Category Archives: skepticism

Are you an a-zeusist?

Here’s a great article from Sam Harris, which I have re-posted from The Huffington Post.

It’s five years old, but the logic is still solid. Especially in light of the recent tragedy in Haiti.

What do you think of his logic and conclusion?

Sam Harris

Sam Harris

Posted: October 6, 2005 04:31 PM

THERE IS NO GOD (AND YOU KNOW IT)
Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture, and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of six billion human beings. The same statistics also suggest that this girl’s parents believe — at this very moment — that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?

No.

The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for. This is a thankless job. It carries with it an aura of petulance and insensitivity. It is, moreover, a job that the atheist does not want.

It is worth noting that no one ever need identify himself as a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist. Consequently, we do not have words for people who deny the validity of these pseudo-disciplines. Likewise, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma. The atheist is merely a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (eighty-seven percent of the population) who claim to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence — and, indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day. Only the atheist appreciates just how uncanny our situation is: most of us believe in a God that is every bit as specious as the gods of Mount Olympus; no person, whatever his or her qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that such a God exists; and much of what passes for public policy in our country conforms to religious taboos and superstitions appropriate to a medieval theocracy. Our circumstance is abject, indefensible, and terrifying. It would be hilarious if the stakes were not so high.

Consider: the city of New Orleans was recently destroyed by hurricane Katrina. At least a thousand people died, tens of thousands lost all their earthly possessions, and over a million have been displaced. It is safe to say that almost every person living in New Orleans at the moment Katrina struck believed in an omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate God. But what was God doing while a hurricane laid waste to their city? Surely He heard the prayers of those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there. These were people of faith. These were good men and women who had prayed throughout their lives. Only the atheist has the courage to admit the obvious: these poor people spent their lives in the company of an imaginary friend.

Of course, there had been ample warning that a storm “of biblical proportions” would strike New Orleans, and the human response to the ensuing disaster was tragically inept. But it was inept only by the light of science. Advance warning of Katrina’s path was wrested from mute Nature by meteorological calculations and satellite imagery. God told no one of his plans. Had the residents of New Orleans been content to rely on the beneficence of the Lord, they wouldn’t have known that a killer hurricane was bearing down upon them until they felt the first gusts of wind on their faces. And yet, a poll conducted by The Washington Post found that eighty percent of Katrina’s survivors claim that the event has only strengthened their faith in God.

As hurricane Katrina was devouring New Orleans, nearly a thousand Shiite pilgrims were trampled to death on a bridge in Iraq. There can be no doubt that these pilgrims believed mightily in the God of the Koran. Indeed, their lives were organized around the indisputable fact of his existence: their women walked veiled before him; their men regularly murdered one another over rival interpretations of his word. It would be remarkable if a single survivor of this tragedy lost his faith. More likely, the survivors imagine that they were spared through God’s grace.

Only the atheist recognizes the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. Only the atheist realizes how morally objectionable it is for survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs. Because he refuses to cloak the reality of the world’s suffering in a cloying fantasy of eternal life, the atheist feels in his bones just how precious life is — and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all.

Of course, people of faith regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering. But how else can we understand the claim that God is both omniscient and omnipotent? There is no other way, and it is time for sane human beings to own up to this. This is the age-old problem of theodicy, of course, and we should consider it solved. If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil. Pious readers will now execute the following pirouette: God cannot be judged by merely human standards of morality. But, of course, human standards of morality are precisely what the faithful use to establish God’s goodness in the first place. And any God who could concern himself with something as trivial as gay marriage, or the name by which he is addressed in prayer, is not as inscrutable as all that. If He exists, the God of Abraham is not merely unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.

There is another possibility, of course, and it is both the most reasonable and least odious: the biblical God is a fiction. As Richard Dawkins has observed, we are all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor. Only the atheist has realized that the biblical god is no different. Consequently, only the atheist is compassionate enough to take the profundity of the world’s suffering at face value. It is terrible that we all die and lose everything we love; it is doubly terrible that so many human beings suffer needlessly while alive. That so much of this suffering can be directly attributed to religion — to religious hatreds, religious wars, religious delusions, and religious diversions of scarce resources — is what makes atheism a moral and intellectual necessity. It is a necessity, however, that places the atheist at the margins of society. The atheist, by merely being in touch with reality, appears shamefully out of touch with the fantasy life of his neighbors.

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Tough To Watch; Important to Watch

I saw this video a few minutes ago. It’s a moving, disturbing, anger-provoking piece. I hope you’ll watch it.

The young woman who wrote and narrates the poem, Nessrriinn, is an ex-muslim. You can find her YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/Nessrriinn

I encourage you to pass the video along. I’ve included the words of the poem below the video.

sharia law
she’s buried chest high
her arms can’t stop the stones that fly
or wipe the tears that have already dried
for a crime she so persistently denied
she’s buried chest deep
the moderates asleep
no matter how hard she weeps
worth half of a man, her testimony’s cheap
Allah subhana wa ta3ala has come up with such a fair rule
dictators of history couldn’t be so cruel
told by mohammed sallahu 3alhe wa salam
teaching us allah’s divine referendum
what becomes of those who have a sip of rum
drinks to forget or wants to be numb
or those who play the game of chance
poker buddies escaping the religious trance
allah’s prescribed in his merciful script
their flesh be ripped their blood be dripped
at the tip of a muslims whip
she’s buried chest high
her arms can’t stop the stones that fly
or wipe the tears that have already dried
for a crime she so persistently denied
and this is allah’s eternal reply
1400 years of backwards law
a tragic flaw of the primitive claw
the tribe of homosexuals
koum lot as they say
sharia is clear on how they should pay
the price for their gay display
life doesn’t matter which way
abu baker got them with a tumbling wall
ali muhammad’s cousin and son in law
had people burned for their sexual call
an entire village children and all
she’s buried chest deep
the moderates asleep
no matter how hard she weeps
worth half of a manher testimony’s cheap
apostates remember those who have bled
to speak the word Muslims leave unsaid
killed for the sake of those mislead
submit now or be left dead
allah subhana wa ta3ala has come up with such a fair rule
the devil himself couldn’t be so cruel
she’s buried chest high half way deep
while the moderates are still fast asleep
while the world stands silent
her testimony’s cheap.
stones thrown by religious sheep.
witches were burned long ago
til the flame of freedom began to glow
and we learned to say the word ‘no’
no know that your laws are unjust
not worthy of respect only disgust
beheading those with a knifes thrust
oh but in Allah we blindly trust
she’s buried head high
in a heap of stones.
no more crying no more moans
all that’s left is skin and bones
Allah has come up with such a fair call
the true justice of sharia law
by nessrriinn.

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You’re such a Neanderthal!

It turns out that that statement is probably true of the person whom you so labeled.

And it’s probably true of you too! Awesome.

Here’s the story, as told by National Geographic.

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal female.

A Neanderthal-female reconstruction based on both fossil anatomy and DNA (file photo).

Photograph by Joe McNally, National Geographic

//

Inside of the Vindija cave, Croatia. Image courtesy of Johannes  Krause MPI-EVACroatia’s Vindija cave, where Neanderthal bones used to assemble genome were found. Image courtesy of Johannes Krause MPI-EVA.

Ker Than

Published May 6, 2010

The next time you’re tempted to call some oaf a Neanderthal, you might want to take a look in the mirror.

According to a new DNA study, most humans have a little Neanderthal in them—at least 1 to 4 percent of a person’s genetic makeup.

The study uncovered the first solid genetic evidence that “modern” humans—or Homo sapiens—interbred with their Neanderthal neighbors, who mysteriously died out about 30,000 years ago.

What’s more, the Neanderthal-modern human mating apparently took place in the Middle East, shortly after modern humans had left Africa, not in Europe—as has long been suspected.

“We can now say that, in all probability, there was gene flow from Neanderthals to modern humans,” lead study author Ed Green of the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a prepared statement.

That’s no surprise to anthropologist Erik Trinkhaus, whose skeleton-based claims of Neanderthal-modern human interbreeding—previously contradicted with DNA evidence—appear to have been vindicated by the new gene study, to be published tomorrow in the journal Science.

“They’ve finally seen the light … because it’s been obvious to many us that this happened,” said Trinkaus, of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who wasn’t part of the new study.

Trinkhaus adds that most living humans probably have much more Neanderthal DNA than the new study suggests.

“One to 4 percent is truly a minimum,” Trinkaus added. “But is it 10 percent? Twenty percent? I have no idea.”

Surprising Spot for Neanderthal-Human Mating

The genetic study team reached their conclusion after comparing the genomes of five living humans—from China, France, Papua New Guinea, southern Africa, and western Africa—against the available “rough draft” of the Neanderthal genome.

The results showed that Neanderthal DNA is 99.7 percent identical to modern human DNA, versus, for example, 98.8 percent for modern humans and chimps, according to the study. (Related: “Neanderthals Had Same ‘Language Gene’ as Modern Humans.”)

In addition, all modern ethnic groups, other than Africans, carry traces of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes, the study says—which at first puzzled the scientists. Though no fossil evidence has been found for Neanderthals and modern humans coexisting in Africa, Neanderthals, like modern humans, are thought to have arisen on the continent.

“If you told an archaeologist that you’d found evidence of gene exchange between Neanderthals and modern humans and asked them to guess which [living] population it was found in, most would say Europeans, because there’s well documented archaeological evidence that they lived side by side for several thousand years,” said study team member David Reich.

For another thing, Neanderthals never lived in China or Papua New Guinea, in the Pacific region of Melanesia, according to the archaeological record.

“But the fact is that Chinese and Melanesians are as closely related to Neanderthals” as Europeans, said Reich, a population geneticist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University.

Neanderthal-Human One-Night Stand?

So how did modern humans with Neanderthal DNA end up in Asia and Melanesia?

Neanderthals, the study team says, probably mixed with early Homo sapiens just after they’d left Africa but before Homo sapiens split into different ethnic groups and scattered around the globe.

The first opportunity for interbreeding probably occurred about 60,000 years ago in Middle Eastern regions adjacent to Africa, where archaeological evidence shows the two species overlapped for a time, the team says.

And it wouldn’t have taken much mating to make an impact, according to study co-author Reich. The results could stem from a Neanderthal-modern human one-night stand or from thousands of interspecies assignations, he said.

More DNA Evidence for Neanderthal-Human Mating

The new study isn’t alone in finding genetic hints of Homo sapiens-Homo neanderthalensis interbreeding.

Genetic anthropologist Jeffrey Long, who calls the Science study “very exciting,” co-authored a new, not yet published study that found DNA evidence of interbreeding between early modern humans and an “archaic human” species, though it’s not clear which. He presented his team’s findings at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last month.

Long’s team reached its conclusions after searching the genomes of hundreds of modern humans for “signatures of different evolutionary processes in DNA variation.”

Like the new Science paper, Long’s study speculates that interbreeding occurred just after our species had left Africa, but Long’s study didn’t include analysis of the Neanderthal genome.

“At the time we started the project, I never imagined I’d ever see an empirical confirmation of it,” said Long, referring to the Science team’s Neanderthal-DNA evidence, “so I’m pretty happy to see it.”

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Benny Hinn Let’s the Bodies Hit the Floor

Benny Hinn, evangelist & “healer” was recently denied entry to Britain because he failed to produce a letter from the church that was sponsoring his “ministry.” I guess the people of Britain were jilted out of the fun of being pushed around by Benny.

This video is a hoot and shows you what happens at a Benny Hinn meeting.

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Ray Comfort Strikes (Out) Again!

Back in February of this year, I had the opportunity to debate Ray Comfort on one of our local Toronto radio stations. The occasion was the anniversary of Darwin’s 200th birthday. You can listen to that debate here.

Comfort has no understanding of evolution, biology, cosmology, or seemingly much else when it comes to science. He is most famous amongst atheists and skeptics for the (unintentionally) hilarious “Atheists worst nightmare” video, in which he and Kirk Cameron attempt to demonstrate how the modern banana is an unassailable proof of God’s love and special concern for humans.

Well, Comfort and Cameron are teaming up once more.

This November 24th will mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s best known work, On Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection. Universities, science agencies, museums, skeptic, atheist, and secular humanist groups around the world will be celebrating the publication of this hugely influential book.

Comfort is going to celebrate in his own unique way. He has been able to get financial backing to publish 50,000 copies of the Origin of Species that will include a 50 page introduction he has written that will supposedly demonstrate the fallacies of Darwin’s theory and the evil impact it has had on the world. Cameron is serving as his front man, appearing in a video promoting this event. The plan is to distribute these copies on numerous university campuses in the U.S.

A Facebook friend of mine posted a youtube video done by a young Romanian woman named Cristina that is absolutely wonderful in dissecting and lampooning Cameron’s video and the fraudulent claims it makes about Darwin and his theory. I’m re-posting it here. I hope you enjoy it.

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Are you more science-savvy than the average American?

There is a  brief survey at the Pew Center for Research that will allow you to judge your level of basic science awareness. It’s fun and interesting. Let me know how you did.

(Not to brag, but I got 100%.)

_______________________________

THE SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE QUIZ

Take the quiz and find out

To test your knowledge of scientific concepts and recent scientific findings and events, we invite you to take this 12-question science knowledge quiz. Then see how you did in comparison with the 1,005 randomly sampled adults asked the same questions. You’ll also be able to compare your Science IQ with the average scores of men and women; 1276-frontwith college graduates as well as those who didn’t attend college; with people who are your age as well as with younger and older Americans.

This quiz was part of the Pew Research Center’s new study of science and its impact on society, conducted in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The analysis of the findings from the poll can be found in the full report. (No peeking! If you are going to take the quiz, do it first before reading the analysis.) The discussion of the knowledge quiz can be found in Section 7 of the report.

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The Curious Case of Phineas Gage

Having been distracted by extraterrestrials and the opposite sex in the last couple of entries, I want to return to my discussion of free will. In that regard, I’d like to start this entry by introducing you to the Curious Case of Phineas Gage (unlike the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, this is a true story).

TrainIn the year 1848, Phineas Gage was employed as the foreman of a railway construction crew that was building the railway bed for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad in central Vermont. The terrain required cutting through several large rocky outcrops. This was accomplished by drilling holes deep into the rock, and then filling them with explosive powder. A fuse would then be placed in the powder and the rest of the whole filled up with sand. The sand was “tamped” down to pack it tightly so the force of the blast would be directed against the stone. Gage was responsible for determining where the holes would be located and how much powder to use.

At 4:30 p.m on Wednesday, September 13th, Gage was preparing for a blasting near Cavendish, Vermont.
Apparently distracted, Gage began tamping the powder before the sand had

Left: Reconstruction of the trajectory of the tamping iron. Right: Gage's skull.

Left: Reconstruction of the trajectory of the tamping iron. Right: Gage's skull.

been poured. A spark, generated by the tamping iron striking the rock, ignited the powder and the tamping iron was propelled like a rocket out of the blasting hole, entering Gage’s head under his left cheekbone and exiting through the top of his head, ultimately landing some 25 yards (23 metres) away!

Remarkably, Gage survived the blast. His workers carried him to an ox-cart and he was driven to the Cavendish Inn where he was staying. Astonishingly, Gage alighted from the cart unaided, and, from a chair on the verandah, recounted his story to bystanders. Gage was attended to by Drs. Higginson Williams and John Marlow. Within three months, he had recovered sufficiently to be able to move back to his parent’s farm. By the end of 1849, he was ready to seek employment. Gage, however, was unable to return to his job as a foreman, and over the next several years worked a variety of jobs, including stints as an attraction at the Barnum’s American Museum in New York and on the lecture circuit at major cities in New England. He died in 1860.

For my purposes, what I want to focus on is the personality changes that occurred in Gage subsequent to his injury.

The damage to Gage’s brain seems to have been largely contained to his left prefrontal cortex, an area that is linked closely with personality. While he retained full possession of his reasoning abilities, his wife and others soon began to notice dramatic changes in his personality.

One of the doctors who had initially attended to him, John Harlow, wrote a summary report of the changes in Gage’s personality and behaviour subsequent to his injury, published in an 1868 issues of the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Medical Society:

His contractors, who regarded him as the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ previous to his injury, considered the change in his mind so marked that they could not give him his place again. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not his previous custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinent, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage.’

Phineas Gage holding the tamping iron that shot through his brain.

Phineas Gage holding the tamping iron that shot through his brain.

Gage’s story is now famous for being one of the first documented cases using brain damage as a means of exploring neurology. It is also a remarkable example of the link between personality, behaviour, and the brain. Since Gage’s time, examples have multiplied of how brain damage or disease can lead to radically altered behaviour. Here is a very short list of some of these:

  • impaired decision-making capacity
  • impulsivity
  • inability to obey normal social conventions
  • hyper-spirituality in previously non-religious individuals
  • aggression, anger or hostility
  • inability to tolerate frustrations
  • lack of sexual restraint
  • excessive emotionalism

So, what has this got to do with my previous blog entry concerning free will?

Simply put, the dysfunctional behaviour that often results from brain injury or disease is strong evidence that the state of one’s “will” is directly controlled by the state of one’s brain. In other words, one’s will is causally determined not free. There is no “mind” that exists separate from the brain that is able to somehow override external and internal causation. Minds are what brains do. And what the brain is doing is entirely determined by both internal (genetic and neurological) and external (environmental) factors.

In the next entry, I’ll finish this tri-partite series on free will by exploring some common objections/concerns to the idea that we do not possess ultimate free will and some of the positive implications of this view.

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