How to Think Critically XI: The Null Hypothesis

So, you may have heard that Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret, has a new book on the same subject, called The Power. Personally, I'm bewildered. Her first book promised to tell you how to get everything you've ever wanted. What possible room could there be for a sequel?

You might also have heard of the famous athletes who are wearing this bracelet, which, according to its makers, uses "processed titanium and holograms" which are "designed to interact with your body’s natural energy", improving balance, energy, recovery time and flexibility. Although the makers admit they haven't done any scientific studies, they allegedly have favorable testimonials by major athletes from Alex Rodriguez to Shaquille O'Neil - and hey, what more do you need than that?

I wonder if any believers in these products ever tried putting them to even a simple test. For instance, the authors of The Secret claim that reality is controlled by human willpower, and that you can use this effect to get yourself wealth and riches, a dream job, a trophy spouse, a house on the beach, a fleet of luxury sports cars, etc., etc. To judge if this is true, why not try it on a much simpler and more unambiguous outcome? Why not, for example, flip a coin and will it to come up heads twenty times in a row, or roll a pair of dice and command them with your mind to turn up seven every time? If the claims of The Secret are true, this should be easy to accomplish.

Or take these magical "hologram bracelets" - why wouldn't you try, for example, shooting a hundred baskets (or hitting a hundred pitches, or a hundred putts, etc.) with and then without the bracelet, and see if the outcomes are noticeably different? Although it wouldn't be a double-blind experiment, it would still be better than no testing at all.

What these stories show is that humans don't have an instinctive grasp of the null hypothesis: the basic assumption, which you should always make in the absence of specific evidence to the contrary, that the events you see are due to chance. The Secret (and its inexplicable sequel) teach you to wish for what you want and keep on wishing until something good happens - and then triumphantly concludes that your wishes control the functioning of the universe. And if you don't get what you want, the author leaves herself a convenient escape hatch: you did get what you wished for, you just unintentionally wished for something different than what you thought you wanted. The belief is structured so that nothing can convince its devotees of the existence of chance, no matter how tenuous the connections they must draw.

Failure to employ the null hypothesis causes belief in all kinds of pseudoscience and magic. There's another example from a non-Western culture, this one from Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained, a case study of the Zande people of Sudan by the British anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard. When a house in the village collapsed, the people promptly concluded that those who lived there must have had enemies who were powerful witches. Evans-Pritchard pointed out, in vain, that the house was infested with termites. As the Zande explained, they were perfectly aware that termites could weaken the structure of a house and cause it to collapse. What they wanted to know why was it collapsed at that particular moment, when some people were sitting under it and not others - and that fact, they could think of no other way to explain than by blaming it on witches who bore those people ill will [p.13].

And then there's this classic story, from James Randi's Flim-Flam!: Gerard Croiset, a Dutch "psychic",

attended a parapsychology seminar and competed with an East German "psychic". During the encounter, the German concentrated on withering a flower, while Croiset concentrated on saving it. The flower survived, and Croiset crowed victory, saying that his powers were stronger. [p.143]

If you start with your conclusion and go looking for correlations that can be interpreted to support it, you'll almost always find one if you look long and hard enough. The world is full of coincidences, and the human brain is extremely good at finding connections, regardless of whether they exist in reality or not. To avoid falling into this error, it's essential to begin with the hypothesis of random chance and no connection, and then definitively rule it out with a repeatable experiment.

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October 29, 2010, 6:55 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink42 comments

The Language of God: Prelude to Cosmology

The Language of God, Chapter 3

By B.J. Marshall

Part 2 of this book, "The Great Questions of Human Existence," covers topics of cosmology, life on earth, and unpacking the human genome. Chapter 3 begins by tackling cosmology, but Collins throws in a little prelude - a little homage to science. We should keep in mind that Collins' point through all this is to find a way to reconcile faith and science. He's not big into NOMA, but rather argues that science complements faith. Although he gets some things right, like he actually knows what a theory is (if I only had a nickel every time I heard someone say "But evolution is just a theory"...), several points of his prelude do a disservice to the layperson who might pick up this book. In this post, I hope to address these pain points.

First, let's give credit where credit is due: Collins knows what a theory is. He distills it pretty concisely, saying "But over a long period of time, a consistent set of observations sometimes emerges that leads to a new framework of understanding" (p.58). He lists a few examples of these theories: the theory of gravitation, the theory of relativity, germ theory. I happen to think that English murders the word "theory," because it has a different meaning in a scientific realm than it does in colloquial speech. In science, a theory is exactly what Collins describes; in other areas, a theory means something more like a hypothesis. "I have a theory on why my brownies taste like socks and are as hard as bricks." My wife blames William the Conqueror for the reason why English is such a messed-up language that's really difficult to use correctly.

He points out that science is not static, but I don't really think his reasons are entirely correct. He states that scientists have a streak of "closeted anarchism" that hopes to disrupt the framework of the day. "That's what the Nobel Prizes are given for" (p.58). Not quite, Collins: Alfred Nobel requested in his last will and testament that a series of prizes be awarded to those who have made "the most important ... discovery" in physics, chemistry, peace, medicine, and literature. Closeted anarchists: no; revolutionaries: perhaps; investigators: certainly! While there certainly are revolutionary ideas that flip the scientific world on its head, I prefer Lawrence Krauss' version better: "Scientists love mysteries / They love not knowing." This is where the God of the Gaps becomes problematic; the Christian thinks (s)he has all the answers, where the naturalist is OK saying, "You know what? I don't know the answer just yet."

After briefly discussing revolutionary ideas that rocked the scientific world, particularly advances in physics and cosmology, Collins mentions how scientific theories are becoming increasingly more difficult to state. He cites Ernest Rutherford, a physicist who said something along the lines of "if you can't explain your physics to a barmaid, then it probably isn't very good physics." Since physics is becoming increasingly difficult and, especially for quantum mechanics, not intuitive, Collins states that, to "those who argue that materialism should be favored over theism, because materialism is simpler and more intuitive, these new concepts present a major challenge" (p.61).

Before I discuss why I think Collins is wrong, we need to eliminate some ambiguity in the term "materialism." The web site Atheism: Proving the Negative has some definitions of positions that I think are pretty good. "Materialism" and something I immediately mistook it for - methodological naturalism are similar, but there are important differences; I'm glad I looked them up. Materialism is a metaphysical thesis about what the universe comprises; methodological naturalism is an epistemological thesis. The way I see it, the former describes what reality is while the latter prescribes how we apprehend reality. Given how Collins is all about trying to figure out how we can know the truth, I think he's referencing the epistemological thesis and not the metaphysical one. I may be incorrect, but I will use this assumption to contrast methodological naturalism against theism.

I don't think methodological naturalism is simpler and more intuitive than theism. First, it's not simpler; theism is WAY simpler. Secondly, methodological naturalism is not necessarily intuitive. As far as simple goes, parents/aunts/uncles might be familiar with this. My friends with preschool-aged children tell me that, when faced with the infinite regress of "Why?" questions they get from their kids, they will finally give up and say, "Because God made it that way." As it turns out, cognitive scientists have concluded that children prefer teleological explanations (teleology means "purpose"). Per that link: "The bias to view objects as 'designed for a purpose' probably derives from children's privileged understanding of intentional behavior and artifacts." At the time of this writing, my son is 16 months old. I am totally looking forward to answering his why questions. But not with a punt to the supernatural. I intend to ask him what he thinks is going on, and then I'll either answer his questions or - if he's up to it - we'll research it online or conduct our own experiments in the kitchen.

As far as intuition goes, who said that methodological naturalism had to be intuitive? If it were intuitive, why did it take so long to figure out germ theory? As a side note, would it really have been so hard for God to have revealed "WASH YOUR HANDS" to his chosen people? If something is not intuitive but is rather complex, I would still say that complexity does not necessarily mean that something is difficult to understand. For example, I think Michio Kaku does a wonderful job explaining time to the common person. I follow methodological naturalism because I think the scientific method is the best approach we have to apprehend reality is based on where the evidence leads to a more probable conclusion.

I should take the time to mention that there are some things that I believe that are not based on methodological naturalism, like believing that other people have minds and that my senses are reliable at apprehending objective reality. Maybe I consider these basic beliefs. I'm new at this, and I don't pretend to have all the answers.

Collins takes his assertion that materialism is in danger and loads it with a poor use of a notion he misunderstands: Ockham's Razor. Collins says that Ockham's Razor states "the simplest explanation for any given problem is usually best" (p.61). This idea actually involves eliminating unnecessary hypotheses from a solution. Again, what's simpler in describing why magnets work - talking about these crazy invisible fields created by the flow of almost-equally invisible negatively charged particles that can attract and repel certain metals, or saying that some god made it that way? Every single time we've taken a look around us and thought that something was magical or supernatural, and then we look at that thing critically and finally figured it out, we discover some naturalistic explanation. The application of logic and the scientific method has a pretty kick-ass track record. Sure, science may be underdetermined, but theism? Explanatory Fail.

Collins makes one last point before moving on to the topic of cosmology. Seeing how the natural world made such a profound impression on him, he muses "Why should matter behave in such a way?" (p.62). He then quotes Eugene Wigner about the "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics." I really don't see why matter behaving in whatever way it behaves is unreasonable. I wonder what Collins thinks a universe would look like if every single thing could change willy-nilly at any time. George Smith, in his book Atheism: The Case Against God discusses nature:

Natural law is based upon the limited nature of existence. Every entity has a specific nature, specific characteristics, that determine the capacities of that entity. A plant, for example, does not have the capacity to think, and a man does not have the biological capacity for photosynthesis. The capacities, abilities, and potential actions of any existing thing, living or inanimate, are dependent on its characteristics - and since these are always specific and determinate, their resulting capacities are also specific and determinate. The characteristics of an entity determine what an entity can and cannot do; limitations are an integral part of the natural universe, and they constitute the foundation of natural law.

Regularity in nature is the consequence of limitations; entities are limited in terms of their actions. No existing thing can randomly do anything at any time under any conditions. This uniformity in nature permits the systematic study of reality (science) and the formulation of general principles of nature ("laws") which are used in predicting future states of affairs. While the particular scientific laws will change as man's knowledge increases, the principle of natural law itself is a constant; it persists as a corollary of existence. (p.28)

Mathematics is perfectly reasonable because it is a systematic framework for figuring out a logically consistent universe.

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September 19, 2010, 8:17 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink10 comments

The Language of God: A Doubtful Belief

The Language of God, Chapter 2

By B.J. Marshall

Collins starts off this chapter noting that, if we've followed him this far, we've no doubt begun to form numerous objections. That's an understatement to be sure! He gives us some of his own: Isn't belief in God just a case of wishful thinking? Hasn't a great deal of harm been done in the name of religion? How could a loving God permit suffering? How can a serious scientist accept the possibility of miracles? We'll upack those questions in a few posts. But for now we'll focus on doubt.

Collins kicks off this chapter by stating that doubt is an unavoidable part of belief. He supports this with a quote from Paul Tillich: "Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith" (p.33). I doubt the existence of Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. So would Tillich (and Collins) say then that my doubt is an element of faith in these beings? Collins tries to argue in favor of doubt by stating that an airtight faith would be a bad thing because "then the world would be full of confident practitioners of a single faith. But imagine such a world where the opportunity to make a free choice about belief was taken away by the certainty of the evidence. How interesting would that be?" (p.34). First, assuming there should be any religion at all, wouldn't having just one religion be a good thing? No more religious persecution, holy wars, or religious terrorism. No more cults leading to the Jonestown massacre, the Branch Davidians, or Heaven's Gate. Indeed, the Protestant Reformation would have never happened since there would be nothing to reform. According the the World Christian Encyclopedia, there were over 33,000 Christian denominations alone in 2001. If each denomination was represented by one Christian, that would be enough to almost fill Fenway Park! In the meantime, if you need help figuring out which religion you should follow, then this handy flowchart can help.

Secondly, an abundance of evidence (which many would claim gets us as close to certainty as we can get) does not prevent people from believing all kinds of crazy stuff.

I suppose I could also make the case that just because certainty takes away my freedom to choose something does not necessarily limit how interesting life is. I've come to realize that gravity will always pull me back down to Earth. I jump, I come back down; I fall off the bed during the night, I crash into the endstand and break a lamp. These things happen, and I have no choice in having gravity not work on me. And my life is pretty damned interesting, thank you very much.

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August 23, 2010, 5:55 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink37 comments

The Language of God: And So It Begins

By B.J. Marshall

In The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Francis Collins presents what he believes to be the strongest arguments for theism: what he calls the "Moral Law," the origins of the universe, and life on earth. In a nutshell, Collins sees the ubiquity of morality to be the work of God on our hearts; he sees the marvelous universe and the nature of reality to be "an insight into the mind of God" (p.62); and he sees life on Earth to be the handiwork of God. While the brand of theism he supports is specifically Christian, he does not spend a great deal of time arguing the point. He does spend one chapter apiece devoted to refuting atheism, agnosticism, creationism, and intelligent design. He then posits what he calls "BioLogos" as an alternative worldview (Bio meaning life and Logos meaning word.)

Well, that covers the gist of the book. Before we delve into it, starting with Collins' introduction, I would like to introduce my plan of attack here. I intend to post weekly, where I will most likely cover a chapter in anywhere from two to four weeks depending on the content of the chapter. I openly welcome your comments to my content, so feel free to use the comment section liberally.

To understand Collins' perspective, it is helpful to know a little about him. Here's an excerpt of his Wikipedia entry: "Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950), M.D., Ph.D., is an American physician-geneticist, noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project and described by the Endocrine Society as 'one of the most accomplished scientists of our time.' He currently serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Collins... was president of the BioLogos Foundation before accepting the nomination to lead the NIH. On October 14, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Francis Collins to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences."

Collins starts his book by recounting a press conference with Bill Clinton, Tony Blair (connected via satellite), and others to announce the complete mapping of the Human Genome. He asks the reader to consider blatant religious references by political figures (Clinton referred to this event as "learning the language in which God created life" (p.2)) and the number of scientists who hold a belief in God. Collins is obviously discouraged that there exists such antagonism between the spiritual and scientific worlds, and he claims that a synthesis of the spiritual and scientific worlds is possible, although he maintains the notion of non-overlapping magisteria.

Collins asks why a president and a scientist would feel compelled to invoke God. In reply, he lists a few possibilities: is it poetry, hypocrisy, currying favor from believers? Presidents and prominent figures invoke God all the time. Every State of the Union address has "And God bless America." Although I try hard not to, I still invoke god with surprise "OMG!" or when I stub my toe (use your imagination to think of what I say). Given that almost everything a president says is carefully crafted, Clinton's statement may very well be to curry favor from the 92% of Americans who believe in God.

Collins also attempts to demonstrate to readers how many scientists believe in God, but I found it to be disappointing. Collins mentions a 1916 study that asked scientists whether they believed in a God "who actively communicates with humankind and to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer" (p.4). In 1997, the survey was conducted again with much the same results - about 40%. Collins doesn't cite his source for this study, so we don't know who these "scientists" are. Are they they same scientists who doubt evolution? According to a 1996 article in the journal Nature, in which scientists who were members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) were polled, more than 65% did not believe in God. (Percentages varied by fields of study.) Many who did not believe were agnostic. In the table of the link I provided, one figure for personal belief in God is only 7%. That's a far cry from 40!

Whatever the number of scientist-believers are, Collins maintains that "[s]cience's domain is to explore nature. God's domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science" (p.6). There are two glaring problems with this. First, wouldn't God's domain be both the spiritual and natural realms? I mean, he's omnipotent and omnipresent, right? Second, the Christian deity is apparently one that operates in the world. Recall how the study Collins cited asked scientists whether they believed in a god who actively communicates and answers prayers. (I'm assuming at least some of those prayers have expected results that are tangible.) As soon as God enters the natural world, science can test those claims. In fact, it has in many cases.

Collins at least gets it right when he states that science "is the only reliable way to understand the natural world" (p.6). So I wonder how he justifies a belief in something he can't validate. He says that science can't answer certain questions like "why did the universe come into being," "what is the meaning of human existence," and "what happens after we die?" I think it might be these questions which spur him to look at something beyond the natural.

In the next chapter, Collins shares with the reader his journey from atheism to belief in a "God who is unlimited by time and space, and who takes personal interest in human beings."

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August 7, 2010, 1:39 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink30 comments

Two Responses to the Theist's Guide

Earlier this month, Greta Christina published a piece on AlterNet, based on my essay "The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists", that listed things that would convince her of God's existence. She also repeated the challenge I posed to theists - prove that your beliefs are falsifiable by posting a corresponding list of things that would convince you to become an atheist.

The AlterNet post got hundreds of comments, and netted a total of two responses. In this post, I'll briefly analyze them both.

First, there's this essay from Verbose Stoic. I left a comment on his site which is reprinted below, with minor edits:

I've reviewed this list, and I think that rather than meeting my challenge, it emphasizes the point I sought to make by raising it: for most theists, belief in God is a deliberately unfalsifiable construct that bears no relation to the real world.

Your first criterion is that you would accept it if your definition of God was shown to be self-contradictory – but you've more or less said that in that case, you would just change your definition and continue believing. Also, it's not clear to me why mere logical consistency should be your standard for believing. There's an infinite number of self-consistent, non-contradictory entities that nevertheless don't actually exist – unicorns, leprechauns, minotaurs, mermaids, and so on. Why should God be treated according to a different standard?

Meanwhile, your second criterion is so vague as to be useless. You just say "prove that there exists something that is incompatible with the existence of God", without any explanation of what that thing might be or how one would go about proving that it exists. You cite the problem of evil as one potential example, but clearly you're already aware of the problem of evil and don't consider it a persuasive disproof of God, and you don't explain why not or how it would have to be different for you to accept it as such.

Ultimately, you conclude that probably nothing would ever convince you of God's nonexistence ("The qualities of God are such that such disproofs just don’t work", and "my agnosticism makes me skeptical that they would ever work"). That, of course, is exactly the point I wanted to make by writing my essay in the first place. Belief in God is unfalsifiable, not dependent on any evidence in the world, which means, as Sam Harris has said, it's not really a belief about the world at all.

There's also this post, from "allthedeadheroes". My reply, originally sent via e-mail:

I have a couple of comments on this:

1. You said you would give up your belief if you received "Objective evidence that contradicts my theory of God." But you also said that your belief can explicitly accommodate everything science discovers about the world. Would you therefore agree that this criterion is impossible to meet? If not, what sort of evidence would qualify as contradicting your theory of God?

2. You also listed, "Proof that my subjective beliefs were in some way bad for me or the people around me." Would you consider it harmful to encourage people to come to conclusions about what exists in objective reality based on their subjective feelings and sensations? Because I certainly do. That same method of decision-making is what results in people believing that God wants holy war and theocracy, that he commands the oppression of women and gays, that he condones faith-based opposition to science - all because they "feel" strongly that this is what he wants of them. To put it another way, how would you address the issue of people using your same method - that of subjective feeling and experience - to come to entirely different, and undeniably harmful, conclusions?

What's notable about both these replies, which I think stands in sharp contrast to Greta's essay and mine, is how noticeably they avoid contact with the evidence. They're based on definitions, subjective experiences, moral beliefs, philosophies - anything but the facts of the world. They'll go to almost any length rather than make a clear evidentiary commitment to give up belief in God if some concrete, objective criterion is satisfied.

This is all the more noteworthy because, if these beliefs are rationally founded in the first place, it ought to be very easy for a theist to explain what would convince him to give them up. It ought to be a straightforward matter of applying the argument to the best explanation, as I explained in a further comment on Verbose Stoic: is relatively easy for an atheist to say 'If this happens, I’d believe in God' because they can point to an event and use it as a positive proof. That doesn't happen for the negative side of the ledger."

I don't agree that theists have a harder time than atheists in outlining what would change their minds. If you agree that evidence is the link to truth, then it seems to me that this task could be accomplished fairly easily: explain what evidence convinced you to believe in God, and then explain what further evidence would overturn your initial conclusions.

As an analogy, let's say I believe in Bigfoot. Let's also say my belief is premised on several different lines of evidence: videos of hairy man-shaped creatures in the woods, plaster casts of giant footprints in mud, and the testimonies of several eyewitnesses who claim that they saw an anthropoid beast lumber out of the forest and into their backyard.

Now let's say the man who shot that video came forward to confess it was a hoax, created with the help of a friend, and produces a receipt for a costume shop dated the day the video was taken. Let's say he produces clay sculptures of feet that fit the casts that were earlier produced. And let's also say the house where the eyewitnesses live is proven to have been contaminated with ergot mold that would have produced vivid hallucinations in anyone living within.

Clearly, in this case, I no longer have reason to believe in Bigfoot. Every strand of evidence that links my belief to objective reality has been severed, and new evidence points to a better explanation that accounts for the prior evidence more convincingly than my former belief did. Now, I might continue to believe in Bigfoot regardless, asserting that the creature could still exist despite the failure of all the evidence. But, I hope we can agree, that would be irrational at that point.

I'm not suggesting that belief in God could only be overturned by the discovery of a deliberate conspiracy to deceive humanity. But I can readily conceive of the discovery of lines of evidence - in fact, I would argue that such evidence has already been discovered - which adds up to the same result. If you think the theist has the harder task here, I'd venture to say that it's merely because theists, having constructed their beliefs so as to make them immune to disproof, are naturally at a loss when asked what would in fact disprove them.

July 24, 2010, 10:11 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink134 comments

The Case for a Creator: Redefining Science

The Case for a Creator, Closing Thoughts

The theory of evolution not only explains and unifies a vast range of scientific observations, it's given rise to an enormous, fruitful research program by predicting where we should look in order to find all kinds of phenomena of interest. One of the most famous examples is how Charles Darwin predicted that the earliest human ancestors would be found in Africa, which turned out to be 100% correct. Based on observing flowers from Madagascar, Darwin also predicted the existence of a moth species with a startlingly long proboscis, and a moth matching his specifications was discovered. Evolutionary theory led paleontologists to inspect rocks of a certain age in a certain location to find tetrapod ancestors, and lo and behold, we dug up Tiktaalik roseae. Evolutionary theory enabled us to predict the likely characteristics of an ant ancestor, and we found a species preserved in amber that matched our expectations almost perfectly. Evolutionary theory illuminated the similarities between birds and dinosaurs, and feathered theropods continue to turn up at a dizzying rate.

Even today, evolution continues to guide researchers who are expanding our knowledge of the human genome. Because of evolution, we looked in yeast to find genes that build bodies, and we looked in sea cucumbers to find blood-clotting genes. Because of evolution, we found viruses with similarities to crucial genes in our immune system, and bacteria with family ties to the mitochondria that power the metabolism of each and every cell in our bodies, and apes and monkeys whose vitamin C synthesis gene is broken in exactly the same way as ours. Based on evolutionary reasoning, the first scientists to crack the genetic code worked under the assumption that it would be universal among life, and this too was correct.

These are bold, surprising predictions, which expand our knowledge of humanity even as they reveal our deep and intricate ties to the natural world. And without the overarching assumption of evolution, there was no reason to suspect any of them to be true. Yet they are true, and no other theory or hypothesis accounts for them so consistently and so well. By letting the principles of evolution and the scientific method guide us, we've enjoyed enormous success, and reaped the bounty of a rich harvest of knowledge about nature. We've also found no evidence whatsoever which confirms the existence of a supernatural creator. And when some people are losing, it's little surprise that they want to change the rules of the game.

In chapter 9, Stephen Meyer sums up his argument as follows:

"Well, I say it's time to redefine science. We should not be looking for only the best naturalistic explanation, but the best explanation, period. And intelligent design is the explanation that's most in conformity with how the world works." [p.243]

Please note the major concession: Strobel and his fellow-travelers aren't doing science. They're doing something else, and they want to "redefine" science so that the new definition can encompass whatever it is they are doing.

What's curious about this statement is that although Meyer calls for redefining science, he never says what he wants the new definition to be. If they want to redefine science, how should the new definition differ from the old one? What activities will count as science that didn't before? And once you conclude that "design happened", then what? What predictions does the design hypothesis make about the structure of the world? Is there research that we can do to figure out the mindset, the abilities, the intentions of the designer? Can we know anything about him other than, perhaps, an inordinate fondness for beetles? If so, how?

Neither Meyer nor any other advocate of ID has ever attempted to answer these questions. If they're so eager to establish a new, non-natural kind of science, why don't they explain how it would work? More to the point, why don't they just go ahead and do it? They don't need anyone's permission. If they could use their method to make verifiable predictions, they wouldn't have to sit around trying to convince the rest of us. There would be incontrovertible evidence of their success.

The proof is in the pudding, but Meyer, Strobel and the rest are offering us nothing but thin gruel. They want us to discard the well-tested and massively successful framework of evolutionary theory and adopt their method instead, and promise vague but marvelous results at some unspecified future time. They come to us empty-handed, having done none of the necessary work, and expect us to take their claims on faith - even though the Discovery Institute's sizable budget could easily support a well-equipped research division, and groups like the Templeton Foundation are openly seeking pro-ID research to fund. Clearly, the only reason they're not doing science is because there's no science in their ideas to be done. Like all creationists, they are intellectually bankrupt, and the "redefinition" they seek is to redefine scientific failure as scientific success.

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July 12, 2010, 5:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink20 comments

What Is Freethought?

I've often used the terms "freethought" and "freethinker" on this blog, but I've never explicitly defined them. In this post, continuing my efforts at defining words that are important to the atheist movement, I want to speak briefly about how I use these terms and what I understand them to mean.

As the Freedom from Religion Foundation defines it, a freethinker is a person who forms their opinions about religion based on reason, independently of established belief, tradition, or authority. I think established belief and tradition are more or less the same thing, and I want to add another condition: a freethinker also forms their opinions without relying on revelation.

To expand on what each of these mean:

Independent of revelation: Freethinkers do not consider irreproducible, subjective personal experiences to be a valid basis for making up one's mind about what does or does not exist in the external world. We recognize that individual human beings are fallible; that the brain is prone to hallucinate, to personify natural phenomena, to find spurious significance in randomness, and to deceive and mislead itself in countless other ways that bias its decisions towards what we most want to be true. Given all these manifest examples of our fallibility, we conclude that a mere emotional experience, unless it contains an objective component that can be replicated or examined by others, is insufficient as a basis for belief.

And since we reject personal revelation as a basis for decision-making, it goes without saying that we reject other people's reports of revelations they may have experienced. Such reports can never be anything more than unverifiable hearsay, and their uselessness is proven by the fact that countless people of wildly different and incompatible religions all report having them and all claim to fervently believe them.

Independent of tradition and established belief: Freethinkers do not consider a claim more likely to be true just because it is widely believed, or historically has been widely believed, in the society we live in. We recognize that most people simply absorb their most important beliefs from the surrounding culture - for example, people born in America are far more likely to be Christians, whereas people born in Indonesia or Saudi Arabia are far more likely to be Muslims, and people born in India are far more likely to be Hindus. As in the last point, these conflicting belief systems cannot all be true; but even if any one of them is true, given the sheer number of human societies past and present and the even greater number of different ideas they hold, it is extremely unlikely that you or I, by pure chance, just happened to be born into the one culture in human history that believes all the right things.

Since the chances of coming to hold all the right beliefs by an accident of birth are extremely low, this cannot be a workable way to make up our minds. Instead, we should apply reason and critical thought to the popular wisdom of our culture, judging for ourselves which widely held beliefs are good and should be kept up, and which are bad and should be replaced with something better.

Independent of authority: Most importantly, freethinkers believe and act on a proposition because we ourselves judge it to be true using our best reasoning, not because we're told to believe it by people in power.

The wealthy and powerful in any society urge the rest of us to believe a large number of propositions, most for fairly obvious reasons of self-interest. Advertisers for large corporations try to convince us that buying their products will bring happiness and contentment. Politicians pledge to be the guardians of traditional morality, or make us feel afraid and then promise protection, if we'll vote for them and support their campaigns. Religious leaders claim that their sect has the keys to salvation, and we can enjoy eternal bliss if we tithe to them and attend their church. The super-rich argue that society will be more prosperous if their income taxes are lowered. In each case, it's obvious what the people who make these claims stand to gain if we believe them.

Now, some of these claims may in fact be true, despite their self-serving nature. But most of them probably aren't. Believing the authorities without skepticism is an excellent way to spend your life being exploited and taken advantage of. A freethinker, by contrast, casts a critical eye on assertions that originate with other people, and believes something because the evidence supports it and not because the authorities wish us to.

Based on reason: If a freethinker doesn't rely on revelation, tradition or authority, then how do freethinkers make up their minds? The answer is that we use our own best judgment, guided by logic and reason, starting from a solid foundation of evidence viewed through the lens of critical thinking. Where possible, we don't make up our minds in isolation, but investigate the reasoning and the conclusions of a community of other people who use the same method - with the hope being that any individual errors or biases will be canceled out by the consensus judgment.

The method of reason isn't perfect, because we aren't perfect. It may sometimes lead us astray. But it still has a higher probability of leading us to the truth than any other method. And for further proof of this, consider the historical track record: Millennia of obeying tradition, revelation and authority produced virtually no human progress and left us mired in prejudice and superstition, while societies that adopted reason and the scientific method have seen dramatic improvements in both their standard of living and their moral attitude. To be a freethinker is to be an ally of that progressive trend, and to declare your opposition to all the irrationality that has kept humankind ignorant and prevented us from achieving our true potential.

February 26, 2010, 12:03 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink27 comments

The Poisoned Cup of Theodicy

The world has seen and heard enough about the misery and destruction in Haiti this past week that I don't think I need to dwell on it. But I do want to take some time to address the perennial question of theodicy, which comes up in the aftermath of every disaster like this.

To an atheist, for whom the Haiti quake was nothing more than the result of tectonic plates slipping - a disaster caused by impersonal natural forces and random chance - there is nothing to explain. The laws of the cosmos are not conscious of human beings and don't take our needs into account. No human action caused this disaster to occur, and no one bears responsibility for it. If we want to live comfortably and safely in this world, it's up to us to learn its rules so that we can mitigate their worst consequences through science and technology, and when disaster does strike, it's up to us to care for each other.

Such is the atheist's view, and it is comforting, in a sense. But to people who believe in a personal deity who set these laws in motion and foresaw their consequences, there's a much more glaring problem. In a post titled Why Did God Allow Haiti's Earthquake?, Christian pastor Dave Schmelzer reflects on the topic.

Schmelzer does have a dead-on and even, dare I say it, scriptural response to Pat Robertson's vile mouth:

The heart of the great biblical book on suffering—Job—critiques Job's false friends who are determined to figure out why Job is suffering. It's as if they can't live in the tension of seeing someone else suffer without establishing that somehow the sufferer deserved their suffering, so we, the onlookers, are safe.

I have no argument with that. But there's another section of Schmelzer's post that caught my attention:

The best thing I've read on this subject is Gregory Boyd's God at War. Boyd says that it's our Greek influence that makes us need answers to suffering and evil. The issue, he says, isn't intellectually figuring out evil. That will lead to two bad outcomes: torment (as Bart Ehrmann discovered) and complacency. To Boyd, the world is a thick spiritual battle. When we confront suffering and evil, our task is not to analyze the suffering and evil, it's to fight it.

What I find most interesting about this is Boyd's claim that we shouldn't try to find an explanation for evil that's compatible with Christianity. Attempting this, he says, can have only two outcomes, both of them bad: either we become convinced that God is malevolent or indifferent, which plunges one into despair (or leads to deconversion, as happened with Bart Ehrman), or we become convinced that God is justified in causing it, which leads to the Robertson-like callousness which believes that only evil people suffer.

Now, I'm not denying the logic of this argument. Those do seem to be the most common outcomes when Christians contemplate the problem of evil. But what I want to point out is his conclusion: therefore, Christians should stop trying to find an explanation for evil. They should just stop thinking about the topic, because it does damage to their faith if they dwell on it too closely.

Schmelzer endorses this conclusion himself:

"Why" never offered anyone any comfort, any power or any answers... So let's not over-analyze "why God allowed" Haiti's earthquake.

This is a rather surprising view, inasmuch as it categorically dismisses the possibility that apologists' attempts to justify evil and suffering could ever assist faith. It seems he agrees with us atheists that conventional Christian explanations for evil are insufficient.

But it's not just evangelical Christians who take this view. A Mormon blog calls the project of theodicy a "poisoned cup", and says:

I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the whole project of theodicy. On one hand, I want to reject a fideism that insists on belief in the irrational as a mark of true faith. Hence, I want a religion that at least holds out the possibility of increasing my understanding of the ways of God and the nature of the universe through the use of reason. We shouldn't have to crucify our brains in order to believe. And yet there is also a part of me that wants to maintain the mystery of evil... Ultimately... the most important reaction to suffering is its alleviation rather than its explanation.

This blogger, obviously an intelligent person, doesn't want to have to shut off his mind in order to believe. And to his credit, he rejects the Robertsonian argument that black people were justly excluded from the Mormon priesthood as punishment for sins they committed in a previous life:

I would much rather ascribe the priesthood ban to the tragic failings and racism of good and great men like Brigham Young rather than warp the cosmic narrative of the plan of salvation to make an injustice just.

This is an eloquent and laudable honesty, far superior to the usual apologists' approach of enshrining contingent historical prejudices as eternal truths. And yet he, too, counsels fellow believers to cease trying to explain evil and "simply let the mystery be" - as though the project of theodicy was a blister, or an unhealed wound: something that we only make worse by picking at it.

What's remarkable is that both these writers, in their own ways, implicitly acknowledge that the argument from evil is irrefutable. There is simply no moral way to reconcile belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving deity with the fact of evil and suffering in our world. This is just what atheists have been saying since the time of Epicurus. But rather than take the obvious next step - that the argument from evil is unanswerable because the atheists are correct - they instead advise their fellow believers to stop thinking about it.

Is this not remarkable? It's as though, for people in these religious traditions, an entire continent of their inner mental world has to be cordoned off and declared a forbidden zone. Their mental landscape is littered with locked doors, fences of barbed wire, and sternly worded "Keep Out" signs - all delimiting the sphere of dangerous ideas which they're advised never to examine.

Can anyone dispute that atheists have nothing like this? Is there any idea we place off-limits for examination, any question we deem too dangerous to ask? Is there any place where we say the free mind must never travel? And if your answer is "no", as it inevitably must be, then I have a followup question: Which kind of belief would need to be protected from scrutiny: a true belief, or a false one?

January 25, 2010, 1:32 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink39 comments

The Case for a Creator: A Universe Not Made For Us

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 7

The final section of this chapter concerns Gonzalez's argument that the Earth is uniquely designed to make scientific discovery possible. His argument is that our planet is fine-tuned not just to allow the existence of life, but to allow us to find out important facts about the nature of the universe that wouldn't be possible to discover if we lived anywhere else. (As an aside, it's asinine for Strobel and his interviewees to celebrate how perfectly designed the Earth is for scientific discovery when they themselves reject many of the most important conclusions of science - but never mind that.) He begins with solar eclipses, which occur due to another of those coincidences that ID advocates love so much:

"There's a striking convergence of rare properties that allow people on Earth to witness perfect solar eclipses... total eclipses are possible because the sun is four hundred times larger than the moon, but it's also four hundred times further away. It's that incredible coincidence that creates a perfect match.

Because of this configuration... observers on earth can discern finer details in the sun's chromosphere and corona than from any other planet, which makes these eclipses scientifically rich." [p.185-186]

Again, this is something that Guillermo Gonzalez, a professional astronomer, can't possibly be ignorant of: You don't need a solar eclipse to view the sun's corona. You can just use a coronagraph, a very simple instrument that's been in existence since the 1930s and performs the same function. The fact that our planet is uniquely positioned to see total eclipses is an interesting coincidence, but it's in no way vital to scientific discovery.

"...perfect solar eclipses helped us learn about the nature of stars. Using spectroscopes, astronomers learned how the sun's color spectrum is produced, and that data helped them later interpret the spectra of distant stars." [p.186]

This argument makes no sense to me. What do eclipses have to do with humanity's invention of spectroscopy?

"...eclipses provided a historical record that has... enabled us to put ancient calendars on our modern calendar system, which was very significant." [p.186]

Eclipses, of course, are not the only way of coordinating ancient and modern calendars. You can use any event, whether earthly or astronomical, that occurred on a known date as a reference point. SN 1054 would be another example.

"Our location away from the galaxy's center and in the flat plane of the disk provides us with a particularly privileged vantage point for observing both nearby and distant stars." [p.187]

Wouldn't a location in a more densely populated stellar neighborhood give us an even better vantage point for observing many different types of stars? This is a Gish Gallop-type argument where Gonzalez fires out as many assertions as possible, while doing little or nothing to explain the reasoning behind each one.

"The moon stabilizes the Earth's tilt, which gives us a livable climate - and it also consistently preserves the deep snow deposits in the polar regions... By taking core samples from the ice, researchers can gather data going back hundreds of thousands of years." [p.187]

I agree that ice-core data is a useful way of learning about past climate, though not the only one. I also note that Gonzalez has here committed himself to rejecting the young-earth position, which is something Strobel refuses to do (he calls it an "internal Christian debate", remember). It's therefore interesting that he lets this pass without comment. Shouldn't he point out that, according to many of his fellow Christians, the Earth doesn't have "hundreds of thousands of years" of past history and therefore these ice cores are useless as records of anything?

"And a transparent atmosphere allows the science of astronomy and cosmology to flourish." [p.188]

This argument is especially ridiculous. Every atmosphere, no matter its composition, is transparent at some wavelengths and opaque at others. Our atmosphere, for example, is transparent to visible light but strongly absorbs infrared. Astronomers on any planet would ply their trade at the wavelengths that pass through the atmosphere, and for those that don't, they could do precisely what we've done: send telescopes and observatories into space.

"Thousands of seismographs all over the planet have measured earthquakes through the years... scientists have been able to use that data to produce a three-dimensional map of the structure of the Earth's interior." [p.188]

The same effect can be achieved by setting off explosives on the surface to produce seismic waves, a technique used routinely by geologists and the extraction industry.

As we can see from all these examples, there's nothing about the Earth's environment that makes it uniquely well-suited to scientific discovery. What Strobel and Gonzalez have really managed to show, instead, is humanity's cleverness in exploiting every opportunity available to us to learn about the natural world. Our planet is well-suited for science in some ways, ill-suited in others. If we lived on a different planet, the ways we'd have to learn about the world would be different - and if there were creationists on that planet, doubtless they'd be saying that those opportunities, and not these, were evidence of divine design.

As evidence of this, Strobel and Gonzalez have presented a rosy and thoroughly one-sided list of the ways in which our environment is good for scientific discovery. But there are other aspects of our environment, equally obvious and important, that are not so favorable. Here are some of them:

* The light speed limit. The fact that nothing can travel faster than light makes it essentially impossible to explore our universe in person, or even via robots. Even the nearest stars would take thousands of years to reach using the fastest means of travel currently available to us, and exploring any really interesting places, like the galactic center, would take millions.

* The poor fossil record. Because fossilization is an extremely rare event, most creatures, and possibly even most species, that have ever lived are unknown to us. Even in the very rare cases where fossils are formed, we need to rely on luck to bring them close enough to the surface to notice, and incredible amounts of tenacity and hard work are needed to excavate even a single fossil and assemble it from fragments and disassembled bones.

* Erosion and plate tectonics. The active geological processes that continually destroy and recycle the Earth's crust mean that most of the planet's oldest rocks and fossils no longer exist, making it very difficult for us to learn about the earliest epochs of history.

* Dark matter, dark energy, and other elusive phenomena. To judge by astronomical observations, the vast majority of the universe is made up of substances that are invisible to us and completely unlike anything we encounter on our planet. Enormous amounts of research, creativity, and effort have been expended in building the vast and complex experiments that we use to detect them (just read this description of the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search experiment, or this page about the Large Hadron Collider).

* Geological and cosmological timescales. Many really interesting scientific phenomena - continental drift, star formation, galaxy collisions - occur on such long timescales that they can't be directly observed from start to finish by humans and our comparatively puny lifespans. This is very inconvenient for learning about the processes that shape our planet and our universe.

These aspects of our world (are there others I've forgotten?) cast doubt on the rats-in-a-maze theology which claims our universe is stocked with little puzzles created by God just to keep us busy. Nature does not yield its secrets easily, and the few pieces of knowledge we've managed to gain have all taken diligent work and imaginative leaps by dedicated scientists. It trivializes and demeans their effort for creationists to come in afterward and claim that those scientists were really just finding the clues planted by God.

Other posts in this series:

January 8, 2010, 6:59 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink17 comments

Cargo Cult Science

During World War II, American forces fighting in the Pacific set up bases on remote islands whose people had had very little prior contact with other civilizations. These people, with technology at a Stone Age level, were amazed by the strange visitors and the almost miraculous cargo they brought with them - chocolate, cigarettes, radio, steel tools. When the war ended and the soldiers left, some tribes went to desperate measures to summon them back, forming religions - cargo cults - which tried to induce the soldiers to return through sympathetic magic. Some of them went so far as to make mock military uniforms, cut "runways" in the jungle, or build "control towers" out of bamboo. The most famous surviving cargo cult is the following of John Frum, which I've written about before.

I mention all this because a friend sent me this bizarre article from a group calling itself the Spiritual Science Research Foundation, "How does prayer work? A spiritual perspective". It's an excellent example of what (to borrow a phrase from Richard Feynman) we might call "cargo cult science".

This article is clearly intended to mimic the form of a peer-reviewed scientific paper. It has an abstract, a section discussing the "mechanism" of prayer, plenty of colorful graphics and charts, and plenty of technical-sounding talk about which postures increase the efficacy of one's prayers by what percentage:

But for all its glitzy graphics and pseudotechnical jargon, this article is no more science than a cargo cult's bamboo control tower will attract real airplanes. It imitates the form while completely misunderstanding the essence of what it's trying to recreate.

The essence of science lies in answering two questions: how do you know that? and how can I test it? Both these answers are missing from the SSRF's prayer article, which spews forth assertion after ludicrous assertion without making the slightest effort to explain how its author came by any of this knowledge. Just take a few examples:

A person at the 50% spiritual level will more often than not pray for his spiritual progress... a person who prays for the death of another person will be helped by a negative subtle entity from the 4th Region of Hell... The subtlest frequencies are generated when one pays gratitude along with the prayer... Prayer increases the particles of the subtle basic sattva component in the vital body sheath... In our life, 65% of events happen as per destiny... Prayers of people who are below the 30% spiritual level lack potency... By touching the wrists to the chest, the Anaahat chakra is activated and it helps in absorbing more sattva frequencies... In some cases people hold hands and pray. This is also a spiritually incorrect practice... All other things being equal, using the recommended mudraa (posture) for prayer helps to improve the chances of one’s prayer being answered by 20%.

The article goes on and on, throwing out these statistics as if they were well-established facts, never attempting to explain how any of this knowledge was acquired. Nor does it make any effort to explain how an interested person might test any of this to confirm for themselves that it's true.

What seems clear is that groups like this (and others) are envious of science - of its precision, of its demonstrated success, of the esteem it enjoys from the public. They want to claim some of that authority for themselves, which is why they ape the form and language of a scientific paper, hoping that the credulous will be deceived by the resemblance into thinking that their beliefs are scientifically verified as well. Yet despite its pretense of scientific language, this article is essentially no different from any other religious book, making bald assertions which the believer is required to take on faith.

October 21, 2009, 6:59 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink36 comments

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