Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Use of Evidence

On my post concerning the Creation Museum, an anonymous commenter said:

"Notice atheism really has no evidence at all."
This person said it as if I was trying to hide the fact that atheism has no evidence. That couldn't be farther than the truth. In reality, the absence of evidence is the strongest case atheists can make against the existence of a god. Allow me to explain.

I consider myself a scientific atheist. Therefore, I feel science is the best tool we have for understanding the workings of the universe. Now, science is driven by evidence. Evidence is necessary to support or falsify any hypothesis or theory. Without evidence, no conclusions can be drawn either way. It simply is not considered.

Additionally, something that does not exist will, by definition, be incapable of leaving any evidence. This fact should be self-evident, but many seem unable to grasp this concept.

Anyway, this lack of evidence for a god has two implications. First, science can only work with evidence, and, since there is no evidence of a god, science must remain grounded in naturalistic explanations of the world. It cannot consider supernatural events for which there is no evidence. However, if evidence of a god did arise, then it would no longer be supernatural and would fall into the realm of the the natural world. At that point, science could then consider it. Nevertheless, that evidence has yet to appear.

Second, as a scientific atheist, I base my worldview on evidence and the conventions of science. No, I cannot prove that God does not exist. However, a lack of evidence is as close as science can come to proving the nonexistence of something, as I explained above.

In conclusion, atheism does not have any evidence. But that is the strongest scientific case atheists can make against the existence of a god. The burden of proof remains with the theists because they need to produce the testable, verifiable evidence that would establish God's existence. Until then, I see no reason to spend my time worrying about something that is not powerful enough to leave even the tiniest shred of evidence.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Creation Museum Opens Today

If you were unaware, Ken Ham's Creation Museum opens today in Kentucky. Personally, I think it's a travesty and intellectual dishonesty in the highest degree to call something based on the Bible a museum of science. Don't get me wrong, Ham has every right to open the museum. This is America, and I won't stand for any censorship. However, that doesn't mean I don't have the right to complain. In my previous post, I already discussed my major problems with the museum, so I won't go into it again.

However, if you want to see what other rational thinkers are saying about this church, check out the Creation Museum Carnival put together by PZ Myers of Phryngula. He put a lot of work into it, so please, tell your friends and send some traffic his way and celebrate rational thought. Then when you're done, go visit a real museum and support legitimate science.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Opposing the Creation Museum is Good Science, Not Intolerance

Last week the Campaign to Defend the Constitution (DefCon) launched a petition campaign against the Creation Museum's efforts to teach Creationism as science. Inevitably, Answers in Genesis (AiG), the organization operating the Creation Museum, has accused DefCon of being intolerant and trying to limit the free speech rights of AiG. Mark Looy, the author of the AiG article, says:

So it begs the question: why is a group that purportedly exists to defend the Constitution's First Amendment’s right to free speech wanting to keep people from being exposed to another view?
First, notice the erroneous use of "begs the question". That's a logical fallacy, unlike the phrase "raises the question", which would be the proper way for Looy to say what he's trying to write (Sorry, had to take that jab).

However, DefCon specifically points out that this is not the case:
[Ken] Ham [founder of AiG] is of course free to believe what he wants, but we are also free to voice our concern over Ham’s nefarious campaign to confuse America’s children and undermine scientific understanding.
Contrary to what AiG would like people to believe, it is not intolerance to point out the error in AiG's view of science. DefCon has every right (thanks to the First Amendment) to point out when AiG takes liberties with the truth. As AiG plainly states on their website in an attempt to explain their version of science:
Biblical creationists start with the assumption that the Bible provides an accurate eyewitness history of the universe as a basis for scientific thought. Evolutionists begin with the presupposition that only natural laws can be used to explain the facts.
Nevertheless, AiG never presents any evidence verifying the Bible, which is necessary to make accepting as true it a valid assumption. The simple reason AiG doesn't do this is because there is no evidence to support the historical or scientific veracity of the Bible. Of course, AiG turns around and states that (real) science starts from the assumption that there is no God and that only naturalistic explanations are accepted. While not necessarily true (many real scientists have a theistic world-view), the purely naturalistic presupposition is the only scientifically acceptable one because non-existent things, by definition, leave no evidence. You can't assume something for which there is no evidence, and, therefore, they are not considered. Conveniently, AiG refrains from this inconvenient truth in all its publications.

However, that does not stop AiG from using politically loaded words to get around this problem. As you can see in the quote above, AiG likes to say they are "exposing people to a different point of view". That sounds nice, but science is not democratic. The universe doesn't care what people believe. It simply is, and science seeks to discover its true properties. For example, if a group of scientists sees a clear liquid in a jar, they do not vote on what it is. If they did, the majority might vote for water. However, that does not change reality. If the liquid was originally mineral spirits, it remains so. Instead, scientists actually have to test the substance and and examine the evidence generated. Even though I love democracy, it has no place in the situation I just described.

Unfortunately, AiG doesn't care. They simply want to avoid scientists in general by appealing to the public and gaining their support. They want people to vote on which version of reality to accept, because they know how fickle the masses can be. People tend to vote for what sounds right rather than what actually is right, and AiG is perfectly willing to lie to make sure it happens. That is why people like me oppose the Creation Museum. It's not because we want to censor or take away the First Amendment Rights of Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis. They're free to build whatever they want on their land and believe whatever suits their fancy. We simply want AiG to stop lying and call their building what it really is: a church.

I also recommend you check out this article from Chris Hedges, which further explains why this "museum" is bad for America.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Quote of the Week

I've neglected this for a while, but I'm bringing it back. This one made me smile in light of recent events:

"I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!"

- Jerry Falwell, 1979.

Hmm...I guess not.

Enough False Sincerity (Lies)...Just Say What You Mean

I admit it. I did not know much about Christopher Hitchens. I had seen a number of references to him on atheist blogs, but they usually lament his confrontational style. I just shrugged and never really thought about him again. I wish I had, because PZ Meyers of Pharyngula recently posted a couple of YouTube videos where Hitchens unabashedly shared his thoughts on Falwell. The first clip is what he said on CNN regarding Falwell's legacy:

I applaud Hitchens for being honest. I certainly agree with him that we should not revere evil men just because they've died. Does their mere death suddenly make their terrible acts in life worthwhile? I say nay.

The better clip is when Faux News invited Hitchens to defend his statement on Hannity and Colmes:

This clip actually made me burst out laughing. It's nice to see someone refusing to take the usual Faux News bullshit. I love how Hitchens runs roughshod over Hannity's (or Colmes'? I don't know. I don't watch that worthless network) attempts to distort his words.

I must say I agree with Hitchens wholeheartedly. Honesty is the best policy because fake sincerity won't make Falwell's attempts to subvert the Constitution any less terrifying. I hate making Hitler comparisons (they're usually an association fallacy), but I suppose it's a good extreme example to illustrate my point. Should people have ignored the terrible things Hitler did and focus on his positives merely because his brain activity ceased? I say no. Now, Falwell is certainly no Hitler. Of course, if given the same power, it's hard to say what Falwell might have done. But I digress.

It seems to me we should be true to ourselves and not pretend to feel sincerity when actually feeling the opposite. Sure, a person feeling a lack of sympathy would be wise and civil not to personally tell the deceased's family his feelings. However, we shouldn't close off all debate amongst everyone else. If a man was a bastard in life, the world shouldn't forget that. Otherwise, he can reappear in another form that much easier.

At any rate, after seeing this, I'm definitely going to read Hitchens' book. I'll let you know how it is.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jerry Falwell Dies

Today Jerry Falwell, founder of Moral Majority, died at age 73. I'm not going to publically cheer his death, but I will be frank about my feelings on this. In the 1980's Falwell was the face of the Christian Conservative movement. That mantle has since passed to people like James Dobson, but, in his time, Falwell did more to hurt America's civil liberties than anyone else. With his insistence on mixing fundamental Christianity with politics and his demonization of entire segments of society, Falwell's crusade seriously undermined the Constitution, tried to return our society to the Middle Ages, and helped spread "acceptable" forms of hate through his homophobia and dislike for non-Christians. I don't wish death on anyone. I know this life we have is the only one we've got, so everyone's time on Earth is precious. However, I will certainly not miss Falwell and America is better off without him. Good riddance.

Black Sun Journal has more on what Falwell did to harm America. Check it out here.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Thoughts on the Nightline Debate

This is a little late, but I wanted to share my thoughts on the Nightline debate on ABC where the Rational Response Squad took on Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron. Here's the link to part one. You can get to the rest of the debate from there.

First, I want to put forth that I didn't watch all of it. I got bored with hearing the same creationist arguments and decided to do something else. However, I do want to say a bit about the parts that I did see.

The RRS did an excellent job, much better than I expected. They quickly addressed the glaring holes in Comfort's arguments and maintained a cool, light-hearted demeanor thoughout. My hat's off to them.

As for the glaring holes, well, they were pretty bad. For the second proof of God's existence, Comfort used to Ten Commandments, even though he promised to use scientific evidence and not invoke the Bible. Thankfully, the RRS immediately pointed this error out, which drew a great response from the crowd.

What was the eveidence you ask? Well, it was that we know painters make paintings, and builders build houses, so a creator must have made creation. The usual, "Gee, this is so complicated a god must have done it." Not exactly evidence of any sort.

Thankfully, the members of the RRS jumped on this and said that, through Comfort's line of reasoning, since everything must have a cause, then something had to make God. Comfort and Cameron refused to address this part, saying God is timeless and he doesn't apply to the logic that drives their argument. Just the usual dodging the question. Even the moderator came in on the atheist side, trying to get Comfort to address the problem.

As for Kirk Cameron, his arguments came down to: I was driving one day and I felt God, so he must be real. Meh. Whatever.

In the end, it wasn't anything we haven't heard before. I doubt the debate will change any minds, but at least the atheist side was well handled and came out looking like the rational ones. Of course, if you ask Ray Comfort, he thinks he won the debate. Please, click the link and read it so you can see that he's clearly comfortable with deluding himself. I could take him to task for it, but...he obviously deludes himself on a regular basis, so I don't feel like taking the time.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Atheist vs. Christian Debate on ABC Tonight

In case you haven't heard, ABC will be airing a debate where Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron will take on the Rational Response Squad tonight on Nightline. It will be available online at ABC News Now sometime this afternoon.

Ray Comfort is the creationist who puts forth the unintentionally humorous argument that the banana is proof of God's existence. In case you haven't seen it, here it is:

It's really one of the lamer arguments for creationism that I've ever seen. My rebuttal: what about cows? Those don't come easy to eat. In short, you can probably expect some particularly irrational arguments out of this one.

As for Kirk Cameron, I don't know much about him other than he's a sitcom actor who found God. Whatever.

On the other hand, I'm not entirely enthused that the atheist side is being represented by the RRS. They kind of come across as the "rebellious youth" and probably won't be taken as seriously. I'm sure they'll do a decent job, but I'd rather see an intellectual like Sam Harris there to utterly mop the floor with Comfort. Oh well.

The RRS has released a home video of the debate. Here's a link if you want to watch it, but I'm going to wait for the actual broadcast so I can see it without any biases. I'll post my thoughts on it later.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Book of the Month: The "God" Part of the Brain

Back in March I received my first ever solicitation from a publisher to review Matthew Alper’s The “God” Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Spirituality and God. Needless to say, I was excited at the prospect. It made me feel like I had finally achieved something as a blogger. Nevertheless, when I received the book, I made a promise to myself not to pander to the publisher and maintain a critical eye throughout the read so that I could provide an honest assessment. To do otherwise would make me feel intellectually dishonest, which is something I refuse to do. What I didn’t expect was how amazing The “God” Part of the Brain would turn out to be. Quite frankly, this is probably the best book I’ve ever read concerning atheism. The writing is great and easy to follow, and, more importantly, the book makes an excellent argument.

As the subtitle explains, Alper sets out to find a scientific explanation for the apparent compulsion humans feel to believe in a god and spirituality in general. Although Alper’s reasoning has drawbacks in a couple of places, which I will cover later, I feel he generally succeeds in his stated task. Not only that, but his logic addresses a number of disparate thoughts I’ve had on my own and ties them together in a comprehensive framework that simply makes sense to me.

The book begins with Alper’s personal reasons for exploring this particular topic, including his battles with LSD, which showed him how easily it was to alter one’s consciousness and personality. Alper saw this as direct evidence that one’s consciousness—what theists consider properties of an immortal soul—is entirely dependent on the electrochemical processes of the brain, thereby making the existence of any sort of spiritual realm a dubious supposition. This observation lays an important framework for the rest of the book. Namely, we are utterly dependent in the chemical and electrical functions of our brain for the basis of our personality and perception of reality.

Next, the book goes into the author’s loss of religion and quest to understand the nature of the universe through science. For the scientifically literate, this is little more than an overview of the current scientific understanding of the universe. Nevertheless, Alper’s writing abilities make it an interesting read.

With the scientific foundation laid down, Alper then moves to the primary hypothesis of the book, a concept he calls biotheology: the human compulsion to believe in a higher power and an afterlife are an evolutionarily evolved genetic trait that serves as a coping mechanism to alleviate our anxiety towards death. For evidence, Alper cites the universality of religion in human culture. Even though each religion has its differences, their basic foundations are remarkably similar in the same way that all languages share specific, essential characteristics. Thus, religion seems to be just another genetically inherited factor amongst several others that make up the human psyche. Certainly, Alper is not the first to suggest such a hypothesis, but he won me over with the novel rationalization behind it (granted, he may not be the first to have come up with this rationality, but it was new to me).

In essence, it all comes down to anxiety. Alper deftly explains how anxiety plays an essential role in the lives of every creature on Earth. It drives us to eat, sleep, mate, flee from danger, etc. Without anxiety, living organisms would feel no compulsion to perform the tasks necessary to our survival as an individual and a species. However, humans had a unique problem. As the first creature to be aware of its existence with the ability to plan ahead and ponder its place in the cosmos, early humans encountered an existential problem. Since we, unlike other organisms, are aware of our impending death, the resulting anxiety would provide a serious problem. After all, what purpose is there to succeeding in life if we’re just going to disappear? Alper argues that this would provide an inescapable source of anxiety with no solution, thereby making everyday function difficult at best. To deal with the problem, natural selection eventually found an end run around this anxiety. As a species, we began to see a spiritual side to ourselves, which we believed would survive death and last for eternity, thereby removing the anxiety of an inescapable demise. Furthermore, the belief that there are all-powerful, paternal figures personally caring for us provides another source of relief from anxiety. Combined, this genetically inherited belief in spirituality and god became the basis for all theistic thought. In an amusing irony, it seems we evolved the need for religion.

For the remainder of the book, Alper tackles the various experiences associated with religion including spiritual experiences, prayer, religious conversion, near-death experiences, speaking in tongues, morality, the existence of atheists, and even why America is more religious than every other developed nation in the world. The best sections come when Alper uses the finds from scientific research to support his hypotheses. His section on spiritual experiences is particularly effective because science has already had great deal of focus on this phenomenon, and Alper has a plethora of documentation to turn to. This includes studies with MRIs that show how meditation has a direct affect on the part of the brain associated with our sense of self. Indeed the sense of “being one with the universe” is nothing more than the restriction of blood flow to the part of the brain that keeps us grounded in reality.

In other areas, Alper deals with logic chains, which are not nearly as convincing. His section on the effects of personal prayer relies on a number interlinked hypotheses that all have to be true in order for the final conclusion to also be true. While he could very well be right that prayer relieves overall anxiety, thereby allowing the body to heal better because there’s less strain on the central nervous system, there’s simply not enough evidence available to support each part.

Another drawback is that Alper is not a scientist. While certainly no fault of his own, he can only rely on what he has taught himself and what the studies of others have found. I’m not saying a person must be a scientist to write about scientific matters. Indeed, I enjoy writing about science, and I’m no scientist. However, for a work that makes such bold, scientifically based conclusions, it would certainly lend Alper a far greater degree of credibility and authority.

Regardless of the shortcomings, I can’t deny that I like and almost entirely agree with Alper’s logic. His arguments are well conceived and well written and almost always backed by scientific research. Even when there’s little evidence to go off of, Alper still performs exceptional thought experiments that maintain their rationality throughout. I could go on and on recounting the great ideas in this book, but, for brevity’s sake, I’ll just ask you to read it for yourself.

In the end, I loved The “God” Part of the Brain. Perhaps it’s simply because Alper provided what I had been looking for. For a while now, I’ve felt there must be a biological reason for the human need for religion, and Alper provided the comprehensive explanation I had sought. While authors like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris provide excellent reasons to doubt the existence of a higher power, they don’t add much to understanding why we delude ourselves. Alper effectively fills in this gap for those atheists wishing to find the answer. More than anything, it forces nonbelievers to consider the reality of our situation. If belief in religion actually is a genetically inherited trait, then it’s not going away anytime soon. With this understanding, perhaps we can find more effective means of communicating with theists in a way that is constructive for both sides so that we can all work together towards a more positive future.

I want to thank Sourcebooks for providing me with Alper’s book. More importantly, I want to thank them for bringing this book to my attention. It truly is a worthwhile read and I recommend you go out and pick it up.