Saturday, May 31, 2008

Stupid Design

Part of a lecture by Neil deGrasse Tyson, given at the Beyond Belief conference in 2006:

The entire conference was filmed and can be seen here:

Carl Sagan's The Dragon In My Garage

This article beautifully illustrates how frustrating it can be to argue with a believer from the lack-of-evidence perspective.

"A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage"

Suppose (I'm following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

"Show me," you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle--but no dragon.

"Where's the dragon?" you ask.

"Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon."

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.

"Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floates in the air."

Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

"Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless."

You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

"Good idea, but she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick."

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.

Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.

The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I've seriously underestimated human fallibility.

Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don't outright reject the notion that there's a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you're prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it's unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative-- merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of "not proved."

Imagine that things had gone otherwise. The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch. Your infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons--to say nothing about invisible ones--you must now acknowledge that there's something here, and that in a preliminary way it's consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.

Now another scenario: Suppose it's not just me. Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you're pretty sure don't know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages--but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive. All of us admit we're disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on. I'd rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren't myths at all.

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported. But they're never made when a skeptic is looking. An alternative explanation presents itself. On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon's fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such "evidence"--no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it--is far from compelling. Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.

Carl Sagan

Friday, May 30, 2008

Why I'm creating a blog.

I've been an atheist for as long as I can remember. Despite being taught bible stories and being made to sing Christian hymns in school, I can honestly say I can't remember ever believing in any of it. I guess part of this might be due to my parents, who, rather than being outright atheists or agnostics, just don't really care about the whole deal and tend to ignore/avoid it (I actually think the majority of people in the UK have a similar attitude, but maybe that's a discussion for another time). As I grew up my opinion of religion was that it was pretty much harmless and that as society progressed it would fizzle out with all the other out-dated ideas like racism, homophobia, patriotism and the like.

Several things have happened in the past few years that have changed my attitude to a more actively-hostile stance, however. Firstly, 9/11 and other religiously motivated terrorist events, for obvious reasons. Secondly, the recent publication of numerous atheist books (you know the ones), which haven't made me "more atheistic" but have led me to give my atheism some serious thought. And thirdly, I moved from the UK to Canada, where religion has far more prominence and can be very difficult to ignore.

To be honest I remain pretty optimistic for the future, and if I had to predict what the world will be like in 50 or 100 years, I'd predict a strong decline in religion. However, it's clear that the religious folk are currently fighting back hard as their ship goes down. In particular, creationist propaganda and the intelligent design lobby are spending a considerable amount of time and effort in propagating misinformation about evolution, a subject I've been fascinated by ever since my dad first showed me how an eye could evolve from just a light-sensitive patch of skin (one of my earliest memories). Recently I've been reading quite a few popular science books on the subject, and the beauty and elegance of the theory is wonderful. As someone with a background in physics, what has impressed me the most is that evolution can explain so much about the natural world with such basic ideas (and no mathematics!), and yet still be completely falsifiable. To see creationist webcasts LIE so blatantly about the subject has started to irk me in quite a profound way, and over the past few weeks I've started to have the feeling that I need to do something to push back against these idiots. This blog is my way of doing that.

Now I've always hated the idea of blogs. How arrogant of people to think that their opinion is interesting enough that the general public needs a chance to read it! Well, here I am writing my own blog now, so maybe I'm being a touch arrogant myself. At the moment, though, the idea of this blog is not so much to post my opinion as the opinions of others. A quick google search shows how many eloquent and witty blogs already exist on the subject of atheism, and I have neither the time nor the talent to compose original material for a blog on a frequent basis. So what I'd like to do here is re-post articles, quotes and links on atheism that I like and that I think more people should have the opportunity to read. Hence the title of the blog. Hopefully this will make me feel like I'm being a little more pro-active about my views. I'm not expecting to convert people, just to help spread the atheist message in some small way. There are numerous established blogs out there that are already doing this effectively, but I figure another one can't hurt, eh?