Monday, 6 December 2010

Two questions for believers

In thinking about morality and how religion tries so very hard to claim it as a 'god-given' thing, I have two questions for believers on the subject (for the Abrahamic religions specifically). Not all believers may hold the beliefs I refer to in them, but I expect the majority do in some form. An additional question might be "if you don't believe these things, why not?". But I digress:

1) If morality in humans is something that has been given to us by your deity and is a reflection of it's 'will', or a natural extension of the deity (i.e. 'god-given' morality is innate in all of us), why do some of your deities actions in your holy books seem to us to be utterly immoral?

2) As there is no reason why an atheist could not live as moral, or possibly a more moral life than a believer, why does your deity additionally require belief in it's existence to grant people entry into heaven, and how is that moral?

I do wonder how these things are squared in the minds of believers.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Another random brain fart...

I recently read Why Does E=mc²? by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw and in it they explain special relativity. They make a statement about spacetime that I'd not come across before and I found to be a bit of a mind-bender. Everything moves through spacetime (spacetime being of course the combination of the three dimensions of space and the fourth dimension that is time) at the same speed, and that speed is c, speed of light.

This was a totally different way of looking at time-dilation for me and it kind of makes it clear - everything is moving through spacetime at the same speed, but that speed is 'shared between' the spacial dimensions and the time dimension. You may be sat in front of a computer reading this now, stationary. You are not however stationary in spacetime, as clearly you are moving though time. If you treat time as if it were a fourth spacial dimension, that means you are moving through that dimension at c, the speed of light. But what about light? A photon of light (in a vaccuum) is the exact opposite - it is moving through the three spacial dimensions at c, and therefore doesn't travel through the time dimension at all - photons do not experience time passing.

For everything in between, (i.e. things that are moving but at less than the speed of light), the speed is split between space and time, which causes time-dilation. The effect being that the closer you get to travelling through space at c, the slower you will travel through time. The effects are far to small to be noticeable in everyday life and only really come into play when you get pretty near c, but they are there nonetheless.

Hopefully that made sense. Obviously I'm not able to explain it as well as someone like Brian Cox! But the great thing about explanations like that are that as well as making a difficult concept easier to grasp, they also provoke more questions. Like, why does everything move at the same speed through spacetime? Is it even meaningful to imagine something moving at a different speed? In addition to that, photons are massless particles, which is why they move at c through space. So why does possessing the quality we call mass mean you experience time pass? The current theory of mass revolves around the yet to be confirmed Higgs boson and the related Higgs field. Objects passing through the field get slowed down, as if wading through treacle whereas massless things like photons just zip through it unimpeded. Being slowed down by the field manifests itself as having mass. So is there some link between the Higgs field and the dimension of time?

Monday, 22 November 2010

Blog recommendation

So here's a blog on physics I have recently discovered: Neutrino Science

It's by neutrino scientist Dr.Ben Still, who answered a random question I threw out in the the Twittersphere a while ago. Now he's cooking up a post to answer another question I had rattling in my head (the standard model of particle physics says there are three generations of matter - how do we know there isn't a fourth, or more?).

This is great. But poor Ben may regret it, as I have LOTS of questions... ;)

Monday, 11 October 2010

'Skeptic' t-shirt idea

There's a definite difference these days between the meanings of the two spellings of sceptic (UK - sceptic, US skeptic). The use of the US version seems to be the one linked to the 'skeptical' movement (that voices opinions on any and all non-scientific woo that's out there). So I say DISPLAY THE K!

Click here to buy a t-shirt!

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Skeptic Magazine cover illustration

Finally I can post my first (and hopefully not last) magazine cover illustration that I did recently for The Skeptic Magazine of Simon Singh and David Allen Green (and a couple of other faces Skeptic readers might recognise). Huge thanks to Crispian Jago who asked me to do it and Chris French for liking it! It was great fun to work on, not only getting the faces right but recreating the atmosphere in the specific pub where the meeting I was to illustrate took place.

I'm offering a very limited number of prints of this illustration (just 50) for sale. As with my other prints, they are A3 size and printed on a high quality archival paper and are hand signed and numbered by me. The price is £17.50 inc p&p, and I will be donating £5.00 from every sale to the DEC Pakistan Floods Appeal - just click the PayPal buy now button below to order your copy:

Thursday, 23 September 2010

The Case Of The Pope

I've just got a copy of this Penguin Special book written by Geoffrey Robertson QC: The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse. It promises to be an interesting read if the first chapter is anything to go by. May well post something about it when I've read it completely.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

A ponder on spontaneous creation

I haven't got hold of Stephen Hawking's new book yet so I don't know the actual details of his statement that was splashed all over the papers recently that the laws of physics allow our universe to spontaneously create itself. But it got me wondering...

The multiverse idea suggests there may be other universes separate from ours out there (an infinite number?), with different laws of physics (which removes the need for fine-tuning of our laws to be suitable for life). Assuming no creator deity, it would follow that not only our laws of physics allowed the spontaneous creation of our universe, but the laws of all the universes that could exist in the multiverse must also allow spontaneous creation of their own universe (or they simply wouldn't exist).

So there must therefore be a subset of all possible laws of physics that allow spontaneous creation and they are the only ones that go on to create universes. Now we've all heard of physicists tweaking our laws slightly and wondering what that would mean (a 1% increase in gravity meaning stars don't last long enough to allow life to arise, a 1% decrease meaning stars don't form at all, that sort of thing) - but have they turned that process around and wondered how tweaking those laws effect the initial spontaneous creation?

Could it be that, as the parameters of the laws that allow for spontaneous creation are narrowed down, that they may in fact match up with the parameters that allow the universe they create to support life in some form? In other words, might the supposed fine-tuning also apply to the spontaneous creation of a universe?

Of course it wouldn't be a fine-tuning question at all, because if correct, then it would show that our type of universe is the only type of universe that could spontaneously create itself (and therefore the only type that could exist) - and so it would do away with both the need for a creator and the need for a multiverse to explain anything.

Bish bosh I'll take that prize thanksverymuch Mr Nobel.

(no doubt the answer is hahahahaNOhahaha but it was fun to think about for a few minutes)

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Albert Einstein t-shirt design

Here's the last of these t-shirt designs for the moment (unless I think of any more that it works for) - the daddy, Albert Einstein! Check it out here.

Full caricature:

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

My t-shirt designs

Here are a stack of t-shirt designs I've done with a science/skeptic/religion angle - they are all available through my RedBubble shop in a ton of colours and sizes! Check out the shop here. Here are the designs:

"Dawkins Says" (two different t-shirts available):

"Hitch Says" (three different t-shirts available):

Pope On Tour 2010:

Harry Houdini "Houdiniac":

Physics Standard Model:

Hopefully I'll add more soon (I really should do an "Einsteiniac" shouldn't I?), there are a few other caricature designs on the site too. Again, here's the RedBubble shop with all my designs - check 'em out ;)

Monday, 23 August 2010

The Greatest Show On Earth

Almost finished reading Richard Dawkins' latest book describing the evidence for evolution "The Greatest Show On Earth" and it is a wonderful book. Got to hand it to Dawkins, he writes so compellingly about his subject. It's a real page turner. I really hope it gets a wide readership amongst those who are unsure of evolution (for whatever reason, but mainly religious. Is there another reason someone would deny it I wonder?) because it is utterly convincing. Even I've learnt many knew things about not only particular cases of evidence but the strength and breadth of the whole package.

I'm almost tempted to get a couple more copies to have ready the next time Jehovah's Witnesses knock on my door. I'd be happy to hand one over to them if I thought they might read it. The book does an excellent job of highlighting why the creation theory of how the variety of life exists just makes no sense at all in the face of the evidence. Evidence that fits perfectly, and indeed may only be fully explicable by the theory of evolution (natural selection). A couple of times I have JW's into my house for a chat (I never used to, but these days I figure that if they are going to try and persuade me of their beliefs, my best response is to try even harder to explain to them why they are wrong - as politely as possible of course) and the argument from design is raised. It's not long after that happens that they leave, usually in somewhat of a rush.

Dawkins' book is one of the best arguments against design I know of, because it explains what we find when we look at the natural world as clear results of evolution and completely nonsensical if you assume a designer. Things like the geographical distribution of species, the molecular evidence of common ancestry, many examples of really terrible 'design' in nature and many more areas. The fossil record is of course discussed, but what he repeats (and is an important fact to remember when JW's and other religious people criticise it) is that even if we had no fossils whatsoever, the evidence for evolution is totally rock solid from all these other areas. That there has never been a fossil discovered that disproves evolution, which would be trivially easy if creation were true) is just the icing on a very big cake.

Great book, essential reading.

One caveat to that though... Dawkins writing does at a couple of points become a bit too school-teachery. It is a bit annoying when he says before launching into a detailed but perfectly clear description of a scientific experiment concerning E.coli, that the reader should maybe have a good sleep beforehand, or make sure they are rested well, because they might not follow it if a little tired. Condescension like that I could really do without.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Dawkins' 'Faith School Menace?'

This is now on 4oD, it's a very good programme and Dawkins was remarkably restrained I thought (which was a good thing I think). The most worrying sequence is in the Muslim school where it highlights not only the children's lack of knowledge about evolution, but the science teacher's also. I must admit I wasn't aware that faith schools didn't have to have OFSTED approve their RE curriculum, but have their own bodies do that. Scary stuff frankly.

I definitely agree with Dawkins that faith schools should be scrapped, and support the British Humanist Associations campaign:

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Good article on the 'death' of British Christianity

This is a good read:

The slow, whiny death of British Christianity

Now that only six percent of British people regularly attend a religious service, it's only natural that we should dismantle the massive amounts of tax money and state power that are automatically given to the religious to wield over the rest of us.

Couldn't agree more with that, it really is time to make some changes regarding religion if only to save that money. We're all going to suffer from Govt cuts soon. Lots about faith schools in that piece also, which I've always been dead against. I think next week there is a new Richard Dawkins programme on C4 called 'Age of Reason' which tackles faith schools. Should be good, and he always makes good arguments, but I do wonder if a lot of people switch off when they see his name attached to anything. Reading his latest book 'The Greatest Show On Earth' about the evidence for evolution now and it is a cracker.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Some light reading

A quick post to recommend a couple of excellent books I read recently (hello my one follower ;) ):

Why Does E=mc²? by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

First of all, what a great title! Why does E=mc²? Well as I'm sure everyone knows it's all part of Einstein's special theory of relativity which has always been a bit of a mind-bender. Once you learn about it though, it isn't all that weird. Ok, it is, but it's not too tough to get it - and this is probably the best book I've read in terms of explaining it all simply. You will feel about a million percent more cleverer once you've read it :)

From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll

If relativity doesn't trouble you then Sean Carroll's investigation into the nature of time will completely bake your noodle. The book deals in some depth with the concept of entropy, which seems straightforward at first but I still wake up with the sweats thinking about it. A big book with big ideas about not only time, but how the universe bagn and how it might end... brilliant.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Hitchens vs. Wilson 'Collision' movie

OK, so finally I get round to writing a post for this blog! Don't worry, it'll probably be one a year from here on :)

So, last night I watched again the excellent documentary 'Collision' which follows atheist writer Christopher Hitchens and pastor Douglas Wilson as they tour to debate and promote their joint book 'Is Christianity Good for the World?" which arose from a correspondence on that question. It's a great film and they both come across as powerfully intelligent debaters and even though they simply couldn't disagree more on the subject in hand, they also clearly respect and enjoy each other's company.

The debates that are shown in the movie focus on several aspects of Christianity and religion in general, but the one that appears the most and seemed to me to be the foundation of Wilson's arguments for his faith is morality.

Wilson's position seems to be this - there is an objective morality and it comes directly from God. Morality is a reflection of the true nature of God, and we all have a sense of morality because it was God that created us and gave us that moral sense (ignoring the fact that some don't have it at all, but I digress). So he rebuts the argument that Hitchens puts (and is fairly common I think) that Christians believe atheists are only able to be moral because of Christianity. Wilson argues that of course atheists can be moral (just as Christians can be immoral) but that the question is not if they can, it is why they (and any of us presumably) are moral, or rather have this apparently innate sense of morality. His answer is, as mentioned, that it is an innate part of God in the first place.

OK, now that at least makes sense on the question of whether atheists can be moral. Plenty of complete idiots think they can't and of course that's total nonsense and I was glad that Wilson didn't think that. Having said that, he brought up Stalin at one point as an example of an atheist's immorality but of course being an atheist says virtually nothing about a person's capability to be moral. An atheist could be the most generous and altruistic person you know, or they could be a psychopath. Same for Christians of course, and Wilson must know that Christians in history have committed atrocities in the name of their religion (and of course that it can be argued that Stalin didn't do what he did in the name of atheism, but his own form of dogma).

He also makes the claim that atheists can have nothing to say about the God-ordered genocide of the Amalekites in the Bible because "the universe doesn't care". Here he is claiming that an atheist has no reason for saying that an act is immoral because he has no foundation to base any particular moral opinions on. I see what he means - but of course I disagree with the conclusion and I'll come back to that - but as he does have a foundation for his moral choices (God) he can have an opinion.

The problem with that is, and to his credit Wilson has no problem saying this, is that he thinks the genocide of that particular group of people was morally correct because God had ordered it. It was God's will therefore - by definition - it was morally correct. That's quite an admission. Basically to the Euthyphro dilemma (Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?) Wilson is answering the latter. It is morally good because it is commanded by God. Fullstop, end of discussion. Which when you think about it is a pretty terrifying thing to admit you believe, and simply confirms Hitchens' assertion that with God, anything is permissible. As long as you can convince yourself (or someone with perceived religious authority can convince you) that an act is God's will, then by definition that act is moral. Presumably Mohammed Atta and his 18 accomplices believed something similar.

Wilson's argument against using rationality to decide on the God question follows on from his 'foundations' argument. To argue for rationality, he says, is to make a circular argument as you are using your premise (rational thought) to prove your conclusion (rational thought). An atheist would clearly object if he were to quote Bible scripture in an attempt to prove the inerrancy of the Bible, which is the same thing. Your choice of 'world view' cannot be justified by that world view itself. Seems like a strong argument to me really, and Hitchens isn't show to give any response to it. What occurs to me though is that surely you can use results to determine the validity (or not) of your world view? Maybe I am not using the word rationality in the same way as Wilson, but the greatest expression of human rationality so far achieved has to be the scientific method. It's not perfect but it's the best way of understanding the world we have. Most importantly, as ably illustrated by the xkcd comic strip - it works, bitches!

Doesn't the extraordinary success of rationality in science point to it being a pretty good world view? What achievements does the religious world view have to show in comparison? So maybe you can't philosophically argue for rationality by using rationality, but that argument then applies to ALL world views, religious included, and so surely judging by results is the best we can do. I know which side I'm on.

Of course by making that argument Wilson must hen admit, and he does, that his world view is based on nothing but faith. Which I also find to be an almost incomprehensible decision. And leads me to another point that his discussion on morality brings up, which is this - if our sense of morality comes from God, if God's will itself defines morality and he gave us that moral sense himself - why do so many of God's actions and demands in the Old Testament seem so abhorrently immoral to us? How can Wilson decide that an act of genocide, which can only be seen as an immoral act by any sane person, is in fact a moral act when the very sense that he claims God gave him must tell him otherwise? There are countless examples in the Bible of God acting in ways that are clearly immoral to us - yet that shouldn't be possible if Wilson is right. Take the Book of Job, where God mentally and physically tortures a man to extremes to win a bet with Satan. Does he believe that because God acts in this way, those actions are morally permissible? He can't, of course, but why not when by his own admission what God wills is by definition moral? Bizarre. I have no doubt Wilson has complex and well thought out answers for all of this, but to me at this point it seems contradictory to say the least.

The other thing to mention is of course that there are many very good evolutionary theories about the origins of moral behaviour, altruism etc in humans, and plenty of evidence that many other animals also behave in these ways. So the origins of our moral sense may well have perfectly rational explanations and not require any supernatural touch whatever. If that turns out to be so, and I'm confident it will, why would anyone reject those explanations in favour of a leap of faith to believe in a God whose own actions as discussed above seem so immoral? Why believe God is moral in the first place, surely he could be good, bad or indifferent? To believe he is the perfectly moral being as Wilson does seems to fly in the face of all the available evidence (none of which actually suggests he exists in the first place of course).

Hitchens also never tackles Wilson with the problem of evil and I would like to hear Wilson's response to that. Anyone with a clear thought in their head can see that there is an unthinkable amount of suffering and pain in this world that if God wished to could be prevented. Yet it exists, Wilson must therefore not have any moral objections to God's perceived inaction. Again a pretty scary thought.

Anyway, those are my thoughts after watching the film, I highly recommend it and you can also read the initial letters between the two men here.

Sapere Aude!