Monday, February 28, 2011

Needle in a Haystack

If any theists who claim their god(s) speak to them stumble on this post, let's play a little role reversal. You'll be playing the atheist in this game. Here's the setup:

The gods:
God Premise 1: Let us assume there are 26 possible god beliefs out there, labeled A through Z.
God Premise 2: Let us assume that you currently do not know which, if any, of these gods are real or false.
God Premise 3: Let us assume that each god is described as powerful.
God Premise 4: Let us assume that if any of these gods are real, that they wish to convince us of their existence.

The Priests:
Priest Premise 1: Let us assume we have 26 priests, one of each god belief who wish to prove that they are correct in their god belief.
Priest Premise 2: Let us assume each priest claims that their god, gods, or spirits speak to them.
Priest Premise 3: Let us assume that, to date, all priests have alleged records of ancient miracles.
Priest Premise 4: Let us assume that all priests are humans.

Human Premise 1: Let us assume that all humans are capable of making mistakes.
Human Premise 2: Let us assume that some humans are subject to mental disorders that lead to hearing voices, often with commands.
Human Premise 3: Let us assume that some humans are willing to lie about their god belief for various reasons.
Human Premise 4: Let us assume that human memory is subject to alteration based on personal biases.
Human Premise 5: Let us assume that humans recently developed methods of recording and measuring information that is more reliable than their memory and subjective perception.

Are there any objections to these premises?

If not, what will you ask of the priests to determine which, if any of the gods are real?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Basis of Morality

It's a subject that's been gone over many times, but I think Steven Novella put up a good post.

I especially like the part where he points out something that I should have realized myself: Non-theistic morality is inherently more objective than divine command theory. Why?

First, moral philosophy is a transparent process where anyone can find out why some things are considered good or evil. There are first principles and rules that are derived from those principles. By having everyone asking questions about the process, you tend to reduce individual biases.

Second, because of all the conflicts between religions and even priests within a religion. There are countless interpretations of holy books. Even if there were some magic man giving out an objective morality, what would the basis of those decisions be? Divine command theory just strikes me as a morality without any basis whatsoever. As far as I'm concerned, it's objectively random morality before you add any subjective interpretation by humans.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Random Recall: The Magician

Just had this pop into my head today: When I was a kid, there was a Saturday morning cartoon I got interested in from the previews called The Magician. That interest quickly waned after watching the first episode.

Premise: It's Twenty Minutes Into the Future. The hero is a stage magician who ends up using his trade to fight crime.

Sounds like an awesome idea to me. I was expecting the formula to be something along the lines of him performing some elaborate trick to catch the criminals, and at the end, he would explain how he MacGuyvered it together. I love magic tricks and explanations of how they're done, both from the deception angle as well as some of the technical ones. Even more now that I'm a full-on skeptic.

But it was not to be: He used a collection of standard gadgets and a lot of unexplained stuff. For example, in one scene he just vanished from one location and reappeared closer to the crime in progress, with no preparation. How? Did he simply decide to show off some optical camo by vanishing and running? Did he have some trick set up beforehand to zip over on some mechanical apparatus?

If you wanted him to do stuff like that, just go ahead and call him Dr. Strange and drop the whole stage magic angle. Say it's real magic. Then I would know up front what level of suspension of disbelief you want.

Christianity: The Apocalypse Cult That Survived, Part 1

One of the things that struck me when reading the Bible was how much Jesus started to look less like the peaceful, loving guy, and more like the stereotypical cult leader. Naturally, the religion has the usual promise of nasty things for unbelievers, tales of miracles and divine origins, and so on and so forth. Instead of that typical stuff, I thought I'd deal with some parts that seem to be ignored in my dealings with fundies.

Let's take a look at some samples:

One of the trademarks of a cult is that they divide families. The family is an important source of support for most people. A cult wants its members to be vulnerable and dependent on the cult, so other means of support need to be cut off.

Matthew 8:21 And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. 8:22 But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.
Jesus tells the disciple to value the religion more than closure with his father. I'm of the opinion that funerals are for the living so that they can come to terms with the loss and remember the good times with the dearly departed.

Matthew 10:20 For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you. 10:21 And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death.
Granted, cultural change tends to cause a lot of friction, but this passage just seems to relish in the idea of families tearing themselves limb from limb.

Matthew 10:34 Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. 10:35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. 10:36 And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. 10:37 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
The message is clear: God is possessive and needy. The cult is more important than your loved ones.

Matthew 12:46 While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. 12:47 Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. 12:48 But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?
Jesus wouldn't even acknowledge his family when they wanted to talk to him.

Matthew 15:4 For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.
It's rather strange to hear him defend parents, but it looks like he's still supporting bloodlust as a means to resolve family conflict.

Matthew 19:12 For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.
There are a lot of cults that stress virginity and asexuality to the point of castration. I'm not sure, but I think this is often meant to target people with longstanding romantic troubles, to free them from the desires that cause them trouble.

Matthew 19:29 And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.
Abandon your family and your country for the cult, and the big man'll make it worth your while.

23:9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.
Yeah, don't honor the guy who (I hope) raised you with love and care, honor the cult's idol instead.

And that's just the book of Matthew, only about warped family values. This was some of the early stuff that got me started on the road to atheism. Reading the Bible is usually one of the first steps towards deconversion.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Under the Microscope: "In the Beginning was Information": Chapter 6 Sample

It's a nice cold day, so I thought I'd have a little fun with one of the sources Gabriel considers authoritative: Answers in Genesis. I decided to type "genetic algorithms" into their search bar, and I clicked on the first result.

Unsurprisingly, it doesn't take long before the fallacies show up:
There is an extreme multiplicity of life-forms around us, and even a simple unicellular organism is much more complex and purposefully designed than anything that human inventiveness can produce.
Already, we have an implied argument from personal incredulity. Complexity is not a sign of design: Simplicity is usually a better indicator. One of the principles of engineering I often hear is that you're not done when there's nothing left to add, but when there's nothing left to take away.
Matter and energy are basic prerequisites for life, but they cannot be used to distinguish between living and inanimate systems.
There's a bit of implied vitalism right there. Life can be difficult to define precisely, but that doesn't mean anything for the argument.
The central characteristic of all living beings is the “information” they contain, and this information regulates all life processes and procreative functions. Transfer of information plays a fundamental role in all living organisms. When, for example, insects carry pollen from one flower to another, this is in the first place an information-carrying process (genetic information is transferred); the actual material employed is of no concern. Although information is essential for life, information alone does not at all comprise a complete description of life.
So, how do you define and measure this information? This is a classic problem many Creationists avoid. Of course, skeptics have had a lot to say about IT as it relates to Creationist claims.
Man is undoubtedly the most complex information-processing system existing on earth. The total number of bits handled daily in all information-processing events occurring in the human body is 3 x 1024. This includes all deliberate as well as all involuntary activities, the former comprising the use of language and the information required for controlling voluntary movements, while the latter includes the control of the internal organs and the hormonal systems. The number of bits being processed daily in the human body is more than a million times the total amount of human knowledge stored in all the libraries of the world, which is about 1018 bits.
I smell a standard Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy in progress. After this, they get into a lot of nitty-gritty details which seem uncontroversial, based on my knowledge. It doesn't last, though:
Figure 20: A simplified representation of the cyclic information controlled process occurring in living cells. The translation is based on pragmatics, but it is involved in the cyclic process of semantic information, since the DNA synthesis can only take place under enzymatic catalysis. This sketch clearly illustrates that such a cyclic process must have been complete right from the start, and could not have originated in a continuous process. The structure of this example of a complex information transfer system also corresponds to Figure 24.
I was pretty sure this was on Talk Origin's Index of Common Creationist Claims, but I must have missed it. Naturally, though, I found they had a different page that covers it.
Perhaps lipid synthesis, in a precursor form of modern synthesis, could have made the system more independent. The RNA system could have, bit by bit, ‘invented’ protein synthesis – as mentioned, the modern ribosomes still contain ribozymes (catalytic RNA) that catalyze the formation of peptide bonds which eventually result in proteins. In a compelling study (Wolf and Koonin 2007) the authors propose a stepwise model for the origin of the protein translation system, in which each step confers a distinct advantage onto an ensemble of co-evolving genetic elements. The goal of development of translation would not have been required, a foresight which evolution does not have. The initial cause for the emergence of translation would have been the ability of amino acids and peptides to stimulate reactions catalyzed by ribozymes (for peptides experimentally shown, see Robertson et al. 2004). Even if it will turn out that several steps in the evolution of translation probably have been different from the proposed model, the study clearly demonstrates that there is nothing in the emergence of the translation system that would represent a case of ‘irreducible complexity’, incapable of being subject to stepwise Darwinian evolution.
Granted, this looks like a fair bit of hypothetical stuff, but the fact that scientists can devise hypotheses is a blow against the IC argument of incredulity. Alleged weaknesses and unknowns in abiogenesis or evolution do not constitute evidence for Creationism.

Back to the AiG page:
In accordance with the theorems formulated in chapters 3 to 5, in particular the impossibility theorems at the end of chapter 4, it is clear that the information present in living organisms requires an intelligent source. Man could not have been this source; so, the only remaining possibility is that there must have been a Creator. We can now formulate the following theorems:

Theorem 26: The information present in living beings must have had a mental source.

A corollary of Theorem 26 is:

Theorem 27: Any model for the origin of life (and of information) based solely on physical and/or chemical processes, is inherently false.

Guess I'll have to check back on those theorems... Huh. Looks like this is just a sample from a book, and those other chapters aren't available.

Oh well, I can already see fallacies: Argument from incredulity, false dichotomy. You can't put "I don't know" in an evidence locker for a positive hypothesis like "Magic man done it." Knowing what I know of Creationist, the "theorems" described are probably also arguments from incredulity.

Anyway, let's move on ahead to the bit about genetic algorithms, since that's what I searched for:
Genetic algorithms: The so-called “genetic algorithms” are yet another way of trying to explain how information could originate in matter [F5, M4]. The combination of words is deliberately chosen from biology and numerical mathematics to suggest that evolutionary events are described mathematically.
This is rather stupid to say.

1. They're called genetic algorithms because they simulate genes. Random number generators simulate mutations of the genes, and if sex is programmed in, recombination of the parents' chromosomes. The selection criteria, fitness landscapes, etcetera act like natural selection. What else would you call it?

2. Of course evolutionary events are described mathematically! Mathematics is what we use to describe the universe when we get precise. What made the modern synthesis of evolution the modern synthesis was the inclusion of population statistics. Statistics is a branch of mathematics.
What is actually involved is a purely numerical method used for the optimization of dynamic processes. This method can be used to find, by repeated approximations, the maximum value of an analytic function numerically (e.g., f(x,y) = yx - x4), or the optimal route of a commercial traveler. The effects of mutation and selection can thus be simulated by computer. Using predetermined samples of bits (sequences of noughts and ones), each position is regarded as a gene. The sample is then modified (mutated) by allowing various genetic operators to influence the bit string (e.g., crossover). A “fitness function,” assumed for the process of evolution, is then applied to each result. It should be pointed out that this genetic algorithm is purely a numerical calculation method, and definitely not an algorithm which describes real processes in cells. Numerical methods cannot describe the origin of information.
They're not being used to describe the origin of information as a whole, but they do produce new information, novel features, and such when executed, which many Creationists say is impossible. Genetic algorithms simulate evolution once you've got reproduction. What you're asking for is abiogenesis, and even if you reject all abiogenesis theories, you still don't have a good argument for Creationism.
Evolutionary models for the origin of the genetic code: We find proposals for the way the genetic code could have originated in very many publications [e.g., O2, E2, K1], but up to the present time, nobody has been able to propose anything better than purely imaginary models. It has not yet been shown empirically how information can arise in matter, and, according to Theorem 11, this will never happen.
Again, argument from incredulity and ignorance. Just because scientists don't know the answer with great confidence at this time is not a good reason to believe a magic man did it.

So, I looked over a decent chunk of a "semi-technical" article hosted by AiG, and it still looks like standard fallacious Creationism. I skipped over a lot, but if any Creationists would like to bring up specific parts, feel free.