31 January 2010

I wrote another letter to William Lane Craig

After my last post, I bopped over to Craig's website Reasonablefaith.org, and used his Q&A box to send him a question challenging his views on objective morality. If I get a response, I'll publish it on this blog, though I doubt I will. Here's the text of the letter:


Dr. Craig,

My question concerns your argument for objective morality. Your argument is as follows:

1. If God does not exist, objective morality does not exist
2. Objective morality exists
3. Therefor, God exists.

If we assume that morality is "objective", why must its objectivity be necessarily derived from "God"? Why couldn't morality be intrinsically objective, or, if it need derive its objectivity from some extrinsic source, can its objectivity not be derived from a natural cause, or from one of any infinite number of arbitrary supernatural causes?

Secondly, your assumption that morality is "objective" seems rooted in the idea that we have shared intuitions about what is right and wrong. However, intuitions, even those we share with others, are by definition subjective experiences. Objectivity implies the ability to verify something independently of subjective experience.

Surely our intuitions give us a great deal of invaluable information about the world. But anyone who's studied the weirdness of quantum mechanics or general relativity knows that intuition alone is insufficient to objectively acquire knowledge – which is why we have science, which is the systematic acquisition of knowledge through observation, measurement and experimentation.

If morality is objective and derived from God, then it should be absolute – fixed and unchanging. But that is not what we observe throughout human culture, and it's not even what we observe in the Bible.

In the Bible, God commands genocide, condones slavery, and commands that women be stoned to death if they don't have a hymen on their wedding night or they do not cry out for help when they are raped (Deut 22). Are there any *easier* moral questions than "should people own people", "should people systematically slaughter other people", or "should we execute women for having a torn hymen or for being  raped"? And yet, the God of the Bible gets the answers to these questions completely backwards.

In your critique on the slaughter of the Canaanites in a previous Q&A, you provide what you believe to be ample circumstantial justification for God commanding the Isrealites to commit genocide and child murder. Well, you can't have it both ways; you cannot claim God's morality is absolute, then paradoxically assert that such atrocities of inhumanity as genocide, slavery and the barbaric execution of rape victims are circumstantially justified. Most tellingly, when you assume that position, you invalidate your argument that our moral intuitions can be objectively reliable; for if God can command us to do things that are intrinsically *counter* to our moral intuitions – like stone rape victims and slaughter children – then we must assume that either God is wrong, or that our moral intuitions are objectively unreliable.

Why cannot morality be better explained as a sociocultural manifestation of behaviors that are evolutionarily hard-wired, particularly traits that are not unique to humans, such as empathy and altruism? We are, as a species, innately bonded and interdependent. If we fail to cooperate, we die. Cooperative group living is, for us, not a choice, but a survival strategy. We implicitly recognize the value of human solidarity: that if we do not respect the needs and interests of others, others have no need to respect our own needs and interests.

Such a view of morality is wholly consistent with scientific observation, and avoids both the paradoxical absolutism you espouse and the nihilism you erroneously associate with moral relativism.

I understand you will not likely have the time or inclination to respond, but I do appreciate that you provide a forum for inquiry on your website, and for giving me the opportunity to challenge you.

Sincerely,

Mike D

Do atheists think believers are less intelligent?

Let me set the record straight: William Lane Craig annoys the crap out of me. He's loud, pompous, hubristic, and his philosophical arguments are so riddled with baseless assumptions, blind assertions and non sequiturs that I'm aghast that anyone actually takes him seriously.

But a friend of mine posted this video on Facebook today, and as I often do when I watch "Dr" Craig's videos, the lunacy is so abundant that I feel compelled to respond.



First, a few things to note. On the Youtube page where this video is found, from the user "drcraigvideos", comments and ratings are disabled. As usual, with Christians. Secondly, the video is edited such that the atheist's response is not shown, and in the video, the host, to my eyes, is clearly playing favorites with Craig.

But on to the meat of the issue. Craig, as usual, commits a litany of fallacies in a remarkably short period of time.

It's worth asking what, exactly, Craig is trying to prove here. He says he's a philosopher, and he doesn't buy the "new atheist" arguments; he goes on to say that there are many well-regarded philosophers in prestigious universities like Oxford who do not buy the atheist arguments. This is a fallacy of the appeal to authority, and if Craig is correct about this "renaissance" of Christian apologists, the fallacy of the appeal to the majority. Just because an intelligent, educated person believes this or that does not make it so. I do not accept Dawkins' or Harris' arguments because of the academic stature, oratory skills general intellectual abilities. I accept their arguments because, on close examination, I find them to be logically consistent and valid. Craig is clearly a perfectly smart guy – though in my opinion not as smart as he thinks he is – but his intellect or academic stature, or lack thereof depending on your point of view, has nothing to do with whether his arguments are valid.

It's worth noting that I've never heard any of the "new atheists", at least any of the famous ones, declare that theists are less intelligent than they are. I'm sure there are people who hold that position, but it seems to me that in this case, Craig is guilty of the exact same intellectual hubris of which he accuses atheists. In fact, Richard Dawkins has explicitly stated the opposite in numerous interviews, and the explanation I'm going to give is, I'm certain, along the same lines.

There is a distinction between things like intelligence, education, and our use of reasoning. Just because someone is intelligent does not mean they are educated about a certain subject. And just because someone is intelligent and educated about this or that subject does not mean they apply proper reasoning. William Lane Craig is not a dullard, nor is he uneducated, but his application of reasoning is terrible. His philosophical arguments are, without exception, riddled with assumptions and non sequiturs.

Why would this be the case? It's because, as Richard Dawkins would surely say, Craig – like most theists – is guilty of a kind of intellectual compartmentalization in which supernatural claims about reality are not subject to the same kinds of rigorous skeptical inquiry to which he would subject any other kinds of claims about reality. For example, Craig's arguments about the historicity of the Bible are based on the Bible. Those of us not deeply steeped in confirmation bias can see the circularity of using the Bible to validate the historicity of the Bible. But Craig persists in such arguments, as he has for many years.

My brother is exceptionally intelligent. But he's also a Christian. I don't think him a fool; rather, I think that he has just failed to dispassionately and critically examine the claims of his faith, largely because of the deep social ties that permeate the practice of his beliefs. The key to my deconversion from Christianity was my ability to skeptically critique the arguments for Christianity, and to consider counter-arguments with no thought to the outcome. I don't think that this makes me more intelligent or better educated than my brother, but it means that I have applied reasoning in areas where I don't think he has.

Finally, I think that Craig commits a fallacy with the implicit assumption that philosophy and theology are academic disciplines on par with scientific disciplines. The reality is that all attempt to make claims about reality, but only science has a systematic method for the acquisition and application of knowledge; theology, by definition, requires one to begin inquiry with an immutable conclusion. For that reason, it is an intellectual endeavor that is doomed to stagnation.





Let us pray

Last September at my brother's wedding in Los Angeles, which was an especially religious ceremony, many prayers were said thanking God for bringing my brother and his wife together, for bringing all the families together in "fellowship", etc. etc. I have many religious friends on Facebook, and I've noticed that whenever someone is sick, injured or dying, the immediate reaction is, "I'll be praying for you." Ultra-conservative republicans have been holding "prayercasts" in the hopes that God will strike down health care reform, and there are numerous Facebook groups with names like "Pray for Haiti", many with tens of thousands of members.

What strikes me as odd about this sort of behavior is the implicit assumption that God is in control of all things, and that he may choose to help someone if it is in accordance with his will. Since no one knows what God's will is, people pray. But if God is just going to do what he wills anyway, and if no one knows what that will actually is, how is praying to God any different than praying to... well, to nothing at all?

I also find it truly bizarre that this all-powerful God would make sure my brother met his wife and that our families and friends could get together for steak dinners and an extravagant wedding, yet ignore the pleas of the 75,000 homeless people in Los Angeles. And whenever someone talks of praying to God for his aid in healing injuries, terminal diseases, or relieving the suffering of victims of natural disasters, I can't help but ask, simply, why these tragedies happened in the first place.

Marc Hauser, Harvard professor of psychology and evolutionary biology, in his excellent book Moral Minds, explains that we have a favorable bias toward acts of omission versus acts of commission. Consider, for example, that the American Medial Association forbids euthanasia – ending another's life to relieve their suffering – even when the patient wishes it. However, the AMA does not forbid the termination of artificial life support. In the first scenario, we are taking an explicit action to end someone's life; in the second scenario, we are neglecting to take actions within our power to preserve someone's life.

People seem to give God a similar kind of pass. When God, who supposedly is both all-powerful and does not wish for us to suffer, simply neglects to relieve someone of their suffering – or, better still, prevent them from suffering in the first place – even though he can, we act as though God is not to blame. We make it no fault of God's that people die of cancer, famine, disease, or natural disasters. The implication is that God didn't actually cause these disasters, even though it was well within his power to prevent them. It's certainly more palatable to believe that God is complacent rather than malicious, but believers should ask themselves why they don't hold complacency in equal contempt.

28 January 2010

The morality of the Bible: God commands his people to execute rape victims

There are countless verses in the Bible that any sensible modern person would absolutely detest: genocide, child murder, slavery, and the most vile misogyny imaginable. It's often entertaining to watch Christians squirm away as they try to find plausible rationalizations for some of these scriptures since they fly in the face of our modern sense of moral solidarity.

It's tough to pick a winner for most vile Bible verse, since there are oh so many from which to choose, but pretty much all of Deuteronomy 22 is a front runner. In the Bible, women are not equals of men. They are property. A marriage in ye olden tymes was not a commitment between two free and equal partners, but a gift from one man to another – one man gave the property "daughter" to become the other man's property "wife". Women's absolute subjugation in those times is evident throughout Deuteronomy 22. In verses 20 and 21, God says that if you can't find "proof" of a woman's virginity on her wedding night, she is to be stoned to death. Did she tear her hymen riding a horse? Was she raped as a child? Did she masturbate a little too aggressively? Well, she's SOL.

But the most vile, evil, despicable section in Deut. 22 are undoubtedly verses 23 and 24:
23 If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, 24 you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the girl because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man's wife. You must purge the evil from among you.
In other words, if a woman is being raped, and she does not scream for help loud enough to be heard, she has disgraced her family and must be stoned to death. And in case you were wondering, stoning someone to death is not a mercy killing. I challenge anyone who may think otherwise to watch the film The Stoning of Soraya M. Stoning someone to death is torture. So, according to the almighty, perfectly loving creator of the Bible, a rape victim deserves to die a grueling, painful death. This is precisely because the woman in this case is not a free, equal individual. She's just one man's property, and like any "thing", she can be wantonly and whimsically discarded. 


When confronted by the shocking barbarism of the Old Testament, Christians will defend it in two ways. First, they'll say that because of Jesus, nobody has to obey Old Testament law; Jesus created a new covenant with humankind. Secondly, they'll say that all that horrible barbarism that God commanded was the right thing for the culture at the time. Both of these arguments miss the side of the barn.

The issues here are more than just cultural customs; they're fundamental ideas about the value of human life. Are there any easier moral "questions" than things like, "should you own another person" or "should you torture and execute a woman for being a victim of rape"? And yet the God of the Bible gets the answers to these questions ass backwards. Sorry Christians, you don't get to have it both ways: you can't claim that God's morality is absolute, and then try to rationalize the cruelest acts of inhumanity by saying they were circumstantially justified. Any fool can see such arguments for their transparent hypocrisy, and that is why the Bible is not a source of moral guidance for any sensible modern individual.

23 January 2010

Sex, religion, and waiting for marriage

My brother, three years my senior, got married last September. I'm sort of the black sheep of the family; my parents and my brother are all quite religious. It was, in fact, my brother who drew me into the vile claws of evangelical Christianity as a teenager. He's thankfully not a demon-exorcising, gibberish-speaking, faith-healing nut like we were once upon a time (at least as far as I know), but he's still pretty devout, and he met his wife when they were part of the music worship team at their church. Their wedding absolutely oozed religion from every pore – breaks for prayer, breaks for corny contemporary worship songs, and vows overflowing with references to the mystical, Jesus-centric nature of their marital bond.

So it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that, as I had suspected and my brother confirmed to me shortly before the wedding, they had indeed saved themselves for marriage. Well, at least with each other. They're both in their 30s, so I don't think any modern person can get that far without having sex, save for socially inept goofs like Fred, the 45-year-old virgin from the first season of VH1's The Pickup Artist. Nonetheless, including the time of their engagement, they were together for about two years before they tied the knot. That's a long time to be in a monogamous relationship without getting naked. Obviously, being an atheist, I don't have any religious reason to hold off for marriage. I haven't in any of my past relationships whether they lasted years or hours, and though I'm currently single, I definitely won't be waiting for marriage in any future relationships.

But it's not just because I'm not religious. I fundamentally disagree with the notion of waiting for marriage to have sex; I think it's detrimental to a relationship, and sex is too central a part of a long-term relationship to neglect it for months or years, then suddenly pick it up and expect everything to go smoothly. In fact, when it really boils down to it, that's exactly what a long-term monogamous relationship is: two people are agreeing to be mutually responsible for each others' sexual fulfillment. It's not something to be taken lightly, and it's not something that exists in a vacuum independently from the rest of the relationship.

Sex plays not just a role, but a central role in any monogamous relationship: it's central to how you bond emotionally, how you resolve conflict, and how you reinforce your bond during difficult times. The idea of waiting for marriage places sex in a distinct category as though it can be developed distinctly from the other major areas of the relationship; it can't. Sex requires an open, non-judgmental, ongoing dialogue throughout the relationship. People who wait for marriage to have sex are failing to develop the most central component of their relationship, both pragmatically (i.e., likes and dislikes) and in the broader context of its influence in all aspects of the relationship. And before someone objects and says sex isn't a central component in a relationship, consider simply that there are lots of people – often of the opposite sex – that we are very close to, with whom we share very intimate bonds but with whom we do not have sexual relationships. They're called friends.

Of course, people like my brother who wait for marriage can certainly still have very fulfilling sexual relationships if they work hard at establishing that communication. But they will still have to overcome the fact that the sexual component of their relationship is significantly lagging behind the rest of their relationship, and that is no small problem to tackle. And while I'm sure the "honeymoon" period will be as rabbit-like as any, it's really the months and years ahead that will present the biggest challenge, and that is when the lack of sexual development during the dating phase will come around to challenge the relationship.

There was a time when waiting for marriage was simply the pragmatic thing to do. There was no birth control, so if a man was having sex with a woman, he was probably fathering her children. Accordingly, women didn't usually have careers and people got married when they were very young and naive. But nowadays, with women achieving independence and waiting much longer before getting hitched, it's become that much more important to pay attention to sexual compatibility as the backbone of any long-term monogamous relationship. Committing to fulfilling your partner's sexual needs is no small responsibility, and those who begin the dialogue early and explore their sexual connection responsibly and openly are taking greater steps to ensure the long-term happiness and security of their relationship.

22 January 2010

Bringing a cultural atheist into the flock is hard

I have a handful of friends and acquaintances from Europe – specifically, parts of Europe that are far more secular than the United States, and countries in which it is just as normal to be an atheist as it is to be a Christian here in the States. I remember a conversation I had with a fellow atheist friend of mine from Serbia. When she moved to the U.S., a friend of hers took her to church and tried to convert her. Suffice to say that she was unpersuaded, and remains an atheist today. And recently, a client of mine was telling me about her husband, from Denmark, who was similarly unimpressed by attempts to bring him into the flock.

As I pondered this, I started to think that there is a good reason for the stubbornness of these people. It's certainly not because they are simply incredulous; in every story told to me, these people practically pleaded for some kind of evidence to substantiate the claims being made. Then I thought back to my favorite apologist punching bag, William Lane Craig. He's the guy who goes around trying to make philosophical arguments to prove the existence of the Christian god. The funny thing is though that even though he has a website called "Reasonable Faith" and he tends to use scientific terminology like "logic" and "evidence", he's basically a Christian because he had a spiritual experience as a youngster. That's it. He's even gone so far as to suggest that even if all his arguments were discredited, he would still be a believer. Which is obviously true, because his arguments are retarded and have been repeatedly discredited. Anyway...

I think there's a pattern here. When I talk to devout Christian friends of mine, I find that they are simply impervious to reason. It seems that no amount of evidence is sufficient, and that no matter how confounded they are by the philosophical conundrums with which their faith inevitably burdens them, they still believe just as passionately as a newly "born again" sheep. Most people like me arrived at their non-belief through a careful, studied examination of the evidence. But believers, just like I had been once upon a time, are influenced by a tremendous amount of sociocultural pressure. They don't arrive at their faith by reading C.S. Lewis books; no, the McGraths and Craigs and Lewises of the world are for people who already believe. Instead, people come to the faith because it's deeply embedded in their sociocultural surroundings. Their family teaches it, their friends practice it.

But those who are influenced by such powerful sociocultural pressures tend to overlook the logical absurdities that are mandatory requirements for walking the path of faith. They tend not to ponder why they should believe they have a soul, why they should believe in a theistic god, why their wrongdoings offend this god, why blood sacrifice should have anything to do with forgiveness, or why they should accept the magical stories in the Bible as historical fact whilst dismissing the magical stories of innumerable other cultures as mere mythology.

Cultural atheists – that is, people like my Serbian friend who hails from a place where there is far less (if any) sociocultural pressure to accept supernatural magic as infallible truth. Thus, they tend to treat theistic claims about reality the same way they treat any other claim about reality – as claims whose credibility is contingent upon evidence.

21 January 2010

Why I don't take the Bible seriously

It seems like whenever non-believers debate Christians about the historicity of the Bible, they point out the obvious things that even Christians should know (not that they do). Like the fact that the gospels were written decades after these events purportedly happened, the fact that they all have internal contradictions, or the fact that the gospels make historical claims unsupported by any contemporaneous evidence – like Herod commanding the mass murder of children. But, theists have concocted plenty of canned responses to all these. I've never seen any responses that I find remotely persuasive, but that's not important. None of those arguments really have anything to do with why I don't buy what's in the Bible.

It's debatable whether the gospels are actually eye-witness accounts. But let's assume for the sake of argument that they are. Well, if you've paid any attention to the courts over the last few decades with the advent of DNA evidence and new research into human psychology, there's one thing we know with very good certainty: eye witness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Even if the gospels are eye witness accounts, that's not exactly a powerful testament to their reliability.

But here's the real doozy. Consider though that we can turn on the TV and watch Benny Hinn and Sathya Sai Baba "healing" people. We can see John Edward (well... in reruns) claiming to talk with people's deceased relatives. Horoscopes are still published in the newspapers, and people still go to fortune tellers and psychics. There are actually schools in India that claim to teach people how to levitate. In other words, people believe in all kinds of ridiculous nonsense today, in our scientifically advanced world. Why on earth would we assume that people 2,000 years ago would be any less prone to believing stupid things?

The Civil War

A Christian friend of mine challenged me on the historicity of the Bible by saying that if I dismissed the Bible, I'd have to dismiss other historical events too. After all, he said, why should the historical accounts in the Bible be treated differently than any other historical events, such as. say, the Civil War? But here's the thing. Even if there were eye witness accounts of Jesus – and I really don't see the claim that the gospels are eye witness accounts as anything more than a bald assertion – there are some key differences between accounts of something like the Civil War and accounts of Jesus.

Like for starters, no one has ever told me that if I don't believe a particular account of the Civil War, my eternal soul will be tormented for eternity in a lake of fire. No one's ever claimed that the Union won the war with their ability to revive dead comrades and walk on water. No one's ever told me that General Grant won the war because he loves me and wants me to live in an unsegregated society, and that if I believe in him my soul will live forever with him in the great Civil War museum in the sky. And importantly, no one has ever asserted that any account of any event in the Civil War must be taken as infallible truth. And of course, there is a vast ocean more of actual evidence that the Civil War happened than there is for any event in the Bible. Archeologists haven't even found evidence that the Jews were ever in Egypt, and that's kind of a big one.

See, it's not just that the Bible makes historical claims that are support by dubious evidence – or no evidence at all. It's that it makes supernatural claims. If you're going to argue that the Bible is historically true, you have to be able to explain why we should show any special favoritism toward the supernatural claims made by the Bible whilst dismissing the innumerable supernatural claims made by countless religions, cultures and nutcases throughout human history.



I think it's perfectly reasonable to believe that there was someone like Jesus. Maybe his name wasn't even Jesus. But it's perfectly probable that there was a Rabbi, a teacher, etc., who had a number of followers and who lived in Israel around 2,000 years ago. But did he walk on water and turn water into wine? Did he ascend bodily into the sky? Was he God? That stuff is a fair bit less probable.

19 January 2010

It's always easier to lie to yourself with your fingers in your ears

A Christian friend of mine of Facebook linked to a number of articles from a website called The American Vision, which is a remarkably facepalm-inducing collection of credulity and ignorance. The articles my friend posted were about evolution, filled with the same old fallacies and creationist stupidity that has been slapped down over and over again by people who know better.

One of the articles, typically, conflated cosmology with evolution. There was a dissenting comment, with a response by an administrator saying the post violated "rule 1-1", and the dissenter had been banned. So, I looked up "rule 1-1". Brace yourself:

1-1 First and foremost, there will be no debating over the existence of God. The operating presupposition in these forums is and always will be "In the beginning God." Jesus is God and Son of God and Holy Spirit and the three are one and the same. There will be no debating over anything related to this. God is the only God and Christianity is the only true religion. There is only one way for Salvation and that is through faith in Jesus Christ and His saving grace. The entire Bible is God's Word and is truth. All are welcome to join and learn and ask questions about this wonderful truth, but anything deviating from the furthering of a Christian Worldview will not be tolerated.
This should be disturbingly familiar to anyone who watches theological videos on Youtube. Ever notice that videos by atheists have ratings and comments enabled, while videos by theists more often than not have ratings disabled and comments are often either disabled or require approval? There's a disturbing pattern here of stifling dissent.

When I was an evangelical Christian, I was told not to listen to secular (or "worldly") music, not to read non-Christian books, not to watch secular television or R-rated movies, etc. etc. The idea was that these things were embedded with ideologies that would corrupt my mind and lead me from the flock. Funny thing is, they were right. But not for the reasons they thought they were.

See, atheists often self-identify as "free thinkers" for a reason. We welcome dissenting views. The truth will always stand up to scrutiny, and no one who cares about it has anything to fear from opposing views. When I was a Christian, I actively sought out opposing views because I wanted to be stronger in my faith. I figured that if my faith were really the rock I believed it to be, it would ultimately hold up under the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny.

Of course, that did not happen. Christianity falls apart under skeptical inquiry, and the fearful, reactionary minds of believers expressed in such incredulous idiocy as the above statement shows that people of faith do, at some level, perceive the absurdity of what they practice. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, one I found by an anonymous poster on an internet forum:

Theology is immune to progress because it is the only intellectual endeavor that requires us to begin with an immutable conclusion.

17 January 2010

How to spot intellectual bullshit

As a fitting addendum to my previous blog, I thought I'd mention that I'm a big fan of Eddie Current. If you're not familiar with him, he does some very funny, incisive religious satire videos on Youtube. I also follow his blog on MySpace, and he made this fantastic chart on which I think many "alternative medicines" would fit very nicely. You have to read the whole blog to get the context for the rogue physicist, but it's still great stuff.


How to spot a pseudoscience

We're living in a time when, despite the rapid advancement of science over the last century, pseudoscience is as rampant as it's ever been. You'd think we'd be past the point of using words like "tonic" and "elixir", but all you have to do is pop open the Sunday paper to find plenty of ads for health tonics, anti-aging creams, and all kinds of other nonsense – not to mention the rapid rise of pseudoscientific practices like acupuncture, massage "therapy", homeopathy, quantum healing, or the granddaddy of them all, chiropractic, pseudoscience is as popular as ever.


Bogus products


It helps, when spotting a pseudoscience, to differentiate between products and treatments. Pseudoscientific products simply make bogus claims. For example, there is absolutely no law whatsoever preventing me from dropping a few random herbs in a pill and calling it a "fat burner". As I mentioned in my recent post about the supplement industry, supplement manufactures are not required to prove either their claims or the safety of their product before bringing it to market. But it's not just supplements; how much research, really, do you think is behind any anti-aging cream, or even fancy shampoos? The answer is of course very little, if any. For this reason, any product making bold, non-medical claims should be treated with a great deal of skepticism.

It's also becoming popular for companies to claim that they conduct their own research, or that their product is "based on" research. Don't fall for it. If a company puts ten, twenty or even two active ingredients in their health "elixir", even a well-designed study would be unable to isolate which ingredients had any effect. Good research is done by independent scientific institutions on specific substances, and takes many years of repeatedly verified research. For example, there is good research showing that creatine monohydrate enhances performance for athletes doing high-intensity exercise. But now creatine is sold in a myriad of expensive, dubious formulations. Fortunately for discriminating athletes, pure creatine monohydrate can be purchased in bulk quite cheaply. 


Bogus treatments

Pseudoscientific treatments are a little different. The hallmark of a pseudoscientific treatment is precisely that it does not make specific claims. In these treatments, the physiological pathways are often mystical or unsubstantiated scientifically. For example, acupuncture is based on the mystic concept that a spiritual energy, called qi, flows through specific points on the body; chiropractic is based on the unsubstantiated notion that "subluxations" in the spine cause immunohealth deficiencies; and homeopathy is based on the concept that substances retain their "essence" when heavily diluted in water (which they claim has a "memory"), even to the point that there are no pharmacologically active molecules in the solution.

Real science can give a specific treatment for a specific diagnosis, and even predict the statistical probability of a given outcome. For example, chemotherapy has been demonstrated to be an effective treatment for cancer; it's side effects are well-documented, and the probability of its efficacy – as well as the likelihood of side effects – can be statistically confirmed based on the type and severity of cancer.

Pseudoscience simply cannot do that. Instead, pseudoscience makes vague, general claims and prescribes arbitrary treatments. For example, the supplement Mona Vie is marketed as a treatment for all kinds of immunohealth conditions. I've heard people claim that it put their cancer into remission, that it cured chronic knee pain, that it relieves headaches, etc. etc. There is no known physiological mechanism by which this fruit juice concoction can do such things. Similarly, it's common to hear people claim that a visit to the chiropractor or acupuncturist cured a chronic pain condition of some sort; one friend of mine even claimed that his mother's hair loss was halted by acupuncture! The problem is that in these treatments, there is no ubiquitous, scientifically validated means of diagnosing a condition and henceforth prescribing a specific treatment for it. The treatments, like the diagnoses, tend to be arbitrary. For example, I've heard people claim that their chiropractor relieved their joint point or a "pinched nerve". However, there is simply no medical basis for diagnosing and treating these conditions through joint and spine manipulation, and the associations between treatment and relief are most likely coincidental – precisely the kind of coincidence that robust scientific research could weed out. 


What to do

The bottom line here is that we should all be highly skeptical of medical claims made by people who are not medical professionals. We should also be skeptical of the testimonials of people who claim to have received effective treatment from alternative therapies. Despite the innumerable advances in science over the past century, we're still faced with a number of science skeptics who claim that poorly research, even mystical therapies are just as valid as real science. At best, these products and treatments are a waste of money that simply invoke the placebo effect. At worst, some of them may convince people with real diseases and disorders that they do not need genuine medical care, or cause serious health complications. Buyer, always, beware.

08 January 2010

Honest questions for my believer friends

Asked in a non-judgmental spirit of friendly inquiry:

1. Do you believe God is omniscient (all-knowing)? Do you believe we have free will? If yes to both... how do you reconcile this paradox? That is, if God knows what decisions we will make, how can we be said to have free will at all?

1b. As a corollary, for those of you who believe there are consequences for rejecting God, why would God create anyone whom he knew would ultimately reject him?

2. Do you believe that God is omnipotent (all-powerful) and all-loving? If so, why is there suffering? And I don't mean suffering caused by other people. I mean suffering inflicted by nature itself – cancer, birth defects, famine, drought, tsunamis, earthquakes, etc. etc.

3. Do you view your faith as an explanatory device for any natural phenomenon, such as the origin of the universe, the origin of life, or the complexity of life? If so, how do you feel about science that encroaches on these beliefs, such as evolution, abiogenesis, or cosmology?

4. Do you view your beliefs as a source of moral guidance? In what way? What would be your moral compass if you were to reject your beliefs?

5. Speaking in a most general way, what is it about your faith that you feel differentiates you from those who do not share it? How would your life be different without these beliefs?

6. Can God microwave a burrito until it's so hot that he can't eat it?


05 January 2010

It's the end of the world! Be sure to stock up on supplies!

My ex-girlfriend's mom was what you might call a total religious nutcase. In addition to a remarkably large and scary library that looked like a miniaturized version of the book section of Mardel, she had an attic full of supplies for the end times – which, according to many of the books she owned, is coming very soon. Notably, she had a large collection of "tribulation food" – dried food stored in big buckets that were supposed to help her ride out the end times while the world burned down around her.

Unless you've been living in a cave somewhere, you've probably heard the terrible news: the world is going to end in 2012. Depending on which loony website you visit, you'll hear everything from a rogue planet knocking the Earth out of orbit to massive solar flares destroying the planet to... well, to whatever else might make for a really stupid Roland Emmerich disaster movie. Of course, most of us aren't quitting our day jobs, and aren't particularly worried about it. In case you haven't noticed, end of the world predictions have a really bad track record.

But some people are worried about it. And I mean really worried about it. They're obsessed. I think that these kinds of end-times phenomena, whether religiously motivated or not, tend to be perpetuated by credulous, uncritical people. I would even go so far as to say that these phenomena, memes of sorts, seem to thrive on an irrational fear of death that seems not only pervasive in our culture, but ironically seems to be most prevalent in the nuttiest religious loons who seem more certain than anyone about what will become of them upon their bodily demise. Because really, if the world is going to end, what's the point in obsessing over it? It's the end of the world and everyone dies. A friend of mine suggested that it's quite a romantic notion to survive the apocalypse as civilization crumbles around you – a notion that might placate the nuttier religious folks who view the rest of the world (i.e., people who don't go to their church) as a steaming cesspool of godless moral decay. Hell, that's so romantic you could make a Dave Matthews Band song out of it.

Whenever you have throngs of credulous, panicky people, you can count on one thing: someone is going to find a way to make money off of them. Case in point: the ministry that sold my ex-girlfriend's mom buckets full of disgusting dried food that she subsequently stored in her attic (she obviously assumes her attic won't be destroyed in the apocalypse, but that's another story). Exploiting stupidity is booming business, as sites like www.2012supplies.com indicate. That's just the first one that came up when I searched "2012 supplies". There are butt-tons more. I searched things like "rapture supplies", "end times supplies" and "tribulation supplies" and found similar results. Innumerable websites exist where gullible fools can by lots of worthless crap to stick in their attics. Or basements.

Apocalyptic obsessions are certainly nothing new. But a common thread among end-times predictions across all cultures is the notion that everyone dies except for the true believers. Even the 2012 fanatics predicting the annihilation of the planet are fully prepared to stock up on beans and canned vegetables and stick them in their underground shelters. But at their roots, end times predictions are nothing more than modern manifestations of primitive tribal fantasies: They get wiped out, we survive, and we get to live on, reshaping the planet into a new paradise or being whisked away into a utopian afterlife. Is it surprising, then, with the kind of cult-like "us and them" tribalism that evangelical religion fosters that such groups of people are frequently obsessed with everyone else's annihilation? For these people, the most disappointing part about end times predictions is always the day after.

04 January 2010

The pseudoscience of positive thinking

I was perusing PZ Meyers' blog (as I often do), and I was particularly struck by an article he linked to about a woman named Barbara Ehrenreich who survived breast cancer discussing her experience with the pseudoscience and cultural phenomenon of overcoming disease through "positive thinking". It's an incredibly eye-opening, insightful article that wonderfully illustrates the delusional cultural obsession with denial (link). Now, I don't advocate wallowing in cynical self-loathing, but is thinking positively all the time really a good thing?

The "power of positive thinking" phenomenon really hit its stride during the economic boom of the 90s with self-help gurus like Tony Robbins, Stephen Covey, Robert Kiyosaki, and innumerable others who cashed in on the craze by promising you improved relationships, better health and even financial security with a little can-do attitude. It was during the 90s that depression really became viewed as a bona fide clinical disorder, and the popularity of prescription drugs like Prozac exploded. This was by no means a secular phenomenon either; churches eagerly jumped on the boat and promised that with the prescription of prayer and faith, you'll have all the good fortune you deserve. And although the tide has waned a bit, you can still catch plenty of hoopla over crap like the "Law of Attraction" as illustrated in the ridiculous "movie" The Secret.


This cultural phenomenon is not only delusional, but dangerous. Insidiously, the obsession with positive thinking shifts us to an inescapable feeling of guilt when we find it difficult or impossible to remain optimistic. The reality is that human emotions fluctuate. It is perfectly normal to go through periods of sadness and despair, even when we have little to complain about. Frankly, there's really something wrong with you if you don't experience such things. And when we lose our jobs, break off a relationship, are diagnosed with cancer, or lose a friend or loved one, it's not only normal but important to allow ourselves to feel sad.

It's also an inescapable reality that a great deal of things happen to us that are simply beyond our control. Barbara Ehrenreich lived a healthy lifestyle, and was still diagnosed with cancer. Good, hardworking people lose their jobs during economic downturns and have to sell their homes. We get sick, we try our best and fail, we have our hearts broken. These kinds of things are difficult enough on their own; what do we gain when we compound such struggles by blaming ourselves? This quote from feel-good pseuodscientific loon Deepak Chopra, in response to a woman whose breast cancer was spreading to her bones and lungs despite her efforts to live a healthy lifestyle and think positively, made me particularly sick to my stomach:

As far as I can tell, you are doing all the right things to recover. You just have to continue doing them until the cancer is gone for good. I know it is discouraging to make great progress only to have it come back again, but sometimes cancer is simply very pernicious and requires the utmost diligence and persistence to eventually overcome it.

The greatest crime in this "positive thinking" phenomenon is that by convincing ourselves that we have the power to prevent misfortune, we inevitably blame ourselves when misfortune strikes. Personally speaking, I have never found greater depression than when I attempted to avoid confronting my feelings with obsessive optimism. More often than not, we don't need to be cheered up; we need to have a good cry, be held by someone we love, take time to be alone, and accept that we cannot control fate with feel-good soliloquies.


Get realistic


The renown psychotherapist Carl Rogers pioneered what is known as person-centered therapy. Rogers believed that people sought congruence between what he called their "self-structure" and their experiences. In other words, we want our beliefs to be congruent with reality. When we form a bias that conflicts with reality, we develop rationalizations to maintain this congruency. Here's an example:

Bias: Positive thinking and spreading good karma by helping others will keep me from getting sick
Experience: I've been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer
Rationalization: I must not have thought positively enough, or helped others enough.

As a personal trainer, I deal with motivational issues all the time. I don't advocate self-pity, of course; generally, it's good to be an optimistic person. But I certainly do not advocate obsessive positive thinking. Good intentions do not produce results or alleviate frustrations when we fail to meet the expectations we have set for ourselves. To find the greatest congruence between our experiences and our beliefs, we simply need to think realistically. We have to set realistic goals for ourselves. We have to accept that many things are beyond our control. We have to accept that we can try our best and still fail. We have to accept that it is normal to feel depressed from time to time, and only by accepting those feelings and allowing them to run their course can we begin to move on.

03 January 2010

On "transitional forms"

The strongest evidence these day that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is an inescapable reality comes from molecular biology and genetics, not paleontology. However, creationists are fond of criticizing evolution for lacking what they call "transitional forms". I say it's what "they" call it, because "transitional form" isn't a term you will hear evolutionary biologists using, unless perhaps they are responding to creationists and trying to help them understand by using the same language.

If we want to trace a species' evolutionary lineage, there are many intermediate species. For example, if we want to trace the evolution of the modern whale from its land-dwelling relative Pakicetus which lived 50 million years ago, there are many, many species filling the gap between modern whales and Pakicetids – creatures that we can see gradually developing features (or losing them) to adapt to aquatic life.

But in my conversations with creationists, I get the sense that when they say "transitional form", they're talking about something entirely different. I could be wrong in my characterization here, but this is the impression I get: It seems like creationists imagine a species – say, a wooly mammoth; one day, a wooly mammoth gives birth to a mutant freak of a thing, some sort of half-mammoth, half-elephant monstrosity, and that thing somehow reproduces and presto, we have elephants. But since there are no fossils of half-wooly mammoth/half-elephant freaks, evolution must be wrong. Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron's infamous "Crockoduck" was what they imagined as a "transitional form" – a half duck, half crocodile freak of nature that would somehow bridge an evolutionary gap between crocodiles and ducks.

So how does evolution actually work? Imagine you have a population of a species, say population A. Over time, this population becomes split into two geographically isolated populations, so now you have two populations: A and B. Populations A and B are living in different environments; there are different foods, different quantities of food, different means to acquire food, different weather conditions, and different predators. In each population, natural selection means that the individuals whose features are best adapted to the environment are the ones that will survive and reproduce. Over very long periods of time, very small changes are selected through each population as it adapts to changing environmental pressures. These small changes add up, becoming cumulative, and eventually populations A and B are barely recognizable as the homogeneous population they once were; the only traces they leave are vestigial genes and structures that give clues to their evolutionary heritage.


Intermediate forms and cetacean evolution

"Transitional form" is a kind of nonsensical concept, because evolution holds that all species change over time in adaptation to their environment. In essence, it's correct to say that all species ever are "transitional". We can, however trace the lineage of two species – say, between modern whales and Pakicetus – and find many intermediate species that start off looking a lot like Pakicetus and end up looking more and more like modern whales, yet still retaining features of both distant species.

It's important to remember that evolution proceeds according to an ordered hierarchy, which is illustrated by the phylogenetic tree:


Evolution has certain hierarchical limitations;  Pakicetids could not evolve into a fish – they could only evolve into an aquatic mammal like a dolphin or whale. Fish are evolving along a separate branche of the phylogenetic tree. This is why the "crockoduck" is a ludicrous criticism of evolution. Crocodiles and ducks are both modern animals. Neither is a descendant of the other. Like all life, they do share a common ancestor; but in this case, they both branched off long, long ago – pretty far down on the phylogenetic tree.

So, let's look at the evolution of whales. When we look at modern whales, we find a number of reasons to think that they evolved from land-dwelling mammals. For one, they're... mammals. They don't have gills and can't breathe under water; they have to come up to the surface for air every so often. The bones in their flippers are the same as the forelimbs in land-dwelling mammals, including human hands. Even their spines move vertically, like that of humans, rather than horizontally like fish. Further, they have vestigial structures – such as the vestigial pelvis – and vestigial genes, including the genes for making legs.

So we find the fossilized remains of Pakicetids. I'll quote the almighty Wikipedia:
They have been linked to whales by their ears: the structure of the auditory bulla is formed from the ectotympanic bone only. The shape of the ear region in Pakicetus is highly unusual and only resembles the skulls of whales. The feature is diagnostic for cetaceans and is found in no other species
In other words, we find these peculiar structures in this species that it shares with whales, but not, say, leopards or humans. These animals are thought to have evaded predators by hiding underwater. Thus, those that could stay underwater longer would be more likely to survive and reproduce.

The intermediate species we find bear increasing resemblance to modern whales while retaining features of their Pakicetus relatives. Ambulocetus, for example, has shorter and more flipper-like limbs, and was amphibious. The availability of food in water, as well as the ability to avoid predators, would mean that the Ambulocetids that were able to stay under water longer would survive and reproduce. Gradually, natural selection favored certain traits – slightly more flipper-like limbs, better swimming ability, and the ability to stay under water longer.

To give you an idea of just how slowly evolution takes place, take a look at Ambulocetus on the left and compare it to a slightly more recent relative, Rodhocetus on the right:





These animals are not that different; Rodhocetus has slightly shorter and more flipper-like limbs, and the nostril is located higher on the head. In this drawing, at least, it has more blubber as well. Based on the available food and predators, natural selection favored small changes that were better adapted to more time in the water. See the pattern yet? Very, very small novel changes add up, becoming cumulative. The time between these very similar animals? Roughly 4 million years. Evolution moves very, very slowly.


Evolve this

I'm not going to bother detailing every single intermediate species between Pakicetus and whales; there are numerous online references detailing the evolution of cetaceans, not to mention plenty of good old-fashioned books. But we would find something very specific: we would find that over the 50 million or so years that Pakicetids evolved into modern whales, the animals would start out looking very much like Pakicetids. Over tens of millions of years, each species along the way looks ever so slightly less like Pakicetids and more like whales – limbs become more flipper-like, the hind legs become shorter and less functional until they disappear altogether, nostrils move higher up the head, the ear becomes better adapted for hearing underwater, etc. etc.

At no point does one species give birth to some half-whale monstrosity. Very small changes are favored by natural selection and become cumulative over geological time scales. Along the way, each population of species is fully functional and fully adapted to the environment. Individuals who aren't quite as well adapted die, while the ones that are adapted reproduce, passing on those very minuscule changes from one generation to the next. Evolution does not occur in a single bound; like a long journey, it's a series of innumerable small steps that alone may seem insignificant, but over millions of years add up to produce the astounding changes we observe.

01 January 2010

"The Age of Empathy" – Frans De Waal

I've started reading Frans De Waal's newest book, The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society. If you're not familiar with Frans De Waal, he's a primatologist possibly most famous for his book Our Inner Ape, which I also received as a gift over the holidays this year. My introduction to De Waal was in one of my favorite books, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. He's featured in the NOVA special "The Last Great Ape", which I highly recommend.

De Waal's books have a consistent theme:  That the common perception is that human morality is a triumph over our animal nature; that morality comes from somewhere else – from the church, from the law, from God – and that we need this external source of morality to conquer our competitive, selfish nature. De Waal turns this view on its head, arguing that not only is our sense of morality deeply embedded in our genes, but it is a product of our evolutionary heritage. He argues further that many of the qualities we've long believed elevate us above the rest of the animal kingdom – our ability to feel empathy, that we care for the weak and sick, or that we help others without regard to the consequences it may bring upon ourselves – are not uniquely human at all. He talks about chimpanzees slowing their pace so that injured friends aren't left behind. He talks about bonobos tending to each others' wounds, and comforting each other after conflict. He's even documented these marvelous creatures giving selfless aid to animals of other species.

It should not come as a surprise that many people – mainly religious types, to be blunt about it – tend to find this view a bit objectionable. Morality is an issue that religiously inclined individuals like to hang their hat on – suggesting that our sense of morality is derived from God and that we need faith and the guiding hand of the church to be good people. If people don't need God to be good, the church is in trouble. Geneticist Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and current director of the NIH, argued in an essay for the Templeton Foundation that if we remove God from the equation, the concepts of good and evil "have no real foundation".

But De Waal's research illuminates the deeply biological foundation of our moral compass. This view of morality does have some significant philosophical implications: it tells us that morality is not absolute or objective, but it is nonetheless integral to our survival; it tells us that "good" and "evil" are not things unto themselves, but strictly concepts used to describe behavior that either relives suffering and fosters harmony or causes suffering and division. In this context, the classic dichotomy in which "good" and "evil" are portrayed as diametric opposites seems primitive, like a sort of "Hollywood" version of morality. The real moral dilemmas we face today are not so simple as "should we indiscriminately kill others" – such things don't even enter into our realm of thought because we intuitively recognize that they are diametrically opposed to the solidarity we need in order to survive; rather, we face moral dilemmas not so easily resolved – questions like, How many resources should we expend to save someone's life? or Should doctors be allowed to assist a patient in committing suicide? These questions don't lend themselves to such obvious answers.

The real question, then, is whether a study of our biology can help us to resolve more complex moral dilemmas. De Waal believes it can, and I will be sure to publish my thoughts on his book as soon as I finish it.