A Dream I Had and the Null Hypothesis

Last night, I dreamed I was having an argument with a theist about the existence of his god. I don’t remember much detail, but it came to the point that, unusual for a verbal debate, he started to suggest we write down our collective arguments. The point that angered me was that he asked me to list all the scientific evidence for atheism. He was missing a central point, so I ended up holding his face, which suddenly resembled a cross between a witch doctor’s mask and the face of a classic Cyberman, looked him in the empty eyes intently, and said, “I don’t base my argument on the evidence, I base it on the lack of evidence.”

That’s one of the ideas I really wish I could drill in their heads. If they don’t back up their assertion of an entity’s existence with good evidence, why should I have to do anything beyond pointing out that void? The burden of proof is theirs to overcome.

A trope comes to mind: The Complainer Is Always Wrong, applied to epistemology. They often act as if the unpopular idea has the burden of proof by default. Or they assume it’s the adversary’s job to do their work for them. The reality, as far as I can see, is that there is no justifiable reason to be a theist, and if someone wants to argue otherwise, they have to provide a justification. Atheism is a null hypothesis, and science works by assuming the null hypothesis until that hypothesis is falsified. That’s what Occam’s Razor is about, in a way. Don’t assume the existence of new entities until they’re shown to be necessary. The null hypothesis generally fails if there is an entity that isn’t accounted for, producing results it doesn’t predict.

All I’m asking for is a god hypothesis that makes true predictions that atheism and known science doesn’t.

Power Outage and The Greatest Show on Earth

Pole in my neighborhood fell down. Curse you, outdated infrastructure!

Anyway, after finishing off Dawkins’ Greatest Show on Earth, I suddenly remembered I had a WordPress app on my iPod and a full battery. So, here I am. You’ll probably see a post about a dream troll right after this one. Decided I needed to get that one written down, since dreams tend to be forgettable, even if they start out vivid.

The last bit of Greatest Show had a lot on how much waste, cross-purpose, and suffering there is in the world. It helped me become aware of the vast scale of it all once again. Evolution had its part in it, but not in the way fundies harp on: Evolution is driven by competition and scarcity. There’s no grand designer concerned for our wellbeing. In some ways, it’s like unregulated capitalism. You can make money by hurting others, and without a conscious effort to curb exploitation for selfish gain, it’s accepted as business as usual. There’s no god out there regulating the biosphere, telling parasites not to be too horrible, diseases to tone down their symptoms, or telling invasive species not to reproduce into giant swarms.

There’s not even a metaphorical Gaia seeking a balance that supposedly happens the moment humans stop meddling. Sometimes that balance ends in mass extinctions and wasteland, human involvement or not. Nature often is red in tooth and claw. Balance seems more a happy accident and consequence of having adaptable organisms, rather than any top-down governing force. There’s always the possibility that a change is simply too drastic for life to find a new balance we’d like. Of course, human intervention is responsible for a lot of changes like that, not just natural disasters.

Back to the point on evolution and Creationism, this world simply doesn’t look like anything I’d expect from typical human-like deities. Especially not benevolent ones. This isn’t some Disney fantasy backdrop.

Witchcraft

It seems Pat Robertson recently brought up the silly “D&D is Satanic” meme, again. It’s accompanied with the usual fainting over players allegedly learning black magic.

For the people who are actually worried about witches going around hexing people, I have one point to make: People like you probably carry the bulk of the blame for witchcraft gaining any sort of popularity. I think it’s ironic. Dungeons & Dragons, Harry Potter, and all the fantasy franchises out there treat magic as fictional. It’s just entertaining escapism. Just like any other hobby, there are people who turn it into an unhealthy obsession, but they’re not the norm. I don’t play fantasy games out of some delusion that it’s a road to magical powers, I play because they’re fun.

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Idolatry

I’ve been slowly making my way through Married to the Sea‘s archives. It’s a silly comic most of the time, but sometimes it gets political. This one reminded me of a point I like to make. It’s the 10 Commandments as a graven image that gets pushed into schools and courthouses. On top of violating freedom from government imposition of a religion, showing undue favoritism, and all that, it makes the point that the 10 Commandments is essentially an idol.

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Doggerel #10: “I’m Not Arguing to Convince Anybody!”

Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

This phrase and its variants strike a chord of incredulity when I read them, especially if they show up late in an argument, after several points are raised and rebutted. Presumably someone who devoted that much time and passion to arguing over an issue would be greatly interested in swaying people towards their firmly-held position.

Then the cynicism I’ve built up over my years of being an internet skeptic sink in: Trolls. The particular variation I’m speaking of are those who argue a position not because they believe it, but because they enjoy angering and frustrating people who hold a contrary position, often with deliberately and transparently fallacious arguments. They avoid changing their position or making any sort of concession a sincere person might make in the face of good arguments to amplify the frustration.

Less cynically, it harkens to my own soft-sell vague spirituality phase of my life, when confrontation was discouraged and “negative.” It dipped in postmodernism, since being right wasn’t considered a part of being happy or prosperous. Phrases like that were used in attempts to move the argument towards a non-judgmental brainstorming session where any idea was welcome. The problem is that brainstorming is a beginning for generating a large pool of ideas to test, not a place where you want to remain. Finding good ideas means sorting them out from all the bad ones. This means you have to be willing to criticize an idea that looks bad or defend an idea that you think looks good and argue convincingly in either case.

Advice to my opponents: If you don’t like having your position criticized, think twice before asserting it. It’s better to bow out or remain silent than to grow indignant because you didn’t expect opposition. It gets worse if you carry on an extended argument and then claim that you weren’t arguing toward the purpose of argument, namely convincing other people. In the age of the internet, where insincere trolls arguing for the lulz are a dime a dozen, don’t use an escape clause that so easily depicts you as one of them.

It’s a Bird/Dinosaur!

Well, I got the recent news about that feathered dinosaur. Apparently Ken Ham and other Creationists have declared it to be 100% bird despite lacking a bony breast muscle anchor birds have and possessing dinosaur features like clawed fingers and teeth. This brings me back to a point I was thinking about including in Creationism is in a State of Chaos, though I rewrote it partway through to cover bigger issues, rather than list miscellaneous details. I’ve seen some Creationists claim that the more famous archeopteryx was all bird. I’ve seen others claim it was all reptile/dinosaur. It will not surprise me if this latest fossil triggers more flip-floppery from Creationists trying to shoehorn it into the categories they’re comfortable with.

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Logistics, not Tactics

There’s one annoying trend I see whenever a particular topic comes up. This problem is born of small, short-sighted thinking, and an overdose of Hollywood romanticizing of the topic. I’ll tell you the topic after a bit of explanation. There are three general levels in planning: Logistics, strategy, and tactics. Tactics are about what you’re doing at the moment of a struggle with what you have on hand. In military terms, that means what you’re doing in a particular battle or skirmish. Strategy is the next level up, and it’s about how you achieve bigger goals through those individual battles.

I recall a show about Hannibal’s attack on Rome, and from that depiction, it looked to me that Hannibal was a tactical genius and a strategic idiot. He could beat Rome’s armies out in the open quite consistently and even while outnumbered, demonstrating his tactical ability. It didn’t do him any good, however, because he apparently failed to think about what he’d do once he had gotten to Rome: He wasn’t equipped to put the city under siege. Rome’s armies outside the city could keep their distance while skirmishing with Hannibal’s foragers to slowly starve and demoralize the rest of his army.

That brings us to the next level: Logistics. Plans need resources and support. In military terms, soldiers need food, tools, weapons, ammunition, transportation, and so on. Logistics is about how you get those resources where you need them. Good tactics and strategy make the most of what you have, but without supply lines, there’s a limit to what you can do. If you can’t feed and equip your soldiers, it’d be insane to go to war.

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Creationism is in a State of Chaos

That’s the blunt truth about how I see it. I’m not talking about the political situation of various attempts to slip it into schools or its public relations, though it’s still applicable: The promoters try to gloss over the fact that it’s religious and try to make it look vaguely secular, meanwhile they can’t keep the fundie hordes from revealing the sectarian motives.

My major point is that Creationism as a hypothesis is in a state of chaos. If a person identifies himself as a Creationist, that doesn’t tell us what he believes or gives us insight into what he’s likely to believe, beyond the vaguest of details. Evolution and inflationary cosmology are better defined. I believe in those theories because of the evidence, and knowing that, you can reliably predict that I believe:

  • The universe is 13.7 billion years old. The Earth is 4.6 billion years old.
  • All life is related in a large nested hierarchy, like a branching tree. You won’t find any examples of large multicelluar organisms (like animals) that would fit in more than one branch. No cat-dog hybrids without deliberate genetic modification, for example. The closest you’d get naturally is a cat, with the genetic features that define it as a cat, that superficially resembles a dog or the reverse. The descendents of cats are still cats, though as deep time passes and modifications pile up, they may become very strange compared to our current idea of a cat. Even so, they’d still bear the molecular and morphological legacy of cathood.
  • Fossils are arranged with the oldest species on the bottommost layers of rock and the most recent on top. By comparing similar fossils up and down the rock layers around the world, we can infer relationships based on the shapes of their fossilized bones and compare these relationships with other lines of evidence, such as molecular biology, and find a consistent picture. This is what we find.
  • Most mutations are neutral, but some are deleterious, others are beneficial, and some are mixed because they affect linked traits in different ways. The beneficial mutations will generally have better chances of proliferating, while the negative mutations will more likely die out.
  • There is no “great chain of being” with humans at the top. We’re just one more successful species and there will be others, possibly including a future species descended from us. Evolution wasn’t “done” when we showed up.

These are a lot of “big picture” consensus beliefs. These are the kinds of things that experts will put into textbooks and popular science media. If someone claims to believe in evolution but asserts something contrary to these sorts of ideas, the experts would seek to correct the misunderstanding and/or challenge the dissenter to prove it with scientific evidence. And this is just the big picture stuff. There’s a massive wealth of details that have a strong consensus that remain consistent with the theories.

In other words, science has converged on these beliefs. This is what we would expect if a reliable testing method (science) was used by many different people from different backgrounds (scientists from around the world), to reach conclusions about objective reality. The history of science is one of increasing consistency and accuracy as more evidence comes to light. The consensus changes in a predictable, logically necessary manner.

Of course, there isn’t absolutely perfect agreement on all issues, but the arguments that do occur between scientists are about increasingly finer and more nuanced details. You can still find large areas of general agreement between scientists who are on opposite sides of one of those conflicts. In evolution, there are many different forces in play: Natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, and so on. Biologists of different specialties may have heated arguments about the relative importance of those factors in the evolution of a species or trait, but you can reasonably count on them to acknowledge all those forces exist.

And now, back to Creationism. If I stumble on some Creationists while web surfing, I have much less confidence in my ability to predict their answers to important questions about cosmology and the history of biology. There are a lot of mutually exclusive claims, and skimming the well known Talk Origins’ Index to Creationist Claims brings up a lot of them. I’ll point out that the page was last updated in 2006, and I can’t think of anything about Creationism that would necessitate further updates. Let’s go over a few examples:

Age of the Earth: Answers range from about 6,000 years to 4.6 billion. This is one of the bigger divides in Creationism: Young Earth Creationists (YEC) and Old Earth Creationists (OEC).

The age of the universe and distant objects: This is one of the classic things Young Earth Creationists have to come up with an explanation for. Their problem is that they’ve come up with multiple explanations and there’s no clear favorite. How did the light from those distant stars get here? Some say their god created light that was already en route to Earth. Others say the speed of light used to be much faster. In the ancient days, stars were holes in the sky, rather than distant fusion reactors. Of course, another popular answer is that the evidence for the distance of those objects is all a hoax perpetuated by a satanic worldwide conspiracy.

Radiometric dating: One of the core premises (which is backed by all the evidence thus far) behind radiometric dating is that isotopes have a consistent half-life and thus a predictable rate of decay that can be used to measure the age of something. Creationists sometimes try to get around this by asserting that the rate of decay used to be much faster. (Which would mean a lot more radiation in those days.) Others say the universe was just created with the isotopes and decay products in just the right proportions to give the appearance of age. And, of course, there’s the conspiracy assertion.

Fossils: Some say they’re distributed by the animals’ abilities to flee from the rising flood waters at the time of Noah, and altitude of habitat. (They’re not.) Others say they were somehow filtered by complexity by the flood waters. (They’re not.) Some say their god created the fossils to test faith and to troll scientists with the deception. Others say the devil made the fossils. Others say scientists planted the fossils.

Noah’s Ark and genetic diversity: Some claim that Noah brought aboard a few vaguely defined “baramin” animals that then evolved and speciated at super speed, somehow acquiring diversity that would be absent from such a genetic bottleneck. Some say some animals survived by living on floating islands of plant matter, lowering the demands of the Ark. Some say the dinosaurs were on the Ark. Some say the dinosaurs were left to drown. Some say there were no dinosaurs in the first place.

Noah’s flood and the source of the water: Vapor canopy. Comets. Hydroplate. Runaway Subduction.

I could go on and on if I really wanted to go over all the crazy Creationist ideas I’ve read about over my years as a skeptic. It’s even common to see a Creationist change their beliefs repeatedly over the course of a conversation as they’re criticized. This tells me that Creationists either don’t think about the implications of believing contradictory ideas and/or that they’re just trying every alleged “zinger” in their playbook to justify their dissent from the scientific consensus, as dictated by rhetorical convenience, rather than logic and evidence. There is no Creationist consensus beyond a few bare bones. Creationism is still at the mercy of the chaotic whims of fashion.

Single & Loving It

One issue that’s starting to come up a little more often for me is marriage. Not in my personal life, but in my net life. Ed Brayton over on Dispatches occasionally responds to fundies and the like who whine about people who don’t immediately marry, and I occasionally run into trolls who implicitly or explicitly argue that being unmarried means you’re an unlovable loser who doesn’t matter and doesn’t contribute to society.

I’m on the borderline between hetero and asexual. I could be an asexual who’s hetero-curious or a hetero with a naturally low libido. I’m not sure which way to split the hair. Add in the social issues that come with Asperger’s for extra fun. Whatever it is, I’m just not strongly inclined to go looking for Ms. Right, though I don’t rule out the possibility that I might stumble on her. I’m glad I have understanding parents who haven’t been pushing me to get married. It’s not something I would want to force. I think marriage is supposed to be about genuine love and respect, not a forced duty to someone else’s wishes. Society’s drive for white picket fences and 2.5 children be damned, this is about what individuals want in their lives.

If you want to be married and have kids, go ahead and do that, but do it because it’s what you want and let me do what I want without being shamed for who I am. I do have a romantic side, but it’s like that idea of being “in love with love.” I think people who love each other should be free to celebrate their love. I like the idea of a couple who love each other making it work against the odds, and I’d be glad to help them. That’s one big reason why I’m pro-LGBT rights. Why should the heteros be privileged?

By the way, I think we should consider adding an A to LGBT. I think I might try doing that and see how well it goes. I had it relatively easy, but I still see some discriminatory attitudes against asexuals. One of the big ones I see is the assumption that relative disinterest in the opposite sex means homosexuality, which lets us have our turn at being targets for the same bigots.

One thing that really hurts are the people who cheapen marriage by making it about reproduction. First, our planet is suffering from human overpopulation. Reproduction isn’t an absolute duty because of that. Having a proportion of non-reproducing individuals seems like the most civilized way to lower the population, especially if they’re already disinclined towards reproductive forms of sex. Second, we’re k-type reproducers. We have relatively few offspring, but invest heavily into making those offspring successful. There’s more to the reproductive success of a species than simply popping out more babies. Non-reproducers like me can still contribute to the human infrastructure we call civilization for the next generation’s benefit.

Some trolls pull out the “if everyone did it” canard, which is quite moot. We aren’t trying to talk hetero couples out of having kids. We aren’t claiming there is One True Way to Live like these trolls are. Humans are naturally diverse and in large societies we naturally end up specializing. If everyone was a farmer, we’d have no scientists, no factory workers, no doctors, and so on. So what? No one’s proposing that everyone be a farmer. I’m not proposing that everyone should be a bachelor. And in this case, it’s not like a profession. You can change your profession. You can discover that you like a different line of work you hadn’t considered. You can get bored with your current profession. Sexual orientation isn’t so easy to change. As I see it, heterosexuality is the most common orientation, and it’s not going to die out just because we let same-sex or transgender couples marry or let asexuals stay single. We just want people to recognize that the other options are acceptable and they shouldn’t be stigmatized. They’re not objectively better or worse, just different, and it’s up to the individual to decide what best fits him.