Tag Archives: Fantasy

Data, Data Everywhere…

In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lamented “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” There seems to be no better way to describe our situation today with regard to information. We sail upon a vast ocean of data and yet we die of thirst. Indeed, we are too often deluged by great waves of facts that batter us relentlessly to and fro upon treacherous seas of data.

It feels particularly disconcerting for me to write this article. In my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here), I promote the importance of elevating facts above beliefs. After all, facts should reflect reality. They should be the basis upon which truth is known. Today however, data seems to be used far more effectively to support beliefs, fantasies, and lies than it is used to reveal truths. Indeed, those who wish to sell us nonsense don’t often bother to invoke the bible or faith anymore – they invoke their own “facts” instead.

One reason that facts have become the new champions of beliefs and cons is the sheer amount of it. We now have so much data that one can mine anything they want from the endless mountains of the stuff that we have produced. Misrepresented facts can now be dredged up to fabricate lies far easier than spinning magical stories of gods and devils.

Nowhere is this new perversion of facts more true than in politics. Today politicians like Donald Trump incessantly cite completely misleading facts to support their beliefs and positions and to outright lie. Even if the majority of people do not believe their “trumped up” facts, they nevertheless conclude that all facts are suspect and that no facts can be trusted. This tangibly undermines the level of rational thinking of our entire culture and leaves us without any sound basis for making good decisions as a society.

In his excellent Op-Ed (see here), William Davies points out that “they [facts] seem to be losing their ability to support consensus.” According to Davies, there is clear agreement that “We have entered an age of post-truth politics.” This new age of bullshit is fueled not by assertions of faith, but by assertions of facts. As Davies further points out, “Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.

So facts have become the new bullshit. We claim to care about facts, but only because, as with the bible, we can always find something in them to support our beliefs and prejudices and self-interest. Our abundance of data seems to be only serving to diminish and undervalue it; to make it increasingly vulnerable to manipulation, misrepresentation, and lies by half-truth. The sheer volume of it makes it far more difficult to say anything with certainty without some other bit of data seeming to contradict it.

And this perversion and misuse of facts is not just true in politics but has become the new normal in all walks of life. All too often journalists and pundits do not pursue facts to reveal truth, but rather invoke them to advocate for opposing sides of an issue. This makes great theatre, but does little to advance the important questions that we face. It instigates and perpetuates conflict rather than help reach a sound fact-based consensus.

Even scientists, our gatekeepers and guardians of fact, all too often emphasize only those facts that advocate for their positions rather than serving the far greater goal of advancing science as a quest for truth.

Abandoning facts is simply not an option. Allowing the manipulators to turn all fact-based thinking into rationalization games and data manipulation exercises is not an option because without sound facts good decisions simply cannot be made. If we allow facts to be coopted by magical thinkers, by self-serving politicians, or even by well-meaning advocates, we might as well put the psychic hotline staff in charge of our fates.

What is the answer? We must reclaim facts. We must become smarter consumers of facts who are no more likely to be fooled by the bogus facts cited by manipulative politicians or corporations any more than we are by laughably ambiguous bible citations and interpretations. We must learn to recognize valid data and sound conclusions amidst all the cherry-picking and false claims. We must learn to treasure and respect fairly presented facts as diamonds amongst all the heaps of rubble and fool’s gold that we have to sift through every day.

Our overabundance of data should make us value – and demand – sound analysis and conclusions based on that data all that much more.

 

The Anatomy of Thought

Mind-uploading is the fictional process by which a person’s consciousness is transferred into some inanimate object. In fantasy stories this is typically accomplished using magic. By casting some arcane spell, the person’s consciousness is transferred into a physical talisman – or it might just float around in the ether in disembodied spirit form.

Mind_switcherIn science fiction, this kind of magic is routinely accomplished by means of technology. Upgraded hair-dryers transfer the person’s consciousness into a computer or some external storage unit. There it is retained until  it can be transferred back to the original host or into some new person or device. This science fiction mainstay goes back at least to the 1951 novel “Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller Jr.

In some of these stories, the disembodied consciousness retains awareness within the computer or within whatever golem it has been placed. Sometimes the consciousness is downloaded into a new host body. It might inhabit a recently dead body but other times it might take over a living host or even swap bodies with another consciousness. Fictional stories involving technology being used for a variety mind-downloading and body-swapping scenarios or possessions go back at least to the book to “Vice Versa” written by Thomas Anstey Guthrie in 1982.

The 2009 movie “Avatar” depicts of all sorts of sophisticated technological mind-uploading, remote consciousness-control, and even the mystical downloading of consciousness into a new body. In this and innumerable other science fiction, fantasy, and horror plots, minds are portrayed as things that can be removed and swapped out given sufficiently advanced magic or technology – like a heart or liver. This is depicted so often in fact that it seems like some routine medical procedure that must be right around the technological corner at a Body-Swap™ franchise near you.

One reason this idea seems so believable to us because it is so similar to installing new software into your computer. But the computer analogy fails here. Brains are not analogous to computers in this regard and consciousness is not analogous to a computer program. Our hardware and software are not independent. Our hardware is our software. Our thoughts are literally our anatomy.

It might be a better analogy to rather think of our brains as non-programmable analog computers in which the thinking is performed by specific electronic circuits designed to perform that logic. The logic is not programmed into the circuits, the logic is the circuitry itself. Our thoughts are not programmed into our brains, our thoughts are produced by our neural circuitry. Obviously  our thinking does change over time, but this is a physical re-linking and re-weighting of our neural connections, not the inhabitation of some separable, independent consciousness within our brains.

I allow that we might conceivably copy our consciousness into a computer, but it would only be a mapped translation programmed to emulate our thought patterns. And as far-fetched as that is, downloading our consciousness into another brain is infinitely more far-fetched. That would require rewiring the target brain, that is, changing its physical microstructure. Maybe there is some scientific plausibility to that, like a magnet aligning all the particles of iron along magnetic ley lines. But it’s incredibly unlikely. We’d essentially have to scan all the connections in the subject’s brain and then physically realign all the neurons in the target brain in exactly the same way and tune the strength of all the connections identically.

And even if we did that, there are lots of nuanced effects that would still introduce differences. Our body chemistry and external drugs influence how these neurons fire. In fact, it’s likely that even if our brain were physically transplanted into a new host body, subtle differences in the environment of the new body would affect us in unanticipatable ways, influencing the very thoughts and emotions that make us – us.

Yet our fantasy imagining of consciousness as an independent abstraction not only persists but largely dominates our thinking. Even the most modern intellectuals tend to be locked into at least an implicit assumption of a mind-body dualism. René Descartes was a key figure in bringing scientific and philosophical credibility to what is fundamentally a religious fantasy concocted to make religion seem plausible (see here).

For religious thinkers, a mind-body duality MUST exist in order for there to be an after-life. In order for religious fantasies to seem reasonable, the soul (essentially just our disembodied mind) must be independent and independently viable outside the body. For many, the mind or soul is bestowed by god and is the uniquely holy and human thing that we have that lesser species do not. For them, the mind has to be separable to support their fantasy of God-given uniqueness from the rest of the animal kingdom. A unified mind-body greatly undermines their case for creationism, human divinity, and an afterlife.

So this illusory assumption of dualism is propagated by familiar computer analogies, by ubiquitous fantasy and science fiction, by horror ghost stories, and by our dominant religious and new age thinking. But this dualistic pseudoscience leads to many false and misleading ideas about how our brains work. That in turn results leads us to a great deal of mistaken thinking about a broad and diverse range of questions and precludes our ability to even imagine more realistic answers to those questions.

One harm this idea does is to provide a circular, self-fulfilling basis for belief in the supernatural. If we accept the assumption that our mind is independent, that then demands some kind of mystical explanation. But this dualistic thinking hinders our understanding of many non-religious questions as well. How do newborns fresh out of the womb or the egg know what to do? How can thoughts be inherited? How can a child be born gay? The answer to all these questions become quite simple if you shed your mistaken assumption of dualism. We all start with an inherited brain structure which is the same as to say that we are all born with thoughts and emotions and personalities.

When you truly internalize that the mind and body are one and the same, that our thoughts arise purely from our brain micro-structure and our unique body chemistry, new and far simpler solutions and perspectives open up for a wide range of otherwise perplexing and vexing social, scientific, and metaphysical questions.

Someone smarter than me could write a fascinating book about all the ways that this fantasy of an independent consciousness leads us to false conclusions and inhibits our ability to consider real answers to important questions. But if you simply become aware of this false assumption of duality, you will find that you’ll naturally start to look at a wide range of questions in far more satisfying and logically self-consistent ways.

 

 

How These Things Get Started

There are no end to the crazy stories that go around. My uncle was saved from a bear by Bigfoot and has the scars to prove it. This guy on TV was molested by aliens – his story was checked out by a team of scientists. My grandmother was kissed by her dead husband and she wouldn’t make that kind of thing up. The Virgin Mary appeared to a homeless guy in the Bronx who had no reason to lie. Forty-Seven cows mysteriously died in Iowa after a Haitian witch doctor got snubbed at a truck stop and cursed the town – couldn’t be coincidence. Everyone knows that old house is haunted by a woman who was murdered by her lover in the 40’s. That was the day my dead pet returned to save my life.

Given that there is absolutely no possibility that any of these stories are actually true, one has to wonder how they ever get started in the first place. We even have to wonder whether they might have some element of truth if only because there seems to be no conceivable way that such tales could ever get started if there wasn’t some truth to them.

But get started they do. While I cannot give you every particular origin story, I can relate to you one real example to illustrate how these things get started.

One summer during college I was rooming with my longtime buddy Steve. As I walked back to our place late one sweltering night in Wisconsin, I was feeling particularly bored and fanciful. The nighttime shadows helped work my imagination into a receptive frame of mind and when I walked past the window of a local craft shop I was struck by these hand-crafted dolls on display in the window. Now like many people I do admit to being generally spooked by dolls and as I looked at this one particularly creepy looking doll bathed in old-time street lamps, I got inspired to mischief.

I took off running (I had been a track and cross-country runner) but got myself plenty winded by the time I reached our building. I stumbled, intentionally falling and crashing up the stairway and pounded on our door with desperate urgency. Steve opened the door to the sight of me in very convincing panic-stricken terror. I rushed into the room and I made him drag my terrifying story from me. I told him that I had been walking past this store and noticed this doll and suddenly I felt an eerie presence, like some evil spirit, and without warning this doll leapt at the window and clawed at me. I panicked and ran all the way back to the room, the entire time feeling like some malevolent demon was chasing me.

Steve’s reaction was all I could have hoped for. Though frightened he valiantly insisted that we go back that very night to face this demon. I reluctantly agreed to show him where the store was but refused to get closer than the end of the block. I watched down the street as Steve heroically inched forward, craning his neck tentatively to glimpse this demon-doll. Suddenly he jerked, bolted, almost got hit by a passing car as he stumbled into the street, ran all the way back to and past me, shouting breathlessly “I saw it dude! It was the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen!!”

RamonaAudleyYup, in retrospect I should have owned up to my prank right then and there. But Steve was so pumped up I decided to tell him in the morning. By the next morning I had forgotten all about it, and anyway Steve had already left to go somewhere before I woke up. I was reminded of my folly when Steve returned and proudly related how he had gone to the craft shop, paranormal investigator like, to sleuth out the origins of this demon doll. The owner told him that by the greatest of coincidences, the doll-maker, a lady by the name of Ramona Audley (pictured right) happened to be paying a visit at that very same moment. Steve politely confronted Ramona and asked her whether she knew that she was crafting possessed dolls. Ramona apparently nearly went into a terrified state of shock and I was later to learn that the dolls were removed from the store window that very day (Ramona, I did you wrong and I’m so sorry).

It gets worse. When Steve told me what he had done I was mortified. That poor Ramona Audley! I never intended to frighten her or the shop owner! But how could I tell Steve the truth of my prank now that he had done this? I settled for hoping that this whole debacle would just blow over.

Needless to say it did not just blow over. It took on a life of its own like Godzilla emerging from the ocean to wrack havoc. For the next several decades, whenever Steve introduced me at any kind of gathering, he insisted that I tell the doll story. Of course I would refuse, feigning intentionally ambiguous reluctance. But Steve would invariably take over and tell the story on my behalf, prefacing it with a lengthy introduction about how he would never believe this story from anyone else in the entire world except from me. My credibility and sanity and integrity are (were) apparently just that irreproachable.

If you dear reader could have admitted to making up this story prior to this you are a better person than me.  And to make matters even worse, Steve is a naturally gregarious guy who became a minor celebrity with a sizable fan following. Who knows how many people he has told this story to who have in turn related it to many other people, who all swear that they were assured that this story came from an impeachable source. Every year that went by while I hoped that the story would be finally forgotten, every time I failed to disavow it, the myth became that much more indestructible.

My dolls truly had become demons. A few years ago I agreed to be interviewed for a video documentary about my friend Steve. To my horror and chagrin Steve had prompted the documentarian to ask me about the “Doll Story,” which he did, on camera. The story had finally advanced to a line I could not cross and I admitted to my prank on camera rather than perpetuate it any further.

Even after that public admission, I still live in perpetual dread of seeing this bogus story reenacted on the History or Science channel. Lots of people are probably more willing to believe that I lied about it not happening rather than believe that I simply made it up as a silly impulsive prank. After all, what kind of inconceivably horrible person would make up such a story? Umm, yes, that would be me.

And that, my friends, is how these things get started.

There is Always a Trick

We are all tempted at times to be open-minded about  supernatural claims. Indeed, it can seem narrow-minded to dismiss the seemingly inexplicable stories related by sensible, credible people we trust. Sometimes we ourselves experience things that seem to defy any rational scientific explanation. These experiences seem to prove that there must indeed be more to the universe than reason can explain. It can be hard to push back on the logic that if one cannot offer proof of a scientific explanation then one must accept a supernatural one.

Whenever you are tempted to entertain belief in something supernatural or paranormal, just remember one invariably true thing as a given: there is always a trick.

DougHenningI’m reminded of a formative event back in the 1970’s when I went to a performance by the late magician Doug Henning. Between making live tigers disappear, he would walk out to the edge of the stage and do slight-of-hand magic. In one such interlude, he held up a newspaper and showed it to us, turning each page so we would remember the layout. He then proceeded to methodically tear it into smaller and smaller pieces. As he did so he kept a great dialog going:

You think you see it tearing, you think you hear the sound of paper ripping apart, you think you see me holding two separate pieces. All your senses are convinced that I’m tearing up this paper, but I am not.

He continued to rip the paper into shreds and stack up the pieces, in full view, into a little folded-up pile. Then he began to unfold it and show us the full newspaper perfectly in-tact once more. As he paged through the “reassembled” newspaper, he continued his narration:

There is no magic, this is a simple trick. Obviously I could not actually have torn up the paper. But the trick is the magic and the magic is the trick.

Doug Henning was brilliantly messing with the audiences minds there, but what I learned from him is that there is always a trick. No matter how inexplicable something might seem, you only need to know the trick. But moreover, you can be still amazed by the trick and, even knowing it is only a trick, it can still amaze and astound you every bit as much as true magic. In fact, knowing there is no magic, nothing supernatural, no god, does not need to make the world one bit less exciting and inspiring. Quite the opposite. You can feel even more amazed knowing that the real explanation must actually be so clever, so masterfully executed, that one imagines that only some supernatural story could possibly explain it. The trick is SO amazing that it is easier for us to consider some magical explanation rather then the real mundane one.

Years later I watched one of those shows on television that exposes magical tricks. In this episode, they showed the magician and his gorgeous assistants make a mini-sub disappear right on stage. It was astoundingly, compellingly real. Surely there could be no conceivable way that such a feat could be accomplished without true supernatural intervention.

But after the commercial break they simply showed the exact same performance shot from a rear angle. It suddenly seemed stupidly crude and simple, so pathetically obvious that one could not imagine anyone actually trying to fool anyone with it, let alone anyone actually being fooled by it.

It was incredibly disappointing to see that trick exposed. It was ruined forever. I vowed never again to watch any explanation of magic. I want to be amazed. I want to experience that awe and wonder over and over. But I know there is always a trick. All it takes is to move the camera ever so slightly and it becomes ridiculously obvious.

But  the “good” magic that magicians or fantasy novelists or artists offer us does not extend similar benign merit and value to the “bad” magic of hucksters, con-artists, priests, rabbis, imams, televangelists, psychics, and other charlatans. These promoters of the supernatural do not simply entertain and inspire. They tangibly damage our capacity to reason and lead us to unreasonably dangerous or exploitive attitudes and behaviors. And, before you ask, the answer is no. There is no equivalence between our choice to suspend our disbelief in an entertaining magic trick or ghost movie and our choice to suspend disbelief about the idea that a psychic can predict the future or that some god influences the present. We simply choose not to ruin the illusion by pulling back the curtain to expose the trick. We do not believe or tell others that stage magic is true and we certainly do not base life decisions upon a conviction that you really can saw a woman in half.

And it is often the smartest of us who are most susceptible and gullible with regard to magical thinking, and most likely to influence others. I recall when at the height of the “crop circle” craze, one network interviewed a “scientist” who had investigated the circles. He proclaimed that he had studied the markings extensively and could see no earthly method by which they could have been produced. Therefore, he concluded in stentorian tones, they could only have been created by an extraterrestrial (supernatural) force.

Of course the actual method that those guys who later came forward used was as silly as making the mini-sub disappear. But the arrogance and ego of that scientist led him to conclude that if HE could not see the trick, the only explanation must be a supernatural one. Even Sir Isaac Newton, one of humanity’s most brilliant thinkers, was compromised by similar hubris when he assumed that if HE, Sir Isaac Newton, could not explain the stability of planetary orbits, it can only mean that God must intervene.

So remember, there is always a trick, and let that certain knowledge make you more confidently skeptical regarding religious and supernatural claims, confident enough even to simply reject them out-of-hand. But yet be no less awed and inspired by the perfectly explainable but nevertheless amazing magic in the world.

For elaboration of this and further discussions about facts and belief, I refer you to my book “Belief in Science and the Science of Belief” (found here).

 

Novel Romances

RomanceNovelDo you read romance novels? If you said no, are you lying? If you said no again, are you lying about lying? Chances are pretty good that you are.

According to Nielsen statistics reported by the Romance Writers of America (see here), 13% of all adult fiction consumed are romance novels. That’s a lot of romance totaling up to over $1 billion in sales in 2013. A whopping 84% of this market are females, mostly between 34 and 55 years of age.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that men’s notions about romance are pretty juvenile. But men don’t need to snuggle under a quilt and sip wine over a romance novel to experience their romantic fantasies. Men can pretty much just go see any mainstream movie for some vicarious romantic fiction.

Male romantic fantasies are pretty simple. Whether the hero of the movie is James Bond, or a flawed hero like Wade Wilson in Deadpool, or just an extraordinarily ordinary guy like Robbie Hart in The Wedding Singer, the man is lucky enough to meet an extraordinary woman who “gets” him. She accepts his profession, she finds his jokes funny, she cares about what he cares about, she accepts him exactly as he is, flaws and all, and she adores him just like he is. Oh yea, and of course she’s incredibly sexy.

While quite similar, female fantasies differ in some essential respects. If you read any number of romance novels, you find that almost all follow the exact same formula. The woman portrayed in the story is utterly amazing but no one appreciates just how amazing she is – until that one guy comes along. He recognizes that she is one in a billion and immediately becomes so smitten that he will do anything to have her.

This guy is never just any ordinary guy. He is invariably a bad boy, a super alpha male who can have any woman on the planet he wants, who has unlimited resources and power, who is so incredibly alluring that every woman wants him, and so bad ass that every man fears him. But despite all that he only desires the heroine and is helplessly devoted to her.

She however, invariably plays hard to get – very hard to get. Whether the guy is a secret agent, a Pirate Captain, a Persian King, or an ethically compromised billionaire, the hero must overthrow civilizations, vanquish armies, forsake his fortune, suffer torture and agonies that would kill most men, even cheat death itself, before she will finally give herself to him. And most importantly, since he is a bad boy, one essential way he must prove himself to her is by giving up his bad-boy ways for her.

As one example, I recently read the Hidden Fire series by Elizabeth Hunter (see here). I was looking for a good vampire novel and didn’t realize that this was as much romance novel as gothic adventure. The central figure Beatrice was working as a bookish librarian when a dark and mysterious stranger named Giovanni enters her life. He of course turns out to be a powerful ancient vampire who immediately recognizes that Beatrice is the one woman who he must have. He then sets about battling against every incredibly hopeless adversity in order to claim her and convince her of his undying loyalty and devotion. Honesty is almost always a key obstacle in these plot lines. In this story, Gio almost loses Beatrice when he lies to her to save her life.

Don’t get me wrong, the Hidden Fire books are  well-written and I enjoyed them, but they follow the same tried and true recipe for appealing to female readers. As a guy I found myself groaning with every other paragraph reading corny lines like “Gio couldn’t keep his eyes from straying toward her ample breasts” or “the ancient vampire trembled with desire as her hair brushed past his cheek.” It all seemed just as ridiculous as gorgeous women jumping into bed with James Bond (especially since they are usually just trying to kill him anyway).

But beyond the differences in style, the key difference between guys romantic fantasies and those of women seems to be that men dream that some alluring woman will love them immediately and unconditionally or at least want them sexually. Women want the powerful bad boy to find them, to be obsessed with her, to feel that they are the most amazing woman on the planet (or the galaxy and/or of all time), to overcome insurmountable adversities to win her, to prove his honesty, and to forsake all his bad-boy ways to eventually win her over.

What these romance novels seem to echo is the reality that while both men and women desire an attractive and capable romance partner, men want a woman who will accept them as they are while women want a guy who not only accepts her as she is but is willing to fundamentally change for her. The old adage that “men want the woman they love to never change and women want to change their man into the guy they love” seems to be a universal truth in romance fiction at least.

In the final analysis, there is one element of truth from romantic fantasy that transcends gender boundaries. Men and women alike both dream of being found by someone who will love them exactly as they are. Both James Bond and Beatrice agree on this. But Beatrice would expect James to prove his love by giving up exactly the behaviors that attracted her to him.

Love has no obligation to make sense, especially in romantic fiction.

 

Addendum: I received this comment via email. It’s so good I had to add it.

Women have been changing themselves to be attractive to men for centuries.  They starve themselves, squeeze their bodies into all kinds of unnatural shapes, suppress their ambition to become equal members of society…  Maybe the reason that men don’t want their women to change is that they don’t need to – the women have already done the changing.  Maybe the men in these romance novels are attracted to those women who have already become what the men want.  And maybe the men should consider the fact that in any relationship, both parties have to make accommodations, including them.

 

Dismissed with Prejudice

ElvisDo you have one of those wacky friends? The ones with a deep, sincere, heartfelt conviction that Elvis still lives. That he is actually in seclusion preparing for his epic comeback? Busy rehearsing for the ultimate Elvis concert that will transform the world?

Your friend undoubtedly has an articulate rebuttal for every possible reason you can throw at him for dismissing the possibility that Elvis might still be alive. His death was staged. The witnesses are all in on it. The corpse in Graceland is a DNA-identical clone of him. He is being kept young by a chemical concoction that the pharmaceutical industry has suppressed.

Your friend probably turns the tables on your skepticism quite easily. How can you be so arrogant to claim to know everything? Are you that close-minded? Surely you can’t prove and therefore can’t know for certain that he isn’t still alive. If you are as scientifically open-minded as you claim you must admit some possibility that he might still be alive. Surely you can admit that reasonable people can disagree on this unless you believe he is dead purely as a matter of faith. The only intellectually honest position on this question must be agnosticism.

Your friend points to several well-regarded scientists who admit that it is possible Elvis is alive. He recommends a plethora of scholarly books that debunk all those fallacious “scientific” arguments claiming that Elvis is dead.

Or perhaps your friend has a different but similarly wacky belief that he clings to and argues for with great passion.

All that was my way of setting the stage for the real point of this article – that I do not need to read any of those books purporting to prove that Elvis might be alive. Elvis is dead. Period. Any book that starts with the premise that he may still be alive is necessarily idiotic. There is no need for me to actually read them in order to legitimately dismiss them out of hand. Good scientists dismiss an infinite number of implausible claims all the time every day.

So there is no need for me to entertain arguments about how Elvis might still be alive. And there is no reason for me to read a book that starts with the premise that Elvis is alive or the Holocaust did not happen or the Moon landing was faked or alien overlords built the pyramids. I can dismiss them all out of hand without even reading the book jacket. The only reason to read them may be if your interest is studying delusional thinking or the infection of magical thinking amongst otherwise healthy individuals.

And I have read a great many of these books that purport to present a logical or scientific argument for at least allowing the possibility that god might exist. When I wrote my book Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here) I took the time to slog through a 4-foot stack of books that undoubtedly made Amazon the lucrative enterprise it is today. It was largely a waste of time and money on my part. Believers have had two millennia to come up with arguments so there are simply no new ones to be found.

As a concrete example, I bought several books on Neurotheology (see here). I did the world a service by throwing these out rather than reselling them. Written by Andrew B. Newberg and a host of his followers, these books typically spend 250 pages citing brain imaging and cognitive studies related to belief and god. Their real goal is to establish their science creds so that you will believe them when, in the last 50 pages, they leap to outlandish claims that go something like “since we have clearly evolved to believe in god, the only conclusion must be that god himself designed us to believe in him.”

The only conclusion is that this is an idiotic conclusion. But then again what can you hope to get from any author that starts from the silly premise that god exists and works backwards?

Religious books purporting to be scientifically legitimate examinations of the “evidence” for god pop up on Amazon every day like so many weeds. I can’t read them all but I can still dismiss them all out of hand. There simply is no god, can be no god, and therefore every book claiming to argue this point is necessarily as idiotic as books arguing that Elvis is alive and well and living in a secret wing of Graceland.

And thus, dear reader, we finally reach the heart of my dilemma: Do I read these silly books and respond to them or do I simply ignore them?

Ignoring them is not easy. If no one pushes back on them, they seem to win the argument. And there are so many of them saying the same silly things that many readers mistake quantity as an indication of quality. On the other hand, the time for engaging these silly debates is over. At this stage of the atheist movement, we must move past engaging in and thereby legitimizing these ridiculous debates. We should give no more consideration to religious ideas than we do to racist ideas or homophobic ideas or sexist ideas or the idea that Elvis is amongst us.

Still it’s hard to resist getting sucked in. Recently a new book appeared on Amazon called “Can Science Explain Religion” (see here) written by a priest who is also a Professor of Religion. It apparently “debunks” the very theory of the evolution of belief that I present in my own book. Do I buy this and read it so I can credibly criticize it and defend my position, and thereby risk encouraging this nonsense? Or is it best not to even respond and hope that the rest of the country follows my sensible example?

After struggling with this dilemma for many years, I have come to believe that refusing to engage is the best strategy moving forward. Engaging in further debate with them only feeds the beast. Like booing Donald Trump at a rally.

It’s not an easy course of action nor is it without risk or criticism. But in science, we must first ask whether our basic assumptions are valid before we enter into discussions of the resulting questions. We must not let ourselves get caught up in grand debates over how Santa manages to deliver all those presents in one night when the very premise of Santa is pure fantasy.

And that is how we should respond to these books and these arguments – by dismissing them out of hand and with great prejudice and by refusing to entertain dependent arguments arising out of purely implausible assumptions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Accidental God

Copyright © 2009 by Tyson Gill

It’s amazing what a modestly industrious fellow can accomplish with a couple hundred thousand years to blow.

Aaron, Hugo, and I were making a routine freight run to our colony on RJ94b. It was a 7 year sleeper haul that didn’t require much effort on our parts; in fact I guess you could say we were more freight than crew. Aaron and Hugo were traveling to take postings on RJ94b, while I was planning to catch a hop to RJ23e to join the terraforming team there as the Principal Scientist in charge.

Just over 4 Earth years in, the onboard computer tripped the alarms, breaking our hiber. It seemed kind of cruel to wake us up as by that point there was little we could do except appreciate how fucked we were. Some uncharted anomaly had thrown us far off course and the onboard navigation computers couldn’t compensate. We woke to find ourselves hopelessly marooned in a region of space that defied identification. Without determining our location, there was simply no possibility of laying a course back.

We adjusted to our grim situation with surprising calm. No pathetic sobbing, no bemoaning rants, no desperate prayers. We had all known that 6.8% of interstellar shuttles were lost in transit. For sleeper barges like ours, the risk rose to 8.2%. There was still a lot we didn’t know about space and travel was still a crapshoot. The odds had simply caught up with us.

Survival protocols gave us only one option; one that we all knew was little more than a bit of welcome false hope. So we put the navigation computers into search mode and went back to sleep, knowing full-well that the odds of us ever again waking were minuscule.


We were astonished and unwillingly hopeful after being awakened for a second time. That groggy, giddy, euphoria only lasted long enough for us to learn the sobering truth that we had not miraculously arrived at an Earth colony. Instead, a full 26 Earth years has passed and we still had not fixed our bearings.

But ahead, not yet more than a missing pixel in the halo of a nearby star, sat a planet that electromagnetic scans showed to be Earthlike. Scientific curiosity immediately overcame our despair. What a find! What scientist wouldn’t happily give his life to be the first to explore such a world?

After weeks of careful preparation, and a frenzied review of landing procedures that were never intended to be executed, we managed to set down on a hilltop near a large body of surface water at temperate latitude. Of course the huge lumbering freighter could never move again, but dying on an uncharted planet, under a distant sun, was still far preferable to a cold, eternal sleep in dark and endless space.

We spent two days gradually throttling the engine down to a half-percent, but still capable of providing all the power we could use. The elegantly simple fusion cell had no moving parts and could operate indefinitely in idle mode, so we certainly had no worries about power. Next we spent several days reviewing the manifests and cataloguing our supplies. We had access to a hundred thousand tons of machinery and supplies designed to provide a full colony with all the materials needed to remain self-sufficient, so clearly we would want for nothing for the rest of our lives – except humanity.

Only after we had exhausted all our preparations, and repeated and rechecked them several times, did our curiosity overcome our fear enough to venture outside the ship for the first time. As we slid the small access hatch in and to the side, sunlight tinged with the slightest hint of tangerine washed over us. It was followed by a wave of cool, delicately scented air that reminded one of pine trees drenched in spring rain.

Hugo was the first to die.

We had ventured quite a distance from the ship, exploring and cataloguing the myriad of, well everything. Imagine stepping into a world where absolutely everything is brand new. Intricate new landforms shaped by processes of erosion never experienced on Earth, vegetation that had remarkable consistency of form and shape, but at the same time unlike anything back home, and diverse creatures that defied any Earthly phyla classifications.

alien-planet

Despite the strangeness of the environment, one should not overstate the differences. Perhaps far more remarkable were the similarities with Earth.  Our feet trod upon rock and soil, laden with minerals that were quite recognizable. Our arms pushed through photosynthetic fibers that were essentially grasses, shrubs, and trees. Our eyes caught glimpses of creatures that crawled, burrowed, leapt, and flew. We quickly felt quite naturally at home on this distant planet, unknown light-years from our own.

Any why should we not feel at home? We are creatures of the universe after all. Our attachment to our one little planet is merely emotional. All throughout the universe our same familiar chemistry and physics apply equally. It should come as no surprise that on many planets of similar size and distance from their sun, the same weather patterns would emerge, similar life would evolve, and those forms of life would diversify to fill all the same environmental niches; that some would photosynthesize sunlight and others would consume them.

It was perhaps because of our newfound feeling of familiarity and comfort that Hugo perished.

The tangerine sun was directly overhead, so we had spent about half of the long 37 hour day exploring around the edge of a massive swamp. We were all a bit groggy because our circadian rhythms were still stubbornly insistent upon a 24 hour day. Hugo was in the lead, as he was wont to do, barely able to bridle his energy and enthusiasm. We always seemed to be holding him up wherever we hiked.

Aaron and I looked up casually and halted. Hugo was simply gone. We stood still for the longest while, listening and looking for a sign of him, waiting for him to find us. But there was only the faint buzz and whistling of swamp insects that betrayed nothing.

Slowly, carefully, cautiously, we eventually ventured forth to find some sign of him. Suddenly Aaron stopped, wavering as if on the edge of a cliff. With a growing sickness, we pulled away the web-like vegetation that had grown over a deep fissure, stretching across the top like a net. With each tear, with each clump that dropped into the hole, sunlight streamed down to illuminate more of the bottom.

With one last rip, sunlight spotlighted the body of Hugo twisted into a tangle at the bottom of the pit. We called down futilely, even pelted him with pebbles, but he never even twitched.


The loss of Hugo left us stunned for many months (although clinging to our Earthly notion of months in our moonless environment was purely force of habit). It wasn’t just that we lost a friend and companion, but that we had lost a staggering 1/3 of our total population in an instant. It was the realization that no one would follow us. We were all there was and all there ever would be of human life on this planet, and now there was only us two.

The months drifted into years until eventually we banished all timekeeping devices into the deepest bowels of the freighter. We really didn’t want to know how much time was passing us by – it only filled us with despair to be reminded.

We went through indeterminately long periods where we never spoke. We had long since shared every possible idea we could say to each other. Every spoken thought was a tiresome repetition of what we had heard the other say a thousand times before. Each word was another excruciating drop in some fiendish water torture.

So we mechanically passed our days like mindless automations. Thinking only made us miserable. It became difficult to recognize even whether our behavior was sane. We had no social queues except from each other and we both quit caring what the other did long ago.

This total apathy made it all the more peculiar when Aaron sat down next to me one day and asked a question that was most startling in the fact that it was never brought up before.

“Do I look any older to you?” he asked quizzically.

“What?” I asked remotely, lost in my blissful thoughtlessness.

“Under your beard, you don’t look a day older than the day we landed,” he remarked. “Do I look any older to you?”

“Why should you?” I asked in return.

“How long do you think we’ve been here?” he answered with yet another question, seeming to change the subject randomly.

“I don’t want to know,” I told him dismissively.

“It’s been 73 years Earth time,” he stated flatly.

I don’t know how long it took me to assimilate that, or how long it took me to finally respond. When one has nothing but time, even answering questions doesn’t seem very urgent.

“Impossible,” I said eventually.

“I checked,” Aaron assured me. “It has been 73 years, 5 months, and 12 days.”

My inner scientist took over, my mind raced. It was faced with a contradictory set of observations that could not be reconciled without further facts.

“We have to check Hugo’s body,” I said flatly.

Aaron rose and followed me to where we had buried Hugo. Using our hands, we dug up the shallow grave and brushed away the dirt to reveal the corpse of our long-dead shipmate.

We gasped in shock.

The reason for our amazement was exactly the opposite of what one would fear beholding. His body was nearly perfect. It was like a wrinkled, deflated prune due to loss of moisture, but there was no decomposition. There was no mold, no sign that insects or worms had ever defiled the remains.

We sat back and just stared at the remarkable corpse.

“Have you ever been bitten by an insect here?” I eventually asked Aaron. “Even been bothered by one?”

“Have you had any kind of cold or flu since we landed?” he asked, not expecting any answer.


So another false assumption about alien planets was debunked. It was always thought that since humans would have evolved no resistance to alien bacteria, they would decimate any human exposed to them. It turned out to be quite the opposite for us. In our case, this alien world had evolved nothing to endanger us humans. Bacteria, viruses, insects; none of them even seemed to recognize us as living things. It appeared we were immune to any kind of infection this planet had to offer.

As to our apparent lack of aging, Aaron formed some hypotheses about that. He pointed out studies that had demonstrated that aging is largely a designed-in process that can be dramatically slowed or accelerated in response to environmental stresses. Apparently the conditions on this planet, or more precisely the lack of the factors that stimulate our aging chemistry, had essentially halted those processes.

More decades passed and the boredom increased to an almost unbearable level. We tried to remain actively engaged in farming, mechanics, music and art, yoga and meditation, and even many more esoteric pursuits. But it was a never-ending struggle just to come up with any reason to continue living.

Eventually Aaron walked casually out of the ship. Hanging at the end of his arm was a ceramic pistol. There were many such weapons crated in the hold, long given up for lost by their buyers. Occasionally we had taken them out for some recreational target shooting.

But Aaron was not planning any target shooting that day.

“Goodbye James,” he said pleasantly, pausing to give me a sincere and resolved smile before he turned to stroll into the brush. He seemed perfectly sane and lucid.

I could not find it in my heart to stop him. That would only be cruel. Who was I to selfishly insist that he remain alive only to keep me company?

Moments later, the sharp pffft of the air gun resounded across the otherwise quiet valley. The insects momentarily became silent and somewhere in the distance a flock of winged creatures took to flight.

I couldn’t bring myself to attend to Aaron’s body immediately. It would keep.


I really don’t know how much time passed before they arrived. My old notions of time ceased to have any meaning for me. Perhaps my brain had physically adapted to perceive time differently just as I had long since adapted to the 37 hour daily cycle.

Whenever it was, I sensed them approaching my valley long before they arrived. I felt their ripples. Over the uncounted years I had become intimately attuned to all the life in my valley. Every plant, every creature was my family. I watched each generation born and pass on. I knew them all as individuals, helped them. My family warned me of their coming.

Each year the creatures pressed further into my territory. I observed them carefully, first through a telescope and then through binoculars as their annual advancement brought them ever closer.

They were obviously social animals, curious like small mammals. Their family groups bonded together into a greater community. Young ones frolicked playfully but stayed protectively near their parents. Evidently the land they came from held predators which they feared.

The creatures were smooth-skinned and incredibly lithe. Dissection of some recent remains showed that their internal skeleton was composed of something as strong as bone but also extremely flexible. They made peculiar chittering noises that indicated rudimentary vocal communication. I spent my days watching them and learning their ways.

One year I finally decided to approach. They already felt like my own family, a part of my valley. My memories of Earth, even of Hugo and Aaron, were only dim and vague recollections. I recalled that I had once been to a place called Earth. I <thought> it was real, but could no longer be sure if I had perhaps only imagined it.

But the little creatures weren’t elusive memories. They were real and I yearned for them to know me as I knew them.

So each day I approached right up to the edge of their awareness, until they looked my way and chittered anxiously, and there I waited until nightfall. Sometimes I did the same at night. And each week the distance between us contracted ever so slightly.

They little creatures gave me a sense of purpose, of community, that I had never found on this world.


I don’t believe it ever actually occurred to me to play God. I never contrived to alter the normal course of evolution. It was only in my mind to help along the little creatures that I become so fond of.

It started by simply protecting them. Using the pneumatic rifles from the ship, I methodically exterminated the predators nipping at their heels and any new threats that wandered into the vicinity.

Without that pressure to migrate, they seemed content to remain in my valley. I learned their rudimentary language and ever so slowly expanded it, giving preferential care to those with the greatest aptitude.

My efforts paid off well, and each new generation was noticeably more adept with language than the one before. Eventually I began to introduce them to abstract concepts through language.

I gradually taught them how to clean their day to day wounds and how to use local plants to fight infections. Most learned quickly and those that did not learn tended not to survive as long.

Ever so slowly I managed to teach them to cultivate the insect population that they fed upon in a sustainable manner. I taught them to manage their waste and maintain their environment.

Over many, many generations I taught them to make fire and tools and to use them to char their insects so they stored indefinitely. I showed them how to cook the insects along with various plants into soups and porridges that provided better nutrition. Those that learned raised more thriving offspring.

But beyond that, I modeled social skills from the earliest days, starting with a simple demonstration of cooperation in picking parasites off their skin. Little by little, some started to teach those social behaviors to their young.

And yes, there were always some bad actors who displayed antisocial tendencies. I hated to do it, but I had to breed those behaviors out for the good of the community. Typically those individuals would just fall mysteriously dead shortly after their behaviors became evident, creating a helpful superstition that antisocial behavior caused their death…. and in fact it did.


I stepped feebly out of the ship to regard my valley under the moonless sky. My back ached from bending over my labors. I had been hard at work documenting all the technology aboard the ship in a way that my people would understand one day.

The exhausting effort left me feeling like a man of perhaps 80 or more years. It turned out I wasn’t truly immortal after all. I merely aged very, very well.

The delicate tangerine lights dotting the valley below mirrored the myriad of stars above like a clear mountain lake. It brought me great satisfaction to know that my people finally comprehended what the stars are and drew wonder from them as I did, facing  their lighting softly downward to respect grandeur of that panorama.

Some long dead nuclear engineers would have been gratified to know that after so very many years of continuous operation, their fusion cell still hummed along, despite now being powered up to 8% to supply clean energy to the growing population. Over the centuries I had to void the warranty many times over by performing unauthorized maintenance, but fortunately there were ample stores of spare parts, in fact enough to keep the generator running for another few thousand years with the aid of a bit of ingenuity and generous portion of luck.

The fusion core was buried deep within the cavernous ship, which itself was now buried under the mountain of rock forming a great pyramid that overlooked the sprawling city that lay before it. Future archaeologists might conclude that I ordered its construction to satisfy some insatiable egotism, or out of some primitive fear of the afterlife. The truth is that I ordered the century long project as a way to instill an ethic of work and pride in cooperative craftsmanship. It also served the practical function of protecting the precious space vessel and all its precious cargo from natural disasters for use by posterity.

Three million of my adopted children now live in ecologically sound habitats throughout the valleys, and more settlements swell in population all around the globe. Each year throngs leave their workplaces and schools to come to pay homage at my pyramid. I had long since given up trying to assure them that I am not their god, not their almighty father, as my protests only convince them of the contrary.

Although it was never my intent, in the end I am responsible for the selective breeding of an entire civilization of creatures that worship me. But that won’t last much longer. There are far too many for me to manage now. Already I can feel them growing into their own. Soon they won’t need me anymore. They won’t even want me around any longer. Perhaps they will rise up and kill me, to finally rip their cord from the womb of their accidental god.

On that day my work will be done.