Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I want to understand

There's a poster with an (alleged) UFO photograph and the caption "I want to believe", most well popularized by the TV series The X-files.

There's a "skeptic" version of that same poster, with the caption replaced with "I want to understand."

I think that's just a marvelous summary of what skepticism is. It's not about doubting or denying evidence out of principle. It's a drive to try to understand, rather than just the naive view that believing is somehow a virtue and a goal to aim for.

Sure, if this argument is presented to the believers, they will immediately claim that they want to understand too, but they are just wrong about themselves. They think that they want to understand, when in reality they just want to keep believing in their utopistic fantasies that captivates their imaginations. They do not want to understand, they do not want to find the real answer; rather, they already have decided on an answer, and the only thing they want is to find confirmation that supports said answer. Evidence that does not support the answer is discarded and ignored.

In other words, and rather ironically, they do not understand what "I want to understand" really means.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The "prophecy" of violence in the "end times"

I just got a visit from two Jehova's witnesses who presented this rather curious argument that I have seen quite many times, that the Bible "prophesizes" that in the "end times" there will be much violence and hatred among people. (They brought up the recent Boston bombing, which I thought was really tasteless, but I'll let that slide.)

I don't really understand why so many Christians (yeah, I'll also let slide the debate among Christians whether Jehova's witnesses are "really Christians" or not) think that this is such a convincing argument. The Bible predicts that there will be much violence. There is much violence nowadays. Therefore the Bible predicted this correctly and thus it's a trustworthy source of information.

This is a really, really silly argument, yet surprisingly popular. Humans have always been violent, and will always be. There have been wars and violence for as long as there have been humans, and even before. "Predicting" that there will be violence and wars in the future is a really easy thing to do. It's like "predicting" that tomorrow I will be hungry and have to eat something, or that a year from now many cars will drive past my building. It would be quite amazing if these predictions would not be fulfilled. Now that would be something extraordinary. Predicting that status quo will continue in the future is nothing to write home about.

So why do they think that this is such a good argument?

(Also, the current state of the world is, in fact, overall much more peaceful than it has been for the vast majority of human history. There are some conflicts and some terrorism yes, but overall their amount is pretty small compared to what it has been for most of history. Thus, technically speaking, this "prophecy" applies pretty poorly to current times. But as said, even if this weren't so, this is such an easy thing to "predict" that it's just laughable.)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Another form of creationist hypocrisy

When presented with evidence about an old Earth and the evolution of species, a common retort among many young-Earth creationists is the typical "you weren't there, you didn't see it; you don't have a time machine so you can go and look at what really happened." They often also argue about how their claims is based on actual observable facts and not just "guessing what happened a long time ago."

However, when the argument from the distance between stars and galaxies comes up, suddenly their position changes completely. Suddenly it's all about "maybe the speed of light has changed, maybe this, maybe that." Suddenly there is no strict adherence to observable facts, and it's all just guesswork. Tons of maybe's and perhaps'.

Like with everything, whenever a certain principle is favorable to their cause, they are all for it, but whenever applying that exact same principle would be unfavorable to their position, it's suddenly nowhere to be seen and never mentioned.

Talk about hypocrisy.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

How far are creationists ready to accept evolution?

There is a rather large range of creationist dogma with respect to how much they accept the theory of evolution. (Of course no creationist ever calls what they accept "evolution" because that word is evil. They always call it something else, as if it was all up to what word you use.)

The most deluded creationists accept basically nothing that could be even remotely linked to evolution. These are the creationists that deny even the most trivial of things, if they have some kind of connection to the theory of evolution or its history. (As a good example, they will deny the validity of the notion that the color of moths has anything to do with their survival, because of that famous moth experiment. Since the experiment was related to evolution, it must therefore automatically be invalid.)

Other creationists, however, go surprisingly far into accepting the theory of evolution. They accept that species change over time, they accept natural selection (as the explanation of why some changes are retained and others die out), they accept that the environment may speed up or slow down the rate of change, they accept that two isolated groups of the same species may become so different over time that they become incapable of interbreeding, and because of that, they outright accept speciation (ie. that two non-interfertile species can spawn from a single species.) This last thing isn't even something that one has to infer, as many of them state it outright.

This is like 99% of the theory of evolution. Of course these exact same people who accept this 99% still claim that the theory of evolution is wrong. As long as you call it something else, they are fine with it, as long as you don't use the evil word "evolution." (Creationists have invented a wide variety of words to replace it. They all mean basically the same thing; their main purpose for existing is so that they don't have to say that they accept "evolution." That word itself is somehow wicked.)

This is an interesting psychological phenomenon. Even though one would want to make fun of creationists, not all of them are actually stupid. Some of them are quite smart. It's precisely when these smart creationists who have been exposed to what the theory of evolution actually says (rather than the straw man that other creationists have built) start understanding the validity of what it's saying, they cannot deny it anymore without feeling that they would have to outright lie to keep denying it.

So they have this dilemma: They have actually understood what the theory of evolution is actually saying, and they have seen the evidence and seen that it's actually valid. However, they still can't outright state that the theory of evolution might actually be correct. So what to do? Easy: State what they accept but change the name. That way they can say that the accept whatever name they came up with, but not "evolution."

Of course they still have to bring up some objections to the theory of evolution. How else could they keep denying it? If someone asks them what's wrong with the theory, they have to say something. Thus they came up with this concept of "kind" from the book of Genesis. Apparently there's some magical force that stops species from changing too much. (How much that is, is never specified. A species can change so much that it ends up looking nothing like its originator species, but it's still "the same kind" somehow.)

(Curiously, what they are actually advocating is cladistics. Often they don't even realize that. Yet they still refuse to accept cladistics as a valid classification, if it goes too far to the past and links two species that are "too far away" from each other, by some unspecified metric.)

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Atheists have faith too?

A common claim (and may I say, a bit strange, because I don't really know what they are trying to achieve with it) that many theists say about atheists is that they, too have faith, that they too have beliefs.

Somehow this feels such a childish argument. It seems to be saying "you think you are better than us, but you are not; you too have blind faith, you too have beliefs, so you shouldn't be criticizing us for that." Is that really the best they can come up with? A childish "well, and so are you!" argument?

Anyway, this is another example of playing with words, and an equivocation fallacy. Even the most moderate versions of this claim commit that fallacy.

You see, when an atheist or skeptic uses the words "faith" and "belief" when talking about religion, they are specifically referring to believing in something without proper evidence. They are contrasting this with science, which is fully evidence-based. This is a matter of actual practicality, a concrete measurement stick that we can use to determine the reliability of claims: If there is ample and proper evidence, and it has been tested and verified as correct, and especially if it has real, tangible applications to real life, then the claim is extremely reliable. If, on the contrary, there is no such evidence, then the claim is very unreliable.

The theists, however, want to use a rather different meaning for those words. They want to remove them from their evidence-based, practical-applications-based context, and move to a more abstract philosophical context. They want to play with the higher-level abstract meanings of the terms "belief" and "faith" in philosophical terms.

In other words, since technically speaking a person can never be 100% sure that his senses are an accurate depiction of a reality independent of his own mind (after all, in theory a person could just be a computer simulation, or a brain in a vat, running a completely nonexistent, simulated reality) then, philosophically speaking, no person can that they know with absolute certainty that things are real, and therefore, still technically speaking, they have "faith" and "belief" in everything (and I mean absolutely everything.)

However, that's just hypothetical, highly philosophical stuff. That's most certainly not what skeptics and atheists mean when they use the words "faith" and "belief."

There are levels of certainty about claims, and science has proven time and again that it produces the most reliable results. By far.

So no, when we are using the terms as they are meant to be used, atheists do not have "faith" in science, they do not have "beliefs" in what science tells them. They are based their notions on actual tangible tested evidence, not just blind faith. No amount of playing with words is going to change that.

Deep down inside we all know it

Many Christians make this odd argument that "deep down inside atheists know that God does exist; they just deny it."

However, it's in fact not completely unreasonable to propose the exact opposite. In other words: "Deep down inside believers know that there is no God. They are just trying really hard to convince themselves that there is."

This might sound like being a smartass, but I'm being serious.

If you think about the arguments that many apologists, creationists and believers present, many of them in fact sound like they are trying very hard to convince themselves that what they believe is actually true. It's like they have this small nagging suspicion buried deep in their subconscious that they are trying to silence and hide, and they are constantly trying to convince themselves that it's not there, or that it's just nothing.

I'm not saying that this is really what's actually physically happening in the synapses and brain cells of believers, but it could just as well be, at least with some of them. I would say it's more plausible than the opposite claim.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Death threats in the United States

It seems to be some kind of norm in certain parts of the United States, that if a secular/atheist person acts in any way so that people's constitutional rights are respected, or if anybody acts in any way that's offensive to the Christians in those parts, that person will receive numerous death threats, not to talk about endless harassment and insults.

Let's ponder a bit about the sheer hypocrisy.

If we were to pick the two of the most important core values in the Bible, something that basically every single Christian agrees to (including these people who issue death threats,) that would be the 10 commandments and the so-called Lord's prayer.

Let's emphasize two passages from these two most fundamental parts of the Christian creed. One of the 10 commandments says:

Thou shalt not kill

The Lord's prayer says:

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us

Now think about that for a moment. The exact same people who would agree to these passages as some of the most important teaching to all people, are the same who issue death threats and harass those who just want their constitutional rights to be upheld.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A funny little interpretation about wine in the Bible

This is a small thing, but it's still quite amusing.

There are some Christians (I'm not sure how much of a minority they are, but they certainly exist in significant numbers) who are so absolutely and completely obsessed with absolutism (ie. the total avoidance of any alcoholic beverages of any kind) and who think that that alcohol is so evil, that they actually furiously maintain that all references to wine in the Bible (especially the New Testament) actually refer to "unfermented grape juice."

Yes, that's right. Jesus changes water into "grape juice," he and his apostles drink "grape juice" during the last supper, and overall all references to wine are "grape juice."

This is some serious revisionism. Not only is it quite blatant historical revisionism, but even from a biblical perspective it's quite egregious.

These people completely ignore the fact that wine is today and has been a completely normal food drink in many countries, especially the southern European and Middle Eastern countries, for as long as history has cared to record. Moreover, wine was very highly regarded because it was one of the very few drinks that could be stored for longer periods of time. (Even pure water couldn't be preserved for anywhere that long because it would quickly gather harmful bacteria or other micro-organisms.)

And even moreover, grape juice would quickly ferment if stored for even short periods of time. If not done properly, it would easily go bad and be undrinkable (or, at the very least, taste very bad.) It would have been quite a waste.

Just goes to show the egregious lengths to what many Christians are ready to go in order to promote their own particular brand of theology, even from a Christian perspective.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The source of innate instincts

Humans (as well as many other animals) have certain innate instincts, in other words, instincts that they have from birth, not learned ones. For a long, long time it was thought that people can be born with only really, really primal instincts such as fear of death and pain. It was hard to believe that an infant could have any instincts that are even slightly more high-level than that.

More recent studies have shown that humans do have surprisingly high-level innate instincts. For example, it has been shown that on average a very young infant is instinctively afraid of snakes, spiders and other similar animals, while at the same time not being afraid of other dangerous things. Moreover, a bit later in life many children are still afraid of snakes and spiders but not so much of other things they may already know are dangerous (such as cars or kidnappers.) Most of these children have never even seen a snake or a dangerous spider in real life.

It has become clearer and clearer that humans are born with certain higher-level survival instincts, such as fear of snakes, even though an infant cannot possibly even know what a snake is, at a conscious level.

One thing in common with these higher-level instincts is that they are always related to common dangers that humans faced a long, long time ago, never to more recent dangers. And often these fears are not even relevant today (for example the probability of an infant being harmed or killed by a snake today is next to zero.)

Evolution actually explains this perfectly. During millenia, people may be born with slightly differing, just a bit randomized, innate instincts (caused by equivalent small random changes in genes.) Some of these instincts raised the survival chances of infants in the distant past (if an infant was curious of a snake, he or she certainly had a much higher chance of being killed than if he or she was instinctively afraid of it and fled) and therefore the semi-random instincts that made infants afraid of certain things were naturally selected to stay in the gene pool.

What I'm getting at here is that some recent studies have suggested that children may also have some kind of innate belief in a creator of everything. Although one should always be wary of such studies (because children are really easily "coached" into giving the answers that the person asking them wants, even if that person isn't doing it deliberately,) it could be true.

Naturally theists have jumped onto this with full force. "Clearly" this shows that people know deep inside that God exists?

But how would this be different from all the other innate instincts that a human has? As I have commented in another blog post, belief in a higher authority may very well be a result of evolution and natural selection, as it may have helped the human species to survive because it strengthens the instinctive concepts of teamwork and the importance of being a social species where everybody cares for each other and work together for a common goal.

Such an innate belief arising from evolution is not even hard to believe. It would have to be ruled out before any supernatural causes could be even considered.

Creationists and probabilities

Many creationists love to spout all kinds of completely made-up large numbers when arguing about probabilities. (It's amusing that there are as many such made-up numbers as there are original creationist sources, even though they may be arguing for the exact same thing. Every such creationist comes up with a wildly different number.)

I think it's rather telling that basically none of those creationists who come up with these made-up numbers and present them as arguments against abiogenesis (or whatever it is that they are arguing against) have any kind of background neither in mathematics or in the fields of science which they are criticizing, yet the people who do have a background on those subjects don't seem to have any problem with those probabilities.

It's almost as if the people who actually know their math and their science, also know how those things actually work.

(When this is presented to those creationists, the conspiracy theories become quite wild. Basically the hundreds of thousands of people, from different countries and cultures, and who actually work in those fields, are in an enormous worldwide conspiracy to keep quiet about it. It must be Satan influencing all those people. Only creationists are safe from Satan's mindwashing abilities.)