27 February 2011

I love a good creationist bashing

H/T Jerry Coyne:

Certified charlatan William Dembski of the ironically named Discovery Institute decided to step into the study of ants (which I learned is called "myrmecology") with this peculiar statement:
Colonies of ants, when they make tracks from one colony to another minimize path-length and thereby also solve the Steiner Problem (see “Ants Build Cheapest Network“). So what does this mean in evolutionary terms?
In ID terms, there’s no problem — ants were designed with various capacities, and this either happens to be one of them or is one acquired through other programmed/designed capacities. On Darwinian evolutionary grounds, however, one would have to say something like the following: ants are the result of a Darwinian evolutionary process that programmed the ants with, presumably, a genetic algorithm that enables them, when put in separate colonies, to trace out paths that resolve the Steiner Problem. In other words, evolution, by some weird self-similarity, embedded an evolutionary program into the neurophysiology of the ants that enables them to solve the Steiner problem (which, presumably, gives these ants a selective advantage).
Well, a blogging myrmecologist named Alex Wild caught wind of this, and responded to it on his blog. As usual, Alex exposes Dembski's argument as a simple case of an argument from ignorance:
Ants find the shortest route because of three simple facts:
  1. Ants follow pheromone trails
  2. Pheromone trails degrade over time
  3. Short paths take less time to traverse
When two points (say, two nests, or a nest and a food source) need to be connected, ants may start out tracing several winding pheromone paths among them. As ants zing back and forth down trails, pheromone levels build up. Long trails take more time to travel, so long-trail ants makes fewer overall circuits, more pheromone dissipates between passes, and the trails end up poorly marked. Short trails enable ants to make more trips, less time elapses between passes, so these trails end up marked more strongly. The shortest trail emerges.
And there you have it. Intelligent Design is not a science. It just seeks to fill in purported gaps in evolutionary knowledge with unfalsifiable statements about a mystical "designer". 

24 February 2011

A thorough beatdown of the fine-tuning argument

This video by Skepchic is an excellent response to the old fine-tuning canard. She's very thorough, clear, and concise:

p.s. – If you're losing sleep at night wondering where I went, well, I haven't had much time for writing lately. More to come soon!

23 February 2011

Oklahoma legislature strikes down "science" bill


It looks like Oklahoma can do something right. Rep. Sally Kern, one of the most annoying Christian Creationist nincompoops in the state, had authored a bill with vague language about allowing "other" scientific theories to be taught alongside evolution. The bill didn't make it out of committee.

Hey, I'm 100% fine with that, as long as we both agree that a scientific theory unifies observable facts through falsifiable predictions. That would of course completely rule out pseudoscientific garbage like Intelligent Design and the worst of them all, Young Earth Creationism.

I just don't get it. It's exasperating. While science denial does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with Christianity, there's no denying that the two are familiar bedfellows, and have been throughout history. Is it really that threatening to one's identity to acknowledge that our species didn't just spontaneously pop into existence, and instead gradually descended from a long line of biological ancestors? Does that make you seem less human? Less special? Deal with it. It's reality.

"It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring" – Carl Sagan.

21 February 2011

Evolution is a godless process

Jerry Coyne has a great post up today over at WEIT about the absolute absence of evidence of any sort of teleology in evolution. This apparently gets some believers up in arms because they want to believe that humans are the apex of evolution, that God put us here on purpose because otherwise life is pointless and they might as well jump off a bridge (must be depressing to be a believer). I recommend the full article here, but here are some quotes that jumped out at me:
As NCSE Executive Director Eugenie Scott recounts, the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal” led to pushback from the faithful:
As one Christian said to me, defining evolution as “unsupervised” and “impersonal” implied to many Americans that “God had nothing to do with it and life has no meaning.” Reflecting these public concerns, two distinguished theologians, Cornell’s Huston Smith and Notre Dame’s Alvin Plantinga, wrote a polite letter to NABT’s board of directors, asking it to delete the two words “unsupervised” and “impersonal”.
In my classes, however, I still characterize evolution and selection as processes lacking mind, purpose, or supervision.  Why? Because, as far as we can see, that’s the truth.  Evolution and selection operate precisely as you’d expect them to if they were not designed by, or steered by, a deity—especially one who is omnipotent and benevolent.  And, more important, the completely material nature of selection is of great historical and intellectual importance.  After all, Darwin’s greatest achievement was the explanation of organismal “design” by a completely naturalistic process, replacing the mindful, purposeful, and god-directed theory that preceded it.
Evolution and selection lack any sign of divine guidance.  Earlier teleological theories based on divine or spiritual guidance, such as orthogenesis, have fallen by the wayside.  Natural selection is a cruel and wasteful process.  99% of the species that ever lived went extinct without leaving descendants.  There is no sign that evolution always goes in a fixed direction.  Do primates always get bigger brains? There is some suggestion that orangutan populations evolved smaller ones.  Fleas lost their wings; tapeworms lost nearly everything when evolving a parasitic lifestyle.  There is no sign that the goal of evolution was Homo sapiens (if that were true, why the virtual extinction of Neandertals or the robust australopithecines)?

Here's the key phrase, to my mind: "Evolution and selection operate precisely as you’d expect them to if they were not designed by, or steered by, a deity". That is precisely the case with a great many things: the vast, cold, and empty universe; the mass suffering that has been intrinsic to nature long before humans arrived; the aimless wastefulness of evolution; the 190,000+ years of human existence which lacked any modern concept of a deity; and of course, the complete lack of religious homogeneity among geographically isolated cultures.

No matter how you slice it, the world is precisely as we'd expect it to be if God does not exist. Either God doesn't exist, or he's deliberately hidden himself with painstaking attention detail – in which case he might as well not exist anyway. 

20 February 2011

I don't get atheist organizations

There's a group called "Tulsa Atheists" here in town, and whenever I see pics of their events I'm always slightly amused at both the piss-poor attendance and the near-total absence of young people. It seems less like an organization and more like a gaggle of buddies.

Skepticism. Now that's something I can get behind. Secularism. Yes. Bring it. These are positive ideologies that non-believers can get behind, because it makes sense: atheism is not an ideology, but an outcome of skeptical, logical inquiry which rejects poorly supported metaphysical claims; secularism promotes the separation of church and state to preserve religious freedom for all, as well as the development of science-based knowledge.

Atheism is just a null. You know the sayings – it's like "off" is a TV channel, or like not collecting stamps is a hobby, or like bald is a hair color. Having an atheist group is like having a book club for people who don't read books. I mean, what do you talk about? My guess is that they unite under things like skepticism and secularism. Funny how organizations that promote those things have a lot more members and funding.

Here's what I really think about conservatism

I found a nice little essay over on Huffpo called "What Conservatives Really Want", which nicely summarizes why I'm a political liberal. The article's a bit inflammatory (as is to be expected from the title alone), but it still captures some important ideas that reflect my own thinking. Some choice quotes:
Budget deficits are a ruse, as we've seen in Wisconsin, where the governor turned a surplus into a deficit by providing corporate tax breaks, and then used the deficit as a ploy to break the unions, not just in Wisconsin, but seeking to be the first domino in a nationwide conservative movement.
Deficits can be addressed by raising revenue, plugging tax loopholes, putting people to work, and developing the economy long-term in all the ways the president has discussed. But deficits are not what really matters to conservatives.
Fun fact: in 2001, George W. Bush in one year turned a record surplus into a record deficit. How did he accomplish that historic feat? You guessed it – tax cuts, the bulk of which were aimed at the upper class. We're about to have another record deficit this year, and of the projected $1.5 trillion the government is over-budget, roughly 1/3rd of that is coming from the tax cuts that conservatives demanded be extended to the top tier of earners. And this isn't a new thing: between the Reagan and H.W. Bush administrations, the national debt more than tripled. It doubled during Dubya's administration. Don't believe the lie that these people give a shit about deficits. They're fine with deficits that come from things they like – namely tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations which, courtesy of loopholes, pay proportionally far less taxes than citizens do. But when the deficits come from tax breaks to the working class and infrastructure investment, better hide the women and children cause there's a war a-comin'.

18 February 2011

A thought on "faith"

I happened upon a Facebook argument in which a Christian asserted the old, "You put your faith in the wisdom of men; I put mine in the Word of God" canard.

This has always been a peculiar argument to me. Short of any Road-to-Damascus revelations or burning bushes, people learn about God from their parents or friends. They are told by other people that the Bible is the word of God, that God is real, that God listens to their prayers. They're told that he knows their thoughts and that He'll punish them for their transgressions.

In other words, I've yet to meet (or even hear second hand) of anyone who came to know the "truth" of Christianity independently of sociocultural influences. Just like any idea, it's transmitted from one person to the next. So when people claim they put their faith in God, they're full of it – the truth is that they're not just putting faith in other people, but – because these are unfalsifiable claims – putting blind faith in other people.

15 February 2011

Absolute truth

 H/T to Bud at Dead Logic for this gem of stupidity:

Aside from the bountiful idiocy of Biblical literalism and young-Earth creationism present in the video, one of the lines caught my attention: their claim of teaching believers how to respond to when someone says there is no absolute truth.

All too often, these arguments get misconstrued by believers: Oh, so you claim there's no such a thing as absolute truth? Well, gotcha! You're claiming an absolute truth when you say that!

In fact, I looked it up on the Way of the Master website, and that's exactly what they say:
Those who say that there are no absolutes are often very adamant about their belief. If they say that they are absolutely sure, then they are wrong because their own statement is an absolute. If they are not 100 percent sure, then there is a chance that they are wrong and they are risking their eternal salvation by trusting in a wrong belief. God tells us that there is an objective, absolute truth that is not subject to man’s interpretations or whims, on which we can base our eternity. That truth is the Word of God (John 17:7).
Here's the thing about absolute truth: it's a lot easier to claim that something is absolutely true than to prove it. There's a wide gulf between the ontic and the epistemic claim. The question is not whether something is absolutely true, but how do you know that something is absolutely true? The reason scientific knowledge is provisional is because we know that there is a great deal about which we are ignorant. Though science has illuminated us with great knowledge, it has also served to show us that there are many more doors that have yet to be opened. Our knowledge is provisional because the attainment of new knowledge may require us to fundamentally re-examine our understanding of the world – much as Einstein's theories of relativity caused physicists to completely re-shape their Newtonian views of space and time.

Once upon a time, physicists thought that atoms were the fundamental constituents of matter. Then they broke it open and found protons and neutrons surrounded by a cloud of electrons. Then they broke those open and found quarks and leptons. And now the hottest theory of quantum gravity says that those are created by Planck-sized, one-dimensional vibrating strings. If that's ever proved, who's to say that still more fundamental questions would not unfold? We all agree that there are, most likely, fundamental truths about what reality is; but how could we know with certainty – short of becoming omniscient ourselves – that something is absolutely true?

Ray Comfort says above that this absolute truth is "the Word of God". But that's the problem: he just claims it. How does he know it's true? Because he does! Checkmate, atheists! It's fuzzier though: A lot of Christians think Ray's literalism and science denial are absurd. So how does Ray know that his particular interpretation of the Bible is the correct one? Well, he just does. So there!

"Just-so" statements are a staple of the devout, but they only expose how vacuous faith-based beliefs really are. Let's stick to deriving knowledge from falsifiable evidence, and have the humility to know we might be wrong.

13 February 2011

Recommended Sunday reading

There are a couple of blog posts I came across today that I think are very much worth a look:

The first is from Bud over at Dead Logic, called Four Columns. It's a superb essay that marvelously illustrates some of the epistemic concepts that I talked about recently in my Knowing What We Know posts and that Tristan of Advocatus Atheist discussed in a recent essay about the God hypothesis.

The second is from venerable gnu atheist Jerry Coyne, in which he discusses the rise of Scientology and how it parallels the rise of other faiths, including Christianity.


I. This is how it all started

I was raised Christian, but had never been particularly devout. When you're young, you just do as your parents do – and my parents were "twice a year Christians", usually only going to church on Christmas and Easter. But when we moved to a new house up the street from a large Presbyterian church, my parents began attending regularly. My mom expressed some guilt that she hadn't been more vigilant getting my brother and I involved in the church. I attended sporadically out of a desire to do something "moral", but I wasn't particularly serious about it.

Around the time when I was 14, my brother had been attending another church more regularly. I didn't hear much about it, but man did I ever hear about God from him. He would provoke me in arguments, trying to show that I wasn't a real Christian. Mostly, his provocations just left me annoyed and frustrated. But one week, I'd had a big fight with my dad, and was grounded. My brother offered to take me to church with him, to a Saturday night youth group called Hellfighters. I was angry at my parents and just wanted to get out of the house, so I agreed.

11 February 2011

Are science and faith in conflict? (Yes.)

There's an initiative going through the House right now to make Charles Darwin's birthday a national holiday. I'm sure it has zero change of passing given the Bible-thumping conservative freakshow masquerading as a noble band of intrepid do-gooders that now commands a majority in the House, but with all that Darwin's theory has given us,  it will be a damn shame that dogmatically driven ignorance will likely trump a move to honor one of the most important scientists in human history. Oh, plus there's the pesky fact that the bill is authored by the only open atheist in congress. Grrrr, those evil atheists!

Science has a history of stepping on the toes of religious belief. Let's not forget that it wasn't until the 1990s that the Catholic church finally got around to apologizing for persecuting Galileo. Right now, some 40% of Americans are strict creationists – they don't think evolution ever happened. Nevermind that Darwinian evolution is the unifying theory of all modern biology – the Bahbul tells me ah'm special, not sum munkee thang!

This is always the time when more liberally-minded Christians like to remind us that there are other scientists, like Francis Collins and Ken Miller, who are accomplished evolutionary biologists and devout Christians. Science and faith need not be in conflict, so they say. In fact that's pretty much exactly what a few major scientific organizations are saying. These guys, whom we lovingly call "accommodationists", think that scientific knowledge reveals the glory of God's creation. How do they know that? Because they do, that's why. Checkmate, atheists!

10 February 2011

Kickin' it old school

I have no idea why, but for some reason I wanted to listen to Jars of Clay tonight. Their style is so completely opposite to the stuff I listen to now, but I had listened to them often during my teen years, and it just so happens that the peak of their popularity in the 90s were my most fervent years as a Christian. I might be a metalhead now, but for most of my teens I was all about the trendy acoustic pop rock.

Anyway, I listened to some of their old stuff courtesy of MySpace, which apparently still exists. It just got me reflecting on my whole experience – I went from being indifferent about religion to being incredibly passionate about it. I didn't even like the word "religion"; it was a relationship with God. But some things started bugging me. Questions that demanded answers. And as my search for those answers left me even more confused, I became disillusioned. I felt my faith slipping away, and I didn't know how to save it. I was doing everything I could think to do – I read C.S. Lewis, R.C. Sproul, and had numerous conversations with a chaplain who was a friend of the family's. I tore through the Bible, reading it for hours every day, trying to find answers. But the searching just exacerbated the problems, as every "answer" – whether from scripture or from theologians – was transparently shallow, only raising more questions. The truth slowly revealed itself, and as I realized that everything I'd believed in was a lie, I was terrified. How would I live? How would I find meaning in my life? How would I get through tough times? What about my social life, since almost all my friends were in the church? I remember forcing myself to pray, in the vain hope that I could somehow find my faith again – but by then the absurdity of it all was too clear to wish away.

08 February 2011

While I'm on the subject...

Hot on the heels of my previous post, Tristan Vick has a superb essay at Advocatus Atheist on the utility of the God hypothesis. It's well worth a read.

07 February 2011

Knowing What We Know, part 2: "Congruence"

In part 1, I talked about how the raw sensory data that we take in is categorized by our brains into patterns,  how sometimes we make the mistake of imposing patterns on the randomness of nature, and how methodological naturalism is a means for explaining the patterns we see by producing falsifiable mechanisms with predictive utility. This gives us a reliable understanding of the world – we can predict, for example, that objects will fall when we let go of them. We can predict how fast they'll accelerate and how wind resistance will affect the rate of descent. All knowledge attained through methodological naturalism is provisional, because we don't know everything. There may be some unknown law of physics that, starting tomorrow, will cause the force of gravity to work in reverse. But based on empirical observation with predictive utility, we can make a valid provisional assumption that such a change is highly implausible.


Jerry Coyne writes a lot about "accommodationism", which is a popular new buzzword for the old "NOMA" argument put forward by the late Stephen Jay Gould. This is the idea that science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria" – that both are valid, but different, means of understanding the world. In both cases, I'm treating these terms very broadly: I'm taking science to mean "empirical observation and rational inquiry" (basically, methodological naturalism), and I'm taking "religion" to mean "spiritual experiences and theology". I don't want my use of the word "science" to be confused with a bunch of guys in lab coats shooting lasers and mixing vials of smokey green liquid, and I don't want my use of the word "religion" to be confused with guys in goofy robes or people waving their arms while they sing cornball hymns. Humanities, such as historical inquiry, are still subject to the rules of empirical investigation; and spiritual experiences are by no means confined to religious dogmas.

05 February 2011

That old "something from nothing" thing

PZ has a post up where he links to an article by physicist Ethan Siegel that explains how, in the quantum world, something comes from nothing all the time.

I'm a bit mixed on these kinds of things. What they demonstrate is that the Newtonian chain of causality that we observe on what I suppose we could call the "human-intuitive scale" is not applicable on the quantum scale. Quantum things behave by a bizarre set of rules, and since the quantum world is what makes our world, it gives us a greater insight into how the universe actually works – human intuition be damned. William Lane Craig has said that the first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument ("Everything that begins to exist has a cause") is based on the "metaphysical intuition that something cannot come from nothing" [1]. Unfortunately for Craig's argument, quantum mechanics demonstrates that what we assume to be intuitively true is not always an accurate picture of reality.

My problem with my fellow atheists and the esteemed physicists making the argument is that this is generally made to apply to the universe itself without making the highly important distinction of pointing out that they're really saying that the observable universe could have come from "nothing", where "nothing" is a quantum vacuum. Because in order for this quantum weirdness to occur, you do have to have "something" – a quantum field. Theists often point out that a quantum field isn't actually "nothing", and I think that's a perfectly reasonable objection.

03 February 2011

Bill O'Reilly recites the God of the Gaps

Bill O'Reilly has made a video in which he smugly hands the smackdown to us ignorant atheists for criticizing his silly comment about the supposed mystery of the tides being evidence for God's existence. His scathing rebuttal: You can't explain it, so God did it. Checkmate, atheists!

What's funny is that we of course do know how the moon got there, how the Earth got there (err... here), how the sun got there, how the galaxy got there. We know how life evolved and we're on the cusp of knowing how it began in Earth's warm primordial oceans. 

Like any creationist, O'Reilly can always push God back one more gap, but that just makes God more and more irrelevant. Mystery is not evidence.

p.s. – On a side note, I'm rather encouraged by the ratio of "likes" to "dislikes".

Kepler space telescope spots five Earth-sized planets


Previous technology has limited us to only detected very large extrasolar planets, like gas giants, but now we're finally starting to be able to get a sense of how many Earth-sized planets there are.
NASA scientists have announced Kepler has spotted five planets about the size of Earth, orbiting stars in our galaxy.
These planets are orbiting in what is known as the habitable zone, which puts them at a distance from their suns where liquid water could exist. Liquid water is a key ingredient for life to form.
The Kepler telescope has spotted a total of 54 planets within various stars' habitable zones and over 1,200 total planets. The discoveries still need to be confirmed, but given that we've still only explored a minute fraction of the hundreds of billions of stars in the galaxy, it seems less and less likely that we're alone.

02 February 2011

Quote of the day, from PZ Myers

"[There] is more to my atheism than simple denial of one claim; it's actually based on a scientific attitude that values evidence and reason, that rejects claims resting solely on authority, and that encourages deeper exploration of the world. My atheism is not solely a negative claim about gods, but is based on a whole set of positive values that I will emphasize when talking about atheism. That denial of god thing? It's a consequence, not a cause."

Thank you! Geez. Believers are all too often under the impression that atheism is a belief system from which we derive a presumably naturalistic outlook. It's the other way around: atheism is an inevitable outcome of a worldview in which claims to knowledge must be rooted in empirical evidence and reason.