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Showing posts from October, 2010

Psychic powers proved by research! Also, man flies on unicorn!

Jerry Coyne, over at his blog Why Evolution Is True, mentions the imminent publication of a study that purports to demonstrate evidence for precognition:
A respected peer-reviewed journal in psychology, The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is about to publish a paper that presents scientific evidence for precognition.  The paper, by Daryl Bem of Cornell University, is called Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect,” and you can download a preprint on his webpage.  I’ve scanned the paper only briefly, and am posting about it in hopes that some of you will read it carefully and provide analyses, either here or elsewhere. The paper purports to show that a choice that you make in a computer test can be influenced by stimuli you receive after you’ve already made the choice.  This implies you have some way, consciously or unconsciously, of detecting things that haven’t yet happened.

Ken Pulliam: In memoriam

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the sudden loss of Dr. Ken Pulliam, who died today at the age of 50. He was an expert in theology, a keen skeptic, and an inspiration for much of my own writing. His blog was one of the first blogs of its type I found, and to this day one of the best. I've seen few who had such a thorough grasp on the often obscure minutiae of Christian theology. His knowledge allowed him to deconstruct and debunk Christianity thoroughly and incisively. My heartfelt condolences to his family in this time of grief. You'll be missed, Ken.

Ken's blog: Why I De-Converted From Evangelical Christianity

Michael Egnor (badly) answers his own quesitons

Michael Egnor over at the horribly misnamed "Discovery Institute" answered his own questions. Shockingly (can you feel the sarcasm?), he didn't allow comments on his own blog, which leaves me to believe he's not that interested in what atheists actually think. I answered his questions in the previous post, so now I just want to bat out quick* replies to the assault on logic that he's passing for answers.

Michael Egnor's "8 Questions Atheists Must Answer"

Via Larry Moran at Sandwalk and Tristan D. Vick at Advocatus Atheist, I've caught wind of Michael Egnor of the *shudder* Discovery Institute posing eight questions to atheists. He says he's doing this to get a better sense of what atheists actually believe. I don't really buy that – I think, like most of these kinds of things, they're supposed to be profound questions that can only be answered with an argument from ignorance – "Golly, I can't explain that, therefor God must have done it! I'm converted!" So, because I'm a team player, I'm gonna take a stab at them.

"The Grand Design" review index

What good are philosophers?

Stephen Hawking made a rather contentious – some might say hyperbolic – statement in The Grand Design: he said, "philosophy is dead." Of course, this rattled the feathers of a great many philosophers, who subsequently accused Hawking of hypocrisy given that, shortly after making this statement, he adopts a curiously philosophical position of model-dependent realism.

I could be wrong about what exactly Hawking meant, but I think I get what he was saying, and I think he's right. I've never really been that impressed with philosophy in general; it seems like a hodgepodge of masturbatory tautologies masquerading as insight, generally undertaken by crotchety old men who probably need more constructive hobbies. Hell, we should have "National Give a Philosopher a Tuba Day", and I suspect the atonal racket that would follow would be more aurally pleasant than the inane babble of pseudo-intellectualism that pervades the field.

Stephen Hawking's "The Grand Design" – the review, part 5

M-Theory


String theory is considered by most physicists to be the best, if not the only, candidate for a theory that reconciles General Relativity with quantum mechanics. It's more than a little controversial, though, as it still remains completely untested. It is a grand idea, and one that seems very likely to be correct. But much remains to be decided.

String theory faced a bit of a hurdle in its early development – it seemed to be not one, but five different theories. But further research revealed that these were not distinct theories, but overlapping theories that explained the same phenomena. (If you're curious about the details, I highly recommend Brian Greene's Elegant Universe.) These five theories, together, are calledM-Theory. It's such a ridiculously complex theory that it's still incomplete. In some theories, the answers to complex equations are approximations; in M-Theory, many of the equations themselves are approximations.

Stephen Hawking's "The Grand Design" – the review, part 4

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In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking discussed in some detail his "No Boundary" proposal, which models a universe that has no beginning or end. He mentions the No Boundary model in The Grand Design, but refrains from explaining just how it works. I suppose he felt that would be somewhat redundant, and contrary to the goals of the book which, at under 200 pages with many illustrations, is designed merely to give a conceptual overview of modern physics without getting much into the mechanisms of the theories themselves.

So to finish this review, I want to talk a bit about what the No Boundary model is, what M-Theory is, and why they're compelling ideas. But I should first reiterate that contrary to many criticisms leveled at Hawking, he does not posit these models as rigorously proved facts, but rather possible answers to the biggest questions. It's important to understand why this is sufficient for Hawking to realize his aim of removing theological guesswork fr…

Stephen Hawking's "The Grand Design" – the review, part 3

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You can't throw a rock at a theistic philosopher without hitting an argument about how the universe was designed for us. You've likely heard it before: the physical laws and constants are just right for us; our planet orbits just the right sized star at just the right distance. The universe is even just the right age for us to exist, as it has existed long enough for early stars to cook light elements into heavy elements before exploding in supernovae that spread their enriched guts across the galaxies, allowing planets and carbon-based life to form – but not long enough for stars' fuel to be used up, leading to a cold and empty universe. It certainly seems miraculous.

But is it really all that miraculous? There's an old probability argument that uses the analogy of a deck of cards. If you shuffle a deck of cards, the probability of any certain order is something like 1 in 10^60 (I forget the exact number, so don't quote me – but it's astronomically improbable)…

Stephen Hawking's "The Grand Design" – the review, part 2

After early chapters that espouse "model-dependent realism", The Grand Design starts doing what virtually every popular science book on physics does: it gives a brief history of physics, and explains the fundamental concepts behind Newtonian physics, Einstein's theories of Special and General Relativity, and quantum theories. It then discusses the unresolved issues plaguing modern physics, and provides a somewhat disappointingly brief overview (for me, because I'm a dork) of String Theory, and its current form in M-Theory – a network of overlapping theories.

The overview is as good as any I've seen, though I feel that Brain Greene did a bit better job explaining the weirdness of quantum mechanics and the unsolved problems it faces in his book on String Theory, The Elegant Universe. But I still learned a few new things from Hawking's description and perspective, and I find that to be the case in general with books on physics: only by reading the same ideas fr…

Stephen Hawking's "The Grand Design" – the review, part 1

I've been wanting to talk about Stephen Hawking's newest book for a while now, but I wasn't quite sure how to go about it. So after a few minutes of deep thought and staring blankly into space, I've settled on tackling it in small sections. I want to hit on the major key concepts of the book as well as discuss some of the theistic rebuttals to it, but I just feel like doing one huge blog would be tedious for both myself and you, my totally awesome readers. Both of you! I want something you can digest in a few minutes, not something you have to devote an afternoon to reading. So in part one, I just want to give an overview of the central concepts of the book.

But first, a quick disclaimer: there's nothing really new in this book. And it's not intended to be all that new. It's really a pretty light read compared to something like Warped Passages by Lisa Randall, which is some 450 pages of tiny text and no pictures. The Grand Design is much shorter, filled w…

The "Vibrant Dance of Faith and Science" conference

In case you haven't already sold your possessions to buy your tickets and book a hotel room and buy all the books by all the speakers so you could get plenty of autographs, there's this big Christian event happening next week called the Vibrant Dance of Science and Faith conference. The fact that it's sponsored by the creationist loons at the Discovery Institute along with the fudge-rational-inquiry-with-superstition guys over at BioLogos should tell you everything you need to know, but the speaker list is quite a doozy as well – it includes notable crackpots Steven Meyer and Dinesh D'Souza, among other creationists and whackjobs.

The tagline of this event is "How science supports Christianity and Christianity explains science". Ethnocentric hogwash like that really grinds my gears. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's read this blog... well, ever, that I hold the same position as folks like Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, and popular b…

Defining atheism, and why I can't believe anyone takes William Lane Craig seriously

If you follow him on YouTube (you should) or visit the various atheist/non-believer blogs, you've probably seen QualiaSoup's excellent new video "Lack of belief in gods". He describes what exactly it means to be an atheist and addresses some common objections to the position that atheism is indeed a lack of belief in a god or gods and not, as many believers seem to insist, a positive assertion that a god or gods does not or cannot exist.

One of the objections he addresses is the idea that even animals lack a belief in gods, so it's not a valid statement of (non)belief. I saw that and just thought it was ridiculous. I mean really, I thought, who would be stupid enough to use that as an argument?

I'll tell you who: William Lane Craig, the popular Christian apologist. I'm not sure if he's behind the "drcraigvideos" channel on YouTube, but like most Christian channels it has ratings and comments disabled. You wouldn't want people, you know,

On the fakeness of cyberspace

I recently caught an interview with Trent Reznor, in which he discussed the movie The Social Network and shared his thoughts on Facebook:
If you’re presenting yourself as false and you’re meeting people through the internet who are also portraying themselves not as they really are... I guess I’m just coming from an older school of: when you met people you met them. Whether you spoke to them on person or talked on the phone, when you interact with them it would be a real person and not some avatar of themselves. I think we'd all agree that when we interact over the internet, we're acting through an avatar; the internet allows us to be more selective about how we express ourselves, and what we choose to put on display isn't always the most accurate representation of our intimate selves.

What I don't agree with is the notion that this is really any different than any other kind of social persona. We're rarely, if ever, our "true selves" in the sense tha…

I have no life

I've got tons of stuff I've been wanting to blog about lately, but I have to honest: I'm totally absorbed in Civilization V. I'd never played a Civ game before – I've been a PC gamer for about four years, but I'm more of a bloody shooter or epic role-playing game kind of guy – but I've already put in more than 60 hours on Civilization V. I don't feel completely useless though, because since the game can be played with just the mouse, I'll sit there doing monotonous legato drills on my guitar while I click away.

One of the cool little things in Civ V is that you accrue "culture" points, which are spent on various "trees" like liberty, tradition, commerce, etc., giving your civilization various bonuses. What's awesome is that there is a culture bonus tree for "piety", and another for "rationalism". The kicker? You can't have both at the same time. Piety is available much earlier in the game (rationalism …

If we can't observe it, is it science?

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Thanks to Bud over at Dead-Logic, I was treated to this absolutely horrible video on the scientific method by a guy who runs a podcast called "What You Ought To Know":



Now, if you don't know why this video is so appallingly awful, it's time for a crash course on what science is and how it works, because this guy doesn't have a clue.

As many people do, he confuses the colloquial definitions of "facts" and "theories" with the technical uses of the terms. To many people, a fact is something we know with absolute certainty; a theory is just sort of a guess or a hypothesis about how something might work. But that's not how it works in science.

In science, "facts" are the raw data – the massive amount of information that we can observe. A theory attempts to explain why we observe what we do. A sound scientific theory is testable – specifically, it is falsifiable. The easiest thing to do is just give an example, and I'll use the Big…