Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ray Comfort vs. The Origin of Species

ARRRGGGGG!! Check out me plunder!!

It was an amazingly blitzkrieg like attack. As I was walking home for lunch they were quite well spread out in every direction. But 30 minutes later they were gone. Not a single nut in sight. It was actually quite angering to listen to them. This was the line they were using, "Celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Origin of Species with your own free copy". The lying pricks, what nerve.

I even think I found a perfect temporary spot for them on my bookshelf, right next to "The Tao of Physics" and the rest of the turds.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Environmental determinants in selectivity in extinction

I was reading through the recent news of what is happening here at UW-Madison. While doing this I read an article about A sedimentary geologist, Dr. Shanan Peters, here at UW, winning an award for exceptional work in the field of sedimentary geology. This is not particularly newsworthy as this is a large university with an exceptionally good faculty.

But anyways it caught my attention, so I started to read a few of the articles written in the recent past by him. There was one that I found interesting and thought I would talk about here. Forewarning, I am not a geologist, I've never studied geology, so if I mess things up terribly I apologize ahead of time.

The one article I found interesting was titled, and was in printed in June of last year in the journal Nature.

What professor Peters looked at was the correlation in Paleozoic and modern marine fauna and the particular environment they lived in. In particular there was a strong correlation in the rock record between carbonate sediment environments (e.g. Limestone) and Paleozoic marine fauna in both the Paleozoic and later times. While at the same time there was no strong correlation between modern marine fauna and salisticlastic (e.g. sandstone, shale, etc...) sedimentary environments. This shows that in general maybe modern fauna were less specialized in the environment with which they could survive.

Who cares? What does this mean? Well in the Paleozoic there was many periods of high sea level with large parts of the continents under water, creating vast shallow seas. In these seas the fauna were creating large amounts of carbonate sediment which can be seen in the modern rock record. Most Paleozoic rocks are carbonate rocks. For instance where I sit now, in Madison Wisconsin, there is a shallow layer of Ordovician (Which is in the Paleozoic) carbonate rock as the bedrock. If you go to the Grand Canyon and look at the layers that represent the Paleozoic, there are layers of carbonate rock.

But in the Permian, which marks the end of the Paleozoic, the continents on the Earth joined together to form the super-continent Pangaea. This marked a drop in sea level and the draining of the shallow continental seas. This is seen in the rock record as a switch from carbonate rocks to sandstones and shale as we enter the Triassic. What else happened at the end of the Permian and the beginning of the Triassic, that's right the largest mass extinction in the history of the Earth. Because the previous Paleozoic fauna were more specialized in the environments in which they could survive, they would "naturally" have been selected to become extinct versus their counterparts that represent more modern fauna, which are less specialized.

Who cares? What does this mean? Besides the fact that I just like reading new things, I say this is another example of the explanatory power of Evolution and Natural Selection. Go Evolution!!!!

Friday, November 6, 2009

"Jews for Darwin"

I was skimming through old copies of Skeptic looking for a particular article written by Dr. Harriet Hall, the SkepDoc. While doing this I came across an article written by Nathan Aviezer in Vol. 13 No.1, the Carl Sagan tribute. The article was titled "Jews for Darwin", and was written in response to a previous article that was written saying that Orthodox Jews are by definition creationists and against Darwinian evolution.

In this article Aviezer posits that not only is there no contradiction between Orthodox Judaism and evolution, but that as a person of faith he should deny Intelligent Design "theory". To show this he makes three particular points:

1) In Genesis 1:25, it says God made (Hebrew: vaya'as) not created (Hebrew: vayivra) all the plants and animals of the Earth. Basically what he is saying is that God made everything from simpler things, not created them ex nihilo. So God would have guided evolution from simpler beings into humans.

2) Orthodox Judaism is in many ways based on the authority of the Jewish scholar Maimonides, in particular his works Guide for the Perplexed and Mishna Torah. In Guide, Maimonides says that where there are contradictions between a literal reading of the scriptures and generally accepted knowledge, the literal meaning of the scriptures should be set aside for a metaphorical meaning.

3) Any person of Orthodox Jewish faith believes understanding nature is trying to understand the mind of God. God works through the natural laws, so understanding the natural laws (i.e. science) is the ultimate tribute to God. Where as Intelligent Design invokes supernatural causes, so it would mean that God wouldn't be working through the natural law, which is against their understanding of how their God works.

So what I want to know is, is this just a rationalization by one man? Or is this the general position of Orthodox Judaism? I would like to know. I must admit I am quite ignorant of Orthodox Judaism. But, I was raised Catholic in a predominantly Christian nation, so my knowledge of Christian religion is stronger. That isn't an excuse, but a lame defense for my ignorance.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"A Universe from Nothing"

I've been a little sickly lately, so I haven't posted. But no need to worry, no fever, no cough, no swiney. But I am too tired to think or write, so watch Lawrence Krauss and enjoy.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Militant Atheist: A Letter on the Term

I’m an atheist. No. It’s worse than that, actually. I’m a loud mouth atheist, I’m a combative, argumentative, aggressive, “militant atheist.” I talk about my favorite delusion every chance I get. I deliberately use provocative language, substituting “delusion” for religion and “sky fairy” or “imaginary friend” for God; I ask people to justify their belief all the time; I put forward arguments against god to anyone who will listen; I invite positive arguments for the existence of god from anyone willing to produce one; I demand coherent definitions of the thing “God” from anyone who might understand the need for such a definition; I blog about religion; I seek out religious people who might like to argue the matter and pick fights in which I have no intention of being gentle.

But I’m a militant atheist.

Some of my friends even shake their heads at me, expressing their disdain at how I’m constantly strumming the same old chord, an irritating proselytizer of unbelief, a shameless agent provocateur attempting to lure people from their comfort zones. It’s considered rude, inappropriate,unbecoming, off-putting etc… people don’t like it anymore than when people start injecting our lord and savior, Jesus, into every mundane thing, into every conversation, or every event, bridging huge gaps between the subject at hand and their faith. I don’t do this, I seldom if ever make such ham-handed segues into the topic of the God debate; I wait for it to be brought up and then pounce.

But I am a militant atheist.

Why am I condemned for this? Why is this worth pointing out? Jehovah’s witnesses frequent my porch. John is the name of the man who regularly comes a knocking and we have had a number of interesting conversations ranging from the beauty of nature as found within view of my porch to the foundations of moral reasoning. Bear in mind, this man knocked on my door once and has continued to return. In all our exchanges I have not had occasion to call him a “militant Christian.” Surely the very act of knocking on my door is a bolder move than anything I admitted to above. But, no…

I am a militant atheist.

I do not knock on people’s doors and if I did knock on doors
so that I could proselytize against god, it would be considered so incredibly rude as to merit active campaigns against my activities. Moreso than if I were selling cookies, anyway. I do not protest funerals, as do the Westboro Baptists. I do not stone to death adulterers. Nor would I rape and kill a family member who was raped. Nor would I murder a person who once held the same views as me but had recently switched sides. Nor would I command the mutilation of a child’s genitals, imposing a covenant on the child without his or her permission. I would not kill, maim, or shame a person for acting on their sexual proclivities. I demand no rites, no tithes, no rituals, no prayers, no profession, no utterance, no submission, no allegiance, no indignity, no dissolution of family bond, no affirmation of permanent commitment, no denial, no cognitive dissonance, no abdication of reason. I demand very little, in fact. Such things are the province of religion.

But I am a militant atheist.

These are the extremes. (But, some of them may not even seem extreme to you, consider religious circumcision.) Oh, certainly, many of these things are condemned. But why is my, by comparison, much more mild and docile approach condemned as well? Why is it so unacceptable that I am a loud mouthed atheist and yet it takes overt
brutality for a person to be taking their religion too far?

But I am a militant atheist.

Now, I’m not so mystified by the label I’ve received, “militant atheist,” though I do think it’s tragically ironic in light of the things I’ve pointed out. I understand why it might be worth the effort, to a believer, to brand me in this way, though. The advantage is obvious enough; that guy just has a chip on his shoulder and he’s out to prove something and rob us of our beliefs. It might bother me if this wasn’t the case; after all, I am out to prove something. But it bothers me that the same terms are applied to my spirited but non-violent challenges to accepted beliefs as are applied to the violence carried out in the name of such beliefs.

And to some degree it bothers me to hear other atheists telling me I’m besmirching the name, “atheist” as if the term is deserving of some special honor or as if the community ever enjoyed any respect to begin with.

But, no, what really bothers me is the suggested dichotomy of the atheist community. There are the loud mouths and the silent; the outspoken and the mute; those who challenge and those who acquiesce. My question isn’t “why am I labeled a loud mouth?” My question is “why the hell aren’t more of us speaking up?”


Saturday, October 17, 2009

And the work continues

So I spent the day attempting to spread links to this all over the web like an infectious parasite. Obviously my work was unsuccessful. But I did make a very worth while discovery. On the SGU Forums, in the explicit section, they have a 190 page "boobs" thread that has been going on for over a year. I found it amusing. A group of science nerds showing that all men are disgusting pigs.

Gibberflabs, Winkums, and the Meaningless.

Allow me to introduce you to gibberflabs. If you’ve watched any of my youtube videos you will have heard them mentioned a time or two. Now, I say I’m introducing you to them but, in fact, I have absolutely no intention of elaborating on them in any meaningful way. It suffices to say “gibberflab” is a word without a referent. That is, I have strung together a collection of syllables and I have deliberately avoided conceiving of anything to which to attach the word. The fact is, it’s a completely hollow word. I will avoid all attempts at explaining them in a meaningful way. Now, that’s not to say I can’t attach adjectives to gibberflabs. They are, in fact, very polite, fans of stand up comedy, and they’re good at math. And, not that you know what Winkums are yet, I will go ahead and say now that Gibberflabs created all the Winkums in the universe.

Now, with this information, you have learned absolutely nothing with which to go about determining whether or not gibberflabs exist, because I haven’t said what gibberflabs are. I haven’t said whether or not they are material, I haven’t said where to go looking for them, I haven’t said by what mechanisms you can detect them, and I haven’t said how, upon detecting them, to distinguish them from anything else… I’ve given no size nor shape nor any physical description by which you could apprehend them with one of your senses.

It’s a lot like when people say that God is “Omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and the creator of the universe.” That’s great and all, but… WHAT is “Omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and the creator of the universe?”

But let’s move on. The more inquisitive among you will be curious what a Winkum is. Winkum is another term I’ve invented.

Winkum: any thing for which existence or non-existence is principally or practically indistinguishable.

So, if X is a universe in which W (a particular winkum) exists and Y is a universe in which W does NOT exist, X and Y are completely and utterly indistinguishable from one another. If you lived in X and were magically transported to Y it would be impossible for you to detect the difference. The existence or non-existence of W is trivial; if W popped into or out of existence it would go completely unnoticed by the surrounding universe and any resident observers.

Not unlike when ghosts or prayer are said to be scientifically untestable and consequently immune to validation or falsification. Any argument hung upon an article of faith flirts with becoming a defense of Winkums.

So… to the burden of proof. When told the burden lays on the theist I have heard one or two of them respond, “Really? That’s an interesting proposition… can you prove it?” This is precisely the sort of petty trick one expects from the cerebral but dishonest theist. (Dinesh D’souza does it.) Of course I can’t prove it because proof connotes truth and a method is not a proposition, that is, it may not have a truth value. We can only evaluate the method and determine for ourselves whether or not it seems more reasonable to adopt it and use it consistently or, on the other hand, if we ought to consistently avoid it.

Consider the Law of Non-Contradiction, just try and conceive of a world where the inverse was preferred. Can you imagine a world in which contradictions could be taken to be meaningful and true? Well, it’s rather like that, isn’t it? Can you imagine a world in which all positive and fully articulated claims were assumed to be true until someone demonstrated that they were false?

So, if the theist contends that the burden is on anyone who has taken a position rather than anyone who has expounded a positive claim, they have to address a few things. Gibberflabs being chief among them. Of course, if they would like to take the same position with respect to gibberflabs as we atheists have taken with respect to their God, then they must first provide some positive reason for doing so, by the very standards they espouse. I can, of course, match them, point for point, on any defining characteristic they are willing to arbitrarily invent or otherwise provide for God. If they do this and yet would like to exempt gibberflabs, excluding them from the propositions for which one must justify disbelief, then this is a concession that their beliefs are arbitrarily selected and completely disconnected from Method, Sense, or Reason.

On the other hand, if one contends that a positive reason must be provided before a well articulated claim can be accepted as true then no such problems arise. Gibberflabs are reasonably excluded from the list of things a person has a belief in; not just because there is “no evidence” but also because a coherent definition of Gibberflabs hasn’t been provided.

If the theist describes a God such that he is commensurate with a universe devoid of a god or gods, then we’re brought to winkums: why should a person subscribe to the existence of a winkum?

As an aside: ever heard of The Prince Phillip Movement on the Island of Vannatua? They can actually SEE their God… he just happens to be human and probably nothing more. Even so, see how they have the upper hand on most other theists? When they say “God” the word has a referent and if he didn’t exist the world would be different.

So, before any debate on the existence of God, it’s important always to be clear which sort of God you’re talking about: a Gibberflab god, a Winkum god or something else? Something… better?

Problems/Solutions: Shot Through With Mystery

“The real question of life after death isn’t whether or not it exists, but even if it does what problem this really solves.”

-Ludwig Wittgenstein

Basically, as terrifying as the Void can seem in our lowest moments, the notion of an afterlife (everyone one that’s been proposed) really doesn’t change anything in terms of ultimate purpose and meaning, ethics, or even basic psychological stability or eudaimonic flourishing (to crib the language of Aristotle/Owen Flanagan). In other words we find another egregiously false dichotomy chugging along on the fuel of self-deception and its parental, doctrinal religious/supernatural delusions—the false dichotomy which boils down to “If we don’t live eternally all hope is dissolved, all genuine meaning vanquished, all basis for ethics and refinements of all stripes simply lost to the winds of inevitable mortality”, etc. It is clear that this dichotomy can be jettisoned, and joyously so. A true (“spiritual”) affirmation of life is extremely possible and has been actualized in the face of oblivion. It’s really not the lazy person’s route though. And many are lazy in relevant ways.

"Man is manifestly not the measure of all things. This universe is shot through with mystery. The very fact of its being, and of our own, is a mystery absolute, and the only miracle worthy of the name. The consciousness that animates us is itself central to this mystery and ground for any experience we may wish to call “spiritual.” No myth needs to be embraced for us to commune with the profundity of our circumstance. No personal God need be worshipped for us to live in awe at the beauty and immensity of creation. No tribal fictions need be rehearsed for us to realize, one fine day, that we do, in fact, love our neighbors, that our happiness is inextricable from their own, and that our interdependence demands that people everywhere be given the opportunity to flourish. The days of our religious identities are clearly numbered. Whether the days of civilization itself are numbered would seem to depend, rather too much, on how soon we realize this."

-Sam Harris

Friday, October 16, 2009


I am creating this as a way for me to vent. The title was stolen from a chapter title in Carl Sagan's A Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. So I figured an excellent way to start a new blog is with a quote from the book in which I stole this title.

"....Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly our ignorance about ourselves. I worry that, especially as the Millennium nears, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us, then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir." - Carl Sagan, A Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

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