. The forces and processes that produce and control all the phenomena of the material world: the laws of nature.
Source: The Free Dictionary (accessed 28 April 2013)

Nature, in the broadest sense, is equivalent to the natural world, physical world, or material world. "Nature" refers to the phenomena of the physical world, and also to life in general. It ranges in scale from the subatomic to the cosmic.
Source: Wikipedia - Nature (accesses 28 April 2013)
So there can be little doubt, despite what the Catholic Encyclopedia tries to imply, that miracles, at least as they are defined and understood by those who promote them and those who believe in them, are things which have no natural explanation or, in Spinoza's and Hume's words, violate natural law. In fact, Spinoza goes further and says natural laws cannot be violated, so even if miracles appear to be unnatural, this is simply due to the ignorance of the observer. Miracles are simply natural events for which we don't yet have a natural explanation.

And this is where the problem begins.

We all want to believe in impossible things, I suppose, to persuade ourselves that miracles can happen.

Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions
Because there can be no natural explanation there can be no evidence other than someone else's word for it that a given miracle actually happened. Additionally, because miracles are unnatural the likelihood of them occurring spontaneously is zero - otherwise they could have a natural explanation. Even if we are charitable and allow that they are not actually impossible (how can something that happened be impossible?) but are just so highly unlikely that a natural cause can be excluded, or at least given a lower probability that a supernatural or 'divine' intervention, we are left with a highly unlikely event.

We are, in effect, being required to take someone's word for it that a highly unlikely, even impossible, event actually happened, without them supplying any evidence. Why on Earth would any rational person do that?

How many people would you believe if they told you, without the slightest scrap of evidence, that, for example, they had just seen the Virgin Mary appear out of thin air in Central Park, New York, or a man fly to Heaven and back on a winged horse from Hyde Park, London? How about if they claimed to have just witnessed a man satisfy the hunger of thousands of people with a few loaves of bread in Montreal, Canada?

What other explanations would you consider first? Which other perfectly natural causes could there be for that person telling you such a thing? Note: 'because it's true' is only one possibility amongst many. Why would you consider explanations other then it being true more satisfactory or more believable than that they were telling you the truth?

And would you really believe them without wanting to see just a little evidence? I suggest that you wouldn't believe a word of it. And yet when religious people read about, or are told about, miracles, they believe what they are told, yet nowhere in all that was there ever more than one person telling another something that you would never have believed had they told you first hand. The story has been given a spurious gloss of credibility by being repeated by authority figures - authority figures who had no more basis for belief that you did.

This is how the church uses its 'authority' to persuade people to believe the unbelievable. Believing everything the church teaches by faith simply means the church has not yet found your lower limit of credulity.

As John W Loftus points out, Christians have a double burden of proof when it comes to proving miracles.
On the one hand, they must show that a particular "event" was not very likely...

On the other hand, Christians must show that the purported miraculous event happened.
And yet, everything they say to establish the first burden of proof takes away the strength of the second burden of proof. That is, the more they argue that an event was miraculous, the less likely such an event occurred. But the more they argue that an event was likely to have occurred, then the less likely that event can be understood as miraculous.

The only way people judge whether or not a miracle occurred is whether or not it fits within their control beliefs (i.e., which God he believes in and was taught to believe). One cannot start with the evidence for a miracle to show that the Christian God exists, simply because a person must already believe it’s plausible for the Christian God to exist in the first place (unless it’s a case of accepting what someone says because that person is believable). Otherwise, the evidence isn’t evidence for anything, much like how the evidence in a criminal trial isn't evidence of anything since the prosecutor and defense attorney will have two different ways of seeing that evidence based in separate control beliefs. And yet, how is it possible to believe in the Christian God in the first place without the cold hard evidence that will lead him to believe? The explanation of a self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit doesn’t solve anything.

So here is a simple challenge for any Christian. Take any miracle you wish and which you believe, and explain why a non-believer should believe it really happened and that the cause could only have been the Christian god. After all, if you believe in said miracle, that must be what you believe, so all you need do is explain the rational basis for your belief. It is not enough to say that someone else believes it.

What could be easier than that?

If you can't, you might like to consider exactly why you believe it yourself.

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Saturday 27 April 2013

Recent Evolution in Britain

Senecio cambrensis
A lovely example of the very recent evolution of an entirely new plant species has been discovered in North Wales. I'm grateful to @Kaimitai on Twitter for bringing it to my attention.

The new species, Senecio cambrensis, also known as Welsh groundsel or Welsh ragwort, arose as a fertile allopolyploid hybrid between S. vulgaris or common groundsel, and S. squalidus or Oxford ragwort. Hybrids of these two species are the fairly common but sterile S. x baxteri (in taxonomic nomenclature 'x' indicates a hybrid) which is thought to have been the actual ancestor of S. cambrensis. Sometime in the early 20th century an accidental doubling of the chromosome number led to a fertile plant - the Welsh groundsel.

Left: Senecio vulgaris. Right: Senecio squalidus.
The new species can only reproduce with other members of its own species making it indisputably a new species - contrary to the claim made by Creationist pseudo-scientists that evolution cannot give rise to new species.

It was discovered in 1948 by Horace E. Green growing at Ffrith, Flintshire, Wales and was first systematically described in 1955 by Effie M. Rosser of Manchester Museum. In 1982 S. cambrensis was discovered growing in several sites near Edinburgh, Scotland. This population is believed to have arisen independently of the North Walian population in about 1974 but had disappeared by 1993. It has been reported, probably mistakenly, in Shropshire, England and more reliably at Wolverhampton, England. The Wolverhampton population now also seems to have disappeared.

One of the original parent species, S. squalidus or Oxford ragwort is an alien species in Britain having been introduced from Sicily in the 18th century. It's own history in the UK is an interesting example of how environmental change can bring about evolutionary change:
This Senecio [S. squalidus] was introduced into Britain via Francisco Cupani and William Sherard in the years of their visit 1700, 1701 and 1702 from Sicily where it lives as a native on volcanic ash to the Duchess of Beaufort's garden at Badminton. Later a transfer of the genetic material to the Oxford Botanic Garden by the "Horti Praefectus" (the title still given to the head gardener at the Oxford Botanic Garden) Jacob Bobart the Younger before his death in 1719 (which is also the same year that Bobart retired as Horti Praefectus and perhaps a good indication of when this species of ragwort and other invasive species might have "escaped" and started to make their home in the greater British Isles). The Sicilian ragwort escaped into the wild and grew in the stonework of Oxford colleges (with the specific mention of the Bodleian Library) and many of the stone walls around the city of Oxford. This gave the plant its common name, "Oxford Ragwort".

The vortex of air following the express train carries the fruits in its wake. I have seen them enter a railway-carriage window near Oxford and remain suspended in the air in the compartment until they found an exit at Tilehurst [near Reading, Berkshire, some 20 miles south-east of Oxford].

George Druce, 1927
Carolus Linnaeus first described Senecio squalidus in 1753, although there is a dispute as to whether the material came from the Botanic Garden or from walls in the city; the taxonomy for this species is further complicated by the existence of species with a similar morphology in continental Europe.

James Edward Smith officially identified the escaped Oxford ragwort with its formal name Senecio squalidus in 1800.

During the Industrial Revolution, Oxford became connected to the railway system and the plant gained a new habitat in the railway lines clinker beds, gradually spreading via the railway to other parts of the country. The process was accelerated by the movement of the trains and the limestone ballast that provides a well-drained medium which is an adequate replica of the lava-soils of its native home in Sicily.
So, from an escaped botanical specimen in Oxford, Oxford ragwort has spread throughout the UK assisted by human agency and facilitated by the Industrial Revolution - a process which is continuing today with other species with wind-distributed seeds by being blown along motorways and highways in the direction of traffic. It is now a widespread and common species and is something of a pest in the New Forest where regular eradication campaigns are conducted because it is thought to be harmful to the horses which roam freely in the forest.[However, see Update below]

There we have not only another example of recent speciation by hybridization, so disconcerting to Creationists, but a nice example of how environmental change can facilitate and drive evolution. Who would be a Creationist pseudo-scientist having to hope his credulous target market remains ignorant of this sort of information, especially when they have the Internet to contend with? What a way to earn a living!

No wonder religious superstition is declining so rapidly these days and is becoming more and more the province of the ignorant and scientifically illiterate upon whom Creationist cheats and con artists prey.

[Update 3 may 2013]
I am indebted to fellow blogger mabymynydd who has pointed out that it is the native Common Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea), not the Oxford Ragwort (S. squalidus) which is considered by some to be a pest in the New Forest, though the danger to horses is disputed. See comment below.

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Wednesday 24 April 2013

Why Faith Is Dangerous

The recent Twitter spat between two people whom I admire has prompted me to look again at faith and what it can lead to. They are the (normally) left-leaning political journalist with a mercurial mind, rapier wit and impeccable logic, Mehdi Hassan, who is also a Muslim, and the evolutionary biologist, author, Humanist and Atheist, Richard Dawkins.

The spat began when Dawkins, who had previously been told by Hassan in a public debate, that he believed Mohammad had literally flown to Heaven on a flying horse, just as the Qur'an says, and Dawkins, perhaps rather abrasively (which is too easy with only 140 characters) seemed to question how he could hold such illogical views and still be considered an objective journalist.

Saturday 20 April 2013

Understanding Religion - I'll Pray For You!

What the pious really mean.

I'll pray for you because:
  • If I'm honest and say I hate you people won't think I'm a kind, caring person.
  • I want you to think I have some power over you that you can't do anything about.
  • I like to think I have some power over you that you can't do anything about.
  • I like to think I have an invisible friend who hurts those who won't agree with me about everything.
  • I can't be bothered to learn stuff but I want people to think I'm better than you in some way.
  • I want you to feel guilty about beating me in an argument with facts I didn't like, because I should be allowed to win every time even though I can't be bothered to learn stuff.
  • You won't agree with me so I'll try threatening you with my really powerful imaginary friend.
  • I want people to think I'm religious because I'm hoping to get away with people thinking I'm someone they can trust.
  • I can't counter your argument so I want to threaten you whilst making other people think I'm your moral superior.
  • I want my friends to be impressed by me and admire my smugly self-satisfied piety.
  • I want people to think I'm so special I have a close personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe who makes my wishes come true.
  • It costs me nothing and is much easier than doing something practical to help.
  • Pretending to be other people' moral superior makes me feel good about myself.
  • If there really is a god I'm hoping to impress it with my piety, so I show it off at every opportunity.
  • What use is religion if you can't use it as a weapon when you need to?
  • What use is religion if you can't use it to try to elevate yourself above other people?
  • I'd really like to hurt you physically but I can only use words and make-believe in this medium and I'm a coward anyway.
  • Just like a rapist, I want to have power over you without any responsibility because I'm inadequate.

Isn't it great the way religion can be used against other people in so many different ways? Has mankind ever devised any better source of excuses for the morally bankrupt than religion?

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Thursday 18 April 2013

Gallstones - Another Little Gem From The Intelligent Designer

Opened gallbladder containing numerous gallstones
You have to hand it to the Intelligent Designer. Just look at the way it came up with the idea of gallstones. Whatever would we do without them?
A gallstone is a crystalline concretion formed within the gallbladder by accretion of bile components. These calculi are formed in the gallbladder but may distally pass into other parts of the biliary tract such as the cystic duct, common bile duct, pancreatic duct, or the ampulla of Vater. Rarely, in cases of severe inflammation, gallstones may erode through the gallbladder into adherent bowel potentially causing an obstruction termed gallstone ileus.

Presence of gallstones in the gallbladder may lead to acute cholecystitis, an inflammatory condition characterized by retention of bile in the gallbladder and often secondary infection by intestinal microorganisms, predominantly Escherichia coli and Bacteroides species. Presence of gallstones in other parts of the biliary tract can cause obstruction of the bile ducts, which can lead to serious conditions such as ascending cholangitis or pancreatitis. Either of these two conditions can be life-threatening and are therefore considered to be medical emergencies.

The archetypal sufferer from gallstones has the five 'f's:
  • Female.
  • Fertile.
  • Fair.
  • Fat.
  • Forty.
Fair referring to skin colour.

However, many exceptions are found and gallstones are not uncommon in men, postmenopausal and thin women and non-Europeans although less so than in Europeans. They are very rare in young people.

The problem starts because body fluids with a high concentration of anything and especially salts, lend themselves to the formation of stones by simple chemical processes. Unfortunately, many of these fluids are collected in temporary stores such as, in the case of gallstones, the gallbladder. Stones may also form in places like the kidneys where they can obstruct the outflow of urine, causing kidney damage or be passed down the ureter to the bladder causing excruciating pain and sometimes accumulating there to obstruct urination, or salivary glands causing the flow of saliva to be obstructed and the face and neck to swell up as saliva accumulates.

The function of the gallbladder is to store bile until food is present in the small intestine. It then contracts squirting bile down the bile duct into the small intestine where it plays a role in digestion of fats. Bile is actually a waste product produced by the liver from dead red blood cells, or rather from the haem part of haemoglobin from which most of the iron has been removed and recycled. When the bile duct is obstructed bile is retained by the liver and passes into the blood where it causes jaundice and shows up in the urine which resembles freshly brewed tea or black coffee. If not treated, this can cause renal failure.

The problem is compounded by the fact that, for no apparent good reason, the bile duct joins with the duct from the pancreas to form the hepato-pancreatic duct before it joins with the small intestine at the 'ampula of Vater', so any obstruction in the hepato-pancreatic duct also obstructs the pancreatic duct. As well as controlling blood sugar levels with insulin, the pancreas also produces enzymes for digesting proteins so any obstruction or damage to the pancreas can also cause it to begin to digest and eventually destroy itself. Infections in the bile duct can also spread to the pancreas causing acute inflammation of the pancreas or pancreatitis which is fatal in about 25% of sufferers (though not all these are caused by gallstones).

It would be a particularly nasty and vicious intelligent designer who came up with this example of bad design which, in the time before anaesthetic surgery and before modern medicine would have been a common cause of death, especially of females in midlife and still is in people without access to health care. There is no purpose to gallstones; there is no purpose to them predisposing to infection by normally benign intestinal bacteria; there is no benefit from the pancreatic duct uniting with the bile duct and so making it easy for the pancreas to become involved with gallstones and any infection they may allow. Unless, of course, the purpose was to cause illness and death.

The entire system is a kludge; an "it'll do" solution which has its origins somewhere in evolution and particularly in embryology, and so we are stuck with it.

To understand why evolution, which we would expect to eliminate these kludges and lead to perfection of 'design', has not eliminated gallstones or 're-designed' the hepato-pancreatic duct we need to look at the common predisposing factors above. The reason is the same reason we have not eliminated cancer and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, motor-neurone disease and Parkinsonism. There is little or no benefit to the genes from any mutations which would bring about these changes because they only present as problems after we have produced our offspring.

If there is no benefit to the genes there can be no evolution other than random genetic drift. The link to fair skin, which, in evolutionary terms provided some benefit particularly in a cloudy, relatively sunless north west Europe, suggests some linkage between changes in melanin (the dark pigment) production in the skin and gallstone formation, so they may simply be an unfortunate by-product of an otherwise beneficial mutation in the context of an environment with a lot of clouds. And that evolutionary change expresses before we produce offspring by reducing the incidence of rickets in growing children.

What benefit there might be to the genes in having mothers live long enough to be grandmothers, and so helping to raise the next generation carrying her genes is much less obvious than it would be if they affected her reproductive success directly, since her grandchildren are only one quarter her on average, but never-the-less we should expect to see some evolutionary change towards eliminating the formation of gallstones and/or reducing their potential seriousness over time even for that small advantage. But then we only evolved fair skin relatively recently so there will not have been time yet for this effect to be noticeable. Gallstones are probably part of the cost of evolving fair skin in a cloudy environment and we will still need to bear that cost for many years, possibly hundreds of thousands yet.

As an example of intelligent design and especially the design of an omni-benevolent designer, gallstones fail badly. Any designer who came up with this idea is neither intelligent nor benevolent. As an example of the mindless, undirected and amoral process of evolution, gallstones are readily understandable.

Sorry, Discovery Institute and your willing stooges who push fundamental Bible literalism disguised as science with 'Intelligent Design'. You have very many of these examples to explain. Ignoring them and relying on the ignorance of your credulous victims won't work with rational people.

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Sudden Rapid Evolution

If you're anywhere in Europe, and very many states in North America if not now then certainly very soon, you'll be able to look out of your window, or in any public garden or park and see an example of very recent evolution in the form of the Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto decaocto.

I still remember seeing my first one in Woodstock, Oxfordshire when on my way home from working in Oxford. This must have been in about 1964. One of the technicians in our laboratory was also a keen naturalist and had told me excitedly only a few days earlier that he had seen a pair in Charlton-on-Otmoor.

Sunday 14 April 2013

How The Intelligent Designer Works

Lancet fluke (Dicrocoelium dendriticum)
If you're a Creationists you'll know already that the Intelligent Designer created the entire Universe and everything in it just for us, and especially for you.

If you're a Christian you'll know it did it exactly as the Christian Bible says the Christian god did. You'll also know that you must never say that the Intelligent Designer is the Christian god because that would make it harder to get fundamentalist Christianity taught in American public schools, and schools in other secular countries, as though it is a real science, and not a religion, which would be illegal. You'll already understand though that the Intelligent Designer is completely indistinguishable from the 'one true' god in the Christian Bible, so it must be all the omnis, including omni-benevolent, and never does anything which isn't done because it loves you... and everyone else, obviously.

If you're a Muslim you'll know the Intelligent Designer is call Allah and created everything exactly the way Muhammad said it did in the Qur'an especially for humans and in particular for you personally, because it wants you to love and worship it.

So this is a heart-warming story of how the one true Intelligent Designer designed a little creature which those mad atheistic scientists call Dicrocoelium dendriticum or the lancet fluke because it is shaped a bit like a medical lancet which used to be used for cutting into veins to let some unwanted blood out.

Dicrocoelium dendriticum is a member of a group of flatworms called trematodes. Scientists call flatworms Platyhelminths, which means - you've guessed it - flat worms. Why do they bother making up all these big words, eh?

The Intelligent Designer designed this particular flatworm, like a lot of other flatworms, which of course it also designed, to live inside the bodies of other animals as parasites. Parasites don't need to bother with looking for food, avoiding predators and things like that because the animals they live in do that for them. Isn't that a brilliant idea, if you're a flatworm?

The Intelligent Designer designed this particular parasite to live in the biliary ducts of animals like sheep and cows and sometimes even humans. The biliary ducts are the tubes which take bile from the liver to the intestines where it is used to help with digestion of fats.

But that idea gave the Intelligent Designer a problem because, when the flatworms want to breed, they lay eggs which end up in the gut of their host and eventually outside the hosts body altogether, along with other waste. But they need to be back inside the host, which is where they were designed to live. How to get them there?

This is where the Intelligent Designer came up with a typically brilliant idea. It got snails to eat the faeces of the animals, together with the parasite's eggs, which hatch out inside the snail. But then it realised that the host animals like sheep and cows don't eat snails, so it had another brilliant idea. It came up with a design to get them back out of the snails again. It made it so the snails don't like the baby flatworms inside their bodies so they surround them with a hard case and get rid of them as cysts containing several baby flatworms in the slime they use to make their slime trails.

But then the Intelligent Designer realised its plan had hit another snag, apart from the baby parasites being still outside their hosts: cows and sheep don't normally eat snail slime, just like they don't normally eat snails and if they waited till the slime had dried up the baby flatworms would dry up to and die.

Here is where brilliant idea number three comes in. The Intelligent Designer noticed that ants eat snail slime because they want the moisture in it, so he made it so they also eat the cysts the snails excrete with the baby flatworms in them.

But there was another problem! Cows and sheep don't eat ants either! So it was still stuck for a way to get the baby flatworms into the sheep and cows. It now had them inside ants instead, having tried with getting them into snails and having to think up a way to get them out again.

Now came the most brilliant trick of all. It had to think of a way to get the ants eaten by cows and sheep and what do cows and sheep eat a lot of? Grass of course. But there was never going to be a way to get grass to eat baby worms.

Here is where the Intelligent Designer pulled out all the stops and really got creative. It noticed that every cyst contained lots of baby flatworms so it made one of them go to the ant's nerve centre and take control of it so it behaves in a very odd way for an ant. Normally, when it gets dark and cold, ants go back into the ant nest for the night and come back out when the sun rises. Ants who have been taken over by baby lancet flukes don't go back to the nest. Instead, they climb up a blade of grass, grip the stem tightly with their jaws so they won't be knocked off, and wait for a passing cow or sheep to eat the blade of grass, and them with it.

Voilá! The baby flatworms are back where they started - inside the cows and sheep, and occasional humans who might accidentally eat a contaminated ant and who can then become very ill. The cows and sheep can also become very ill and the quantity of meat and milk they provide for humans is reduced, and we have to be careful to cook the meat from them in case we get these parasites into our bodies.

So, how did that benefit us, which is what the Intelligent Designer wanted to do? The answer is, no body knows. Lancet flukes don't seem to do anything at all for us and can even be a problem. One theory is that the Intelligent Designer sometimes stops making everything for us and sometimes makes the world look like it was all designed for parasitic worms, or viruses, or bacteria, or grass, or tsetse flies, or any one of a million other creatures. Obviously when it designed the lancet fluke the Intelligent Designer was having a day when it hated things like snails and especially ants and wasn't thinking of cows and sheep or even us at all.

Another thing no body knows is why an Intelligent Designer would design things like these parasitic worms with such a complicated life cycle when it could have just designed them to lay eggs which hatch out where they live and not need three different hosts and several different stages before the adults get back to where their parent came from. It must be hard for people who believe in an Intelligent Designer to explain why it often acts like a really stupid one, which is probably why they normally ignore things like that.

Some mad scientists even think the Universe looks just like it wasn't designed for anything in particular and that all the different creatures have just fitted in. They even say it wasn't designed at all just because it doesn't look like it was!

But Creationists could easily prove the Intelligent Designer designed everything just for us - if only they could think of why it designed parasites like the lancet fluke, and million of other things that either don't do anything for us or even cause us a lot of harm in apparently random ways. And if only they could prove it was designed at all and could explain why it looks just the way it would if it wasn't designed and there was no intelligence or plan.

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Saturday 13 April 2013

Why Believe The Holy Books?

Is it the act of a rational person to believe the stories in the Bible or the Qur'an, or any other holy book? All you have is someone else's word for it that the events described actually happened yet you are expected to believe without question. Why is that rational just because these events were alleged to have happened a long time ago and a lot of people have believed them without question in the meantime?

Their belief didn't make the accounts come true, and they certainly didn't witness them. In effect, you are believing something highly unlikely simply because someone else did.

Why don't you do that with things you hear about today?

Try this little exercise for yourself:

Take any story you like from your holy book - stories about what the prophets did or said, or about what different tribes of people are said to have done, or stories about what a god allegedly said to someone - preferably stories which form the foundation of your faith but not necessarily so.

Now, imagine someone passing along your street told you that this event was happening right now, or had just happened, a mile down the road. Would it make any difference if this person wrote it down? Would you believe them or would you think they were deluded, mistaken or lying to you for some reason and probably selling you something?

I suggest that only the most gullible and credulous of people or the insane would believe these stories without at least asking to see the evidence, if they were reported as happening today.

Yet the people who wrote those stories down in the Bible or the Qur'an or other holy books either believed people who told them they had happened or expected other people to believe them without any available evidence. And that's exactly what you've done, if you believe those stories are actually true.

How is that different to believing the person walking along your street? More to the point, where does it leave your faith if you have no rational basis for believing the stories in your holy book?

Try the little exercise above and let me know which stories you would believe and what would convince you to take the word of a complete stranger that these extraordinary events were taking place just down the road today, without needing any evidence.

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Friday 12 April 2013

Farewell To Picasso's Child With A Dove

BBC News - Picasso's £50m Child With A Dove set to leave UK:

Sad that Picasso's Child With a Dove is to leave the UK, but what is even sadder is that this pivotal painting in Picasso's development and such an iconic painting has been bought by a private collector, which means it could disappear from public view to spend many years languishing in a bank vault.

Child With a Dove was one of the first paintings to fire my imagination and interest in art when, as child of about nine, we had a poster of it at my primary school in about 1955. We had to try to copy it. I believe it was an attempt as art education. My painting was singled out for special praise because the head mistress thought I have done the hands very nicely, which I felt a bit of a fraud about because I found that to be the hardest part to copy.

But what I saw in the painting was something which has stayed with me. I saw a child lovingly holding peace close to his/her breast (the child is actually, and I think deliberately androgynous) and treasuring it above all else, as symbolised by the forgotten toy ball on the ground. I saw it as anti-war and a tribute to the innocence of childhood.

The slaughter of World War II was then still fresh in many people's minds, including my father's who survived Dunkirk. The poor physical and mental wrecks of World War I still hobbled about on crippled feet from the trenches of Normandy, some with crippled lungs from gas and crippled minds from the horrors they endured as young men when those who could endure it no longer had summary execution for cowardice to look forward to. I remember too well when the new names from World War II were added to the war memorials which sprang up only a generation earlier in every town, village and hamlet. Child With a Dove told us we needed to hold onto our childish idealism if our generation was not to repeat the mistakes of earlier ones. Nothing is more precious than peace. Peace needs to be held gently but firmly, kept close and loved above all else. If we care more for peace than we care for toys we can make a better world.

I think Child With a Dove also influenced my political development.

Picasso was just 19 years old when he painted Child With a Dove in Paris in 1901. It represents a transition from his Impressionist style to his 'blue period' when he was probably in a sombre and reflective, even depressed mood following the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas. His blue period is characterised with experimental paintings in a Post-Impressionist but still highly figurative style depicting 'the human condition'. Child With a Dove may represent Picasso's own farewell to the naive innocence of an Andalusia childhood. The child is distinctly Andalusian in appearance. Many Andalucian people can trace a North African Berber ancestry from a time when 'al-Andalus' was the Arabic name for Spain and Andalusia was a collection of Islamic Emirates.

Pablo Picasso never seems to have forgotten that childhood love of peace and was an inveterate peace-monger, depicting as he did the horrors of war with Guernica, and later on returning to the dove motif when he designed the poster for the 1949 Paris Peace Congresss. He named his fourth child, born the day before the 1949 Peace Congress, Paloma (Dove).

Addressing the 1950 Peace Congress in Sheffield, England Picasso said, "I stand for life against death; for peace against war". Almost fifty years earlier he had said that with Child With a Dove. I hope future generation get to see it too.

'via Blog this'

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A Quickie For Bible Literalists

I'm in a bit of a quandary! There's something about the Bible I just don't understand. I'm sure a Bible literalist who believes everything in the Bible is the absolute truth because it was written by an inerrant, omniscient god can explain it to me.

You see, according to Genesis, God killed every living thing outside of Noah's Ark after telling Noah to put a male and female of every species in the Ark and then setting it afloat in a flood for a year or so.

And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female. Of fowls after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive.
Genesis 6:19-20

A little later on, when the flood has subsided, God told Noah to disembark with all the surviving animals onto an Earth from which all living things have been removed.

And God spake unto Noah, saying, Go forth of the ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons' wives with thee. Bring forth with thee every living thing that is with thee, of all flesh, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth; that they may breed abundantly in the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth.

And Noah went forth, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons' wives with him: Every beast, every creeping thing, and every fowl, and whatsoever creepeth upon the earth, after their kinds, went forth out of the ark.
Genesis 8:15-19

Okay so far? So, if we go along with this, we know the only things alive on Earth at that point were the humans and the animals which had survived the flood by being in the Ark with Noah. That all seems perfectly straightforward, if a little extreme, and notwithstanding all the technical difficulties.

Noah was disappointed that no-one turned up for his barbecue.
Where I start to get a little bit confused is with what happened next:

And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.

And the Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.

Genesis 8:20-21

No, although it is a puzzle why an omniscience inerrant god would regret doing something and promise not to do it again, that's not what baffles me here. Nor is it the time needed for Noah and his family to catch and kill all the animals needed for the sacrifice.

What baffles me is, if Noah burned one of each of every 'clean' beast - and the Bible is quite emphatic and unambiguous on that matter, leaving no room for doubt - how did the remaining one breed and why are there still 'clean' animals when Noah effectively extinguished those species as a burned offering to God, making a great deal of the effort he put into saving them in the first place, a complete waste of time and effort?

Any thoughts?

[Update 13 April 2013]
As several people have pointed out, Genesis 7:2-3 talks of seven of each clean beast, which would leave some over for sacrificing. However, Genesis 6 is quite specific that it was two of each clean and unclean and that they be paired male and female. Hence, to use the Genesis 7 defence a Bible literalist would need to implicitly accept that the Bible is at best inconsistent and ambiguous and at worst contradictory, unreliable and thus useless as a source - which is of course true.

So, is any is Bible literalist prepared to use that defence and so argue that the Bible is not the literal word of of an inerrant, omniscient god? Please feel free to use the comment section below if so.

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How Embarrassing! Where Is The Fossil Evidence?

Grand Canyon. Where is the Flood fossil layer?
No, not that fossil evidence! The fossil evidence for Evolution is abundant for those not too afraid to look for and at it. In fact, every fossil is evidence for it to those who understand what Evolution is and how it works. The fossil evidence I'm asking for is the evidence that would be there if the Bible is a true account of history, and in particular, if the Noah's Ark story really happened as described in Genesis 6-8.

What we are required to believe is that, apart from a few specimens of each species on the Ark, every living thing on earth was killed almost instantaneously:

And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man: All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died. And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.
Genesis 7:21-23

Thursday 11 April 2013

What To Do With A Spent Loon?

Regular readers here and followers of the #atheism hashtag on Twitter will have heard of 'Sacerdotus' which is one of the many pseudonyms of an unemployed narcissistic, probably psychotic loon who spends most of every day boasting about his academic qualifications, claiming to hold various university degrees, tweeting and blogging about how he's about to 'destroy Atheism' and fantasising about being a Catholic seminarian about to qualify for the priesthood, whilst simultaneously displaying his crass ignorance about almost everything. In fact, he was expelled from St Joseph's Seminary, New York shortly after 2003 because of gross misconduct, thus ending his clerical career and simultaneously rendering himself unemployable.

Readers may also be aware that he has developed something of a psychotic obsession with me, inventing lurid tales of child abuse and terrorist activities and posting them on his blog. He also, rather pathetically, desperately tries to convince people that I have declined to debate him despite the fact that the record of his public display of cowardice in running away from my challenge to him to engage me in open debate can still be read in Debate: Is There Scientific Evidence Only For The Christian God?. I had challenged him to establish his claim to have scientific evidence proving the existence of the Christian god. The topic of the debate, which, had it been won would have established his claim, together with simple terms for ensuring transparency and unbiased moderation, and reducing his opportunity for his usual obfuscation, avoidance and quibbling over the meaning of words as a diversion, was laid out for discussion. As expected, his boasting proved to be empty and he refused to even discuss the terms, let alone producing anything resembling the scientific evidence he claimed to have or engage in anything resembling meaningful debate. It seems that the idea of open debate in a neutral forum is terrifying to him.

Following that public humiliation, 'Sacerdotus' went on a spree of abusive posts on Twitter, setting up impersonations of my account to post sexually explicit obscenities, campaigning to have me banned from Twitter, accusing me of being behind a conspiracy to have all Christians banned from the Internet, and issuing threats of violence resulting in Twitter intervening to take down all his accounts and any new ones, pending an undertaking to observe the rules he signed up to on joining. He was placed on special monitoring to ensure compliance. At the same time there were several crude and inept attempts to hack my Twitter account by changing the password.

In the traditional style of a deranged psychotic, he frequently claims to have provided reports to the FBI, NYPD and something called 'The UK Authorities' on my 'terrorist' activities allegedly provided by his many 'contacts' who he says are watching me, presumably imagining 'The UK Authorities' would need his assistance and that of his team of 'contacts' if any of this were true. No doubt in pre-word processor times these 'reports' would have been written in green ink and signed "A Consernd Cityzen".

So, having initially spotted 'Sacerdotus' as an inept, infantile fraud ripe for plucking, so to speak, and recruited him to help me discredit religion in general and Catholicism in particular, by putting him on a public stage for all to witness his dishonesty and ineptitude in the name of Jesus and Catholicism, what to do about him now?

He has just spectacularly failed yet another simple challenge in which he only needed to answer an easy question exploring a fundamental tenet of Christianity (see here). It's now become something of a sport on Twitter to challenge 'Sacerdotus' to a debate to see what excuses he will come up with next, or even if he will acknowledge having seen the challenge.

I have many more such questions which would also show his cowardly disingenuousness, but is there any point to this? Does it help further the cause of Atheism and to discredit Catholicism more (is that even possible after all the recent scandals?) to continue to expose this sad fraud who probably has a personality disorder or Dunning-Kruger Syndrome, and is possibly mentally ill, and who has probably outlived his use-by date as an example of the harm religion does to people?

Or should I just ignore him from now on, consigning him to the obscurity he probably fears most, bearing in mind that the reactions he gets on Twitter are probably his only means of self-affirmation and the only way he has to measure his perceived importance to the world, no matter how distorted that perception is?

I have prepared this little questionnaire. I will leave it up for a week. Please let me know your thoughts.

Now 'Sacerdotus' has spectacularly failed another simple challenge from me what should I do?

pollcode.com free polls

[Update 19 April 2013]

Voting is now closed.

With the vote being 55:45 in favour of ignoring the infantile fool, serial Internet abuser and sociopath, Manuel de Dios Agosto, aka @Sacerdotus, in future he will now be ignored by me no matter what username he uses. I suggest others do likewise as that would seem to be the only way to help him control his psychotic behaviour.

It just remains for me to thank him for the sterling work he did for me, albeit unwittingly, in helping to discredit religion in general and Catholicism in particular. Would Manuel be the obnoxious little excrescence he is today if it hadn't been for the Catholic Church? Nice one Manuel.

PS. Just one last thing, for anyone who is tempted to believe Manuel's denial that he is the Manuel de Dios Agosto who was expelled from St Joseph's Seminary, and his claim that Manuel de Dios Agosto is a young child: here is the account by Claudia McDonnell of the announcement by Bishop Garmendia of New York in New York Catholic that Manuel de Dios Agosto was to be admitted to a Franciscan seminary. The Franciscan seminary in New York is St. Joseph's. The New York Catholic site was archived on 2 February 2003 so clearly this announcement was made more than ten years ago. Manuel left the now closed (for low academic standards) Grace H Dodge school in 2000 when he would have been 16. There is no formal lower age limit for admission to seminary but this is not normally before age 18, which would mean Manuel entered seminary in 2002 - consistent with the site being archived in 2003. Assuming Manuel was indeed 18 years-old at the time, this would make him 31 years old now. Although very clearly mentally still a minor, Manuel is chronologically not the minor he likes to pretend.

In fact, by trying to involve an unfortunate child who has the misfortune to share Manuel's name and who Manuel found on the Internet, by using him to divert attention from his psychotic fantasies and abject failure to ever substantiate a single one of his claims, is tantamount to the very child abuse he accuses others of.

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Sunday 7 April 2013

Another Embarrassment For Christians

Here's a fine how-do-you-do and no mistake.

Just when Christians are fighting a desperate rearguard action against the headlong advance of science by arguing that there is no incompatibility between religion and science despite the fact that science has answered so many of the 'mysteries' which were once quoted as the main or only reasons to believe in gods, along comes an American Christian fundamentalist organisation and pulls the rug out from under their feet.

Not content with that, they do it in spectacular style by having their Bible-based 'science' declared unscientific by losing a law suit against a university on the basis that what they were teaching in schools was not science. Moreover, this viewpoint was stupidly confirmed by their star 'expert' witness, a leading advocate for the ironically named, 'Intelligent Design' movement, who also inadvertently accused them of child abuse and violating their students' personal integrity and, by implication, their constitutional rights.

Earliest Human Ancestor Confirmed

Brain Shape Confirms Controversial Fossil as Oldest Human Ancestor | Observations, Scientific American Blog Network

A fascinating article appears in this week's Scientific American confirming that a seven million year-old fossil skull, nicknamed Toumaï, found in Djurab Desert in Chad, Africa and announced in 2002, may well be the oldest known ancestor of Homo sapiens. The species the skull was from had been given the name Sahelanthropus tchadensis (Sahel ape from Chad) after the Sahel area of Africa, a fertile area immediately south of the Sahara and, in more recent human history, believed to be an important migration route for human groups moving between the Nile and West Africa.

The discoverers, a team lead by Michel Brunet, a paleontologist at the University of Poitiers, France, had always claimed that the skull was from a species close to the point of departure of Homo and Pan (Chimpanzees) but the question was on which branch of the diverging tree it should be placed - in other words was it the skull of a hominin or an ape.

Now Thibaut Bienvenu of the Collège de France and his colleagues have manages to reconstruct the endocast of the inside of the brain case and so infer the shape of the brain which once occupied it. They did this by imaging it with 3D X-ray synchrotron microtomography, which is a technique based on high-energy x-rays produced by electrons accelerated in a sychrocyclotron, which have enough power to smash through hard materials such as the mineral matrix which filled the interior of the skull.

This technique produces a computer image which when processed to remove the matrix and allow for deformity of the skull, showed unmistakeable signs of a hominin brain the size of that of a chimpanzee:

The resulting virtual reconstruction of the endocast reveals that Toumaï had a cranial capacity of 378 cubic centimeters—consistent with earlier estimates. This puts it within the range of chimp cranial capacity. In comparison, modern humans have brains around three times larger than that. But though Toumaï’s brain was apelike in its small size, it was apparently homininlike in other ways. In a presentation given on April 2 at the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society, Bienvenu reported that the endocast shows strongly posteriorly projecting occipital lobes, a tilted brainstem, and a laterally expanded prefrontal cortex, among other hominin brain characteristics.

The tilted brainstem, together with the position of the foramen magnum (the hole in the base of the skull through which the spinal cord passes) show signs of evolution towards a bipedal gait. This also tells us that bipedalism and brain reorganisation preceded human intelligence and had begun at least 6 million years ago.

It will be interesting to see how Creationists, if they don't studiously ignore it altogether or dismiss it as a forgery, cope with this find which, if ever there was an example of a 'transitional fossil' between chimpanzee and humans, this is it. Will they point to the disagreement between paleoanthroplogists about whether this is an ape or a hominin as an example of how science is never certain about anything (as though that somehow discredits science) or will they point out that Sahelanthropus tchadensis still had a long way to go before it was unmistakeably Homo sapiens?

This difficulty in telling one from the other is precisely what we would expect of an early human ancestor close to the divergence of humans from chimpanzees. We would expect it to have characteristics of both and characteristics such as the heavy brow ridges which have been retained in chimps, are present in many other early hominids but which are absent in most humans today. As we move back in time towards when the distinction between any two diverging species was blurred, so we expect the difficulty in distinguishing between them to increase and revolve around finer points of detail, and with that, the arguments to be less easy to resolve. This is science.

The 'argument' about whether this species was an ape or a human is entirely semantic of course, because, biologically, it's an argument about whether this species was a chimpanzee ape of a hominin ape.

See also, An Ancestor to Call Our Own [Preview]

'via Blog this'

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Friday 5 April 2013

God's Inerrant Omniscience Revisited

I wonder if Christians can do any better now.

Almost three years ago I wrote a blog pointing out the logical impossibility of an omniscient, inerrant god coexisting with free will - see On The Logical Fallacy Of God's Inerrant Omniscience. Despite several comments varying in absurdity, and many comments demonstrating a lack of logical thinking, no one has yet managed to refute the logic of my argument.

It might be worth recapping the salient point again, to see if any believers can explain how these two central tenets of Christian dogma, which appear to be mutually contradictory, are logically consistent. Failing that, perhaps an explanation of how holding two mutually contradictory beliefs simultaneously is not indicative of intellectual dishonesty and of the self-deceiving nature of the mental process involved in religious faith.

To recap:
  • An omniscient (all-knowing) god would know every detail of your future, including the outcome of all decisions you will ever make. It will have known this for eternity. If not, then it isn't omniscient.
  • An inerrant god would never be wrong so it cannot 'know' something which turns out to be untrue.
  • Given these two conditions, it is not possible for you to make a decision which this god has not always known you will make.
  • Given these two conditions, such a god can not 'know' a decision which you do not in fact make.

To apply this to a trivial, everyday example: suppose this god has always known that you will have eggs for breakfast tomorrow. Can you chose not to have eggs and have cereal, or toast or waffles, or anything else instead, or even decide to skip breakfast altogether? If you do, this god cannot be omniscient. If you can't, you do not have free will.

Remember, this god can't, as some have argued, 'know' all your possible decisions so whichever you chose will be right. This would mean that whatever decision you make, the god would be wrong about all the others. In fact, given that there are masses of possible 'right' answers for every real right one, it would be far more often wrong than right - which is never good for the reputation of an 'omniscient' god.

But, if you believe in a god like this and also believe you have free will, how can you do something your god hasn't always known you will do? If you can't, in what sense of the word 'free' do you have free will?

Here then is a simple challenge for Christians (Muslims and Jews who believe in the same god might like to try it too):
Give a single example of someone exercising free will by not doing something an omniscient, inerrant, eternal god would always have known they would do.

Or give a single example of someone exercising free will by doing something an omniscient, inerrant, eternal god would not always have known they would do.

Simple, eh? All you have to do is to give a single example of something happening that is central to your faith, and which you have probably taken for granted.

Why is this important?

Because, if the Christian god isn't omniscient it doesn't know what's going on and is not in control of the Universe. Such a god is not worth praying to because, to change events it would have to be aware of them and in full control of them. This god would be a mere observer, having no more power than the spectators at a ball game have.

If you don't have free will, then everything about the Universe is pre-determined. It makes not one iota of difference what you do or say and you cannot be held responsible for anything you do, let alone be accountable for the 'original sin'. There is no 'sin', no need for you to seek 'redemption', no need for forgiveness of sin, and so no reason for Jesus. Whatever you do or say was merely what you were predestined to do or say.

Curiously, this is actually pretty much what the Bible says too:

So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them.

All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.

As it is with the good, so with the sinful;
as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them.

This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. Anyone who is among the living has hope — even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten.

Ecclesiastes 9:1-5:

In other words, unless you can meet this simple challenge and resolve the fatal contradiction between free will and an omniscient, inerrant god, you have no basis for your faith because your faith has no basis and the Bible has lied about one or the other, or both.

The other little problem for Christians (and Muslims and Jews for that matter) is that if the presence of an omniscient god means there is no free will, then that also holds true for gods. An omniscient god must also exist in a predestined Universe and so would have no free will either.

A god with no free will is no god at all. A god with no free will cannot have decided to create anything.

Another little problem for Christians of course, is that if they can't answer these questions they are showing the world, even if they can't admit it to themselves, that they know their 'faith' is phoney.

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