Archive for the 'god' Category

Sam Harris on Alexander’s ‘I Visited Heaven’ Claim

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

Again with the people who have actual expertise weighing in on credulous fairy tales: This must be heaven.

Novella on Alexander’s Proof of Heaven

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

It’s easy to be superstitious, to believe in mysterious forces beyond our ken that shape the reality we live in. Because there are mysterious forces beyond our ken, and they do shape the reality we live in. But the difference between superstition and actual knowledge is that with actual knowledge, there’s objective evidence that supports the belief. With superstition, it’s just what we want to believe, for whatever reason, bolstered by confirmation bias.

I’ve given up a fair amount of superstitious belief over the last several years, and it makes me kind of a Debbie Downer in discussions involving mystical belief, especially discussions with people I care about. So I mostly don’t discuss those things. Which is an easy course of action for me to adopt, since I’m an off-the-charts introvert whose go-to response in pretty much any social situation that carries a hint of potential conflict is a stony silence. (Or what appears from the outside to be stony. From my perspective, it’s just silence. I guess stones, if they could speak, might have the same complaint.)

Anyway, what I actually wanted to talk about was a recent noteworthy bit of wishful credulity by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander in Newsweek, Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife. Alexander was in a coma for 7 days after contracting meningitis. After recovering, he came to believe that he’d experienced a cloud-like realm, a sense of universal love, and another being with whom he conversed, and that he had done so (this part is key) while his higher brain functions were clinically, demonstrably inactive.

Letting the air out of this story is (who else?) neuroscientist, noted skeptic, and man-crush Steven Novella: Proof of Heaven?

While his experience is certainly interesting, his entire premise is flimsily based on a single word in the above paragraph – “while.” He assumes that the experiences he remembers after waking from the coma occurred while his cortex was completely inactive. He does not even seem aware of the fact that he is making that assumption or that it is the central premise of his claim, as he does not address it in his article.

Of course his brain did not go instantly from completely inactive to normal or near normal waking consciousness. That transition must have taken at least hours, if not a day or more. During that time his neurological exam would not have changed significantly, if at all. The coma exam looks mainly at basic brainstem function and reflexes, and can only dimly examine cortical function (through response to pain) and cannot examine higher cortical functions at all. His recovery would have become apparent, then, when his brain recovered sufficiently for him to show signs of consciousness.

Alexander claims there is no scientific explanation for his experiences, but I just gave one. They occurred while his brain function was either on the way down or on the way back up, or both, not while there was little to no brain activity.

It’s not that the world isn’t mysterious. It is. It’s just that our desire to explain the things we don’t understand needs to be grounded in some sort of epistemological framework, one that takes into account things like the well-documented, easily reproducible fact that a human brain, deprived of oxygen or otherwise taken outside the relatively narrow constraints within which it likes to operate, quickly becomes an unreliable narrator.

Garner and Molina in ‘Serena’

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

My online existence seems to be increasingly YouTube-centric. There’s the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Guys Who Watch Girls, and the newest from Pomplamoose, Let’s Go for a Ride, including a brief (but awesome-sounding) tease of the new “electronicky” sound they’ve been working on.

But the most-compelling thing I’ve seen on YouTube lately is a one-off short film featuring Jennifer Garner and Alfred Molina called “Serena”:

Roberts Interviews Hayhoe

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

David Roberts did an interview recently with Katherine Hayhoe, the Texan evangelical Christian and climate scientist. Hayhoe contributed a key chapter on climate change to Newt Gingrich’s forthcoming book on environmental entrepreneurship, only to have Gingrich reverse course and dump the chapter from the book. She has some really interesting insights into what’s going on with climate scientists and their interactions with those who have been misled by climate change denialists: Chatting with the climate scientist Newt dissed.

McGowan Schools a Jehovah’s Witness on Scripture

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

As someone who has occasionally invited a door-to-door Jehovah’s Witness (or Latter Day Saint) in to discuss the Bible and/or Book of Mormon, I liked this piece by secular parent Dale McGowan:

She looked down and nodded once. “I can see you’re struggling with this…”

“Ma’am, one of us is struggling, and I don’t think it’s me.”

Westboro Baptist Explained

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

I’ve posted previously about Westboro Baptist Church, but in the past I’ve never quite known what to make of them. As documented on that five-year-old item, I did a mental double-take when I first encountered them, trying to figure out if they were real or a parody, and eventually concluded that they must be real. But it still felt vaguely off to me. Well, not just vaguely, way off. That one person would be pathological enough to twist Christianity in that particular way and to that particular extent was depressing, but not that surprising. But that his whole extended family would enthusiastically participate? And that they’d stick with it to the degree that they have, doggedly getting their protest signs in front of news cameras at event after event, year after year? It was just… weird. Something didn’t add up.

Fast forward to last week, when someone from Westboro Baptist (presumably) posted a faux threat against the church on AnonNews. Lots of media outlets apparently took the bait, reporting on how Anonymous was going after Westboro, and I confess that I found the notion intriguing: What would happen if the unstoppable force of Anonymous’ droll abusive dickliness met the immovable object of Westboro Baptist’s twisted religious bigotry? Which would win?

Alas, we won’t get to find out (at least not yet). As subsequently mocked at AnonNews: Message to the Westboro Baptist Church, the Media, and Anonymous as a whole. This was blogged about by Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing, which led me to this item: Fred Phelps is a con man.

Fred Phelps does not believe what he is doing. This is a scam.

It’s a business. They travel the country, set up websites telling you exactly when they’ll be there, and using the most inflammatory statements all over the place, just to get someone to violate their rights for profit. Then they sue the military, the police force that was to protect them, and everyone that is around them for money. This is a sham, and it is a trap to get people sued. Every member of his family is an attorney. Phelps does not break the law. What he does is try to make you break the law by trying to punch your sensibilities about everything you hold dear, and then sue you and everyone municipality around him to the max.

This is a scam.

Finally, it all makes sense.

The Religiosity Gene

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

Robert Rowthorn, a Cambridge economist, constructed a mathematical model to see what would happen if a “religiosity gene” — a gene that predisposes people toward being religious — existed. The result looks enough like the real world’s manifestation of religiosity to make me think there might be something there. Anyway: Model predicts ‘religiosity gene’ will dominate society.

O’Reilly: Athiest Billboards Are Insulting

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Bill O’Reilly on how athiest billboards are an insult to believers. Also, he believes in God because of the tides. Courtesy of NorthernLight, who posted it in the comments to Climate roulette:

Gervais on His Atheism

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

Both funny and compelling: A Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais: Why I’m An Atheist.

People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence, and they certainly don’t want evidence to the contrary. They are happy with their belief. They even say things like “it’s true to me” and “it’s faith”. I still give my logical answer because I feel that not being honest would be patronizing and impolite. It is ironic therefore that “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe”, comes across as both patronizing and impolite.

How Do You _Know_?

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

A word I like to throw around (especially when someone believes something different than what I believe) is epistemology. That’s the branch of philosophy that deals with the theory of knowledge, or how it is that we know what we know. When I think about epistemology I tend to think about the operation of my prefrontal cortex, as it carries out the so-called “executive function” of my brain: The evaluation of information gathered by the senses (these days, often via the distance-shrinking “perception engine” of the Internet), the use of logic, the rational weighing of evidence, and so on. There is also bias, including the predisposition to believe certain things because they match my a priori belief (see confirmation bias), but here I assume we’re still talking mostly about the prefrontal cortex.

But there is another aspect of knowledge that I too-frequently ignore. That’s the feeling of truth, the sense of certainty that accompanies knowing something. Here I suspect we’re moving beyond the prefrontal cortex into evolutionarily older structures. Where does that feeling come from?

An interesting disorder that may shed some light on this is prosopagnosia, or “face blindness”, in which a person has an inability to recognize faces, even if their ability to perceive the specific differences between one person’s face and another’s remains intact. Even more interesting (at least to me) is the somewhat-related disorder called the Capgras delusion, in which a person becomes convinced that someone they know well (like a close relative or loved one) has been replaced by an identical-looking stranger. In an NPR story from earlier this year (Seeing Impostors: When Loved Ones Suddenly Aren’t), Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich spoke with neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran about a possible explanation for the Capgras delusion:

According to Ramachandran, when we see someone we know, a part of our brain called the fusiform gyrus identifies the face: “That looks like mom!” That message is then sent to the amygdala, the part of our brains that activates the emotions we associate with that person. In patients experiencing Capgras, Ramachandran says, the connection between visual recognition and emotional recognition is severed. Thus the patient is left with a convincing face — “That looks like mom!” — but none of the accompanying feelings about his mother.

Ramachandran holds that we are so dependent on our emotional reactions to the world around us, that the emotional feeling “that’s not my mother” wins out over the visual perception that it is. The compromise worked out by the brain is that your mother was somehow replaced, and this impostor is part of a malevolent scheme.

I see this as tying in with Justin Barrett’s notion of a Hyperactive Agency Detection Device. The idea is that humans have evolved to experience a deep-rooted, powerful sense of “agency” when perceiving certain kinds of phenomena, and (this is important) to do so even in cases when there is no agent. As just one example, in evolutionary terms it may have been beneficial for us to believe that that rustle in the bushes was a large, hungry predator stalking us, rather than the wind, and to believe that viscerally, on an emotional level, rather than treating it as a passing supposition that we might or might not be bothered to act upon. The energy our ancestors wasted by overreacting to windblown leaves was more than made up for, the theory goes, by the survival benefit conferred by being hyperalert to actual threats.

Having evolved this generalized mechanism for “knowing” things that are not necessarily so, we now experience all kinds of interesting consequences: A propensity to believe that the universe was created specifically for us by an imaginary, omnipotent being or beings. A belief that intelligent aliens from other worlds are kidnapping people, taking them aboard invisible spaceships, and subjecting them to anal probes. A belief that some dramatic, emotionally traumatic event (the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 9/11 attacks) must have been the result of a conspiracy in which our own government was complicit. For a significant subset of the population, these and other conspiracy theories are not merely things that they suspect. They are things that they know.

Jonah Lehrer blogged yesterday about a recent study examining the role of a brain structure called the insula in mediating between physical sensations (like the feeling of warmth or cold one receives from holding a hot or cold object) and a willingness to extend trust to a trading partner: Trust and temperature. I especially liked this part:

We like to see ourselves as Promethean creatures, mostly liberated from this sack of meat we have to carry around for support. (John Updike, as usual, said it best: “We think we are what we think when in truth we are upright bags of tripe.”) But what the insula and these studies of embodied cognition demonstrate is that our mind is impossibly intertwined with carnal changes we can’t explain or comprehend.

I know what I know because my rational mind has analyzed facts and evidence, sure. But that’s not the whole story. The sensations delivered to me by my body — by chemical cues, sensations of warmth and cold, and the murky actions of older, deeper mechanisms that reach me as visceral emotions — play a large part. Perhaps the major part.

I just know it.

Does God Care about You, Personally?

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

ZOMGitsCriss does not think very highly of people who claim that they know God exists due to personal experience. But then, she’s just a telegenic blonde, so what does she know? Warning: she gets pissed at the end, and uses a bad word.

Dealing with a Creationist Science Teacher

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

If you’re the kind of high school science teacher who thinks Biblical versions of our origins are appropriate for inclusion in the curriculum, Dale McGowan probably is not the parent whose kid you want in your class: Science, interrupted.

Connor (15) came home on the second day of school and collapsed on the sofa with a defeated look I’ve come to recognize.

“Uh…good day?”

“No.” He looked up at me. “Science.”

There’s a whole series of posts, which I’m actually finding really interesting. I’m looking forward to hearing how it ends.

Coyne on the “Tom Johnson” Sock Puppet

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

From Jerry Coyne, author of the book Why Evolution Is True, comes this interesting (if you’re into high-profile falsehood, at least) account of an apparent act of sock puppetry aimed at questioning the “New Atheist” approach to confronting religious believers: On the uncivility of atheists: “Tom Johnson” and Exhibit A .

Tutu: I Would Never Worship a Homophobic God

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Desmond Tutu tells it like it is: In Africa, a step backward on human rights:

“But they are sinners,” I can hear the preachers and politicians say. “They are choosing a life of sin for which they must be punished.” My scientist and medical friends have shared with me a reality that so many gay people have confirmed, I now know it in my heart to be true. No one chooses to be gay. Sexual orientation, like skin color, is another feature of our diversity as a human family. Isn't it amazing that we are all made in God's image, and yet there is so much diversity among his people? Does God love his dark- or his light-skinned children less? The brave more than the timid? And does any of us know the mind of God so well that we can decide for him who is included, and who is excluded, from the circle of his love?

Telegenic Blondes

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Jenny McCarthy believes that MMR vaccines’ preservatives caused her son to be autistic, and that her changing his diet cured him. She has written best-selling books in which she advances these claims, and appears in front of millions of TV viewers at every opportunity to make the case. And apparently a lot of parents believe her, such that vaccination rates have fallen in the US, and lots of babies (including those whose parents choose to vaccinate them, based on information obtained from more credible sources than former Playboy models and TV personalities) are at increased risk as a result.


It’s not that complicated. There’s this thing called science. And it has a specific process you go through to evaluate claims like this. And the scientists have done it. And Jenny McCarthy is wrong.

There was a decent op-ed by Michael Fumento in the LA Times this morning talking about this: The damage of the anti-vaccination movement. So go read that, even though it will probably make you angry. And if it doesn’t, I bet this will:


Anyway, if I’m going to subject you to telegenic blondes trying to indoctrinate you with their views about science, let’s close on a more positive note: ZOMGitsCriss on the evidence for evolution:

Who Would Jesus Filibuster?

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Yeah, I haven’t talked much about the healthcare bill. I’ve been following some of the coverage, but it’s hard for me to get excited about this particular sausage being made.

Here’s one detail that was amusing, at least, with a question that I think random outside observers can interestingly weigh in on. From C-SPAN, via ThinkProgress, there was this video you probably saw (if you’ve been processing every tidbit):

So, the actually interesting question is, is that caller for real? Or was it a joke? Josh Marshall reposted an excerpt from an email that makes a pretty good case that it’s fake: Spoof or #prayerfail?. I’m curious what y’all think.

Texas Officially Makes The Universe Ageless

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

I’m reaching for the low hanging fruit here, mostly because we haven’t had a new headline here in a while, so here we go.

Texas Officially Makes The Universe Ageless

I don’t think anyone here is going to get too excited about this, but maybe we can twist it to talk about the US auto industry or something in a few replies.

Darwin’s Deathbed Conversion

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

It’s comforting, in a way, to sit down with a good story. It helps build a wall against the troubles of the here and now, offering a pleasant escape into a distant country of mind.

In that spirit, I offer you this account of what is generally known as the “Lady Hope story”, from Pastor Grant Swank of New Hope Church in Windham, Maine: Darwin: ‘I was a young man with uninformed ideas’.

He was sitting up in bed, wearing a soft embroidered dressing gown, of rather a rich purple shade.

Propped up by pillows, he was gazing out on a far-stretching scene of woods and cornfields, which glowed in the light of one of those marvelous sunsets which are the beauty of Kent and Surrey. His noble forehead and fine features seem to be lit up with pleasure as I entered the room.

He waved his hand toward the window as he pointed out the scene beyond, while in the other hand he held an open Bible, which he was always studying.

“What are you reading now?” I asked as I seated myself beside his bedside. “Hebrews!” he answered — “still Hebrews. ‘The Royal Book’ I call it. Isn’t it grand?”

Sigh. I can almost hear the birds singing in the hedgerows. It seems a shame to puncture such a lovely thought bubble with hard-nosed observations like those of Simon Yates and PZ Myers.

Giordano, Hilzoy, Wikipedia on the Benefits of Not Being a Dick

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Synchronicity is in the air.

Al Giordano, whose opinions on things like this were borne out repeatedly during the presidential campaign, wrote the other day on what Obama has really been up to with the stimulus bill: The partisanship trap:

…Obama’s strategy is to set [Congressional Republicans] up for another rout in the 2010 Congressional elections and to hasten, in the meantime, the process by which they wake up and realize their seats are vulnerable. The President doesn’t need their votes on the Stimulus (therefore, this maneuver is not about the Stimulus, but more akin to a football team calling a running play to set up a later passing play). The truth is that so many Congressional Democrats are so undependable that Obama will need some Republican votes later on other legislative priorities, particularly in the Senate in order to get 60 votes for “cloture” to allow bills to be voted up or down: On the Employee’s Free Choice Act, on Immigration Reform (and now he needs one more to offset the anti-immigrant junior Democratic Senator from New York), on children’s health care and much, much more. To get to that point, he has to make individual Republicans feel vulnerable at the ballot box to Democratic challenge. Today’s events are speeding that process up.

In the end, Obama’s “bipartisanship” is one of the most Machiavellian partisan maneuvers we’ve seen in Washington in a long while, and I use that description in its most admirable context. The Republicans fell right into the trap today. Progressives that urge Obama to be more “partisan” should pay close attention to how the GOP is getting pwned before falling into the same trap themselves.

hilzoy is likewise someone who has emerged from the last few years with many of her interpretations vindicated by subsequent events. She makes a similar argument in Bipartisanship and the stimulus:

If Obama had gone to the Republicans and said: I propose a bill entirely made up of things Democrats really want and you really hate, but please, do join us in supporting it!, that wouldn’t work at all. But he didn’t do that. He went the extra mile. When Republicans protested about particular things, he dropped some of them (though not all: he was not, for instance, willing to compromise on refundable tax credits, and he was right not to compromise on that one.) There’s a fine line between being willing to compromise and being willing to surrender, and I think Obama generally stayed on the right side of it, while being open enough to compromise that he will get real credit for trying.

The House Republicans, by contrast, looked silly. They were carping about tiny bits of the stimulus (the capitol mall?!). They changed the bits they objected to from one day to the next, and looked for all the world like what I take them to be: people who were determined to oppose the stimulus bill from the outset.

This reminds me of a recent bout of Wikipedia editing I got involved in. As always, I came away with the feeling that it’s the people on your own side who are the biggest pains in the ass when trying to craft a consensus on a controversial article. Case in point: user hrafn’s one-man campaign to “win” the evolution/creationism debate for the evolutionists at the Strengths and weaknesses of evolution page. More detail (much, much more detail) about my views on how this runs counter to Wikipedia’s neutral point of view policy is available on the article’s talk page, if you’re interested.

I made it a personal challenge to try to do everything “right” in Wikipedia terms. I assumed good faith. I made it about improving the article, not about the personalities. I worked for consensus on the Talk page, rather than getting caught up in revert wars in the article itself. It took a long time, and ultimately, while I think I made some good points and achieved some small, but measurable, improvements in the article, I gave up. Life’s too short, and I’ve got other things I care about. You win, hrafn. For certain values of “win”.

The “big three” core policies of Wikipedia, the so-called Trifecta, are these: 1) Remain neutral. 2) Don’t be a dick. 3) Ignore all rules. Taken together, I think they really do offer hope for building consensus on controversial questions. But it’s not a quick process. Quoting hilzoy, again:

To my mind, it is generally a good idea to act on the assumption that your opponents are reasonable people. (There are, of course, exceptions: e.g., when you don’t have time.) It’s the right thing to do morally. But it’s also generally the right thing to do tactically. I think this is especially true when you suspect that your opponents are, in fact unreasonable. You should always hope to be proven wrong, but if you are not — if your opponents are, in fact, unreasonable — then by taking the high road, you can ensure that that fact will be plain to the world.

Anyway, this is a long way to go to get to it, but I’m hereby apologizing to shcb for losing my cool with him in the comments about global warming science. It’s understandable that people who aren’t climate scientists (which, as far as I know, none of us around here are) are going to have different views on the degree of scientific consensus (or its lack). And while I can have my own opinion on the bad reasons someone might have for elevating the views of people like Joel Kotkin or Larry Summers or James Inhofe over those of the scientific mainstream, it doesn’t buy me much to make accusations in that area.

Evaluating the claims of science is actually fairly hard, in that science asks us to transcend traits that have been baked into us over the course of millions of years of primate evolution. Meanwhile, recognizing whether or not someone is being a dick is pretty easy. Given that, being dickly is a good way to lose the argument, at least in the eyes of a substantial chunk of whatever audience you have. Most people don’t keep score on the basis of journal citations and scientific reputation. They keep score on the basis of who sounds more reasonable. So it’s important to sound reasonable.

One last synchronistic item: I liked the op-ed piece in today’s edition of the Incredible Shrinking Print Media by Deborah Heiligman: The Darwin’s marriage of science and religion.

Although they never were able to see eye-to-eye on the question of religion and God, [Charles and Emma Darwin] were able to reach their hands across the gulf. In the end, each of them accepted and, it seems, truly understood what the other believed.

If it is a sign of intelligence to be able to hold two opposite thoughts or opinions in your head, then it is a mark of a successful marriage to be able to truly see the other person’s point of view. This is also the mark of a successful society.

Charlie Daniels on God’s Role in Preventing Post-9/11 Terror Attacks

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

From country singer Charlie Daniels, marveling that atheist Michael Newdow is willing to sue to try to prevent religious content from being included in the Obama inauguration ceremony: He must be a miserable man:

If we deny God His rightful place in the affairs of this nation should we expect Him to intervene when we need protection? Just what do you think has kept us safe from terrorist attacks since 9/11? It certainly wasn’t the atheists.

Disclaimer: I came across this quotation at PZ Myers’ Pharygula (Old, senile, and ignorant). I do not actually read Charlie Daniels’ blog under normal circumstances.