God Probabilities Are Pointless, Even From Physicists

Physicist Sean Carroll indulges one of his physics colleagues in a post Guest Post: Don Page on God and Cosmology. Sean:

Don Page is one of the world’s leading experts on theoretical gravitational physics and cosmology, as well as a previous guest-blogger around these parts. … He is also, somewhat unusually among cosmologists, an Evangelical Christian, and interested in the relationship between cosmology and religious belief.

From here on I’ll address Don on his piece, by picking up only the statements I think are really problematic. I’m basically repeating what I wrote in the comments section, with some minor mods. Continue reading “God Probabilities Are Pointless, Even From Physicists”

It’s True!

Great Jesus & Mo cartoon again.

The best bit, and the most crucial bit that applies to all religious books is number 1:

1. This is true

This is the one and only necessary assumption in any religion to make it worthy of the name. It must declare its own truth. Of course (snigger 🙂 (more smugness to come) we all know this is pure bollocks don’t we.

I get regular visits from Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are really nice people (at least to ones who visit me are). I think they like me and return often for the following reasons:

(a) I don’t slam the door in their faces;
(b) they haven’t converted me yet, so I suspect, like a lottery rollover, my cache goes up with each rejection;
(c) the religious are masochists (why else invent sin and then admit to bing up to the neck in it).

Anyway, I keep two things handy for when they call.

The first is a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. They always quote from it incorrectly and it’s an easy book to show them they’ve been misled. They do go through some other topics, such as DNA, irreducible complexity, but I usually wing it once we get past Darwin, because it would take too long to go through any book to convince them (“Let’s start with basic chemistry…”). I know, it’s wrong of me, but I argue from authority of knowing just a bit more about this stuff than they do. As much as I can make points against Behe’s arguments generally, if they brought him along as a guest doorstepper I might be screwed on the biology, because I’m not a biologist.

But I digress, again. The second, and most important thing I keep nearby is a piece of paper, oh and a pen – so that’s three things I keep near by, but you know what I mean.

And on that piece of paper I write words to this effect:

This paper contains the word of God as revealed to Ron Murphy. If you’re here while he’s writing this you too must bear witness to this miracle. Now, as your God I command you to ignore the Bible, Koran, gold tablets and any other bollocks you may have come across telling absolute crap about me. I can swear by the way. I am God after all. Though the atheists got it wrong, they got it wrong for the right reasons – they don’t believe any old crap in a document claiming to be the revealed truth. What sort of fucking argument is that?! Anyway, on this occasion it happens to be the truth. However, I’ll forgive you not believing it if you throw it in the bin. On one condition: you throw your crappy book in the bin too and start thinking for yourself.

No, I don’t really write all that, I just feel as though I want to. A sentence or two is usually enough to make the point.

But, miracle of miracles, their faith survives even this cutting blow. What the fuck can I do?

I thought perhaps I should show them the fabulous Morwenna Banks, from that brilliant series Absolutely.

This for me says everything about religious imaginative invention. It encapsulates millenia of theology as Little Girl rationalises uncertainties and contradictions in what pops into her head.

And her punch line:

It’s true! I know because I do!

And Little Girl here provides us with the best accommodationism I’ve ever come across: Genesis plus Evolution! It’s true!


And this is what you get when It’s true! is put into practice. Enjoy!

Jesus and the Batman Gospels

What is it with Christians and the gospels? Don’t they get that they are fiction wrapped around a myth? One argument often used to support the case for the gospels being a representation of historically truthful events is their claimed consistency. How could these independent writers all tell what is basically the same story? It must be based on truth, right? Well, no.

I visited the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art yesterday, on Broadway, New York. That is, Suite 401, 549 Broadway, a nondescript entrance between two stores (as opposed to the more glamorous ‘appearing on Broadway’). This isn’t a big show; and to call it a museum is stretching it a bit. Still, comic life is an exaggeration of real life – as are the Christian gospels.

I found that one of the notes accompanying some of the Batman strips struck a chord with me, and prompted me to make this comparison. It’s a presentation of Batman in a way I’m familiar with hearing from Christians, regarding the Christian gospels. I thought it worth quoting here. When you read it, try replacing references to Batman with Jesus, and the various Batman artists with the Christian gospel authors.

Batman is the most protean of the great comic book characters: From Bob Kane’s original cartoon icon, to Dick Sprang’s broad-chested guardian of Gotham, comfortable as parade marshal; from Neal Adams’ cloaked figure in the shadows of the night, to Frank Miller’s aged and cranky crusader; each talented artist has brought a very personal vision to this hero.

And the impossible thing, they all feel right … definitive … even with all their inherent contradictions. Unlike lesser legends, which need to follow model sheets from generation to generation, Batman gives his chroniclers the power to transcend them, and in so many cases, do the most important work of their careers. No other hero would give us the ability to simultaneously showcase so many of the legendary talents of the comics field; and no other would be the character to greater acclaim than any other.

Walk along MoCCA’a walls, and stroll the streets of Gotham in daylight and darkness, enjoying the protection of the Caped Crusader and the Dark Knight … the one and only Batman.

– Paul Levitz is a comic book fan (The Comic Reader), writer (Legion of Super-Heroes), editor (Batman), Executive President & Publisher (DC Comics, 2002-2010), and historian (75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Myth Making)

Of course there have been other contributors to the Batman story; but then there are other Christian gospels too.

Many ‘sophisticated’ and ‘liberal’ theologians like to emphasise the ‘story’ of Jesus, as an allegory, a story that represents life to them, but not necessarily literal. That is until you witness them talk among themselves, or to more literal believers, when it’s pretty damned hard to interpret their stories as anything but literal. The blurring of the line between fact and fiction seems to be a convenience that allows them to switch modes, being sophisticated in the company of rational atheists, and yet literal to literalist believers.

The evolution of the Batman myth, as represented by the various artists that have imposed their belief in Batman on the story, echoes that of Jesus as presented in the gospels. There’s no more reason to suppose there’s any more truth in the gospels than there is in the Batman stories. The Batman stories have varied over time, but maintain a consistency; but that doesn’t make them any more true.

Okay, I’ll allow some particular truths to the Christian gospels: they may contain mentions of real place names, and real people. Gotham City isn’t real, after all. But let’s not pretend that having a story contain real locations means it’s not fiction. While in NYC I also saw Mission Impossible, with real locations.

Theologian Censors Debate?

Jerry Coyne debated theologian John Haught.

Both paties agreed to the debate being taped, but it seems Haught didn’t like the outcome and now doesn’t want it to be shown. Further more, some people have emailed Dr. Robert Rabel, head of the Gaines Center for the Humanities, because he had agreed to Haught’s turnaround, and Rabel didn’t like that. So he’s now threatening to take legal action against Coyne, accoding to Coyne.

Theologians can be really dumb sometimes.

Other coverage:

Butterflies and Wheels

Heavenly Science

I’m sometimes asked if I’m spiritual. Of course I’m not spiritual in the theistic sense, being an atheist, but there are atheists who consider themselves spiritual beings: Carl Sagan, Sam Harris, for example. I don’t think I am, but I do have a sense of wonder and awe about the world, whether it’s about our cosmological origins, or the new ideas in earthly sciences.

I guess this is the closest I’d come to heaven – being surrounded by fascinating people figuring out what makes the world go round, and how to make it go round better. Their enthusiasm is palpable.

For all Christians go on about what their God gives them it just seems pretty lame compared to discovering new stuff about the universe, or creating fascinating new content that solves very human problems.

Science Foo Camp 2009: by Nature Video.

I guess this un-conference format doesn’t make for easy video, and it’s by invite only. But I’d love to be a fly on the wall. Maybe that’s something that could come out of this type of event. We need a really cool new method of experiencing these events as if we were there.


Some scientists and mathematicians can have experiences that can be considered revelations:


Some Notes on Theism

I’m prompted to write this post as a general account of my opinions about the existence of God in response to an exchange with Aaron on Sam’s blog: Comments. In particular I wanted to respond to this comment by Aaron: “At the very core, Christianity is nothing more than following Christ. The word itself means simply one who follows Christ’s teachings. All of the sacraments, all of the ritual, all of the dogma is man-made artifice that is at times either helpful or harmful to a given individual or even to the world at large.”

There’s nothing new in what follows; it’s just a summary of my views on the subject of theism in the above context.

I don’t find anything wrong with following the teaching of any particularly wise person, but is it really likely that all the professed teachings of Jesus were all his own work? Even if it could be shown that many of the teachings of Jesus were attributable to his followers and biographers that wouldn’t necessarily diminish the wisdom inherent in the teachings.

But anything in addition to this is where my problem with Christianity, and theism in general begins.

First, to make Jesus anything more than simply a mortal teacher requires the presupposition of God. This presupposition is at the heart of all the main monotheistic religions. Without an initial God everything else fails, theistically. Theists sometimes argue that atheists aren’t in a position to comment on some aspects of theology that they haven’t studied, but without the presupposition of God the theology is worthless.

I find no rational reason to presuppose God. I have not seen one single argument supporting theism that doesn’t presuppose this, for any of the God religions. And this brings me to the degree of my ‘agnosticism’ or ‘atheism’ as discussed with Aaron. The metaphysical idea that a God is one possible cause of everything is fine, but that’s all it is, an idea, a concept, with no more weight than any other metaphysical idea. I could equally presuppose two Gods, and infinite number of Gods, or no Gods, a single once-only universe from nothing, a cyclical single universe, multiple parallel universes, metaphysical ideas that have mathematical support and those that don’t, and even pure fantasy universes – metaphysically, anything goes. So, in response to Aaron, I am ‘agnostic’ to the extent that the God hypothesis is one of many, and I am ‘atheistic’ to the extent that I don’t find the God hypothesis a particularly convincing one. I’m so unconvinced I’m prepared to accept the label ‘atheist’.

Without presupposing God it becomes necessary to say why one would think there is a God.

All the so called proofs of the existence of God, the ontological, teleological, cosmological, and other ‘logical’ arguments are all based on some unsupportable premise, that is usually based on some human intuitive requirement that there should be some cause, that it should be intelligent, and that it should be loving. God is made in the image of the best of what we would like to be, not we in his image.

Terms such as ‘infinite’ and ‘perfect’ are often used in relation to God. These are mere concepts that are useful in describing something beyond what we can see, measure or reach. There is no reality to them, as far as we know. There’s no good reason that they are attributes of or have anything to do with God.

Discussions about the ‘probability’ of any of these possible ideas, and in this context that there might or might not be a God, are metaphysical speculations and have no mathematical basis to take them any further. In order to calculate probabilites about God’s existence we need information we just don’t have.

Some theists don’t require proof or evidence or probabilistic likelihood, since they find some ideas ‘obvious’, when considering these issues. For example, it’s ‘obvious’ there must be a ‘loving’, ‘intelligent’, ‘omnipotent’, …, creator. To such a theist I’d ask the following. How would you know that? How many universes have you witnessed being created to come to that ‘obvious’ conclusion, deductively or inductively? What experiences do you have, on the scale of universes, that make you think this or any universe requires a creator at all? And as for ‘His’ attributes, how would you know what they were? Revelation? Well, revelation presupposes there’s a God to do the revealing, as opposed to there having been a number of fallible humans through the ages that have misunderstood, willfully lied, or been deluded about revelatory events. There’s that presupposition again?

Another approach theists sometimes take is with respect to what might be called ‘ways of knowing’. When all the rational arguments have been put forward – basically saying there’s no evidence or proof that God exists and so we should act as if he doesn’t – theists have been known to question the appropriateness of these arguments, by questioning the ways in which we can know things. All I want to say for now on this is that the best and most useful ways of knowing consist of supporting our personal experiences with rational critical and sceptical thought and, when appropriate and possible, employing what is commonly know as the scientific method. I accept that when we follow this path the best we can hope for is the accumulation of common experiences that give us some grasp of how things work, and to a limited extent why they work; but I also accept that in no way does that lead us to any ultimate and absolute truth about anything; it only provides us with a degree of confidence. What about meditation and other ‘spiritual’ ways of knowing? As far as I can see, moving to what is essentially a different mind-state is no different than chewing on magic mushrooms – anything goes; and there’s no reason to suppose anything valuable or real is being revealed.

Yet another idea that theism embraces whole heartily, and which is also a necessity for some non-theists, is the requirement for purpose or meaning. I think this idea is often behind the ‘obvious’ discussed above. But there is no requirement that the universe, or any part of it (i.e. us), should have any purpose or meaning. This need that some people have for there to be purpose and meaning in the universe at all is a quirk of human nature, akin to the need to bite ones nails or pick ones nose or scratch an itch. Can I prove this? No, but the parallels are sufficient to explain it without conjuring up an agent such as God.

Now, I can accept a ‘concept’, call it God if you wish, as an aspiration, a goal to which we would like to aim; but it’s entirely a human construct – it certainly isn’t theistic in the usual sense, and not even deistic. In that respect it’s a form of Humanism. I think that this is what some versions of Christianity have come to be, though I can’t understand why there remains the insistence on the truth of, say, the resurrection, or even the continued association with Christ.

Much of this aspiration for the unreachable perfection is fine. But because we can’t actually reach it we have to settle for less. And that ‘less’ that each person settles for is subjective. I don’t have a problem with different individuals or groups of people deciding that they think they should live by certain rules, constructing their own morality – I’ve seen no evidence or good argument for objective morality. And I think it makes sense that as a society (and collections of societies) that we should agree that compromises have to be made – we can’t all have our own particular moral codes enforced just as we choose. The problem with religion in this respect is that it has aimed for the heady heights of the infinite and the perfect, and has decided there is a real God, and has then interpreted its own subjective moral codes as being determined by this fictitious character. All theistic religions, and sects within religions, and individuals within sects, all have their own take on what God is, to what extent he interacts with us, to what extent he commands us, or requires us to worship him, etc. Religion is probably the most variable and subjective of human enterprises, in terms of what is believed, and yet often its adherents claim to have access to absolute and invariant truth. This is pure nonsense.

Take any individual, whether it be Jesus, his apostles, Mohammed, the Pope, or anyone claiming to be divine or to have been in touch with some divine being, or to have received a message, a revelation; take any of them; any claim they have made can be accounted for by down to earth explanations. But, you might say, at least some of the claims could be true. Well, how would you know? How, in fact, do you distinguish between a truthful claim about the divine and any of the many consequences of simple human frailty: mistakes, dreams, delusions, lies, intuitions, group-think, etc. There is no known way of making such a distinction, and since ultimately all supposed sources of divine information result from such claims, one way or another, they must all be seriously suspect, at the very least. Add to the shear variety the fact that no matter which religion you follow, and no matter how dedicated you are and to what extent you submit yourself and obey the commands and pray, there’s not a damn bit of difference made in this world. From the most pious to the most ‘sinful’ – not a jot of difference that anyone has demonstrated.

All that pretty much takes care of my view about God. I think it’s a strong case. I’d be happy to expand on any individual points, or to consider any angles I haven’t already. I’d even believe in God if I thought there was sufficient reason.