Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Reality Check

Posted by midiguru on July 16, 2014

The local public library has hundreds of books on religion, but only a handful on atheism. Yesterday I checked out The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, by Alex Rosenberg. At first glance, it seems sensible enough, but problems soon develop.

Rosenberg is absolutely right to insist that science provides the only usable source of information with which to address life’s important questions. He gives himself a quick pop quiz, and gets the answers right: Is there a God? No. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Does prayer work? Of course not. Is there free will? Not a chance!

He’s also correct, I think, in noting that a big part of the appeal of religion is that the human brain is hard-wired by evolution to relate to stories. Religion is a huge repository of stories — charming, inspiring, or scary. Science is hard for people to grasp because it isn’t a collection of stories.

Where he runs off the rails is in his discussion of science. He doesn’t get his facts straight. Instead, he starts telling stories. Okay, there are no people in the stories, but they’re fables nonetheless.

He accepts the hypothesis of a multiverse as fact, when in fact it’s no more than a vague guess, unsupported by a shred of evidence. He asserts that the entire physical universe is made up of fermions and bosons, even though physicists have no idea what sort(s) of particles dark matter (if it even exists) may be composed of. He dismisses the anthropic principle without troubling to explain that there is a weak anthropic principle (which is quite sensible) and a strong anthropic principle (which is silly).

Or consider this passage: “The physicist’s picture of the universe is the one on which all bets should be placed. The bets are not only that it’s correct as far as it goes, but that it will eventually go all the way and be completely correct. When finished, it will leave nothing out as unexplained from physical first principles (besides those principles themselves).” [Italics in original.] This reminds me of the apocryphal comment, made toward the end of the 19th century, that the Patent Office might as well be closed, because all of the devices that could be invented had already been invented.

As any reader of Scientific American knows, the frontiers of physics are very fuzzy indeed. The essential problem — and it’s not just a practical problem, though it is that; it’s essential — is that the things physicists would like to study are so very small or so very distant in space and time that we’re reaching the limits beyond which it will be impossible to gather raw observational data.

And while we’re on the subject, where exactly did those first principles in physics come from? This is not a trivial question. As Einstein once remarked (or so I’ve read), “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Why exactly should all electrons behave identically? And isn’t that question one that physics should be prepared to investigate?

No, Mr. Rosenberg, physics will never be complete.

His discussion of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is conventional, but flawed. (I’m sure this same flaw is found in physics textbooks. You don’t have to thank me.) Here is how Rosenberg puts it: “The second law tells us that in any region of space left to itself, differences in the amount of energy will very, very, very probably even out until the whole region is uniform in energy.” A few pages later, he says the second law “requires only the extremely probable increase in entropy from moment to moment in a closed system — the whole universe or some isolated part of it.”

There are two related problems with this formulation.

First, there is no such thing as a closed system. You can build an iron box if you like, and pack it full of gas molecules, and observe how they mix. That’s the sort of “closed” system theorists like to talk about. But every second, millions of neutrinos will be zipping straight through that box, as if the iron walls weren’t even there. The iron walls themselves, not having been cooled to absolute zero, will be radiating heat into the interior of the box while simultaneously absorbing heat from whatever is outside the box.

Yes, the Second Law will describe what’s going to happen in the box, unless some outside source of energy intervenes. If an improbable distribution of gas molecules shows up, you look for the outside source of energy. That’s very sensible, but let’s not talk about closed systems, shall we? There are always outside forces acting on a “closed” system.

Second, and more important, we don’t know that the universe as a whole is a closed system. It may be infinite in extent. The part we can observe appears to be finite, though extremely large — but there is an edge past which we can’t see. We don’t know what may be out there past the furthest objects we can observe. If the universe is infinite, then the Second Law becomes meaningless as applied to the universe as a whole, because somewhere out there, there will always be regions of improbably high energy density.

And that’s just the chapter on physics. Having barely started on the chapter about biology and evolution, I stumbled on this howler: “Darwin estimated that at least 300 million years had been required for natural selection to provide the level of adaptation we see around us. (He was off by three orders of magnitude….)” Sorry, Mr. Rosenberg. The difference between 300 million and 3 billion (the actual time span) is only one order of magnitude, not three.

With friends like this, atheism may not need enemies.

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Reading the Bible as Literature

Posted by midiguru on April 11, 2014

I just don’t seem to be able to let sleeping dogs lie. Having aroused some contention over the question of whether the Bible qualifies as literature, I bethought myself to examine one of its better known fables in that light. Let’s not dwell on the barbaric laws or the preposterous historical chronicle — let’s look at a story.

How about the story of Adam and Eve? For those who are following along at home, this would be Genesis chapters 2 and 3. The story is too well known to be worth reiterating here, so let’s jump straight into the literary analysis.

The first moral we might draw from the story is this: Disobeying orders is a really bad idea. But in fact this is a corollary of an underlying, implicit idea, which is that you have a superior, a personage who is completely in charge of your life. This personage will give you orders, and the orders must be obeyed.

A second corollary is that your superior may be malicious or simply incompetent, and may in consequence set you up to fail. For no apparent reason, he may put a major stumbling block in your path. No point in complaining about it, though: He’s your superior.

A third corollary is that, as far as you need be concerned, your superior is Never Wrong. The possibility that Adam might have confronted God about the nasty trap that God set, might have asked for an explanation or a second chance — the story doesn’t go there.

The story’s second moral is that the knowledge of good and evil is a Bad Thing. You’re better off by far not knowing the difference between good and evil. The knowledge will cause no end of trouble. As a corollary, even seeking knowledge is portrayed as a mistake. Your superior wants you to remain ignorant. Given that so much of the rest of the Bible sets out detailed rules whose sole purpose is to explain what’s good and what’s evil, this is an odd place to start the book. But that’s what we’ve got. Read the rest of this entry »

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Is the Bible Literature?

Posted by midiguru on April 10, 2014

A friend of mine recently suggested that intelligent people view the Bible not as “the word of God” but as literature. Let’s leave aside the fact that Jesuit priests are reputed to be highly intelligent. I don’t know any Jesuits, so I can’t ask them how they view the Bible, but I suspect most of them probably view it as something more than a work of literature — as do faithful Christians in other denominations. Let’s also leave aside the post-modern idea that “literature” is a subjective construct of some sort; we’ll assume that we know what the word refers to — printed matter like Don Quixote and The Sun Also Rises.

What I think my friend was suggesting was that one can appreciate the content of the Bible as a collection of fables or folk-tales, without being drawn into or distracted by a discussion of its other facets.

The first question that one might ask is, is that how the authors intended their work to be understood? Probably not. Even the most charming or morally uplifting stories in the Bible were probably intended to be read not as works of the human imagination but as fact. But the question of authors’ intentions, while useful as an aid to literary analysis, can be treacherous; it can lead us back in the direction of post-modern literary analysis. So let’s leave it aside too.

If we examine the text itself, we find not only stories but also bits of speculative genealogy, accounts of battles, and numerous sets of rules. Many of the rules are quite explicit — horrifyingly so. It’s difficult to think of a work of literature (or, if you prefer, another work of literature) that devotes so much wordage to telling people what they should and shouldn’t do, much less prescribing severe punishments if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. The most charitable interpretation would be to say that the Bible is part literature, part history (inaccurate history, at that), and partly a really inadequate self-help book.

If we consider the Bible a piece of literature, we might compare it to The Canterbury Tales, or to the Iliad and Odyssey. All are ancient. All contain bits that may be inspirational or morally uplifting. But there are important differences. The Canterbury Tales was definitely written by one person (though he borrowed freely from older tales) and was understood to be a work of fiction. The Iliad and the Odyssey may have had multiple authors, and may have been conceived as history rather than as fiction, but each of them exhibits a unity of plot that is nowhere in evidence in the Bible as a whole. Even the Decameron has a frame-story and an overall structure that give some sense of unity to the collection, in spite of its diversity. Read the rest of this entry »

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Biblical Scholarship

Posted by midiguru on March 16, 2014

Here’s what I’m trying to understand. Quite a lot of Christians are good, decent people. And yet, when they go to church on Sunday, up at the front of the church is a big fat book with a bunch of really disgusting, nasty stuff in it, and they revere that book.

If you ask them, they’ll tell you that the coming of Jesus sort of cancels out the nasty stuff in the Old Testament. And they sincerely believe that. But this is no more than a pathetic and transparent dodge.

In the first place, if the Old Testament has been rendered irrelevant, why is it still in their holy book? Why haven’t they ripped out those pages? None of them have ever done that. Those nasty old stories are still in every copy of the book, and the book is still in every church. So evidently they still find some value in a text that they claim has been rendered superfluous.

In the second place, they still like some parts of the Old Testament. Some of them like the Ten Commandments. Some of them feel that the story of Adam and Eve is relevant. Some of them even think the story of Noah is literally true. What’s really going on is that they’re ignoring the parts of the Old Testament that are inconvenient (such as the bit where God insists that they wring the necks of pigeons and sprinkle the blood around the altar), while cherishing the bits that they like. Yet even the bits that they’re ignoring, the bits that they will tell you quite sincerely have been rendered null and void by the coming of Jesus, are still right there in the book.

The third problem is more theological, but nonetheless it’s quite perplexing. I’m pretty sure most Christians would tell you that God is perfect and eternal, and that God is a God of love. Undercutting that idea, however, is the unmistakeable fact that the God depicted in the Old Testament Read the rest of this entry »

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True Believers

Posted by midiguru on February 24, 2014

Prompted by idle curiosity, I read the first part of Inside Scientology, by Janet Reitman. It’s fascinating, in a queasy way. One of the thought-provoking bits is the description of life on L. Ron Hubbard’s yacht, where the inner circle of the “religion” hung out while it cruised the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. By this time, Hubbard had become a strict disciplinarian — a tin pot dictator. Those who failed to meet his expectations were punished by being exiled to a roach-infested compartment in the bowels of the ship, where they slept on pee-stained mattresses.

What’s amazing about this is that everybody who was there put up with it. Nobody (or almost nobody — the book is not specific on this point) said, “Well, fuck this,” and left. This fact gives us a deep insight into the human psyche. Most of us have a deep need to be part of a group, a need to belong. We will put up with almost any sort of treatment, and engage in any sort of bizarre behavior, in order to remain part of the group. Not only that, but our instincts will coerce us into believing that our own group is special. We will feel loyalty to it and affection for it. The thought of not being part of the group will make us nervous.

This is true of people in business settings, in political parties, and indeed in nations. It’s true of the police and the military. It’s true of drug gangs and the Mafia. Being part of the group is more important than being kind. It’s more important than using your intellect to understand what’s going on.

With secular groups, though, there can be a point where the individual says, “Enough. I’m leaving.” When the group is doing bad stuff, the pain of separation eventually becomes Read the rest of this entry »

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Head Hurts — Please Stop

Posted by midiguru on January 25, 2014

Today’s most memorable quote (though to be fair, it’s only 10:30 in the morning) comes from Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes for Health. This gentleman is a scientist, but also says he believes in God. In a discussion on HuffPost Live, he apparently said this about evolution: “…if you are a believer in God, it’s hard to imagine that God would somehow put this incontrovertible evidence [for the reality of evolution] in front of us about our relationship to other living organisms and expect us to disbelieve it.” You can read the whole article, if you like, here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/25/francis-collins-davos_n_4635338.html?utm_hp_ref=politics&ir=Politics

The point of his statement was, I think, to suggest that folks who reject the idea of evolution are both ignoring evidence and being disrespectful of God’s motives. However, there is certainly a strain of Christian belief that insists we shouldn’t use reason, because reason is a tool used by Satan to tempt us into doubting the word of God. For folks who really believe that, it’s actually quite easy to ignore the evidence, because the evidence was put there by Satan.

Okay, so the head of the NIH doesn’t understand fundamentalist belief systems, or pretends not to. But there’s more to the story than that. The HuffPost article also quotes Collins as follows: “For me, somebody who is a ‘show me the data’ kind of scientist, but also a believer [in God], I don’t see a discordance there.” In other words, he’s a ‘show me the data’ kind of guy when it comes to science, but when Read the rest of this entry »

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That Big Bang

Posted by midiguru on January 25, 2014

We have no clear idea about how the universe came into existence. Scientists have some hazy theories, but the theories are packed with assumptions that may be wrong.

People who are inclined toward religious belief tend to assume that some enormously wise and powerful entity called “God” created the universe. This idea explains nothing, but I guess it’s comforting.

It explains nothing because, as Richard Dawkins has pointed out, in order to create a complex universe — one with finely tuned physical laws — God would have to be complex. A simple God (a God with no internal features) couldn’t do the necessary equations. If God is complex, then we can’t dodge the question of where God came from. It’s an infinite regress. If you’re going to assume that a complex God “just is” and doesn’t need explanation, you might just as well assume that the universe “just is” and doesn’t need explanation.

Still, it’s a fun idea to think about. Let’s assume for a moment that the universe was created (13.8 billion years or so ago) by an unimaginably vast and powerful entity that we may as well call “God.” Sadly, nothing in the physical universe gives us any clue about the nature of this God. We might entertain any number of hypotheses, all of them equally Read the rest of this entry »

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Special Pleading

Posted by midiguru on December 11, 2013

A friend on Facebook posted a link to a HuffPost blog piece on religion. My friend introduced the link by saying, “I have been arguing for years that it is not religion, but the misuse of religion, that causes evil….” After a preliminary salvo in reply to his introduction, I had a look at the article. (You’ll find it at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sean-mcelwee/stop-blaming-religion-for_b_4416137.html). It was written by someone named Sean McElwee, whose only stated qualification as an authority on this subject is that he’s a writer. Well, so am I, so I guess Sean and I are on equal footing. Let’s see how we fare.

My preliminary comment to my friend began, “…but what is the proper use of religion? Does it have one? I’d appreciate an honest and sensible answer to this question.” To my way of thinking, the utility of religion is that it provides social solidarity for a group of people. But then, so does a bowling league. Is religion different in any essential way from a bowling league?

I went on to say, “Beyond this, I would strongly suggest that any attempt to get religion off the hook on all the evil that is done by religious people is doomed to failure, and for a specific reason: Religious doctrine of any kind produces cognitive blindness. Religious doctrine by its very nature renders the believer unable to separate truth from falsehood. This is the essence of religion! Without blind belief, religion would cease (since, of course, there is nothing there to actually believe in). Thus it is inevitable that religious people will, sooner or later, do evil things.” Why? Because when called upon by the leaders of their sect to do evil things, they won’t be able to acknowledge to themselves that they’re doing evil.

“You’re welcome to try to dispute this,” I told my friend, “but I doubt you’ll be able to do anything other than Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in random musings, religion, society & culture | 1 Comment »

The Appeal to Higher Authority

Posted by midiguru on November 6, 2013

I dislike getting in wrangles with people on Facebook. Nobody’s mind ever gets changed as a result, and I seldom learn anything worth knowing. Still, these tiny tempests keep getting stirred up. Quite often on the topic of religion, I’ve noticed. Somebody posts something, I point out the fallacies in it, and before you know it we’re strapping on the gloves and stepping into the ring.

I’ve also noticed that those who adopt a religious position in such discussions are, virtually without exception, impervious to logic and not even faintly interested in logical discourse — unless, of course, they can twist the logic into a form that they can pretend justifies the conclusions they have already reached and are determined to defend.

In order to short-circuit the whole cycle of controversy, I thought I’d write a brief statement, to which I can link whenever it’s needed. It may end up being not entirely brief. We’ll see.

Two thousand years ago, slavery was commonly practiced throughout the world. At that time, women had essentially no rights. Divorce was allowed in Rome, but largely unknown elsewhere. Capital punishment was routinely meted out for trivial offenses. Law enforcement agencies routinely used torture. The concept that citizens Read the rest of this entry »

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The Sorting Mittens

Posted by midiguru on March 10, 2013

Many years ago, when I was editing Chick Corea’s column for Keyboard, he suggested to me that I really ought to read Dianetics, by L. Ron Hubbard. I wish I still had the note Chick sent; at some point along the way, I must have tossed it.

I did in fact pick up a copy of Dianetics at Chick’s suggestion. I read about 20 pages. All I remember about it, after more than 30 years, is that Hubbard started out by redefining some ordinary words to mean entirely new things. Or possibly he just started using the words in new ways without bothering to define them. Technically speaking, it was gobbledygook. Its main appeal, it seems to me, would be to people who are desperately seeking answers to life’s deeper questions but lack the critical thinking skills that would let them sort out which are the good answers and which are the nonsensical ones. Assuming there are any good answers, which I think is very questionable.

Call me a seeker. Today I’m reading Journey into Consciousness, by Charles Breaux. It purports to reveal connections between Tantra and Jungian psychology. At first glance, it seems more sensible than some books on such subjects. That’s why I brought it home from the library. But as I dig deeper, it begins to remind me of Dianetics. Not in its details, mind you, but in the fact that you’re expected to take as factual a bunch of stuff that is neither defined nor adequately explained.

According to Gautama Buddha, Breaux tells us, “All life is in flux, and trying to establish something solid and permanent leads to suffering. Feeling attached to Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in random musings, religion | 6 Comments »


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