Sunday, August 31, 2008


As far as I can see, the basic tenet of the ‘argument for design’ is, roughly speaking, a certain reading of the law of entropy. People will quote the phrase ‘second law of thermodynamics’ without really understanding what it is or entails. To the supporter of ID / creationism, ‘entropy’ is an important concept because it suggests that, in a ‘natural’ situation, things will fall apart, not come together. Things will tend towards disorder, not towards order (this despite the natural phenomenon of crystallisation, for example).

Superficially, some aspects of the ‘argument for design’ do seem tempting. People who ask ‘when you see a car, you know someone designed it, so how can you conceive of humanity developing without some kind of design?’ can seem convincing, especially to someone who hasn’t considered the topic in detail. They may then come up with some arbitrary number (like one in 100 million billion etc.) and claim that these are the odds of human life (as we know it) occurring spontaneously.

For me, however, the big problem with the implication of design from complexity is the way we look at it. We start with the end product – humanity – and move backwards from there. It’s almost as if you take one Jackson Pollack painting, declare it to be the ‘ideal’ painting, and measure all others by merely how far they deviate from this ‘ideal’. It’s arbitrary. The suggestion that the human body is of ‘perfect’ design is actually comical if you think about it. Among the things we can’t do: we can’t fly, we can’t breathe underwater, we can’t see in the dark, we can’t carry 10x our own weight, we can’t use echolocation, etc. etc. etc. And that list is merely confined to things that other, so-called ‘inferior’ species can do. In thinking of ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ design, it’s easy to see how any of those above traits would come in handy, yet we lack them. Our body’s structure, shape and abilities – ‘design’ if you will – are one of billions of way we could have formed. To call our bodies ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ is something like throwing a dart at a blank wall and then describing the place where it hit the wall as the ‘ideal’ place for a dart to be.

Our perceptions of ‘order’ and ‘disorder’ are largely culturally defined, and science rarely bears them out. Think about the following: go to a place that sells lottery tickets and ask for the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. The shopkeeper will, at least, shake his/her head. Your friends will all tell you you’ve wasted your money. The fact that 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 is equally as likely as any other combination of six numbers is lost on most people – they have put their own sense of ‘order’ into an otherwise random, or disordered, system. Such is our instinct to connect ‘order’ to ‘design’ that if the lottery ever did draw 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, there would be outcries of fraud. We condition ourselves to believe that that sequence of numbers can’t occur randomly whereas, for example, 7, 12, 16, 25, 28, 30 seems ‘random’ and thus acceptable lottery results to us. But we deceive ourselves. Both of those sequences are equally probable.

If you are playing poker and deal yourself a royal flush immediately after shuffling, you will be strongly accused of cheating (and maybe be at risk of mortal danger). Again, however, the odds of getting the ace, king, queen, jack and ten of spades (a royal flush) and the odds of getting, say, the ace, king, queen and jack of spades plus a three of hearts (nothing more than ‘aces high’) are equal. The ‘order’ that we see in one but not the other is based on the rules of poker that our cultures have laid out, not on the randomization process of shuffling a deck.

Anybody who believes that order cannot come from disorder and that order is inevitably the result of conscious design should spend an afternoon watching cloud formations. Cloud formations are actually the predictable results of an insanely complex web of factors such as wind speed, air pressure, humidity, etc., but for all intents and purposes can be considered ‘random’. Surely no one can honestly consider cloud formations to be evidence of ‘design’.

Nonetheless, anybody with an iota of creativity can surely pick out shapes, images and sometimes even letters and words among the clouds: “Look! I see a puppy!” “I see a sailboat!” “I see a smiling old man with a beard!” It’s an enjoyable, but ultimately meaningless, exercise. We can see, of course, that these shapes are not the result of any form of ‘design’ other than the one within our own minds – our own creative ability to find the illusion of ‘order’ in disorder and to attach ‘meaning’ to the meaningless. When we’re looking up, we call it a nice time-waster. When we are looking around us, we call it inarguable proof of ‘design’ and ‘intent’.

ID / creationism supporters will additionally talk about how the earth is at an ideal distance from the sun and has an ideal ecosystem to sustain life. Again, what they mean is life as we know it. Again, however, this makes the mistake of starting at the conclusion and going backwards. Even holy books concede that there must be an earth before there are creatures to populate it, and saying that the earth is designed to be suitable to humans is no different from filling a bowl to the brim with soup and then declaring the bowl to be of a size, shape and volume ideally suited (and even ‘designed’) to hold your soup – of course you merely measured your soup according to the bowl, and similarly humans and other forms of life have merely adapted themselves (through the pressures of natural selection) to best suit the environments in which we find them. The large expanses of the world that we haven’t populated – Antarctica, the depths of the oceans, the parts of the Sahara that don’t have oases – clearly show the true extent to which Earth is optimally ‘designed’ to support us. We crowd ourselves in narrow areas along coastlines and then claim the Earth was ‘designed’ for our benefit.

None of this proves the cosmological and biological theories that are accepted in modern science and that describe an undesigned system. But the fact is that many supporters of ID / creationism do little more than use poorly-understood concepts to attempt to ‘take down’ modern science by suggesting that the processes they describe are ‘impossible’ (or at least ‘virtually impossible’. Their aim, and a subversive one it is, is to try to discredit these theories in the hope that people will then fall ‘by default’ to the concept of a universe created according to God’s will. But not only is this deceptive and underhanded, it is simply not true. The forces that scientists believe to have been responsible for our existence are not only completely plausible but are quite readily visible in our day-to-day lives.

Those who have eyes to see, let them see...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Between a rock and a hard place

You know, if I were a Christian, I’d be an obnoxious jerk.

There. Contentious statement out of the way, let me explain what I actually mean by that. It seems that belief brings out different qualities in different people. Some people seem able to speak of a compassion motivated by their love of their saviour Jesus Christ, while other people seem to thrive on the vilest, basest forms of hatred, prejudice and snobbery, equally motivated by Jesus Christ.

Of course, both of them have their pertinent Bible verses to back them up. The frustration of the Bible is not how in contradicts itself in details but how it contradicts itself in tone. The notion that fire-and-brimstone wrath God and love-thy-neighbour compassion God are meant to be the same entity is and remains a leap of intuitive logic up there with the best of Sherlock Holmes.

I know that not all Christians grapple with that dichotomy equally. Some, perhaps most, give very little thought to the apparent conflicts in the Bible. Others constantly struggle with it, whether or not they’ll admit it.

Which is a sense brings me to my point. If I were a Christian, given the choice between the sexist homophobes and bullies and the thoughtful, compassionate caregivers, I’d be the bully any day. It’s just so much easier.

Despite all the rubbish out there about how the 10 Commandments are the source of our morals and how, without the Bible, we’ve got nothing to go on ethically, we as a society have a pretty decent sense of ethics. Yes, kinks to be ironed out, but by and large okay.

I say despite the Bible because the fact is that society doesn’t really use the Bible as a ‘moral compass’ (whatever the hell that is) at all. And with good reason too – in every debate for the past few generations about questions of social policy, where the Bible is mentioned at all it’s invariably mentioned by the regressive side of the argument. Based on the people who cling to it as they launch into speeches at least, the Bible consistently runs counter to our social progress. And I do believe that it is progress; I’m much too optimistic a person to give into ‘hell-in-a-handbasket’ style fear-mongering. We now live in a world that, I believe, behaves to others with more dignity and respect than at any other time in history.

The thing is that in light of these changes, where modernity and dogma clash, it seems that you have to either embrace progress and reject the Bible, or reject progress and embrace the Bible. For me, it’s easy. I can, for example, advocate marriage equality and the right to choose without fear that it conflicts any particular book and threatens the salvation that such a book offers.

I’ve seen people who have a natural inclination towards moderation, who seem naturally compelled to advocate every individual’s right to live as they choose in dignity and yet who also have a dedication to this particular book. It’s heart-rending to see the mental gymnastics they perform in an attempt to make the Bible say what they want it to say: to say that their god does not condemn gay people and non-believers to eternal torture and has not committed all nature of gruesome slaughters throughout history. These people see love in the world, want to believe in a god of love, and yet have a book in front of them that appears to contradict that on every other page.

Their convictions and compassion contradict the book they see as a guide to their salvation; they’re stuck between the rights of man and the word of God. It’s a hell of a place to be in – one that I don’t envy at all. I respect the compassionate Christian more than I understand him. Those are shoes I don’t think I could walk that mile in.

That’s why I say it’s easier to be the small-town preacher thundering down God’s wrath on idolaters, deviants and abominations left, right and centre. If you can give in to the basest of prejudices, you can feel at peace in the comfort of your own perceived salvation without any true conflict of interest. You can picket abortion clinics, harangue homosexuals, protest scientists and artists, demonise Muslims and non-believers, and wail on and on about how the world has become a worse place because schools no longer force Christian prayers on children. You never have to worry about contradicting the Bible: it stands behind you 100%.

I can’t be bothered to undergo the intellectual rigours involved in making the Bible a source of positivity and goodness. That’s why I say that if I had to be a Christian, I wouldn’t force myself into the dilemma of believing both in humanity and in the divine origin of the Bible. The radicals who make Christianity look like a hate group have it easier: spew hatred and spout Bible quotes. It’s as easy as taking candy from a baby.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

In the beginning...

Typical boring argument:

Theist: “But how could the universe have just existed forever? Obviously someone or something needs to have created it, right?”

Atheist: “Well, but how could God have just existed forever? Isn’t that essentially the very same question?”

Theist: “Hmmm… grumble grumble, alpha and omega, er…, exists out of time, uncreated, uh… holy spirit, scoffer, the fool hath said in his heart…”

Atheist: “Okay then…”

Okay, a bit harsh. A bit exaggerated. I know. But it has never failed to surprise me how many people will say that 1) it’s plainly obvious that the universe cannot have existed forever or spontaneously come to be and 2) it’s plainly obvious that God must have existed forever (or ‘outside of time’).

I mean, I get why it’s such a common argument. It boils down to the following: “The origins of existence are something beyond my comprehension. And that which is beyond my comprehension I call God.”

Ultimately, then, “I don’t know. But I’m comfortable with not knowing, because my god is unknowable.” Which, you know, is convenient.

The honest truth is that I don’t actually completely understand the scientific approaches to this answer. I realise it’s connected to how time exists in relation to the speed of light, so when there is no light, there is no time, so there is no infinity. I get it, and yet I entirely don’t.

But the idea of an infinite god who just happens to exist without any explanation of how or why such an entity could exist falls even further outside of my grasp of understanding. Certainly that events might come to be naturally, in and of themselves, makes more sense to me than the notion that an entity with a personality, with consciousness and with a ‘masterplan’ could suddenly pop up out of nowhere (or, rather, ‘always exist’, or ‘exist outside of time’). Whatever consciousness is, it’s more logical for me to consider a process by which it evolved within humans and other forms of life than to say that it just kinda always was, within a particular deity, who then decided to give his creations, humans, the same quality.

It seems to me that, when it comes to the question of the absolute beginning of everything, both theists and atheists actually talk in similar ways: x being eternal/timeless/uncreated is something I can’t believe in, so I presume y to be eternal/timeless/uncreated. However, from a personal perspective, I can add three things to this: 1) I can freely admit that I have no idea how the universe came to be; I require no god to plug in that gap, though. 2) Whatever the truth might be (and I’m not ‘strong agnostic’ about it; I believe that we can, and hope that we do, find an irrefutable explanation for this), I can freely admit that the idea of eternity, of the universe coming to be in a sudden uncreated explosion, fills me with awe and more than a twinge of fear. 3) However the universe came to be, I’m pretty damn glad that it did.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Blaise Pascal Casino

So I picked up a copy of Blaise Pascal’s “Pensées” the other day. Quite literally, in fact, as my neighbour had left out on the lawn a box saying “Free Books” and containing said tome tucked in alongside owners manuals for old cars, V.C. Andrews books and Audobon Society birdwatchers’ guides.

So I didn’t actually have to pay any money for this groundbreaking testament to the Christian faith and modern classic of the French language. Which is, you know, about the right price.

I never knew the format and structure of “Pensées”, which is: a compendium of bits and scraps of ideas in an only vaguely organised fashion. It’s kinda like Confucius’ “Analects” except if every other one of them trailed off somewhere in the middle of the thought. It’s hardly an easy read.

I really, really wanted to give Pascal the benefit of the doubt here. See, as a mathematician and scientific philosopher, Blaise Pascal is amazing. There’s no doubt that he’s got a talented mind. He’s the kind of scientist for whom respect is universal, and warranted.

So I really wanted the chance to see his infamous ‘wager’ in his own words, and to see the context in which it’s placed. I was hoping for something that said, “Yes, people have reduced my thoughts into a tidy, simplistic and ridiculously pat formula, but the real words I wrote are much more nuanced and intelligent.”

Verdict? Um, well… fifty-fifty, so to speak. The section containing the so-called ‘wager’ is better developed and more coherent than most of the rest of the book, which is nice. A true mathematician, he engages in a lot of nice talk about infinity and how we can acknowledge that an infinite number must exist without knowing what that number is; ergo, we can acknowledge an infinite being without knowing any of his nature. A neat trick. It doesn’t, of course, mean anything, but at least it beats most of the doggerel to be found in the “Pensées”. When he gets into game theory, though, things don’t really rise much above the schoolchild-mentality of the wager as it’s commonly stated.

Simply put, for those who don’t know, Pascal’s Wager approaches belief vs. disbelief from a kind of game-theory perspective. It claims that, since God’s existence is truly unknowable (an interestingly agnostic position for an apologetic to hold), the question of whether to believe or not can be approached as a comparison of possible outcomes. The idea is that if you believe, the two possible outcomes in store for you are heaven or nothingness but if you don’t believe the two possible outcomes for you are (presumably) hell or nothingness. Thus, if you were to wager (as in bet in a casino), you’d be better off believing in God.

The holes in this theory are many. Firstly, it’s what they call a ‘false duality’ in that it implies there are only two possible alternatives, wherein there are theoretically a million (i.e. those of other religions). I had originally presumed that Pascal, being from pre-modern Europe, perhaps had limited or no knowledge of non-Christian religions and thus didn’t consider them. Yet the “Pensées” are filled with references to other religions, and in fact mention Muhammad in the first sentence, sooner even than Jesus. Essentially he repeatedly cuts down other religions more or less out of hand while trumpeting the obvious fact of Christianity as the ‘one true religion’. Which hardly makes the remainder of his treatises worth much consideration.

Additionally, it implies that ‘belief is enough’, a curiously Protestant view for a French man to hold. If there is more to the heaven/hell equation than mere belief, if life sacrifices are required, then the wager is incorrect because it implies all things being equal during this life. Richard Dawkins, nutty guy he is, asked what it would mean for Pascal’s Wager if there were a god that rewarded disbelief (i.e. atheists went to heaven, Christians went to hell).

For me, though, the biggest problem with Pascal’s Wager is the implication that belief is just some switch up in your head that you can turn on or off at will: i.e. that you can choose to believe. Those who parrot Pascal’s Wager often state that it’s easy, which is a curious thing to me, because I find believing in God impossibly difficult, and something I’m entirely incapable of convincing myself to do. I honestly wonder if there is anyone in the planet who has genuinely not believed but who has, despite that, successfully been able to force themselves to believe (for cynical cover-your-ass reasons, nonetheless).

And if there is, if there is a god in the man-made pantheon that would fall for it.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

If the Tortoise and the Hare were scriptural

When I was a child, I used to think of the stories of Æsop and the stories of Genesis along similar lines: interesting stories with frequently positive morals, but not to be taken seriously. Not once in my whole childhood did I encounter anyone - relative, friend, teacher, old homeless man - who suggested to me that, for example, Adam and Eve should be taken more literally than, for example, the Tortoise and the Hare.

I was thinking about that very idea the other day - as I tend to think about useless things. I thought about the similarities between Æsop and Genesis and got to wondering what it would be like if they were the same thing. How would it be if the Tortoise and the Hare was a story in the Bible? Or in the Qur'an? Or in the Tao Te Ching?

Well, my friends, it would be something like this:



(modelled on KJV)

10:1 And it came to pass that unto Dilash was born Zinhap. And in his two hundred and fifteenth year did Hare speak unto him, saying, Come! Let us race that we may find who is the fastest.

10:2 And Zinhap said unto Hare, Let me take your leave, for slow of foot am I. And Zinhap wept.

10:3 And the LORD appeared unto Zinhap, saying: Fear thee not. Thy name shall not be Zinhap, but Tortoise shall be thy name, and great shall be thy victory. I am God almighty. No harm shall come to those who believe in me.

10:4 And it came to pass that on the eighth day did Hare and Tortoise journey to the plains of Genuzzah, and they did run.

10:5 And Tortoise beheld Hare, as he ran, and Tortoise spake, saying, O God of Abraham, give me strength, I pray thee, for this race, lest I lose.

10:6 And the LORD did appear and Hare was cast into a deep sleep.

10:7 And Tortoise lifted his eyes and spake, O LORD! How great Thou art that thou hath delivered Hare into a sleep that I may be victorious. How Just is my LORD, to whom I am but a humble servant.

10:8 And thus did Tortoise begin his journey.

10:9 And it came to pass that Hare did awake and, upon seeing Tortoise who was approaching the finishing line did Hare speak, saying, How is it that Tortoise hath passed me? for slow of leg is he and I am fast. Forthwith I must make haste that victory may be mine.

10:10 And run did Hare, yet it was too late, for presently was Tortoise crossing the victory line.

10:11 And Tortoise did live a long life in Genuzzah and his years did number seven score and eight. And then he died.



(modelled on Pickthall)

100:1 Pa. Rum. Pum.

100:2 Recite! Have We not told you of the tortoise and the hare? And how surely one day did the hare invite the tortoise to a race?

100:3 He said: O tortoise! Thou who are slow and dull of wit. Thinkst thou that a hare so mighty and great as myself could be beaten in a footrace?

100:4 The tortoise said: If Allah wills it, it will be so. There is nothing that Allah can not accomplish.

100:5 Thus did the tortoise and the hare commence their journey. And immediately did the tortoise speak, saying: My Lord! Exalted be Thee! Loose my legs that I may be able to run! Thou art merciful and righteous.

100:6 And indeed just as We have done countless times before did We greatly increase the speed of the tortoise and relieve his suffering. Lo! Is Allah not greater than the universe and all that lies therein? Assuredly we could create a tortoise that hath speed enough to overtake a disbelieving hare; could we not?

100:7 And verily the tortoise came to rest at the finishing line before the prideful hare. And on seeing this did the hare drop to his knees and call out: Lo! I have been a wrong-doer. Surely there is no God save Thee, Allah. Surely I am but a humble servant to Thee. Alas! I seek mercy from Thee. Praise be to Thee!



(modelled on D.C. Lau)


Long and arduous is the Way:
It is like a footrace.
The faster a traveller traverses it,
the slower he arrives.

Thus the sage walks slowly, with determination.
When he arrives at his destination,
he finds himself first in line.

When we harness the power of the Tao,
no slowness is too fast
and no speed is too slow.