Science & the Mass Extinction of Primitive Thought

2401285296_57f4963b2d_b.jpgPlants caused a mass extinction, but also the conditions that led to new forms of complex, energetic life – eventually human beings.

This happened because of a single radical change, the advent of photosynthesis. This swept away the overwhelming majority of other forms of life and was such a powerful change that it almost wiped out the organisms that stumbled across it.

Yet, coming out the other side, this was the great shift in biology that brought us to where we are now.

It’s no secret that I don’t like philosophy. It’s an improvement on religion, but it’s still – essentially – a blind groping after truth that falls victim to its own pedantry far more often than it produces anything useful or insightful. It seems scared of the prospect that we might be able to know something and is rife with internecine wars over terminology and meanings that – to an outsider – seem blindingly obvious (such as the Empiricism/Rationalism conflict, which is absurd, reason needs something to operate upon and confirm its hypotheses).

Still, after yet another argument over these points and the absurdity of metaphysics, I had something of an epiphany about just why science is so powerful and transformative. Why it has had the massively disruptive effect that it does and how this can be analogous to great biological shifts.

Consider this. Early life had no real way of reasoning or experimenting as we would think of it. We sometimes use these terms to describe evolution, but this is anthropomorphising it. Our language relates primarily to human activity, and so we have a tendency to humanise these forces. Still, evolution operates by blind chance, combined with selection.

A bacterium cannot consider the value of photosynthesis or strive to discover it, but variation and mutation down generations can modify and differentiate randomly and, eventually, a particular strain will ‘hit’ upon a successful change. Like developing the capacity to photosynthesise.

Before the capacity to think evolved this was the only way an organism could ‘reason’ or modify its behaviour. Via survival. This is – obviously – immensely wasteful, and this is akin to theology. The blind groping of faith, the superstition of the false positives – as we find with the ‘religious pigeons’ experiments. Perhaps, by chance, this would occasionally discover something useful or applicable, but more often than not it would not.

The capacity to think, to reason, exists at many different levels in the animal kingdom and so is hard to pinpoint, but we do know that animals besides humans are able to puzzle out their surroundings and solve problems, to a degree. Squirrels will negotiate assault courses and solve simple puzzles to get at nuts. Crows, dolphins, otters, apes and monkeys have been observed to use tools in their problem-solving. This has greatly increased their capacity to survive and deal with their surroundings and this is, perhaps, analogous to philosophy. It’s better than the massacre-dependent blind automata of semi-random evolution, but not by a great deal. It did provide the evolutionary impetus for the development of intelligence, however, and that gets us to humans.

One can argue over whether humans have a monopoly on what you might call ‘true intelligence’ but it is different to the problem solving we see in other animals. We are able to self-modify, to use technology and to think in the abstract in a way animals do not. We can take a solution to one problem, take it apart, reformulate it and apply it in other situation. We’re capable of storing, transmitting and teaching complex knowledge and this is revolutionary. In the analogy, this is like the advent of science and like humanity, science has become utterly dominant and has killed off a great deal of its opposition, a mass extinction of invalid modes of thought – like religion and philosophy.

Science has provided us a way of genuinely knowing what is true and extrapolating fundamentals and applications from that knowledge. This is dramatically better than anything else and the only way we really have of knowing that anything is real or true. It’s systemised, self-correcting, without hanging speculation, self-critical and – most importantly – it works.

Theism clings on, in volcanic pools, hydrothermal vents and the anaerobic depths of stygian sediment. Philosophy clings on because hitting a shell with a stone will sometimes get you a nut. Science, however, science is a quantum leap in knowledge, a way of testing and understanding any validity of any other claim and there is nothing else that does what it does.

Show us what’s actually true.

Perhaps that’s why philosophy and religion hate it so much and try to undermine it. They know they’re obsolete and marked for extinction.

The Classroom

An atheist a theist and a militant agnostic are in class in primary school and the teacher is going over their times-tables. They’ve been taught the basic principle and their two, three and four times table when the teacher writes up a more difficult problem on the blackboard:

7 x 8 =?

The theist answers: “Three hundred and seventy two!”

The atheist answers: “I don’t know, but I’m pretty damn sure it’s not three hundred and seventy two. Can I check on my calculator?”

The militant agnostic answers: “I don’t know, and neither do any of you other fuckers!” Then storms off in a huff.

Four Reasons that Don’t Hold Up

The author of the Blog My Reasons seems to have made me a project to debate these reasons they believe in god, but having a debate hidden away purely in the comments isn’t a great way to proceed. I’ve taken a look at their reasons in the hopes that it would be something different and new but alas, it seems not. If this post seems curt it’s because these are mostly old hat and have been dealt with many times before.

1. Complexity

There’s a lot of stuff listed here but unfortunately it’s mostly redundant. The basic idea is that the modern cell is so complicated that it couldn’t possibly have evolved. Well, there’s a problem with that right away. The modern cell is itself the result of around 3.75 billion years of evolution and not the simple replicator that the first proto-cell or proto DNA/RNA would have been. There are two great primers and indications of how simple early replicators can be. Firstly Dr Szostak’s work on early replicators and secondly Spiegalman’s Monster.

The blog also cites non-organic material but in actuality planets, galaxies, stars etc are all pretty damn simple. They’re just BIG. Gravity and motion is all it takes to explain any of them.

The problem is really that a) complexity is not indicative of design and b) irreducible complexity… isn’t.

2. Religions Point to a Deity

Well the earliest religions are more animistic, pointing to ‘spirits’ and we see no indication of those either. Most religions have been polytheistic, but if you’re trying to argue for ‘a’ god, then that’s singularly unhelpful. Right off the bat it’s obvious that this is an argumentum ad populum and so can be dismissed without further ado.

That said there are other reasons why humans would have this common weakness for religion. Humans tend to false pattern recognition with a particular weakness for seeing human agency or imagery. We think we see a human face in the moon. Is it a human face? No. This is pareidolia. Similarly we expect concious, human agency where there is none. “OK, who hid my car keys?”

Why does this happen? Evolutionary Psychology suggests that there must be an evolutionary reason but that doesn’t mean our modern conclusions are correct. Humans are social animals who live in a social context. Amongst other humans most interactions and events DO have agency and erring on the side of suspecting and accounting for that would have survival value. Similarly there’s survival value in being paranoid. Mr Caveman is walking through the woods when he hears a twig snap. Should he assume it’s a sabretooth and run for his life or brush it off and ignore it? Even if it isn’t a sabretooth most of the time, paranoid caveman is more likely to survive and father children and pass on the ‘RUN!’ meme socially.

3. Pascal’s Wager

I cover some of the profound issues that shoot this argument to shit in a previous post. Little point going over it again.

4. NDEs

Are hallucinations caused by the release of DMT in the brain under extreme duress and ‘coming up’ out of oxygen starvation to the brain. Some include Out of Body experiences but these have similarly been debunked and have been artificially induced. Skepdic has a good summation of NDE claims and debunking.

The only variance here is the claim that the congenitally blind can have visual NDEs. Well, as it turns out only 10% of people who are legally blind are actually completely blind and even they often have some sense of light and of spatial awareness.

The study most often cited examined a whole 30 blind people who had supposedly had NDEs and reported 80% had had visual hallucinations in their NDEs. Keep in mind that 10% of 30 is only three and that this really doesn’t constitute a good example. Furthermore their star witness did not report full visual hallucinations but ones without colour. This is good reason to suspect that they might simply be reporting what they were expected to or how sight had been described to them.

The way to settle this would probably be to induce an NDE like experience in a person who was congenitally blind while scanning them in an fMRI for activity in the visual parts of the brain. We’ll have to see if this ever happens but in the meantime the paucity of evidence and its suspicious cast forces one to suspend judgement and hold the proposition false under the burden of proof.

Outside of this particular wrinkle, NDEs (and OOBEs) have been more than adequately explained at this point.

Why do people report similar experiences? Similar situations and stresses upon the body will induce similar effects just as certain drugs induce similar effects. Prior to the popularisation of  the ‘typical’ NDE, reports were very much varied according to cultural inculcation and tradition. It is only with the emergence of the typical NDE story that we have seen this homogenisation. It’s a similar phenomenon to how alien ‘abductees’ used to report a panapoly of different aliens from hairy dwarfs to giant lizard men but the popularisation of the ‘grey’ has homogenised that.


Bad Reasons to Believe in God: I was told to!

A great deal of effort is put into ‘teaching’ – some would say brainwashing – kids into a particular religion. Personally I find this as obnoxious and disgusting as I would the forcible indoctrination of children into the Ku Klux Klan and potentially even more damaging in the long term.

Whether it’s ‘This is how I was brought up’ or ‘William Lane Craig says so’, the argument is basically the same. Someone that you, perhaps ill-advisedly, trust has told you X, therefore you believe it and them.

This is a fallacy known as the ‘Argument from Authority’ and it’s fallacious because simply because someone is in a position of authority or is right about something else, doesn’t mean that they’re right about this.

Theists occasionally like to turn this around and say ‘Well, you haven’t done all these scientific experiments yourself, you’re just trusting the scientists’.

Science constantly tries to disprove itself, it is subject to peer review and repeat experimentation. Over the last few centuries it has established a great track record of useful discoveries and of weeding out issues and falsehoods. The exact opposite of what’s happened with religious claims. Additionally, science rests on evidence, not the authority of the person presenting it and – perhaps most importantly – science has practical applications, which wouldn’t work if the theories were wrong.

No Hell = No Trust

There’s a fascinating article talked about over HERE.

The short version, for those not wanting to delve through all the study, is that the reason that a lot of people don’t trust atheists is that they think that – because we don’t have a hell to fear – that we have no reason to act honestly or morally. This comes up damn often in arguments with the religious and I’ve pretty much dismissed it out of hand before, after all, theism didn’t exactly stop many of the great tyrants and dictators of history being epic fucktards now did it?

The good thing now is that we know why we’re not trusting and we can attack that belief. It is, after all, not only nonsense but actively disprovable. Just take a look at religious affiliation by prison intake HERE.

You will, of course, get served up with a sizeable dollop of No True Scotsman (after all real religious people would never do criminal stuff) but even so we can see here that, if anything, atheists are far less likely to be dishonest/criminal than those who profess a religious belief. That pretty much shoots that prejudice out of the water and demonstrates that, if anything, the opposite is true.

Honestly, if you need the threat of hell to be a good person, you’re not a good person.

Pascal was not a good gambler.

I’m sure most of us have run into Pascal’s Wager. The supposedly logical argument for belief in god (if not god itself) as being the least worst situation. The argument runs something like this:

If I believe in god and I’m wrong, I lose nothing. We all end up in the same place, nowhere.

If I don’t believe in god and I’m wrong. I end up being tortured forever.

If I believe in god and I’m right, I win everything. I get eternal peace at god’s side.

If I don’t believe in god and I’m right. I just end up nowhere.

Therefore it’s better to believe in god than not, because I stand a chance of gaining everything and stand to lose nothing.

There are, needless to say, a multitude of problems with this proposition.

Pascal’s Wager makes a number of rather stupid assumptions in formulating its wager, I’ll try to keep to this gambling analogy later on. For now though, here’s a brief run down of the issues.

1. Pascal’s Wager presumes a binary choice. Believe in god or don’t. As we know, there are an infinite number of possible god concepts. There are something like 10,000+ god concepts just in recorded history on planet Earth and ‘god’ knows how many sub-sects of each one, all of which seem pretty convinced that if you believe what the other guys believe rather than what your little group believes in you’re going to hell, or some similar nasty thing will happen to you.

2. Pascal’s Wager presumes that you don’t lose anything by believing. Arguably you lose a lot. Many religions make demands upon people’s lives that decrease their quality of life from avoiding bacon to genital mutilation and everything in between. Not to mention all that time spent praying etc that could have been better spent masturbating or beating your head against a wall… or doing just about fucking anything other than worship. Then, as we see in point one, if you’ve backed the wrong horse, you’re STILL fucked. Double Fail.

3. Pascal’s Wager presumes that any god somehow doesn’t value ‘god given’ intelligence and rationality. It’s just as possible that any posited god prefers intelligent people with enough sense to realise there’s no evidence for him as slavish dickwads without two braincells to rub together or the sanity of a rabid wolverine in a sack.

4. Pascal’s Wager presumes that any god doesn’t have the power or sense to see through your bet-hedging cynicism and to condemn you to an eternity of pitchfork buttsex anyway for being a douche.

OK, so we can see that the basis of Pascal’s Wager is completely undermined because it’s presuppositions are all bullshit, but let’s examine JUST how bad a bet it is.

As you know, bets are calculated upon odds and odds are based upon things that we know. In roulette for example we know how many numbers are black, white or ‘green’, how many are in each number and what the chances are of getting any particular number individually or as part of a set. Taking that roulette wheel analogy lets examine Pascal’s Wager more realistically.

Well, strictly speaking the wheel would be one massive segment marked ‘naturalism’ and that would be that, but let’s entertain the possibility of a god of some sort. There’s absolutely no evidence for any god but what the hell, let’s be accommodating.

OK, so now we have 100 segments, 99 or which are marked naturalism and one of which is marked ‘theism’. This is massively overstating the odds in favour of theism, but what the hell. Let’s go with it.

We zoom in on the ‘theism’ segment only to find that it is divided into an infinite number of segments, each with the name of a different religion/god on it.

We zoom in further. Each of  these religion god/segments is further subdivided by ‘sect’, ‘order’ or some similar designation.

Now then, let’s recap… when we toss the ball onto our hypothetical roulette wheel you have a 99% of landing on naturalism (atheism) where all the evidence is. You have a 1% chance of landing on theism (not even close to reality) but even if you land in that segment you only have a 1/∞ chance of hitting the right one. One divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds so there’s really no point you even guessing. You’re guaranteed to be wrong.

To put it another way. In a horse race, do you pick the thoroughbred Arabian or one of an infinite number of three-legged Shetland ponies with asthma?

Arrogant? Moi?

A common enough insult or accusation leveled at atheists is that we are somehow arrogant.

Now, all that unifies atheists is that we don’t believe in god. Why? Because there’s no evidence for a god and no reason to believe in one. This is a humble position, one of ‘I don’t know’ rather than arrogant certainty without anything to back it up. This doesn’t strike me as arrogant especially, but it goes further than that I think.

I’m not just an atheist, I’m a rationalist, a skeptic, an amateur logician and the things I do believe stem from logic, reason and evidence.

Science in other words.

I believe in the evidenced naturalistic universe that we can show to exist. I believe that I am only one of six billion plus people, clinging to a thin smear of organic matter and atmosphere around a tiny pebble of a planet spinning around an insignificant star in an unremarkable galaxy in a huge and aged universe.

I am cosmically insignificant (I don’t find this depressing or purposeless but that’s a discussion for another time).

Compare that, humble, belief with the idea that this entire universe was made for our benefit by an all powerful deity who made us as his special creation and who takes a special and particular interest in our day to day lives as part of some cosmic melodrama between good and evil.

Now, if I believed that, that WOULD be arrogant.