Showing Some Pride

Paul and I seem to be featured in today’s Oxford Mail.

"Gay Pride March Ends City Celebration", in the Oxford Mail

From the article –

Friends Dan Q and Paul Mann, of Kennington, decided to mark the [superheroes] theme by dressing as characters from the silver age of comic book heroes, the Flash and Kickass, far left.

Mr Q, 30, said: “We wanted to take part in the march because first of all it’s an excuse to dress up, and also to show that Oxford is home to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people and they should be represented.”

Apart from the obvious fault with the age of our characters – Kick-Ass (here correctly hyphenated) is a very new comic book character, designed in from only 2008 – which could have been corrected with a quick Wikipedia search, the article’s not bad. I’m reasonably pleased with my soundbite quotation, there: the journalist we spoke to caught me off-guard so I just reeled off the first thing I thought of, but it’s not bad, at least.

Ruth managed to carefully avoid appearing in any press photographs, but I think she’ll have been hard-pressed to avoid all of the shots my the Pride photographer, who ran around enthusiastically in a pink day-glow jacket, snapping away.

Dan and Paul.

The Oxford Pride parade was fun, with the exception of the Catholic protest on Cornmarket, with their calls to “repent” from our “sinful lives”, and it was nice to lounge on the grass at Oxpens and listen to the music at the fair. Paul came second, by my estimation, in the fancy dress competition, and then I leapt around on a bouncy-castle/slide-thingy and sent all of the alcohol in my bloodstream rushing to my head.

Later, it rained, and I was too drunk to care.

Manifold Greatness

Earlier this week, I went along one lunchtime to a free exhibition hosted by my new employer, entitled Manifold Greatness, dedicated to the history of the translation of the bible into English.

A Wycliffite Bible on display at the Bodleian Library.

Of particular interest are the (never-before publicly exhibited) translation documents used by the actual translators who wrote the 1611 King James Bible, probably the most influential and significant English-language biblical translation projects ever undertaken. The exhibition includes the only known copy of a Bishops’ Bible (the earlier authorized text of the Church of England) with handwritten notes by the translation committees who were at that time writing what was to become the King James Bible. It’s quite fascinating to see the corrections they chose to make after consulting with earlier Greek texts.

Visitors at the Manifold Greatness exhibition.

They’re also showing off an original copy of the Wicked Bible in remarkably good condition (most were destroyed): this book, probably owing to industrial sabotage at the printers’ works at which it was produced, misses out the word “not” in the seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” If you’re going to commit industrial sabotage, it’s nice to do so with a sense of humour.

If you want to go and see the exhibition – and I’d recommend it; and I’m not just saying that because I work here – you’ve got until 4th September.

Four Things That Evolution Isn’t

I read this Chick Tract comic, recently. I’d seen them before, but for some reason it was this week, and this particular article, that riled me so much. I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever before been quite so agitated by something as harmless as a comic.

In the comic, an arrogant and obnoxious biology professor argues in front of a class with a Christian student on the topic of evolution. By a combination of bad science, straw man arguments, a veiled ad hominem attack (the lecturer really is a model of intolerance) and the ultimate false dichotomy – that the only alternative to the theory of evolution involves the implication that Christ must have died for our sins – the student persuades his teacher that his acceptance of evolution is incorrect.

It’s a weekend for pet hates, for me, and I suspect that the thing that really got my goat with this comic was this particular panel:

In this panel, the student makes the premise that there are “six basic concepts of evolution”, and the professor agrees, listing them. But most of the concepts have nothing to do with evolution at all!

(if anybody thinks it’s strange that the thing that annoyed me about this piece of propaganda wasn’t it’s conclusion but one of it’s premises, they could stand to know me a little better – I have no objection to a belief in whatever you like, so long as it doesn’t tread on my toes… but I’m not keen on people mis-representing one another’s positions)

The first four of the six basic concepts of evolution expressed in the comic are:

  1. Cosmic Evolution – the Big Bang making hydrogen. The theory of evolution has nothing whatsoever to say about the appearance of the Universe and all of the time, space and matter therein. The author seems to have confused the theory of evolution with, perhaps the big bang theory and and other cosmogenic theories.
  2. Chemical Evolution – the appearance of higher [heavier] elements. Again, the theory of evolution has nothing to say about the fact that there’s more than just hydrogen and helium in the Universe. On the other hand, nuclear fusion it’s reasonably well-understood physics by now: we can do it in a lab, and we have strong, experimentally-backed theories about how it happens in stars and the like.
  3. Evolution of stars and planets from gas – yet again, the theory of evolution has no statement to make on the formation of heavenly bodies (a term I use with no irony whatsoever). This time the author’s gotten confused, probably, with the nebular hypothesis, the most popular contemporary explanation of the development of solar systems and galaxies. It must be admitted: the hypothesis isn’t without it’s faults (to do with stuff like the conservation of angular momentum in accretion disks, and other stuff you don’t want to have to think about without either a degree in space physics or, at least, a pint in front of you). But it’s still got nothing to do with evolution.
  4. Organic Evolution – as it’s put so crudely in the comic, “life from rocks”. This still doesn’t have anything to do with the theory of evolution, which only describes mechanisms by which organisms can change (with the potential to form new species as well as to produce adaptation within a species). This time around, the author seems to be getting the theory of evolution mixed up with theories of abiogenesis, of which there several, and of which many are mutually-compatible (i.e. two of them could, perhaps, both be factual).

Only the last two concepts – macro-evolution and micro-evolution (which are only generally described in separate terms for the benefit of those who would argue that one is possible while the other is not: in scientific circles, it’s virtually unheard-of to discuss the two as if they were separate ideas, as they are in fact the same idea based upon the same scientific understanding).

I could spend time picking apart the rest of the comic, but it wouldn’t achieve anything: all I really wanted to do is to point out that there are a number of very different and unrelated theories that seem to be often misunderstood – sometimes by both sides – in debates on the subject of creationism, and in debates on the subject of atheism.

I’ve come across it a lot myself, as an atheist: people have told me that, as an atheist, I must believe in certain things, and then proceeded to attack those things, when these premises may well be flawed (especially if they’re coupled with a misunderstanding of what those premises actually mean, as was the case in this comic).

  • Yes, I’m an atheist – which to me means that I have observed no compelling evidence for the existence of any deities (as defined by any non-naturalistic, non-pantheistic explanation, on the subject of which I’m ignostic). I’m also agnostic – which means that I believe that I do not know for certain, which I maintain is a perfectly rational position and is perfectly compatible with atheism. Don’t agree? This is the diagram I’m working from. While I find the concept of the existence of a deity ludicrous and implausible, it’s impossible to disprove, just like Russel’s teapot.
  • I also happen to accept the theory of evolution, because it’s a strong model with a lot of compelling evidence for it, and I haven’t yet seen a stronger one, although I’m open to the possibility that one exists – Lamarkism, an alternative theory that could describe some of the evidence we’ve seen so far, is probably due a comeback.
  • I accept that abiogenesis has almost certainly occurred (that there was a point at which there was no life, and now – ta-da – there is!). I don’t know enough about molecular biology to make a statement in any direction about which of the competing theories is the strongest; however, all of the scientific explanations I’ve heard have always appeared to be stronger, to me, than any of the superstitious ones. I accept in principle the notion of a biogenetic start to life on Earth (life from elsewhere), but haven’t seen any evidence for it that is not speculative.
  • Despite great strides in cosmogenesis in recreating theoretical early-Universe conditions that form functional and consistent models, I – like, I believe, every other human – do not know “what happened before that?” (or even if such a question is valid at all). I’ve always had a personal fondness for the cyclic model, although I appreciate that it’s riddled with faults and, in fact, raises as many questions as it resolves – I just like it for it’s almost-poetic completeness. I gather that it’s hard to accept modern understanding of the cyclic model without also accepting loop quantum gravity, which I don’t even understand, but as a model, it still makes me feel comfortable. Regardless: fundamentally, I don’t know “what happened first,” and I dispute that anybody else does, either.

My point is, though, that all of these things can be taken independently, and I think it’s important that people understand and accept that. I’ve met evolutionist theists, biogenetic anti-evolutionists, and even folks who believe that while a creator deity exists, created the universe, set life in motion, and then ceased to exist – they’re atheist abiogenetic creationists. And that’s fine. I think they’re all wrong, and they probably think I am too, but that’s not a problem: we’ve a right to be wrong.

So next time somebody tells you what they believe about the existence or non-existence of a god or gods, their acceptance or not of the theory of evolution, their idea about the initial appearance of life, of their belief in the quintessential beginnings of the universe, please don’t assume that you can guess the rest: there are some surprising folks out there with whom you might have more in common than you think.

(and look, I managed to avoid mentioning my thoughts on ethics and morality and on determinism entirely!)

QMoon Virtual Postcard #2

We arrived in Rome last night to find a city teeming with life. There’s a buzz everywhere, and a crowd whereever you look. Roma Termini, the central station, stretches for miles and is bustling with commuters and tourists, fighting their way through ticket office queues or met.ro (the underground train system) gates.

Not quite sure how to make things like the ticket gates work, we stood back for a few minutes to watch the locals, first. When in Rome, we quite literally had to “do as the Romans do!”

Our hotel, right on the met.ro line, is fabulous. Big rooms, WiFi, and staff that were kind enough to lend me an electrical adapter after the one my dad had given to us turned out not to fit Italian sockets. So now my phone’s charged, which is nice, because it doubles as my palmtop (for blogging, e-mail etc.), camera (for taking photos of everything in a “hey look, I’m a tourist,” way), alarm clock, and so on. I’m half-tempted to “forget” to return it when we go to Napoli tomorrow. There’s a great pizza place just around the corner from the hotel where we went for a couple of slices of *excellent* Rome-style (thin, crispy) pizza and a beer before we went out to see the sights last night.

We ended up sat outside a gay bar a stone’s throw away from the Collesseum (yes, THE Collesseum – the speed with which we got here, coupled with the fact that, a few days ago, we didn’t know we were going to Italy at all, means that we’re still going “look… THE $monumentname” every time we see one), sharing a litre of wine and bits of desserts.

Today we woke up late, owing perhaps to a little bit of a late night last night… uhm… making the most of our honeymoon. Ahem. In any case, we took the train over to Vatican City, and, after buying Claire a cloth to cover her shoulders with (heaven forbid that God see a woman’s shoulders!) from a nearby trader, went into the Vatican museums.

I’ve now recieved my lifetime dosage of looking-at-painted-ceilings. Yes, the Sistine Chapel really IS quite beautiful, and so are the other hundred painted ceilings in Vatican City, but there’s only so much staring upwards you can do before you start feeling woozy, and it’s not helped by being caught in a crowd of people. The Vatican was really quite stunning, though, and I’d always wanted to see it, even though Claire and I *did* have to make two major compromises to go there: firstly, we had to pay the Catholic church €26 for the privilege of looking at various artefacts that they stole while promoting various crusades, which I’m not sure I approve of them making money out of (I suppose it’s no worse than most of the exhibits in the badly-named British Museum in London, but at least they don’t charge admission). Secondly, we had to stop playing our Rome-oriented variation on the Yellow Car Game, which we call Spot The Nun, because it was getting too painful as we got close to the centre of the Catholic world.

Also, I was disappointed to find that Vatican City doesn’t have a bar. Although it did make up for it with the uniforms that the Swiss Guard wear: with their floppy blue berets and silly sailor outfits they are, without a doubt, the campest army ever.

It’s been a stinking hot day today, and because the Vatican museum was so big we were exhausted before we could get to the Pantheon, which was this afternoon’s plan. Instead, we’re now waiting for the temperature outdoors to go down before going monument-spotting again. It’s really true that in Rome you can just “trip over” bits of ancient history without even trying, in a “whoops; a column!” way. Here, at what was once the capital city of Europe, “old” is a word that isn’t done justice by any building made since the year 1000. There are times when you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in Paris or London, and moments later, you can feel like you’ve been catapulted back in time. It’s quite amazing.

Tomorrow we’re off to Napoli! I’ll post more from there!

Carbon Neutrality

Recently, Kit wrote about carbon offsetting, calling it wishful thinking at best – at worst, greenwash. In particular, he was looking at tree planting as a method of offsetting carbon emissions, because it’s the most popular method by far. Just this morning I passed a truck making deliveries to a shop around the corner from me, proudly proclaiming in letters on the back that were almost as big as the company name, "We are a carbon neutral company."

This got me thinking about the mathematics of carbon neutrality. As I understood it, every year your company assesses it’s CO2 production, estimating how much carbon it’s flinging into the atmosphere, and pays another company to plant trees that will "offset" the carbon emitted by absorbing the gas in that way that plants do – through photosynthesis. I found myself wondering how long this process takes – for instance, if I produced X tonnes of CO2 last year, so I need to buy Y trees to counteract that… how long will it take those Y trees to absorb X tonnes of CO2. The missing variable, T, doesn’t seem to be widely publicised – and there’s a huge difference between this year’s emissions being absorbed in one year than being absorbed in 40 years.

It turns out, thanks to  some research this morning, that this is actually accounted for. T is one year: therefore, in theory at least, your purchase of a certain number of trees will offset the production of – for example – the carbon emissions of a particular motor vehicle for the rest of it’s lifespan. It’s a very wooly theory, of course – the vehicle will become less efficient with age, for instance; some species of trees do not produce a net reduction in their local CO2 levels for the first eight years of their lives; maintaining a sustainable forest makes significantly less impact on CO2 than planting new forests; and as forests reach maturity (30-60 years, depending on the species) they become less efficient at impacting CO2 again. There are lots of factors that aren’t taken into account, but at least my "missing variable" is.

It turns out that factoring in time isn’t a problem, because tree planting is really quite cheap. A hundred pounds or so shelled out when buying a new petrol-driven car (that’ll see pretty average use) pays for enough trees to be planted that – assuming that they are left alone during the entire working lifespan of the car and are not cut down or (worse yet) burned – the carbon emissions of that car are "neutralised." Good for you. You can feel a happy feeling about yourself.

As an optional aside:
I’m somewhat reminded of the Catholic Church’s practice of indulgences. It is the belief of Catholics that sins must be confessed to be forgiven, but that because humans are such naughty, sinful creatures, it’s pretty likely that they’ll have unabsolved sins at the time of their death. Mortal sins (the really serious kind) and concious rejection of God have you sent straight to Hell, but if you’ve merely got a few venial sins (the not-quite-so-serious kind) under your belt when you die, you’ll have to go to a place called Purgatory where you’ll be punished… er… I mean cleansed… of your remaining sins so that you’re pure when you finally get to enter Heaven. Catholocism also teaches that the time that you (or somebody else – even somebody already dead) need to spend in Purgatory can be reduced (let’s call it "offsetting") through penitential acts: usually prayer, but in the past, deliberately bringing punishment on oneself was perhaps almost as popular (fasting, wearing uncomfortable clothing, etc.). Prior to 1567, if you’d committed a sin – and you had the money – you could even buy your way out of it, purchasing an indulgence from your priest that offset, for example, several hundred days worth of penitential prayer without ever getting down on your knees or picking up a rosary. Some divisions of the Catholic Church still approve of giving money to charity as an act of penance, but "buying your way out of penance" by giving to God is now seen as wrong (I wonder how many "sinners" asked for their money back after being told that their indulgences, purchased before 1567, were no longer valid?).

That diversion aside: my research isn’t all fun and games, though. While initial evidence seems to indicate that carbon offsetting through tree planting genuinely can, done right, theoretically, kind-of reduce atmospheric CO2 by an equivilent volume to that output by the sinner… er, I mean, offender (wow; it’s easy to accidently take a metaphor too far, isn’t it), the bigger question for many people is: what about global warming?

And that’s where it all falls down. All the studies seem to indicate that while tropical forests (you know, like the ones in Brazil that we just keep felling) cause a global cooling effect, forests in temperate areas have no net effect on global temperatures. It turns out that despite them removing carbon compounds from the air, they also provide a dark and (of course) light-absorbing surface which actually helps to trap heat close to the planet’s surface. Worse yet, evergreen trees (of the kind that are so popular in European tree farms) and plantations in cold areas have an even worse effect, absorbing the sun’s heat that would otherwise be reflected – at least some of the year – by snow.

We’re going to have to see a lot more long-term studies on carbon offsetting before we get a consensus on what it’s actually doing for us as a species, but it should be evident that it certainly doesn’t do everything it claims to do, or at least that it isn’t so clear-cut as it could be. As a way to make yourself feel less guilty for polluting the atmosphere, though, it certainly works a treat, and modern carbon offset companies help to make it a lot less effort than repeated Hail Marys or reducing emissions in the first place.

If that’s all a bit serious for my blog, take a look at CheatNeutral. CheatNeutral apply the carbon offset model to relationships – if you’ve cheated on your partner, pay CheatNeutral £2.50 and they’ll give you a certificate with which to apologise to your partner. They promise to invest your money in helping to ensure that other people don’t cheat on their partner – either by keeping them single or by keeping them faithful, so you can relieve the guilt of cheating by knowing that you’re helping to ensure that other people don’t get cheated on too.

A Determinist Atheist’s Story

I find it amazing that people look at the chaos and the beauty of the world and somehow come to the conclusion that there is a god. I know that sounds like it’s backwards, but I mean it. The other day I was watching a spectacular sunset. The sun hung low in the sky and painted a picture of orange, pink, and red across the wispy clouds, and I found myself thinking, “Wow; that’s absolutely beautiful. How cool is it that we’ve evolved to be able to appreciate that?” People have been appreciating the colours of sunsets for thousands of years, of course, and it’s no less amazing since we came to the realisation that the Earth is not the centre of the universe (what a stir that kicked up amongst the devout!), that the picture painted by a sunset is just a result of atmospheric effects, and that our ability to enjoy things which are aesthetically pleasing is the result of a long line of evolutionary changes in our long-distant history. I didn’t need to think about any of those things to enjoy that uncommonly pleasing moment during my walk home from work. Most folks don’t . You could probably just about put a man on the moon without thinking about the relativistic implications of non-geocentrism, never mind the living of your day-to-day-life.

A friend of mine wrote a post in her blog (sorry; she’s protected it, most of you can’t read it) a little while ago about how she’d come, over the course of her life, to her current beliefs. This kicked off a few dozen comments including one from me, promising that I’d write something similar in the near future. This is it.

My upbringing, for the most part, was very much secular. My parents seemed to be careful not to try to overly influence me or my sisters in any particular religious direction, giving us a childhood which was, to all intents and purposes, agnostic, with as little bias as they could manage. This is best expressed, I think, through an anecdote: I remember quite vividly a discussion that took place between one of my sisters – quite young at the time – and my mum. My sister came into the kitchen where my mum and I were sat and asked, “Where do rabbits come from?”

“Well,” said my mum, in her most matter-of-fact way, “Do you remember how we were talking about how mummies and daddies make babies?” At this point, she had assumed that this was going to be an elaboration of the “birds and bees” talk they’d had some time ago. Except about rabbits and… er… rabbits.

“No, no, no,” my sister replied, “I know all that. I mean: where did the first rabbits come from?” This was, of course, a whole different topic.

“Where did the first rabbits come from?” my mum repeated, “We’re not completely sure; but there are two main schools of thought about it. Some people think that rabbits came from other animals which were a lot like rabbits, but not quite; and they came from animals that were not quite like them, and so on, until eventually; a long long time ago, every animal came from tiny little animals that were a lot like germs. Some other people think that rabbits – and everything else; even people – were created on purpose by someone super-powerful, who they call ‘God’.”

I was impressed. This was a basic summary of the widest possible views of many evolutionist and creationist philosophies, summarised into a couple of sentences that a precocious primary school child could comprehend. My mum had successfully condensed the beliefs of over 90% of the world’s population into something that made sense on any level; and, better yet, she’d done so without needing to superimpose her own beliefs on the top.

My sister, evidently, was also impressed. She stood quite still for some time, contemplating what she’d been told and visibly going over these two concepts in her mind. Eventually, she piped up, “I think that rabbits came down from the sky like bogies from God.” And that was that: she’d been given the space to make up her own beliefs from the evidence given. Undoubtedly these beliefs have changed over her years (I’m pretty sure she no longer subscribes to “Mucusism”), as she’s had the chance to be exposed to more evidence from both these major camps, and probably from some systems of belief that don’t directly agree with either one or the other. I’m sure if she’d asked my mum what she believed, she’d have got an honest and reasoned answer. As it happens, it’s rather irrelevant.

We’re all born atheists: we have no concept (or the mental faculties to comprehend) of deities, and therefore we have no belief in them. Later; at the first point we discuss religion, or question the possibility of a supernatural creator, we become momentarily agnostic, and then start to form a set of religious beliefs of our own. This is based on the evidence we are presented with, and our young and malleable minds can easily be shaped by well-meaning individuals like our parents and teachers. My primary school was typical of others in our area and at that time: we sang hymns, had prayers, even had “scripture” lessons (which were later replaced by religious education when the school adopted a more secularist attitude), and were exposed to other elements of Christian mythology. Like most rational people of any age, I came to understand children’s’ stories like Noah’s ark to be exaggerated (at best), and probably just metaphorical or entirely imaginary. However, primary school did expose me to a peer group laden with children already indoctrinated into a belief system that I found to be complicated, confusing, and un-necessary. Arguments for the existence of a supreme being, woven into stories and songs, challenged me with questions that I didn’t yet have the philosophical depth-of-thought to be able to contradict. Simply put; I wasn’t sure what to believe. And that’s just fine.

There’s no problem with agnosticism, especially amongst children (who, lets face it, are given a simplified model of the world in all senses anyway – a necessity for their survival and a means to provide them with valuable information without having to resort to unanswerable questions). But amongst a group of 10-year-olds who haven’t yet learned to question the “facts” given to them by their evangelistic parents, it’s difficult to be the one to say, “I can’t see any reason that God has to exist at all.” Many of the most popular arguments for the existence of God are so simple that a child can explain them, and the reason for that is simple: they’re not very good arguments (it’s sad that so many theists continue to use these flawed arguments into the adulthood, unwilling to listen to their faults). Nonetheless, it’s not easy to defend an agnostic viewpoint when you’re unready for the kinds of arguments you’ll come up against. In hindsight, these (rare) playground discussions would have been easier had my parents brought me up as an atheist, rather than simply areligious. However, that – I think – wouldn’t have given me the open-mindedness to actually investigate these beliefs that others held, which, in turn, has ultimately made me surer of my current beliefs.

By the time I was 14 I’d formulated a well thought-out set of philosophies in my mind; primarily an atheistic one, with sufficient unanswered questions and seemingly equally-viable explanations to be agnostic on particular issues. It was at about this point that I realised that the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient deity that is concerned with human behaviour was completely ludicrous to me. I had no difficulty seeing the similarities between belief in a god and belief in, say, Santa Claus, or with the fact that while neither is entirely disprovable, this does not mean that existence and non-existence are equally likely. It’s about this point that I became particularly fascinated with religion in general. I tried to learn as much as possible about as many as possible, and I began to love hearing about what people believed and why. Content with my own model of the world – with its few unanswered questions themselves not requiring God (and certainly not the God described by any religion I’d ever come across, with all their hypocrisies and illogical arguments) to fill in the blanks – I turned to trying to understand others.

I read a lot about religion and about philosophy. I became familiar with the major arguments used by theists for their beliefs, and by atheists for their disbelief (although I’ve always found the latter to be less necessary, just as arguments against the existence of anything are less necessary by scientific theory – the burden of proof comes from the hypothesis of existence). And everything I read confirmed more and more for me how illogical and unnecessary this image of a god was, most of all a god anything like those that the major religions subscribe to. And, gradually, over the coming years, I came to iron out many of the other quirks in my beliefs (by, for example, finding myself a determinist without tripping over any of the usual, often theistic in nature, arguments against it).

The only significant change to my religious views of late has been a reduction of my tolerance for the activities of others as a result of their religion. While I’ve previously been very open to other people’s beliefs, not caring what other people believe (however wrong I think they are), I’ve more recently begun to see how dangerous religion can be when used as an excuse for some awful things. While I don’t believe it’s true to say that most wars are started over religion, it is true to say that religion provides an excuse for such behaviour. And somehow, lately, religion has become something that’s taboo to argue against.

In a legal case a few years ago by a San Diego student against his school – who had banned him from wearing a t-shirt that carried an anti-homosexual message at school – the student made his case not on the grounds of freedom of expression but on the grounds of freedom of religion. Had he tried under the former, he would undoubtedly have failed, because while it’s okay to express whatever opinions you like, the court would have said, it’s also okay for schools to maintain order and a civil atmosphere. But under an argument of religion, he was far more likely to be untouchable – in the current socio-political climate, no judge wants to be seen to infringe upon somebody’s religious views. Small cases like these help to enshrine (hah!) religion into a status where it can’t even be criticised, even where it’s used as justification for some of the most disgusting acts of genocide, war, hatred, and terrorism. It’s a big scary world, and while it might still be as big and scary without the fundamentalist theists, at least we’d have removed from people an irrational excuse for their actions. And meanwhile, the majority of people still brainwash children with disputable beliefs that they haven’t got the cognitive abilities to question.

I’m grateful to my parents for giving me the chance to be whoever I wanted to be.

So; there’s a 10-minute summary of how I came to the beliefs I currently hold. Perhaps in another couple of decades I’ll write it again. In the meantime, I’ll happily argue the non-existence of God with any of you until the sun goes down, but I’d still prefer to hear what it is that you believe, because, for the time being, religion still interests me far more than fighting over it does.

Further Reading

Some stuff other people have written, that I think you should read:

Dinosaur Adventure Land

ON DINOSAUR ADVENTURE LAND

This is the strangest thing I’ve seen so far this week, and I’m a diggdot reader. Dinosaur Adventure Land (site navigation requires JavaScript) is a dinosaur-themed education park with all the usual things – fossils, a “back in time” ride, huge plastic dinosaurs: you get the idea – that you’d expect a theme park with it’s name to have. But there’s a twist.

Dinosaur Adventure Land is run by Kent E. Hovind. Mr.Hovind (I shan’t call him “Dr.” until he gets a real doctorate) believes the world to be less than six thousand years old. He believes this because it’s what he interprets the bible as telling him.

At his theme park, having learned about how different dinosaurs lived and hunted, he reveals to his guests that dinosaurs and humans at one point lived alongside one another. The mass extinctions evidently didn’t affect humans too badly, in his mind, but he also claims that some dinosaurs continued to live amongst us well into the 20th century. This explains, he says, occurances like bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster.

You can read Mr. Hovind’s theories for yourself, if you can’t be bothered to get his DVD (although I might – it’s uncopyrighted so perhaps I can download a copy). Here are some of my favourite crackpot theories from his mind:

  • Continental drift is a myth. Despite heaps of evidence to the contrary, including modern-day observations of plate techtonics, Mr. Hovind attempts to refute the existence of continental drift. If you point out to him that the continents are an awfully convenient shape, then, he’ll point out that “what the geologists don’t tell you is that very similar fossils are found on opposite sides of the ocean, suggesting a world-wide flood.” He fails to spot that this could also be evidence that the continents were joined when the life forms died and fossils formed, and later seperated.
  • The Earth’s magnetic field is static. Magnetic anomolies among the continental ridges, while provide evidence for geomagnetic reversal (a theory almost universally-accepted by geologists), do not exist or are insignificant, he claims.
  • All of the mammoths were killed almost instantly. Hovind teaches us that we’ve found many deceased mammoths, all standing up and with evidence that they died very quickly, and claims that this is evidence for his “great flood” theory (which I’ll mention later). He’s wrong, by the way – we’ve not found many intact mammoths and I can’t find any evidence that any were found standing up (the one he usually mentions, the Berezovka Mammoth, may well have died from drowning, but certainly wasn’t standing up). He also carefully skirts around the fact that dinosaurs’ (which, according to his theories, would have lived at the same time as mammoths) bones are found buried in a way (different depths, carbon dating, etc.) that would suggest that they lived over a huge period of time and did not all die out in an instant.
  • So what killed all these extinct species? A great flood! And not just any great flood: a comet hit the Earth, we’re told. A huge comet entered the solar system and (for some reason he doesn’t really clarify) began to break apart. Lots of chunks of water ice (recent evidence from probes like Deep Impact suggest that comets contain far less water ice than was previously thought, containing far more dust and rock and ices of other gases, like methane). The craters on the moon, Mars and other planets were caused by this immense icy meteor, as were the rings around Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune (wow; this really is a huge comet). The comet seperated further in the Earth’s atmosphere, and fell as snow… curiously, the ice particles became statically charged in the Earth’s atmosphere which caused them to be attracted towards the Earth’s magnetic poles, which is why they are icier today than other parts of the Earth – which makes no sense whatsoever. The melting snow created filled in the huge valleys that are now the oceans (presumabley there wasn’t very much water on Earth before this happened).
  • More evidence for a great flood! Mr. Hovind takes pretty much every bit of evidence for an “old Earth” and twists it with a huge dose of imagination in order to attempt to turn it into evidence for his “young Earth.” Fossils of sea creatures found in the Himalayas have been accepted (through biological analysis, carbon dating, and the techtonic record) to have been pushed up there when the Indian techtonic plate crashed (very slowly, but it’s very heavy!) into South Asia. Mr. Hovind, however, explains that the only way you could possibly get seashells up Everest would be with a great flood “washing” them up there. He uses the bible to demonstrate the infallability of the bible a few times to help demonstrate the correctness of his theory.

He goes on to “disprove” coal formation, which is also amusing reading, but the whole thing remains kind-of alarming to me when I think about the fact that people genuinely believe this stuff.

ON MENTAL MODELS AND STAGNATION

When we are confronted by evidence that contradicts our model of the way things are, we are confused. We can amalgamate this new evidence and relieve the confusion in one of two ways. The first way, which is the most comfortable, is to assume that our existing model (what we already believe) is correct and take the extra evidence as an exception to the rule. The second way, which is harder, is to adapt the model to fit the new evidence. Which one is more correct depends upon the situation, but something that is certainly true is that it is far more difficult to retrospectively adapt a model (where your model has been hard-set by, for example, years of belief in it) than it is to adapt a model which is less-strongly held.

Let’s have a simple example: a woman has a son who, on a particular occassion, gets into trouble at school. Her mental model includes predicates like “My son is a good boy,” and so this new evidence challenges that belief. Odds are good that she will extend her model with an exception, such as “…except when he plays with [scapegoat],” or even “…except that one time.” This is probably correct, and her model is refined with this “bolt-on” extra clause. If she continues to be bombarded by evidence, she is likely to have to change her model to accomodate it, eventually changing her original ideas: “My son is not a good boy.”

Retrospectively changing ideas is very hard: the human brain doesn’t seem to feel as comfortable with it. Suppose you had firmly believed that there was a deity who cared about you and would grant you a place in it’s heaven if you lived your life in accordance with a certain set of rules and traditions. Then suppose something somehow managed to persuade you that this deity probably didn’t exist at all. Changing your mental model to something new, contradicting yourself, and saying “I have been wrong for the last 20 years,” or whatever, isn’t an easy thing to do, so people don’t like to do it.

What people will sometimes do is to maintain their model with an ever-growing string of complicated and intertwined exceptions, making themselves into an apologetic for their cause. “God doesn’t condone homosexuality, because Leviticus 18:22 and Deuteronomy 23:17-18 forbid it! Oh; but don’t mind Leviticus 11:12 and Deuteronomy 14:10 – of course God doesn’t mind us eating shellfish in this day and age.”

Everybody does this: not just the theists. But it scares me that we seem to be seeing an increase in this kind of thinking from theists worldwide, and while it’s probably better than them taking their thousands-of-years-old holy books as literal and following them to the letter, it sets a bad precedent. If they can justify making exceptions to the rules they don’t like, it follows that they will eventually adapt their models, internally, to say “It is okay to change our models to fit our needs and still believe that we aren’t hypocrites.” It’s happening now to many people all over the world, and it disappoints me.

God’s Debris

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) has released as a free e-book God’s Debris, a short fray into religion and philosophy. I’ve read several of Scott Adam’s books before. Most of these have been comic books – compilations of Dilbert strips. Others have been his interesting, satirical books on office life and tongue-in-cheek guides to survival in cube farms. God’s Debris is somewhat different. It is a work of fiction which centres on the conversation between two individuals with, at least to begin with, radically different views on the nature of God and the universe. The elder of the two, the self-defined “Avatar”, talks little of his beliefs, instead choosing to speak widely and knowledgeably of facts he is privy to: facts based on assumed premises such as free will and, in a roundabout way, creationism. The younger – the protagonist and a blatant representation of “the majority” – is a non-commital monotheist who has neglected to put more than a modicum of thought into his beliefs. Like most of the monotheists I know, I guess. And, sadly, many of the atheists. The two talk about the nature of the universe through a series of short, well-written chapters, loaded with comprehensive analogies but with a significant amount of “thinker material” if the reader cares to delve deeper. The book is designed as a thought experiment, and has moderate success. Spoiler Warning – what follows is a discussion about some of the significant points of the book – if you’re going to read it (it doesn’t take long: I read the whole thing in just over an hour) then go read it and come back here later. Or to jump to the conclusion of my micro-review, scroll down until you reach the “end of spoilers” section. I’ve had a closer look at the chapters of the book:

  • Introduction (Introduction, The Package, The Old Man) – the story is set-up well, quite obviously as a work of fiction. Several mentions are made to thought processes of the individual and behaviour in accordance with society’s rules, which will be referenced later. The writing style of the introductory chapters, like the rest of the book, is charming and welcoming, and approachable on many different levels. The deliveryman and the Avatar – the two characters in the story – are introduced, and the latter is done so with an air of mystery which I feel is possibly unbefitting of the status (“level 5”) he later declares. Probability, which forms a major part of the story and of the Avatar’s beliefs, is introduced through a coin-flip metaphor, but, again, the level of mystery and suspense induced is perhaps too much for a small, easy-reading volume such as this one.
  • Free Will and Determinism in Omnipotence (Your Free Will, God’s Free Will, Science, Where Is Free Will Located?) – The concept of free will is introduced; that is, that a thinking organism can have control over it’s own activities, and the discussion turns to that of determinism: if there is a single entity in the universe which truly knows everything, including the future, then there is no free will for any entity, but there can be an illusion of free will. As a determinist, I have no problem with this statement, which is presented as being bold and world-changing, however Adams seems to try to present it as something shocking; perhaps to cater to readers who may not have entirely followed the free will vs. determinism thought train through. However, the characters then go on to dismiss the idea of universal determinism, without further discussion, which left me feeling somewhat cheated. Thankfully I carried on reading regardless, drawn on by the excellent writing style, because (as you’ll see below) I found the book very enjoyable despite the fact that the author seems almost to expect that the reader will agree with him on basic premises like the existence of free will. These chapters go on to discuss God, the soul, etc. in a way that, for a moment, made me fear that the novel was going to continue to use these “woolly” terms to avoid having to talk about any real philosophical, moral, or religious issues at all! However, I was proven to be, again thankfully, mistaken…
  • Facets of Belief, and Religious Incompatibility (Genuine Belief, Road Maps, Delusion Generator) – The Avatar and the deliveryman go on to discuss the value of religion and where it comes from (again, of course, in the belief set of the Avatar), in what turns out to be a well thought-out couple of chapters. Analogies are drawn which let the reader begin to think about religious teachings and their place in our world, which are referenced wonderfully by the later chapter Curious Bees. Several well-written chapters. The nature of abstraction and the need for mental models through which to understand the world is touched upon, although not in a terribly detailed manner.
  • Understanding God, and The Avatar’s Beliefs (Reincarnation, UFOs, and God, God’s Motivation, God’s Debris, God’s Consciousness, Physics of God Dust) – At long last, the Avatar goes in to detail about the nature of the universe as he understands it: that there is/was (the temporal difference is subtle) an omnipotent God, and the only possible thing that an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful God could be motivated to do is to bring about It’s own destruction (Adams repeatedly uses “He” when referring to God, which irks me slightly, but not enough to count against his book). The Avatar’s reasoning is this: that for such an entity, any other course of action or inaction is entirely pointless, as there is no motivation to do so. There is no motivation to do so because all possible other states can be conceived already, and, through their conception, they exist (that they exist as “thoughts” is irrelevant, because the perception of the universe as we experience it can not be demonstrated to be more than a thought belonging to some deity with a wandering mind). As a result, the Avatar reasons, the only experience different to universal omnipotence for a universally omnipotent entity is to cause Itself to become something that is not omnipotent: the Avatar believes that this is what the universe is – the remains of a God that destroyed itself.This line of reasoning doesn’t sit well with me. Wouldn’t an entity with ultimate power and knowledge in an (obviously) determinist reality equally be able to appreciate the results of even such an operation? And if not, It has demonstrated Itself to be subject to rules such as “existence”. As I see it, if there is an omnipotent entity, It has a form which resides outside of the rules of existence, which leads us back to the original conundrum that It would not be motivated to do anything at all, and it would be entirely undetectable in any form anyway. I’m far more comfortable believing in one of two God scenarios. The first is, as hinted above, of an omnipotent God of which the universe as we understand it is a fleeting figment of It’s perception. The second is of a non-omnipotent God, of the type that most theists seem to believe in (even if they think they don’t). A non-omnipotent, or, shall we say, flawed, God could have a great deal of motivation to do anything, including “working in mysterious ways”, creating a universe, talking to mortals, etc. As Adams says, it is an imperfect existence that causes motivation to act. And in every religious text I’ve read, the descriptions of God point to a belief in a non-perfect deity. In any case, I’m babbling, and the conflict between my beliefs and that of the Avatar do not make the story any less good. But from this point on, it’s important to realise that the majority of my interest in the book came from the same source as my interest in other people’s beliefs in general: that I’m fascinated by religion and belief systems.
  • Free Will Revisited (Free Will of a Penny) – Now within the context of the Avatar’s viewpoint, we revisit the idea of free will, and apply the idea that the probability in the universe (alongside matter/energy, part of the remnants/being of God) is universal in scope, and that it is as valid to say that humans have free will as it is to say that a penny has free will to determine what side it lands on when it is tossed. The analogy is perhaps un-necessary, but, like some earlier examples, it would illustrate the author’s point in a way that is approachable to anybody.Surprisingly, these ideas are not put forward with the “shock value” that it felt some of the earlier ideas were supposed to: the writing style is changed in order to present the information more fluidly. I, for one, found this more readable, but I’m interested to hear how other readers found it – presumably we’re supposed to face the revelations of the previous chapters as facts for the purposes of understanding these ones. Which is fine.
  • Evolution, Skepticism, And ESP (Evolution, Skeptics’ Disease, ESP and Luck, ESP and Pattern Recognition) – What follows are the best-written chapters in the book. The Avatar and the deliveryman discuss skepticism and how inexplicable phenomena – such as extra-sensory perception (ESP) – fit in to the Avatar’s model of the universe. Some wide and varied explanations tease the reader with ideas that invite further thought and comment. ESP is described as the result of probability on the mind, or perhaps as the acute perception of forces elsewhere. Having already discussed gravity and magnetism, earlier, we are reminded that every thought is characterised by physical transformations in the brain – chemicals, electrical impulses, matter changes – which, of course, exert fields such as gravity into the universe. As a result, like it or not, thoughts do travel through the air, although this isn’t in a form that might be recognisable as a thought.
  • Light (Light) – A quick examination and hurried explanation of the more confusing points of general relativity follows. Those of a physics disposition or even a physics interest may find this a little patronising, but a point is made at the end, by way of excessive analogy. One is left wondering to what degree Adams – or, at least, his fictional Avatar character – understands some of the more interesting properties of light (such as that it is affected by gravity, or that it’s speed is not necessarily constant), and this casts a shadow of doubt across other things he’s stated as fact. Nonetheless, an interesting chapter.
  • Curious Bees (Curious Bees) – Using a great analogy involving bees looking through the different colours of stained glass window of a church, the Avatar talks about the nature of religion. Superficially, the chapter is similar to Road Maps, but goes into greater detail about the Avatar’s belief in the necessity of human models by which to understand the world. It’s also a lovely bit of writing.
  • Willpower (Willpower) – A further examination of free will and relativity, this time from the perspective of humans. Issues of the subjectivity of morality are hinted at, but not at a level that would excite a philosopher. The chapter uses some interesting metaphors, but if you’ve read books on philosophical morality before, you won’t find anything new here.
  • Prelude To The War (Holy Lands and Fighting God) – The Avatar incites a discussion with the deliveryman about the nature of religious artefacts and their irrelevance, and hints at the purpose of an Avatar – to facilitate improved communication between intelligent individual entities in order to get closer to the state of understanding of the God from which all probability originally came. It is implied that the Avatar believes this to be “the great plan” of where the universe is headed, and it makes fascinating reading, despite my inability to facilitate his beliefs. Later, it is implied that there is to be an important war, fuelled by religion, and I’m left wondering why Adams didn’t take the obvious opportunity to make reference to this idea before, during – for example – Curious Bees. Or maybe he did and I just didn’t notice.
  • Relationships (Relationships) – The Avatar dispenses some general advice on living life in a way that improves the value of the lives of others, and, by proxy, yourself. This doesn’t really feel like it belongs in this book, but is good reading nonetheless, particularly if you’ve had any formal training in skills like active listening.
  • Affirmations (Affirmations) – In another ‘aside’, the value of human thought and determination is explored. This ties in more closely with the rest of the story than Relationships did, talking again about ideas of probability and of noticing the results you want to notice (the same kinds of phenomena that cause superstitions to be reinforced). Good reading, but, like Relationships, you’re not sure why.
  • Fifth Level (Fifth Level) – In a slightly pompous way that feels unbefitting of it’s own definition, the Avatar declares himself to have reached the fifth level of consciousness, the level at which God’s nature can begin to be understood. In order to try to alleviate the tension caused by this revelation, the Avatar explains the importance of other levels, with particular reference to the most influential political and religious leaders, who are typically of lower levels (as it is valuable for them to be able to close their minds to particular outside ideas). The whole chapter’s a little woolly around the edges, but prepares the reader well for the final revelations.
  • The Religious War (Going Home, After The War) – It is implied that in the years that follow there is a great religious war of the kind alluded to by the old Avatar. Now the former deliveryman is the new Avatar, and he himself is old, having survived the religious war (who’s build-up is described, over several chapters, in terms that are chilling when explored in reference to the political climate of today’s real world). It’s suggested that the Avatar is responsible for ensuring that the war ends peacefully, as part of a longer-running plan to reunite the many distributed facets of humanity into the “great plan” of a re-assembled God, but other suggestions are hinted at, too.

End of spoilers – if you skipped the bit above, it’s safe to start reading again here. The book is an interesting one, with some well-presented ideas (behind a little bit too much woolly thinking). I’d have no problem with recommending it to anybody with an interest in religion, or to anybody who needs their theism or atheism challenged. However, if you’ve explored an interest in philosophy or religion before, you’re unlikely to find much that is new or that can excite you in this book, except for the story it wraps inside it. The book takes a very direct route to it’s destination without exploring any of the alternative beliefs: for example, I disagreed entirely with one of the earlier premises, but the story as told by the protagonists left no room for dispute, and just pushed onwards towards it’s inevitable conclusion. This made little difference to me: I was reading it because I enjoy trying to understand the beliefs of other people – even fictional ones – but I can see how it could infuriate people who don’t expect their beliefs to be dismissed at the drop of a hat. On the other hand, it’ll only take you a few hours (at a maximum) to read it, and it’s free, so go download God’s Debris and make an afternoon of it. I’ll be delighted to discuss in finer detail the book with anybody who’s read it.

Bush On ‘Intelligent Design’

Bush approves of ‘Intelligent Design’, we hear, a theory that’s gaining popularity amongst some Christian groups as a competitive scientific approach to the theory of natural selection. It specifies that while evolution has occured, it was guided by an intelligent force.

But the thing that it’s fans repeatedly fail to notice is that it isn’t a demonstrable scientific theory. To be considered as a scientific theory, it has to be impirically demonstrable, at least in theory, to be false. Evolutionary Theory can be proven false, because theories of evolution state that they could be proven false by the discovery of any single species who’s history can not be explained by it’s own terms. Intelligent Design’s “fail” demand is that it is proven to be incorrect for every species. Just like theories that both “God exists” and “God does not exist”, Intelligent Design can not be proven false, and therefore is untestable and unscientific!

I have no problem with the existance of a theory of intelligent design: in fact, I’m honestly surprised it’s taken so long to get a foothold, as it is a great theological explanation for the way species have been (so far) proven to be while maintaining creationistic ideas… but it is not, by definition a ‘scientific theory’.

It’s been a long day.

On the up-side, Egg have stopped writing to me to tell me I am over my credit limit and instead, today, wrote to me to tell me they were bored of telling me I was over my credit limit and so they have increased said limit. Go Egg!

Amused Me This Monday Morning

Two things of a religious nature that amused me this morning:

The Rapture Index – what happens if you take the models used to predict global stock exchange behaviour and apply them to biblical prophecy about “the last days”. It’s funny, right up until you realise that they’re absolutely serious. Pretty site, though.

How To Tell If Your Child Is A Goth (and therefore worshipping Satan and in great danger!) – hilariously bad, scary how the fundamentalist Christians find these things to blame for the world’s evils and to find Satan in. I particularly love the fact that you can tell that you have “strayed from the path of the Lord” by what breakfast cereal you eat. I originally lifted the entry from Faye‘s blog, but as she’s made it “friends only” I can’t link to it from here.