Monday, May 30, 2011


I had the most trivial of exchanges with a fellow blogger in which he described what would happen to me at the rapture ... including something about my "bug-eaten corpse". Since death doesn't seem that frightening, and the rapture is howlingly preposterous idea, I thought I'd summarize what a quick scan through the interwebs can tell me about my impending corporeal demise.

When I die ...

I'll stop breathing ... my heart will stop ... brain activity will stop ... blood will recede from my skin and will settle in the lower portions of my body ... my corpse's temperature drops ... my limbs stiffen ... eventually I decompose.

Immediately after the heart stops, nutrients are no longer delivered to the cells, the pH level changes, and the cells own digestive enzymes begin to consume the cells themselves. Blisters may appear on the skin.

At the same time, oxygen that remains is consumed by aerobic organisms - paving the way for anaerobic organisms to flourish, and basically make a mess of things. The body starts to putrefy - and external organisms (flies and other carrion insects) arrive to join in the fun.

Once putrefaction has released enough gas into the corpse, it begins to bloat. forcing fluids out through the natural orifices, plus any blisters that may have emerged during earlier decomposition. If things get out of hand, the skin may rupture.

It's all downhill from here ... decay accelerates ... the corpse loses mass ... maggots are extremely active ... fluids are consumed or evaporate ... eventually there's not enough left for the cadaver to sustain pests and anaerobic organisms, so it is now essentially just dry skin, ligaments and bones.

How I'll Feel About It

A personal note - once I stop breathing, my heart stops, the chemical and electrical processes in my brain stop, and my cells have been deprived of oxygen long enough to prevent successful resuscitation and resumption of normal life, I will have ceased to exist. The ethereal entity I refer to as "me" or "my spirit" or "my soul" will have vanished from this existence, never to interact with it again. All that will remain of me will be the now-meaningless possessions I had, the loved ones I left behind, the memories they have of me, and the few kindnesses and good works that I was able to share with my fellow travelers on my way to non-existence.

I hope I made life more liveable for my loved ones and my fellow travelers while we were in this world together.


As for resurrection ... it appears that as recently as the late 1800's, hundreds-to-thousands of people were buried alive by accident every year. What are the chances that bronze age goat herders also encountered this? Do you think that this might be the source of resurrection stories?

From Wikipedia:
Writing in 1895, the physician J.C. Ouseley claimed that as many as 2,700 people were buried prematurely each year in England and Wales, although others estimated the figure to be closer to 800.


After decades of contemplation, reflection, and agonizing reappraisal, I've arrived at the true reason why i'm an atheist ... Because they can be PRETTY DAMNED FUNNY:

The bible records the taunts and comments of the Roman soldiers, at the time of Jesus’ death, and not a single one said, "Holly shit, corpses are coming out of the fucking ground! Run!!!"
See Jesus’ Resurrection, According to the New Testament at Evil Theists for the whole story ... most of which is serious.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Tolerable conceptions of God?

Going back a few weeks, I wandered down the road of how one might argue for and characterize god ... not quite examining arguments for its existence, as I may have intended, but lightly skimming over claimed characteristics for the big gal.

My summary was that we're left with a god of the gaps.

Today I want to revisit other conceptions that I can be tolerant of.

The first conception is the deist one ... god created the universe, then was never heard from again. This argument suffers from the idea of god as the "efficient cause" of the universe - and since we're so early into real research into high energy physics, we can't say whether the big bang was really the start of the universe, or just a point in transition from an earlier form.

Second is the panentheist view - that god exists and we are within him. This is pretty tolerable, in that god is not separable from the universe, thus not requiring special pleading to argue.

Third is that we're in a computer simulation ... a fun concept, but rather weak, because it apparently requires a creator, programmer and operator of the computer.

Fourth is that I am god ... and you guys are my imagination.

I like it!

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Skepticali Cosmological Argument

The probability of existence ranges between 0 and 1 - essentially it is between impossible and inevitable.

The ways that non-existence can occur is one. The ways that existence can occur are infinite.

Therefore, existence is infinitely more probable than non-existence.

We exist in one of an infinite number of existences. The observations and reasoning about those observations of an apparent beginning and end of "the universe" is merely a limitation in our ability to observe and reason about such things. It may be that what we can observe ("our universe") does have a beginning and end, but that only speaks to whatever this universe is. If existence is absolutely guaranteed to occur some "time" and some "where" in some "form", then the individual instantiations of existence may be transient when considered against the background of an infinite number of instantiations, but it does not imply that there is a creative impulse behind any single occurrence of existence, only that it was inevitable that it happen.

Upon a framework of infinite instantiations of existence, the phenomena we call life is inevitable even if merely by chance due to the infinite number of ways that existence can occur. That we are self-aware and wonder about life's improbability is a coincidence of the configuration of our universe and our emergence in it to observe and reason about it.

Concepts of god and the supernatural are irrelevant in this context - only that which we can observe and reason about, and real things that which we cannot yet observe and reason about, are meaningful.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


This is too good to be true ... via Pharyngula:

Book Review - The Moral Landscape

I'd mentioned that I was reading "The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris some time ago. I finished it last weekend - it was a book to be savored, much like reading the "Return of the King" in high school, I was sad to see it end.

My experience of the book revolves around having heard Harris speak in numerous videos ("Does Good come from God?" and this vid at AAI 2007 - for starters) - his calm cadence, the thoughtful pauses, the sly and very understated humor that he throws in - sometimes undetected by the audience. As I was reading this book, I was hearing it in his voice - it has the same characteristics.

I've forgotten what some of the formal reviews of the book said, which is good, but I believe one criticism was that it was too philosophical. Whether or not anyone in fact criticized it for being too philosophical, I found that aspect very engaging. For example, Harris talks about our ability to imagine maximizing human well-being.

...maximizing human well-being...

I let that sink in, because it's has overtones of both idealism and practicality.

What does it mean to maximize human well-being? Although he doesn't prominently address the political and policy implications of such a project, you can imagine this being a fulcrum around which debate could lever back and forth for centuries ... but it's worth considering now, and Harris makes the case that we can know what it is.

Morality, Harris states, has right and wrong answers that are objectively true, and can be discerned. This differs from a general feeling (in the media, at least) that morality is either relative to people and groups, or absolute in terms of religious texts. He goes on to distinguish "answers in principle" and "answers in practice" - saying that the "answers in practice" may not be possible. I presume this to mean that the political, logistical, efficacy and economics of such a project would be implausible in the present world.

Clearly this is a book worth reading - both for its explorations of human misery and well-being, good and evil, and the direction needed to begin understanding and acting on what he claims are universal questions of morality.

Rapture post-mortem

Now that the "rapture" has come and gone with the expected result, and we non-believers have hooted in derision, blog-posted, tweeted, facebook-posted, rapture-partied, or just plain enjoyed another day in this wonderful world of ours, what's next?

It's always condescending to say "I feel sorry for ______". The folks that believed the rapture was coming yesterday probably feel bad today. They should. We should all feel bad when we believe and act on things that have no basis in reality. When we make bad decisions about our lives, we feel bad, we learn, we modify our behavior, and we hope to do better next time. We repeat this process throughout our lives.

Why do people believe in prophecy, and supernatural beings and forces, and the events that prophecies claim will occur? I think the first few chapters of "The God Delusion" says it better than I can. But it's worth repeating - we perceive things that are not there because it confers evolutionary advantages. If we jump and run because we perceive a poisonous snake out of the corner of our eye, we insure that ***if a snake is indeed within eyesight*** we will be difficult to attack. Not responding in this way means that if we fail to perceive a threat, that threat may have an advantage. Over time, the threat wins. Being fearful and acting on that fear insures our survival. We are fearful creatures.

Things get complicated because humans are self-aware, have emotions, can remember the past, anticipate the future, and can imagine how things could be under different conditions. We have hopes and dreams. Sometimes, our fears and feelings of helplessness combined with our hopes of transcending these unfortunate feelings (and the conditions that generate them) cause us to want to believe in transcendence that defies physical cause and effect.

Yesterday, thousands, maybe millions of people had their hopes of transcendence from present circumstances dashed on the rocks of reality. There is no such thing as prophecy. There is no heaven. There is no god. There is no judgement by a supernatural agent. There is no rapture and no tribulation and no damnation that springs from anything beyond what exists in the universe.

Some very, very nasty things exist in this universe - many of them man-made right here on earth. When things are incomprehensible and bad, it's no excuse to look for magic to deliver you. It's time for you to deliver you.

Some very, very, very beautiful things exist in this universe. They are there now. They were there yesterday. They will be there tomorrow. There is no reason not to participate in this life, and make your life better, and make your family's and neighbor's and fellow human's lives better ... and enjoy the beauty and wonder along the way.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Myths and Legends and Science

While reading a lengthy blog post about atheist/theist arguments that science can't explain everything - thus religion had the answer - I wondered what may be most helpful to a non-believer - critical reasoning or science. While I believe they're both essential, I reflected on science first, and before I knew it, this blog post was complete.

Science is relevant to people and organizations of people when they identify things that they need to or want to understand. The motive might be pure knowledge - to answer questions like "what are those points of light in the sky?" or "where did we come from?". The motive might be to overcome a problem, such as designing a building so that it bears the weight of its own structure and withstands wind forces. The motive might be financial, such as designing smaller mobile appliances. The motive may be to benefit mankind - as the ongoing effort to cure cancer is (with the appropriate financial compensation, of course). At every step of the way, something that we didn't know is revealed to us ... and large mysteries are eliminated.

We know what lightning is. We know what hurricanes are. We know what earthquakes are. We know what tsunamis are. We also know what cause these things. In the distant past, we didn't know what these things were ... thousands of years ago, when a flood happened, or a drought happened, or wildfires, pestilence, lightning, earthquakes, eclipses, rainbows happened - these things were scary, awesome, beautiful, mysterious ... and our ancestors tried to explain them. They didn't know about plate tectonics or weather or the buildup and discharge of electricity in the atmosphere or how the moon orbits the earth or any number of other things that grade school kids know today - so they made up explanations.

They knew that they were smarter than other animals. They were self aware and able to plan and execute their plans. They had emotions. They put all of these facets of their being together and imagined that bigger, more powerful, more awesome versions of themselves were behind floods and droughts and earthquakes and the like. For thousands of years, there was no way to discover the underlying reasons for natural phenomena - so these stories were refined and repeated and the good ones persisted and the bad ones dropped by the way side.

Soon, man developed writing, and began to record these wondrous tales. The many myths and legends that may have been originated by and perpetuated by clans and tribes were assimilated into or discarded from fewer and fewer tales that had resonance with people. If the people survived, their tales survived. In some cases, the tales were strengthened when a powerful leader took the tales for his own - leading to further clearing of the mythological landscape.

When man began to gather into larger and larger groups - when villages and towns and cities arose, there was a need for keeping people aligned with each other and the intentions of the powerful ... and these now-maturing myths and legends acted as a way to keep the people aligned, and incidentally, to keep the powerful in power.

Two, three thousand years ago, the rituals and beliefs and organizations and ethics that were built upon these myths and legends were augmented by governments and academicians as civilization advanced. There has been tension ever since, as the religions that had primacy early in history were overtaken, then overtook, then were overtaken again, by the pursuit of equitable ways of building societies and academic pursuits that attempt to explain and master the world.

So religion is in tension with government and the pursuit of knowledge. In America, religion has done well to co-opt government somewhat, while the pursuit of knowledge tends to diminish the foundations upon which religion was originally built.

Today, we know to be skeptical of claims of the supernatural. There has never been an elf or leprechaun sighting that could be independently, objectively verified by parties that did not have a stake in the potential veracity of the claim. The same is true of dragons, angels, demons, ghosts and gods. There has never been a prophecy of true significance made that could be verified. No magic has ever been performed. No resurrections have occurred. No one has been swept up into the sky in flaming chariots.

Most everything that man ascribed to gods and demons and angels and spirits two, three and four thousand years ago has been explained, and the few really thorny questions that remain are within reach. The question of how life began may be answered in our lifetimes. The question of how the universe "began" - or more correctly, what happened at the earliest possible instant we can observe, may take several lifetimes, but the frontier of knowledge is pushed further toward the beginnings of observable existence every year. Gods, angels, demons, spirits, elves and leprechauns have no place in the world anymore.

I started this post thinking that it would be about how you don't need science to be a non-believer. But you do need knowledge. And knowledge comes from academics and science and industry and society and the sum total of our experiences and observations. So ... somewhere, out front or behind the scenes, science is at work pushing forward the frontier of what can be known, and eliminating the ground upon which superstition and the supernatural once flourished.

It will always be so.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Top Ten List

I keep a mental sequence of questions handy that I've asked myself over the years - questions that lead to the conclusion that the god of the bible is not real. The sequence goes:
  • Does the supernatural exist?
  • Is a supernatural creator of the universe required for the universe to exist?
  • Does a supernatural entity intervene in the lives of people on this planet?
  • Would a supernatural entity intervening in the lives of people on this planet be worthy of worship?
  • Does the bible depict a supernatural entity embodying all of the above that is - as depicted - worthy of worship?

The answers - down the line - are always "No".

Along the same lines - Greta Christina provides her handy reference of ten main reasons she doesn't believe in God. This is bookmark-worthy ... maybe it should be framed!

Here's a snippet of her first reason:

When you look at the history of what we know about the world, you see a very noticeable pattern. Natural explanations of things have been replacing supernatural explanations of them. Like a steamroller.

Why the sun rises and sets. Where thunder and lightning come from. Why people get sick. Why people look like their parents. How the complexity of life came into being. I could go on and on.

All of these things were once explained by religion. But as we understood the world better, and learned to observe it more carefully, the religious explanations were replaced by physical cause and effect. Consistently. Thoroughly. Like a steamroller. The number of times that a supernatural or religious explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a natural explanation? Thousands upon thousands upon thousands.

Now. The number of times that a natural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a supernatural or religious one? The number of times humankind has said, "We used to think (X) was caused by physical cause and effect, but now we understand that it's actually caused by God, or spirits, or demons, or the soul"?

Zero Exactly zero.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

That God proposition again

When people say God is the creator of the universe, they'd be well served to stop there, because that's ***ALMOST*** a defensible argument. There could be something greater than this universe, from which this universe springs - but making claims about its characteristics can't be done without some evidence and/or logic.

God as Creator

God in the creator sense could be whatever the universe arises from. Okay - so far. We as a species can observe out to a radius of about 13.7 billion light-years. We see that the visible universe is expanding, so if we mentally reverse the process, we can "retrodict" that all matter and energy emerged from a small area ... maybe a single point. We cannot know this for certain, but the overwhelming evidence points in this direction. As scientists explore the high-energy regime that pervades the universe early on, there are periods in the past beyond which we currently Just. Don't. Know. About. Observation and math don't tell us unequivocally what "is" at these early times. Although I'm not an expert, it appears that up to the quark epoch, the universe can only be described in speculative terms, and thereafter (10 ^-12 seconds after the Big Bang) the picture becomes clearer.

What does that tell us? Our takeaway is that prior to this time of high energy and high density is "the beginning of the universe" ... but that's still speculative. It's in this period, up to 10 ^-12 seconds after the emergence of the universe from a extremely small area, that the conception of God (as a creator - and only as a creator) is where you can argue. It is still not logical that an entity outside our universe is responsible for the existence of our universe, but it's not as preposterous as other claims that ignore all of the normal atomic and molecular behavior that we see everywhere.

God with characteristics

Claiming that God has characteristics other than "it is that from which the universe arose" is where conceptions of God start to unravel.

The web page "What do the scriptures say" describes God thus:
  • God Is Spirit.
  • God Is Changeless.
  • God Is All Powerful.
  • God Is All Knowing.
  • God Is Everywhere.
  • God Is Eternal.
  • God Is Holy.
  • God Is Righteous.
  • God Is Love.
  • God Is Wisdom.

There may be other conceptions of God in the Abrahamic tradition, but this is good for now.

Let's look more closely.

God is Spirit

The claim that God is Spirit is, in this conception, to say that God has no physical or measurable form, is invisible, has no body. This is not instructive. First, the lack of form makes observation impossible, thus preventing its verification. Second, vague negatives like "God has no body" state only what God doesn't have, while simultaneously placing the idea of "body" (usually a human body) into the audience's mind. This is slick. We are told what God is not, we are not told what God is, and we are given the mental picture (which we may or may not accept) of God as a body (as in the incarnation of Jesus or more generally the giant white bearded guy in the sky). So that's pointless. God doesn't have an "is" here, just an "is not". There are infinitely more things that it is not, than what it is. This is not helpful in understanding the essence of God.

God is Changeless, Eternal, Everywhere

The claims that God is Changeless, All Powerful, All Knowing, Everywhere and Eternal are familiar themes to most everyone that's gone to a Protestant church, although my experience in this matter is decades stale. The Changeless, Everywhere and Eternal characteristics are fairly uncontroversial, as they could apply to physical concepts throughout the universe ... space, time, matter, energy, physical constants - but they have limits. Our experience so far tells us that these characteristics of God and characteristics of natural things in the universe may overlap - but it's not established that anything we observe is in fact Changeless, Everywhere and Eternal when considered in the extreme (quadrillions of years, quadrillions of light years ... googolplexes ...).

Can something be Changeless? Things might be changeless over millennia, even eons, but not eternity. In our current conceptions, time and space change. We might think differently if we someday discover greater structures or precedent structures that gave rise to this universe.

Can something be Eternal? I have no idea. Given the idea that space and time may not be verifiable at timescales near to the big bang, we cannot say now, nor can I personally ever say! I leave open the possibility that observation indicates otherwise in the future.

Can something be Everywhere? Again, this is not verifiable now, we do not know that space and time are everywhere in the greatest (pan-universal) sense. We similarly do not observe any single entities that span the observable universe.

The three preceding paragraphs tell you that I don't believe that anything can be Changeless, Eternal and Everywhere, but that's just me. It's logically possible that some things are - we just don't know about them.

God is All-Powerful and All-Knowing

Here we run into more problems.

What is "All Powerful"? The "What do the scriptures say" web page applies concepts to God that we can't know about something that does not definitely exist. Power is an obvious problem, because having the characteristic of power means either 1) it is power that is exercised in the universe and available for observation; or 2) power that an entity possesses, but is not used, thus is not evident in any way. Since power in this latter conception is not verifiable, the first alternative is assumed. Since no evidence that a godlike power has ever been exercised, then we add a third alternative - God doesn't exist.

What is "All Knowing"? The "What do the scriptures say" web page says that because God is everywhere simultaneously that he knows everything simultaneously. Now, clearly this claim has no premise that supports it. But if it did, "knowing" everything only has meaning in the context of using the knowledge to perform some act (retribution, reward, building a better mousetrap). The prior claim of "all powerful" doesn't appear to be evident, making this one irrelevant.

God is Holy, Righteous, Love and Wisdom

The final claims that God is Holy, Righteous, Love and Wisdom are really a problem for skeptics, rationalists and empiricists. These characteristics are ones that we attribute to people based on our perceptions. Gandhi might have seemed "excellent" and separate as in the "What do the scriptures say" web page's definition, so holy may apply ... similarly Righteous. Your Mom may have the attribute of Love, while your Dad may possess the characteristic of Wisdom. Ascribing these to God is to assume that God has human characteristics, or that we can project characteristics that we can conceive of onto to it (God). Because we have no way of determining that such a thing as God exists, the projection of these qualities is even more implausible ... it requires existence and the ability to possess these qualities. It is not a claim that can be made believably.


What are we left with? Well ... the "God of the gaps" I guess. So God being somehow an actor in pre-quark epoch cosmology is still arguable - if you have the energy.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Defending the Hebrew Bible - kinda

At Unreasonable Faith, the blog post "Is the Bible Reliable for Truth about Jesus Christ?" generated a few hundred comments - some of them less decorous than you'd like when having discourse between believers and non-believers.

One comment "don't be butthurt when a few people either a) poke fun at you or b) take you to task for not making logical sense, your crazy book of Bronze Age nonsense, be damned." made me want to defend the Bible - kinda.

What I'm getting out of my OT reading this year is that the Hebrew Bible is a compilation of Bronze Age writing that attempts to 1) explain existence; 2) explain man's current state (as of the writing); 3) narrate the lives or notable actions of notable persons (or characters who may have been derived from notable real people); 4) record rules for living (both from a health and sanitation perspective, and an ethical perspective); 5) record people's (or composite character's) alleged interactions with an alleged supernatural entity that the authors assumed was the creator and supervisor of the universe; 6) lay down further rules that purport to carry out what the authors believe to be this supernatural character's wishes and expectations.

It may or may not have been nonsense to the original authors of the words of the Hebrew Bible. It appears to be nonsense from my perspective in 21st century America, but I choose to appreciate the writings as a window onto the dawn of history. Making the charge to a believer, as an atheist or skeptic, that the Hebrew Bible (or the New Testament) is nonsense, doesn't further the dialogue between the believer and the non-believer.

Clearly, the evidence we have and the logic that we can construct regarding the supernatural indicate that the actions of, interactions with, and subsequent human reactions to gods, angels, demons, magic, prophecy and other unsubstantiated unnatural phenomena are not based on real occurrences. As a corollary, the Bible cannot then be considered reliable.

But it's only nonsense when I'm not interested in having a civil discussion.

When is a supernatural explanation better?

When is a supernatural explanation better than a natural one?

There's a drinking glass on the counter. It's empty. It was previously full. How did it become empty?

Did the liquid get transported to another dimension by a demon?

Did the liquid get poured out into another receptacle? Was the glass emptied because someone drank from it? Did the liquid evaporate because it sat untouched for too long? Was our initial observation of the glass incorrect, and it, in fact, never contained liquid in the first place?

Which explanations are the most plausible?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

I'm becoming a big fan of Sam Harris

I posted a link to the Sam Harris-William Lane Craig debate on "Does Good come from God?" a few weeks back. Subsequently, I've watched a few other videos in which he plays a "co-starring" role. Most recently, I watched this vid from 2007 at AAI 2007, in which he presents the idea that the term "atheist" is not necessary.

This is an interesting train of thought, as Harris uses the analogy that, just as non-astrologer is not an intellectual position, neither should "atheist" be a label required to identify oneself as eschewing belief in a deity.

The more familiar I become with Harris, the more intrigued I am with his apparent compassion, reflection, serenity, and concise manner of conveying his thoughts.

A couple of important themes:

  • We have something we can accomplish with like-minded individuals of faith (in reference to Islamic oppression such as Burkas on women and death to the raped)
  • We should eradicate all bad ideas (not just religion)
  • Be unremittingly, intellectually honest.

Sean Carroll on Hell

Sean Carroll writes at Cosmic Variance:
Seventy years or so on Earth, with unclear instructions and bad advice; infinity years in Hell for making the wrong decisions