Sunday, February 26, 2006

Stat has always been my Achilles heel

You Passed 8th Grade Math

Congratulations, you got 9/10 correct!

Friday, February 24, 2006

Battle stations! Battle stations!

Whoa! Guess it's no longer just Nigerian prelates. Some in the Vatican have had it too:
"Enough now with this turning the other cheek! It's our duty to protect ourselves," Monsignor Velasio De Paolis, secretary of the Vatican's supreme court, thundered in the daily La Stampa.
And keep in mind Iran is denying the Holocaust and encouraging its lampooning and that of Jews. Anyone care to bet that ethics/morality comes from the deity of these three "great" monotheisms?

(I remember someone saying something like, I come not to bring peace but a sword. Drats! Can't recall who said it. Surely must've been a god-cursing evil atheist. )

(news via God is for Suckers!)

As with techology imagination cuts both ways

If we knew for certain that there is an afterlife, we wouldn’t have great debates about it, and philosophers wouldn’t have spilled all that ink over the millennia wrangling over it. Since we don’t know, it makes more sense to assume there is no God and no afterlife, and act accordingly. That is, act as if what we do matters now. That way, we’ll think about the consequences of what we are doing.

--Michael Shermer
(filling in for Randi on this week's Swift as The Amazing Bearded One continues to recuperate)

Hate to do this, but the existence of an afterlife and existence of The Invisible Incompetent Designer can be mutually exclusive. If in fact there is no afterlife then we are not warranted in concluding that there are no deities. And if in fact there are supernat heroes and supernat villains then we can't declare that one day we'll open our eyes(ockets) and find our bones and fossils touching base with them in some vanilla sky. Neither is contingent on the other.

In fairness to Shermer, Christian theology makes the two inseparable--it is the will of their schizophrenic deity that people clamber out their graves and get sorted into those who will take to the skies and those bound to toil in the underground mines. If there is no afterlife then the Christian deity does not exist (unless theologians and other suck-ups are willing to declare they were wrong about that premiss of theirs).

Needless to say, the delusional will always believe in things fantastical, irrational and for which there is no evidence. Those among them who believe the hereafter is going to land them six dozen virgins or get them cheek to cheek with their Almighty or get them hooked up with their dearly departed should tarry no longer and book a flight asap by jumping off the nearest cliff.


Professor of New Testament Gerd Luedemann writes of the "intolerant gospel":
While "peace" is a central theme in Holy Scripture, the aggressive side of Christian faith is all but certainly responsible for the many bloody wars started in and from Christian Europe. A key issue, of course, is how that peace is to be achieved. Here, the New Testament message is as crystal-clear as it is-at least by modern standards-indefensible: Jesus Christ himself will return to carry out God's will and by force, empowered by the authority of his resurrection, will establish his father's kingdom of peace on earth. On the basis of this promise, believers in Jesus Christ have at all times claimed access to that power and used it with a good conscience against those they perceive to be enemies of the Gospel.

The prophecy is even now being fulfilled. The Son is here and is carrying out His Father's will and by force in Iraq.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Brew it

From the Consumer Health Digest.
The Washington Department of Health has ordered Barbara Brewitt and her company Biomed Comm, Inc. to stop manufacturing drug products without a license. The Temporary Order to Cease and Desist also directs her to stop representing herself as a medical doctor. The order states that (a) Biomed manufactures and markets homeopathic products for conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, autism, cancer, menopausal symptoms, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and HIV/AIDS; (b) Brewitt allegedly represented herself as a medical doctor to a Seattle-based pharmacy in order to obtain a drug used in the manufacturing process; and (c) Brewitt holds a Ph.D. in biological structure but possesses no medical degree. The health department plans to notify firms that bought products for retail sale that the products are unapproved....

Some of Biomed's claims violate the FDA Compliance Policy Guideline that restricts the labeling of nonprescription homeopathic drugs to self-limiting conditions readily diagnosable by consumers. The Department of Health's investigation was triggered by a complaint from a former employee who stated that many of the products were mixed by Brewitt herself in her own kitchen as she chanted over a crystal bowl.

Expecto presto cura!

For those untrained in the arts of Hogwarts sorcery, that mind you is the spell for the placebo effect.

Chekov: Phaser banks energized, Kiptain

Christians are about to run out of cheeks to turn:

Nigeria's main Christian body has said it may no longer be able to contain Christians from retaliating after Muslim rioters killed dozens of Christians and torched churches.... "May we at this stage remind our Muslim brothers that they do not have the monopoly of violence in this nation," Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola said in a statement.... Sectarian fighting is often stoked by politicians seeking to bolster their own power bases, while violence in one part of the country often sparks reprisal killings elsewhere.

McCoy: [on the bridge of the Enterprise, standing in front of the viewscreen] This is barbaric! Jim, how can you just sit there and watch this? Order an away team to stop the carnage!

Kirk: Bones, you know I can't do that. My career's on the line here. I can't meddle in the evolution of another pathetic jurassic species yet again. I'm with you on this. Damn the Prime Directive! But they're going to fry my ass if I do another John Wayne (or was that Dirty Harry?). [Swivels his chair] Lieutenant Uhura, could you check that ancient idiom?

Uhura: Right away, Captain.

Spock: [peering down his scope at his station] Gentlemen, if I may. Bioscans and tricorder readings indicate that the genetic predisposition of this lifeform is, at its cranial core, fundamentally reptilian in nature. Intriguingly, coupled with its cortex its aggression has over its evolutionary been facilitated by its tool-making capacity. Higher functions and abilities notwithstanding, these have in fact been co-opted by the brain stem to serve its reflexive response to environmental stimuli. Given the data my calculations indicate that there is a mere 0.01437 probability that natural selection forces, anytime within the next 500,000 years, will result in an attenuation of its encoded propensity toward violence and mutual annihilation. [Straightens up and faces Kirk] Captain, all data we have on this species point to only one conclusion: this lifeform will, ironically in its bid to survive, eventually destroy itself. For yet unknown reasons the blind forces of nature seem to have created a most efficient killing machine that culminates in self-extinction. (Fascinating.) Captain, intervening in this one instance will have no effect on the aggressive tendencies of this species or its, as you would say, destiny. May I suggest moving on to the next world?

Kirk: [sneers] Thank you, Mr. Spock, for that most dispassionate and irrefutable analysis. (Sometimes I wish your human side wouldn't be so repressed.) Bones, take a seat. Mr. Sulu, all ahead Warp Factor 1.

Sulu: Aye, aye, Captain. Ahead Warp Factor One.

McCoy: [walks up to the Science Officer] You're disgusting, Spock. You haven't got an ethical bone cell in your Vulcan anatomy.

Spock: [sotto voce] On the contrary, Doctor. It will please you that I've surreptitiously readied the transporter room to beam a party of one down to the planet, complete with medical supplies and photon torpedoes.... We'll pick your fossil up on our way back.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Finally, something straight from the shoulder

The threat of terrorism has a way of making you think twice:
Among those who decline to show the caricatures, only one, the Boston Phoenix, has been forthright enough to admit that its editors made the decision "out of fear of retaliation from the international brotherhood of radical and bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do. This is, frankly, our primary reason for not publishing any of the images in question. Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and as deeply as we believe in the principles of free speech and a free press, we could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy."

Friday, February 17, 2006

Please pray for your enemies

In two large studies it was discovered that
There was a significant association between being prayed for and being re-admitted as a result of things going badly. People who were prayed for were one and a half times more likely to be re-admitted to CCU [coronary care unit] as those who weren't.

Had He been guillotined or hanged or burned at the stake or quartered or ...

But the Italians, I mean Romans, had their own ingenious way of snuffing you out. So why not flaunt it and adorn your schools with the contraption, with a test subject hanging on it to boot?

Crosses will continue to litter Italy.

Italy's highest administrative court ruled on Wednesday that crucifixes should remain in the country's classrooms as a symbol of key Italian values .

In what could turn into a landmark decision, the 'Council of State' threw out a case brought by a Finnish woman who had asked for the removal of crucifixes in the Padua school attended by her children .

The rationale for keeping them up there:

The judges issued a 19-page statement explaining that, as well as being a religious symbol, it was also a symbol of "the values which underlie and inspire our constitution, our way of living together peacefully". They said principles such as tolerance, respect and the rights of individuals, which were now pillars of Italy's secular state, had their origins in Christianity. "In this sense the crucifix can have a highly educational symbolic function, regardless of the religion of the pupils," they added .

What bullshit!

I just love this

The NCSE 700 Club.

Hits the spot after a rather vexing evening.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

A major study that might have little value

Results of a long-term study involving around 49,000 post-menopausal women shows "no statistically significant difference ... in the rates of breast cancer, colorectal cancer or cardiovascular disease between women on a reduced fat diet – eating five portions of fruit and vegetables and six portions of grains each day – compared with those who made no dietary changes." Massimo Pigliucci gives us important food for thought about this study. So does Steven Novella.

On afterlife and heaven

An amateur evangelist preaching to the gallery confidently pontificated that whether we believe it or not after our tour of duty on this planet is up we will end up in only two places--in some blissful never-never land with His Royal Heinies (and an endless queue of virgins perhaps?) or some nasty dungeon which He never visits (thank goodness!).

Unfortunately, believing or not believing in the claim that death does not result in death and that heaven and and hell (whatever they are) exist has no bearing on their facticity. One must first substantiate the premiss and provide evidence that they are indeed factually true, with the onus of proof squarely on the party making the (fantastical) claim. Only after substantiation has been presented can others make a rational decision as to how much one ought to believe in this premiss. On the other hand, in the absence of good justification arguments, inferences, conclusions that derive from the premiss remain speculative at best. Therefore, an inquiry into the robustness of the premiss is necessary and would demand answers to such questions as:

What evidence (not mere unsupported claims) is there--from various disciplines--that an afterlife exists? Here of course we are speaking of an afterlife that preserves the idiosyncracies of the individual, i.e., the specific and particular subjectivity remains unaltered (unless of course we are talking of certain Eastern concepts of afterlife wherein the self melds and merges with the collective Self--as raindrops fuse with the sea). Is there a convergence of evidence from these various fields which strengthens the plausibility and probability of the afterlife hypothesis? Or is it that we find a dearth of support and/or even confuting evidence?

What does afterlife consist of? Specifically, what is the process by which a corpse, or some portion thereof, becomes resuscitated or eludes nonbeing? Are there examples of human "souls" which we can scrutinize and which will then confirm the reality of life after death? What investigative, including perhaps medical, methods do we use in analyzing such disembodied "living dead"? What does afterlife mean in the context of current physiological understanding of life? Consciousness/sentience as neurologists tell us is an epiphenomenon of the nervous system, of a brain of a certain degree complexity and integrity, such that genetic and congenital abnormalities, trauma, organic disease, protracted hypoxia, etc. will cause consciousness, including self-awareness, perception, intellect, and the higher functions to become highly degraded if not completely terminated. How then can sentience/consciouness or an intelligent life of some sort exist without the agency of a brain and associated physiological organs, operations, and processes? Unless one can provide plausible and testable means by which one can explain their survival, there is no reason to suspect that disembodied consciousness can exist. On the other hand, should afterlife be defined as a literal resuscitation of (long dead) corpses, then one must show the means by which chemical decomposition (and even petrification/fossilization) can be reversed, a reversal that concludes in the restoration of the various idiosyncracies of the organism before its demise, including the restoration of its memory. Are there known physical and chemical processes by which decomposed, scavenged, disintegrated, or fossilized corpses can become faithfully reconstituted? Positing an ad hoc explanation via an appeal to theogenic magic will not do. One still must be able to explain how the magic works, else one has not in fact offered an explanation.

And moving on, specifically, what is heaven? What empirical evidence--again from various fields--is there to support the hypothesis? Is the evidence strongly suggestive of its existence, or is it the fact that there is as yet a conspicuous paucity of substantation? Is the claim for heaven based on intersubjectively verifiable observations and tests and known processes, or is it merely based on a collective hankering and belief for utopia? Is it a claim that logically and rationally proceeds from our fund of dependable knowledge of the empirical world and existing evidence at hand, or is it an a priori concept that continually begs for empirical support? Is it merely a non-illogical possibility, or is there is a plethora of evidence that compels us to assign it a probability rating much greater than infinitesimal?

Needless to say, all evidence points to one thing--when we finally check out, that's it, we're gone. Thus, to claim the opposite--that life ends not--is wishful thinking. Dewy-eyed Christians just have to face death and accept The End.

Curse of Ham

Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis asks a very revealing question:

"Boys and girls," Ham said. If a teacher so much as mentions evolution, or the Big Bang, or an era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, "you put your hand up and you say, 'Excuse me, were you there?' Can you remember that?"

"Sometimes people will answer, 'No, but you weren't there either,' " Ham told them. "Then you say, 'No, I wasn't, but I know someone who was, and I have his book about the history of the world.' " He waved his Bible in the air.

"Who's the only one who's always been there?" Ham asked.

"God!" the boys and girls shouted.

Children, children! Don't stop now. Keep going. So, were the biblical writers there to witness whatever it is the Holy Honcho did? Did you see His Invisibleness dictate it all to his scriptwriters? Did you see Him write this all down in that book Ken is drooling over? Keep asking, boys and girls.

When pastors dismiss the creation account as a fable, he says, they give their flock license to disregard the Bible's moral teachings as well. He shows his audiences a graphic that places the theory of evolution at the root of all social ills: abortion, divorce, racism, gay marriage, store clerks who say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

What's all the fuss, Ken? Your deity beat Darwin and all of us damned evil nonbelievers to murder, infanticide, anthropocide, war, slavery, ...

By the way, Ken, a belated Happy Darwin Day!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Detestable as his persona may be the Merovingian gets the laurel

In his talk "Naturalism: The Next Step for Humanists?" (Part 2) before the Freethought Association of Western Michigan, Center for Naturalism director Tom Clark mentions the character known as the Merovingian in the movie The Matrix: Reloaded and how he debates with the "good guys" about choice and causality.

Having been a Matrix fan (of the original flick, not at all the sequels!) I was really curious as to what the Merovingian (until now I had no idea how that was spelt) had to say about causality. Here's the pertinent portion (I initially cut out the juicier section but then figured it's an essential example and so pasted it back in).

Merovingian: You are here because you were sent here, you were told to come here and you obeyed. [Laughs] It is, of course, the way of all things. You see, there is only one constant, one universal, it is the only real truth: causality. Action. Reaction. Cause and effect.

Morpheus: Everything begins with choice.

Merovingian: No. Wrong. Choice is an illusion, created between those with power, and those without. Look there, at that woman. My God, just look at her. Affecting everyone around her, so obvious, so bourgeois, so boring. But wait... Watch - you see, I have sent her dessert, a very special dessert. I wrote it myself. It starts so simply, each line of the program creating a new effect, just like poetry. First, a rush... heat... her heart flutters. You can see it, Neo, yes? She does not understand why - is it the wine? No. What is it then, what is the reason? And soon it does not matter, soon the why and the reason are gone, and all that matters is the feeling itself. This is the nature of the universe. We struggle against it, we fight to deny it, but it is of course pretense, it is a lie. Beneath our poised appearance, the truth is we are completely out of control. Causality. There is no escape from it, we are forever slaves to it. Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the `why.'

It's funny (actually not so funny) that I don't remember at all the emphasis of the dialogue on causuality. This selective attention, or more to the point, inattention is for me quite telling. At the time I saw Reloaded this matter of choice (free will) vis-a-vis cause and effect was anything but central in my jumble of interest and so I was totally refractory to what in fact was rather important to the story. But reading the script now makes me nod (albeit cautiously) in agreement with the Merovingian. While "[causuality] is the only truth" is too audacious or exaggerated a claim I believe, underscoring causality as the engine of basically all phenomena in the universe shouldn't be a brow-raising claim. It should in fact be a truism. Even Christian philosophers I think would agree (with their First Cause argument and all).

Moreover, I think the Merovingian makes an excellent point when he says that our only hope is to understand it. Confusing what it is that actually brought about something leads to all sorts of bad consequences: Superstition and post hoc errors, locking up the wrong person, attribution of various forces in nature to anthropomorphized invisible beings, etc. Hence we need a way of finding out the "true causes" of things. In that regard what is science if not in fact largely an endeavor to reliably understand causes of various natural phenomena. What is skeptical inquiry but a search for (mundane) natural causes for what some claim to be apparently supernatural or paranormal phenomena. What is engineering (applied sciences including medicine) if not the use of knowledge of causal factors in molding the world around us, in controlling and making use of our understanding of the world to cause various things to happen including the maintenance of our health and prolongation of our lives.

Our society relies on the assumption that what we understand as reliable/correct causal explanations indeed hold true today, tomorrow, a century from now, whether in Asia or in the Western hemisphere or on the sandy shores far far away where Spirit and Opportunity are dune buggying about. We wouldn't want to wake up one day and discover that nuclear fusion doesn't result in the radiation of an awful amount of heat (unless perhaps unless we've already anthropogenically caused a thermal runaway no thanks to the greenhouse effect). Then again we might every now and then cherish the fantasy that causality would cease operating in some areas: "Breaking News: Germs no longer cause infections!" Of course such a welcome report may not be a pipe dream were medical science to come up with a way of causing our bodies to become immune and resistant to any and all pathogens. Science and pretty much everyday common sense is premissed on determinism (let's not get into quantum mechanics for now, not least because I'm physics-challenged). We tacitly engage the world with the assumption that there is order in the world, that causality is real, that things don't happen without cause, even if that cause is thought to be otherworldly (or never-neverworldly) in origin and nature.

As the Merovingian only knows too well to understand causal factors is to have power, for with such knowledge one can (at least in principle) control the universe. For better or for worse that is the opportunity that science provides us, now, today. On the other hand, supernaturalism, whose causal hypotheses cannot be tested and whose claimed supernatural laws and forces are by definition beyond our ken and reach, is simply devoid of much of anything. As with the Merovingian's test subject supernaturalists don't care about the why, only the feeling, the psychological benefits that now ensue from having such a fantastical worldview. It would be well for all of us for science to discover in the soonest possible time the causes of such delusory escapades and the apparent need of some to lose themselves in the highs such irrationality affords.

(Yep, I couldn't resist capping this entry with a stab at our nemesis)

Monday, February 13, 2006

Science and religion

Learned of the following letter and signature campaign by some clergy via Skepticality. Here's a snippet that got my goat:

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist.... We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

As late as a few years ago I would've agreed to this idea of "non-overlapping magisteria" as Stephen Gould put it. But a mere cursory look reveals that religion has always been trespassing on science's turf. "By making pronouncements that are, even if only in principle, testable, religions, however unwillingly, enter the arena of science."* By claiming that prayer works or that God stopped the sun or that a worldwide flood ensued or that resuscitation of corpses occurred or that flour becomes some dead dude's flesh after magical incantations are uttered over it, religion makes empirical claims which can be investigated by science. So much for exclusive territories.

What makes me wince is the suggestion that religion has some truth to offer us. There is no truth that only religion can offer us. There are no timeless truths it can enlighten us with.

We don't need to go yet again into Christianity's bottomless store of supernatural beliefs. Priests of whatever ilk can wake our great great great grandkids up when they finally have some evidence to support claims about their vaunted cast of superheroes and supervillains. Till then there is no reason to regard the supernatural department as anything but a delusion factory.

As for ethics, who the hell needs religion for it? If religionists say the bible is a or the source of moral precepts then let them not get away with glossing over The Book by sweeping under the rug or watering down such things as their deity drowning all humans save one family and killing innocent children, verses that command Christians to stone adulteresses and kill unbelievers, passages upon passages that tell them how to go about the business of slavery, etc. Suddenly going blind when their deity commits the most atrocious crimes against humanity is to subscribe to double standards. Meanwhile, cherry picking which commandments in the bible they're going to follow and which they're going to ignore can only mean they don't regard everything in the bible as right and ethical and timeless.

Now, since the bible is no good as a science textbook as these priests, pastors, and ministers admit, and since the bible does not provide us an iota of evidence for the supernatural nor point us to some nook or cranny in this universe to find it, and since we can't blindly follow the laws and precepts in the bible nor the examples of the ever-arrogant, ever-wrathful, ever-murderous Yahweh but instead have to use our heads and hearts in discerning what is right and what is wrong, then what the heck is the bible useful for other than teaching our kids ancient Semitic mythology and literature?

Religion rightly fears science--the only means we have thus far by which we can arrive at reliable knowledge about the world around us. And this open letter is an admission by clergy that in matters of this world--the only reality we know--religion is excess baggage. Let's get rid of it, shall we?


* Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, NY: Ballantine, 1996, p. 277

He should've seen it coming

A seer who seems to have failed to anticipate a rather major event in his life:
A Hindu religious leader and seven of his followers have been shot dead in northern India, say police.... The seer was killed instantly.... Media reports in India say Gyaneshwar was wanted in connection with 16 criminal cases, including the murders of three local officials.... "The killers used sophisticated weapons, including an AK-47, in the operation," said police spokesman Surendra Srivastava in Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh state. "The attack was so sudden that the seer and his disciples were taken by surprise," he was quoted by the Associated Press as saying.

Or maybe he did in fact glimpse his pending demise, but that he was a fatalist and so just hummed que sera, sera.

Sunday, February 12, 2006


(shamelessly filched from Pharyngula)

So, how's Darwin Day going for you?

There's a bonanza over at Point of Inquiry. They certainly have a most gratifying line-up on this week's podcast. The piece de resistance of course is the interview with Richard Dawkins, focusing on his recent two-part program The Root of All Evil? Darwin's Rottweiler was pretty tame during the show, but certainly not in the snippet of Root of All Evil? which they aired. There's former Muslim Ibn Warraq with his comments on the now infamous caricatures of Prophet Mo. Adding spice to the podcast are Skepticality's Derek and Swoopy. And as if that wasn't enough to make my day Lauren Becker's back with yet another fine piece, this time on "defensive driving." I certainly wouldn't mind letting her do the driving; not at all.

It's the 197th birthday of Darwin. Were he around I don't know whether he'd be content or depressed. On the one hand, biology and associated sciences cannot be what they are today without the theory of evolution. Practically every scientist in the world acknowledges its explanatory power. There just isn't any theory around that even comes close. Evolution has been as revolutionary as Newton's or Einstein's theories. On the other hand, with the kind of beliefs that Brits and Americans still hold, I think he'd be on Prozac three times a day. Xanax too. Given the dismal and pathetic situation over a hundred years after evolution became the norm in science, I'd like to imagine that understanding how and why creationism has eluded extinction may pique his interest enough for him to spearhead something like the field of evolutionary psychology (an avenue which biologist Massimo Pigliucci tends to classify as being, at least for now, on the fringes of science, for good reasons).

Friday, February 10, 2006


Holy Breakfast, Batman! Is that Jesus you're about to sink your teeth into?

Mike Thompson was making pancakes last weekend for his family when the pattern on one of the flapjacks caught his eye.

Upon closer inspection, he saw what he thought was the face of Jesus. He showed his wife, and she agreed.

That's when the couple decided to do what anyone who discovers such an edible artifact does these days -- they put it up for sale on eBay.

(via Skeptico)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The End of Faith

I've devoured about half of Sam Harris' The End of Faith (W.W. Norton, 2005). It's recommended reading. Throughout the first two chapters, Harris repeatedly drums in the point that while supernaturalism has a menagerie of beliefs it has nothing to show for it. Faith is not evidence-based.

Harris certainly pulls no punches, and he openly describes Islam as a religion whose tradition promotes violence. (Maybe Harris aspires to be the Salman Rushdie of America) In the chapter "The Problem with Islam" he provides a listing--five pages worth--of verses from the Koran that call for the condemnation, punishment, and death of infidels/unbelievers. Those who've been telling us that Islam is basically a religion of peace are blind or just want to keep us blind or wish to mislead us.

Lots of quotables in the book to choose from. Here's a sampling:
The point is that most of what we currently hold sacred is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday. Surely, if we could create the world anew, the practice of organizing our lives around untestable propositions found in ancient literature--to say nothing of killling and dying for them--would be impossible to justify. What stops us from finding it impossible now? (p. 24)

It is time we admitted ... that there is no evidence that any of our books was authored was authored by the Creator of the universe. The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology. (p. 45)

Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse--constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor. (p. 65)

How does the mullah know that the Koran is the verbatim word of God? The only answer to be given in any language that does not make a mockery of the word "know" is--he doesn't. (p. 67)

While his no-holds-barred critique obviously got my nod, I was stunned when I came across the following line: "There also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science." (p. 41) In the footnote Harris points us to literature by Radin, Sheldrake, and Bobrow. In the same note Harris says "There may even be some credible evidence for reincarnation." He also provides references for this.

You hear that snarl? I think I just woke up James Randi.

Harris' confession is a letdown. It's ironic that while he's emphatic about religion having no evidence for its various fantastical claims, he seems to uncritically accept the shoddy evidence for the paranormal. But the fact is parapsychology has been at it for decades and there still is no good scientific evidence to suggest the existence of psychic phenomena. As they say the more controls are put in place the less positive results there are. Bad experimental design and bad methodology may be the only things that are producing the so-called "significant" results.

There are skeptics who are supernaturalists. Likewise there are atheists who've been seduced by paranormal claims. It looks like Harris is one of them.

Randi needs our prayers

JREF reports that
James Randi underwent bypass surgery last Thursday. He is currently in stable condition. He is receiving excellent care, but will need quiet time to recover. We will release more information as it becomes available, and we ask everyone to please respect the family's wishes for privacy at this time.

This might sound callous and bizzare but I was thinking of taking the opportunity to test the efficacy of prayer by going through each page of my Encylopedia of Gods and praying to each and every deity therein for the speedy demise of Randi. Some religionists will be scandalized, some will think I've gone bonkers, still others among their ilk will urge me to go on and will even pray with me (I see in my crystal ball the name Yuri or Oori or Fury), while others will just roll their eyes and shake their heads. Any skeptics with me on this?

Seriously though, one of the first things that popped into my head was Dylan Thomas' cry:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Trusting the doctors and medical science will have Randi up and about in no time.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

If you think this is the nadir, it isn't

Just discovered various Indian pseudoscience and superstitions via the Discovery channel.

According to the show and a building contractor interviewed there currently is a craze (the documentary was made in 2004) for what is known as Vaastu homes, that is, houses that have been designed and built according to the tenets of Vaastu. (By the way, the contractor is no Vaastu sympathizer. ) What is Vaastu? Well, think feng shui and it's that. It's about facing the building's entrance east, having a square or rectangular shaped abode, about some cosmic energy flowing through the home with its center having the highest concentration of "vibrations"--that kind of stuff. The end result of faithfully following Vaastu architecture? What else but luck and fortune. Indians are just like the rest of us--greedy and wanting a free lunch. So any superstition to help them along is much appreciated. Any evidence presented to support Vaastu claims? None, save for a testimonial. Can the "energy" that supposedly bathes the earth and gets channeled through one's home be detected and measured by any instrument? Now why do suppose Discovery forgot to ask that of the expert Vaastu architect they interviewed?

Then there was astrology and palm readers. Indians are said to be very much into it. Yaaaawn! Fast forward please.

The most interesting claptrap featured is something called Nadi. According to tradition, ancients had written down biographical details of every single person who has and would ever live. That's everyone, including Socrates, Lao Tze, Moses and Jesus, you, me, our kith and kin and enemies, and our descendants-to-be.

The Nadi leaves, as they are called, are about the size of a 12-inch ruler. On it are supposedly written the facts about the person. Nadi readers have cabinets where these bundles of leaves are stored. To find the leaf of a person one has to first locate the particular bundle in which it is contained. This is done by looking at the client's thumbmark. How the reader uses fingerprints the documentary did not elaborate. To find the specific leaf in the bunch the client is asked questions, sometimes an endless litany of questions. The interrogation it seems can sometimes take more than a hour. (Are your baloney detectors and crap counters going off-scale and clicking like mad already?) When the correct leaf is finally found the reader begins, well, reading what's on it to the client.

One Japanese who traveled to India to have a reading was so amazed when the reader began telling him his profession, his wife's name, his marital problem, etc. An Australiam woman who's now moved to India just as well vouches for the accuracy of the reading. She's now writing a book on Nadi.

Haven't these two enthusiasts ever heard of white-hot reading*?

I did my maths (please verify) and computed how much storage space it would take to store all the Nadi leaves for just those of us who are still around. Assuming each Nadi leaf is 30 x 2 x 0.1 centimeters and assuming 6 billions souls, it turns out that the whole mass of 6 billion Nadi leaves would need a cabinet that's 30 centimeters deep by 2 meters high by 60 kilometers long! That's 36,000 cubic meters of storage space or the equivalent of 530 40-footer container vans. Do the 100 or so Nadi readers actually have that much leaves in their modest homes? Even now I can't wait for the ad hoc rationalizations they have ready up their sleeves. (For starters: Each leaf stores the information for 10, or 100, or 1000 individuals--digitally compressed I suppose. Various sheaves of leaves have been lost, or are with other readers, or are archived in Shiva's spaceship which is currently orbitting Planet Xenu.)

And how did the documentary treat this Nadi bullshit? Not a single skeptic was brought in to critique it. There was not even a single statement uttered by the narrator that would elicit reservation on the part of the viewer. We are thus led to believe--not least via the (sincere) testimonials--that Nadi in fact works, that it can accurately provide you facts about yourself. Expect the India tourism board to be all smiles.

Discovery has been getting on my nerves lately. Last week they featured a reconstruction of a haunting. A family had moved into some house which they snapped up because it was cheap. Soon thereafter the children began experiencing poltergeists. A psychic and ghost hunters were invited to check the place out. Of course they found ghosts. A priest was later asked to bless/exorcise the place. The entire film was trash from start to finish. It looked as it if it was trying to outdo The Exorcist. It had blankets flying, books being shot out of shelves, beds jumping, a channeller--who's been bound to a chair--growling and taunting in devilish ways. Every single minute of it was devoted to pushing the viewers toward belief in ghosts and the supernatural. Was any skeptic asked for his opinion? Was Joe Nickell of CSICOP approached? No.

And what's on Discovery for the rest of February? Dragons! And more ghosts on the loose.
I'm sellling the tv.


* Ok, so I just made that up. I say this Nadi interrogation is just blatant information gathering, with the reader directly asking for various facts about the client on the pretext of zeroing in on his/her leaf. All the while the reader is committing to memory details and inferences that he'll later throw back at the client. And who knows what various hot and cold reading techniques Nadi readers might be employing.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Freedom Akhbar!

Finally, Ibn Warraq makes public his take on the mountain-range-out-of-a-molehill issue, the Muslim community's noise barrage and violence over the cartoons.
A democracy cannot survive long without freedom of expression, the freedom to argue, to dissent, even to insult and offend. It is a freedom sorely lacking in the Islamic world, and without it Islam will remain unassailed in its dogmatic, fanatical, medieval fortress; ossified, totalitarian and intolerant. Without this fundamental freedom, Islam will continue to stifle thought, human rights, individuality; originality and truth.

Unless, we show some solidarity, unashamed, noisy, public solidarity with the Danish cartoonists, then the forces that are trying to impose on the Free West a totalitarian ideology will have won; the Islamization of Europe will have begun in earnest. Do not apologize.

(via the Center for Inquiry)

Friday, February 03, 2006

Crossing moments

Skeptico just turned one. Congrats! To celebrate the occasion he's treating us all to chicken ... all sorts of chicken.

Will the real Momani please stand up

The rational Momani

[A] Jordanian gossip tabloid on [sic] defiantly published three of the cartoons that have triggered outrage in the Arab and Muslim world.

"Muslims of the world, be reasonable," said the editor-in-chief of the weekly independent newspaper Al-Shihan in an editorial alongside the cartoons, including the one showing the Muslim religion's founder wearing a bomb-shaped turban.

"What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?" wrote Jihad Momani.

He told the AFP news service he decided to publish the offending cartoons "so people know what they are protesting about... People are attacking drawings that they have not even seen."

The fundamentalist Momani

A Jordanian newspaper took the bold step of publishing three of the caricatures Thursday, saying it was reprinting them to show readers "the extent of the Danish offense."

Next to the drawings, the Arabic weekly Shihan said in a headline: "This is how the Danish newspaper portrayed Prophet Muhammad, may God's blessing and peace be upon him."

Shihan's editor-in-chief, Jihad al-Momani, told The Associated Press that he decided to run the cartoons to "display to the public the extent of the Danish offense and condemn it in the strongest terms."

Aquarium Allah

Fish that sports "Allah" and "Muhammad," in Arabic of course.

Reminds me of advertizing blimps.

I understand not a syllable of Arabic so I have no idea how closely those seemingly random markings resemble "Allah". That "Muhammad" only "appeared to be inscribed" on one side of the fish probably means that once they saw "Allah" people began looking for more epiphanies/theophanies/heirophanies/Islamophanies.

(hat tip to OutEast)

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

I love cartoons, Danish or otherwise

French newspaper France Soir has boldly reprinted the Danish cartoons that continues to infuriate thin-skinned Muslims. The paper bravely declared: "We have the right to caricature God." It gets better:
For its front page, the newspaper even commissioned its own image, showing a peeved Muhammad sitting on a cloud with Buddha, a Jewish God and a Christian God, who says: "Don’t complain Muhammad, we’ve all been caricatured here."
The French initiative seems to have set off a Domino effect. According to Charles Bremmer "[o]ther papers in Italy, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy [have] joined France Soir in publishing some of the cartoons."

Do enjoy the Jyllands-Posten cartoons that ticked off the Mohammedans.

The following got two thumbs up from me:

I wonder if the 9-11 hijackers made it before stocks ran out.

Built on delusions

Why we atheists "see only the bad in religion":
[W]e can see that religion has some useful and beneficial aspects sometimes - consolation, solidarity, inspiration, motivation - but they depend on a supernatural belief system, on a systematic illusion, and we don't consider and don't want to consider that a good thing.

We think truth matters, and that the human ability to sort truth from fiction, and speculation from findings based on evidence, matters. If religion consisted of maybe, if it were about uncertainty as some of its defenders claim, that would be different - but it's not. It's assertive - it makes firm, coercive truth claims. (And then shifts the ground by saying that no one can prove them false. No, of course not, but that is not a reason to assert them as true.)

The pivot is the word 'faith.' It's no accident that that keeps coming up - 'faith' is the problem, faith is where religion demands that we treat speculation and hope - invention and fantasy - as true. And that is a bad thing, and we do know that in other contexts. (You're in the car. 'Is this the right road?' 'Yes.' 'How do you know?' 'Faith.' 'Err...') If religion were about, and were named, hope, or speculation, that would be one thing - but it's not, it's 'faith.' So we don't see how to cite the putative good aspects of religion without endorsing the lying and refusal to think. It's all one fabric.

Dark side of Mohammed

Ever since a Danish cartoon of Mohammed as a terrorist came out weeks ago, Denmark has been getting a lot of flak from, who else.
The Danish-Swedish dairy giant Arla Foods says its sales in the Middle East have plummeted to zero as a result of a row over cartoons published in Denmark.... The cartoons sparked outrage in the Muslim world, where depictions of the Prophet Muhammad or Allah are banned.... Besides boycotts, the backlash has also included diplomatic sanctions and Islamic militant threats.
Muslims have an ego problem (but then who, except the Buddha, doesn't). They ought to take a cue from Jews and Christians. Their deity, their deity incarnate, the mother of their god/god-hero, their prophets, as well as the entire cast of supernatural characters have been the butt of jokes and ribbing for who knows how long. Muslims are out of touch and too touchy. Here's an unsolicited advice (that'll draw a call for a fatwah/jihad or whatever fundamentalists want to call their reptilian instinct to literally kill off criticism): Get used to it! Remember, your supernatural beliefs are no more credible and rational than those of the world's mythologies. Sheesh! Get real! I don't support Christian bigotry against your religion. But neither do I support the inane supernatural beliefs of any theism.

But such an argument can be brushed off as irrelevant to the issue. Certainly. However, and this is a point that cannot be dismissed, is that Muslims must come to grips with the allegation that Mohammed was no saint, not even according to their tradition. For instance literature written by an Arab which Muslims accept as factual alleges that Mohammed earned his living as a robber, attacking caravans, and had even murdered his enemies and taken women as slaves. (Ibn Warraq, Point of Inquiry interview) Why then the ruckus over this cartoon? If Muslims as Ibn Warraq tells us take this Arab account of Mohammed as gospel truth, then Mohammed was in fact some sort of a terrorist, at the very least, a criminal.

In related news comedian Rowen Atkinson, Mr. Bean himself, has much to say about the religious hate law that's in the works in his country. Among the things he said in a speech he delivered:
It is absolutely right and reasonable that religions should be protected from threatening language, behaviour and written material but I support the amendment to retain the right to abuse and insult, because of the essentially irrational nature of religious beliefs. That is not to dismiss them: indeed, I'm a great believer that the most important and most sustaining things in life are essentially irrational.

Stupid is as stupid does

Miracle hunting must be one of the raison d'ĂȘtre of Catholics. Just in: The all-important miracle via the late pope--a requisite for John Paul 2's beatification--may have been found.

The problem here of course is that even if all the doctors and scientists in the world are currently unable to explain how this French nun was cured of her Parkinson's, it would not at all be warrant to conclude that her recovery was due to a miracle. This is a patent fallacy. Were such kind of reasoning considered legit we could attribute various inexplicable matters to anything we so wish--to extraterrestrials whether in Zeta Ridiculi or Alpha Ludicrum, to fairies, to Peter Pan, to His Noodliness the Flying Spaghetti Monster, to demons who want to mislead the religious,...

The Church is merely misleading the faithful into believing that miracles truly do exist, when in fact no miracle past or present is known to be so until positive evidence for their supernaturalness becomes available--something that is hardly easy to come by, if ever possible. The current lack of explanation/understanding is hardly positive evidence for the supernatural hypothesis. And need it be said that the Church has no positive evidence for any of its touted miracles. To define a miracle as recovery/remission that currently cannot be explained is to perpetuate the discredited God-of-the-gaps argument.

Why does the Church continue with their fallacious appeals to ignorance when Peter Gumpel, "an official at the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, which investigates reports of miracles by candidates for sainthood" has already rightly clarified that
What seems like a miracle now may not be one in a hundred years. Such are the advances of science. Declarations of miracles are not infallible teachings. [emphasis added]
Given Gumpel's admission, why call any unexplained phenomenon X a miracle? Why not be faithful to what is in fact true: that X may be a miracle but that we don't know, that when X is finally explained then it certainly was no miracle, and that if X remains unexplained for a hundred centuries it still will not attain the status of being a miracle by virtue of lack of positive evidence for its supernaturalness and by virtue of the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam. As long as there is a lack of positive evidence--a preponderance of evidence--we will never be able to justifiably declare that X is supernatural in nature. The Church with its long history of philosophical inquiry knows this all too well. And yet it continues to announce "miracles" and canonize saints--who by tradition must've been involved in miracles. What a sham! (So what, may we ask, happens when scientific/naturalistic explanations finally are found for this and that declared miracle? Do saints lose their sainthood?)

As for the eventual canonization, tell me that Catholics won't find another supposed miracle to help nudge their beloved John Paul toward sainthood. Their cart never needs horses to pull it. The engine of irrationality has infinite horsepower.