The Language of God: In the Beginning...

The Language of God, Chapter 3

By B.J. Marshall

After his prelude, Collins begins at the beginning: The Big Bang. He talks about what it is, asks what came before it, and argues that it cries out for a divine explanation. The Big Bang doesn't just cry out for an explanation - no, no, no - it cries out for a divine explanation. Nothing like checking your biases at the door when doing that science thing, right?

We saw previously that he knows what a theory is, so this guy knows how to do science. I was a little disappointed, though, when I saw he hadn't laid out many lines of evidence for the Big Bang. And, given a recent poll that only 33% of Americans agree that the universe began with the Big Bang, I really would have liked to have seen Collins give a fully credible account. Granted, he does a pretty decent job explaining Einstein's cosmological constant, but that only goes so far as to lend support to Edwin Hubble's observations of redshift that led to the conclusion that the universe was expanding. The only real lines of evidence Collins provides for the Big Bang are the cosmic microwave background radiation and the theory's ability to predict concentrations of hydrogen, deuterium, and helium - called nucleosynthesis.

Collins doesn't lay out all the lines of evidence for the Big Bang as I wish he had, so I'll add them here, courtesy of AstronomyCast:
Collins' list:

Additional lines of evidence:

OK, so we now have four lines of evidence for the Big Bang. But we aren't exactly sure what the Big Bang is. Collins states that physicists are in agreement that the universe began as an "infinitely dense, dimensionless point of pure energy" (p.65). This is regularly referred to as a singularity, but there's a problem with that: Scientists really haven't been in agreement over this. Here are some interesting hypotheses:

Collins thinks the Big Bang begs the question of what came before that: namely, who or what was responsible? Specifically, Collins talks about faith traditions that maintain that God created the universe from nothingness (ex nihilo). However, Lawrence Krauss gave a lecture at the 2009 Atheist Alliance International meeting discussing a universe from nothing. (Note: this YouTube video is about an hour long, but totally worth it.) In the discussion, Krauss points out that the total energy of the universe is zero! Quoting from an adaptation of The Cosmos: Astronomy in the New Millennium, 1st edition, by Jay M. Pasachoff and Alex Filippenko, found on the Astronomical Society of the Pacific:

The idea of a zero-energy universe, together with inflation, suggests that all one needs is just a tiny bit of energy to get the whole thing started (that is, a tiny volume of energy in which inflation can begin). The universe then experiences inflationary expansion, but without creating net energy.

What produced the energy before inflation? This is perhaps the ultimate question. As crazy as it might seem, the energy may have come out of nothing! The meaning of "nothing" is somewhat ambiguous here. It might be the vacuum in some pre-existing space and time, or it could be nothing at all - that is, all concepts of space and time were created with the universe itself.

Collins finds his answer - God did it - from astrophysicist Robert Jastrow: "Now we see how the astronomical evidence leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world. The details differ, but the essential elements and the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same; the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy" (p.67).

The essential elements and the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same?!? Hmm, let's compare (oh, and we'll only choose one of the two Genesis creation myths). I found a nifty image showing how attempting to harmonize the creation myth to evolutionary epochs fails miserably. But also note how fruit trees come before the sun, moon, and stars. Our sun is about 4.5 billion years old. Land plants (clade embryophyta) didn't appear until the Paleozoic era, which was between 543 and 248 million years ago. And let's not forget that the Bible considers the moon a great light (Gen 1:16). But that's just one of those pesky details that differs.

Finally, Collins says that he has to agree with Jastrow and that he "cannot see how nature could have created itself" (p.67). This is textbook God-of-the-gaps arguing right here. I could shake my head and say, "Oh, that wacky Collins!" as we see one more expert trying to render an expert opinion on a field of which he's wholly unqualified, but I know what harm it does when people read stuff like this. My parents gave me this book as a Christmas present last year, which happened to be the first Christmas since my open deconversion. My parents were utterly convinced that Collins' book would bring me back into the fold. After all, Collins is a smart guy, right? Now, every occasion is greeted by horrible apologetics; they gave me "The Case for a Creator" for my birthday. *sigh*

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October 4, 2010, 5:48 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink21 comments


You may have heard that, after an exasperating series of setbacks and delays, the massive particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider is finally up and running. Even in preliminary tests, it's set records for the most powerful particle collisions ever recorded in a lab - and when it's reactivated later this year, it's expected to set new ones.

Recently, I was struck by this quote from a National Geographic article on the LHC:

So far, the CERN team has been very cautious as it ramps up toward full power — and that's a good thing, said Fermilab's [Dan] Green.

Even if caution means that it takes a while for experiments to start, Green said, "I've been in this business for more than 20 years. I can wait a little longer."

When I read that, I was reminded of the medieval cathedral builders - the architects who embarked on these grand projects knowing, or so the story goes, that they wouldn't see them to completion in their own lifetime. This selfless labor produced some magnificent architecture - but while I admire the beauty of great cathedrals, ultimately they're sterile; they produce nothing of tangible benefit to humanity. But the same is not true of the great modern scientific experiments, the cathedrals of our time. These grand projects, while built on the same soaring scale and evoking the same reactions of awe and wonder, prove their worth by producing knowledge that expands our vision of the cosmos and humanity's own place in it.

Image via. Note the relative size of the workers at bottom left.

At right is a photo of ATLAS, one of the six particle detectors installed in the Large Hadron Collider and currently the single largest one of its kind ever built. Like an onion, ATLAS is constructed as a series of concentric layers, each one designed to detect and measure different aspects of the different kinds of particles produced by collisions in the LHC - superconducting magnets to bend the path of charged particles and reveal their momentum, calorimeters to absorb particles and record their energy, others to record radiation, velocity, electric charge, and so on. ATLAS is about half the size of the Notre Dame Cathedral, weighs 7,000 tons - about the same as the Eiffel Tower - and running at full capacity, can generate one petabyte - one million gigabytes - of raw data per second. (A network of computers will process this deluge of data to filter out the relatively tiny fraction of events that are of interest for further processing.)

Among other discoveries, ATLAS and the LHC are hoped to make the first conclusive detection of the Higgs boson, the elusive particle that may explain the existence of mass. If more esoteric ideas in physics are true - such as supersymmetry, the idea that every species of elementary particle has a previously-undiscovered, massive partner - ATLAS could also explain what makes up the majority of the universe's dark matter. If certain hypotheses of string theory are correct, it could even even prove the existence of extra dimensions.

Another modern cathedral in the making is the Thirty-Meter Telescope, an enormous ground-based observatory to be built in Hawaii atop the summit of Mauna Kea. Scheduled for completion in 2018, the TMT will boast unparalleled range and sensitivity, observing the cosmos in wavelengths from infrared to ultraviolet with resolution as much as twelve times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Image via.

The TMT's primary mirror, as its name suggests, will be thirty meters in diameter, giving it tremendous light-gathering capacity. (Hubble, by way of comparison, has a diameter of 2.5 meters.) But casting such a single, enormous piece of glass would be impossible - the mirror would sag under its own weight - so instead, the mirror will be made up of 492 hexagonal segments, each about a meter and a half in diameter and computer-controlled to work together as one. To compensate for the blurring effect of Earth's atmosphere, the TMT will use a cutting-edge technology called adaptive optics. Nine laser emitters around the telescope will fire laser beams into the sky; sensors detect the photons that are scattered back to the telescope and compare their predicted waveforms with what's actually observed. Using that information as a reference, the telescope's computers will control thousands of mechanical actuators that reshape the mirror's surface as rapidly as eight hundred times per second, with a precision measured in nanometers, to perfectly cancel out the distortion of the atmosphere - and all this as the entire massive assembly slews across the sky to keep pace with Earth's rotation.

When complete, the TMT will be able to see the oldest and faintest starlight in the universe, back to the first stars that ignited just 400 million years after the Big Bang, and the formation of the first generation of galaxies. It will be able to directly observe Earthlike planets around nearby stars, detect supermassive black holes at cosmological distances and take direct images of their accretion disks, map the distribution of dark matter with unprecedented detail, and image the universe with greater clarity than was ever possible before.

One more example is LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, currently up and running in the United States. Like the other scientific cathedrals, it shows the tremendous effort and astounding ingenuity that human beings have poured into understanding the details of the universe we live in.

The theory of general relativity predicts that cosmic catastrophes like the collision of two neutron stars or the merger of two black holes should produce gravitational waves - fluctuations in spacetime which ripple outward from their source. The direct detection of gravitational waves would confirm one of the last and greatest predictions of Albert Einstein, and could potentially provide important information about the behavior of black holes and other massive, distant objects that are difficult or impossible to observe in the electromagnetic spectrum - since gravitational waves, unlike light rays, are not blocked by cosmic gas and dust.

Image via.

LIGO has two physically separate sites, one in Louisiana and one in Washington. Each site operates an identical detector: a laser interferometer, which consists of two tubes set up in an L shape. Each tube is two and a half miles long, is filled with an ultra-high vacuum, and contains a set of mirrors at each end. A beam splitter fires a laser beam down both arms of the L simultaneously; at the far end of each, it strikes the mirror and is reflected back to its point of origin. Under normal circumstances, the two lasers bounce back in perfect simultaneity. But the ripples of a passing gravitational wave would distort space in one direction, causing one of the laser beams to return before the other, which can be detected. If both sites register the same event simultaneously (accounting for lightspeed delay), we can be certain that it arrived from a cosmological source rather than some local event on Earth.

But even the strongest expected sources of gravitational waves, such as a merger of black holes, produce an effect that will be extremely faint by the time it reached Earth, due to the great distances involved. To account for this, LIGO needs astounding sensitivity and precision. The tube arms of the interferometer are filled with an ultra-high vacuum, evacuated to a pressure of just one-trillionth of an atmosphere, to prevent scattering of the lasers by gas molecules - one of the largest and purest vacuums ever created on Earth. (By comparison, the International Space Station orbits through atmosphere a hundred times denser.) And LIGO's mirrors are cooled to just one-millionth of a degree above absolute zero to prevent thermal noise from distorting their surfaces. With these and other innovations, LIGO's sensitivity and precision are such that it can detect a change in length as tiny as 10-18 meters - one-thousandth the diameter of a proton. And future improvements in the works will increase its sensitivity by a factor of ten.

These great cathedrals, devoted not to worshipping imaginary deities but to understanding the cosmos we live in, give me hope for humanity's future in a way that few other endeavors do. Our world is still roiled by war, burdened by overpopulation, inflamed by religion, threatened by climate change. Yet in the midst of all the stupidity, all the greed and short-sightedness and delusion, there are places where human beings from many nations and cultures have come together to construct vast projects that are purely peaceful and devoted solely to the cause of gaining knowledge. There's no better testament to the fact that, when we choose, we can rise above our worst instincts and cooperate on something worthwhile and beautiful. Even more than any of the specific scientific findings they may produce, this is the most valuable lesson that humanity in general has to learn from these modern wonders of the world.

February 10, 2010, 9:36 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink26 comments

The Case for a Creator: Strange New Worlds

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 6

The cosmological fine-tuning argument is one of the more interesting claims in the intelligent-design movement's toolkit. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's the best argument they have. I'll let Robin Collins make the point as strongly as he can:

"Over the past thirty years or so, scientists have discovered that just about everything about the basic structure of the universe is balanced on a razor's edge for life to exist. The coincidences are far too fantastic to attribute this to mere chance or to claim that it needs no explanation." [p.131]

The fine-tuning argument usually takes the form of claiming that the underlying physical constants of the universe need to be precisely calibrated for beings like us to exist, and even a tiny change one way or another would result in a cosmos completely incompatible with life. ID advocates will point to examples like the strength of gravity, the value of the cosmological constant, the binding energy of protons and neutrons - and they love to stack up the zeroes when describing the allegedly inconceivable odds:

"The fine-tuning has conservatively been estimated to be at least one part in a hundred million billion billion billion billion billion. That would be a ten followed by fifty-three zeroes. That's inconceivably precise." [p.133]

I said that the fine-tuning argument is the best argument ID has. Of course, this isn't to say that it proves the existence of a god, just that it's not blatantly wrong like the design argument or the ontological argument. It does seem to be true that a small change in the physical constants would result in a drastically different universe and would make life like ours impossible. This doesn't prove the existence of a god (or some other superintelligence that controls the values of the constants), but that is one possible way to explain the observation.

However, there's a follow-up question that needs to be asked. Assume for the sake of argument that the constants can vary at random. Now the question is this: How many different sets of physical constants would allow for life of any sort?

After all, if you're going to calculate how likely it is that the laws of the cosmos would allow for life to exist, you need to know two things: how many possible sets of laws are there, and how many of those sets of laws permit life. Strobel and Collins assume that the first number is a very large one (Strobel says the odds against any particular set of values are "infinitesimal" [p.135]), but never even ask how large the second is. If there are a trillion trillion possible universes, but two-thirds of those could give rise to intelligent beings of some kind, then the odds against our being here are not very large!

Granted, any kind of life that could exist if the physical constants were altered would probably be extremely different from us. We might not even recognize it as life if we encountered it. But Collins is far too hasty in dismissing the possibility out of hand without any real evidence. For instance, he says, if the force of gravity was stronger relative to the other fundamental forces:

"As astrophysicist Martin Rees said, 'In an imaginary strong gravity world, even insects would need thick legs to support them, and no animals could get much larger.' In fact, a planet with a gravitational pull of a thousand times that of the Earth would have a diameter of only forty feet, which wouldn't be enough to sustain an ecosystem. Besides which, stars with lifetimes of more than a billion years - compared to ten billion years for our sun - couldn't exist if you increase gravity by just three thousand times." [p.132]

Granted, those would be serious problems for life like us. What about life not like us?

The American physicist Robert Forward, who died in 2002, was a prolific scientist (he published hundreds of papers during his lifetime, far exceeding the scientific output of the entire ID movement so far). He was also a science fiction writer. Among his novels was Dragon's Egg, which describes an intelligent species living on the surface of a neutron star. They're made of ultra-dense matter and are the size of sesame seeds, so the massive gravity and smaller diameter of their world aren't problematic, and because nuclear reactions occur much more quickly than chemical reactions, their existence is greatly accelerated relative to ours (their "year" is about 30 seconds long), thus answering Collins' concern about shorter stellar lifespans. Although this is obviously speculative fiction, nothing in it is impossible according to our current understanding. Forward described his book as "a textbook on neutron star physics disguised as a novel".

Collins also says that if the strong nuclear force were slightly weaker, our universe would be composed purely of hydrogen, and:

"...regardless of what they may show on Star Trek, you can't have intelligent life forms built from hydrogen. It simply doesn't have enough stable complexity." [p.134-135]

Fred Hoyle - the astronomer whom Strobel favorably quotes earlier in this chapter as recognizing the apparently fine-tuned nature of the universe - did not agree with this. Like Forward, he was both a scientist and a science fiction writer. His 1957 novel The Black Cloud depicts an enormous alien intelligence in the form of a sentient interstellar cloud of hydrogen (plus, to be fair, some other trace elements). Hoyle said of the novel, "there is very little here that could not conceivably happen" (source).

Neither of these novels are science textbooks, of course. It may well be that Hoyle's or Forward's visions of alien life are ultimately not possible in our universe. But even if you believe their conclusions are unfounded, there is little more reason to believe Collins' strategic pessimism. If we had known only the physical laws of our universe, we could hardly have predicted, from first principles alone, that it would contain life. We simply don't have the knowledge to proclaim with confidence what other interesting possibilities may be inherent in other sets of physical laws. In the set of possible worlds, there may be strange lifeforms we've never even dreamed of. There are no grounds for Strobel's confidence that our universe is the only possible one that could give rise to life and sentience.

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October 23, 2009, 1:38 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink29 comments

The Case for a Creator: In the Beginning

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 5

The second premise of the kalam cosmological argument is that the universe began to exist. In discussing this premise, William Lane Craig asks the question of whether the universe necessarily had a beginning or whether it could have existed for an infinite amount of time before now. He argues that the former is the only option:

"...if the past were really infinite, then that would mean we have managed to traverse an infinite past to arrive at today. It would be as if someone had managed to count down all of the negative numbers and to arrive at zero at the present moment. Such a task is intuitively nonsense" [p.104].

The fallacy here is in Craig's implicit claim that it's necessary to "traverse" the past to arrive at the present. This position assumes that time is like a moving light - a spotlight illuminating moments in succession, briefly making each one the present before moving on to the next. But this assumption is false. There is no moving light of time. As we know from modern physics, in particular the theories of special and general relativity, "past", "present" and "future" are not intrinsic properties of reality. Those terms are to time as words like "near" and "far" are to space - they do not uniquely single out a particular place or a particular moment, but can only be defined from the perspective of the observer. The moments themselves all exist eternally, and nothing needs to "traverse" them. It's the sequence of our memories, the so-called arrow of time, that seems to make them flow from one to the other.

"You see, the idea of an actual infinity is just conceptual; it exists only in our minds... it's not descriptive of what can happen in the real world." [p.103]

If this is true, then Craig has just dealt a critical blow to his own faith. According to Christian theology, God is omnipotent - able to create any of the infinity of logically possible worlds. But if an actual infinity cannot exist in the real world, then it must be the case that God is not omnipotent; the number of possible worlds he can create must be finite, which must mean there are possible worlds that God does not have the ability to bring about. This argument also rules out omniscience, for the same reason; out of the conceptual infinity of true propositions, there must be some that God does not know. Again, these contradictions do not seem to occur to Strobel the hard-charging journalist.

Craig next (finally!) turns to the science. He gives an accurate summary of the major lines of evidence for the Big Bang - the relationship of galactic redshift to distance, the cosmic microwave background radiation, and the abundance of light elements - and calls Big Bang theory "very securely established as a scientific fact" [p.107]. I won't quibble with this, although some of his fellow Christians would.

However, Craig does object to a common adjunct of the Big Bang theory, cosmic inflation, which holds that the universe underwent a period of ultra-rapid expansion in its first few microseconds. He gifts us with this absolute gem of a line:

"So even though most theorists accept inflation today, I'm rather suspicious of the whole thing, because it appears to be motivated by a philosophical bias." [p.107]

Because William Lane Craig, of course, is entirely innocent of such biases.

Cosmological inflation was proposed to solve two problems with the conventional Big Bang theory: the flatness problem (why does the universe have just the right density of matter and energy to give rise to a flat [Euclidean] space-time?) and the horizon problem (why is the universe so homogeneous, when the temperature and distribution of matter should not have had enough time to equalize?). The ultra-rapid burst of expansion solves both these problems by "smoothing out" the early universe, and some of the predictions inflation makes have been confirmed by observation.

Notably, Craig doesn't cite any evidentiary objections to inflation, and he does concede that most cosmologists accept it. Presumably, the source of his complaint is that although he accepts the Big Bang in general, he doesn't want science to have an answer for everything; he'd prefer these specific questions to remain unanswered so that he can attribute them to miracles. (We have to leave some gaps for God to fit into!) The "philosophical bias" he's complaining about is really science's bias toward solving problems, rather than giving up and declaring "God did it" as soon as we see something we don't understand.

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September 25, 2009, 6:58 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink36 comments

The Case for a Creator: It's All Because of Quantum

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 5

In discussing the kalam argument, William Lane Craig makes some points that touch on modern research in cosmology and physics, so I'll address those. He begins with the premise that "whatever begins to exist has a cause":

"It seems metaphysically necessary that anything which begins to exist has to have a cause that brings it into being. Things don't just pop into existence, uncaused, out of nothing." [p.99]

If we accept that William Lane Craig's notions of what is "metaphysically necessary" constitute binding law on the universe, then this is a strong point; otherwise, not so much.

In fact, the uncaused appearance of particles and events is a regular feature of quantum mechanics, the probabilistic theory that governs the behavior of the subatomic world. For example, the radioactive decay of an atom, according to our best understanding of QM, is uncaused in the strongest of senses. It happens completely at random, such that even a superintelligence possessing all facts in the universe could not predict precisely when a single atom will decay.

Another feature of QM is "virtual particles", which occasionally appear, at random and uncaused, out of fluctuations in the subatomic vacuum. Craig dismisses these as "merely theoretical constructs" [p.101], but unfortunately for him, virtual particles exert effects that have been directly detected and measured - such as the Casimir force, a slight attractive force that exists between two parallel conductive plates in a vacuum. In fact, engineers who craft microscopic mechanical systems have to take this force into account lest it cause their components to behave in unexpected ways.

"The quantum vacuum is not what most people envision when they think of a vacuum... it's a sea of fluctuating energy, an arena of violent activity that has a rich physical structure and can be described by physical laws... So it's not an example of something coming into being out of nothing, or something coming into being without a cause." [p.101]

Craig has done nothing to refute the claim that quantum events are uncaused, although his point is well taken that the subatomic vacuum is not "nothing". But in that case, he has to accept that "nothingness", as traditionally conceived of, does not exist - which renders specious his complaints about atheists who believe that particles and forces can emerge from the void. By his own account, all we're claiming is that these phenomena emerge from the quantum vacuum, which he himself seems to find perfectly plausible.

Craig's next point is a real howler:

"And then we have to ask, well, what is the origin of the whole quantum vacuum itself? Where does it come from? ...You've simply pushed back the issue of creation." [p.101]

And postulating a supernatural magician as the first cause evades this problem? Or is it that Craig has copyrighted the word "uncaused" and so he's the only one who gets to decide how it may and may not be applied?

This would have been a good place for a journalist to jump in and ask the obvious followup question of why postulating God as the first cause is not also just "pushing back the issue of creation", why God doesn't need a creator of his own. But Strobel seems to feel that Craig's blatant special pleading is something that will whiz by his likely readers without their taking notice, and he may well be right about that.

Logically speaking, there are only two possibilities for the ultimate origin of the universe: either there is an infinite regress of causes, or there is a first cause that cannot be explained in terms of earlier causes. Both atheists and theists should be able to agree that those are the choices. If there's an infinite regress of causes, it seems pointless to keep investigating further and further back; such a quest would be guaranteed never to end. If there is a first cause, though, we can productively ask questions about what sort of thing it might be.

This is where Craig and Strobel run into trouble, because we already have an excellent candidate for a first cause: the quantum vacuum, a timeless, chaotic state that continually spawns new universes through random statistical fluctuation. We already know that the vacuum exists and we know what many of its properties are, so no new entities are required in this explanation. In arbitrarily deciding that the vacuum must have a cause, however, Craig introduces a new entity - a supernatural deity which he believes has the power to create new universes. This is something we have no experimental evidence for, and it solves the first-cause problem no better than making the vacuum the first cause. Later in this chapter, Craig declares his allegiance to the principle of Occam's Razor, and this unnecessary extra step is the kind of superfluous add-on that the Razor is tailor-made to cut away. We have every reason to believe that the quantum vacuum is perfectly sufficient as a first explanation for the universe. Why multiply entities beyond necessity?

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September 14, 2009, 6:50 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink23 comments

Epicurus' World

The story goes that the renowned physicist Richard Feynman was once asked to summarize the most important finding of modern science in a single sentence. Feynman replied, "The universe is made of atoms."

Although there are many other scientific discoveries that are arguably of equal importance, Feynman's choice makes a lot of sense. The discovery of atoms is so familiar to us that it's easy to overlook its breathtaking significance. We know, at the smallest scale where it still makes sense to talk about distinct objects, what are the fundamental building blocks that matter is made of, and we have described their interactions with astounding precision. Our understanding of everything from why the stars shine, to how DNA replicates, to why a table is solid, relies on our knowledge of the way atoms behave.

Atomic theory is now so well-established, and so widely accepted, that it's easy to forget how controversial a notion it originally was. In fact, atomism was once synonymous with atheism, and it was the bête noire of Western religion not just for centuries, but for millennia.

It was in the fifth century BCE that the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus first proposed the idea that matter was composed of indivisible particles called atoms. But these ideas came to their fullest flowering in the mind of their successor, Epicurus, who lived around 300 BCE. In Epicurean philosophy, the world was ultimately comprised of atoms and the void. All that exists and all that occurs - from flowing water to burning fire to human thought - is due to the movement and collision of atoms and the endless, ever-changing array of patterns they arrange themselves in. The ruling principles of the Epicurean cosmos are natural law and random chance, not purpose or plan, and we who live in it and are part of it can find happiness by learning to accept whatever happens with virtue and tranquility. Epicurus did believe that the gods existed - he saw this as the only way to explain the widespread dreams and visions of them - but in his philosophy, they were not supernatural spirits but material beings composed of atoms, just like humans. More importantly, they did not take any interest in human affairs; they were more like images than actual persons.

In scientific terms, it's impressive how much Democritus and Epicurus got right. They correctly anticipated the very discovery that Richard Feynman called the most important element of modern science. Epicurus even believed that atoms sometimes exhibited "random swerves", a startling point of agreement with modern quantum mechanics. If he had claimed that a god told him all this, it would have been by far the most impressive example of theism anticipating later scientific discovery, and genuinely difficult for an atheist to explain.

Yet to the theologians and churchmen who came after him, Epicurus' ideas were the depths of heresy. His materialist notion of the cosmos - no creator deity, no life after death, everything that exists made of patterns of atoms - was anathema to the monotheist conception of an orderly cosmos arranged and guided by God. For centuries, being accused of "Epicureanism" was a very serious charge indeed. For example, the Jewish writings known as the Mishnah, in 200 CE, had this to say:

And these are the people who do not merit the world to come: The ones who say that there is no resurrection from the dead, and those who deny the Torah is from the heavens, and Epicureans.

Indeed, the Jewish word for "heretic" - apikoros - appears to be a Hebrew transliteration of "Epicurean". The Hebrew benediction known as the Amidah, which is recited three times daily by observant Jews, contains a prayer which asks that "may all the apikorsim be destroyed in an instant" (source).

As Christianity became ascendant, it treated Epicureans no less kindly. Acts 17:16-18 records how the first Christians viewed them:

"Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods."

Early Christian apologists such as Tertullian, Jerome and Augustine reviled Epicurus, calling him a "pig" and an advocate of "depravity and gluttony", and his philosophy a "frigid conceit" (source; see also).

Throughout the Middle Ages, as Christianity gained secular power, the ridicule and persecution grew worse. The Byzantine emperor Justinian I, who actively suppressed non-Christian faiths, closed down the philosophy schools of Athens, including the Epicurean Garden, which had survived for eight hundred years. The twelfth-century philosopher Nicholas of Autrecourt, who taught an atomist doctrine similar to Epicurus', was condemned and forced to recant and burn his writings. In the Divine Comedy, Dante depicts Epicurus and all his followers "who with the body make the spirit die" as imprisoned in flaming tombs for all eternity. As late as the 1600s, Epicurean theories were reviled, as one pamphleteer wrote: "Let that beastly Epicure's mouth be now sealed up in dumb silence."

Yet Epicurus, that sly old Greek, had the last laugh. The church persecuted his followers and sought to stamp out his teachings, but not only did Epicureanism survive, it was vindicated. The universe is made of atoms after all. Natural phenomena like weather, the growth of crystals, even the currents of human motion and thought can be traced back to patterns of atoms and their ceaseless ebb and flow. As in many other areas, this is one where religion arrogantly thought to wade in before science had had its say, and was forced to retreat. We do not live in the medieval church's world, where our bodies are just so much fleshly dust powered by immaterial currents of spirit, and the heavenly bodies move in spheres of celestial ether. We live in a grand cosmic clockwork of atoms and molecules, a vast mesh whose unfolding is determined by random chance and the immutable laws of cause and effect. We live in Epicurus' world.

May 29, 2009, 6:50 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink29 comments

On Analogies, and the Uses Thereof

In essays such as "Three In One", I've scorned the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:

If a claim is labeled beyond our ability to understand, then how are we supposed to tell if it is true? What assurance do theists have that the Trinity is a true fact about the world that is genuinely beyond our ability to comprehend, as opposed to a false claim invented by people whose illogical nature is protected from scrutiny by labeling it a mystery we aren't intended to understand?

But is this claim too hasty? A Christian site admits the idea seemingly defies logic and reason, but compares it to modern scientific theories that also have highly counterintuitive implications:

It a strict sense, the doctrine of the Trinity does not violate logic at all—at least no more than quantum physics or general relativity.

We can talk about it rather thoroughly. What we can't do is imagine how it could work. But the same is true for quantum physics and relativity.

It's true that the analogies proposed to explain relativity, like depicting spacetime as a rubber sheet, on the surface seem no more or less comprehensible than C.S. Lewis' analogy of the Trinity as a cube:

On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God's dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube.

But there is a significant point of difference here, which is that in the case of general relativity or quantum mechanics the analogies, are not the whole of the theory. The analogies are just superficial descriptions of an intricate and incredibly precise mathematical framework that allows us to make confident and astonishingly accurate predictions about the natural world. We do not need to be able to fully grasp the principles involved, because we can test and verify in a quantifiable way that the idea is true.

But with doctrines like the Trinity, there is no deeper understanding, no underlying mathematics. The vague and imperfect analogies are not backed by a model of precise predictive power; the vague and imperfect analogies are all there is. From the vantage point of the naive observer, these two might look similar, as I wrote in "The View From the Ground". But it is a false equivalence: though they both have an outer structure of metaphor and analogy, one of these ideas is backed by a solid core of evidence, while the other is built on insubstantial air.

November 17, 2008, 9:33 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink103 comments

Run Your Car on Water! (No, Not Really)

The other day, I came across a pseudoscience site so laughably ridiculous I just had to share it:

(Warning: Page has sound.)

As the URL indicates, the unknown people behind this site are selling a kit which they claim will enable you to turn your car into a "water-burning hybrid" that can use ordinary tap water as a fuel source. I'll go over the mechanics of why this is impossible in a minute, but first, I want to call attention to this curious claim:

You can run your car on water, supplemental to gasoline, to increase your car's fuel efficiency and reduce your fuel costs significantly.

Supplemental to gasoline, not as a replacement for it. The site elsewhere claims that this technology allows you to save "over 40%" on fuel costs. Now, if you think about this, why would it be only 40%? Either water works as a fuel source or it doesn't, and if it does, then why can't you rely on it exclusively? Why can't you make a car that runs entirely on water and doesn't use any gas at all?

In any case, the site has an explanation of how this technology is claimed to work:

Our easy conversion guide will show you how to use electricity from your car's battery to separate water into a gas called HHO (2 Hydrogen + 1 Oxygen). HHO, also called Brown's Gas or Hydroxy, burns smoothly and provides significant energy - while the end product is just H2O!

Clearly, the proprietors of this site are banking on their readers not knowing the laws of thermodynamics. Yes, water can be electrolyzed into hydrogen and oxygen gas; and yes, those gases can be burned and will recombine into water. The inconvenient fact that this ad leaves out is that each step of this process necessarily involves a loss of energy. This technology "works" only in the same way as a businessman who loses money on every sale but thinks he can make up for it on volume.

The problem is that water, unlike natural gas or petroleum, is a highly stable compound. The chemical reaction that turns hydrogen and oxygen into water is said to be thermodynamically irreversible - that is, under natural conditions, it runs only in one direction. To put it another way, it takes more energy to break water into its component elements than you get by putting those elements back together. You certainly can use an external source of energy, such as a car battery, to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen; but the process of burning those gases will inevitably release less energy than it took to break the water down in the first place. Therefore, if this technology operates as described, it not only will not increase the mileage of your car, it will actually decrease it!

The description quoted above - "use electricity... to separate water" into Brown's Gas, and then burning the Brown's Gas, which "provides significant energy" - sounds suspiciously like a perpetual motion machine. Another excerpt confirms that that is what this site is claiming:

Your car will become at least 40% more fuel efficient...

The only way this could make your car more fuel efficient is if burning the Brown's Gas produced more energy than it takes to extract it from water, and if that were the case, this cycle could be repeated indefinitely. If this technology worked as its vendors claim, it would produce unlimited energy for free. Anyone who chooses to believe that this is possible is joining the long line of perpetual-motion devotees who've bet against the first law of thermodynamics. And, as noted physicist and skeptic Robert Park points out in his book Voodoo Science, no one has ever won that wager.

That said, there is a plausible, non-crackpot scheme for using water as a fuel. That technology is called nuclear fusion. With a working fusion reactor, such as the one the ITER consortium is currently building, it's theoretically possible to extract hydrogen from water and then, under extremely high temperatures, fuse that hydrogen into helium. But this, too, is a thermodynamically irreversible reaction, and more importantly, it's a nuclear reaction. It in no way resembles the crackpot pseudoscience of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, then recombining those gases into water and somehow ending up with more energy than you started with.

August 16, 2008, 11:37 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink37 comments

The Contributions of Freethinkers: Albert Einstein

In 1999, Time magazine named Albert Einstein its "Person of the Century". The choice was understandable: In a global society increasingly underpinned by science and technology, perhaps no one person has had a greater individual impact on humanity's understanding of the cosmos. Among his many scientific contributions, he discovered the special and general theories of relativity, proved light's quantized nature by means of the photoelectric effect, and offered important support to atomic theory with his study of Brownian motion. Later in his career, he led the effort to construct a grand unified theory of physics, an endeavor that is ongoing to this day.

Aside from his scientific contributions, Einstein's political and humanitarian work was no less important. He was a diplomat and peacemaker who warned of the dangers of Nazism, lobbied against the nuclear arms race, participated in civil rights causes, and promoted the goal of peace and disarmament worldwide. Later in life, he was offered the presidency of the state of Israel but turned it down, claiming that he was not qualified for the post.

He was also, in every practical sense, an atheist. This is still a controversial claim in some people's eyes. Christian apologists like Ray Comfort claim that the great Einstein believed in God, and snidely ask if we atheists consider ourselves smarter than him. Here's our answer to that, Ray:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal god and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. (source)

On another occasion, he also wrote:

...the word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.

Despite occasional metaphorical remarks (such as the famous "God does not play dice with the universe" saying that's confused many wishful-thinking believers), Einstein himself made it clear that his beliefs followed those of Spinoza's: not belief in God as a supernatural or conscious entity, but rather "God" construed as the sum total of all there is, a poetic name for a purely natural phenomenon.

These views were not secret: Einstein often expressed them in public. Like many famous freethinkers, he was reviled by his apologist contemporaries as being anti-religious and atheistic, only for apologists of later generations to grab at his mantle and claim he was on their side all along. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes a Christian pastor who was one of many to write to Einstein in outrage after he made similar freethinking remarks on another occasion:

Professor Einstein, every Christian in America will immediately reply to you, "Take your crazy, fallacious theory of evolution and go back to Germany where you came from, or stop trying to break down the faith of a people who gave you a welcome when you were forced to flee your native land."

and even more shocking, from a Catholic lawyer:

We deeply regret that you made your statement... in which you ridicule the idea of a personal God. In the past ten years nothing has been so calculated as to make people think that Hitler had some reason to expel the Jews from Germany as your statement.

For the record, Einstein was not expelled from Germany. Though he was born there, he renounced his citizenship and left of his own volition when the Nazis began their political ascent, correctly sensing the gathering mood of the country. Later, the Nazis would denounce relativity as fanciful, useless "Jewish science" (as opposed to solid, practical "Aryan science") and publish a pamphlet titled "100 Scientists Against Einstein". Ironically, the Nazis' rejection of Einstein's theories on ideological grounds was probably a major reason why they never developed an atomic bomb. Einstein's ignorant critics had more reason than they knew to be grateful for his coming to America - whether he was a crazy, insensitive atheist or not.

Recognizing the potential of his work, Einstein was one of the signers of a letter to President Roosevelt urging research into nuclear fission, which ultimately led to the Manhattan Project. Later in life, however, he came to regret this and became a champion of nuclear disarmament, working with his fellow humanist Bertrand Russell. During the Cold War, he spoke out against paranoia and blacklisting, openly advising targets of Joseph McCarthy to refuse to cooperate with his investigations. He also fought for civil rights issues, including joining a national campaign to end lynching and appearing as a character witness for W.E.B. DuBois when the famous black activist (and fellow freethinker) was accused of being a Communist spy.

In both his scientific genius and his political conscience, Albert Einstein stands without peer. The next time an apologist asserts that lack of religious belief either impedes scientific inquiry or devalues human conscience, this great freethinker can stand as a refutation of either argument.

Other posts in this series:

July 30, 2008, 6:56 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink18 comments

Calling the Earth to Witness

According to Buddhist tradition, the final stage of Prince Siddhartha Gautama's becoming the Buddha came after he had rejected the extremes of both luxury and asceticism in his quest for enlightenment. Sitting beneath a Bodhi tree in meditation, he vowed not to stir from that spot until he had found the answer to the problem of suffering.

While he sat there, he had an encounter with the demon lord Mara, who sought to keep him from enlightenment by breaking his concentration. Mara first threatened the Buddha by firing arrows at him, then summoned horrifying demons and violent storms to assault him, then sent his sensual daughters to tempt him, but the Buddha's serenity revealed all these threats to be illusory. Finally, Mara himself approached the Buddha and demanded to change places with him. Mara claimed that he, and not a human being, had the right to sit where the Buddha was sitting. His legions of demons would vouch for him, he said; who would vouch for the Buddha?

In response, Prince Siddhartha touched the ground with his right hand, calling the earth itself to be his witness. At this moment, Mara was defeated, and the Buddha attained enlightenment and freedom from the endless cycle of suffering and rebirth.

This is a lovely story, and a great metaphor. I think we can apply it in a slightly different sense. Today, after several centuries of patient scientific investigation, we've uncovered a glimpse of planet Earth's vast history and the immense and complex biosphere that it supports. Yet there are still people who deny all this and would reduce our world's multibillion-year past to a paltry 6,000 years, who view all its living things as separate and immutable creations of God rather than interrelated twigs on the tangled tree of life.

When it comes to dealing with these people, we, too, should call the Earth to be our witness. The very ground that the creationists walk on, the stones beneath their feet, testify that this world has a far deeper and grander history than the pitiful scrap of time they would allow it.

Radioactive isotopes decay at a known and measurable rate. For any sample of radioactive atoms, the length of time it takes for half of those atoms to disintegrate is called the halflife, and each isotope has a different one. Generally, after about 20 halflives, the number of radioactive atoms remaining from an original sample is too small to be detectable. Some short-lived isotopes, such as carbon-14, are continually produced by natural nuclear reactions (usually as the intermediate decay product of a longer-lived isotope), but many, so far as we know, are manufactured only in exploding stars.

Below is a chart listing all the isotopes with a half-life of one million years or more that are not constantly being produced by natural reactions, and whether that isotope is known to exist on the Earth.

Isotope Halflife
(in millions of years)
Detected on Earth?
Vanadium-50 6,000,000,000 yes
Neodymium-144 2,400,000,000 yes
Hafnium-174 2,000,000,000 yes
Platinum-192 1,000,000,000 yes
Indium-115 600,000,000 yes
Gadolinium-152 110,000,000 yes
Tellurium-123 12,000,000 yes
Platinum-190 690,000 yes
Lanthanum-138 112,000 yes
Samarium-147 106,000 yes
Rubidium-87 48,800 yes
Rhenium-187 43,000 yes
Lutetium-176 35,000 yes
Thorium-232 14,000 yes
Uranium-238 4,470 yes
Potassium-40 1,250 yes
Uranium-235 704 yes
Samarium-146 103 no
Plutonium-244 82 yes (by extreme effort)*
Curium-247 16 no
Lead-205 15 no
Hafnium-182 9 no
Palladium-107 7 no
Cesium-135 3 no
Technetium-97 3 no
Gadolinium-150 2 no
Zirconium-93 2 no
Technetium-98 2 no
Dysprosium-154 1 no

When understood for what it is saying, this table shouts out that the Earth is old. According to the mainstream scientific position, our planet originally condensed from a cloud of gas, dust, and heavy elements manufactured in supernovae. Ever since then, the clock has been ticking, as the radioactive isotopes present in Earth at its formation decay and are not replenished. The long-lived isotopes, which in 4.5 billion years would have had less than 20 halflives, are still around. However, those which have had far more than 20 halflives have decayed to such an extent that they are undetectable.

The line between detected and not detected can be drawn between uranium-235, with a halflife of 703 million years, and samarium-146, with 103 million. Thus, not only does this chart show that the Earth is old, it indicates - even without the use of any more precise dating methods - approximately how old the Earth is. For samarium-146 to be undetectable through ordinary methods, the Earth must be on the order of 2 billion years old or more. (More sophisticated methods show that the real answer is about 4.5 billion.)

Evidence like this shatters, beyond all possibility of reasonable doubt, the religious dogmas of a 6,000-year-old cosmos. The only way a creationist could avoid this evidence would be to assume that God decided to create the world with the long-lived isotopes, but without any of the short-lived isotopes, in a way that perfectly mimics what we'd expect to find on an ancient planet and an ancient universe. In other words, the creationist belief makes God into the Great Deceiver, deliberately fashioning misleading clues to deceive us, and then eternally condemning people who fall for the ruse that he himself perpetrated on them. To such bizarre and deceitful speculations are creationists reduced in their effort to deny the evidence that's right before their eyes.

(Credit to the Don Lindsay Archive for this list.)

* Plutonium-244 is a special case. After 4.5 billion years, this isotope has seen 55 halflives, so it should be undetectable - and it is, by ordinary methods. It was found only by an extremely thorough study that refined 85 kilograms of ore and then literally counted the atoms by running them through a mass spectrometer. The total amount found was approximately one hundred-trillionth of a gram. Samarium-146 could probably be detected if someone went to similar trouble. Curium-247, which has had over 280 halflives in the lifetime of the Earth, should be many orders of magnitude rarer, almost certainly beyond the reach of even our most sensitive tools.

November 16, 2007, 6:59 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink51 comments

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