Saturday, October 7, 2017

In Defense of Dillahunty's Agnosticism

Matt Dillahunty has articulated what I consider to be the most lucid and reasoned explanation for why he should be an agnostic atheist as opposed to the "hard" variety.  He states that while there is no good evidence or argument that would compel him to accept the outrageous and absurd claims of religions, he also admits that he is unable to meet the burden of proof required of someone who claims to know with certainty that there are no gods or goddesses.

I happen to agree, from what I know of him, that in all likelihood Matt Dillahunty is not able to meet that burden of proof.  Most people on the planet would not be capable of meeting that burden of proof.  However I would not go so far as to claim that the burden of proof is impossible to meet, or that no one on the planet can now or ever do so.

So, hypothetically, what would it take to be able to definitively state as a matter of demonstrated fact that gods and goddesses are not real?  That there is definitively and provably no god?

Step one is to recognize that "god" is a word linked to a broad and poorly-defined category of nebulous, shape-shifting ideas. Attempting to connect such a word with any actual evidence is like trying to state anything definitive about Zlypph.  Who or what is Zlypph?  Not telling.  You have to figure it out and prove that it is or isn't real.  Well, this is a pointless task, unless we can attach some actual meaning to this worn-out placeholder.

We therefore go right ahead and do exactly that - attach some actual meaning to the word that is more than the vague bewildered gooey feeling ignorant people get in their brains when they are sad or can't comprehend something.  We must pin languages' most shape-shifting word to a specific meaning, such as "a universally powerful intelligent agent."  Even without all the adornments that various religions hang onto this definition or the numerous properties, characteristics, agendas, likes or dislikes that vary from one god to another, this, surprisingly, is enough for us to proceed.

Now, let's imagine that an individual has access to some unspecified but sufficiently large amount of reliable knowledge.  And by "reliable" I mean of course scientific knowledge.  Science as we know is the most reliable process for knowing things.  Compared to Science, every other way of knowing is no better than random guessing, and often considerably worse.  This is a direct result of the way Science always seeks disconfirmation rather than confirmation.  It is almost impossible for a false hypothesis to withstand skilled and determined efforts to disconfirm it using repeatable empirical evidence and unassailably rigorous analysis consisting of both logical and quantitative reasoning.  Only something that is reasonably true, that is, having a reasonable concordance with the real universe, can stand up to that kind of treatment.  And so, scientific knowledge is the only reliable knowledge.

Using unlimited access to this scientific knowledge along with the resulting comprehension of the natural laws, principles, processes, matter, objects, forces, fields, effects, or phenomena of the real universe, including the biosphere and its development on this planet, such a broadly informed person could be in a position to ask himself, "Is there some all-powerful (or nearly so) Agency at work in the universe?"

In order to answer in the affirmative, our polymath scientist would have to identify two enabling circumstances that are necessary but insufficient conditions.  In simple terms, these two things have to be found in order for gods to be real; but even then only producing an actual specimen would prove it beyond doubt.

Those circumstances are as follows:

1. We must see evidence that such an agency is or has been active.  We must observe objects, circumstances, processes or incidents that positively have no natural explanation or ordinary human or animal agency as their cause.  So far, all of the vast quantity of evidence that we have can be readily accounted for using natural processes or animal/human agency.   There is no evidence that the universe is or has been influenced in any way that only a powerful universal Agency could produce.

2. We must be able to identify specific processes or mechanisms by which this influence occurs or could occur.  That is, what is the entry point or point(s) of contact between this Agency and the physical universe?  We have thoroughly and meticulously scoured all of the possible physical interactions over a wide range of energy levels from the smallest weakest particles to the most powerful forces and objects in the cosmos. What we know is that there are three and only three forces operating on matter and energy: the strong nuclear force, the electromagnetic/weak nuclear force, and the gravitational pseudo-force.*  We know and it has been demonstrated that there are and can be no other forces operating in these regimes.  We know how those forces work and all the ways that matter and energy interact through those forces.  We know that, within the limits that can possibly affect objects ranging from electrons up to massive stars, there is no other way for the physical universe consisting of matter and energy to be influenced other than through these forces acting on these particles.

The absence of evidence where that evidence MUST exist is definitive evidence of absence.  Therefore there is positively no supernatural, no magic, no ghosts "outside" the universe sticking their hands in and tweaking or nudging it, or any such thing.  The mechanisms that would enable such influence to occur would have been evident exactly in the places we have been searching.

We also have zero evidence that such influence has been taking place, and certainly with nothing like the regularity that theists claim it is occurring.  Again, the absence of this evidence is the evidence.

If you have been paying close attention, you may now be objecting that we have actually been evaluating the claim that gods exist, rather than the claim that they do not.  We have actually assumed the burden of proof of the deists/theists.  But a careful examination of the scientific evidence allows a sufficiently informed individual to conclude that the evidences or lack thereof for one claim are the same as for the opposite claim.  In particular, that the singular absence of evidence for the claim made by deists is precisely all the positive evidence needed to meet the burden of proof required of the gnostic anti-deist.

Now, if theists propose an even more narrowly specified god having particular qualities, properties, likes and dislikes, taking specified actions at specified times, then it becomes even easier to locate the (lack of) evidence required to disqualify and dismiss such claims, again positively.  The positive presence of a big empty hole where the theists' evidence was supposed to be is itself the evidence.

Not everyone has access to a sufficiently deep and broad range of scientific evidence and knowledge sufficient to enable one to positively conclude that the theists' evidence is actually missing.  It's too easy for most people to not know for certain that the evidence is not in some other field with which they are unfamiliar.  Theists take advantage of this information segmentation or compartmentalization and deftly shift from one claim to another depending on what areas his debate opponent is least familiar with.  But it is not impossible for some generalists in the basic sciences with informed interests in a wide range of other fields in pure and applied sciences to actually be capable of synthesizing all the information necessary to positively, definitively conclude that there are no gods.

My perception is that there are typically more hard atheists among scientists than among other walks of life. But I do not fault Matt Dillehunty for remaining agnostic.  On the contrary, I applaud his honesty for refusing to claim that he can meet the hard atheist burden of proof.  But he should not also fallaciously conclude that since he cannot, no one can.

Nor do I call for Matt to change his position.  He should not, and I support him in his position.  For one thing, his acceptance of scientific evidence without actually understanding or evaluating that evidence would be nothing more than an appeal to authority, which is just one more of the unreliable ways of knowing things that rational people deplore.  But more importantly, Matt can do what few hard atheists can: connect and engage with people.  Matt can build bridges, whereas scientists like me are only good at being divisive and intolerant.  He is more gifted in that area than I can ever be, precisely because of his refusal to adopt the hard atheist position.  No, Matt, we need you where you are.  You're good.

*But what about dark matter/dark energy?  We don't know what those are yet, so there could still be gods and magic, right?  Wrong.  These effects are not observed except on objects the size of a galaxy or bigger.  So we ordinary people, stars, and planets are unaffected by these forces.  But Your Mama should be more careful.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Evidence versus Arguments: A Guide to Knowing with Greater Certainty

We've all heard of logical fallacies - those errors of reasoning that can lead to unreliable conclusions but which seem convincing to someone motivated to believe.  There is a complete taxonomy of fallacies, and some people rejoice in observing them in the wild, like bird watching.

Image result for ham subBut there are just three particular fallacies I want to discuss here.  One is a subset of  Red Herring fallacies, called the Fallacy of Relative Privation.  Red Herrings generally are a response to a position that instead of addressing the evidence for the position or the arguments that connect the evidence to the position's conclusion, simply changes the subject. For example:

"How about cancer, huh?  Pretty bad stuff, am I right?" 

"How DARE you minimize the suffering of people with heart disease!"

We've all seen exchanges like this in internet comments sections, and we can all recognize that the respondent is an irrational person.  The first person has evidence which leads him to conclude that cancer is a bad thing, and the second person disagrees on the basis that something else exists which they perceive as being just as bad or worse.  This Fallacy of Relative Privation leads the respondent to the unreliable conclusion that the first statement is somehow incorrect.

Another of my favourite fallacies is the Fallacy of Four Terms Via an Equivocation Error.  Cool name, huh?  The Four Terms refers to the fact that a classical syllogism has exactly three terms, not four; and slipping in a fourth (or fifth or sixth) term invalidates it.  Basically, it states:

If A = B, and if B = C, then A = C.  

But if we introduce a fourth term, we get:

If A = B, and C = D, then A = D.  Or A = E.  Or G = H.

This reasoning is clearly flawed.

What makes a Four Terms fallacy hard to spot is the addition of an Equivocation Error, i.e. you disguise the fact that B and C are not actually the same thing.   While almost impossible to do using mathematical notation, it's pretty easy using the good ol' English Language.  A great example is attributed to Lewis Carroll:

If we accept that nothing is better than Eternal Bliss, 
and that a Ham Sandwich is better than nothing, 
then a Ham Sandwich is better than Eternal Bliss. 

Clearly.  Fun Fact:  This syllogism was not found in an early draft of the Koran.

The equivocation error is that nothing is not the same thing as nothing.  Get it?  No?

Then let us rewrite the syllogism as follows:

Given: the set of things greater in value than Eternal Bliss is empty.
Given: a Ham Sandwich is greater in value than any Empty Set. 
Therefore, a Ham Sandwich is greater in value than the set of things that are greater than Eternal Bliss.  

This exposes the fallacy, since it is not Eternal Bliss that a Ham Sandwich is greater than, rather the set of things greater than Eternal Bliss, which happens to be an empty set, since we have accepted (without evidence as it turns out) that Eternal Bliss is the greatest possible thing.

Therefore, if someone offers you the choice of a Ham Sandwich, or Everything that is Greater than Eternal Bliss, you take the ham sandwich, without question.  Because the other thing is an empty set; in other words, nothing.

But if given the choice of a ham sandwich or Eternal Bliss, then you have to start asking for evidence of the existence of both Eternal Bliss AND this alleged ham sandwich.

This leads us to the relationship between arguments and evidence.  An argument is just a way of drawing a continuous line between the evidence and some conclusion.  A fallacious argument is like a broken line: the conclusion is not necessarily connected to that evidence.

But it should be recognized that there can be any number of lines (arguments) connecting the evidence to a conclusion.  If one line is broken, that does not exclude the possibility of some other solidly connected line

This leads me to the third fallacy I wished to discuss: the Fallacy Fallacy.  Just because an argument is fallacious doesn't mean that the conclusion is automatically wrong.  It just means that the argument is wrong.  In other words, the line is broken and the evidence and conclusion are not connected in that particular way.  Perhaps by some other way, but not that one.  The conclusion could still be right by some other unknown argument or on the back of some different evidence.

However, without at least some kind of evidence, all the greatest arguments in the world are meaningless.  The lines leading to a conclusion have to lead back to something.  They have to originate somewhere, from some kind of evidence.

I have seen a lot of different arguments for the existence of gods or goddesses.  Hell, I invented some of them myself.  The fact that I now find all of them in some way fallacious isn't even the most relevant point.

The real point is that there is no evidence that does not support some other, more concordant conclusion, or that does not require further baseless assumptions, e.g. invoking the supernatural.  In many cases, the arguments for theism lead back to nothing - no originating evidence whatsoever.

In spite of the Fallacy of Four Terms via Equivocation, if someone offers you the choice of a ham sandwich or eternal bliss, take the ham sandwich. Lewis Carroll's argument may be dodgy, but the conclusion was still sound: a (real) Ham Sandwich is infinitely better than (nonexistent) Eternal Bliss.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

What Is Post-Intelligent Design

Recently, New Atlas posted this article about machine-optimized design engineering. I immediately recognized it as a manifestation of what Daniel Dennett refers to in this video (and many others) as Post-Intelligent Design.
That's a load bearing engine block, optimized using a generative design algoritm
Engine Block designed using generative algorithms (New Atlas)

Intelligence-Free design consists of natural processes such as evolution and natural selection which result in incredibly complex and highly optimized solutions. Bird bones for example are highly optimized for strength-to-weight, elasticity, and flexure. The process of natural selection is demonstrably purposeless and non-goal-oriented.

Intelligent Design is the deliberate arrangement of components or materials to achieve a specific set of performance goals. It typically results in highly simplistic, geometric regular forms, owing in part to the necessity of making things easy to produce, and in part to only simple forms being amenable to manual analytical methods. Cars and bridges represent intelligent design processes.

Image result for bird bone section
Cross-Section of a bird bone
Post-Intelligent Design (PID) means that the engineer allows unintelligent computer simulations to recursively modify a design to achieve optimal performance, typically the lowest weight or size that achieves a specified strength. It can also refer to self-learning computer algorithms or computer systems that develop their own optimized code or networks. In many ways this is Intelligence-Free Design revisited, but now with purpose and goals which we give it.

Intelligent design blends smoothly into PID; there is no crisp transitional line. For instance when I design something really critical, I use analytic techniques ranging from paper-and-pencil, formulas & a calculator, right up to 3D FEA on a computer, in order to identify areas that are critically stressed, and areas that are under-stressed. An optimal design under the maximum design load case should be uniformly stressed, indicting that every bit of material is fully contributing to the device's function. I will then remove material from under-stressed areas and add material to over-stressed areas, and do the analysis again. I may even make new material selections (carbon fibre, high-performance alloys etc) to get the required result.  This cycle repeats for as much time as I have or until the goals are achieved within a tolerated margin.  Post-intelligent Design simply automates this process and gives the computer wider latitude to come up with optimal designs that meet the given constraints and performance goals.

One of the enabling technologies for PID is 3D Printing. This removes one of the constraints faced by Intelligent Design: the need to make designs in simple geometric figures that are able to be produced in real life.

The final obstacle to overcome is that 3D-Printable materials are not the highest-performing materials that we have. The relatively poor specific performance of thermoplastics, sintered metals etc is a major problem that makes generative designs that can only be 3D printed actually less useful than intelligent design using simple geometric shapes.  Naturally, a lot of smart people are working on exactly that problem.

In a PID world, it may be that no one person or even group of people knows how a piece of technology works, what certain features are for, or why something looks the way it does.  One only knows that it is optimized for a specified purpose. In such a world we become literally the god-like Minds whose values and desires guide and direct the autonomous evolution of a technological ecosystem.

Also in such a world, it will be possible, easy in fact, to deduce what those values are, since they will be reflected in numerous ways. In that world of our creation, it becomes incredibly important that we decide upon those values and ensure that they are objectively good - by which I mean supportive of our long-term survival and quality of life.

In the Intelligence-Free natural world, there is absolutely no evidence of any sort of guiding values at work. One can see this in humanity's past.

The Intelligence-Free universe gave homo sapiens lives that were, to quote Hobbes, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Our happiness and comfort or the "sanctity " of life obviously are not values held by the universe. But at some point around 10,000 years ago, give or take, we developed culturally-transmitted and ever-evolving thinking tools (Dawkins' "Memes") and immediately began Intelligently Designing our lives and our world. Human population then exploded.

A few hundred years ago, those thinking tools underwent another growth spurt, and Science was born - the meme that suggests that the most powerful and efficient way to determine fact from fiction was to try to disconfirm the hypothesis. Not coincidentally, in that short time not only has humanity completely overrun the planet but individual lives are now twice as long with vastly more interesting things to do and marred by dramatically less suffering.  We are no longer nasty, brutish, or short.  Well, most of us anyway.

We did that.  We did that ourselves.  We did that by Intelligent Design.  And now, it may be time for Post-Intelligent Design to step in and take over.  But what will our new job be?  We get a promotion.  We become the ones who decide what is important and what isn't.  We need to start taking that job seriously.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

I Have Been Evolving

A recent article published in BMC Biology presented evidence that 450 million years ago the common ancestor of present-day Spiders and Scorpions experienced a Whole Genome Duplication (WGD). 

A Whole Genome Duplication is when the offspring of an organism accidentally gets two complete copies of its genome, which its descendants then inherit.  While relatively rare, WGD's do occur from time to time, but usually don't lead to anything since by itself it provides no advantage to the individual.  However if the double genome hangs around for long enough before going extinct, it can provide twice the opportunity for evolution to test mutations while having a bit of a safety fallback in the form of the duplicate gene.  At least I think that's how it works.  

This pre-spider WGD seems to have been an advantageous one since probably all spiders and scorpions alive today are descended from it. WGD can essentially confer evolutionary superpowers on a line of organisms, enabling them to diversify rapidly and specialize dramatically. This is certainly true of spiders, of which there are an estimated 46,000 distinct living species, with many more yet to be discovered and classified. If you name any possible way to survive in nature, there's probably a spider that does it.

But that's nothing.  We vertebrates had TWO WGD's in our evolution. And look at us - we invented bug spray.  Take that, spiders.

I find evolution fascinating.  As Francis Crick put it, "Evolution is smarter than you."  Using nothing more than lots of time, lots of slightly imperfect gene duplication, and razor-sharp selective pressures, it results in incredibly subtle and clever solutions to the problem of survival.  

The turning point in our history was when we Eukaryotes decided it would be fun, instead of simply eating a bacteria, to adopt one as a pet and let it live inside our membrane. That's how we came to have things like chloroplasts, mitochondria, and golgi bodies inside us.

A similar thing happened to us again about 10,500 years ago when, instead of simply killing and eating an aurochs, we decided to try catching some and keeping them as pets. We would feed them, watch them mate, keep them alive, and then get lots of little baby aurochsen. That is the day we invented Veal. 

The lesson in all this is to never do anything exactly the same way always.  Change it up a bit.  Find what else works.

No automatic alt text available.
You Are Here: humans are the tip of a tiny twig on one of the right-hand limbs of the right-most branch.

Failure to Communicate

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

When rationalists or humanists talk about Morality, they could be thinking of any number of specific things.

They might be thinking of how people treat each other generally.  They could also be thinking of the decisions or actions we make that could have wider implications, e.g. for the environment or society.

They might be thinking of one's obligation to protect and educate the young, rather than exploit or neglect them. They could even be thinking that Morality is that same thing applied to the Aged or Disabled.

Morality is often applied to thinking about the treatment of animals.  Morality could even mean the considerations for or against inter-nation conflict, economic policy, trade, or actions taken in response to human rights issues.

But when you talk to a christian about morality, they are basically thinking of one thing.  To a christian, Morality means basically this:

Not touching yourself.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Twenty-One Questions About God - Answered

There is one weird fact that solves every difficult theological problem that has ever been posed.  Once you know and understand this one crucial fact, you become a Maser Theologian and can answer every question about God easily and without contradiction.

1.  Is God a male, a female, or a gender-less oozy gastropod of some sort?

Answer:  Neither, because gods aren't actually real things at all.

2.   Did God create evil?

Answer:  No, because gods do not exist.

3.  Will God forgive me?

Answer: No, because God does not exist.  Forgive yourself and try to be a better person.

4.  How is it that God and Jesus are the same being?

Answer:  Because neither of those things exist.  Jesus was never a real person, and there never were any gods at all.

5.  Did God create our spirits and give us free will?

Answer:  No, because there never were any gods at all, and the evidence is strongly against the existence of spirits.

6.  Will I meet God when I die?

Answer:  No, because no gods exist, and neither do you after you die.

7.  Does God know everything?

Answer:  No, because the idea of an all-knowing god is a testable proposition that fails on the basis of evidence.

8.  Is God all-powerful?

Answer:  No, because an all-powerful god is a testable proposition that fails due to the proposition being inherently contradictory and therefore absurd and self-negating.

9.  Does God want me to believe in him?

Answer:  No, because there are affirmatively no such beings in existence.

10.  Didn't God give us the bible to tell us that he exists?

Answer:  No, because gods are not real things.  The bible is as much a proof of a god as Marvel Comics is proof of a Spiderman.

11.  Did God send the angel Gabriel to instruct Muhammad?

Answer: No, because there never were any gods or angels at all.

12.  Is not the Pope God's actual representative on the earth?

Answer:  No, because gods are not actually real things that exist.

13.  Which religion is the right one?

Answer: Religion is wrong.  Religion is entirely a wrong thing, period.  Religion is a wrong process reaching wrong conclusions, and is full of wrong ideas and wrong people.  Religion is wrong about every single thing that makes religion unique.

14.  Did God empower Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt?

Answer:  No, because there are no gods.  Also, Moses was a fictional character invented around 700 BC based unimaginatively on half a dozen previous fictional characters and popular stories known from antiquity.

15.  Did God create Adam and Eve?

Answer:  No, because there never were any gods at all.

16.  Does God prefer that we worship on Sunday, or on Saturday?  Which is the correct Sabbath?

Answer:  Neither, because god isn't a real thing and worship is a wrong thing to do, being based on demonstrably false assumptions.

17.  Why does it seem like God allows terrible things to happen?

Answer: Because there is no such thing as gods.   You might just as well agonize over why the underpants gnomes are allowing so many bad things to happen.

18.  Does God hear and answer prayers?

Answer:  No, because there never were any gods at all.  Also, telepathic communication is disproved bullshit.

19.  Golly gee whiz, I'm pretty sure there is a God. My feelings and my church says so.

Answer: There isn't.  Examine why you think that, and look critically at all the evidence.  Lots of people have walked away from those unfounded beliefs once they realized that there was nothing in it.   They're just fine, and you will be just fine, too.

20.  But what if you're wrong?  Huh?

So - you're a gambler, are you?  Pascal's Wager, is it?  OK - let's play that game.  Given all the evidence, the probability of any god existing is vanishingly small, and the probability of that god being precisely the one you think it is, is again vanishingly small out of the infinity of all possible gods that might exist.  Now then, of all the possible gods, how many would be offended and angry if you guessed the wrong god?  Therefore if any gods exist, there is a high probability that you will have disastrously picked the wrong one.

Or you could just not play silly games of chance and follow the evidence where it leads.

21.  But couldn't there be a something, somewhere, and you can't prove there isn't!

Is that what you believe in?  A vague notion of a "something, somewhere?"  A non-interfering god that refrains from modifying the universe in any measurable way so as to remain undetectable?  Such a being is indistinguishable from the wholly non-existent, so it makes no difference whether you believe in it or not.

But all the specific gods, who believers claim must always modify the universe early and often and in specific ways, expose themselves to objective, empirical examination through evidence.  All the evidence is concordant with the non-existence of magic, the supernatural, or of gods, devils, spirits, ghosts, fairies, or leprechauns.  Most of the evidence directly implicates these facts,  while some of the evidence (to which theists cling) merely bears multiple explanations.

But the simplest explanation that is consistent with all the evidence and which provides the simplest, most believable and coherent answers to all theological questions is that there never were any gods at all.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

There Is No Magic

There is no magic in the world, in the shed, or anywhere in the less interesting parts of the universe.  This universe is governed by natural laws which can, if we try hard enough and have a big enough shed, be found out.

There are no magic potions, no magic pills, no magic causes or cures for disease.  Only Science cures by first understanding the natural causes of disease.

There are no magic foods, no magic water, no magic stones, no magic crystals, no magic shapes, no magic numbers, no magic places, no magic plants or animals.

We are not magic.  There is no brain-magic, mind-reading, or fortune-telling.  There is no magic essence lurking deep within us, and we do not live forever.

Magic is not needed to explain consciousness, intelligence, or emotions.  Science explains these things perfectly well and with immeasurably greater predictive power and elegance.

There are no magic words.  Except for "Abracadabra" and "A-La-Peanut Butter Sandwiches!"  Obviously.  Words mean only what the hearer believes they mean, and they have no effect on the actual universe other than slightly raising its entropy.

Existence is not magic.  So far, the existence of everything known to be in existence either has a natural explanation or is at least susceptible to ongoing scientific investigation.  The existence of Life too does not require or even suggest a supernatural magical explanation, and is perfectly accounted for by entirely natural causes and processes.

There is no magical guy in the sky.  We know there is not, because the various man-made legends of various forms of magic sky-guy are each  internally inconsistent and therefore mathematically impossible.  We also know this empirically because no evidence has ever been put forward which bears no other explanation than the improbable existence of a magical man in the clouds.   Stated another way, every piece of evidence ever collected is either directly against the existence of Sky-Man, or bears other, far more likely natural explanations.

The idea of secret invisible magic people can also be tested and found to fail every single time.  We have no more reason to suspect the existence of an invisible magic man purposefully concealing himself from us than we have to suspect that leprechauns are secretly flapping their ears whenever no one is looking.

To believe in magic in any form is to reject reason, to deny reality, and to love comfort and lies more than truth. But what is truth?  Do you really have to ask?  Do you not understand that truth is that which can be shown to be indistinguishable from Reality?  That which can be objectively observed, measured and described?  Truth is only complicated if you're trying to wrest it and contort it into being associated with something that is unreasonable.

So what do I believe?  I do not believe.  Instead, I accept that for which there is adequate evidence.  When one does so, there is no need for belief.  And there is no need for the lie known as magic.

Happiness, healing, joy and purpose exist without the aid of any form of magic.  Morality exists without magic, more so than with magic, which in many forms attempts to supersede and pervert morality. Meaning and goodness exist without any help from magic, which owing to its being devoid of any truth, more often causes suffering than prevents it.

Do, tell me why I need magic in my life.  Chances are I can make (and have made) your argument better.  Certainly I have considered it and found sufficient reason and evidence to dismiss any argument in favour of the nonexistent value of the nonexistent.  But if you wish me to consider the nonexistent, then all I ask is evidence.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Nobel Prize Is Not Enough

. . . to make you a fully rational person and protect you from Bullshit Beliefs.

The following Nobel-Prize-Winning Scientists held bullshit nonsense beliefs in spite of being fairly intelligent people in a specific field:

Pierre & Marie Curie (Physics, 1903), Lord Raleigh (Physics, 1904), Joseph Thomson (Physics, 1905), Charles Richet (Medicine, 1913), Einstein (Physics, 1921), Otto Stern (Physics, 1943), Wolfgang Pauli (Physics, 1945), Alfred Kastler (Physics, 1966), and Brian Josephson (Physics, 1973) all held superstitious beliefs in various forms of paranormal or psychic bullshit.

Alexis Carrel (Medicine, 1912), Philipp Lenard (Physics, 1905), William Shockley (Physics, 1966), James Watson (Medicine, 1962), and Konrad Lorenz (Medicine, 1973) all believed in various crank racial theories e.g. white supremacy and related morally reprehensible (as well as scientifically debunked) pig puke.

Antonio Moniz (Medicine, 1949), Linus Pauling (Chemistry, 1954), Brian Josephson (Physics, 1973), Nikolaas Tinbergen (Medicine, 1973), Louis Ignarro (Medicine, 1998), Luc Montagnier (Medicine, 2008) all believed in various forms of medical quackery, snake oil, crank theories, and general health-related nonsense.

Even having a Nobel Prize is not enough to save you from Bullshit Beliefs. Only a disciplined focus on rationality, evidence and logic can save you.


One notices that Physics seems to be rather well represented in the bullshit belief brigade. The most likely explanation is Expert Syndrome: the belief that "smart in one field = smart in all fields," an attitude which, by the way, is engendered in budding physicists from their first undergrad days and which leads so many of them astray down spooky, dark and stinky paths (stinky from all the bullshit).

Medicine is heavily represented in the medical bullshit category, likely a result of the specialist effect: an individual has to be so focused in one area of medicine to distinguish one's self that some other area of medicine may well escape their complete understanding, or apparently even their passing familiarity.

Objections from the Bleachers:

"But doesn't that simply indicate that they are using their full brain - creative and rational together?"

Absolutely not.  The two "sides" (not literally sides btw) of a brain work together in concert. Being creative is not enhanced by being illogical, gullible or have debilitating cognitive biases. Creativity works best when paired with an analytically disciplined mind in possession of a large number of facts.

"I think it's a laudable quality that even Nobel Prize winners can keep an open mind about their facts possibly being wrong."

Um, no.  That's not what's going on here.  From the cases I've read about in greater detail, it is clear that it is definitely not the situation that they are "hedging their bets" against the possibility that their "prize-winning" knowledge turns out to be incorrect.  Rather, these Bullshit Beliefs are in areas outside the individual's field of expertise.  They are almost always hobbies or outside interests in which their irrational beliefs are free to run wild without the constraint of empirically established facts.

But occasionally smart people have bullshit beliefs within their own field of expertise.  Not a Nobel Prize winner or even remotely a candidate, but I once worked with a Physicist who held bullshit beliefs about Relativity Theory being completely wrong and believing in the existence of a Luminiferous Aether.  And yes, his job was in a technical sub-specialty in the field of General Relativity.  Somehow he had managed to get a PhD in Physics without ever having had a rigorous course in Special Relativity in his life.  Also, I suspect he did not really grasp the real nature of scientific endeavor.

"Well, then they're doing their best to try to understand some other area they are not familiar with, and accepting the challenge of doing so."

Again, no.  That is not what is happening either.  If they applied the same rational approach to, say, paranormal beliefs as they did to their scientific work, they would quickly discover that it is bullshit.

You see, the Defining Feature of the rational process, aka the scientific method, is that it actively seeks out any data, observation or fact that could disprove its hypotheses. 

By contrast, the hallmark of a Bullshit Belief is that its adherents exclusively seek out only confirmation of their bullshit and willfully ignore all dis-confirming evidence. If you want to know whether a belief is bullshit, just observe how they are going about it.

"Wait - you mean to tell me that Science is about working out a new theory and then trying for the rest of your life to disprove it?"

YES - YOU FINALLY UNDERSTAND SCIENCE!!!!  Congratulations!  That is exactly how the scientific method works.

Convincing yourself that something is true is really easy. People do it all the time for all sorts of patent nonsense. Anything whatsoever that the mind is motivated to accept can be "confirmed" by almost anything you experience.  Conspiracy theorists do it all the time - everything they see, hear or read confirms the conspiracy for them.

But only ideas that are so true that they are indistinguishable from the full truth are able to withstand sustained, skillful and determined efforts to disprove them, debunk them, falsify or otherwise discredit them.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Religion Against Humanity

For most of my life I was a devout religious person, but at the same time I was always committed to truth and reason.  I felt that if a faith could not withstand exposure to reason, facts, logic and an occasional robust challenge, then it was not worth having in the first place.  I was one of those people who felt that Religion and Reason were complementary.

As time has progressed and as I have had the chance to explore certain facts and ideas more thoroughly, I have changed my mind about Religion and now find myself believing that it is incompatible with Reason.  But are we really better off without it?

Like most religious people I was taught that Religion was the sole source of human morality, and like most religious people I did not question this assumption.  Now however, I see things very differently.  I have come to the conclusion that Religion is the antithesis of morality.  And no, this is not merely an ad-hoc justification for sleeping in on Sunday, but a conclusion forced upon me by logic and empirical observation. To understand how this can be in any way a logical, reasonable conclusion, consider the following arguments.

Suffering.  The nature of suffering is that it is not a vector quantity, but a scalar amplitude.  In plain English, this means suffering cannot be offset or reduced by something else: it has no opposite, no negative quantity, no "antisuffering."  This means that no amount of joy, for example, experienced today will diminish or offset some suffering you may experience tomorrow.  One individual's happiness does not count against another's suffering when the total amount of suffering in a community is being weighed.  Suffering in one nation is not nullified by another nation's simultaneous prosperity.

No, the only way for the rate of suffering to be reduced is for it to fail to be created.  We fail to create suffering either by our omissions (things we don't do) or by our commissions (things we do).  Whose suffering?  What suffering?  I refer to one's own suffering, that of others around us, or the general degradation of the living environment or quality of life.

Morality.  A moral person is one who deliberately fails to create suffering by his omissions.  In other words he intentionally refrains from acts that can reasonably be expected to lead to suffering in himself or others, with others given priority.  "The needs of the many" etc.  A moral person also fails to create suffering through his deliberate acts.  He intentionally commits acts that can reasonably be expected to lead to the avoidance or discontinuation of suffering.  A moral act is thus objectively defined as one which raises the quality of life, leads to an avoidance or discontinuation of personal suffering, and is reasonably expected (barring accidents or unforeseeable consequences) to not directly result in suffering.  And if you need a further definition of suffering in order to understand what it is, then don't worry about it - it won't do you any good.

A moral person is therefore chiefly concerned with the direct consequences of his actions or inactions, both short-term and long term, and he makes choices by evaluating - that is, applying a value system to - the available actions relative to the effects of those actions on himself, on others, and on the quality of life in his environment.

An immoral person, by contrast, is mainly concerned with his short and long-term gain in any choice considered.  How it affects others, how it affects the living or social environment, or even how it affects his own well-being is at best a secondary consideration.

Religion.  After fifty years of studying and practicing religion I have come to the following conclusion:  Religion teaches people to be immoral.  It teaches us to consider only our long-term gain (specifically, post-mortality) in any situation, and not to consider either our own well-being, that of others, or that of the environment.  It teaches that to be devout, we must have no other consideration in the choices we make other than adhering to a set of arbitrary rules purportedly given by a silent, invisible deity.  Through Religion, it is possible to ignore or even cause significant suffering if there is any conflict between religiously prescribed acts and those acts I define as moral, i.e. that might diminish suffering.  In any such collision, every religion I have encountered requires you to put absolute devotion to the religion ahead of what a moral person would do having never heard of religion.

Essentially, Religion teaches people to think only about themselves and about their own reward or punishment at a time and place that remains entirely hypothetical.  The objection raised here by the keepers of religion and its apologists is that Religion starts with essentially selfish humans and teaches them to be not quite so selfish by appealing to their natural self-interest in a carrot-and-stick system of incentives.  Follow our rules, you get the carrot; don't follow them, you get the stick.  This argument assumes that in essence every human is a sociopath unless and until they get Religion.

This defense of Religion falls apart by considering that sociopaths usually only pretend to be religious while remaining complete sociopaths.  Consider that atheists represent only 0.07% of those incarcerated in the US prison system - the largest prison system in the world.  Also consider the following two words that  have no business even being together:  paedophile priests.   And consider the verifiable observation that normal people are naturally empathetic and moral, with sociopathy and psychopathy being relatively rare exceptions in the population, with or without religion.

Another defense of religion that apologists will be thinking right about now is the window-dressing of "feed the poor, heal the sick" that many religions include in their programs.  "We tell people that if they don't give money to us for charity then they will certainly go to hell."  While I may be guilty of straw-manning religion here, it's only a little bit, and it is needed to point out the essential problem.  What is the motivation offered by religion?  To do the right thing because it reduces suffering?  Or to do whatever you're told in order to advance your own self-interest?  When it's something as obviously good and valuable as alleviating the suffering of the poor, it's easy to comply.  Then when people get used to doing whatever they're told to do, it's easy enough to replace one thing with something entirely different.

A side-effect of charity-by-extortion is that it provides an incentive to maintain a population of impoverished, disenfranchised people upon whom we can bestow our points-earning charity.  There are even various sick, perverse religious theories relating to scapegoats, "victim souls" or "God's Will" to justify the existence of poverty and suffering.  If combating poverty were the aim instead of getting to heaven, things might be done differently that rather than perpetuate poverty would meaningfully address the underlying causes.

The other problem with charity as a justification of religion (other than the obvious fact that charity and relief aid can and do exist in the total absence of religion) is that it can be and often is used as an ideological weapon.  This happens every time a religious aid organization places conditions on how or where the aid is distributed, or uses it to score political points.  One famous church that rhymes with "bath lick" uses its aid money and its global might to aggressively push a no-contraception agenda in countries that desperately need contraception as a means to address wholesale suffering and poverty.  A true cynic would suggest that this is their strategy for ensuring they have ongoing membership growth.  An even worse cynic would say this completely illogical policy ensures that there will be plenty of children for the priests to rape.

In the last million years as a species, we humans have evolved physically only superficially (for example some of us have turned an abnormal pasty white, a temporary aberration likely to disappear in a few thousand years).  By contrast, our software has evolved considerably.  Ideas have developed which allow individuals to experience long lives marred by significantly less suffering.

If this species is going to exist for another million years, it will be due to our minds evolving further still.  We will consciously choose to condition our behaviour to voluntarily limit our population, to limit violence and destructive emotions, and to place greater social value on reason, science, logic and morality.  The immoral self-interest of religion, of doing things strictly on the basis of reward or punishment by an imaginary agent in an imaginary after-life, and the inherent inter-tribal distrust and violence that religion promotes, has no place in a sustainable future for humankind.

And so we face the ultimate question of morality.  Do we immorally and selfishly cling to belief systems that feed our egos and desires, or do we take the moral and more difficult high road of throwing off our past superstitious, destructive conditioning to ensure a future for this species?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why VW Was Right

Volkswagen Group made a deliberate, calculated decision to make cars that were more fuel efficient, better performing and better for the environment at the expense of taking liberties with ill-conceived and somewhat arbitrary emissions standards.

In the end, I expect they will be exonerated for considering the long-term greater good even at short-term disadvantage to themselves.

A diesel engine operates fundamentally differently to a spark-ignition engine.  Diesel engines require very high pressure in the combustion chamber, and consequently very high combustion temperatures.  This enables them to be more fuel efficient and cleaner-burning than gasoline/petrol engines while producing more torque at lower RPMs.  That means that a given vehicle with a diesel engine can go further faster on less fuel with less CO2 emissions than the same vehicle with a gasoline/petrol engine.  Add a turbocharger and it gets even better:  the engine can be smaller and lighter, meaning the vehicle chassis can be smaller and lighter, less steel is required (meaning less lifecycle CO2 burden) and fuel consumption falls even further, as do direct CO2 emissions.

However the higher combustion temperature comes with a sting.  Air is only 21% oxygen, the component required to burn fuel and release the stored energy therein.  The rest is mostly nitrogen (78%).  And at high temperatures, fuel isn't the only thing burning.  Nitrogen burns, too, and produces oxides of nitrogen, NO and NO2, collectively called NOx.  (Not to be confused with N2O, also sometimes called "nitrous" or "NOX.")

NOx can contribute to smog and acid rain, is a short-lived greenhouse gas, and ends up contributing to nitrogen content of soils and waterways.  While it is therefore undesirable on the whole, it is not the worst thing ever.  There are much worse things, which we will get to in a moment.

In order to reduce NOx emissions, the combustion temperature must be kept in check.  In a diesel engine this has the direct effect that cylinder pressure is also proportionately reduced, and therefore torque output is reduced, and therefore power is reduced, and therefore efficiency is reduced.  Also, fuel combustion can be negatively impacted by lower temperature, resulting in more soot, more un-burned hydrocarbons (HCs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) coming out the tailpipe.   Lower efficiency and lower specific power means higher fuel consumption and higher CO2 emissions.

Hydrocarbon emissions and VOCs can have direct adverse effects on human health.  NOx emissions on the other hand have only indirect effects, as a part contributing factor to smog (the main factors being ozone, particulates and coal-fired power plants).  NOx also contributes to acid rain, but there again the main culprit and more dangerous one is sulfur compounds emitted by coal-fired power plants.

While NOx can be a short-lived greenhouse gas, CO2 is by far the greater long-term threat, because it persists in the atmosphere forever and ever, or until absorbed by a plant.  Or deliberately captured and stored by humans at considerable monetary and energy cost.

Therefore, when striking the balance between NOx and the far worse HCs, VOCs, and CO2, what should we do?  What should Volkswagen have done?  I am convinced that VW did the right thing.  This episode will undoubtedly draw attention to the current incorrect balance in emission standards, and prompt a re-evaluation and rationalization of them.  Perhaps different emission standards for diesel and gasoline/petrol vehicles would be appropriate.

On the whole, small efficient diesel cars are better for the environment.  The fact that they are now being made imminently drive-able by innovative carmakers like VW makes them more attractive and promotes their widespread acceptance.  This is a good thing, and VW was undoubtedly considering the greater good when they unilaterally decided that a bit of NOx was a small price to pay for the significant benefits to human health and the environment of better fuel efficiency and lower HC/VOC emissions. Way to go, Volkswagen!  Keep it up.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

What Is Religious Freedom?

Congratulations on your religious liberty!  Here is what you've won:

  • You have the right to believe any damn thing you want in the privacy of your own mind, regardless of how absurd it is, how far removed from reality and provable fact, or how anathema to morality and ethics it may be.  
  •  um . . . that's . . . pretty much it, I'm afraid.

Please note that religious freedom does not grant you any of the following:

  • The right to go to church.  This is not a guaranteed right for anybody. However, you may exercise this privilege in certain cases, provided that you first work hard and buy a goddamned car.  It's what everyone knows they ought to do, because it's simply the right thing to do (according to Saint Jeremy of Clarkson).
  • The right to impose your beliefs on others.  Even if God tells you it's ok, it's still not actually ok. Refer to the "golden rule."  (God sometimes forgets that he issued that one, so help him out once in a while.) 
  • Your beliefs enshrined in legislation.  Larceny was made illegal not because it is a "sin," but because it is a gross trespass upon the right of an individual to retain his lawful property.  Good government does not pass laws or create policy on the basis of religious belief.  The ten commandments never were the basis of modern jurisprudence, nor can they ever be.
  • The right to break laws you don't believe in.  Break them you may, but "religious belief" is never a valid defense and you will be fully culpable for any penalties that your wicked lawbreaking incurs.   
  • The right to be insufferable.  Golden rule, again!
  • The right to judge and discriminate against those who do not share your private beliefs. If "religion" is your reason for doing shit like this, then man do you have some fucked-up ideas about what religion is supposed to be for.  And you wonder why religion is in general decline in the world. 
  • The right to express your religion publicly.  Most of the time you will not be materially impeded in this regard, but in cases of e.g. school dress & jewelry policies, you could be prevented from displaying your idolatrous religious iconography.  Where security and identity are a concern, the State has the right to require you to remove coverings over your face, even if your religion prohibits this.
  • The right to murder small children.  You're thinking, "WTF?"  No, this actually happens quite a lot, sadly.  Certain religious people do this by attempting to deny life-saving medical treatment to children on the basis of their bizarre and easily disprovable religious theories.  This is child abuse and is against the law for very good reasons.  Religious freedom, they say, makes it ok; but they are lying.  It is not ok.
  • The right to over-populate the planet.  Why are some religious people still going around the world telling poor people not to use contraception?  This is evil.  I oppose the practice of not using contraception at all times.  One should only have children when one can guarantee their adequate provision and if one is capable of being a suitable parent. 

Enjoy your one (1) religious freedom!  

UPDATE:  The Masses Respond

"I'm a religious American, and that alone gives me the following Special Rights you forgot to mention.
1. The Right to tell as many people as possible about my totally awesome beliefs.
2. The Right not to be criticized, persecuted or ridiculed in any way for my beliefs while telling everyone about them.
3.The Right to PRACTICE my religious expression at any time and in any place that my religion requires me to."

Ahem, no.  The things you mention are not Rights, but Freedoms, some of which do not actually exist (see below).  Also, any freedoms you have are not extended just to religious people of the favored faith, but to anyone and everyone no matter what they believe or don't believe.  

1.  The right to tell everyone about your religion.  You have the freedom of free speech to say what you want within certain limits (e.g. "fire in a theater" limits.)  But the legislature is also free to restrict nuisance activities or speech that is causing problems.  Just because your message is religious in nature does not give it special priority over any other form of speech.  This is because the law cannot properly determine what is religious speech and what isn't.  One cannot allow "hate" speech or inciting to violence just because someone somewhere claims it is their religious belief.  Therefore all speech must be evaluated equally and have the same limits without special regard as to whether it is religious in nature or not.

2.  The right for you not be criticized for your beliefs.  Never.  If you say something in the public space, you do so with the understanding and acceptance that anything you say can and will be stress-tested to the limit.  You can and will be criticized (fairly or not), ridiculed (deservedly or not), and required to defend your statements.  That is the agreement.  Deal with it.  There is no special "protection" for religious claims, and no one ever anywhere in the history of everything has ever promised you freedom from criticism.  That is simply not a thing that exists.  So, in other words, No.  The only place you can expect to never be ridiculed for the things you believe is inside your own mind, and so that is the best place to keep your beliefs.

3.  The right to religious expression.  In a free society with true religious liberty (if such a place existed), the law cannot and must not distinguish between one subjective belief and another.  Therefore there is nothing to prevent people from claiming religious belief for almost anything whatsoever that they may wish to do.  You may be in a fortunate special case for which almost all (probably all) of your religious observances involve perfectly legal activities that are appropriate for their time and place.  But this is not the general case of all possible beliefs and observances that could potentially exist.  Therefore - which would you say ought to take precedence?  A person's subjective beliefs and whims?  Or the objective law of the land?  Of course it has to be the law that takes precedence so that people don't do things like murder small children out of a silly religious antipathy for medicine, ritualistically mutilate small furry animals, or embezzle money out of a sincere religious conviction that god wants them to have the money.

But if you try to compromise and bestow special privilege upon one religion deemed to have "acceptable" practices, while prohibiting religious beliefs that the law deems "unacceptable," then you no longer have any true religious liberty at all.  It has been completely done away with.  You really do have to treat all religions equally if you are to have religious liberty.  In other words, true religious liberty depends on the law having no opinion of what is religion and what isn't.

You do not have the right to practice or express your religious observances anywhere, anytime.  All your acts whether religious or not will either comply with the law or be subject to its consequences.  You have the freedom to try to practice your religion, but society and the government are not required to let you do anything whatsoever, do not need to help you do it, nor are they required to assure you succeed in everything you want.

There is a difference between rights and freedoms.  You are often free to try to get your way, but you do not have the right to always get your way.  The one right you do have that cannot be taken from you is the right to believe any damn thing you want in the privacy of your own personal brain.  And that truly is the limit of your religious rights.