Are you sure you’re in the right classroom?

Question from Pete:
Hey, um, what’s the length of an Oleic Acid Molecule?

Answer by SmartLX:
1.97 nanometres by 0.5 nanometres. The accepted dimensions are provided here, along with a popular chemistry experiment that allows you to estimate them for yourself.

It’s possible that you’re going to follow up with an argument for God based on the apparent uncertainty of the things we “know” from science, so go ahead if you’re going to. Otherwise, I hope I helped with your homework.

> Repent, the Matrix has you…_

Question from Tim:
i suppose all you sinful atheists believe we’re just simulations as well like the matrix or something

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s a possibility, sure. In fact, have you considered the possibility that “God” has such power in this universe simply because He’s the computer geek in charge of the simulation? Could you be praying to Dilbert?

Many people, not just atheists, are mindful of the idea of solipsism, that the only thing one can be sure really exists is one’s own mind. Everything else could be an illusion, whether it’s a dream or an ongoing hallucination or a computer simulation. This idea was widely discussed during the fad of pop philosophy triggered by The Matrix. Some people even claimed to have worked out the probability that the world is a simulation. Some of the major papers and articles of the time are collected here.

In the end it has little effect on the debate over religion. Even if the world we know really is an illusion, there’s probably a real world of some sort on the outside which is generating the illusion. Wherever the real world is, either it’s ruled by a god or it isn’t, and if so either it cares about us or it doesn’t. We can create a degree of separation from the big questions, but they don’t go away.

Why Do We Die?

Question from Casey:
How do you comprehend death? How do manage to remain sane knowing that someone has been ripped from your lives for what you believe to be no reason?

Answer by Andrea:
Hi Casey,

I don’t see death as being “no reason.” As a science buff/journalist, I see it more as the natural order of things, as far as old age goes (please see the law of entropy).

If death is due to sickness or murder (not that I can speak from experience in latter case), I find it much more comforting to think of it as being a random event that we have no control over, rather than some capricious god who chose to “off” someone “just because.”

My dear grandmother passed away from old age and she often told me she was afraid of dying alone. There was not much I could do, since my life is not in Europe, but what I did do was visit for the summers and write a postcard to her every 1-2 weeks. I think it helped.

Often we say to ourselves, we’ll do this and that with this person sometime. But in my case, I did what I could then, and when she passed away I felt awful and missed her very much, but it made me feel so much better that I did what I could while she was alive.
And that’s all you can do.

I’m not sure what your situation is with respect to this question, but please accept my sympathies if they are warranted, and I’m so sorry there’s probably nothing I can say that time won’t eventually take care of.

Best to you,

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s always a reason why people die. There may not be any purpose to it, but there’s always a reason: they were old, or they were murdered, or there was an accident, or their immune system failed them. When we ask why someone has died, this kind of answer is always available to some extent. Furthermore, this kind of answer is often useful in the prevention of other deaths, for example by catching the killer, fencing off the cliff edge or preventing the disease.

To my mind, knowing that there’s no purpose to a loved one’s death is no worse that believing there is a purpose but having no idea what it is, and no hope of ever knowing. The suffering and death of a good person is hard to explain in a world with an all-powerful, benevolent guardian watching over us (though that doesn’t stop people from explaining it…in many different ways), but it’s really very easy to explain in a world with no such being: it happened because of this and this, and it’s sad that the person is gone but they left their mark on the world.

If you imagine that atheists are completely at a loss when confronted with death then you imagine that our worldviews are simply the Christian worldview with a God-shaped hole in it. (This is becoming a catchphrase with me.) It sounds obvious but it’s worth specifically considering that when one doesn’t believe in a god, one also doesn’t believe that meaning and purpose in life depend entirely on a god. Therefore the common existential challenge of comprehending death, while certainly a challenge (see this earlier question), does not automatically shatter an atheist.

If a recent death affecting your life is the reason you asked this question, I sympathise along with Andrea.

So how do you differentiate between right and wrong?

Question from Meg:…well, see title. That was the whole question.

Answer by SmartLX:
In much the same way as you do from day to day, Meg. I have various ways of identifying events or actions which match my broad, generally unspoken definitions of “right” and “wrong”. I can use different objective criteria to analyse them intellectually, or it could be subconscious; I might just get a feeling and “know” when something is right or wrong. What you’re really asking is where all of this comes from, and the full answer is too big to cover in a short piece.

The intellectual aspects of moral judgement come from all over the place – lifelong cultivated ideas about fairness and justice, almost universally agreed-upon precepts such as that harm is to be minimised and people protected, ancient bits of philosophy such as the Golden Rule and ad hoc decisions when nothing else seems to apply.

The emotional side of morality, the conscience if you like, is partly instilled into us as soon as we gain the capacity to socialise with other people. We see what other people judge to be right and wrong, and we internalise some of those judgements. There’s also the simple human instinct of empathy, which has fairly clear roots in the human race’s long prehistory of precarious survival in close-knit tribes, where people really did help themselves by looking after others. (It reaches even farther back than that, to the earlier social primates from which we evolved, but I don’t know what you think about evolution so the tribe idea will suffice.) On an instinctual level, we see all other humans as our tribesmen and women even if we’ll never see them again, so the urge to help often extends beyond its pragmatic uses.

Christians tend to see it all differently. Not all of them subscribe to all of the following ideas, but they’re all widely accepted or at least known.
– Morals are absolute entities baked into the universe by God, and exist independently of human beings. What’s wrong is wrong, and nothing can change it.
– What we know about them was taught to us directly by God through the concept of sin, then the Ten Commandments (and the 600-odd other commandments that make up the Mosaic Law) and finally Jesus.
– Our own consciences are God himself telling us what’s right and wrong.

All three are entirely dependent on the existence of God. Now, when Christians try to comprehend atheism, unfortunately they often end up simply visualising a Christian worldview with a God-shaped hole cut out of it. Without God, of course, the whole thing collapses and they wonder how we manage to think about anything.

It can take them a while to understand that there are objective, earthly rationales for morality. Without belief in any godlike entity there’s no basis for thinking there are moral absolutes, but robust moral systems can be and have been created using very small, very simple assumptions that the whole human race can live with (even if philosophers like to argue over them).

This isn’t the whole answer, like I said, but I’ve already written a lot on the subject because the same basic question keeps coming up. Just put “morality” into the site’s search field in the top corner, and you’ll have a lot more to read.

Ghost dog in the bedroom?

Question from Kirsten:
my aunt recently had to move house on a temporary basis,in the mean time i rent the house from her. since i moved in around 5 months ago a few things have happened.on the day moving in me and my partner heard a dog cry. it was not in the same room as us but as if it was upstairs. without knowing this story my cousin told me about a sighting of a dog on the stairs a few years ago. since my move in the house the bedroom door has shook quite bad and have heard scratches on the door. this however aint my main concern. recently at night time i have trouble breathing in the room. my heart rate seems to drop and on a few occasions me and my partner have woken in the night extremley hot even tho its cold outside. we have woke sweating. also i have very strange tastes in my mouth, sometimes there horrible and it stops me from sleeping. sometimes they are quite pleasent like cherryade although i havent drunk it. i am staring to get nervous of going to bed as the heart rate and breathing troubles are scaring me. is this signs of something in my house. if so what could it be. my uncle and aunt have said they heard scratch sounds too. but not the door or the tastes or heart rate episodes. they had the house for 10 years but do not know who lived there before. they are quite modern looking houses and can imagine they were only built around 15-20 years or so ago.

Answer by SmartLX:
I might know where the whimpering and the scratches are coming from: not the door, but either the walls or the ceiling. Possums, bats or other small mammals could be frequenting the cavities in your house. I had possums in my old roof on and off for months, and they had to scratch just to crawl around in there.

As for the heat and the strange tastes, a ghost is about the best you can hope for. There could be some chemical, mineral or metal, perhaps flaking off the roof or getting into the plumbing, that causes an adverse reaction. Otherwise you could have some medical issue independent of the house, and your partner might have caught it.

If I were you I’d go get myself checked out, seriously. Once you rule out poison and disease for your own safety, you can go about searching your place for critters, chemicals and other surprises. If something could be affecting your health, don’t just lie there and wonder.

The Foundations of Morality

Question from Matthew:
Hi there! In the “About” section of this site, one of the first things that’s mentioned is morality (and, later: “right from wrong”). Clearly, an atheist wouldn’t believe that morality is granted to us from on high. But, on the other hand, I think it’s safe to say that moral traditions as social norms are frequently rooted in the more religious past. Unless you’d suggest that religion was necessary at some point to establish a cultural moral foundation (which I hope you don’t!), I must ask: where do you think morality “comes from”?

I’m an atheist myself, but I’ve always found that making a rational inquiry from atheism towards universal morality doesn’t work. I know Sam Harris has some ideas on thinking about morality as a set of rules for optimizing social interactions, but I don’t feel that the way he approaches is addresses the issue in a practical way. What do you think? Why do you act morally? How and why do you think you would act morally if, ceteris paribus, religion had never existed?

Answer by SmartLX:
Morality comes from us, plain and simple. Appeals to universal or absolute morality always fall flat because even if there are absolute morals woven into the fabric of the universe, we have no way to know what they are. So we agree upon morals between ourselves, adjust them from time to time (Richard Dawkins calls it the shifting moral zeitgeist) and generally just run with them.

Before our ancestors had the capacity to decide on “social norms”, a certain amount of what we call morality had evolved naturally. There are regular articles about apes and monkeys showing a sense of fairness, gratitude, discipline and so forth, in controlled experiments and on their own time. This stuff tends to emerge because it’s beneficial to a group for everyone to be “good” to each other. To put it simply, morality as applied by modern humans has at least a partial evolutionary basis. (Of course, explaining that to very religious people may only antagonise them further.) So that – and simple empathy – is effectively my answer to the question of where morality “came from”. The specifics might be different without our society’s religious history, but the same core principles would still be there.

Fine-Tuned Gravity: Don’t Touch That Dial

Question from Cedric:
Victor Stenger says supporters of the Fine Tuning argument make the mistake of holding all the parameters constant and varying just one. He says “changes to one parameter can be easily compensated for by changes to another, leaving the ingredients for life in place.”

“The ingredients for life” is a more complex case since it involves several parameters but if one were to examine a simpler case involving only one parameter then the legitimacy of Fine Tuning might be easier to discern.

Take the force of gravity. The Fine Tuning argument says it had to be precisely what it is in order for the universe to expand as it did after the Big Bang. Too strong and the universe would collapse back to a singularity. Too weak and the universe would expand too rapidly. This doesn’t seem to depend on other parameters. So doesn’t the exactness of gravity alone imply design?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you’re going to circumvent Stenger’s argument by focusing on a single value, gravity is the wrong one to pick because it didn’t have to be all that exact. In Martin Rees’ book Just Six Numbers he finds that the gravitational constant would have to increase by a factor of 3000 to preclude the formation of stars. (I’ve never seen anyone use the same approach on another constant, so I suspect none of the others have similarly obvious independent significance.)

Creationists and other apologists have not contradicted Rees; they’ve taken two other approaches to dismissing this inconvenient amount of leeway. Both are found in this article, which is typical of a fair few apologetic articles attacking Rees’ conclusion of a lack of fine tuning. (Their abundance suggests to me that Rees struck a nerve.)

1. If gravity were nearly 3000 times stronger, they say, stars wouldn’t last even a billion years and life wouldn’t have time to form, so the universe is still fine-tuned for the really important thing, life. Well, the fact that this aspect of the extreme case isn’t workable doesn’t negate the fact that gravity could change an awful lot before there was any real difficulty.

2. A factor of 3000, they say, is still tiny when you consider that the different forces in the universe differ by factors of up to 10^40. True, but it’s still 300,000% so it’s huge compared to the actual value, and there’s no evidence to suggest that gravitational forces in a fresh universe are even capable of reaching the levels of our universe’s strong nuclear force. There’s an underlying assumption that each of the constants was selected from the same huge or infinite range of possible numbers, and there’s no basis for that assumption.

Even if gravity had to be what it really is for life to form, to within a zillionth of a percent, it would not simply “imply design”. We don’t know nearly enough about what went into the physical “setting” of the constant to jump to that conclusion. Alternatives include but are not limited to the following:

– A huge or even infinite number of universes exist, each of them with different constants, such that the probability of one of them hitting the magic spot is really quite reasonable. Ridicule the multiverse hypothesis if you like, but evidence has emerged suggesting its likelihood. (Additional universes seem more likely to me than a god because we know there’s at least one universe. If your cabbage patch is destroyed and you find one little rabbit, you don’t imagine that Bigfoot did the rest; you wonder where the other rabbits are hiding.)
– The value of the gravitational constant is a result, not a parameter. When a Big Bang happens, gravity comes out at 6.673 because of how a Big Bang happens, or else the constant is dependent on the other constants. (Pi is a good analogue for this; the value near 3.14 results from the physical properties of a circle.)
– The gravitational constant might have started anywhere, but it varied before it reached a stable equilibrium at its current value. Something about 6.673 stops it from wanting to shift. (This is one possible explanation for cosmic inflation.)

Finally, if you disregard all of the above, we’re ultimately comparing the probability that a universe with incredibly fortunate physical qualities arose naturally to the probability that it was designed by an even more complex, exotic, powerful, hypothetical entity with no origin at all. That might be a contest if the existence of the other entity were assumed, but you can’t take that liberty when the whole point of the discussion is to establish that entity’s existence.

Moon Riders

Question from Skyla:
What does it mean if i saw men riding horses at the sky and disappeared as they approached the full moon? Well, it happened when i was a primary school child, and at that time (around 5am), i washed my face to prepare for school. While im washing my face, the earth suddenly became dark, and turned to normal. it happened over and over again until i curious what was happened actually. When i look up to the sky, i saw men riding their horses and entered the full moon. As they approached the moon, the earth getting dark and then slowly turned to normal. This condition happened again as all of them entered the moon. As i remembered, the full moon was exactly above my head, and i wonder if this kind of situation happened only when the full moon is above our head. What were they? Men that riding the horses?

Any response from you i will accept it and thanks for giving your time to read this.

Answer by SmartLX:
I couldn’t hazard a guess at what it meant if it were a dream, let alone if it really happened.

I think a thing or two may be off about the non-supernatural parts of the story. You say the moon was directly overhead at 5am, but a full moon is only directly overhead around midnight, and sets at dawn, for fairly simple reasons. You say you saw the shadows of the riders and looked straight up at the moon, but were you washing your face outside at five in the morning? (Perhaps you lived on a farm, or your bathroom had a skylight.)

Leaving the moon aside, we have large objects resembling horses and riders “entering” the full moon. If it was windy, I suppose fast-moving clouds might have looked that way to a child. I doubt aircraft would have done the trick, because you’d have heard them, unless they were hot-air balloons. Bats or birds would be too quick.

I’m just spitballing here. What you have there is a genuine unsolved mystery, and a great story. What you choose to read into your experience is ultimately up to you…just don’t take it as a mystical sign that you should do something incredibly specific and then go get yourself killed or arrested or something like that. I figure that if a supernatural being can’t get a simple message across to humans in a simple way, it probably hasn’t got anything worthwhile to say.

Dreaming of Hell

Question from Huzur:
Hello. I’m a twenty five years old male. I don’t believe in god anymore. Not until 15 at least. However sometimes my mind scares me, such as going to hell for eternity. So my question is: Do other atheists also ever get any christian themed nightmares?

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t, but many atheists who were raised as Christians certainly do. Here’s a bunch of them talking about it.

I can honestly say that I don’t remember ever dreaming of Hell or the equivalent. I consider myself lucky that my old Catholic primary school and church were light on the fire and brimstone, and my separation from them was not charged with emotion. While I believed, I was very serious about sin and punishment, but now I just get the odd pang of unexplained guilt.

Depending on the severity of your religious upbringing, the fear you suffered as a child may qualify as clinically defined psychological trauma, and you could now be suffering post-traumatic stress. You don’t need to have been to Vietnam to get this, anything which scares or horrifies a person enough can trigger it. Regardless, if the nightmares and the fear keep up you might want to try counselling.

Richard Dawkins talks about this kind of thing a lot. He goes so far as to label scaring kids with hellfire as child abuse, and suggests that it can in some cases be worse than sexual abuse. That sounds extreme, but there is some terrible indoctrination out there (Nate Phelps, formerly of the Westboro Baptist Church, has a harrowing story) and some very mild and ineffectual sexual abuse (Dawkins himself was fondled by a priest as a child, and merely thought it was “yucky”). His detractors have claimed that he wants to have children removed from religious parents, but of course he’s never suggested anything like this.

Although your experience is not universal, you are far from alone. Take comfort in that, and in the fact that it can get better over time. Maybe you could use some help, maybe you’re fine, but I really feel for you.

“Come back here and think, dammit!”

Question from Devilush:
Why is i when I try to discuss Atheism with a theist,they always seem to run away in one way or another?Whenever their faith is challenged with science and logic they run from the conversation…do they know they are full of **** and can’t handle it so they would rather not even hear it,do they really have no will of their own and have to cling to the idea that they are watched over by a invisible incompetent father figure who does not give a ****?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s because you’re not talking to the right theists.

Sure, there are those who want to stay clear of anything which might make them question their faith, possibly because their faith demonises doubt itself, because they have a rule about arguing over religion and politics, because they don’t want to argue with you in general or simply because they don’t like having to defend their deepest convictions at short notice. That’s their choice.

Take it from me, though, there are plenty of believers out there who will happily engage you. Many of these amateur apologists write to Ask the Atheist treating it as a game of Stump the Atheist. (That’s fine by us, it makes for some of the most interesting exchanges.)

If you want to meet these people outside of the internet, they’re not too hard to find because they’re supposed to make it their business to reach out to non-believers. They’re at markets and festivals handing out pamphlets with meeting times and places. Your local Alpha course is run by one, and will probably have several more along for support. (Check out the journal of an atheist who stuck out the whole eleven weeks.)

Generally, though, keep in mind that not everyone wants to talk about this stuff at any given time. If someone proselytises around you and then won’t listen to your response, you’re justified in calling them out for being unwilling to take what they dish out. Just as non-believers are entitled to deny preachers their attention, some people just won’t want to hear about religion from you either. Don’t take it personally, and don’t judge them too quickly.