Friday, October 26, 2007

For Mr Wright

I've been participating in discussions over at the amazon religion forum. (My handle there is "Esk".) One thread discusses the "scientificness" of evolution, and the original post mentions Pleochroic Haloes as potential evidence for creation. I have been trying to get a short paper to be accessible from there, but have encountered problems. (The paper provides a perfectly reasonable naturalistic explanation of Pleochroic Haloes.)

So, hopefully, this will work: Page 1 and Page 2 of the two-page article.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

My Blog Name

I suppose I should clarify my blog name since there is the potential for significant misunderstanding (although probably not if you actually read many of my blogs, lol).

Usually, when a person changes beliefs---and particularly in the case of religious beliefs---he or she is said to have been converted to the new system. Unfortunately, Islam completely inappropriately describes those converted to Islam as being reverted. (To revert is to change back, or return, to a previous state.) The reason they do this is because they claim that everyone is born a Muslim.

I vehemently disagree with this absurd (and self-evidently false) assertion. No baby "believes" anything. It is no more appropriate to describe a baby as a Christian or Muslim than as a Capitalist or Marxist. It is simply too young and inexperienced to form a belief one way or the other.

Atheism is the "absence of belief in the existence of God or gods", or "disbelief in the existence of God or gods". The former exactly describes the state of a newborn on the topic of god(s). Newborns are atheists.

I was an atheist at birth. I subsequently spent many years believing Christianity. Through honest, rational examination of the available evidence, I eventually returned to atheism (this time leaning more toward the latter definition).

I am reverted.

The Bible

One thing I've encountered in arguments with Bible-believers is their opposition to the idea that the Bible is absolutely riddled with glaring inconsistencies (both internal and external). They ask, completely incredulously, "Like what?"

Are you kidding me? What isn't inconsistent?!

Miracles? Prayer? Angels? Eternal life? They're no more believable than the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus with his "naughty and nice" list. They all have equal quantities of hard evidence, too---which is to say, none.

"Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day. Give a man a religion and he'll starve to death praying for a fish." -Judith Bandsma

Moral arbiter? Oh, please! Claiming to get some sort of "superior moral code" from the Bible is utterly ridiculous! It is loaded with awful things, many of which are explicitly commanded by God. People are murdered left and right, women are quite consistently downtrodden and treated like dirt... Not even Jesus denounced slavery; the closest he ever got was basically "don't beat them excessively". And, you can't make the argument that these are intended to show the bad choices or actions of people and the resulting bad consequences because, as I said, some of these atrocities are explicitly ordered by God!

"No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says; he is always convinced that it says what he means." -George Bernard Shaw

The common excuse given that "it was a different world then" is entirely vacuous and irrelevant. It simply doesn't matter. Christians believe God is omnipotent, omniscient, etc. It's total crap to try to use such excuses when you believe such a God was crafting the single most important book of all time---an unassailable moral code and almighty revelator of eternal truths.

Speaking of which, if this "perfect book" is supposed to be the word of God, then why didn't God directly write (at least some of) it himself? (Not even Christians make this claim!) Doesn't anyone even notice that God passed-up a golden opportunity to get it right, once and for all, guaranteed? (Of course, this shouldn't actually be any more "convenient", since he's omnipotent and all, but whatever...) Specifically, he went through all the trouble of "sending himself" to Earth in human form, and then he waited for thirty years to "begin his ministry". So, hello... why the hell didn't he write the New Testament while here, as Jesus?! Christians can't answer such obvious and simple questions with anything more meaningful than "God's ways are mysterious", which isn't an answer at all! (And, just how are the Councils of Nicaea and all the other man-made insertions and deletions supposed to fit in here, anyway?!)

Here's a quote from one online "debater" with whom I was once arguing: "I'm a dedicated bible reader and Christ follower and even *I* haven't read and fully comprehended the entire bible."

And, here's my response to him, verbatim: "This just in! Nobody 'fully comprehends' the Bible, just as nobody 'fully comprehends' Jack and the Beanstalk. (I honestly was trying to think of something ridiculous to compare to... but frankly, the Bible itself tops it all. I can't think of anything else as 'out there' as Revelation, for example. lol)"

How many stories must be disproved by science and forced into "metaphorical interpretation" before it becomes obvious that it's all just made-up? The Genesis story, the Flood, and all the rest. I mean, really, if we're going to accept the commonly used metaphorical interpretations for all this stuff---including time durations and whatnot---then, while we're at it, let's just accept that when we say "Jesus died for all our sins and arose three days later", what we really mean is "Sin is imagined, and Jesus is still dead." (If he ever even existed in the first place.) And, then we can just forget about the whole ridiculously hopeless mess and move on to doing something productive. Like making digital watches.

The ironic thing is that virtually everything in the Bible that Christians consider to be of critical importance is traceable to "pagan religions" that pre-date the Biblical writings. This includes both moral teachings (e.g. the golden rule) and many of the stories---including the supposed miracles. Right down the list, the ideas and events derive from older pagan stories: virgin birth, water to wine, death and resurrection (even down to the details of how (crucifixion) and when (three days between death and resurrection)), December 25th birth date (celebrated in Christianity, even if not dogmatically accepted as fact), shepherds bearing gifts, traveling teacher, specifically twelve companions (disciples), eternal life, body (as bread) eaten by followers, etc. None of it is original! (Look it up!)

It's all just so ludicrous. Here... let's do a thought experiment. Suppose:
1) You are extremely intelligent.
2) You are very, very long-lived.
3) You are completely ignorant of everything, except the most basic of survival skills.
4) You are entirely isolated from everyone else---say, on some remote, unknown island. (This includes total isolation from all books, etc.)

Now, let's consider the implications of this situation. How much of modern science do you think you could eventually discover, given enough time? How much of Christianity (or any other religion) do you think you could "discover"? What kinds of generalized rules do you think you'd establish for learning new truths---i.e. filtering out the baloney from reality? For example, do you think evidence is important, or should you just believe whatever you want? And, finally, back to reality---what is it that makes people genuinely believe that some self-contradictory book, that is clearly fantastical by any reasonable standards of the "island man", somehow has an inside-track to ultimate truth that trumps all else?

What really is the difference between the "island man" and a newborn baby (like mentioned in my "Atheist Me" blog), in terms of the sorts of rules it should use to identify truth? (The answer is: nothing.)

Bottom-line: we can imagine innumerable things that don't actually exist (and some that really do). We need a system to reliably distinguish fantasy from reality. I submit that evidence, reason, and honesty compose that system. And, the Bible flunks miserably. It's clearly just a bunch of fairy tales---a total farce. And, it's one of the most anti-knowledge, anti-intellectual books I know of, from the "forbidden Tree of Knowledge" in the very first story, onward.

"So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence." -Bertrand Russell

Atheist Me

"If you want to know if you're insane, ask yourself if you have an unwavering belief, one that you could never disavow no matter what. If you answered yes, then you're insane." -Ignots Pistachio

I arrived at atheism rationally, rather than through any sort of repression, guilt, anger, etc. Nothing special "happened" to make me start my journey---no abuse, no friend's/relative's untimely death, no imposed "Calvinistic" lifestyle, and no other type of traumatic event. I was raised immersed in Christianity---family, friends, schools, etc.---even a grandfather minister. I had a good upbringing, good parents, good friends. I wasn't forced to accept certain things, and my parents were always supportive. However, I was quite sheltered; throughout my upbringing I was presented, as fact, almost (but not quite) exclusively with a viewpoint of the world that I now consider to be very skewed. That viewpoint was religion in general, with Christianity as the particular representative religion (and Seventh-Day Adventistism as the denomination).

I suppose I've always been rather "scientifically" minded, i.e. rational. I've always excelled at most things, but math/logic was especially stand-out at a young age, as compared to other kids. I appreciate the precision and neatness of reason---the fact that, if one is careful, new facts may be deduced from old ones, thereby expanding knowledge (in a way). In short, I find mathematics and science interesting.

I grew older, and the more and more I learned and thought about things, the more and more apparent it became just how stupid (any/all) religion is. As Sam Harris has summarized, "...religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know [not even in principle]." What's even worse is that religions repeatedly oppose, and outright deny, factual findings of science, which we can know (at least by any meaningful definition of the word---as much as you can "know" you even exist).

As time has continued to pass, I have become increasingly convinced of the paramount importance of truth, as revealed through a ruthlessly honest evaluation of evidence, as well as through the careful use of reason. Yes, I believe objective truth exists; and, I think anyone with a synapse must agree. (It is possible to be wrong!) Furthermore, I think evidence and reason are the only possible ways we can discern that truth from falsehood. (If there exists some truth that is not evidence-based, I cannot concede its merit. This is because we can't identify it; we can't reliably sort it out from all the false stuff! In effect, it might as well be false.)

Consider a newborn baby. Really consider it. What is the entire extent of every baby's "truth-finding toolbox"? The only reasonable answer is: its own senses and mind. Parents may help guide its progress, but it is not reasonable to accept as absolute truth, totally without question, the word of any person (or book)---including parents and friends, well-meaning as they may be. We all make mistakes, and the only way we can ultimately resolve truth from error is evidence. The more evidence and reason that accrues in support of a particular viewpoint, the less real choice remains in "opting" to accept that position. Beyond a certain point, it becomes absurd to hold any other view; the evidence essentially forces one to "believe", regardless of what anyone has historically (or contemporaneously) believed. The only "alternative" to this is to choose a belief in conflict with the available evidence, which is equivalent to making a conscious decision to believe something false (whatever that means).

So, in a way, well-grounded beliefs are associated with a degree of inevitability, an actual lack of choice. This, of course, makes perfect sense when you think about it: you're honing-in on the real truth, which is the only actually correct thing to believe in the first place! The whole point was to find it, so it should come as no surprise that your options narrow as you get closer to it.

I do not mean to imply that everything can be proven by evidence and reason. But, I do think they weigh-in on everything to varying degrees, thereby generating a spectrum of "probability of correctness"---everything from almost-certainly-false (counter-evidence, or at least no supporting evidence) to almost-certainly-true (massive quantities of mutually-supportive evidence). So, clearly there are different amounts of "wiggle room", given different beliefs. But, the interesting thing is that it is evidence that determines the amount of wiggle room! And, the more wiggle room there is regarding a belief, the less reason there is to be dogmatic about it (i.e., the less supporting evidence there is for its truth). Similarly, the less wiggle room there is, the more certain the belief. This is why I think evidence is so vitally important, and this is exactly the way in which the whole scientific enterprise operates.

(As a side note, I also think there exist things that are basically meaningless to try to talk about in terms of "truth" and "falsehood"---or at least to try to do so objectively. In other words, there are subjective "truths", too. For example, one person may like a particular painting or piece of music or type of food or shade of color or many other things, and another person may make completely different selections. Does this mean one of them is inherently wrong? I certainly don't think so. It's a matter of subjective choice, not objective truth.)

It is important to avoid becoming dogmatic about things simply "because you feel they must be true". Human emotions are fickle, and intuition can be wrong. Simply believing something---no matter how devoutly---does not cause it to be true; belief does not manufacture reality. (Take a stroll through a mental asylum, and note the fervent beliefs.) Similarly, as Aldous Huxley noted, "Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." We humans have a powerful innate tendency, known as confirmation bias (amongst many other names), that causes us to strongly favor belief of things that we want to be true. A very common example of this is how we evaluate data within the context of our current set of beliefs. Data that seems to support us is unconsciously assigned greater credibility than data in opposition. Again, that's why it's so important to depend upon the external reality of evidence and reason, and to be as brutally honest with ourselves as we can be. We must constantly probe our own beliefs---and, anything that agrees with us, we must question doubly (so we can be certain we are accepting it on its own merits, rather than "because we like it"). In fact, one of the most effective ways of improving our certainty in our beliefs is to try our very hardest to disprove them, and fail. (Again, this is a huge part of how science operates.)

Basically, we must be willing to admit when we do not know, or are flat-out wrong, and to relinquish beliefs in the face of counter-evidence or lack of evidence. This means we can never be totally certain of anything---but, a claim of absolute certainty is an extremely foolish position to adopt, anyway. To do so is to shutdown self-critical analysis and thoughtful questioning, which I think is important for a curious, healthy mind. But, perhaps even worse, it is equivalent to making the ludicrous claim of omniscience; the implicit message is, "All relevant information is already known, so the truth is known, no matter what future evidence may come to light." And, I refuse to do that. I think evidence is the pathway to truth, and I will not close that pathway. Because of this, I will always remain just short of certain of my beliefs. I will leave room for future evidence and the potential for future belief-modification.

When you think about it, it is totally ridiculous to carry-on pretending something is true in spite of the evidence. Just what are you trying to accomplish by doing so? Who are you trying to impress? And, how the hell is consciously choosing to believe a falsehood going to impress anyone, anyway?! Isn't it far more productive to just admit and accept the truth? I think so. And, I now have way too much respect for evidence, reason, and intellectual honesty to seriously entertain belief in any god(s).

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

"Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own." -Bertrand Russell

"If there is a God that has special plans for humans, then He has taken very great pains to hide His concern for us. To me it would seem impolite if not impious to bother such a God with our prayers." -Steven Weinberg

"The only excuse for God is that he does not exist." -Stendahl

"Intellectual" Flailings or, Theists Can’t Think Straight

In the course of life's wanderings I have, as an atheist, been involved in discussions with theists. Here are a few of the "arguments" I have heard, and why I dismiss them.

Some people argue that "theists can't prove god and atheists can't disprove god, so their respective views are equally justified." I have a short satirical response that reveals the idiocy of this thinking: "fairyists can't prove fairies and afairyists can't disprove fairies, so their respective views are equally justified."

Some people argue "what's the harm in believing something that might be false, when it's done so much good?" So much good? What's the harm? Are you kidding me?! Yes, please let's forget about the crusades, the inquisition, the conquistadors, the witch hunts, the opposition to health care research and measures, the attempts to utterly destroy science by redefining it to include such idiocies as "intelligent design" and astrology, the murdering of doctors on "moral principle", the child abuse (e.g. "hell houses", priests, & more), the constant attempts at religious legislation, and much, much more. It's like defending Hitler because of all the good things he did. (Yes, Hitler did good things. But, before you go running off claiming I'm defending him, let me clearly state: I am not. What he did was horrible. But, that doesn't change the fact that, had he died a few years earlier, he'd have gone down in history as one of Germany's greatest leaders. And, ironically, my comparison is even closer to the mark than many realize, since Hitler received his anti-Semitic ideas directly from Christianity, via the Catholic church. (Look it up!) So, religion could even be indirectly blamed for the Holocaust.)

Many will protest my examples here, but unjustifiably so. Every one of these things is/was directly driven specifically by religion. Furthermore, I haven't even begun to scratch the surface. This is but a selection from an enormously larger pool just from Christianity. I shouldn't even need to get into all the various religious wars fought (northern Ireland, eastern Europe, the Middle East, various parts of Asia, etc.), both between Christian sects and between completely different religions... the jihads and fatwahs, the Jehovah-ordered genocides, human sacrifices, and slavery in the Bible, etc. Think for a moment about conflicts around the world, and the automatic "lines" that get drawn between groups---how those groups get determined, and what reasons people use to "justify" the conflicts (e.g. George W. Bush claiming God told him to invade Iraq). Please, actually think about this Richard Dawkins quote, instead of just "gut reacting" to the speaker and content: "Religion is the most inflammatory enemy-labelling device in history."

Some people argue that "religion improves people's behavior" (as individuals). Ignoring the fact that this assertion bears no relevance to the truth of religions, let's consider if the assertion itself is true, anyway. The short answer is a resounding "no". To cite just a couple supporting facts... The 2005 publication by Gregory S. Paul, in the "Journal of Religion & Society", noted a fairly strong correlation between increased secularism and improved societal health (in multiple indices) of countries. (The paper is entitled "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies".) In other words, the more religious a country is, the more socially dysfunctional it tends to be. (Why this is true is unknown, but it is true, nonetheless.) The Christian sociologist George Barna's published divorce rates: "born again Christians" 27%, "Mainstream Protestants" 24%, "Atheists/Agnostics" 21%. Other data imply that atheists/agnostics are involved in less crime than theists, too. As Steven Weinberg said, "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." And as Voltaire said, "If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities."

Some people argue (usually as a last resort) that "the atheistic view of life is empty and meaningless" and that "people can't live without purpose" and that "religion makes life all warm and fuzzy." Even if I agreed with these assertions (which I do not; see my "Mainstream Religion Versus Secular Humanism" blog), they still bear no relevance whatsoever to the truth of the issue! In other words, they're not real arguments (just like the preceding ones).

Even the attempts at rigorous arguments by Thomas Aquinas (who is unjustifiably revered in Christianity) and William Paley (whose argument "intelligent design" basically restates, 200 years after the fact) are ultimately vacuous. These arguments include such things as "first cause" or "prime mover" or "design/designer". If you state "everything has a cause" as an axiom, then you cannot immediately follow it up with an inference that there must therefore be a "first cause" (or "prime mover"). The very idea is absurd in the extreme because, by so doing, you have negated your axiom. The argument that "the appearance of design implies a designer" is also a non-solution because the real problem lies in explaining the improbability of a thing. And, you can't solve the problem by positing something even more improbable, more complex---which a designer presumably would be. More succinctly: if god designed the universe, then who designed god? And, who designed god's god? And... The argument is either valid, or it is not. You can't simply pick and choose to what it applies. And, it solves nothing. (In fact, it only makes the situation infinitely worse.)

Ultimately, every in-favor-of-god "argument" I have ever heard has turned-out to be entirely devoid of relevance and/or meaning.

In the end, religion all sounds like this to atheists:

Understanding Atheism

What Atheism Is

Some people think atheism is a matter of having faith in God's nonexistence. They think it claims god definitely does not exist, and that science has proven it. They think all kinds of ridiculous things that are false.

I do not personally know a single atheist that claims "god" is proven not to exist, or even that it's possible to do so in principle. Atheists say there is no evidence for god. Furthermore---speaking more generally---there is, by definition, no evidence for the existence of anything that really doesn't exist. In other words, for most things that really don't exist, you can't prove this fact; the best you can do is state, "There is no evidence."

People are superstitious, and atheists don't deny that. (In fact, it's what we fight against.) And, we don't dispute the fact that cultures have almost universally dreamt-up (different) gods either. But, argument "from authority" has no bearing upon what is philosophically obvious: atheism is the default state of a human. It is the "absence of belief in the existence of God or gods", or "disbelief in the existence of God or gods". Neither of these asserts the ability to absolutely disprove god(s). It's perfectly fair to describe a baby as having "an absence of god belief". It's certainly not fair to describe one as Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. (As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, it's just as stupid to call a child a Marxist or Capitalist as some religious title.)

Atheism is a "clean slate". It simply says, "You want to convince me? Show me the evidence!" It's exactly the attitude most people have about most extraordinary claims---and to which they blind themselves when it comes to their own particular childhood indoctrination. There are vast numbers of ridiculous and completely unsupported claims that some people really do believe with literally zero hard evidence: ghosts, fairies, goblins, telepathy, demons, pixies, thousands of different gods, dragons, elves, angels, zombies, telekinesis, gnomes, miracles (a HUGE category in itself), dwarves, voodoo, heaven, leprechauns, dowsing (e.g. water witching), eternal life, astrology, faith healing, remote viewing, prayer, alchemy, hell, crystal power, channeling, curses, and tons more.

Atheists simply recognize that gods have the same level of evidence as any one of the other things listed: none.

All the things we can possibly ever imagine either exist, or they do not. Is it rational to disbelieve something you've imagined, if there is no evidence at all for it? I say it is. Otherwise, we could never disbelieve anything.

The caveat is that new evidence may emerge, and therefore opinion may be modified. (This is called science.) Nevertheless, it is both rational and honest to disbelieve something that has no evidence. (In fact, it is the only reasonable response.) Similarly, it is both irrational and dishonest to positively believe something with no evidence!

Why Religion/God Fails

Religious people claim to be engaged in a different type of "seeking the truth". But, I don't accept that, and here's why: how can you "search" for something while having no possible way to verify or disprove any answer you "find"?

Searching for truth in any sort of meaningful way requires the verifiability or falsifiability of results---because otherwise, "search" becomes meaningless. (If you can't test the results, you don't know when you're done searching or if you're right or wrong anywhere along the way.)

And, what's the name of the system that generates "verifiable or falsifiable results"? Science.

There is no other way to know anything. Superstition doesn't cut it.

Oh sure, the religious are exceedingly fond of rambling on and on about the supposed virtues of faith. But, faith is not virtuous! It is the conscious decision to believe something is true, knowing full well that there is no good reason to do so. Or, as Dan Barker (an ex-pastor turned atheist) said, "Faith is a cop-out. It is intellectual bankruptcy. If the only way you can accept an assertion is by faith, then you are conceding that it can't be taken on its own merits."


"I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." -Stephen Roberts

Mainstream Religion Versus Secular Humanism

I have noted two consistently used---and, in my view, contradictory---'philosophical arguments' raised by religious people1 against secular humanism. One is that it wishes to exterminate god for selfish reasons; it aims to elevate humanity to some sort of ultimate status in the universe. The other is that it denigrates the 'self' because it reduces life to a meaningless, purposeless, accidental existence.

As a confirmed secular humanist, having been raised as a Christian and amongst them, neither of these arguments makes any sense to me. Both of them are fallacious, and each constitutes a complete failure to understand humanism. The two assertions are contradictory; but, it doesn't really matter in the end, because neither one is correct, anyway. Consider...

Argument from Egocentrism

Religion and science have historically often clashed (and continue to do so). But, if there is anything secular humanism (conjoined with science) does not do, it is to elevate humanity to some sort of special status in the universe. And, on the other side of the issue, if there is anything religion most often does do, it is to insist upon mankind's special role in, and relation to, 'creation'.

For example, consider the enormous controversy generated by a simple, observationally supported, assertion by Copernicus: the Earth revolves around the Sun (heliocentrism), rather than the other way around (geocentrism). Galileo further upset the prevalent geocentric view---and further bolstered heliocentrism---by, amongst other things, discovering four moons orbiting Jupiter (rather than Earth) and observing the phases of Venus. He was called before the Inquisition for his 'heretical claims', and subsequently imprisoned. His imprisonment was later commuted to house arrest, which remained in place for the rest of his life. (Only a few years earlier, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for holding a divergent view from that of the church.)

Why was geocentrism taken so seriously by the church? It was because, in their view, humanity was so vitally all-important to the universe. We exist center stage, placed here by God, for His purposes. To suggest otherwise is to undermine the Almighty Creator and erode our importance to Him.

Of course, by modern standards, the conflict seems ridiculous; nowadays, the Earth obviously orbits the Sun. Yet, an entirely analogous conflict exists today: Darwinian evolution versus creationism. Just as religion was eventually forced to yield to heliocentrism, it continues to be forced to yield to the mass of evidence for evolution.

Heliocentrism is fact.2

Evolution is fact.3

Secular humanism simply puts humanity in its proper place. It neither elevates nor diminishes humans in the universe; it recognizes that humans are just another species, amongst many, in a vast universe in which we play no particularly special part. There's nothing discouraging or demeaning about this any more than saying that the Earth orbits the Sun, rather than the other way around. It doesn't change the fact that we exist, or the capacity for us to do great things or take pleasure in life. It doesn't negate our enjoyment of the company of others or of having children and seeing them flourish, or of being awed by the heavens and the diversity of life here on Earth.

On the other hand, religion is egocentric to the extreme. Amazingly and monumentally so. Honestly, can you think of anything more conceited and self-centered than the following?
The entirety of the universe was made by an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent god4 specifically for humanity, and we are the supreme obsession and interest of this god, and are of absolute importance in the grand scheme of things. We are the centerpiece of a great conflict between good and evil, playing out with the Earth at center stage.5 We are so individually important that this god has a plan for each and every one of our lives. In fact, humanity is so overwhelmingly important that our continued existence apparently warrants god-sacrifice!
Anyone who believes this kind of nonsense and claims that secular humanism is egocentric has completely failed to comprehend, well, pretty much anything of humanistic relevance. Humanism does not elevate humanity to god status; it simply recognizes that god does not exist6, and we ought to make the best of this very real situation.

If we destroy the Earth through our reckless, shortsighted actions, no one is going to arrive in the nick of time to save us. We'll have no one to blame but ourselves. Humanism charges us with an urgent need to accept responsibility for the consequences of our actions, to strive for our continued survival. Simply put, humanism is realism.

Argument from 'Self' Denigration

It is not uncommon to hear religious people spouting off about how evolution destroys youthful self-esteem by teaching that we're all here purely by accident, and life has no meaning or purpose. Basically, the argument is that secular humanism, along with evolutionary science, devalues life.

Again, I fail to see how this is true. If humanism does anything, it helps us see just how precious life is. Cherish the life you have because it's all you're going to get. It's over when you die. Permanently. Make the most of it; live it, love it, and then make room for others to do the same.

There's nothing shameful about this. There's nothing frightening or dehumanizing about it. It does not reduce the power of our life experiences, our ability to feel pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow. It just emphasizes our accountability for what we do with our time, how we live our lives, what we make of ourselves. The responsibility lies squarely on our own shoulders.

On the other hand, religion is spectacularly destructive of self-esteem. It is the ultimate dis-empowering force, as demonstrated here.
You are plopped involuntarily into the universe, born into sin. Your life is now eternal, and its infinite majority will be spent in either heaven or hell. You're not allowed to permanently die, whether or not you want to 'opt out'.7 So, the choice between heaven and hell is literally the most important one you will ever make. And, the situation is even more urgent because humanity is of critical importance in a great cosmic controversy between good and evil, and you have your own vital role to play. The problem is that you are completely helpless to directly do anything about it because you're intrinsically flawed; you can't get to heaven on your own.8 You are relegated to groveling before god, abjectly begging for forgiveness and mercy so that you might have eternal life in heaven. All you can do is accept your superlative impotence, and hope for the best.9 You live in a constant state of known and admitted total inadequacy.
There goes any shred of self-esteem that might have otherwise remained. And, probably the most horrifying twist in this fate is that, somehow, religious people have bought into the idea that this situation is beautiful! Sing with me now, 'Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me...'.

A wretch! And, this is one of the most beloved hymns in existence!

Their life-view is this: live your life independent of god and burn in hell for eternity, or don the shackles of maximum self-abasement and beg god to have mercy on an unworthy worm like you and let you into heaven.


Birthed of religion, the conjoined twin of supreme importance and supreme impotence is a grotesque spectacle indeed. Its effect upon the human psyche is the only excuse I can readily produce to explain the flailing barrage of red herrings, non sequiturs, and other entirely irrational 'arguments' regularly generated by religious people in opposition to secular humanism.

Humanism is about accepting that humanity holds no special cosmic significance, and that this fact simply bears no relevance to our local existence. We still live and breathe, love, learn, and die. And, there's absolutely no reason we shouldn't make a genuine effort to improve life in our tiny corner of the universe in the interim. It's about acknowledging that life is what you make of it, and it's about recognizing that you get out of life what you put in.

Ultimately, humanism is about taking responsibility for yourself, instead of relying upon an ephemeral god-crutch.

So, cherish life. Enjoy it. Dream and work to improve it. It's the most fantastically great 'accidental gift' you will ever receive.

1 To be fair, I must narrow this generalization to Christians in particular. But, I suspect this is primarily simply due to the fact that I was raised amongst Christians. So, keep this in mind while continuing reading.
2 In its original form, heliocentrism was only a little better than geocentrism because it claimed that the Sun was the center of the universe---which, of course, it is no more so than the Earth. However, it was important because it at least correctly recognized that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not vice versa.
3 There are factions fond of bandying the idea that 'evolution is just a theory, not fact'. But, this confuses the scientific meaning of 'theory' with that of the layman. A bumper sticker may most succinctly make the distinction: “Evolution is just a theory. Just like gravity.” (Or electromagnetic theory, or atomic theory, or...)
4 In whose image we are made.
5 This is extremely reminiscent of geocentrism; no wonder it was so important to the old-time theological psyche.
6 In similar fashion, claiming that fairies do not exist does not “elevate humanity to fairy status”; it just means fairies don't exist. And, that's it. Human status remains unchanged.
7 There are variations on this theme, but all of them involve the vast majority of one's life taking place 'after death'.
8 But, you can get to hell on your own; it's the 'default destination'.
9 And all because some idiotic distant ancestor ate a fruit they were told not to touch.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Fossil Record: Insurmountable Creationist Dilemma

A Genuine Problem

The fossil record reveals innumerable strange species of organisms, both plant and animal (and other), that are not alive today. It exhibits a high degree of order in the way in which these species are arranged. Based upon careful observation of nature---such as the cataloguing of both living species and those in the fossil record---scientists' best estimates are that more than 99% of all species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct. In short, the fossil record begs for an explanation.

So far as I know, Christendom did essentially nothing to try to explain the fossil record prior to the establishment of the scientific method. Only after science came along were Christians forced to seriously consider the problem. And, as a result of scientific progress, many Christians now subscribe to a long-age Earth and even to evolution. This transition has not been without great resistance, and there are still a few on the fringe who cling to creationism (ex nihilo, in six literal days) and a young-age Earth (roughly 6-10 thousand years). I hereafter refer to them as "creationists", and it is about them that I write this blog---because they can't explain the fossil record.

Evolutionary Considerations

A ubiquitously common tactic creationists use is the setting-up of a false dichotomy: they try to poke holes in a scientific idea, and if they think they've succeeded, then they feel justified in claiming their own theory was right all along, afterall---as if there's no other explanation imaginable. They think you don't need to critically examine their theory because, "hey, it's the only remaining option." In other words, rather than presenting a positive case for the truth of their own theory, they present a negative case for an opposing theory, as if disproving it somehow proves their own (which, of course, it does not).

This is a terribly dishonest way to go about doing things. But what transforms it into something (almost) comical is how stunningly creationists display their total lack of understanding of the scientific theories they seek to disprove. They concoct hare-brained ideas to supposedly refute points that aren't even made by a theory, or they mistakenly assert (due to misunderstanding) that other scientific theories contradict the targeted theory, or they flat-out lie about things, or they latch onto ideas that allegedly contradict a theory that, upon closer inspection, actually necessarily support it! They prance about, vividly displaying their abject ignorance with all the confident pomp of a strutting peacock during mating season, but with the fidelity and intellectual content of a peanut-replete turd. (I describe a few of these idea-turds in the next section.)

For example, probably the most common claim made by creationists about why the evolutionary explanation of the fossil record fails is the so-called "missing link". (I won't even bother to get into the whole ladder- versus tree-of-life misconception.) Let's consider this for a moment. Suppose evolution is true (even if you don't think it is); everything got here through countless small changes from some common ancestor billions of years ago. Organisms continuously transition from one to another (as opposed to saltationism; large, abrupt, single-generation "transitions"). Each organism's entire ancestry plays more like a full-speed movie than a discretely-changing slideshow. What, then, should we expect to see in the fossil record?

Should we anticipate a fossilized sample of every "species" that has ever existed? Of course not! Fossilization conditions occur only very rarely, so we should expect quite a few "missing links"---much more like a slideshow than a movie. It's like filming a ballet with a movie camera containing a reel of faulty film that only records one-in-a-hundred frames to which it is exposed. When you have a friend watch it later, it will look like a slideshow, not a continuously-changing dance; she'll be forced to interpolate the differences, to infer what actually happened in the gaps. But, her "dance hypothesis" is obviously far from being disproved by these gaps. It is, in fact, in perfect accord with them.

Furthermore, even when the rare conditions for fossilization do occur, there are many organisms that simply don't fossilize, due to their size and physical composition. For example, soft-bodied organisms are notoriously rare in the fossil record because they quickly decompose, whereas the fossilization process typically takes quite some time.

Finally, even if a specific fossil really does exist, it is still very difficult for people to actually find it! So, a "missing link" is not just a failed disproof of evolution; it is actually a fulfilled prediction of the science, and of common sense! (Fortunately, some ancestral lines are better-preserved than others, so we are not forced to rely entirely upon "the slideshow". In particular, there is a very good line-up of cetacean evolution, as well as teosinte/corn and sticklebacks and several other organisms.)

Creationists also commonly cite the Cambrian explosion as being outside the capabilities of evolution to explain. However, not only is the Cambrian explosion of great interest to evolutionary scientists and the subject of much active research to improve understanding, but the overarching theory of evolution explains the emergence of new life quite adequately (especially in light of the plethora of other lines of evidence and the relatively sparse evidence surrounding the so-called Cambrian explosion). It is true that there are some unknowns surrounding the Cambrian explosion---although probably a lot fewer than many creationists think---but that's precisely why it is the subject of research. Creationists aren't out there trying to answer these questions, and they seem oblivious to the fact that the Cambrian explosion blatantly contradicts their own "six-day creation" theory. (See wikipedia for a brief overview of the Cambrian explosion.)

Creation/Flood Considerations

Now, let's do something creationists don't seem to ever do: critically examine creationist claims. I have heard several arguments set forth by them, but I can't think of any that are valid. All of them are so superficially contrived as to be laughable, often times being transparently self-problematic.

For example, when asked about the apparent age of the Earth/universe/etc., I have heard creationists seriously respond with the metaphor, "When God made a tree, he made a whole tree." In other words, "God just made the universe to appear ancient, even though it's really not!" And, so ends their "argument"; they conduct no follow-up implications or analysis or anything. I'll fill-in one obvious implication that contradicts their own beliefs immediately: if such an argument is based on truth, then God is a trickster, a liar; he purposely deceives us by planting fake fossils. Since the idea creationists are defending is a creator-God that is good and just and loving and so forth, the argument reaches a contradiction and invalidates itself. (The absurdity of this argument as a defense is made even more apparent when you recognize that it could just as readily be used to claim that all things, including you, were created one second ago. That's right: you did not just read that sentence; you just think you did. Riiiiight.)

But, there are other creationists who are at least willing to accept that things are the way they are because "some natural process(es)" made them that way. The problem is that their attempts at explaining things "naturally" within a creationist timeframe are geriatrically feeble to a Methuselah degree.

Consider the exact ordering and segregation of species in the fossil record. Evolution explains this; in fact, it depends upon it. (Different types of organisms found only in distinctly different layers simply did not co-exist. Various forms of dating the layers concur.) When asked what might disprove evolution, J. B. S. Haldane famously and confidently retorted, "Fossil rabbits in the pre-Cambrian." But, there are none to be found---because rabbits did not exist then. So, what might a creationist's attempt be at explaining fossil segregation and ordering, or even the mere existence (in any form) of the fossil record itself?

Noah's Flood. (Nevermind that there isn't the slightest shred of evidence, geological or otherwise, for a world-wide flood having ever occurred, much less in the past few thousand years.) Creationists believe the fossil record was created during this great deluge, but the problem is that it can't really explain anything at all about the fossil record: it would jumble-up everything, not create nicely ordered, neatly separated layers; and, it doesn't explain the divergent ages of the different layers either.

Some creationists suggest that big/strong/fast/smart organisms tended to retreat from the rising waters, thereby dying on higher ground than other smaller/weaker/slower/stupider organisms. But, the holes in this idea leak worse than a sieve. First, we know a thing or two about floods. They devastate areas, ripping up trees and moving cars and eroding gorges. They don't leave things where they drown them; they move them around. So, the organismal layer-ordering shouldn't tightly depend upon the order in which the waters overtook those organisms. (There should be rabbits "everywhere".) But, even if we suppose the organisms do somehow remain "glued to an unchanging Earth-surface" (if the surface moves, the organisms move), we still have problems because the geometric distribution of the fossil record doesn't match. Specifically, fossils occur in layers of "stacked planes" (in 3D), not in "layers" of contour lines (in 2D). In other words, if the fossil layers were simultaneously laid-down according to this crackpot theory, then they should exist only as a "thin film" that follows the contours of the landscape; no fossils can exist above the land, or inside (initially); they must be placed on the surface, and all at once. This means that mostly-horizontal layers can't be stacked-upon (since all layers are laid-down at once), and mostly-vertical layers can't have both length and width (because to do so, they would have to extend inside the unmoving hillside). To clarify, consider a hypothetical "sabertooth contour line", representing the altitude at which sabertooths are overtaken, drowned, and fossilized. The shape of this contour line would be a "ring around a hill"; you would find sabertooth fossils along the surface of the hill at that altitude, but none inside the hill; it would not be a stacked planar layer (as actually exist). Do I even need to mention the basic stupidity in claiming that fossils around the globe are laid-down in the same basic order simply because the respective species have such perfectly consistent and precise physical "retreat capabilities" and the water rose at exactly the right speed everywhere? And, do I even need to mention the immobile organisms, such as plants, that are also neatly ordered and segregated? And the aquatic species? And insects? And microbes? etc. (This "run away" theory also does not explain the different types of sediments found in different layers.)

The creationist "explanation" of the fossil record is already in tatters. But, what about the layer dating? How do creationists try to explain away how radiometric dating (to choose one type) yields such widely divergent ages for the various fossil layers? The answer, again, is Noah's Flood. The claim is that carbon (for example) is leached out of the corpses of organisms in an aquatic environment, thereby inducing age measurements to be artificially large. Alas, this idea, too, is birthed brain dead, as will soon be seen.

The basic idea behind radiometric dating is this: different chemical elements exist in multiple forms called isotopes; some of these isotopes, called radioisotopes, are radioactive and decay into other chemicals at measurable rates; if you can reasonably estimate the starting quantity of radioisotope, you can compute the age of something based upon the remaining quantity of radioisotope. For example, carbon exists naturally on Earth as carbon-12 (about 99%; 6 protons, 6 neutrons), carbon-13 (about 1%; 6 protons, 7 neutrons), and carbon-14 (trace amounts; 6 protons, 8 neutrons). Carbon-14 is a radioisotope; through beta decay, it turns into nitrogen-14. It has a half-life of 5730±40 years. This means that every 5730 years, the amount of remaining carbon-14 in a sample has been reduced to half of what it was at the start of the 5730 years. If you start with 1 gram: you will have 1/2 gram at 5730 years, 1/4 gram at 11460 years, 1/8 gram at 17190 years, 1/16 gram at 22920 years, etc. Clearly, this decay behavior follows an exponential curve.

At first glance, this carbon-leaching idea may seem clever. But, when you look at the actual data and follow-up on the implications of the suggestion, it rapidly becomes clear that it fails miserably to explain anything real. First, let us note that in order to induce any sort of age difference across layers, the layers must be laid-down very rapidly (since the Flood is reputed to have lasted a mere forty days and nights) so that they cannot each be equally affected by the leaching---otherwise, it induces no cross-layer difference in age measurement. (Upper layers must "shield" lower layers from leaching, reducing the rate at which they lose carbon-14.) Second, the leaching itself must be quite "vigorous" in order to achieve in only 40 days the enormous age discrepancies claimed by creationists (4-6 thousand years versus, say, a billion-plus years; so, roughly a million times the age). (As a side note, I suppose I should mention that I'm well-aware of the fact that radiocarbon dating is not the type of radiometric dating used for millions-of-years age-dating, but rather only for a few thousand years. I focus on it only because creationists seem unaware of this fact, and because my deconstruction of their argument is relevant for all radiometric dating with respect to "flood leaching".)

Given these necessities, and that all the materials started with essentially equal quantities of carbon-14 (since they were laid-down simultaneously), one would expect the "final" distribution of carbon-14 concentrations across all the layers to be (at least nearly) continuous; age measurements should roughly match-up at layer boundaries, gradually changing not just inter-layer, but also intra-layer. This is not what the fossil record shows. Sometimes adjacent layers have greatly different ages, and sometimes they do not; and I know of no one who has ever recorded a gradually changing age inside a given layer. Furthermore, not only would we expect the distribution of carbon-14 to be roughly continuous, but we should also be able to predict that its distribution follows some sort of "decay curve" (rather than a linear distribution, for example). This can be modeled using differential equations, but without getting into all the nitty-gritty math, it's readily understood intuitively with the metaphor of heat: the greater the difference in temperature between a hot object and its surroundings, the faster it will transfer heat to those surroundings; as the difference diminishes, so also does the rate at which heat is transferred. (The exact temperature curve of a cooling object is dependent upon such things as thermal conductivity; but, the overall exponential "decay shape" of the curve remains true whatever its precise curvature characteristics may be.) The idea of carbon-leaching suggests that carbon-14 concentration is analogous to temperature: the greater the difference between an object's carbon-14 concentration and that of its surroundings, the faster it will transfer carbon-14 to those surroundings. So, as we descend through the layers, we should expect a "decay curve" to fairly neatly fit our measured carbon-14 concentrations; the top layer concentration should be the most changed (due to the adjacent leaching water), the bottom layer should be the least changed, and the intermediate layers should have intermediate values that roughly fall along a decay curve connecting the two extremes. Again, this is not the case for the fossil record.

But, finally, here's the real clincher to this already-disproved theory. (Perhaps you have spotted it by now, since it's been lurking there throughout the preceding discussion.) The reason carbon-leaching was suggested in the first place was to induce artificially large age measurements; and, the reason it needed to act "through other layers" was to induce an age discrepancy across the layers. But---even without the other noted failures---the idea falls flat on its face because it leaches the most carbon-14 out of the top layers and the least out of the bottom layers. In other words, the theory suggests that the top-most layers should be measured as being the oldest (since they're most deficient in carbon-14), and the bottom-most layers should be measured as being the youngest---exactly the opposite of what the global fossil record exhibits! (I exclude the relatively rare exceptions of geologic inversions. The only way I can immediately think of to circumvent this problem is to hypothesize some sort of global cavern immediately beneath the fossil beds, into which the Flood waters seeped. But, if that's the case, then how would the organisms die in such a way as to form the ceiling of such a cavern? Did they all levitate after they died so the water could get under them? They had to have something to rest upon in order to be deposited in layers. And, certainly it's not even remotely imaginable that such a widespread geologic phenomenon would leave no trace!)


Evolution explains the fossil record---which is nice, since it is so overwhelmingly mutually supported by everything else: biogeography, DNA evidence, and much more. But, then, it's not exactly a coincidence that what has actually happened is also supported by the evidence, and explains it.

On the other hand, creation and a flood cannot, under any circumstances, explain the segregated layering and different ages evident in the fossil record. I do not know if creationists subconsciously understand this and resort to lying and setting-up false dichotomies to "defend" their false beliefs, or if they are simply too dim or ignorant to recognize this fact. Regardless though, creationists cannot generate a single workable hypothesis to explain the fossil record, nor do they seem capable of identifying a legitimate complaint against the validity of evolutionary explanations.

Bottom line: creationists cannot explain the fossil record; evolutionists can. Creationists should simply admit they are wrong and relinquish their antiquated fantasies, letting them go the way of the flat Earth and geocentrism.

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