From Archaeology to Apes

Question from Kristi:
What is R. Dawkins’ view on Biblical archaeology? Scientists use fossils as artifacts, dinosaur bones, etc., yet when archaeologists find relief carvings of the Hebrews being taken into captivity by the Assyrians? Manfred Bietak has uncovered Semitic people’s remains dating back to time of the Famine around 1880 B.C, which would align with the information in the Jewish records and with the Biblical records of Genesis. Should not any artifact be considered scientific?

If we evolved from a complex organism such as the egg first then later to simpler organism such as the chicken, why are we not evolving anymore unless we are evolving into robots? Do you foresee the human race as fading out and becoming intelligent machines? We were once apes so would it be too much to believe we will re-evolve to something else?

Answer by SmartLX:
Richard Dawkins doesn’t seem to have made a public statement about Biblical archaeology as a whole, except to say there is no good evidence for any of the supernatural claims in the Bible, archaeological or otherwise. Evidence for non-supernatural elements of the Biblical narrative are another matter. There is plenty of evidence for the Assyrian captivity as you say. There were Israeli tribes about, no doubt, and they did leave their mark, but nothing in the archaeological record points to direct intervention by a deity with the interests of the Hebrews specifically at heart. Just because not everything in the Bible is untrue doesn’t mean the important bits for today’s believers are true.

Present-day human evolution is much like evolution at any other stage: so slow that any given generation doesn’t notice any major differences. We may be in the process of evolving into a very different form of organic life, but the process would take millions of years at least and research into the changes over the last few decades won’t give us much insight into that far future. Any transition to a machine or part-machine race is likely to be the result of deliberate self-alteration as a species, not Darwinian evolution.

Incidentally we are still apes. Leaving evolution and genetics aside completely, we meet the physical criteria to be classified as a “great ape”. Here’s a museum article.

Mind = Full

Question from Tsahpina:
Hey SmartLX, and the other smarters, what do you think of Buddhism, which, as far as I know, says that when there is pain in your life, you just get away from it mentally, and you are OK. I would say this is bullshit. You?

Answer by SmartLX:
“Get away from it” isn’t an appropriate description of the Buddhist approach to pain. I’d say it’s more a case of compartmentalising it.

Here are two pieces by advocates of the approach; this one by a Buddhist is easy to read and this one by a humanist goes into more depth. The core principle is “mindfulness”, being fully aware of everything that’s happening in your body and mind. That means accepting physical and mental pain as well, but “taking it as read” in a way: yes, there is pain, and now let’s take in everything else and enjoy life. This shift in focus means, in principle, that pain does not have to equal suffering and is possible to live with.

I honestly don’t see a problem with this. It doesn’t rely on anything supernatural, it only suggests a different way of thinking about the inescapable reality that there’s always pain of some kind. A lot of Buddhist practices actually find favour with atheists and humanists precisely because they don’t require the supernatural or even belief itself, only mental effort. Buddhism does have its supernatural claims and dark aspects, but besides a religion it’s an expansive body of work that frequently does its best to be practical.

As for whether it actually works, there has been a lot of research with largely optimistic results, and if you just Google it you’ll be swimming in anecdotes. People aren’t claiming their pain is gone, only that they can bear it better and enjoy life more. Good on them, I say. It’s okay if a healing effect is purely psychological if the malady is too.

Why so aggressive?

Question from Julain:
I have found myself more Gnostic than anything, and I want to ask about a few things.
Why are atheists so aggressive and nitpicky? All of the staunch atheists I’ve met have to make a point about how right they are, then start asking about how their god is real, a dumb question really. So, back to the question, what makes atheists so self-righteous and dogmatic?

The other question I have is simple: Why are staunch atheists so scornful of religion? I, personally, am 100% for meeting up and reminding people to love their fellow man/not tear out neighbor john’s esophagus. You get so dogmatic, so evangelical, as a group, all about something that can not be proven by science. It is not a simple thing we can find, it is transcendent. It was said that “God is dead” for a number of reasons, one of them being that he is no longer objectively provable. On the flipside, we can not disprove him either. I am not saying to believe one way or another. The entire argument is meaningless, though, and that is the important thing- that these people get some kind of sensual, almost erotic joy in a small, meaningless victory that has not changed the world around them.

Why is atheism uniting as a movement? I feel that such a move could be dangerous to the ideas ‘defended’ by it. Skepticism is not going to be found in a large group, that is when you start becoming a unified force instead, with unified ideas. That is the opposite of skepticism.

My final question is why you guys talk about “science” like it is a bible. The thing that keeps this amorphous, shifting mass of ideas moving is the constant search for understanding, knowing that we can always be wrong. Many things are not such. Evolution? Definite, real, we have proof. Red Queen hypothesis? Plausible view of evolution, really more like frame of reference. Those are directly observable. However, then you start getting to physics and cosmology, or almost anything that involves space. In general, we know almost nothing. The average person just flaunts ‘the big bang’ while only knowing the basic framework from wikipedia or a textbook. In the end, we know so little, it is best to reserve judgement.

I say with confidence that I know little, and that I know not what lies beyond the pale of death. Past that? Absolutely nothing.

Answer by SmartLX:
If what you’ve said is true then it’s not true about all the staunch atheists you’ve met, it’s just true about all the staunch atheists who’ve announced themselves to you. Like any group of people, atheists have some among them who can’t entertain the possibility that they might be wrong or allow others to differ in peace, and this can make them abrasive when on the subject. Others, like my father for one, mention it once every few years if at all, and avoid all discussion of it with believers because they know it can cause an argument. In short, you can be a dick about anything and that includes atheism, but when atheists aren’t being dicks you might not even identify them. Engaging people constructively on an emotionally charged subject like faith when you think it’s all unjustified is bloody hard, especially in person.

Many atheists are also anti-theistic, or opposed to religious belief in general, for three reasons. Firstly, it does appear to be misguided to atheists or at least likely to be wrong, and it’s usually in everyone’s interest for people to live their lives according to what’s actually true. Secondly, religious belief can cause great harm in some circumstances (the regular news stories about parents failing to pray away their children’s illnesses are a ready example) while its mental and social benefits can come from other sources instead, so the cost-benefit analysis goes badly for it. Finally, widespread belief makes non-believers a minority, and sometimes a persecuted minority depending on where they are. (I’m not going to Bangladesh in a hurry.)

Many atheists united behind a fresh movement around 2006 for these same reasons, when a group of books on the subject came out together and acted as a catalyst. (New Atheism was a terrible name for it, but there it is.) I disagree that skepticism can’t function in large groups, because if the people question each other then every idea must prove itself. Managing a large group of atheists has been compared to herding cats, so they’re an ideal demographic to put this into practice.

It is indeed folly to dogmatise science, so we simply try not to. If evidence for something is in place, we act and speak with confidence in its reality. If not then we reserve judgement, and that should include the possibility of a god or its influence. But not knowing for sure does not mean all possibilities have equal probabilities, and the concept of a god is so far beyond anything we’ve observed that positing it as an explanation for anything does not make for a useful hypothesis, or an appealing one unless you’re desperate for a simple answer. It raises more questions than it answers anyway.

Spontaneous Creation in Physics

Question from Steve R:
If the big bang was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics, please tell me: which law of physics supports spontaneous creation? I have not found any laws or principles of the physical universe which support the idea of bridging the infinite gap between non-existence (quantity zero) and existence (quantity one) using no previous resources. In fact, I think it’s the opposite – there is a law (and a quite significant law) which clearly state that both matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed (1st law of thermodynamics). If there was no one to make this law, then it is just part of the universe. But if it is just part of the universe, then the universe would have to violate its own laws to create itself. So please tell me, again: which law of physics supports spontaneous creation?

Answer by SmartLX:
No law so far, but multiple scientific theories. Lawrence Krauss regularly talks about quantum mechanics spontaneously generating matter and anti-matter, which have a combined energy of zero when there’s the same amount of each, from a previous state which can be called nothingness. (Something can come from nothing, he says, because “nothing” is unstable.) In Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design Hawking makes a claim based on both quantum mechanics and relativity that gravity creates universes and this is only one of them. I recommend reading the work of both to get some idea of the mechanisms science has actually proposed for what you call “spontaneous creation”.

All this may be moot, however, because there is a much simpler solution. As you say, the law of conservation of energy based on the first law of thermodynamics isn’t concerned with the above and states unambiguously that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. The universe would therefore have to violate the law to create itself, but if it exists now then the law implies that it has always existed in some form, and it wasn’t created at all.

The idea of anything creating itself from nothing is absurd, because it would mean that the effect existed before the cause. For the idea to make any kind of sense it needs to be an emergence or formation from nothing. Once you get away from the word “create”, it stops being a contest between creation by an intelligent being such as a god and creation by unintelligent phenomena, and seems much more plausible in the absence of a god. This is of course why religious apologists use variants of the word “create” even when they refer to natural hypotheses.

Something to prove, but what?

Question from Darian:
What would be defined as legitimate proof of god(s) within the accepted community of atheists? And, is there any proper scientific research being done to find said proof? Another way to word, what would be the atheist definition of god(s)?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s some argument about this within the atheist community (for example between biologist bloggers PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne) so I don’t think there’s a definitive answer I can give you. Some atheists name grand gestures (say, huge letters in the sky) as evidence they would accept, and some think even that kind of thing would be insufficient.

The more general attitude is that if evidence for an entity which might qualify as a god presented itself, there would be two questions to answer: whether the evidence was valid, and if so what kind of presence was actually indicated. The resulting investigation would make as few assumptions as possible, which might be difficult given the subject, to get as close to the facts as possible.

Religious apologetics, and the idea that a god might be demonstrated by an argument alone, are considered differently. Each of the prospective arguments that aims to do this makes its own presumptions and inferences about the qualities of the supposed god. If an apologetic argument were established and accepted as valid and sound, thereby unambiguously confirming the existence of a god, what that argument said about the god would implicitly be accepted too.

Since the ontology of a hypothetical god (i.e. what it is) isn’t settled, there isn’t a lot of scientific research of any kind being done to discover evidence for it. If scientists knew what to look for, it wouldn’t be too difficult to get a grant or sponsorship with the help of religious politicians, philanthropists or venture capitalists. As it is, scientists are exploring the universe as best they can to find whatever happens to be there, and evidence for a god might turn up under a microscope or millions of light years away when they least expected it.

On the other hand plenty of work is being done to establish the existence of a god (usually a specific god) by those who want there to be one, though a lot of it doesn’t qualify as research, let alone scientific, because it doesn’t uncover anything new. A famous example is that expeditions have set out to find Noah’s Ark, and some claim to have found it (in several different places). The much more common approach, though, is simply finding new ways to interpret existing biological, paleontological and geological data in order to support the idea.

Deuterium-onomy

Question from Moses:
I’m not going to enlighten you on my personal beliefs, because it is moot to my question that I will pose momentarily.

I have made note that your readers all seem to agree that science and rational thinking should be revered above all else.

And further understanding that choice is a free will, individual thought process or belief that may or may not be brought into actions.

So here is my rational, scientifically proven, free willed, intellectual question: “If there is no creation theory, then why isn’t the earth filled with abundant quantities of deuterium just as the rest of the solar system is?”

p.s. The world’s space agencies has sent, and continues to spend billions of dollars for, probes and robots searching for life, but science has proven that the water here on earth is certainly different than elsewhere in our solar system.

I await your response in earnest.

Answer by SmartLX:
Thanks in advance Moses, it’s almost never this simple.

Deuterium IS abundant on Earth; one in about 6,400 hydrogen atoms in ocean water is a deuterium isotope (which is just a hydrogen atom with a neutron) instead of the usual type. This ratio is higher than some of the objects in space we’ve been able to analyse, and lower than others. All measurements within the solar system including on Earth have been within 1-2 orders of magnitude (specifically a factor of ~30), with Halley’s Comet and Comet Hale Bopp near the high end and Jupiter’s atmosphere near the low end. The fact that our ratio is closer to the comets has caused some to theorise that comet collisions with the early Earth are the source of much of our water. There’s nothing special or unique about the ratio at all.

Your personal beliefs may be moot, but to an extent they are also obvious. Only a creationist would make an argument from ignorance based on the supposedly unknown reasons for a scientific factoid (and I’m not surprised that the factoid itself is bogus, though perhaps you are surprised), or use the term “creation theory”. Only devout theists are creationists because faith in a creator is ultimately the only compelling reason to be one. You might be a Christian creationist or a Muslim creationist; few other religions have so many.

As for the water, we’ve known about the ice crust on Europa since the 1970s and it’s likely that Mars and Venus had liquid water in the past. Multiple extrasolar planets are the right distance from their stars to have liquid water, provided water exists there; here’s a list.

A Message Baked Into Pi?

Question from Anthony:
Suppose that the human race somehow received a direct revelation from God. There are many ways in which this might happen, but let’s go with the method that Carl Sagan used in his novel Contact, which was later made into a movie starring Jodie Foster. (This aspect of the novel never made it into the film.) In the book, we are told that, from the earliest days of our universe, advanced extraterrestrial civilizations throughout our galaxy have discovered that, if you calculate certain irrational numbers (like pi, e, the square root of 2, etc.) far enough out, you’ll find messages. Of course, for that to be the case, the messages would have to be from “God.” In the book, we aren’t told which number or numbers contains the messages, or what the messages actually are, but let’s just say that it’s pi and that one message explains the nature of God. Decades from now, human quantum computers calculate pi far enough out to reveal God’s message. It’s presented in such a manner that, knowing mathematics and the laws of science, it can be interpreted by any civilization.

Roughly translated, the message is: “I am the Source of All Things. I am the Alpha and Omega. I created this universe as an act of will, for reasons only I can understand. I designed it such that, after billions of years, you would come into existence, too. Welcome to my universe, my children. You have no doubt been wondering about me. Why did I create the universe? What is its purpose? What is my nature? I will tell you now, but there are a few things that you must understand first. Infinities are impossible. No actual existing thing can be infinite or eternal in nature. It is like dividing by zero; it makes no sense. I am older, wiser, and more powerful than you can imagine. Functionally, eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent as viewed from your subjective perspective. In absolute terms, though, I am none of these things. Additionally, although I am the Source of All That Is, the creator of this universe, I am not un-caused myself. I created this universe, and it created me. We created each other. In short, I am the Creator of All That Is. I am, as far as you are concerned, eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent. I exist outside of time and space. However, I am supernatural only in the sense that none of you can comprehend the nature of my powers or the essence of my Being. I can bend or break the laws of nature which are familiar to you, having created them, but there are Greater Laws which I Myself must obey. You do not yet understand these laws. Having made my nature clear to you, I have only one thing to tell you. There exists one simple equation which defines and shapes the entire universe. That equation is: 6 x 7 = 42. End of message.”

OKAY: Here’s my question. Do you think that Christians, Jews, and Muslims would be cool with this. Would they accept this PROVEN God, as He presents himself, or would they reject “all this pi mumbo-jumbo” and stick with their traditional worldview and beliefs. Or… would they now define themselves as atheists?

Answer by SmartLX:
Firstly, that exact message IS encoded in pi – and e, and the square root of 2, and every other irrational number. This is because not only do these numbers never end, but they never loop back to the start, so no matter what code you pick, that message will eventually be spelled out in it if you calculate the number to enough decimal places. This fact is meaningless because literally every possible message is encoded in the same numbers. It’s like looking up at the Milky Way and visualising shapes using only a few of the countless stars; there’s practically no end to the possibilities, but no shape is significant.

Anyway, if a message from the Creator really was buried in mathematics, there’s enough anti-intellectualism around that plenty of believers would doubt the academics who found the message on sheer principle. But let’s say the message was written across the sky worldwide, appearing to each person in his or her own language, so that none could deny it. Belief in a god would cease to be worth discussing once everyone accepted that it was real; it would be like believing in dogs, or believing in paper.

Atheism would become absurd, except in the sense that it would be possible to define the Creator as something other than a god. The debate would turn to pure theology; a real godlike entity would be the subject to study and discuss, because discerning its wishes and intentions would be of utmost importance. People of many faiths, particularly monotheistic faiths (since only one Creator had revealed itself), would certainly do their best to fit what we knew about the Creator into their existing ideas about God, with varying degrees of success. Even of those who abandoned their old beliefs because of the new information, many would retain strong connections to the cultures centred on their religions. (Today’s ‘secular Jews’ demonstrate this in the present day by keeping that identity while rejecting the idea of God.)

Since I don’t think it’s likely a god or comparable entity exists, I don’t think the above scenario is likely either. But if it happened, it would be a very exciting time to be alive.

Sense and Sense-ability

Question from Dante:
I came up with a notion that i have been musing over for months now. It’s an evolutionary notion/question. I will not use it to make any assertions but I would be interested to hear what any sages would have to say and how they would address it. So here goes….

Realism/rationalism is based firmly on a permutation of inputs through our 5 senses, processed through our brains using the tool of what, contemporarily, we agree to be science. In an evolutionary sense, starting with the primordial soup, the first unicellular organisms would have started out with some sort of sense analogous to the tactile or chemical. As we climb the evolutionary tree with time, we find further senses appearing, which did not always exist – till the present time when we are aware of 5 ”top-level” senses which we use to experience our reality. processing their input to produce our rationality.

Here is the ‘punch line’:- Evolution is ongoing. Therefore we have no basis to presume that life on our planet has reached the zenith as far as the development of senses goes. Or do we? Beings on this planet billions of years from now ( it is not irrational to postulate) would have further progressed the sensory perception – 6 senses? maybe 7 I dont know. But I do know it is arrogance to decide that evolution does not progress beyond five, just because that is the limit of our sensory perception at this stage of evolution.

This is my question – is it not true then that our knowledge’/’rationality’/’reality’ even science has to be at least to some degree subjective? At the very worst erroneous? Are we really masters of this universe with the tools we use at this stage of evolution – FIVE SENSES????

Answer by SmartLX:
No, we are hardly masters of the universe, and yes, our senses are highly subjective and very often erroneous. We have far more than five senses now – look up proprioception and chemoreceptors, for instance – but in the future we might develop more of them and improve our existing senses. Regardless, it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot in the universe we currently have no way of sensing or detecting, near and far. Reality goes way beyond that which we’ve seen and recorded.

So why ask this on an atheist site? Most likely because of the possibility that senses we don’t yet have might be able to detect the influence or even the direct presence of a god. Sure, it’s possible that we could discover a god in the future, if we become capable of looking in the right way. That doesn’t change the fact that there’s no substantive evidence for a god available to us right now, and no good reason to believe in anything but the possibility of a god.

Some Things Never Change

Question from Caleb:
In an atheistic worldview why are there laws of logic, uniformity of nature, and absolute morality?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you search the site for the above terms you’ll find quite a few relevant pieces already written, and some very long discussions in the comments. These subjects crop up often because many theists think they have the authority on each. This time I’ll try to answer as straightforwardly as possible; if you look through the rest of the material and think I haven’t covered something, do let me know.

There do appear to be many types of total consistency in the universe, primarily physical and logical. The laws of each don’t seem to change, so we have the kind of stable universe where beings like us can develop over billions of years and create civilisations without everything spontaneously collapsing in on itself every few minutes, or turning into chocolate pudding and back.

None of us know why this is. Some think they know, because if they believe the universe was created by an intelligent god then it sounds sensible that this god would make the universe stable enough to support life and eventually cognition, as most worshipped gods have apparently created humanity for some unknown purpose. To one who has not already accepted the existence of such a being (which hypothetically is more exotic and incredible than anything the universe has to offer, and is thus a dismal working assumption for the purpose of explanation) it seems more likely that, somewhat in the manner of Newton’s first law, there is simply no influence upon the universe causing it to change its fundamental qualities and therefore it doesn’t. The absence of a god does not make the reality impossible, merely unexplained. To go any further is to commit the all-too-common fallacy of an argument from ignorance, or else to claim omniscience.

Absolute morality is different from the other two because we don’t know whether it exists in the first place. Morality is disputed all the time, so any absolute morality makes up a very small part of it. Anything we might think of as a moral absolute might just be something the entire human race agrees upon, but is wrong. Any such supposed absolute might also be regarded with the total opposite of its implication for humans when considered from the perspective of other animals, for example ants. Texts like the Bible declare moral absolutes on the authority of a being whose existence is itself in question. This last point is important, because when you’re using the existence of absolute morality to argue for the existence of a god, you can’t use the latter to argue for the former first.

Demons and gods and the Big Bang oh my!

Arushi asks…

Okay so I am an atheist and I am 13 yo girl from India !! Yes , India but my mom and dad were quite supportive of my act … I read about different stuff from the Internet and then I read about Stephen hawking and all his books and he says that the universe just blurted out of a Big Bang and he’s an atheist the question is who really created the Big Bang or designed humans . Then why are there so many evidences that God is present ?? And even if there isn’t y r demons present and I can’t stop myself from believing all this after I saw some real exorcism tapes !! What happens to our body when we die coz atheists don’t believe in afterlife ?? Is there a hell or heaven ?? Pls answer my queries I’ll be really grateful to and I could answer them when my frnds inquire me πŸ™‚ I am really interested in science , physics , philosophy , paradoxes but I love knowing about myths , demons and legends so pls help me end my search !! Thank you xx

Thanks for all of the questions.

You’re problem here is that you have a little information but it’s obvious you haven’t actually studied them for yourself. I know from having a teenager and from once being one, that studying isn’t something that you like to do unless you have to (there are exceptions of course). You are probably used to people telling you what to think instead of learning things for yourself. I get that. You’ve got a lot going on with school and friends and family, who has time to learn? However, if you really want to begin to understand the world you live in, you’re going to have to do more then just “read about Stephen Hawking”, you’re going to have to actually read his books, or at the very least, listen to some of his lectures. You see, the internet is full of disinformation. You have to be willing to verify claims by doing a little research. I know that seems like a lot to do, but it is infinitely better then relying on what other people tell you about things. Look at it this way, the more you know and understand about the world around you, the clearer your perspective becomes. You can either choose to live blindly, or choose to try and understand. The choice is yours alone either way.

With that said, I’m going to answer your questions in a short manner and encourage you to go and learn these things for yourself instead of just accepting what I tell you.

First there is no evidence for any gods. Evidence for any claim of existence requires objective, verifiable proof. If someone told you there was a teapot circling Pluto, you wouldn’t believe it unless you had hard evidence for it right? Same thing with gods and demons. What people like to do is point to something that they don’t understand and say “god did that”, instead of actually trying to understand it for themselves. For example, for a long long long time people thought that those who screamed out, and shook on the floor and suffered from seizures were “possessed by demons”, but it wasn’t until science came around that we came to understand what causes seizures. Guess what? Demons weren’t involved.

Let’s take for example the “exorcist tapes” you referred too. What science was done to confirm these were people actually possessed be “demons”? How do you know the film wasn’t edited to make you think the demons were real? Why is the default explanation “demons” instead of just saying “I don’t know why this is happening”? An extraordinary claim like “demons” demands extraordinary evidence to verify it. Where is the verification? The James Randie Foundation offers a million dollars to anyone who can scientifically verify their claims of gods and demons and magic and psychic powers. Many have tried, and not one has ever succeeded. Their claims always fall short when studied in an objective manner. You might want to ask yourself why that is?

The rest of your questions are easy. There is no evidence for an afterlife just like there is no evidence for gods or demons. Don’t take my word for it though. Go learn these things for yourself. Start with learning the scientific method (systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.) and learn to apply it to your questions and ask if the evidence you’ve been given is justifiable. Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.

I know these aren’t the answers that you were looking for, but the direction I’m pointing you in will allow you to learn these things for yourself instead of relying on others to tell you what to believe. Feel free to read through this website. Use the search function. Read, learn, and try to understand. That’s the best advice I can give you.