People who create more questions but less satisfaction



The scientist, by the very nature of his commitment, creates more and more questions, never fewer. Indeed the measure of our intellectual maturity, one philosopher suggests, is our capacity to feel less and less satisfied with our answers to better problems. – G.W. Allport

The journey to unbelief, revisited

I spent some time last night going through a manuscript on atheism and unbelief, sent to me by a work colleague. Reading through it reminded me of my own personal journey from credulity to skepticism.

I could see the same mistakes in the manuscript that I had made when I first ventured out into the world of unbelief, trying to make sense of this bewildering, yet deliciously liberated frame of mind… no being. It was like deja vu.

I remember grabbing eagerly at any book I could find, any resource that would explain this new world to me. And most of the time I was led astray by utter nonsense. Believe me, there is a lot of it out there. From the cunningly sublime, to the outrageously ridiculous. There’s all kinds – from conspiracy theorists to pushers of woo of every hue.

It is amazingly easy to be lulled into accepting bullshit, because it is comforting. Yes, bullshit is comforting. Which is probably why the world is full of it. Generally people want to be comforted. Who can blame them? Being or feeling challenged is not a natural desire.


Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci

I completed reading this book about two weeks ago, but have been grappling with how to review it. For starters, the title threw me off somewhat, as the contents eventually revealed what I was not expecting.The book is not composed of the typical science versus pseudoscience and non-science debate, that is characteristic of books of this type.

Instead, Massimo Pigliucci focuses on uncovering in some detail what the true nature of science is and indeed what it is not. To this end his discussions involve looking at the history of science from pre-Socratic to modern times, attempting to distinguish between hard and soft sciences, and also what he terms “almost-science.” Further, he looks at the philosophy of science and its proponents such as Popper, and delves into what constitutes an expert in a field of science, and ends with a critique of Postmodernism.

Massimo uses many real-life examples to further his discussions, sometimes going unnecessarily too deep into them as in the case of his criticism of Bjorn Lambourg’s views on climate change. However, overall one sees the necessity of using these examples as in the case of the tiresome Creationist, and patently dishonest Intelligent Design belief systems, to make clear the distinctions between science, pseudoscience and plain bunk.

An eye-opener for me was the revelation that being a skeptic is not necessarily the intellectually superior position it is made out to be by some proponents as Shermer and Randi. Indeed, there are many skeptics out there who have taken positions that are contrary to widely accepted scientific findings, and peddle either pseudoscience or plain nonsense.

Ultimately though, even though scientists are fallible, one comes away convinced that science works because it is self-regulating, being subject to peer review, while pseudoscience and non-science are not.

I think the best way to get an insight into what the book offers is through some quotes which I have selected:

1. Clearly, human senses can be misleading, which is plainly shown by the kind of dream that feels real while it is happening or by phenomena like mirages. Even human reasoning is faulty, again as shown by the fact that we can be absolutely convinced of the soundness of an argument only to be ruthlessly shown wrong by someone who has looked at it more carefully or from a different angle.

2. What interests us here, however, is the potential for fruitful interactions between science and philosophy when it comes to a joint defense against the assault from pseudoscientific quarters.

3. Moreover, it is important to note that it was scientists who uncovered the hoax, not creationists, which is both an immense credit to the self-correcting nature of science and yet another indication that creationism is only a religious doctrine with no power of discovery.

4. We shall see later on how science itself can still claim a high degree of quasi-objectivity, despite the fact that its practitioners are not objective machines, but instead are emotionally and subjectively after the same three universal rewards sought by humankind: fame, money (or material resources), and sex (not necessarily in that order).

5. Objecting to such procedure on moral grounds would be similar to objecting to vaccination on the ground that God wants us to suffer from the diseases He invented (the absurdity of which has not stopped people from actually defending such “reasoning”).

6. To expect a scientist to be more objective than average is the same as to expect a moral philosopher to be a saint: it may happen, but don’t count on it.

7. Everyone has a right to be irrational, but rampant irrationality in a society on the grounds that ‘it doesn’t hurt anyone’ is, well, not a very rational position to take.

8. But the beauty of science is that it so often shows our intuitions to be wrong.

9. Then again, arguably this peculiar relationship between science and philosophy is nothing new. Philosophy has often been the placeholder for areas of intellectual inquiry that have subsequently moved to the domain of science.

The Sound Of Science

This video is apparently being tweeted about and posted on various blogs, and because it’s educational, yet amusing, it won’t hurt to post it here too.

And, oh, creationists can give it a miss; I don’t think you’ll find it amusing at all…

Science – otherwise known as miracles to religious nutters

We might as well be living in the year 1020, for all the knowledge we have acquired since then, fails to register with people who are fervently religious. Ignorance still rules, in the year 2010.

Just last week Stephen Hawking released a new book he co-authored with US physicist Leonard Mlodinow where he states that a god was not necessary for the creation of the universe. The furore that followed can only be described as fucking ridiculous. On the one hand he was denigrated by various critics as employing deceitful PR tactics to sell his book by re-igniting the god-science debate, and on the other he was castigated as usual by the rabidly religious [see comments for article] for daring to suggest that god was redundant.

While the critics may have a valid argument, the comments from the religious nutters reveals just how much ignorance still exists when it comes to the pursuit of science and the aims and objectives of true scientists. The experiments currently being conducted in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN came under attack as a waste of money, time and resources. The religious peanut gallery seriously think that the experiments to find the elusive Higgs Boson particle, humorously nicknamed the god particle, is an attempt by scientists to prove that a god does not exist. That is nothing short of being criminally naive at best, and dangerously ignorant at worst. It seems that none of them have considered that scientific experiments lead to the technologies that creates the everyday conveniences that they take for granted.

So, when you come across a claim from the church, that the medical science that led to the quick recovery of a heart attack patient is nothing but a miracle from god, you begin to realize that these fruitcakes think of science as a miracle. This week the Rhema Bible Church claimed that the recovery of their pastor, Ray McCauley was nothing but a miracle. They have deemed it fit to render medical science and doctors redundant. By their reasoning, all patients who survive heart attacks, do so because of miracles from a selective supernatural benefactor. The same benefactor who somehow cannot save helpless people, including children and the aged from natural or man-made disasters, and other illnesses.

As a matter of interest, the procedure that apparently saved Ray McCauley required his brain to be frozen for about 10 hours. Luckily those who follow his every word, and presumably that written by the gods, and continue to enrich the Rhema empire, won’t need this procedure – they have self-imposed it. Now if science could only find a cure for self-inflicted brain freezing, I would be tempted to concede that as a miracle.

The Power of Prayer Part 3: Surgery before bended knee

I heard about a woman this morning, who was given three days to live by the doctors. That was four days ago. Everyone she knows (who is religious that is) has apparently been praying feverishly for her to get better.

This morning those who know her are claiming a victory for prayer because she has survived one day more than the doctors gave her. I know that it must be a great relief for her family and friends, and as much as I hope that she will defy the prognosis and hang onto life for as long as possible, my rational self tells me that it is unlikely. The doctors are invariably correct in their prognosis when it comes to terminal illness, even if they are not accurate to within days of predicting life expectancy.

Unfortunately for all her family and friends whose anguish has been temporarily assuaged, their belief that prayer had anything to do with it, is hugely misplaced. I suppose one can’t really blame them for grasping onto any straw that presents itself, given their religious inclinations. I know that when the inevitable does eventually occur, they will forget about the prayer vigils and ascribe it to either god’s mercy in ending suffering, or conclude nonchalantly that “it was her time to go.” Such is the flexibility of religious piety.

I also read this afternoon that Ray McCauley, founder and chief pastor of the Rhema Church in South Africa, had heart surgery yesterday. Not surprisingly the church leadership “asks the Christian community and other faith communities to pray for his speedy recovery.” Luckily sanity prevailed when Ray chose surgery, rather than leave it to the faith community to pray him out of trouble. Off course, his recovery will be speedy, since science made it possible, but the faith community will claim a victory for prayer; such is the nature of religious opportunism.

I am sure that Ray will return to the pulpit after recovering, decrying the evils of science, while punting the power of prayer and faith. For him at least all will be well for some time to come; not so for the poor women who was given a few days to live…

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard P Feynman

Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988) was regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists to grace the world. In 1965 he shared the Nobel Prize with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, for the independent work he did in quantum electrodynamics.
What some people would not know about Feynman, was his involvement in the Manhattan Project – the project conceived to build the first atomic bomb which eventually led to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. As you read the sections of the book where Feynman recounts how he moralised over his decision to join the project, one tends to appreciate why absolutist morality as favoured by the religious, is so undesirable.
The main theme of the book however is about why science is so great and why doubt is so important, not only in the field of science, but in all spheres of life. Ultimately, a wonderful collection of stories from the life of the great Richard Feynman, often amusing, and with a refreshing insight into how the world works. Feynman has effectively re-inforced the idea that finding things out, especially about the natural world, through curiosity and investigation, is accompanied by a great deal of pleasure. I can personally attest to that.
Notable Quotes:
If you expect science to give all the answers to the wonderful questions about what we are, where we’re going, what the meaning of the universe is and so on, then I think you could easily become disillusioned and then look for some mystic answer to these problems. How a scientist can take a mystic answer I don’t know because the whole spirit is to understand-well, never mind that.
You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers  which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit and if I can’t figure it out, then I go onto something else, but I don’t have to know an answer, I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is so far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.

The growing chasm between science and religion

The idea for this blog came from a discussion posted by a fellow-atheist on a social networking site, where he expressed his amazement at watching two radically different clips on television; one was about humans walking in space and carrying out repairs to the Hubble space telescope, while in the other clip, the Taliban were busy tearing up the picturesque Swat Valley in Pakistan, to impose upon other humans, a repressive ideology born in the dark ages.

For any rational person, these two contrasting images being shown on television, boggles the mind. It is hard to come to terms with the staggering gulf between the scientific and religious mentality that produces these two sets of actions. While science is boldly taking man to new frontiers, the Taliban are engrossed in taking man back in time.

According to some sources the Taliban have banned in Afghanistan, employment, education and sports for women, movies, television, videos, music, dancing, hanging pictures in homes, clapping during sports events, kite flying, and beard trimming. Other prohibitions include pork, pig, pig oil, anything made from human hair, satellite dishes, cinematography, and equipment that produces the joy of music, pool tables, chess, masks, alcohol, tapes, computers, VCRs, television, anything that propagates sex and is full of music, wine, lobster, nail polish, firecrackers, statues, sewing catalogs, pictures and Christmas cards. *Ok, I can understand Christmas Cards. 🙂

Simply amazing. It’s almost as if these Taliban are a totally different species of human; one with a debilitating genetic mutation that has transported the mind back to the 8th century.

When Science and Religion Collide

I live in a small community of a few thousand mostly deeply religious people; a small group of Hindus and Christians dominated by a majority of Muslims. It’s not hard to notice that the single Church, two temples and three mosques are frequented daily, and that each religious grouping are devout followers of their respective religions. This community is a microcosm of the religious fervour endemic the world over.

In Europe, on the other hand are a few thousand scientists who after fourteen years of collaboration, this week witnessed the fruits of their labour when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN was switched on successfully. Amid threats to shut the project down over fears of safety by certain detractors, and doomsday predictions by the loony religious fringe, the first proton beams were injected into the LHC on the 10th September this week to complete a successful start up on the most expensive and probably most important scientific experiment in the history of mankind to date.
In stark contrast we have two groups of people; one looking for meaning and purpose in archaic religious texts and ultimately for salvation through blind faith, and the other nobly trying to unravel meaning and purpose and indeed, the secrets of the universe through scientific experiment. While scientists will be asking how the universe came to be the way it is, the religious faithful believe they already know and see no reason to question further. In life there can be no two endeavours that are more diametrically opposed to each other than science and religion; indeed religion is the antithesis of science. And while religionists vehemently oppose science, some have no qualms about engaging the detestable field of pseudo-science to prop up their dying religions as in the laughable hypothesis about Intelligent Design.
In the modern era, religion still dominates the lives of ordinary people in spite of the great advances in the science and the increasing evidence against religious dogma and superstitious practices. As scientific scrutiny closes in on irrational religious thinking, I’m constantly amazed at the mental gymnastics employed by the religious institutions, the evangelists, clerics, clergy, priests and common shysters, to find new ways to “keep the faith alive.” Religion is big business, and I guess there is a vested interest to ensure its survival.
The future benefits of the LHC and the experiments to be conducted at CERN are obvious to all but the firmly religious. The one benefit not listed, and the one that amuses me no end, is how this scientific event has sparked some fear and loathing into the religious establishment. Take Ray Comfort for example, an evangelist whose recent blog “Its a Sick World” questions the spending of 10 billion dollars over 14 years on the LHC project when the money could be used for feeding starving children in Africa. It is typical of the dishonesty and bigotry of the religious movement who have squandered many more billions in furthering the aims of useless religions. One could also ask why he has never questioned the US Government’s expenditure in an untenable war in Iraq, which makes the LHC budget look like small change. No, Ray like the rest of the religious rabble don’t concern themselves too much with starving children; right now he is more concerned about how the scientific experiments at CERN is going to affect his business of selling salvation.
While I know it’s irrational to suggest that we use the LHC to accelerate different religions at nearly the speed of light from opposite directions so that they collide and smash each other into oblivion, I wish we could. Is it too much to ask?