Austria officially prefers superstition to science

Austria cannot affort to participate in CERN anymore. We simply cannot spare the 17 million Euros per year to finance the probably most important and exciting experiment in physics right now because we need to relieve the tax burden on membership fees to, say, a homophobic organization whose leader proclaims that condoms will increase the spread of HIV. Or to an organization that maintains that using blood transfusions to treat an ill child is immoral. And those tax reliefs cost us 30 million Euros, so sorry, science – we can’t afford you anymore.

Mensa, Schmensa

Mensa is a society for people with high IQs, specifically for people with an IQ in the top 2 percent of the general population. In short, it’s supposed to be a society for smart people. A few months ago I had too much spare time on my hands and had to get my mind off a romantic tragedy so I decided that it might not be a bad idea to join them to distract myself. I passed their preliminary test but by the time they invited me to the real test I had a 60 hour work week and not too much time to kill, so I didn’t go. Mensa Austria is still sending me their publication “Diskussion”, though, of which I received another issue yesterday.

The puzzle column was a letdown, but I was used to that from the last issue I got. They seem to favor puzzles which are either entirely trivial or at best require a halfway competent programmer maybe an hour to solve with a computer.

What did surprise me was an article on “Morphic fields and human perception” (my translation). The German text actually talks about “morphogenetische Felder”, but they are clearly talking about Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic fields. The article is completely credulous on the existence of morphic fields and even discusses a purported practical application of them, remote viewing. It even tells the story of school teacher who, since asking students to remote-view exam questions in advance, reports much improved grades. The authors of the article are Karina Leitner and Viktor Farkas, the latter seeming to be a prominent conspiracy theorist and believer in (or at least proponent of) woo-woo ideas.

As anybody equipped with a web browser and a small dose of critical thinking can ascertain, there is absolutely no substance to either morphic fields, which are a ridiculous contruct invented to explain non-existant phenomena, nor to remote viewing, which has never been demonstrated in a well controlled setting. Specifically, the James Randi Educational Foundation will award anybody able to demonstrate remote viewing in a controlled study with a million dollars. The prize has been available for years and has not been claimed yet.

I wonder: Do they have no editorial process at all? And to add insult to injury the publication looks like it’s been typeset by a 3 year old on a PC with MS Word in 1992.

There is perhaps something to this quote, attributed to G. H. Hardy: “For any serious purpose, intelligence is a very minor gift.”

The Probability of God

In Richard Dawkins‘s new book “The God Delusion” (I’ve just finished reading it – review coming soon), he argues that Agnosticism is an irrational position, because it basically has to maintain that the probabilities for the existance and non-existance of some god are (at least roughly) equal. Dawkins argues that they are not. This has prompted many agnostics to come out and defend their positions.

One of them is John Wilkins, who argues quite well that one cannot set up probabilities in the first place:

The philosophical agnosticism I adhere to does not say anything about probabilities at all. It says, instead, that nothing can count for or against either position decisively. Probabilities are based in this case on prior assumptions – one uses Bayes’ theorem to determine whether or not the hypothesis under test is likely to be true, given other assumptions we already accept. And here is where the problem lies – which assumptions? To adopt and restrict one’s priors to scientific assumptions is question begging. You in effect eliminate any other conceptual presuppositions from being in the game. This has a name in philosophy – positivism. It is the (empirically unsupportable) claim that only scientific arguments can be applied. As Popper noted, this is self-refuting. You cannot prove the basic premise of your argument that only provable (or, let’s be generous, supportable) claims should be accepted. As this is not a supportable claim in itself, you have contradicted your own position.

I’m not sure that it’s impossible to set up probabilities of any kind. For example, consider the following hypotheses:

  • H_0: Our universe, U_0, has no creator
  • H_1: Our universe, U_0 has exactly one creator. She lives in another universe, U_1 and runs U_0 as a computer simulation. U_1 has no creator.
  • H_2: Our universe, U_0 has exactly one creator, living in U_1 and running U_0 as a computer simulation. U_1 has exactly one creator, living in U_2, running U_1 as a computer simulation. U_2 has no creator.
  • … and so on until:
  • H_inf: There is a (countable) infinity of universes U_0, U_1, U_2, … Our universe is U_0. For each universe U_i the following holds: U_i has exactly one creator, living in U_i+1 and running U_i as a computer simulation.

All of these are possible hypotheses about the creation of our universe, but since we have no empirical data nor any viable assumptions outside our own universe on any of them, Wilkes holds that we must be agnostic about all of them, unable to pronounce one more likely than the other. But can we really not say that H_32589 is less likely than H_1?

As I said, I’m not sure. Even if we could, the general question of whether there is any god (for my purposes defined as creator of our universe, whether omnipotent or not) is an infinitely more complicated one and I tend to agree with Wilkes that from our point of view it’s impermissible to reason about probabilities for or against it.

Given the last point, I should call myself an agnostic in Wilkes’s sense. Still, I much prefer to call myself an atheist, because I firmly reject the gods postulated by popular religions – gods not content with merely creating but gods performing miracles, listening to and answering prayers, and caring about us (often with the provision that we believe in them) and our (non-existing) souls. But also because it pisses some people off more ;-)

Debating Evolution vs Creationism

You’d suppose that on the issue of Evolution vs Creationism, where the evidence is stacked so high on the side of Evolution, it would be impossible for a Creationist to win a public debate. How wrong you’d be! Watch this video of Kent Hovind easily wiping the floor with Michael Shermer!

Now, I’m not saying Hovind is right – he obviously isn’t. But if I was sitting in that auditorium, undecided (and hence uneducated) on this issue and science in general, I’m pretty sure I’d leave with the impression that the Creationists do at least have a pretty strong case.

How does he do it?

First, he devotes practically all of his time making a case against Evolution, making it appear as if Evolution was wrong, the only other possible explanation for the formation of life was Creationism. The only time he does make a scientifically-sounding case for Creationism, it is logically flawed (I’ll go into the details below), but it sounds good enough for the lay audience to buy it.

In making the case against Evolution he brings up so many issues that it is impossible for Shermer to explain them, leaving the impression that he doesn’t have an answer to them, while in reality, there are perfectly good explanations for all of them.

He’s extremely well prepared and has a well sounding, often humorous, answer to everything. For nearly every point Shermer makes Hovind has a slide seemingly rebutting it, as if he knew everything Shermer was going to say a week before the lecture. And in the end, he did! Hovind has been at this for decades and has heard pretty much all the arguments for Evolution there are, and has had plenty of time to prepare slides for every single one of them.

When he does make points, he often (knowingly, I assume – he’s not stupid) commits logical fallacies, hoping the audience won’t catch them. Probably the most severe ones can be seen when he does present his one case for Creationism, where he makes “predictions” based on the creation story in the Bible (starting at 30 minutes). He starts with the assumption that the Bible is literally true. Then he picks a few verses and predicts (not explaining how he arrives at those predictions) a few things. Only he doesn’t predict anything! Some of the things he seems to predict were already known before he made his predictions, so they don’t count. The others are too vague or metaphysical, so they can’t be verified, like the “prediction” that there is a purpose to life. How can you test that? His most outrageous prediction is prediction 6, in which he “predicts” the presence of the Bible.

And quite often, he just makes things up, i.e., he lies. When he talks about the Miller-Urey experiment (at about 1:24), which demonstrated that amino acids could form in the early atmosphere, he raises the point that they excluded oxygen, because they knew it would “oxidize whatever tries to get together”. Actually, they excluded oxygen because there was no oxygen in the early atmosphere, which I’m sure Hovind knows, as does Shermer. The audience, however, doesn’t. At another point (at about 36 minutes) he claims that cosmology (which he lumps in with Evolution) has a chicken-and-egg problem with “chemical evolution”, because elements are formed in stars and stars consist of elements, even though he himself explained before that, according to the Big Bang theory, hydrogen and helium (the only elements needed for star formation) were created shortly after the Big Bang, without stars. He also asserts that elements do not fuse beyond iron, which is not true, either – fusion of very heavy elements just needs more energy and happens in supernovae. Again, the audience does not know that, so he can get away with it easily.

What’s the moral of the story? I suppose it’s that it’s no use debating science vs pseudo-science in front of an uneducated audience.

Instead, if you want to make someone like Hovind look really stupid, you need Ali G

The End of Faith

Sam Harris‘ book The End of Faith presents a strong argument that for our species to survive we will have to put to rest our irrational convictions (usually called “faith”) about a supposed creator of the universe and his will. Religion divides people, causes hatred and motivates death and destruction which cannot be rationalized without the firm belief that eternal joy awaits the perpetrators.

Without a doubt the most offending religion in our time is Islam and Harris spends a whole chapter arguing, quite successfully I might add, that the reasons for Islamic terrorism are not economical or political but are to be found on the pages of the Koran and the Hadith. As the costs of developing or otherwise acquiring nuclear and biological weapons come down, Harris argues, it is only a question of time until we see them applied by people of blind faith against people who don’t subscribe to their particular set of irrational beliefs.

Harris also points to the consequences of Christian “teachings”, especially in the United States, the effects they have on science and science education, and on legislative issues, such as capital punishment and drug laws.

To save this world, or rather ourselves, Harris concludes that we must leave behind our irrational beliefs and that we must stop respecting other people’s irrational beliefs. After all, if we respect the terrorist’s faith in the Koran and his (not very far flung) interpretation of it, we must conclude that he did the right thing by crashing that airplane into that office building!

All in all, I found this book to be very enlightening and I agree with its main thesis wholeheartedly. I do have two major nit-picks, though, both of which do not affect the book’s central thesis, however.

My first issue are the endnotes. This book has 348 pages, of which 63 pages contain endnotes, written in small type, some of them several pages long. If you don’t want to miss anything you’ll want to look up the endnotes while you’re reading the book, which disrupts the flow and can be rather tiring. Harris should have separated the bibliographical endnotes from the others, making a traditional bibliography out of the former. He could have made footnotes out of the shorter endnotes (ironically, the book contains exactly one footnote) and he should have gotten rid of the longer ones, working them into the main text.

My second nit-pick concerns the last chapter, which is basically a short praise of Buddhism, meditation, introspection and secular “mysticism”. The problem I have with it is not so much that it re-introduces religion or faith (it doesn’t), but that it simply has nothing to contribute to the central thesis of the book. It seems like this is a topic very dear to Harris’ heart, but instead of writing a book on its own about it, he decided to slap a chapter on it onto this one. In my opinion the book would lose nothing if the chapter was removed.

My conclusion: Read it! Don’t bother reading the last chapter, though – you won’t miss anything concerning the book’s message.

Supposing God Exists

Suppose that a god exists, that he created the universe, and that the Bible truly is the word of that god. It’s quite a stretch, I know, but use your imagination! Suppose he’s omnipotent and omniscient, at least as far as this universe is concerned. He can’t be completely benevolent because obviously evil exists in this world (free will is no excuse, as I’ve explained in comments to this post – if you want a more scholarly discussion, I recommed J.L. Mackie’s “The Miracle of Theism”).

Given those suppositions, I can’t help but to think that it’s much more likely that he meant the Bible as a joke rather than as a serious document of his will. He even made it pretty obvious! All those contradictions, falsehoods, stupidities and cruelties give it away rather easily, but that’s what makes it so much fun because despite all that people still buy it hook, line, and sinker! Now we have Christians believing that the banana was designed for the human hand and that Adam and Eve lived together with dinosaurs, we have Jews wearing funny little hats and refusing to use fire and electricity on saturdays, Muslim women wearing black full-body robes in summer and Muslim men flying airplanes into office buildings. All the while he’s laughing his ass off about how gullible and easily deceived they all are.

I wonder whether this supposed god would reward me or punish me for having discovered his secret…

How Religious People Think

Having been brought up (i.e. indoctrinated) as a Christian, I know much more about Christianity than about other major religions, like Islam or Judaism. I will therefore use Christianity as an example, but I’m fairly confident that the case that I make can be made very similarly for other religions.

Any rational person, not necessarily atheist, but at least not indoctrinated with Christianity, when confronted with the Bible, will first note that it’s just a book, written over a long period of time by lots of people, but still just a book nevertheless. Upon reading it he’ll discover that it’s chock full of contradictions and falsehoods, so it might possibly make for some nice and a few not so nice bedtime stories, but it’s certainly not a book worthy of basing ones life on.

The Christian has a different approach. He knows the bible is the word of god. God does not contradict himself, nor does he spread falsehoods, so the christian would seem to be in a bit of trouble when confronted with them, but of course he is not.

You can point out a contradiction to him, like the completely different genealogies of Jesus in the gospels, and he will twist the words as long as it takes for the contradiction to vanish, because, obviously, they need to be twisted, because the bible does not contradict itself.

You can point out to him that the story of creation put forth by the bible is so at odds with what science has found out that it’s not even funny. He will, depending on which christian sect he belongs to, either tell you that genesis is not meant to be taken literally and is just symbolic, i.e. a story, or that it is meant to be taken literally and is, in fact, true. God created the universe a few thousand years ago, but made it look like it was billions of years old. He will point out that there are holes in the fossil record which biology cannot explain. Of course, what he cannot explain is why god would want to fake such an old universe, but then put in those holes.

He does not have to explain, however. God works in mysterious ways and whatever he does makes some kind of sense, even if we cannot understand it.

The christian is thus equipped with a vast array of weapons to destroy any problems that reality lays in the bible’s path. He can twist words, he can declare passages to be just symbolic, he can declare reality to be a fake and even if that doesn’t work out, he can declare that it doesn’t have to, but that it makes sense nonetheless.

He does all these things because he knows that the bible is true. This knowledge is stronger than any fact or logic, so trying to convince him of the contrary will not work.

Why?

Why Juggling, Photography, Software, and Atheism, and why this blog?

The simple answer would be: Because they are topics that interest me and because I like talking about them and feel that I have a few things to say about them.

I am a juggler. What that means is that, much more often than necessary, I throw things in the air and, most of the time, succeed in catching them and throwing them up again. It also means that I go to juggling conventions around the world, sometimes perform on stage, and know lots of other jugglers. I also produced a few juggling videos with Thomas Dietz, a world-class juggler and good friend, and other fellow jugglers.

I am a photographer. Simply put, that means that I produce photographs. This production process encompasses not only the pressing of the shutter, but starts with the idea for the photo, and includes the set-up, the composition, the trial-and-error in all these steps, and of course the post-processing. I publish most of my photos on Flickr.

I am a software developer. Not surprisingly, that means that I develop software. I even do it professionally, i.e., people pay me to do it. Nonetheless, I like it so much that I devote parts of my spare time to a few private projects, about which you can read on my homepage.

I am an atheist. Not only does that mean that I don’t believe that there is a god, it means that I believe that there is no god. Unfortunately, I cannot do it professionally, because no one has yet shown willing to pay me for believing in no god, which I consider a
bit unfair, because lots of people are paid (by the Roman Catholic Church, for instance) for believing in one god. What I do believe in, though, is science and reason, and I intend to write one thing or the other about these topics.