Thursday, April 30, 2009

Michael Shermer: Inside the Outliers

Michael Shermer's Review of "Outliers". Here's an excerpt:

...Gladwell says, “are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky—but all critical to making them who they are.”

Well, yes and no. As Frank J. Sulloway, author of the comprehensive study of success Born to Rebel (Pantheon, 1996), told me: “Creative people are not just sitting around waiting for opportunities to come to them. They create their own opportunities. Charles Darwin was already planning a voyage of discovery to the Canary Islands, for example, when the position on the Beagle opened up. If the Beatles hadn’t gone to Hamburg they would have gotten their 10,000 hours somewhere else. What distinguishes Gates is that he has a really interesting creative mind, and he would have had that mind even without a computer terminal at his private school and hence would likely have found alternative ways to access programming tools.” And of course, Leopold Mozart’s son was a child prodigy and musical genius, not merely the beneficiary of cultural legacy.

Even the 10,000-hour rule isn’t just about skill mastery. According to Dean Keith Simonton, author of Origins of Genius (Oxford University Press, 1999), success includes a Darwinian process of variation and selection. Creative geniuses generate a massive variety of ideas from which they select only those most likely to survive and reproduce. The best predictor of winning a Nobel Prize in science, for example, is the rate of journal citation. As Simonton notes, “empirical studies have repeatedly shown that the single most powerful predictor of eminence within any creative domain is the sheer number of influential products an individual has given the world.”

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Thoughts About "Biologos"

PZ Myers has some harsh words about Francis Collins' "Biologos" website:

"I could hardly believe it when I saw it, but the BioLogos site uses the familiar creationist second law of thermodynamics argument.

Francis Collins has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, and he should know very well what the meaning of entropy is (he should be far more familiar with the concept than a mere biologist like me should be), and he's using the concept of entropy to argue against natural causes in the expansion of the universe … and then he turns around and explains that it is not an obstacle to biological evolution."

Actually, Collins' claims are a little more modest than PZ might lead you to believe. Collins states:

"The Second Law of Thermodynamics also has interesting implications for cosmology, as it requires that universe began in a highly ordered state."

Even if I accept that the universe began in a highly ordered state, I don't think it would necessitate a creator. After all, if there were no time before the Big Bang (the jury is still out on this question), then there would have been no time in which entropy could increase.

However, the universe did not begin in a highly ordered way. According to Physicist Victor Stenger*, the universe began with the maximum amount of entropy that an object of its (then) size could have. As the universe expanded, the maximum possible entropy increased, and it did so quicker than the actual entropy of the universe, thus creating order.

*Pages 117-121, Victor Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis, Prometheus Books, 2007.


Here are my comments on other parts of the site that I looked at:

On Reconciling Adam and Eve with Evolution. This is a very thoughtful article which made some good points. I'm still not sure if Genesis can be reconciled with Science, but it is something to think about and is definitely recommended reading for those contemplating the question.

On the 'Fine-Tuning' Argument. These are Collins' thoughts on the Multiverse explanation of Fine-Tuning (his words are italics, my comments are not):

At first glance, the proposition of many other universes sounds impressively scientific. However, one must keep in mind that the likelihood of ever being able to observe evidence of another universe is extremely remote, since it is unlikely that information could ever pass from one universe to another.

I don't have the book with me right now, but I do recall reading in "The Cosmic Landscape" by Leonard Susskind that we might very well be able to discover some type of indirect evidence of other universes. Neverthless, there are hypotheses (such as Lee Smolin's black hole multiverse hypothesis) which explain a good bit of data besides fine-tuning and also make testable, falsifiable predictions. There'll be something on this in my upcoming book "Atheism and Naturalism".

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the process which produces all of these universes would randomly set all the physical parameters in such a way that every possibility is realized. It could be that there are constraints on the characteristics of these many universes and that the production process itself would have to be fine-tuned in some way to guarantee that we get enough variety of universes to account for our remarkable cosmic home.

There are also problems with trying to argue that the universe is fine tuned in the first place. How do we know that other types of life aren't possible? There is an entire chapter dedicated to this in my upcoming book, and also in Victor Stenger's book God: The Failed Hypothesis.

BioLogos

Francis Collins and some others have set up a website which defends belief in God and Evolutionary Theory (and attempts to show that the two are compatible). From what I've seen, this is definitely a great improvement over other apologetics websites (Answers in Genesis comes to mind). It's the more rational side of faith. I would recommend this to believers and athesits alike. Here's the link:

BioLogos

Some Dinosaurs Survived the Asteroid Impact

Via Live Science:

The great splat of an asteroid that might have wiped out the dinosaurs apparently didn't get all of them. New fossil evidence suggests some dinosaurs survived for up to half a million years after the impact in remote parts of New Mexico and Colorado.

The whole idea that a space rock destroyed the dinosaurs has become controversial in recent years. Many scientists now suspect other factors were involved, from increased volcanic activity to a changing climate. Either way, some 70 percent of life on Earth perished, and an asteroid impact almost surely played a role.

Scientists recently analyzed dinosaur bones found in the Ojo Alamo Sandstone in the San Juan Basin. Based on detailed chemical investigations of the bones, and evidence for the age of the rocks in which they are found, the researchers think some dinosaurs outlived the crash that occurred 65 million years ago and stuck around for a while.

"This is a controversial conclusion, and many paleontologists will remain skeptical," said David Polly, one of the editors of the journal Palaeontologia Electronica, in which the research was published today.

Lead researcher Jim Fassett of the U. S. Geological Survey in Santa Fe, New Mexico went to great lengths to establish when the bones originated.

"The great difficulty with this hypothesis — that these are the remains of dinosaurs that survived — is ruling out the possibility that the bones date from before the extinction," he said. "After being killed and deposited in sands and muds, it is possible for bones to be exhumed by rivers and then incorporated into younger rocks."

To try to eliminate that scenario, Fassett investigated the rocks surrounding the bones and studied date indicators, such as their magnetic polarity. He said the evidence "independently indicate[s] that they do indeed post-date the extinction."

He also found that the dinosaur bones from the Ojo Alamo Sandstone have distinctly different concentrations of rare earth metal elements than the deeper, older rocks that date from the time of the impact. This suggests that it's unlikely the bones originated in that older rock and were somehow relocated to the more recent, higher level of sediment.

Another piece of evidence seems to support the claim, too. The fossil remains include a group of 34 hadrosaur bones lying together, which Fassett said are "doubtless from a single animal." If the bones had been exhumed from the older rock by a river, they would have likely been scattered in several locations, and wouldn't be clustered together as they are.

Even if the dinosaur bones do turn out to belong to disaster survivors, there probably were very few of them compared to their population before the crash.

"One thing is certain," Polly said. "If dinosaurs did survive, they were not as widespread as they were before the end of the Cretaceous and did not persist for long."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Evaluating Christianity on why Arguments for the Resurrection of Jesus Fail

Read it here. It's brief but convincing. I will make similar points in my book (although I disagree that it is conceptually possible to estimate the odds of a miracle. I think we could estimate a frequency of miracles that would be beyond our ability to detect).

Convincing Fossil Evidence of Evolution

Please take a look at these links, even if you don't read the articles, look at the illustrations! The fossil evidence for evolution is quite devastating:

http://www.springerlink.com/content/k786p18g77j41370/fulltext.html

http://www.springerlink.com/content/501371w1h0h58385/fulltext.html

http://www.springerlink.com/content/66w3755838876571/fulltext.html

This journal, Evolution: Education and Outreach, is available online for free and is very informative. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Proof of Alien Life

Cool article calculating the odds of alien life:
http://www.dbskeptic.com/2009/04/19/the-drake-equation/#more-955


The odds given are a little generous, though. For example, he estimates the odds of a civilization evolving on planets with intelligent life at 50%. I think that is way high. The evolution of intelligent life depends on a lot of unique evolutionary events:
http://aigbusted.blogspot.com/2008/09/glorious-contingency.html


My own speculation on this issue is that it is almost certain that bacteria (or some simple form of life) exists somewhere in the universe, and that complex life (things like plants and animals) probably exist elsewhere in the universe, and that it is possible that a few other civilizations exist.

Why We Believe in Gods

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Friday, April 24, 2009

Random Updates

Hey Everybody,

Just some random stuff I wanted to blog on.

William Lane Craig had a debate on morality, and I think it is fair to say that he lost and the atheist won. Listen to it here.

Ray Comfort made a stupid ass video on his "banana example of design" and Richard Dawkins.

Comfort says that although man modified the banana, God still gave man the knowledge to do so. And how the hell does Comfort know this? I mean, I could just as easily say that evolution gave us the ability to do selective breeding since I think the mind evolved, and I would be more justified in saying so because I actually have tangible evidence of it.

His video also implied that Richard Dawkins believed life was the result of alien designers. Dawkins thinks this is a possibility, but he does not place any faith in it, and I think he holds to a more naturalistic origin of life.

Last but not least I have some questions for my book:

"What kind of audience are you trying to reach with this book?"

It is for any reasonably intelligent person who wants to understand more about Atheism: How atheists can be moral, why we reject arguments for God, what we think about where the universe came from, etc. etc. This book is primarily aimed at atheists, although believers and agnostics may be interested in it because it explains the atheist worldview.

"Do you have a title yet?"

"Atheism and Naturalism" (although I might change it).

"Are there any pictures of boobs in it?"

Buy it and find out : )

"Will this be a made for internet book, or do you plan to have it printed?"

I'm planning on releasing it on Lulu, so it will be available for download and as a paperback.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ask Me About My Book

Well, I haven't been blogging much lately, but I have been working on my book: I'm about 140 pages deep. The book will probably be done within four weeks or so.

So, I'm making this post to allow anyone and everyone who wants to ask a question about my book (Just write it in a comment).

Monday, April 20, 2009

Is Torture OK?

Here's an article in the Times about the Bush Administration and torture. Apparently, the BA did everything except break bones, pull teeth, and burn flesh. Then I had a thought: Are these types of acts wrong under all circumstances? Is it wrong to torture a terrorist if it means he might give up info that will save lives?

These practices certainly are wrong in the vast majority of cases, but I think if it may save lives we had better not be too reluctant to keep a criminal awake for a week straight.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Who are your favorite atheists?

Today I came across a list of the fifty greatest atheists.

Here are some of my favorite atheists, in no particular order:

Charles Darwin. For having "the single greatest idea ever to occur to a human being".

Andrew Carnegie. for his good works and generosity.

Robert Ingersoll. for his common-sense writings against Christianity and his reputation for generosity.

James Watson and Francis Crick. Yep, itwo atheists discovered that DNA was the hereditary molecule for life.

James Randi. For his skepticism and upstanding character.

Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking, PZ Myers and Eugenie Scott for their work in science and for bringing science to a level which everyone can understand.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

UFO's, Ghosts, and the Rising god

Chris Hallquist, author of the upcoming book UFO's, Ghosts, and the Rising god made an appearance on "The Infidel Guy Show" today. It's fascinating, and I'm very much looking forward to Chris' book.

Testing Evolution

This video talks about how scientists are testing evolution: Scientists had hypothesized that two genes were actually modified duplicates of a single ancestral gene. Rather than just speculating, they decided to knock out those two genes and replace it with the hypothesized ancestral gene. And guess what: It worked. The mice used in the experiment are completely functional, although not quite as specialized as ordinary mice.

Watch the video here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bloglist

Hey Readers,

You have noticed that I created a blogroll (look over to the right and scroll down a bit).

If you have an atheist/philosophy/science blog you'd like to recommend, please leave a comment about it (I have no problem if you want to mention your own blog).

This Reminded Me of Ray Comfort

Click here to go to common sense atheism and see a quote that reminds me of Ray Comfort.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Comment I got

Here's a comment which reflects the typical strategies and mindset of Christians: (His words are in bold, mine are in italics)

I would have definitely agreed with you some years ago. I was confronted by a neighbor who was actually a pastor. He gave me the whole Christian schpiel. He couldn't answer my questions either. But I also couldn't answer his. He showed me some things in the Bible that helped me realize that it isn't just a book full of contradictions. It amazed me that as far back as the 8th Century BC the Bible said the world was round. I always thought these religious types believed in a flat earth.

I'd love to see the passage that says the Earth is round. By the way, I hope you're not going to pull out that lame passage in Isaiah 40, because if you are, you should consider getting a Bible concordance and looking up the original Hebrew word used there. Isaiah 40 talks about the "circle of the earth" even though the Hebrews had a word for sphere. The bible implies that the world is a flat disc, not a globe.

I've met with scientists that have awesome credentials, and do not believe in evolution. But I also met ones that do. In both cases I think that they are equally using faith. Faith in a God or faith in a theory? Anyway, I accepted Christ into my heart. At first I thought it wouldn't change anything. But something did change, and it's hard to describe or just chalk it up to one more religious/spiritual incident that most religious nuts have.

I'd be surprised if you met a Biologist who didn't believe in evolution, because they are less than 1% of practicing biologists.

The Bible says the world had a flood. That's true. The Bible describes the origins of nations, and so far these nations were found to have existed at one time when many thought they were made up.

There was never a point in history when the whole world was covered in water. The fact that many civilizations have been around (continuously) for the past 5-10,000 years, as the Chinese have, should tell you that there was no flood. I'm not sure what you mean about the nations.

The Bible also says that unless you are of the Spirit you will think it's nonsense. What book actually tells you that from a human point of view it is nonsense, but still wants you to believe?

Actually, that sounds like a very common cult tactic: The cult leader says, "Yeah, other people will tell you you're crazy, but you shouldn't listen to them, you should only listen to us."

No book has ever spoken to the heart of me, and understood me as a human being, more than the Bible. The amazing thing is that the Bible says we will never have peace. We are flawed and can't attain peace on our own. We are always at war. Many religious wars have been fought, but MANY secular wars have caused the deaths of millions as well.

I can't prove anything to you. And you can't go back in time to show me evolution. Let's see what happens when we die.

No, I can't go back in time and show you evolution. But it would be silly to demand that level of proof. I mean, would you convict someone of murder even if there were no eyewitnesses to the murder, but there were fingerprints and other forensic evidence? That's the way we know evolution happened: circumstantial evidence. I would highly recommend this document, which shows the massive amount of evidence for evolution. I would also recommend the book "Why Evolution is True" by Jerry Coyne.

As for the Bible speaking to the heart of you, I think you're looking for a way to find happiness and comfort. And that's OK. It is part of what makes us human, and it is completely normal. But I'd like to offer some friendly advice: Don't limit yourself to the Bible. Have a helping of the Buddah and the Tao, and maybe read some contemporary philosophy too.

Losing Miller's God

Here's something from a post at Quiche Moraine, about someone who went to a talk by theistic evolutionist Ken Miller:

"I first asked why God couldn’t have made all creatures vegetarians, so that some animals wouldn’t have to painfully and cruelly kill and eat others. (Kenneth) Miller said that that would mean that God would be stepping in and interfering with the natural evolutionary processes that he had set in motion. (Evidently God avoids miracles these days.)"

Its always strange to hear this type of answer. Why couldn't God have set up some type of evolutionary process which did not lead to death and pain? He would not have had to intervene with the evolutionary process, he simply would have had to set up the universe so that non-carnivorous creatures evolved. Being all-knowing and all-powerful, you would think God could do that.

Here's some other things I found disturbing:

"It seemed to me that this god wasn’t of much use. 'So in other words,' I said, 'this world operates exactly the way we would expect it to operate if there were no god.' Miller agreed, citing retired Vatican astronomer George Coyne, who said that the universe doesn’t need God."

"As I walked back to my car, I thought: Miller has all but admitted that there is no actual evidence for a god, and that certainly a god wasn’t involved in the daily process of evolution. And yet Miller believes in a god. This must mean that he believes on a basis other than evidence. In other words, on faith. Evidently the belief came first and the rationalizations second."

I think Ken Miller is a nice guy who has a soft spot for God and religion. He's just not applying the same rigorous standards to his theology as he does in science or in any other area of his life. I think this has lead him to cognitive dissonance, as is evident to me in the blog post.

Turns Out We Did Come From Monkeys

Monday, April 13, 2009

Is it time for an all-atheist university?

I found this question raised over at Debunking Christianity. Here's my response:

"I don't think an atheist university should be created. Human beings should, above all else, stand for truth, and it is hard to find the truth when you set up an atmosphere in which you can only breathe in the fumes of one particular belief system."

Why Evolution is True

My Library finally got a copy of Jerry Coyne's book "Why Evolution is True" and I have started reading it. I'll probably post a review sometime soon, but let me go ahead and say: It is a wonderful, and very convincing book about evolution. Highly recommended to all those who want to learn about the subject. Creationists: If you want to understand the case for evolution, or think that you can rebutt it successfully, then start with this book.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

How to Deal with Evangelicals

I've written on How to Deal with Evangelicals before, and now Christopher Hitchens does an excellent job of dealing with evangelical Todd Friel:



Saturday, April 11, 2009

Pagan Origins of Easter

From Mental Floss:

Q: Why are eggs and bunnies associated with Easter?

A: The initial answer is pretty simple: Religious implications aside, Easter is essentially a celebration of springtime – a time in which big rabbits make a bunch of little rabbits and birds lay a whole lot of eggs, thus symbolizing rebirth. But the more complicated question is, why does the Easter bunny lay eggs? This strange animal hybrid originated as an Anglo-Saxon legend in which Eostre (the goddess of spring) turned a frozen bird into a hare to help it survive the harsh winter. The story was passed down through generations, and by the 1700s, Dutch settlers in America were telling their children that if they were good, the Easter bunny would come to their house and lay a beautiful nest of colorful eggs. For some reason, children really wanted colored eggs, so they went to great lengths to entice this magical bunny to place a nest at their house. Eventually, this led to our current celebration of the holiday in all its plastic grass, and marshmallow bunny glory.

On the Resurrection of Jesus: Here's a thought provoking interview about possible pagan origins of the Jesus story. Not sure if I agree with the idea that the resurrection story was inspired by Ishtar, but the parallels are strange and interesting.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Letters to a Doubting Thomas

Hey Readers,

I know I haven't done a book review in a long time, but I read a great book and I felt it was worth it. This will be stored permanently on my website Godriddance. By the way, I'm going to address the arguments in this book much more thoroughly in my upcoming book.

"Letters to a Doubting Thomas" by C. Stephen Layman

This book is, by far, the most intelligent and rational of its kind. The book is set up as a dialogue between two characters: Zach, a well-read and thoughtful theist, and (Doubting) Thomas, a constantly questioning agnostic. The entire book consists of letters exchanged between the two. This style actually makes for very clear reading, as each letter lasts only a few pages, and doubting Thomas is allowed constant interjections to ask questions and challenge Zach's conclusion.

Overall, however, the arguments within the book are flawed, and it will take a careful eye and thoughtful mind to find out just where the flaw lies in some of these arguments. For example, Zach appeals to Free Will as an argument for the existence of God, using mainly intuition as his source of evidence and moral horror to scare people away from considering determinism (If we're not really free, then maybe we shouldn't punish criminals, after all, they're not really responsible since what made them do it was facts about their brains that they cannot control).

Allow me to explain what I mean: Incompatibilism (which Zach and most theists support) holds that our actions are not the result of any deterministic physical processes whatsoever. Compatibilism would hold that our actions are determined, but that they are determined by what we want most. Let's think about this: How could you actually perform an action which you did not want to do? Sure, you may sit through a chick flick with your girlfriend, but you only do that because you want even more to do something to make her happy.

Secondly, this deterministic version of free will can indeed hold people responsible for what they do. The threat of imprisonment and/or fines prevents crime amongst those who want to stay out of prison more than steal, murder, etc. And if someone commits a crime knowing the punishment, this only tells us that they desire their own fulfillment even at the expense of others, and so they society is well advised to put these people away. If the criminal pleads that he had no choice in his action, the judge can reply that he has no choice in his action of sending the him to prison. It's that simple.

There are other problems in the book, of course. Zach-the-theists claims that to explain the "fine-tuning" of the laws of physics, atheists must postulate a lot of other universes and some sort of universe generator. This is mistaken. Even if atheists are forced to postulate other universes, we need not postulate any 'universe generator', as universes may be born from pieces of spacetime breaking away from prior universes or born in black holes. Neither of these ideas introduces anything new or postulates any new laws of physics.

All in all, I did not find this book convincing, although I have to say I consider it far better argued than other books like it, and would highly recommend it to atheists and agnostics if they are interested in seeing the best case for theism.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Arguments Jesus Mythicists Should NOT Use

As I've said many times before, I am not a Jesus Mythicist, I am agnostic on whether Jesus existed or not. However, I'd like to take some time out to give Jesus mythicists some advice on what NOT to do:

1. Cite the work of Freke and Gandi. I have read "The Jesus Mysteries" and I have to say I was not impressed. When dealing with parallels between Jesus and pagan deities, oftentimes no ancient text is cited, and instead is the work of an 18th or 19th century mythologist. This is problematic because oftentimes these mythologists of old were imposing there own interpretations upon ancient myths, which means that the pagan parallels to Jesus are not as clear cut as you might think. I also agree with Skeptic Wiki's summary of "The Jesus Mysteries":

When researching the references that are supposed to back up Freke and Gandy's claims, several problems are found. In some cases, Freke and Gandy cite a claim in their main text and endnote it, but the source cited actually supports a different claim which is mentioned in the endnote but not the main text. In other cases, the source itself is misleading, sometimes because it is ambiguous, sometimes because it is unevenly reliable, and sometimes because the source is simply wrong. In still other cases, the source will even be misquoted. There are even claims which are bald assertions backed up by no sources at all, though this is disguised by surrounding them with claims for which sources are given. Often, these problems even appear in combination. The problems go beyond sourcing issues; Freke and Gandy also grossly misinterpret evidence.

2. Cite the work of Achyara S or Zeitgeist the Movie. Most of their claims are simply false. Tim Callahan has written an excellent article explaining why.

3. Cite pagan parallels to Jesus which you have not read about yourself from ancient sources. Although there are similarites between Jesus and other pagan gods, there is so much misinformation going around on the internet these days that simply need to find a translation of the ancient texts which describes these pagan gods and read about them for yourself.

4. Argue that pagan parallels to Jesus prove he did not exist. They don't. Certain themes in the lives of pagan gods may have been borrowed and pasted onto the Christian memory of Jesus, but this does not mean he didn't exist. A better argument would be that since Jesus has much in common with gods that other cults made up, it is simpler to suppose that there was no historical jesus (unless some historical evidence exists of him).

5. Argue that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. The fact that no contemporary of Jesus wrote about him is not at all surprising. Prophets and messiahs were as common in Jesus' time as Starbucks are in our time. Jesus' ministry only lasted a few years, and he lived in Nazareth, a fairly small village. It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that Jesus existed but that not too many people cared about his message.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Ho hum. Another Transitional Fossil.

It's an intermediate between cartilaginous and bony fish. PZ Myers fills us in on it here.