Friday, 29 August 2008

Meanwhile at the DNC...

Obama really impresses me as a politician and a man. It may all be smoke and mirrors, but if he is genuine, then I would love to see a politician of that calibre here in Australia. The race to the White House will be an interesting one indeed.

In terms of the speech itself, his recognition of oil as a stop-gap measure is incredibly important. Any investment in biofuels and alternative energy by the US will be incredibly beneficial to the world. this is what Australia should be doing, not bowing down to the oil companies, rather we should recognise that R&D is the only way forward to ensure long-term viability of our society.

Aside from that it was very US-centric (as it should have been) so it doesn't affect me personally. Having better healthcare and education systems sounds promising. He seems committed to change, and has some good ideas to get there. Is it a little too good to be true though? Only time (and votes) will tell.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

The "New" Atheists

This is the first of two parts, exploring the avenues of thought that Dr John Lennox presented in that debate I attended. First will be exploring the concept of the "new atheists", next will be a look at Richard Dawkins and his role in the intellectual conflict. It seems a non-issue, atheism simply means without belief in a personal god. To call it a religion is confusing to say the least. To understand why intelligent individuals are trying to label it as such needs a look at what role religion plays in our society and how it is used by both individuals and groups. There are two distinct elements religion has traditionally played it's hand with: explanation, and social cohesion.

In the beginning there was the big bang, and from there stars formed from matter which eventually led to planets, life and eventually us. This is the scientific view of how we came to be sitting on this rock that orbits a star in an expanding 4-dimensional bubble universe; it has been extrapolated from empirical evidence taken from observations of the universe around us. Of course one doesn't have to be an atheist to believe this, likewise if the domains of science and religion are kept truly separate as they should be, then there should be no conflict between this worldview and a religious one. As figures show, this is the worldview of the vast majority of scientists, yet the majority of scientists (especially in America) are religious to some degree.

So in terms of the basics, there is no difference between an atheist and theist in the view of the starry heavens above. The difference lies in the nature of explanation. At some point, a theist has to say Goddidit. The wise ones put that point out of reach of science, before the big bang where no observations can be made. The unwise theists views his mythological tales as fact, rejecting the empirical claims and creating a conflict between science and religion that shouldn't be. So to those ignorant bible bashers atheism looks like a religion centered around a Darwinian premise. Never mind that evolution deals purely with biology, not cosmology, this is the attack of the ignorant theist. The irreconcilable nature between science and religion comes from science being seen as an atheistic endeavour. The wise theists show that it isn't so, that evolution and cosmology are not enemies of God. Throughout history there are theists who even use science to try and prove God's hand. The conflict only exists in the minds of the ignorant.

The moral law within poses some intersection. Science can be used to show just how morals came about and why moral law is necessary. Again, by taking science as a process of investigation of the means of morality and God as a cause, there should be no problem. But that conflicts with absolute morality, and thus even to the wise theist there is some rejection of scientific findings in this area. Dr Lennox seemed furious with the notion that morals weren't God-given and vigorously rejected the notion that morality evolved. This broke from his transcendental workings of God in other areas, so to me it's at this point he became like the unwise theists and set up the conflict between science and religion. Morality seemed his necessity for God, his proof for the divine, and where the "New Atheists" became a religion in it's own. The science of how morality came to be doesn't invoke or exclude God any more than the science behind evolution or stellar formation. Again science is agnostic to the role of God, it's not trying to create an atheist worldview.

Science has replaced the need for mythology as an explanation, and atheists for the most part do look to science to explain certain phenomena. But science can be used by atheists and theists alike to explain the workings of reality. Where Dr Lennox makes his failing in resolving the two world views is not so different from the position of a YEC. It's simply seeing a conflict between science and religion and from there trying to create a religion for those who use science as opposed to belief. In many ways science does make God obsolete, we kill the necessity for God by taking away supernatural explanations from natural occurrences. But it only kills those gods who are false in the first place. Religious beliefs with any credence should have no conflict at all with the nature of empirical investigation, the starry heavens above and the moral law within will not change their origins in a natural universe that had supernatural guidance. Only supernatural intervention should be conflicting, but supernatural intervention should also be evident in the evidence. Calling it a religion when people supplant the need for God is just showing the limitations in one's own worldview.

Social Cohesion
The social cohesion of a society has so often being historically a means of both maintaining and controlling a community, and being tightly-coupled with the explanation has enabled religion to thrive as a social construct which underpins much of modern-day society. So when the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens are so eager to free society from the shackles of religion, what would be there to replace it? This is not a question easily answered. So when theists come to the conclusion that an atheist worldview is to be imposed on the population as a substitute, one only has to look at the likes of Soviet Russia or modern-day China to see the negatives of such an occurrence. The negative aspects of Soviet Russia and China do not, however, stem from atheism. They are a product of control, of the dogmatism surrounding communist ideology. The problems associated with China and the Soviet show even further the dangers of dogmatism, and that it's not exclusive to religious practice. Dogmatism can occur anywhere, under any circumstance. The absolutist mentality and system of control through uniformity are indeed something to rally against, be it a religious institution or otherwise.

So it should go without saying that atheists don't want to replace religious dogmatism with a godless form of it. It would be odd for anyone who has read the likes of The End Of Faith or The God Delusion to conclude that atheists want that dogmatic structure in place. It will be a great challenge to allay the fears of a religious nation, especially when atheists rival Scientologists as the least trusted group in America. It seems without merit as there are far less atheists in prison per capita than almost any other group, not to mention divorce rates are lower. I'm not suggesting that atheists are more moral than theists, just that the fears that seem associated with atheists are unfounded. It's quite shocking to think that a majority of Americans wouldn't vote for a well qualified atheist president purely on religious grounds. Having someone grounded in reality and a concern for this life seems a great virtue for the job, the primitive notion of the relationship between religion and morality is just too strong to shake off.

As society has grown in number, and liberal democracy has allowed diversification, there isn't so much need anymore for a single organisation to keep the social cohesion of a community. In effect, that freedom has afforded us to seek the company of those we choose based on location, interests, socio-economic factors and so on. So while the community as a whole is fractured, there is the possibility for individuals to find a lifestyle that suits their needs. It does run the risk of isolation. This is not, however, symptomatic of the rise of atheism. Rather it seems a bi-product of capitalism where the focus of the individual coupled with global media devices mean that there is not so much of a need to maintain niceties with our neighbours. Now this is not to comment whether it's a good or bad thing, just to show that there is change in the environment which blaming on a simple loss of faith does not adequately explain.

One final thing that should be explored are atheist organisations. There have been a lot of groups popping up, especially in recent years for atheists / agnostics / humanists / whatever. These are social organisations, much like a group for homosexuals or a high IQ society. There is nothing spiritual about these groups, just purely social. So they aren't proof of a new atheist religion, rather they are systemic of modern society and the propensity to splinter off into smaller groups with like-minded individuals. There's no structure, no priests, no rituals, it's merely a place of gathering and social interaction. This can be done with no religious inference at all, and that is key to understanding how organisations fit into the wider social construct.

Understanding atheism
There's nothing really to understand. The word atheist shouldn't even exist; there isn't a word for those who don't believe in Santa, not a word for those who don't believe in fairies, the concept of God is no different. It's because we live in a predominantly religious society that labels to make distinctions between ideological worldviews exist. But the word's existence is so often used to infer belief, and belief in the same context as faith. It's use of equivocation in order to show that both worldviews are tenable in this age of reason.

Christianity is a very complete and self-contained worldview. It explained both, adequately enough, the starry heavens above and the moral law within. As scientific advancement has naturalistic explanations for previously unknown phenomena, it has become possible for a non-believer to have a complete worldview. This complete worldview stems from the same techniques that theists use to understand the world, and organises much the same way as any group behaviour in a large society; so there is nothing unique or even remotely religious about the New Atheism. It simply shows that the theists who use the term are at an intersection of science and religion in some form, and reject those who can adequately explain reality without the need for supernatural invocation.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Does God Exist? A debate review

It's national science week in Australia (that's right, we have a whole week dedicated to science!) and the Australian government brought out Dr Michael Shermer. As a huge fan of his work, I organised a trip at short notice to Sydney to see him debate Dr John Lennox on the topic of "Does God Exist?". I would have preferred a 90 minute lecture on one of the many topics he's written books on, but a debate is better than nothing. I finished reading Why People Believe Weird Things on the bus on the way up, excited about what was to come.

The debate
the debate was divided into three sections, a 20 minute talk from each professor, then 45 minutes of Q&A and finally a 5 minute closing statement each at the end. Shermer went first and presented his case. For me there was nothing new in what he said, being somewhat familiar with the arguments against God's existence it was simply an exercise in debating technique rather than a vessel of learning. Though isn't that what debates are all about? It's not about being right, it's about winning. Anyway, Shermer did well. What I found most interesting about his talk was that it pre-empted so much of what Lennox said.

Dr. Lennox really disappointed me. For someone who has gone up against the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, I expected some form of coherence and insight into the theist worldview. Instead it was a constant stream of logical fallacies: circular reasoning, constant appeals to authority, strawmen and selective history; it was an exercise in frustration to listen to it. Even Shermer looked agitated having to listen to such poor arguments. Some of the more contentious points for me where his link between a "historical" Jesus and a "magic" Jesus, that he appealed to the authority of the Nobel Prize to back up an argument from a laureate, and that the bible was the birthplace of science. The funny thing is that so many of the problems with religion Shermer talked about Lennox validated. Perhaps if it weren't for that irony, it would have been far less tolerable.

The question time brought the most interesting discussion and argument between the two, and provided the most enlightening moments between the contrasting worldviews. It was here I was able to get an appreciation for Dr Lennox's worldview as well as see Dr Shermer display his critical thinking skills. As the questioning went on, Lennox moved more and more towards emotive reasons for his belief and away from the evidence he professed to so much. But his views on Christianity are by no means medieval (even if they were defended as such) and a modern form of theism is quite refreshing to hear. Somehow I doubt the YECs in the audience were interested in the scientific worldview of Dr Lennox, only his spiritual arguments. And that's a shame, it was national science week and having a scientist who professes his literal belief in the resurrection without it conflicting with his religious beliefs should have helped. I only hope that at least a few came away with a bit more of a positive outlook on the role of science. That to me is far more important than the debate topic itself.

I missed out on asking a question because of time constraints, I was slightly disappointed. One loud theist who was in line behind me said to the organiser "God wants me to ask a question", I really hope he was joking. Though given his responses all night (even Shermer noticed him), maybe he genuinely felt that he had the God given right to ask. Who knows? As for the closing remarks, the most telling question of the night was "what would make you change your minds about the existence of God?". Shermer answered "$10 million in a Swiss bank account", Lennox answered "proof that Jesus didn't resurrect". $10 million appearing in an account has an earthly means and it can never be disproved that Jesus didn't resurrect. Possibly insight into the unwilling nature of either to change their worldview? I don't know. Overall, it was worth the trip up the Hume and I'm glad I made the endeavour. I got to thank Dr. Shermer and had a photo taken, but I cursed the fact I left 3 of his books back in my hotel room that I would have loved to get signed.

The pilgrimage
Afterwards, I met up with the Sydney atheists / sceptics, and along with Dr Shermer we went out for drinks. It seemed quite funny that the theists of the audience went off to pray with Dr Lennox while we went out for drinks, like we both have our drug to obfuscate reality. Though the key difference between the two is in the morning we'd all be sober. After what took a seeming eternity to find an open pub that could accommodate all 37 of us (Sydney, I'm very disappointed with you for a Saturday night), we finally got some booze and a chance to converse with the great man himself.

Any disappointment about the nature of the debate went away here, Shermer is a very knowledgeable and well-spoken man. His ability to talk comprehensively on a wide range of issues made the conversation like a Q&A session. This is more what National Science Week should have been about. I got to ask many questions on a wide range of topics, he even asked my opinion about why I thought that Richard Dawkins was being put on a pedestal by atheists and theists alike (though I'm not sure if it was just out of courtesy or he genuinely wanted to hear what I had to say). Even if he thought I was a complete moron, he answered my questions and was more than willing to engage in conversation.

So in the end, we as a group got to talk to Dr. Shermer for a good 90 minutes. It was a really enlightening experience. It was good to see them bring him out for national science week, not quite comparable to the $150 million that world youth day received, but a start nevertheless. Maybe next year they'll bring out Dawkins and PZ Myers in honour of the 150th anniversary of the release of The Origin Of Species. I guess I'll have to wait 12 months to find out. It was an interesting week and it's good to see the government encourage scientific learning for people of all ages and scientific literacy. There were plenty of events for school children, for the general public, and for those looking to supplement their knowledge. Hopefully it encourages more people to explore the discipline, it's something we really need for the future!

Thursday, 21 August 2008

One year anniversary!

It's been one year since I first started this blog, one year since I used it to post a concert review. I thought "no time like the present", and the rest as they say is history. I've wanted to do something like a blog for a while. Or a webpage. I've tried in the past but for whatever reason my drive to keep it updated hasn't been there. And in the early months of this blog I struggled for ideas. At the beginning, the blog felt like a parallel of the concert reviews on my account. But as time went on, I became more confident in my writing. My early posts were poor, the language primitive, the structure almost non-existent. I experimented in style, in concept, hoping to learn something out of it.

Around the same time as I started this blog, I joined an atheist group on facebook. Over time believers kept coming onto that group and preaching, the same fallacious arguments kept coming up over and over. The same basic ignorance of science kept coming up over and over. While the net is full of resources dedicated to exposing those fallacious arguments for what they were, I had some inspiration for what to write. Linking to another's source doesn't teach anyone anything, especially to a group not willing to listen. Instead of writing out the same arguments over and over again, the blog became a way for me to formalise certain arguments both for my own understanding and to stop having to write it out again and again. At times I've realised that my understanding on certain topics was less than I've liked, and there have been many an occasion where I've thrown away half-completed entries because I felt the argument was either incomplete or logically flawed.

So one year. It feels pretty good to not only stick with it, but to increase the frequency of output. I've enjoyed the mental challenge of writing such a blog, and I look forward to branching out in the future and bring reason to certain areas of reality so misused by those who don't know better. I'm an optimist and I believe in the best in people, so while I get disappointed over and over again as ignorance seems to win out over rational thought, I still think of the best in people to use their brains. I believe with that critical thinking that evidence will win out, so it's best to present an argument as completely and accurately as possible. It's then not about winning an argument, but presenting the argument in an honest way. And that is far more important than just witnessing a belief.

So one year, I'm happy. The feedback I've had has been very positive and I plan on continuing, hopefully getting better with each post. Stay tuned for more scepticism and exercises in pragmatism, there's more to come. Thank you to everyone who has read this blog, pointed out flaws, and pushed me to do better each time.I appreciate anyone and everyone who has taken the time out to consider my words, even if they don't agree with everything I've said. For with debate comes understanding, even if it's not understanding the debate topic. Hearing another's point of view is gaining a fresh perspective, and that is always a refreshing idea. It keeps our own ideas in check.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Is evolution circular?

It's been put to me several times that the evidence for evolution assumes evolution is true, so therefore it's invalid. This is wrong on a couple of counts, first off that our evidence for evolution assumes that evolution is true, and secondly that even if evolution is assumed true that it's invalid. We assume the 4 fundamental forces in physics experiments, but that doesn't invalidate the science of the experiment. Again, this stems from creationists having a YouTube understanding of the concept where people like Kent Hovind have been misrepresenting the scientific process against evolution.

Of fact and theory
First a definition for evolution must be established. Contrary to what Kent Hovind and his sycophantic minions say, evolution is not a theory of everything. It doesn't explain the big bang, nor does it explain the formation of stars or planets. It's a theory that explains the diversity of life. And the mechanism for that diversity according to evolutionary theory is natural selection. Natural selection is not a random process, it's the opposite. From wikipedia:
In biology, evolution is the process of change in the inherited traits of a population of organisms from one generation to the next.
It should be a simple concept to understand. It's nothing at all to do with the big bang, it's surprising that creationists take the concept as being so holistic. Evolution explains inheritable traits through mutation and natural selection that eventually leads to the diversity of life. In terms of explanation, it's very much the unifying theory of biology. Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution. But this doesn't mean that evolution is assumed true for all experiments in biology.

A misconception about evolution is that it's not falsifiable, and therefore not science. But evolutionary theory makes many predictions, as all science does. It's predictive of what to find in the fossil record, it's predictive of the types of mutations an organism should experience, it's predictive of patterns that should be found in ancestry. Now the science behind each of these concepts stands on it's own. i.e. evolution is not required when finding fossils, nor is evolution needed to explain mutations or ancestry. Thus is the difference between theory and fact in science. A theory is an explanation for the data, it predicts what data should be found, but the facts exist independently. If the facts don't fit into the theory that encompasses it, then the theory has to either be modified to support the new data (again by making predictions), or it is thrown out and replaced by a new theory that can explain all the new data. This is the case with plate tectonics, it superseeded Continental drift. Continental drift could not adequately explain the data and thus was replaced with a theory that could.

New data is coming in all the time, there are millions of scientists worldwide doing tests on observed phenomena. No theory is static, nor is it complete. New data can fill holes in gaps of knowledge, likewise it can cast doubts on elements of the theory and call for modification. It's all part of the scientific process and not a problem for the practical applications of the scientific method. The uncertainty that comes with a theory is not a drawback of the scientific method, rather it allows for the possibility that new data can shatter a concept. And that is so important, and it's what separates scientific knowledge from dogmatism.

Lines of evidence
First a look at the fossil record. We can learn from the fossil record at what time certain species lived through Earth's history. Evolutionary theory predicts that many species that once lived but have since become extinct should be preserved in ancient rocks, and that some of these fossils should be "transitional" forms, in that they show features that transition from one species to another. So this is how we know that evolution is correct when it comes to the fossil record. We see invertebrates come before vertebrates, we see vertebrates before amphibians. We see amphibians before reptiles, and finally we see reptiles before both birds and mammals. Nowhere do we see any transitional species between mammals and birds or vice versa. All this evidence stands on it's own, it's just explained by evolutionary theory in the falsifiable predictions the theory makes. Even without evolution, there is still a progressive fossil record to explain; it doesn't simply go away if evolution does.

Next a look at mutations. When an organism reproduces, most species have male and female reproductive organs. So any offspring gets 50% of it's genetic code from it's father and 50% from it's mother. But children aren't carbon copies of their parents, while most DNA is transferred successfully, mutations can and do happen. Not all mutations happen in the reproductive cells and aren't passed down, but those that happen in reproductive cells are. The theory of evolution states that these mutations happen, and it's the basis for the theory. That advantageous mutations will mean an organism is more likely to reproduce than organisms with bad mutations. Now it seems that strict adaptation is not the only means of mutations getting passed on, a lot of mutations are neutral and get passed down through generations through a process called genetic drift. Again these mutations stand on their own, and still happen regardless of whether evolutionary theory is correct.

Now a look at common ancestry. Through looking at patterns in DNA, similarities and differences can be noticed between parents and offspring. Applying it further back should be able to show ancestry for an entire species, and even across species. Evolution argues for common descent, and it predicts that species have a common ancestor and thus would be reflected in the genome. Just as we can see that all humans have a common ancestor this way around 140,000 years ago, we can see that humans and chimpanzees had a common ancestor around 6 million years ago. Again, even without evolutionary theory, this does not stop the science of common descent at all.

Finally a look at speciation. When two members of a species become different enough genetically, the offspring as a result of mating will be infertile. And this is exactly what evolutionary theory predicts. It's important to remember that speciation doesn't happen on a single individual, rather on a population. Say on an island there was a volcanic eruption in the middle of the island, and as a result there is a species of tortoise that is separated by the lava. On the north side of the island, the environment favours tortoises that have longer necks because the food is on branches while on the other side it favours tortoises with sharper beaks for eating seeds. Advantageous mutations for each group of tortoises will change the base genetic code that is seen in each population, and eventually with enough isolation there will be no means for the two groups to produce fertile offspring any more. And when that happens, it's called speciation. They are now two separate species, not one original species. This has been observed numerous times, and it still exists even without an evolutionary theory to explain it.

Fallacious fallacies
Fundamentalists get called on logical fallacies all the time, because they make so many. It's with that they try and fight back and call out scientists on logical fallacies. Everybody makes them, it's not exclusive to creationists. But like everything else, learning what is a logical fallacy and why takes practice. Just because you think it's circular, it doesn't make it so. It takes training to identify just what is fallacious and what is not. Likewise, without an understanding of the scientific method, calling out fallacies in science is seldom going to be accurate. Without understanding the logic behind a method, how is someone meant to call out problems in the logic?

Thursday, 14 August 2008

What if evolution didn't happen?

Disclaimer: while I strive for accuracy and completeness, the science in this post is a small snapshot of all the different ways we have of coming to the conclusions that currently stand as scientific knowledge. While it's useful to understand, it's by no means a substitute for real knowledge, and I encourage everyone to inform themselves on the processes involved.

This is something that comes up again and again, believers asking "what if evolution is not true?" when unsatisfied with any answer containing the word. There is a reason that evolution is an answer for many questions relating to humans, we are biological creatures and thus we are under the constraints that the evolutionary process has gone through. But to creationists, they can't grasp the concept. It stems from the fallacy that if evolution isn't real, that creationism is not only an alternative but the alternative. Evolution happened, there isn't any debate in the scientific community about this. There is debate about the mode it took, but that's another story. It's time to play the game, would the removal of evolution from theory make creationism any more plausible?

Answers from mother earth
First stop is geology. Currently, geologists predict the Earth is around 4.54 billion years old. What would happen if we remove evolution from our current geological understanding? There are a variety of methods for dating the earth. First is relative dating, where the age of a certain rock is calculated based on it's position in a geological column. Like bricks in a wall, the lowest layer must have been laid before the layer above it. So by starting at the top of a column and by going down, a geologist is going backward in time. Just how far is uncertain in this method, which is why there is absolute dating.

Absolute dating is normally done with one of many radioactive substances. The rationale is that certain substances are unstable and thus the nuclide decays. By knowing the decay rates and testing for those substances in the rock, the age can be determined with varying degrees of accuracy. The technique can be tested against artefacts of a known time to test it's accuracy, as well as being tested against relative dating where it should follow that rocks in a lower geological column show up as older using the test than rocks at the top. Likewise there are multiple radiometric dating tests, and dates can be cross-checked against each other.

From this the oldest substance found on earth was some zircon that dated to 4.404 billion years old (+/- 8MYA). We've found meteorites that date to around 4.57 billion years, which is being taken as the upper age for the solar system. So taking out evolution does not at all change the fact that the earth is old.

Next up is the fossil record. Certain species lived at certain times, and this can be found out by dating the rocks where fossils are found. While some fossils can be eroded and deposited in higher strata, it can't go the other way. Looking at the fossil record, life came to this earth sometime in the first billion years of it's existence, and it was in a simple form. Complex organisms didn't come about until around 550MYA, and this can be seen in the geological columns. In the series Life On Earth, Attenborough showed a geological shelf in Morocco where by going further back in time the fossil record and life forms became progressively simpler until one stage where no more fossils existed in the rocks. This does not assume evolution happened (though it's a damn fine explanation), it merely shows that life of certain types have existed at certain times.

Another geological phenomena is that in the same geological shelf, rocks from multiple environments are seen on top of the other. Why would an area go from a reef to a tropical forest, to a temperate lagoon all on the same time? The answer is the continents are moving. Each continent is sitting on a plate, and that plate moves along the mantle. For instance the plate that Australia is sitting on is moving north at the face rate of 10cm a year. Plates can collide, thus shooting up mountains as we can see in the Himalayas. So by looking at geological columns that have been exposed through various means, we can trace back through time that area's geological history. We can see that once Australia, Antarctica, South America and Africa where all connected and we can work out just when that was through movement rates. This provides a look back into the land's past hundreds of millions of years.

So by now it should be established that even IF evolution didn't happen, the earth is around 4.5 billion years old and life has been on earth for around 80% of that time in various forms. It does not look good for young earth creationism even without the theory that species over time gradually change through mutation and natural selection.

Great balls of fire

Next stop is astrophysics. Astronomers predict the age of the universe to be 13.7 billion years old. Now lets again remove any assumption of evolution from astrophysics (it takes away nothing for the record). The Sun is a big fusion machine, it converts hydrogen into helium in it's core. By working out the rate of which hydrogen is fused into helium, an age can be worked out. Using this technique, the age of the sun is ~4.57 billion years old, which is consistent with the age of meteorites found that would have formed during the birth of the solar system.

Likewise looking outside our solar system and it becomes a question of distance. Light travels at a constant pace in a vacuum, around 300,000km a second. For astronomical distances, they can be measured how far they are away from earth by how long it takes light to reach earth from that object. For instance the moon is about 380,000 km or 1.25 light seconds away, the sun is about 150,000,000km or 8m20s away. So when we see photos from the sun, we are looking 8 minutes and 20 seconds into the past. The further the object is from earth, the further back in time we look into the universe.

Proxima Centauri is the nearest observed star to the sun. To calculate how far it is away, it's a case of simple trigonometry. By taking the angle to the star at one point of the year, then taking another 6 months later when we are on the other side of the sun, we can make a simple triangle. And by knowing two angles and one side (the diameter of orbit), the distance can be calculated mathematically. And the star is 4.2 light years away. Likewise we can calculate it's age in the same way we can calculate the sun's. And it's 4.85 billion years old, older than anything in our solar system. The universe just keeps getting older. Using parallax to determine a star's distance works to around 3000 light years. But a relationship between luminosity, distance and star type can be established, we call this main sequencing. So by taking a star's brightness and it's type, it's distance away from earth can be determined.

The furthest observed galaxy is 13.2 billion light years away
. That means we are seeing light from that galaxy that was emitted 13.2 billion years ago. For objects this far away red-shifting is used. As the universe is expanding, the distance light from distance galaxies has to travel further and thus the photon of light becomes more red the further it travels. The oldest star is known as HE 1523-0901 and it's estimated that it's around 13.2 billion years old. It's in our galaxy as well! A NASA probe was able to measure the background levels of radiation in the universe, and from there based on the assumption that the laws of physics are constant the age of the universe is calculated at 13.7 billion years. There are other methods in determining this age too, it's not only the cosmic background radiation. Of course every time we've put an age on the universe, it's been found to be older than we've anticipated. So 13.7 billion years could be still underestimating the universes' age.

The living planet
Final stop is at biology. Now scientists believe life on earth has been for about 3.5 billion years, and complex life for about 700 million years. This is based on the age of fossils. What we have is the emergence and decline of species, we have the progression of bodies from invertebrates to vertebrates, jawless to jawed fossils, the gradual emergence of amphibians, then reptiles, the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, and finally the rise of mammals and birds. None of that assumes evolution, though evolution explains it so nicely. Now let's look at a couple of instances of dating in nature.

The first is a technique called dendrochronology, or counting tree rings. During the year, each tree experiences growth faster in the summer than winter. It's a yearly cycle and it results in rings. So the age of a tree can be determined by the number of rings it has. Since each season isn't the same, a good growth season means a bigger ring than a poor growth season. By taking patterns of several years from one tree, the same pattern can be found in others. So the early rings for one tree could be the most recent rings for another. So a 500 year old tree that matches it's first 5 rings with the 5 oldest rings on another 500 year old tree would show that the oldest tree came about 995 years ago. This technique has been used to go back around 10,000 years.

The second is about patterns in common ancestry. When a child is born, the DNA of the child contains half its mother's DNA and half its fathers. Its children will have half of if its DNA. So through this, common ancestry can be worked out by looking for patterns that both people share. If we all were created 6,000 years ago and came from one pair, it should be reflected in our mtDNA (DNA from our mother's lineage). Instead we see the last common ancestor of all humanity as around 140,000 years ago, with the first migration of modern day humans out of Africa as around 55,000 years ago. Not to mention by using the same technique, we go back 6 million years to our last common ancestor with chimpanzees.

So even in natural markers we have an old earth. Losing evolution would certainly not validate young earth creationism. It's not an "either or" situation, and creationists would be best served doing research to explain
all evidence rather than just taking pot-shots at evolution. It just shows their profound ignorance of science to think that a young earth view rests solely on whether speciation is a product of natural selection. The scientific method may only look at small snapshots one at a time, but a scientific theory has to be consistent with all knowledge across many disciplines. It would be best served if believers learnt this now and stopped putting a myth across as a tangible alternative. It's just embarrassing.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

A sceptical outlook

I've recently began to watch The X-Files from the beginning again. To me, it poses a unique challenge to a sceptical mind. It is a work of fiction, but it pushes the realm of implausibility is not only a tangible explanation but pushed as the explanation. Of course it's just a show and has no bearing on reality. But the methodology used by the show is exactly the problem I see in those who believe in the paranormal: a willingness to reach for an implausible explanation despite no mechanism for which it to act. And while that is perfectly fine in fiction, in reality it has some very negative consequences.

The truth is out there
In the absence of a natural explanation, there are those who jump quite readily towards a supernatural one. Most of the time there is already a natural explanation, which more often than not gets wilfully ignored. Maybe for some, it's not an adequate enough explanation. It seems almost paradoxical that for explanations people deem paranormal, a higher burden of proof is required to show that it is indeed a natural occurrence. It's not enough to just demonstrate that there is a natural explanation, all the finest details must also be established all the paranormal explanation is favoured. Just look at the psychics. Now psychics work under two natural mechanisms: cold reading and hot reading. Cold reading is by saying something vague enough and universal enough, eventually there will be some hits. And the "psychic" uses the hits to draw the story out of the wilful participant without them being aware that they are the ones who are actually filling in the blanks. It's a hard technique to master, but it can be done. Hot reading on the other hand is having information in advance, and this becomes an exercise in telling the participant what they want to hear. Because it's such an overwhelming and powerful experience, few are going to question the validity of the paranormal as the experience seems to far from reality it must have credibility.

This is what is identified as a false positive. The willingness to believe in the paranormal is essence is confirmed by the evidence the believer is looking for. So it doesn't matter about whether psychic powers are even in the realm of plausibility, the evidence seems to match the description of the phenomena so it's taken over a sceptic's objections. It's the equivalent of looking at the mountains and concluding goddidit, then ignoring all empirical data on plate tectonics and erosion to maintain that position. It's an answer without a reason, and so often a reason is not needed because the answer is coupled with meaning. When it's a personal issue like communicating with the dead, the emotive connection is never going to be pursuaded by empirical evidence. Much like when someone believes the world was created by God in 6 days as it is now, when God is tied to their meaning of existence, how are they meant to understand that the empirical observation suggests otherwise?

Appealing to a paranormal explanation is to take that explanation on face value. It's to stop evaluation of the claims and just feed the delusions of those making them. Two things need to be understood when assessing claims of this nature: a naturalistic explanation should always be sought in favour of a supernatural explanation, and in the absence of a natural explanation, it doesn't automatically make a supernatural explanation any more plausible. There are two important elements in testing a phenomena: predictions and the mechanism. Firstly if a phenomena is real, then it should be testable under a blind study. If it passes that first hurdle, then the mechanism behind it should be tested. Science is no enemy of the paranormal, it's indiscriminate towards all ideas. If an idea has credulity, then it will stand up to the rigours of the method. Any belief that can withstand objective scrutiny has some credulity. Getting objective scrutiny on ideas that are intrinsically tied to emotion can be nigh on impossible.

Little green men
Consider the belief in extra-terrestrial life. Now if intelligent life did exist elsewhere in the universe, let us consider the lengths they would have to go to get to earth and observe us. It would have to be able to travel light-years across the galaxy at the very minimum; and that's just if the life-form is on a nearby solar system. But more likely, there are no local stars that harbour intelligent life (if life exists at all), and the distances would be in the 100s to 1000s of light years away. For a life-form to do this, they would have to have a ship that can either:
a) travel faster than the speed of light
b) bend space and time or
c) harbour many many generations on the same ship
Now consider the extreme intelligence required for such an endeavour. It's almost entirely implausible, so when someone says they were abducted by aliens, surely there would be some real evidence to back it up. Instead we get stories that wouldn't look out of place in the fantasy section of the library, comparable to the tripe L. Ron Hubbard wrote. Yet the willingness to believe transcends the implausibility, because to those who truly believe they were abducted the experience was as real as anything reality has to offer.

As evidence, people look to phenomena like crop circles. There's a couple of problems with this. Firstly crop circles have a naturalistic mechanism, human involvement. And even if some can't be explained by human behaviour, why would an intergalactic being travel 1000s of light years and the only clue it leaves as proof of it's existence is patterns in our crops? That sounds just as crazy as an all-powerful, all-knowing deity revealing himself through the miracle of etching women on toast or making statues bleed. Personally, I'd expect highly advanced beings to do a little better than make primitive yet cryptic messages for people to learn of their existence. What does the Virgin Mary on toast symbolise anyway? Maybe it was a sign from the lord for the woman who found it to give up her cholesterol-laden diet and get some damn exercise. A weeping statue could mean that Jesus is crying at what Christians have done with his message of peace. Of course an all-powerful being could just make the message a bit less cryptic and spell it out. Maybe it'll stop some of the wars and intolerance between religions. Or maybe we are just looking at the most asinine occurrences as sign of the miraculous as there is no real evidence to back it up.

Now I'm not saying conclusively that crop circles aren't the products of alien life, nor am I saying that God has better things to do with his time than putting images onto baked goods. I'm saying to think about the properties that we attribute to both phenomena. Highly intelligent, incredibly powerful beings that can manipulate time and space. It just seems very unlikely that if such beings actually wanted to contact us, there would be much more direct and evidential ways. It's clutching at straws, and by no means evident of anything other than the mind's ability to link beliefs with causality plus an overactive imagination. Evidence should fit the nature of the claim, thus extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This is what the sceptic requires, as what is required of any idea; paranormal or not.

I want to believe
Being sceptical is not being outright dismissive. It's a tool on which to assess the quality of evidence and veracity of claims. Someone who takes a sceptical point of view towards evidence is not a bad thing by any means, on the contrary having ideas challenged is the only way to continually test their worth. Personally I have no problems of believing in ghosts or psychic powers, I just want them subjected to the same rigorous process as other ideas go through before openly supporting the idea. This is scepticism at it's heart, it's not believing because of wants, rather believing because there is simply too much evidence to suggest the phenomena is real.

It's sad that being sceptical is looked down on so much in our society. Born out of religious tolerance, to try and debunk the paranormal is met with the greatest of resistance. To question the validity of psychic powers becomes a personal insult, it's killing the hopes and dreams of those who want to believe. This poses an ethical dilemma: on the one hand we don't want to cause undue harm to another being, and on the other by allowing that belief to go unchecked that person is being exploited by charlatans. The bottom line is we can't protect people from themselves, they are always going to be suckered in by the promises of the miraculous, listen to anecdotal evidence, and believe in obvious falsehoods. The mind is geared that way. To apply some objectivity to those beliefs and maybe question why it should be a social taboo, otherwise who knows what kind of crazy ideas will be propagated with no evidence at all?

Monday, 4 August 2008

Regarding that damn wager

After dismissing Pascal's Wager as a meek argument and not in itself a reason to believe, it was pointed out to me I hadn't applied the wager properly and thus missed the point on why it's used not only by the ignorant but by intellectuals discussing the rationality of belief. While it pained me to see Sir Robert Winston (who I have great regard for) use it in a debate, it's only now dawned on me just why it's such an important weapon in a believer's arsenal. When wielded properly, it's a formidable nut to crack. A proper refutation is in order to show just why taking a position of non-belief isn't an irrational thought.

The atheist gamble
To understand Pascal's wager properly, it's needed to address the claim of uncertainty in relation to statistical probability. It's in effect trying to work the odds of belief based on the consequences of the possible outcomes. And the possible results are thus:

x = RN - C
N is the likelihood of God existing (between 0 and 1)
C is the cost of belief
R is the reward
x is the overall cost of the wager

Belief in God:
If there is a God, then infite reward (x = ∞ - C, x = ∞ since ∞ - C = ∞)
If there isn't a God, then nothing (x = -C)
No belief in God:
If there is a God, then infinite punishment (x = -∞)
If there isn't a God, then nothing (x = 0)

Given that R is either infinity or minus infinity if God is real, it completely negates the finite cost of belief and the low change of God existing. While if there is no God, then there is no reward and the cost while being detrimental is still finite.

From this, it seems only logical to believe in God, right? We atheists have been beaten by mathematics... unless the gambit is missing something. To see what it's missing, we need to look at the assumptions.
1. It assumes that there is always uncertainty
2. It assumes the choice is only between God and nothing
3. It assumes belief is a choice
4. It assumes a finite cost of belief

The first assumption is correct, there is no way of absolutely knowing anything... Maybe, I'm not absolutely sure, but it's as correct as far as I can tell. The problem in this assumption lies in the nature of the supernatural. By definition the supernatural is beyond our knowledge, so any comment on the nature of the supernatural can be nothing but speculation. How can we say God exists, or even attribute features to God if he is beyond the realms of empirical knowledge with any certainty whatsoever? This is important to understand because it leads on to the second assumption.

Now the choice is never between God and "Not God", there are plenty of other supernatural entities out there, most of which are very different in nature to the Christian God Pascal was referring to. And what is to say that any of them are right at all? It's the supernatural, it could be of any nature at all, any number of options for attribute. An update on the formula.

x = RN/T - C
T is the total number of possible outcomes.

So if it were a choice between God and Brahman, T would equal 2. If Allah and Odin are added, then T = 4. Add The Rainbow Serpent, Zeus, Ra and The FSM, then T is 8.

And if we continue adding all the world's deities that ever entered the thoughts of humans, T grows to infinity as well. It's important to remember that infinity and 0 are conceptual numbers so doing rational calculations do not apply. What is ∞/∞? Is an infinite reward comparable with the infinite improbability of picking the right means to the reward? This alone should send out massive warning bells about using such a conceptual entity to show the logic of a belief. Is the reward for the belief itself even infinite? Certainly it promises eternal life, but even then it's not as rewarding as a belief that will allow the believer to become master of the omniverse and have more power than god does. When nothing is absolutely certain, dealing in absolutes transcends mathematics and thus the prospect of showing mathematically the rationale for belief is useless.

The cost of belief
Assumption 3 is that belief is a choice, which is arguable. Personally I don't feel we have much choice in what we believe, it's based on what we are taught, what we rationalise in our brains, and our consciousness is nothing more than justification of an autonomic process. I'm by no means certain of this position, the brain is truly a mystical unit which we know very little about the processes that go on. In any case, belief is certainly not a switch that can be thrown willingly. I like to think of the brain as INPUT -> PROCESS -> OUTPUT, much in the same way the computer works. The output in this case is the belief and the input is the rationale for that belief. The process is our brain, a black box system which we know very little about just what goes on in there.

To transpose Pascal's Wager into finite terms, think of each possible outcome as horses in a race. If there was application of Pascal's Wager, the correct horse to bet on would be the 100/1 gamble, while the 2/1on favourite is a worse choice because the payout in the event of that horse winning is less. So why would anyone bet on the 2/1on horse when there is uncertainty in the result, it could do a Bradbury but it's not a safe bet by any means. The odds are there for a reason, and while there are uncertainties in a race, we use evidence to work out those odds. There's the track record for each horse, the distances they are best at running on, the starting lane, the type of surface, the weight of the jockey, the frequency of racing, and so on. Working purely on the reward of the potential gamble is not a logical measure when all evidence points to the contrary. So when there is no evidence for God's existence, how is someone meant to believe in God purely out of the potential for reward? In that way, belief cannot be a choice.

Finally there is the cost of belief, and it's quite correct to assume that the cost is finite. But being finite is only negligible when dealing in the infinite, which as demonstrated above is a useless concept. As far as certainty goes, as certain as we can be, we are here now and whether or not there is life after physical death, beliefs affect the worldview in this reality. It alters thought processes, it changes how an individual views the world. Beliefs are filters that are placed over senses that change the internal interpretation. As there are limitations on the human brain, for some there is a want to understand the natural world as accurately as possible. Having beliefs that go beyond an empirical understanding can cloud the ability to see reality for what it is. So to an empirical rationalist, the cost of belief rises with the amount of uncertainty that is associated with it. It's still finite, but by this stage it hardly matters. Without the ability to evaluate the only reality we know, the cost of belief is too great to simply just believe.

The costs are not always negative to everyone, for some there are positives in having a belief. For some, it may give meaning, give hope, give them a reason to help out in the community, to be accepting of others. Maybe some people need that reward / punishment incentive system to be a good person. Of course not everyone needs the fear of hell or the reward of heaven to do good and be responsible members of a community, and part of the indoctrination that happens all too often in churches is pushing the lie that faith and works are conjoined twins. But that's a whole other discussion. All that needs to be recognised here is that beliefs can have positives as well as negatives, depending on the person and type of behaviour.

Empirical rationalism
Not all atheists are rationalists, and there are probably as many reasons for non-belief as there are atheists to begin with. Those conclusions may be just as rational or irrational as reasons for belief, or may simply be an extension of the default setting (we are all born non-believers, some of us never change). Whether it's an implicit or explicit rejection of the supernatural, placing the wager on that belief is only going to appeal to those who use rational arguments for not believing. There is always uncertainty, to be certain of anything to an absolute is an absurd notion. With this I agree with Pascal. But without calling to empiricism, philosophy is blind. Empiricism is a constraint on reality, a context for philosophy to operate. Our desire "to know" while being uncertain can operate quite effectively in degrees of certainty. As far as it's possible to tell, gravity exists. Yet, while we are uncertain that gravity is absolutely true, only a fool would think they can defy gravity and leap off a tall building.

When dealing with the supernatural, it's unknown by definition. It's not possible to test something empirically that is not part of the natural world, but by moving a concept beyond the natural world and out of the bounds of empiricism it becomes nothing more than speculation to give attributes to it. For an empirical rationalist, the concept of god as a supernatural entity is entirely useless, it's beyond knowing. So any attribution of parameters for that unknown entity is going to be shot down without a valid reason. The implication of Pascal's Wager is that every single human makes the bet whether they intend to or not. Yet there is not a single objective answer to the wager given it's assumptions, so as an argument for a rational reason to believe, it fails. The call to empiricism is a flicker of light in the darkness of uncertainty. While it does not ever give absolute certainty, the degree of certainty in knowledge makes empiricism a powerful tool. That's why to a empirical rationalist pure reason alone is evident of nothing. And that's why Pascal's Wager does not show that belief in God is a rational position to take, let alone the only rational position to take.