Friday, 30 September 2011

Review of "God, No!" by Penn Jillette

So I bought Jillette's book from the iBookstore.

Let me start by saying a few things. I really like Penn Jillette. I like his attitude, his way of putting things, and his beliefs. Mostly. I have some reservations about his views on gun ownership, but that's a topic for another time.

However, his book disappointed me slightly. In retrospect, I suppose I "should have" guessed what it would be like, judging from his (and Teller's) TV show - Penn&Teller:Bullshit.

His book is pretty much like a series of ten of those shows. It's divided up into ten sections, for each of the Ten Commandments. He substitutes them with ten suggestions. However, the chapters that follow each of the ten suggestions tend to digress quite far from the topic at hand. They are also full of sound bites and short witty quips - much like his TV show. There's very little that's novel - certainly for a reader hoping for insightful atheistic arguments.

Most of the book seems to be an autobiography - which is, I think, what his primary interest was - and most of it shows how through some or other unexpected or arbitrary life experience, he came to arrive at atheism, or another aspect of his current world-view. Actually, most of the book seemed to consist of him bragging about the bizarre sexcapades that he experienced, and how 'hot' the woman in question was. The rest of the material seemed to consist of anecdotes from the stage act industry (live performers of all kinds), and how he and his business partner Teller went through this or that experience. I found the material amusing, for the most part - especially where he met Prince Charles and referred to him as "Chuck". But I didn't find the book very strong on the philosophical front - most of the points he made were aphorisms that could have been collected onto a single page. And I didn't find the chapters associated with those aphorisms really explained them. I guess he was free-associating.

I'd say the only thing in the book that I found memorable was his discussion of death. He reports that his family have a tradition where if someone dies, they buy blue balloons (and on the anniversary), and release them into the sky, and watch them disappear, never to be seen again. I found that story touching, and a novel idea.

But apart from that, most of the book sounds and reads like one of his shows - brief, blunt, lots of swearing, naked women, interviews with worst-exemplars of a type, oversimplified arguments, etc. I guess it's written in the brief sound-bite style that most Americans expect from TV, and thus, I am certain it will reach the bestseller lists, because I am certain its intended audience will love it. But I couldn't find anything to reference in there for my dissertation.

Sorry Penn. I still love your work.

Facebook is watching you - Who cares?

1. you're not paying for the use of FB, so they have to make money off you somehow.

2. they only track sites which have FB widgets on them; if a site has no FB like/track button, there's no way they can know you went to a site. A cookie is a flat piece of information, it is not a spy program. Cookies are what enable you, for example, to go to Google Search, and see that it has set 'safesearch' to 'on', because Google gave you a cookie that says 'safesearch=on'. Cookies are just preference files for websites.

3. So what if they track what other sites you 'like' via a FB icon? All those sites are OK/legit

4. If you're looking at dodgy sites, FB won't know about it, and even if they do, who cares? It's a machine, not a human. They don't have the staff to manually look at everyone's records and see oooooh - you looked at a pron site.

5. As for getting junk mail because of FB - no. Not unless you set the FB privacy settings such that ANYONE can see your email address. IF you set your email address to 'friends only', then NONE of your junk mail is because of FB. You get junk mail from posting your email clear text on a website, or, from giving it to dodgy sites that on-sell it. Or even worse; your email server was scanned with a name dictionary attack, and they just found it because your email address was something easy.

6. FB use the information to do the advert targeting on the side panel. I like that. I prefer to have it offer me relevant adverts, rather than stuff I am not interested in.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Why Evolution is True - response to criticisms

Hello everyone. Thanks for the responses. I generally don't respond to responses but I feel that these below deserve some clarifications. Thank you for taking your time to write responses and think about the material.

1. "Believers in what?" - you answered your own question. A Creator.

2. If you became a believer through reason rather than childhood brainwashing, that's ok. You're a sample of one, a statistical outlier. We'd need to do a statistical analysis of data to find out the correlation between belief and childhood brainwashing. I wager that we'll find a strong correlation - simply because otherwise there would be a completely even distribution of religions across the planet - if it were based on reason. E.g. the statistics would not show that the majority of christian children belong to christian parents. Look at it this way. The evidence and reasons in favour of belief favour a number of different religions in different ways. Each religion may have statistically the same chances as any other; there doesn't seem to be, from my indifferent point of view, a good reason to choose one or another. So, if that's true, then we'd expect to see a statistical smear of belief over areas, rather than strongly geographical areas defining belief. IE the English-speaking world is mostly Christian - why? Is it because Christianity is obviously true if you speak English, or is it because of historical brainwashing? I think the latter. Ditto Islam, Hinduism, etc. Of course people can individually choose to go for something different, e.g. English-speaking hippies in California following Hinduism of a sort - but that is an outlier. It also has nothing to do with my basic premise that the reason evolution irks believers is because it threatens religion and they've been largely brainwashed. Geography is the proof. Think about cliques like the Amish, or how you can get Hassidic Jews in New York who don't know who Elvis is (Cf. Penn Jillette). It's the same thing: the only explanation I can think of for the overwhelming correlation between belief, geography, language, and specific religious background, is cultural brainwashing. I don't mean the term 'brainwashing' pejoratively. I'm using it as shorthand for 'deterministically led by social pressures and family bonds to believe that P, where P is any arbitrary non-verifiable cultural statement.' I just don't want to type that whole long spiel every time.

3. As for believers taking Genesis literally (I think two people said this), I think it must be taken literally. If not, why do we only take Genesis symbolically, and the rest of the bible literally? I mean, was King David symbolic, not really extant? Was Jesus symbolic, or was he real? Etc. By what criteria did you arbitrarily decide that Genesis (alone) and in particular, the Garden of Eden story alone, is symbolic, but Moses was real, etc etc.? If the snake is symbolic, why is the fiery writing on the wall of 'mene mene tekel upharsim' not symbolic, never really happened that way? Clearly if you look at the origins of the Genesis story (the fact that, as someone below - Bob -points out), there are two redacted and interspliced versions of creation. Genesis it has ancient origins in primeval myths. Primitive sheep herders took it literally, just as they took Moses, David and Jesus literally. The only reason apologists defend the Garden of Eden as 'symbolic' is because it is so obviously false, and a myth, that they're embarrassed by it. E.g. The light is made before the sun and the moon.

4. IF you came to believe in God, through reasons, that's ok. You are in good company; there are many professors of religion who are believers. That doesn't mean they're right. Or that your reasoning was correct. I often make mistakes in reasoning; the difference is I try to find them. I believe that a believer who 'reasoned' his or her way into belief has simply made an error in logic. E.g. I think the argument that the universe exists, entails that a person created it, is false. It's a non sequitur, but theologians the world over are guilty of it. Too many assumptions are required for it to be true.

5. John. Thanks for your reply, but I think Evolution might be fundamentally devastating to Christianity; not just threaten it. Christianity's eschatology depends on the view that we're born sinners (hence the baptism ritual). Original sin. It's in the Pauline epistles. If we reject the doctrine of Original Sin, then we're left with a Christianity that offers salvation only ONCE we've sinned. But now recall that the Catholics (to whom you refer) invented purgatory to cope with the idea that putatively innocent babies would go to hell if they died before baptism. Of course, the Church recently retracted purgatory. But it was standard church doctrine for forever and a day. Why? Because babies are, in the Church's eyes, born with Original Sin. Furthermore, the idea that we have the capacity for the knowledge of the difference between good and evil - viz free-will - is due to the snake tempting Eve, in the story. Without the myth of the Garden of Eden, Christianity would lack the free-will defence for the problem of evil, it would be unable to say that people CHOOSE to sin and therefore DESERVE hell. Free-will is given to us by the snake, not by God - because free-will just means knowing what you're choosing/wanting to do, and whether it is right or wrong. Think of it this way: when someone is exculpated on grounds beyond their control, it means they had no choice, no free-will in the matter. The ultimate innocence, and exculpation, freeing us of the burden of free-will, is, then, of course, that we never had the knowledge of our free-will. Hence, to punish us, and give us hell, Christianity REQUIRES the Fall of Man, it requires it literally, and it requires that evolution be false.

6. Evolution is a religion? No, sorry, you'll have to re-read my definition above. Evolution means: you are born with a genetic difference. It enables you to survive. If you survive long enough, you reproduce, and the feature is passed on. I do not see how that remotely resembles religion. Religion is the organisational practices of mystical beliefs, and the collection of such beliefs. At best, you could argue that the 'new atheists' like Dawkins display religious-like fervour in favour of evolution, but that doesn't mean that they worship evolution, or that they pray to it, or that they have certain rituals, such as eating Darwin-shaped biscuits, etc. Religion is ritual, evolution has nothing to do with ritual. Sorry.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Why Evolution is True

I’ve noticed a number of recent articles in the news about evolution, and as usual, the creation versus evolution debate emerges in the comments below each article. Aren’t we done yet?

Let me give you a brief anecdotal history. I first encountered the Theory of Evolution when I was 11 or 12 years old, in an encyclopaedia. I grew up in Apartheid South Africa. In the 1980s, South Africa was not just a semi-fascist state (I say “semi” because we did have elections). It was also a deeply religious state, with Christianity as the state religion. The education system was based on biblical beliefs. In fact, even the cover of a school science syllabus featured a bullet point stating that the purpose of science teaching was to draw the pupils’ attention to the marvels of God’s creation. So when I first saw that famous sequence of human ancestors, each standing more upright than the last, and each carrying a more advanced tool than the last, my first and only thought was “Oh, OK. That’s just obviously right. That makes perfect sense.” Genesis was out the window in an instant. It didn’t take any arguments; I did not have to hear Richard Dawkins speak. All I had to do was see that image sequence and it was blindingly clear. I remember quite clearly how my biology textbook at school skirted the issue by using the term ‘adaptation’.

So this brings up the question of why there is even any debate these days, about creation versus evolution. I can think of at least two answers to this. My first answer lies again in my own experience. My parents came from mixed religious backgrounds, and so consequently, I was never taken to religious training of any kind - neither Shul nor Sunday School. For this, I am extremely grateful. Because it is my experience that all of my peers who did go for religious training are, to this day, by and large, believers. I can only suspect a degree of brainwashing. The Catholic Jesuit motto is "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man". Children under the age of 12, says Jean Piaget, are incapable of abstract reasoning. But religion is abstract reasoning _par excellence_; there is nothing more abstract. Even numbers, which are quite abstract, can be pointed to in the real world. Love can be felt. Religion? Maybe a religious experience can be felt, but certainly, God’s done a good job of staying invisible. So how or why would intelligent adults continue to believe? It can only be because of training in childhood. It cannot be because the force of the evidence is on their side.

Here are two recent examples of evidence being on the side of evolution: Firstly, many believers satirise the Theory of Evolution as being about us evolving from fish which learned to walk on their fins, and which subsequently took to the land. They pour scorn on this idea. Yet examples of this taking place right under our nose exist. Consider the Mudskipper, or the [Pacific Leaping Blenny](http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/09/pictures/110901-walking-fish-pacific-leaping-blenny-evolution-animals/). Or consider the recent find of [Australopithecus Sediba, in South Africa] (http://lightyears.blogs.cnn.com/2011/09/08/ancient-fossils-question-human-family-tree/?on.cnn=2). I personally saw this find, and was asked to help present the find to tourists last year, on a public holiday. It is quite a humbling experience to stand within one foot of something that is 1.95 million years old, and know that it may very well be your own direct personal ancestor.

Now, I realise that one of the common responses to things like the mudskipper or the leaping blenny is to say, well, why do they still exist if they’re meant to be an ancestral form? Another version of this argument is to say, well, why do apes exist if we purportedly evolved from them? The answer to both forms of this question is that we neither evolved from mudskippers nor apes; they share a common ancestor with us. (Obviously, the mudskippers are far more distantly related). The point of the blenny or mudskipper is that they show that even now, evolution is taking place. Probably, quite recently in their ancestry, one of their forebears developed the mutation that allowed its front fins to be powerful enough for it to crawl onto land. The same model is offered for the arrival of amphibians - newts, in particular. If you compare a tadpole and a newt to a leaping blenny, it is painfully obvious that they’re very closely related. That doesn’t mean, however, that they evolved from each other, rather, it means that they have a common ancestor. The same applies to apes. They can brachiate (swing from the trees), just as we can, due to our wrist architecture. They can walk upright. [Certain chimps even hunt with spears](http://www.reuters.com/article/2007/02/22/us-chimps-hunting-idUSN2244829320070222). They have social structures, binocular colour vision, are omnivorous, have sign language, the list goes on. Do you know, for example, that bats, order Chiroptera - “wing hands” - have five digits - fingers - in their wings, that make up their wings? What about snakes with legs buried in the flesh of their backs? Or whales with the same? Is this ‘by design’ or an evolutionary atavism?

What is the more sensible explanation for these things? That they have similar, or in the case of us and chimps, near-identical DNA by chance? Or that each individual creature is the product of ‘special creation’? That God sat and made each one to look remarkably like the other? Or that they are actually related by blood, as the saying goes? It strikes me that in science, the rule of Occam’s Razor, applies here: keep the explanation as simple as possible. A deity choosing to make billions of slightly different creatures for his own amusement, or billions of slightly different creatures evolving from each other? We even have mastered a form of evolution ourselves: we selectively breed dogs. Those which have desirable characteristics are kept for breeding, those which do not, get neutered.

One of the common misunderstandings about evolution is that it is about how we descend from apes. That’s not what evolution is about. Evolution merely says the following: if an organism has a mutation (a “birth defect” is an example of a harmful mutation) - and, if that mutation helps the organism survive, and it reproduces, its offspring will likely have that mutation too. So, think of how you have your ‘mother’s eyes’ or your ‘father’s legs’. That’s an example of evolution in action. The fact that your mother and father were sufficiently competent and attractive enough to mate, entails that their offspring - you - would have inherited those traits that enabled them to mate in the first place. Which gives you a good chance, too. On the other hand, if your parents had had some prohibitive genetic trait, which had, perhaps, caused them to perish before mating, well, quite simply, you’d not exist, and that trait would not have been passed on. It is important to understand that this obvious truth - a truth so obvious that it is possibly a tautology - _is all that there is_ to the Theory of Evolution. The simian ancestry of man follows from this tautology.

Of course, the latest creationist explanatory model is “intelligent design”. The idea is that some things are too complex to have been evolved, and must have been designed by a designer. “What if you found a watch in a desert?” the usual objection goes. “It’s too complex to have appeared in the desert; it must have been made.” Well, unfortunately, _all_ examples of apparently intelligent design can be explained away by science. I won’t waste space going into it. Let’s ask, instead, about obvious cases of _un_intelligent design. Humans, for example, have an oesophagus and windpipe that share a common canal, permitting us to choke quite easily, unlike other animals. Intelligent design? I don’t think so. What about the above-mentioned atavisms - buried limb remnants? Part of the design, or evolutionary leftovers? What about the appendix? Or a urethra that goes through the prostate rather than around? None of these things seem to be particularly intelligent; they’re more like accidental features which have not been bad enough to make the species extinct. If they’re products of design, the Designer is pretty lousy at His job.

This brings us to the second reason that the ‘creation versus evolution’ debate continues to rage. Believers feel that evolution threatens religion. Many apologists for science argue that evolution does not threaten religion. These apologists are partly correct; it is possible to argue that evolution was set up by God and that it operates according to laws He created. There is a position known as ‘deism’, or, to give it its more popular term, ‘guided creation’ or ‘guided evolution’. The idea of deism is that God started the creation, set up the laws of physics and evolution, and then sat back and let life take its course. There are some problems with deism, however, not the least of which is that it has no scriptural support. God is an intervener. He does not sit back.

But there is at least one substantial scriptural problem that the Theory of Evolution does pose - for Christianity, in particular. If evolution is true - which _all_ the empirical evidence points to - then the book of Genesis - particularly the Garden of Eden story - must be false. If there never was an Adam and Eve, then there never was a Fall of Man. If there never was a Fall of Man, we have never been born with Original Sin. If we are not born with Original Sin, then we are born innocent. In which case, to paraphrase Stephen Hawking, What room, then, for a Redeemer?

List of useful mac apps

This is mostly a note to self so that I can share with others when they ask which apps I recommend. Android File Transfer.app (*) get file...