Pharyngula

This has been really tiresome. Deepak Chopra’s endless string of ignorance is simply wearing me down, but he has declared that he has made his last post on The God Delusion. I’m sure, though, that he’ll find other things to babble about.

In this one, he claims he’s going to deal with objections that people have brought up to his previous inanity; he doesn’t, really, and the few things he does choose to highlight expose the fact that he hasn’t been listening to the criticisms. He only makes four rather incoherent points.

  1. Chopra has claimed that Dawkins believes in a purely random universe, which is complete nonsense, of course, and certainly Dawkins claims nothing of the kind. Chopra’s response is to say that “Dawkins stoutly maintains that genetic mutations are random”, which is a true, but incomplete statement, and further, Chopra seem to think that suggesting that “atoms and molecules know what they are doing” is a rebuttal, rather than evidence that he is koo-koo for cocoa puffs.

  2. Chopra thinks that when someone says God is an unnecessary hypothesis, that means they are condemning “art, music, truth, beauty, etc.” This is just stupid stereotyping on his part, in which he wrongly assumes that godlessness entails a denial of human values.

  3. His third point will leave you gawping in astonishment. He’s trying to argue that the brain is not the source of the mind, and he makes a banana argument. “I want to eat a banana, and once I do, my brain carries out the necessary action”…he’s simply asserting that the “I” precedes the biological process of the brain that generates an action, rather than considering the possibility that the “I” is also a consequence of the activity of the brain. He’s surprised at this idea: “How in the world do our thoughts manage to move the molecules in our brain?” It’s a classic example of being stumped entirely because you’ve phrased the question in an invalid way.

  4. His final point is the same old excuse of theistic apologists everywhere: that Dawkins is dealing with a crude and stupid version of religion, not the sophisticated, clever, wonderfully enlightened kind of religion he practices. Someday, someone is going to have to tell me about this brilliant version of religion, because I’ve never found it (I’ve looked), and if Chopra’s is the kind of mind that emerges from his faith, I don’t think I want any part of it.

He also asserts that materialistic science is “a model that is quickly crumbling”. He might be right in that, but only because his kind are fostering stupidity and ignorance, two properties that are antithetical to science. He seems to be proud of that, though.

Comments

  1. #1 Toivo
    December 9, 2006

    How would you (readers) or PZ react if Deepak Chopra suddenly posted a comment (and you could verify that it really was Deepak Chopra) saying:
    “Ah, now I understand the mistakes I’ve made in my thinking. I’ve been ignorant and credulous before, but thanks to PZ’s critique, I started to analyse my own statements and have completely revised my understanding of the world. So thank you PZ! I’m a skeptic and an atheist now!”

  2. #2 Gerard Harbison
    December 9, 2006

    I’d banish the unworthy suspicion Deepak had figured he could make more from atheism books than new age books, and raise my estimation of his intellect.

  3. #3 Richard Harris, FCD
    December 9, 2006

    I’d rush over to the window, looking out for a flock of flying pigs.

  4. #4 MorpheusPA
    December 9, 2006

    I would have to make certain gravity is still working. As we all know, it’s Quantum Significance and Intelligent Falling, with the grand Mind of Earth moving the molecules toward it through the action of its thoughts. God’s in there somewhere, between the gravitons.

    No doubt.
    [/snark]

    Morph

  5. #5 Moody834
    December 9, 2006

    I poo-poo on his woo-woo. The only way it gets worse is if he invokes Seth. Taking the time to read his vapid pronouncements on HuffPo is not so enlightening (it’s not enlightening at all, actually) as reading the comments to him that follow them. Seems to me that very few people who feel the urge to comment are taken by Mr. Chopra… er, Dr. Chopra? …OMGLOL. So let him have his fans. They deserve him. Nobody with any sense takes him seriously.

  6. #6 Hank Fox
    December 9, 2006

    Take heart, PZ: The first dozen or so comments (which is as far as I got) on that Chopra article are almost all critical.

    Quite a few of Deepak’s readers are pointing out how very silly what he says really is.

    Toivo: Chopra doesn’t have to become an atheist. But I would like it if he would STOP lying to and confusing people. The fact that he changes NOTHING, accepts corrective input on NOTHING, makes him look to me less like someone informing his readers with the best available information, and more like a predator bent on selling rancid schmaltz to uncritical victims.

    From the opposite direction, those uncritical many who continue to defend him, in the face of contradictory evidence and argument, look like nothing so much as members of a personality-cult.

    Sometimes even your sainted mom gets it wrong. Ditto for Deepak.

    These things DO matter.

  7. #7 Gerard Harbison
    December 9, 2006

    One more thing. As a conservative I love Deepak Chopra. Everytime I get depressed about the smothering influence of the fundie right on conservative blogs, I remind myself that the HuffPo has its own religious fruitcake, and it cheers me right up.

  8. #8 Brian X
    December 9, 2006

    Toivu:

    I’d think he was being sarcastic, welcome him to the page, and warn him not to start trolling.

  9. #9 Todd Adamson
    December 9, 2006

    How many is that? Eight? Whew, that’s got to be some sort of record for reviewing a book that you haven’t read. Hat’s off to Chopra. Most people would have been embarrassed after just three posts, but not old Deepak. Now that he’s warmed up, I’d like to see him tackle Roger Penrose’s Road to Reality.

  10. #10 Kristine
    December 9, 2006

    Deep Choak is guided by his “chicks love this $#@%&” meter. I’m sorry to say that I know a lot of women who just adore him. They love The Purpose-Driven Life too. Hard thinking and science is not for girls in their opinion, it seems. Well, I hate to go shopping, so there.

    And I hated the movie Ghost.

  11. #11 Abbie
    December 9, 2006

    Ah, I love his last point. That seems to be a really common, annoying dodge.

    I made up a silly name for it- The Lowest Common Diety. The vague, undefinable Deist God that theists seem to throw at atheists when the atheist tries to actually define God.

  12. #12 Ichthyic
    December 9, 2006

    His final point is the same old excuse of theistic apologists everywhere: that Dawkins is dealing with a crude and stupid version of religion, not the sophisticated, clever, wonderfully enlightened kind of religion he practices.

    oh YES. I truly am getting very tired of this obvious spin on the “no true Scottsman” fallacy.

    I’m seeing it everywhere these days, from both moderate and extreme religiophiles.

    the funny thing is, even with the intelligent ones, it seems not to matter how many times you point this out to them, the way they process information will apparently not let them comprehend it.

    most frustrating.

  13. #13 Daephex
    December 9, 2006

    Yeah, what’s up with religious people thinking that if you don’t believe, you have NOTHING TO LIVE FOR? I write daily about music, and volunteer my time broadcasting avant-garde sound art– not the best case for atheists “condemning” beauty, etc..

    My own common sense says that where something like truth and beauty are concerned, they’re much more valuable BECAUSE I don’t have any life but this one. This seems like such an obvious point that I have a real hard time understanding people that don’t get it.

  14. #14 bones
    December 9, 2006

    Chopra thinks that when someone says God is an unnecessary hypothesis,
    that means they are condemning “art, music, truth, beauty, etc.”

    All too often this is the viewpoint of fundies, who credit all the greatest works of the human race to the benevolence and inspiration of their “God”. When confronted with the greatest works of the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and Arabs that form the entire basis of our modern world, they really are at a loss to explain how Zeus, Jupiter, Confucius and Buddha, and the God of Islam could account for art, music, mathematics, science, ethics, law, morality, etc.

  15. #15 J. J. Ramsey
    December 9, 2006

    “His final point is the same old excuse of theistic apologists everywhere: that Dawkins is dealing with a crude and stupid version of religion, not the sophisticated, clever, wonderfully enlightened kind of religion he practices.”

    Much as I find Chopra inane, the fact of the matter is that there is a kernel of truth in this. Get this through your head. It is entirely possible for both of the following to be true:

    * Religion is 100% wrong.
    * Most criticism of religion by atheists is sloppy.

    I’d say that both of these are true. For example, Sam Harris writes in his Atheist Manifesto,

    “If God exists, either he can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities or he does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil. Pious readers will now execute the following pirouette: God cannot be judged by merely human standards of morality.”

    Um, no. That is far from the only “pirouette” that can be done or has been done. Or take this from Dawkins’ article “Gerin Oil”, “Historically, Geriniolism was responsible for atrocities such as the Salem witch hunts and the massacres of native South Americans by Conquistadores.” Dawkins is half right here. The Salem witch hunts can easily be attributed to religion, but the conquistadores were motivated at least as much by garden-variety greed. When Dawkins writes, “Gerin Oil intoxication can drive previously sane individuals to run away from a normally fulfilled human life and retreat to closed communities of confirmed addicts. These communities are usually limited to one sex only, and they vigorously, often obsessively, forbid sexual activity,” he treats a feature of some religions, such as Catholicism or some strains of Hinduism, as if it were a universal religious trait.

    What if instead Harris had written, “Pious readers may now erect a dozen different defenses. God wants us to have free will. God has a hidden purpose. And so on. Yet Occam’s Razor slices through them all.” What if Dawkins had said, “Many readers may point out–correctly I might add–that not all barbarities involving religion are really about religion. So what? The ones that are, such as the Crusades or the Salem witch trials, are plenty bad enough.” The punch of their words would remain, but their accuracy would be a heck of a lot better.

  16. #16 Dan
    December 9, 2006

    Chopra thinks that when someone says God is an unnecessary hypothesis, that means they are condemning “art, music, truth, beauty, etc.”

    All too often this is the viewpoint of fundies, who credit all the greatest works of the human race to the benevolence and inspiration of their “God”.

    I find that endlessly amusing, since most of the people who “think” that way wouldn’t recognize the “greatest works of the human race” if they jumped up and fucked them in the ear.

    Mozart didn’t write the D minor Requiem or any of his masses out of a feeling of religious righteousness, but rather out of a more-or-less constant need for additional spending cash.

  17. #17 Caledonian
    December 9, 2006

    I must say, Ramsey, you do an awfully good job of apologizing for religion. Is it possible that some awful atheists might have gotten you confused with that species?

  18. #18 Dan
    December 9, 2006

    J. J. Ramsey:

    When Dawkins writes, “Gerin Oil intoxication can drive previously sane individuals to run away from a normally fulfilled human life and retreat to closed communities of confirmed addicts. These communities are usually limited to one sex only, and they vigorously, often obsessively, forbid sexual activity,” he treats a feature of some religions, such as Catholicism or some strains of Hinduism, as if it were a universal religious trait.

    No, he doesn’t.

    “can drive” != “drives”

  19. #19 MarkP
    December 9, 2006

    “His final point is the same old excuse of theistic apologists everywhere: that Dawkins is dealing with a crude and stupid version of religion, not the sophisticated, clever, wonderfully enlightened kind of religion he practices.”

    If everyone is practicing the sophisticated, enlightened religions, why are they all still attending the crude and stupid churches?

  20. #20 Ichthyic
    December 9, 2006

    Mozart didn’t write the D minor Requiem or any of his masses out of a feeling of religious righteousness, but rather out of a more-or-less constant need for additional spending cash.

    you mean it wasn’t because Sallieri tricked him into doing it?

    *gasp*

    ;)

  21. #21 Ichthyic
    December 9, 2006

    What if instead Harris had written, “Pious readers may now erect a dozen different defenses. God wants us to have free will. God has a hidden purpose. And so on. Yet Occam’s Razor slices through them all

    …yes, you have a point, but the mere fact that you were able to correct surmise the meaning behind the quotes, and rewrite to make it more accurate from your point of view suggests that somwhere along the line, what Dawkins and Harris are saying has become clear to you.

    that also should be pointed out, I think.

    the creobots make far too many strawmen out of the words of Dawkins than are actually warranted even by the most unclear of his statements.

  22. #22 anomalous4
    December 9, 2006

    Installment #8. Hmmmmmmm. Has Deepquack’s Determined Dumber and Dumberer Dissing of Dawkins finally gotten longer than the book he’s supposedly writing about?

  23. #23 Ichthyic
    December 9, 2006

    Installment #8. Hmmmmmmm. Has Deepquack’s Determined Dumber and Dumberer Dissing of Dawkins finally gotten longer than the book he’s supposedly writing about?

    a common trend among those with nothing to say.

    just ask Ann Coulter and Jonathan Wells.

    OTOH, to play devil’s advocate on that point, it often takes pages of careful explanation to dispel one sentence of creationist drivel.

    just ask PZ.

  24. #24 Azkyroth
    December 9, 2006

    I must say, Ramsey, you do an awfully good job of apologizing for religion. Is it possible that some awful atheists might have gotten you confused with that species?

    Odd. I didn’t see any apologizing for religion in his post, just second-guessing of certain atheist arguments. Don’t we call this sort of thing a “‘circle the wagons’ approach” and complain about it when the Creationists do it?

  25. #25 John Wendt
    December 9, 2006

    Chopra says “I want to eat a banana, and once I do, my brain carries out the necessary action.”

    The psychologist Paul Bloom has an article in the Atlantic, available online, entitled “Is God An Accident?”, in which he presents the argument that religious thoughts grow out of a combination of evolved-in features of the human mind. He says

    But no scientist takes seriously Cartesian dualism, which posits that thinking need not involve the brain. There is just too much evidence against it.

    Still it feels right, even to those who have never had religious training, and even to young children. This became particularly clear to me one night when I was arguing with my six-year-old son, Max. I was telling him that he had to go to bed, and he said, “You can make me go to bed, but you can’t make me go to sleep. It’s my brain!” This piqued my interest, so I began to ask him questions about what the brain does and does not do. His answers showed an interesting split. He insisted that the brain was involved in perception–in seeing, hearing, tasting, and smelling–and he was adamant that it was responsible for thinking. But, he said, the brain was not essential for dreaming, for feeling sad, or for loving his brother. “That’s what I do,” Max said, “though my brain might help me out.” [emphasis original]

    So Chopra seems to have an appreciation of psychology worthy of a six-year-old.

  26. #26 Ichthyic
    December 9, 2006

    So Chopra seems to have an appreciation of psychology worthy of a six-year-old.

    a generally accurate synthesis of pretty much every response to his most recent post, even over at Huffington.

    …and still the man will get rich selling another 42 books no doubt, just like Coulter.

    *sigh*

  27. #27 Ichthyic
    December 9, 2006

    you are so, so sad, CW.

    all the wonders of Hawaii around you, and you waste time acting like a 2 year old in a place you are no longer listened to nor wanted.

    you’re like a drunk who got kicked out of his favorite bar, who every time he wanders by, just can’t resist sticking his head in the door.

    again, just pathetically sad.

  28. #28 Azkyroth
    December 9, 2006

    Icthyic:

    My two-year-old takes offense to that remark.

  29. #29 Ichthyic
    December 9, 2006

    my sincerest apologies to your toddler.

  30. #30 Stanton
    December 9, 2006

    I stand by my hypothesis that Deepak Chopra is being punished with disgustingly gross stupidity in this lifetime for some heinous, unspeakable crime committed during one of his previous incarnations, probably either genocide, or the founding of the Amway corporation.

  31. #31 Ichthyic
    December 9, 2006

    I stand by my hypothesis that Deepak Chopra is being punished with disgustingly gross stupidity in this lifetime for some heinous, unspeakable crime committed during one of his previous incarnations, probably either genocide, or the founding of the Amway corporation.

    I wonder if, based on his background, he would find it hard to argue with that.

    OTOH, one man’s “punishment” is another man’s Presidency.

    or massive book sale riches.

    or ministry backed by 30 million evangelical sheeple.

    ….

    at best, you would have to say he has done a good job of making his handicap work for him.

  32. #32 George
    December 9, 2006

    Deepak: But the real point is that human intelligence and creativity have to have a source. Dawkins cannot locate one; therefore the question of a higher intelligence hasn’t been resolved.

    It’s just the same old “you can’t prove God doesn’t exist” argument in a new age woo package.

    I’m particularly fond of this Deepak woo:

    “I in fact don’t believe in the existence of time. That’s one thing I have to tell you, and the other is that I don’t take myself or what I am doing seriously. I believe in the ancient saying that this is a recreational universe, for those who want to share God’s one great passion, beauty. I feel that I’m having a wonderful time. I don’t look upon any of this as work. It’s a source of great joy and happiness for me.”

    http://www.healthy.net/asp/templates/interview.asp?PageType=Interview&Id=167

    Pretty much says it all.

    Maybe he and Sean Henry should do lunch.

  33. #33 Azkyroth
    December 9, 2006

    Which reminds me. Quantum mechanics are bad news. They can’t diagnose your engine without changing the state of it, they tell you your battery is both dead and alive, and they insist they can never be certain exactly what is wrong with the car…and they still charge an arm and a leg!

  34. #34 Bobryuu
    December 9, 2006

    Why do people always twist the antropic principle as God?

  35. #35 Scott Hatfield
    December 9, 2006

    Bobryuu: “Why do people always twist the anthropic principle as God?”

    Because their understanding of the anthropic principle is consonant with their understanding of God, and because they typically lack either the context or the motivation to consider it otherwise.

    Regarding Mozart’s Requiem, I don’t think it’s that great myself….!

  36. #36 A Teapot
    December 9, 2006

    Why do all idiots seem to resort to an argument from bananas when trying to argue against atheism? See: Ray Comfort’s “atheists’ nightmare”

  37. #37 Ichthyic
    December 9, 2006

    it’s a subliminal link to their “monkeys to humans” canard.

    nothing more than that.
    I doubt they even realize why they do it themselves, most times.

  38. #38 AndyS
    December 9, 2006

    Moody834,

    Thanks for mentioning Seth. I worked with a couple back in the 70’s who were absolutely convinced Seth was a real being. Couple of the nicest people I’ve met and just plain nuts.

    PZ,

    Someday, someone is going to have to tell me about this brilliant version of religion, because I’ve never found it (I’ve looked)

    I’ve found it in a number of people of a variety faiths (including atheist). I don’t think you can gain and understanding of “this brilliant version of religion” from books or lectures or sermons any more than you can learn to play and appreciate fine music by reading about it. Essentially it’s about an attitude toward the world and a skillfulness in interacting with people. The terms “religious” and “spiritual” are typically used to describe it, and it has nothing to do with the supernatural.

  39. #39 Ed Darrell
    December 9, 2006

    Chopra seem to think that suggesting that “atoms and molecules know what they are doing” is a rebuttal, rather than evidence that he is koo-koo for cocoa puffs.

    I think you owe an apology to Cocoa Puffs lovers everywhere — and probably to Cocoa Puffs, too. Insulting them like that — and what did they ever do to you?

  40. #40 Ichthyic
    December 9, 2006

    I’ve found it in a number of people of a variety faiths (including atheist).

    *sigh*

    that mischaracterization don’t play well here, or hadn’t you noticed?

    the rest of your argument goes down from there, considering I actually took music and art appreciation courses back when i was an undergrad, and lo and behold, they did in fact tremendously increase my understanding and appreciation of those forms of expression.

    go figure, blind intuition is about as informative in music appreciation as it is in evaluating scienctific methods and theories.

  41. #41 Craig Johnson
    December 9, 2006

    “Who’s the Turkey Now”
    For science’s sake, on Thanksgiving, we called and polled 500 people who had finished eating their traditional meal within the past elapsed hour. The object of the inquiry was to tabulate how many among the qualified turkey filled population had specifically formed the thought, “I want to eat a banana.”
    It turned out that none had had any banana thoughts whatsoever.
    That in turn emboldened the rest of my clan to loudly declaim the exercise as totally mindless.

  42. #42 Ichthyic
    December 9, 2006

    and what did they ever do to you?

    I think eating excessive amounts of them as a child caused me to be misdiagnosed as having ADD (but so did the excessive amounts of capt. crunch, count chocula, quisp…), but other than that, and many cases of brown tongue, nothing.

    I agree, all negative analogy using cocoa puffs should be stricken from the record.

  43. #43 thwaite
    December 9, 2006

    In his point three, Chopped claims non-believers “are condemning “art, music, truth, beauty, etc.”. Interesting. So the beautiful tail of peacocks, maintained at considerable risk to themselves, is due to their belief in the Creator? Bowerbirds are worshiping a deity?

    In fact, as part of creating an ‘intellectually intelligible world sans Creator’, evolution incidentally explains beauty, which is fundamentally of biological origin (and pretty sexy).

  44. #44 J. J. Ramsey
    December 9, 2006

    Ichthyic: …yes, you have a point, but the mere fact that you were able to correct surmise the meaning behind the quotes, and rewrite to make it more accurate from your point of view suggests that somwhere along the line, what Dawkins and Harris are saying has become clear to you.

    Not really. What had become clear to me was that not all the things that atheists had said about the Bible were sloppy canards, and that happened because of my own stumbling research into Biblical scholarship. The one who pushed me “over the edge” was Robin Lane Fox, who wrote the somewhat sensationally titled The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, which curiously enough had been recommended by non-inerrantist or liberal Christians for being both hard-hitting but largely fair. People like Dawkins got in my way, and I had to work around them to sort out the truth.

  45. #45 Ichthyic
    December 9, 2006

    People like Dawkins got in my way, and I had to work around them to sort out the truth.

    ah, I see I was erroneously giving you credit where none was due.

    my bad.

    please, feel free to continue with your own sloppy canards, so we can feel just as free to tear them down then.

    Cale had you nailed from the start.

    My apologies for doubting his assesment.

  46. #46 Caledonian
    December 9, 2006

    If J.J.Ramsey is the same person as the jjramsey who posts on James Randi’s forums, he’s a real piece of work.

  47. #47 J. J. Ramsey
    December 9, 2006

    “Cale had you nailed from the start.”

    Cale said I was “apologizing for religion.” Now what part of learning that “not all the things that atheists had said about the Bible were sloppy canards” constitutes an apology for religion?

  48. #48 Sastra
    December 9, 2006

    Chopra wrote:

    Dawkins’ claim that God exists out of the human need for fantasy, projection, emotional satisfaction, child-like credulity, etc. In other words, an ad hominem argument is mounted against humanity in general, except for those fortunate ones among us who are rational… If we see this as a whole, we don’t have to resort to ad hominem attacks on the weak who “need” God and the strong who don’t.

    Note how Chopra tries to reframe the argument on whether God exists or not into “let’s all condemn the way atheists sneer at believers.”

    It is virtually impossible to argue for atheism without being asked to explain why, if there is no God, so many people think there is. Yet try to outline the various sources of human error and wham — the people who asked the question in the first place change focus to “look at the ad hominen attack — the atheist is saying we’re *deluded* and he’s not! That’s so arrogant…”

    Ironically, Chopra is apparently answering natural explanations for why there is religious belief with … an ad hominem attack.

  49. #49 J. J. Ramsey
    December 9, 2006

    Note how Chopra tries to reframe the argument on whether God exists or not into “let’s all condemn the way atheists sneer at believers.”

    And it doesn’t even hang together:

    Many responders wanted to assert that God isn’t necessary: tsmith writes, “I do not need to ascribe to anything other than human intellect/emotion the ability to create/appreciate literature, beauty, love, music, etc.”

    This echoes Dawkins’ claim that God exists out of the human need for fantasy, projection, emotional satisfaction, child-like credulity, etc.

    Eh, how does pointing out that humans are a sufficient cause of “literature, beauty, love, music, etc.” even connect to Dawkins supposedly claiming that belief in God exists because of various human frailties?

    Reminds me why I haven’t paid much attention to the Chopracabra. :)

  50. #50 MarkP
    December 10, 2006

    I still want to know where this “sophisticated, clever, wonderfully enlightened kind of religion” is? Do the people practicing it hang out with the people doing the super secret ID research?

  51. #51 mtraven
    December 10, 2006

    I am not sure why people feel the need to deny that there are versions of religion that are sophisticated (and do not conflict with science). Even Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins acknowledge that these exist — Harris practices Zen Buddhism, I’ve heard. They just try to draw a line so that sophisticated religious beliefs (Einstein’s, say) are not “real” religions. However, they are not in charge of what is a real religion and what isn’t.

    For instance, here is Dawkins attempting to tell Ursula Goodenough that she can’t be religious, even though she says she is, because her beliefs aren’t different enough from his own.

    Anyway — there is clearly a wide range of sophistication in religious belief systems. Maybe it’s all bullshit to you, but it cannot be denied that some intelligent people hold religious beliefs and can talk about them intelligently. (Chopra is not one of these). So the tactic of trying to lump all believers together and tar them all with the foolishness of the fundamentalists is disingenuous.

  52. #52 Scott Hatfield
    December 10, 2006

    AndyS: I’m intrigued by your comment that describes ‘the brilliant version of religion’ as “an attitude toward the world and a skillfulness in interacting with people.”

    I think you’re on to something there. There is a luminous quality I think all of us recognize in certain people which is often described as ‘spiritual’ but (as you said) is not supernatural. Carl Sagan comes to mind. Dr. Sagan was not a believer. He was committed to skeptically examining claims and cheerfully debunked pseudoscience. At the same time, he was enthralled by the Cosmos he inhabited, even reverent.

    Perhaps the ‘brilliant version of religion’ is one that tends to move away from dogmatic formalisms of all kinds into a mindset open to what the Cosmos has to tell us. It humbles me when I consider the childlike sense of wonder and enthusiasm for pursuing ‘the sacred depths of nature’ held by many of my colleagues.

    Now, that’s not the kind of thing I can put into a bottle and sell, like Deepak Chopra, but I think it is an attitude that can be cultivated by real scientists. And I don’t think it hurts to allow that attitude to emerge rather naturally from the cultural contexts (such as faith) which are consonant with that attitude.

  53. #53 C.W.
    December 10, 2006

    Maybe it’s all bullshit to you, but it cannot be denied that some intelligent people hold religious beliefs and can talk about them intelligently.

    Ok, I’ll call your bluff. Who and how, exactly?

    I’ve met quite a few intelligent theists, but none of them had anything intelligent to say about their religious beliefs. When pressed, they always retreat into some vague deism fluff. They also like to pretend there’s something sophisticated about deism. There isn’t. Deism is theism backed into a corner.

  54. #54 J. J. Ramsey
    December 10, 2006

    “I’ve met quite a few intelligent theists, but none of them had anything intelligent to say about their religious beliefs.”

    I find this is half-true. On the one hand, I can’t say that I grok those who know just how untrustworthy the Bible is and can build arguments devastating to their own faith–but still have some sort of faith. On the other hand, intelligent theists are more likely to be able to discuss bad arguments against their faith.

  55. #55 poke
    December 10, 2006

    Claiming to be religious by building an atheist straw man and rejecting it is hardly “sophisticated.” It’s closer to the category “playground logic.” That’s what Goodenough does, it’s what Rorty has been doing since his “religious turn,” it’s what all the postmodernists (such as Vattimo) do, it’s what many modern theologians do. The other category of “sophisticated” apologetics that are often alluded to (but seldom actually read) are people like Plantinga who, contrary to the popular ideal of harmless “sophisticated” religion, defend traditional forms of religion.

    Further, most lay people who say “I believe in nothing supernatural but reject atheism and consider myself ‘spiritual'” are exhibiting ignorance and (probably) bigotry, not sophistication. It’s clear that if you believe everything an atheist believes, but reject the label, you have false beliefs about atheists. Most likely you see atheists through the caricature religious discrimination of nonbelievers has built; the zealous, unfeeling, hyper-rationalist who’s unmoved by awe and incapable of appreciating beauty. That, in turn, makes you a bigot. None of this is the least bit sophisticated.

  56. #56 C.W.
    December 10, 2006

    On the other hand, intelligent theists are more likely to be able to discuss bad arguments against their faith.

    Just out of curiosity, what would you consider a bad argument? I usually stick to Occam’s Razor and refuse to let them shed the burden of proof, no matter how much they squirm and wriggle and call me arrogant/ignorant, etc. To insist on valid, positive arguments usually makes theists quite mad. At least the ones who are too educated to invoke Hovind.

  57. #57 Ali
    December 10, 2006

    Funniest post title ever, imo. I’m still laughing.

  58. #58 mlb
    December 10, 2006

    This thread proves once again the atheists/biologists complete inability to argue about existensial/philosophical matters.

    replies to PZ:

    Point 1. Chopra is correct – the universe dawkins describes is essensially random, yes true, natural selection and the laws of physics are not random, but everything else is. And the cause of a change (ie mutation) is random. Everything that follows is a result of this randomness.

    2. The energy/creativity artist put into their work is beyond the understanding of “rational” scientists. If a scientist were to dissect and analyse the meaning of say Mona Lisa he could not do it without resorting to language bordering on the spiritual/religious. Darwinism can’t ,i’m afraid, explain how this creativity came to be, or why it is there. most of them probably don’t understand the real significance of art anyway(that is, to make ordinary men see what the artist has seen).

    3.
    PZ wrote:
    “he’s simply asserting that the “I” precedes the biological process of the brain that generates an action, rather than considering the possibility that the “I” is also a consequence of the activity of the brain”

    Can’t both be true? This also borders on the question of free will. The will isn’t free if it is just a consequence of causal events.

    4. you haven’t looked good enough.

  59. #59 mtraven
    December 10, 2006

    Maybe it’s all bullshit to you, but it cannot be denied that some intelligent people hold religious beliefs and can talk about them intelligently.

    Ok, I’ll call your bluff. Who and how, exactly?

    I already cited Goodenough. The Dalai Lama also has been written a book that grapples with the intersection of science and religion and explicitly admits that science has the priority when it comes to describing the natural world.

    Those are examples of people who are intelligent, spiritual, and are completely in line with science. Then there is a whole other class of people, theologians and the like, who have grappled with religious concepts on a philosophical level. These people may be wrong but on the whole they aren’t stupid, they are just operating off of premises that are quite different from those of science.

  60. #60 J. J. Ramsey
    December 10, 2006

    C.W.: “Just out of curiosity, what would you consider a bad argument?”

    Getting either the facts or the logic wrong. It’s as simple (and complicated) as that. If you look on the BC&H forum of IIDB, you’ll certainly see some intelligent theists dealing with both good and bad arguments. Ben C. Smith and S. C. Carlson come to mind. Often there isn’t a way to tell the smart theists from the smart atheists except by their forum profiles. Another fairly good example of an intelligent theist discussing bad arguments is the guy who wrote this debunking of The God Who Wasn’t There:

    http://members.optusnet.com.au/gakuseidon/God_Who_Wasnt_There_analysis.htm

    He also hangs out on IIDB.

  61. #61 Blake Stacey
    December 10, 2006

    mlb wrote:

    Point 1. Chopra is correct – the universe dawkins describes is essensially random, yes true, natural selection and the laws of physics are not random, but everything else is. And the cause of a change (ie mutation) is random. Everything that follows is a result of this randomness.

    It’s quite a trick to say that the fundamental laws of nature are not random and then in the next breath maintain that Dawkins describes an “essentially random” universe. I’m afraid I am not familiar with this definition of the word “essentially”. You keep using it, but I’m afraid it does not mean what you think it means.

    2. The energy/creativity artist put into their work is beyond the understanding of “rational” scientists. If a scientist were to dissect and analyse the meaning of say Mona Lisa he could not do it without resorting to language bordering on the spiritual/religious. Darwinism can’t ,i’m afraid, explain how this creativity came to be, or why it is there. most of them probably don’t understand the real significance of art anyway(that is, to make ordinary men see what the artist has seen).

    First, you show your hand by referring to the totality of modern biology as “Darwinism”. This is a trick of creationist propaganda, designed to make a clash between reason and myth sound like a conflict of dogmas. You’ll get more respect if you stop parroting the propaganda line. Second, biologists have come up with lots of ways that a perception of beauty could evolve. If you read Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, you’ll find that they even have explanations of how the brain could have developed machinery for producing spiritual sensations, all based entirely upon natural selection.

    Third, it is a gross misrepresentation to say that one must resort to “spiritual/religious” language to express the feelings one has upon encountering art. When I hear Beethoven, for example, I gain a sensation of wonder and sublimity, as if frozen emotions are melting into the air and washing in waves over the shores of my consciousness. . . . Perhaps you could call my relationship to Bach and Beethoven “spiritual”, but there is no reason to call it “religious”. It has nothing to do with old men in pointy hats, with the origin of the universe, with whether or not it’s okay to eat meat on Fridays, with transubstantiation, the Trinity or even with survival after death (except in the relatively banal sense that Beethoven left such wonderful things behind after he died which the living can still enjoy). Spiritual, yes; religious, no — and it’s a fool’s game to pretend that those two realms are the same.

  62. #62 MarkP
    December 10, 2006

    No one is claiming intelligent people can’t be theists. We’re just claiming that their theism isn’t very intelligent. It all comes off as a very intelligent kid coming up with all sorts of amazingly creative and factually void rationalizations for why there could still be some kind of Santa Claus out there even though all us smart kids know there’s no way reindeer could pull a sleigh. And of course they approach no other subject this way. An atheist friend once told his religious supervisor, “If I used reasoning akin to your theology in my work product, you’d fire me”.

    Isn’t it amazing that practically no one envisions a basically malevolant god, despite an abundance of evidence to support one? Is it a coincidence that no one wants that to be the case?

  63. #63 J. J. Ramsey
    December 10, 2006

    MarkP: “It all comes off as a very intelligent kid coming up with all sorts of amazingly creative and factually void rationalizations for why there could still be some kind of Santa Claus out there even though all us smart kids know there’s no way reindeer could pull a sleigh.”

    That statement unwittingly goes to what I said about how intelligent theists are more likely to be able to discuss bad arguments against their faith. An intelligent “Santa-Clauser” would point out that Santa Claus and his reindeer are supposed to be magical, so saying that a reindeer couldn’t normally pull a flying sleigh is beside the point. Santa isn’t normal. If you want to convince this smart kid that Santa-Clausism is wrong, you are going to have to expect that any misstep on your part will be caught and even used against you, so you better make sure your own arguments against Santa-Clausism are sound.

  64. #64 Caledonian
    December 10, 2006

    Get that, everyone? The intelligent response to the argument that no amount of reindeer could pull a sleigh, much less make it fly, is to counter with the argument that they’re magical!

  65. #65 Ichthyic
    December 10, 2006

    like i said, you had JJ pinned on the apologetics from the very first.

    since you’ve seen him before, evidently, I won’t be crediting you with ESP…

    but tell us the truth, you DID have to use your magic 8 ball, right?

  66. #66 Ron Chusid
    December 10, 2006

    I have received some traffic to Liberal Values from those who read my previous comments on Chopra’s posts here. For any who might be interested, the latest is here:

    http://liberalvaluesblog.com/?p=745

  67. #67 drew hempel
    December 10, 2006

    It was claimed on the previous Deepockets post by PZ that D.H. (see how I’ve graduated from Dwoo status!) does not know about neural net logic.

    Well the central argument of “The Quantum Brain” (2001) by Jeff Satinover is based on the Hopfield Neural Network, which by the way is no different that the Tetrad or Tai Chi of natural resonance healing.

    Also for those of you who want to find out more about the “logic” to access infinite consciousness then I recommend you read “Self-Alterity” (1998) by professor Dan Zahavi or read Rudy Rucker’s visit to Kurt Godel, while Godel was practicing the Socrate self-enquiry method, (“Infinity and the Mind” by Rudy Rucker).

  68. #68 mlb
    December 10, 2006

    re Blake Staceys comments

    I said (according to dawkins) “the cause of a change (ie mutation) is random.” So you disagree?

    I am not a creationist, i don’t even live in america (thank god), where i live this topic isn’t discussed as heatedly. I am more of a sceptic, as i see it, neodarwinists make claims that are metaphysical. They are reductionists. They don’t understand (perhaps don’t want to understand) religion, and their wiew of religion is hopelessly tainted their feelings for contemporary islam and christianity.

    Chopras thougths seems largly to derive from Indian filosophy, an over 5000 years old honorable tradition that I am very fascinated by at the moment. It somewhat ridicoulus to dismiss it as fairytales and delusions, when at the heart of the philosophy you find a search for the objective truth, and methods to reach it.

  69. #69 J. J. Ramsey
    December 10, 2006

    Caledonian: “Get that, everyone? The intelligent response to the argument that no amount of reindeer could pull a sleigh, much less make it fly, is to counter with the argument that they’re magical!”

    You got it backwards. The point is that the Santa-Clauser already knows that the flying reindeer sleigh isn’t supposed to operate by the usual laws of physics, so complaining that it doesn’t operate by them is pretty useless.

  70. #70 Caledonian
    December 10, 2006

    So, complaining to a theist that their deity is logically incoherent is useless, because the theist already believes the deity is beyond normal things like paltry human logic?

    What, pray tell, is an “intelligent” argument against such faith?

  71. #71 drew hempel
    December 10, 2006

    The new discipline of “neurophenomonology” has already proven that a person’s intentions can change brain chemistry through synchrony. As Professor Johnjoe McFadden details in his book “Quantum Evolution” synchrony is what creates evolution — not randomness.

    Lutz, A. et al. (2002), ‘Guiding the study of brain dynamics by using first-person data: synchrony patterns correlate with ongoing conscious states during a simple visual task’, Proceeedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 99, pp. 1586-91

  72. #72 J. J. Ramsey
    December 10, 2006

    Caledonian: “So, complaining to a theist that their deity is logically incoherent is useless”

    Not at all, if you can demonstrate it. But the claim that something doesn’t follow the usual laws of physics is not inherently illogical.

  73. #73 mtraven
    December 10, 2006

    Poke:

    Claiming to be religious by building an atheist straw man and rejecting it is hardly “sophisticated.” It’s closer to the category “playground logic.” That’s what Goodenough does…Further, most lay people who say “I believe in nothing supernatural but reject atheism and consider myself ‘spiritual'” are exhibiting ignorance and (probably) bigotry, not sophistication. It’s clear that if you believe everything an atheist believes, but reject the label, you have false beliefs about atheists. Most likely you see atheists through the caricature religious discrimination of nonbelievers has built; the zealous, unfeeling, hyper-rationalist who’s unmoved by awe and incapable of appreciating beauty. That, in turn, makes you a bigot. None of this is the least bit sophisticated.

    This is an amazing thing to say. Goodenough writes a book describing a scientific worldview and her spiritual response to it. Because she doesn’t choose to describe herself as “atheist”, that makes her a bigot? This is the sort of thing that gives some meat to the concept of “atheist fundamentalism”. Apparently anybody who doesn’t toe the party line and use party terminology is suspect.

    If Goodenough rejects (or more accurately avoids, since she never mentions the term one way or another) the label “atheist”, it’s probably because that term has gotten linked with attacks on all manifestations of religious feeling, theistic or otherwise, fundamentalist or moderate. Lumping all religion together is an explicit tactic of people like Dawkins and Harris, so if it backfires on them I can’t see how there can be grounds for complaint.

  74. #74 poke
    December 10, 2006

    mtraven, I didn’t say Goodenough was a bigot, I said most lay people who reject the label “atheist” are probably exhibiting bigotry. I wouldn’t say they are bigots; I doubt it’s a conscious effort on their part. I would, for example, argue that the frequently heard arguments that “there has to be something more” and “I can’t believe this is all there is” are examples of straightforward bigotry. The word “spiritual” itself is a used for little more than to marginalise materialists.

    As for Goodenough, I’ve only skimmed her book, but it is, as Dawkins says, sold and presented as a religious book. The idea of “religion” is being used to mean “not the bleak outlook we would expect from atheistic scientists.” I’d say atheists are the implicit foil against which the book is written; but it’s a marginal case. Other writers who present such “religious” outlooks are more explicit.

  75. #75 mtraven
    December 10, 2006

    poke, you have an odd definition of bigotry. If someone says, “there has to be something more”, that does not really have anything to do with their personal feelings about atheists. To say that the word “spiritual” is only used to marginalize materialists is an extraordinarily blinkered view. Most people who have spiritual feelings couldn’t care less about atheists and materialists.

    How about entertaining the possibility that people who talk or write in such ways might be trying to honestly articulate their own ideas and feelings, rather than trying to attack yours?

  76. #76 anomalous4
    December 10, 2006

    Ichthyic says:

    to play devil’s advocate on that point, it often takes pages of careful explanation to dispel one sentence of creationist drivel.

    Point taken.

    one man’s “punishment” is another man’s Presidency

    So, what did we all do in a former life to be punished with the current “Presidency”?

    Ed Darrell says:

    I think you owe an apology to Cocoa Puffs lovers everywhere — and probably to Cocoa Puffs, too. Insulting them like that — and what did they ever do to you?

    Keep your blasphemous paws off Cocoa Pebbles, Cocoa Krispies, and Count Chocula too! And never, ever take the name of Lucky Charms in vain!

    Ichthyic says:

    blind intuition is about as informative in music appreciation as it is in evaluating scienctific methods and theories.

    As a sometime professional musician who’s spent quite a bit of time hanging out with composers and performing new music, I gotta disagree with you on that one. You can analyze the hell out of music and still have no idea what makes it “musical.” Music theorists make careers out of it, and most of the ones I’ve met are incredibly dull and consider it beneath them to listen to the stuff they’re analyzing – much less stoop to performing it! What they do is the equivalent of dissecting an animal in an effort to understand its behavior.

    Heinrich Schenker, the “Father of Modern Music Theory,” wrote a number of compositions of his own, and they’re some of the most boring and unmusical crap I’ve ever heard. Technicians like him follow the rules; artists bend and break them and make leaps of intuition, and as with any other art form, it’s the breaking of the rules that makes music “musical.”

    Scott Hatfield says:

    There is a luminous quality I think all of us recognize in certain people which is often described as ‘spiritual’ but (as you said) is not supernatural. Carl Sagan comes to mind. […]

    Over 25 years ago I saw Carl Sagan paired with a Bible-Banging Creationist on a TV talk show. Sagan was full of “spiritual” awe and wonder, and was positively spellbinding. The B.B.C. obviously had a soul made of pure lead and a mind to match, which made Sagan look even better.

    Over the course of the show, you could see the B.B.C. getting more and more frustrated and angry, while Sagan remained his usual unruffled self and kept coming back with facts to refute just about everything the B.B.C quoted out of context.

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson is another “public” scientist with that spiritual “oh, wow!” factor. It’s not as easy to see at first because it tends to be hidden behind the little-kid-in-a-candy-store-with-a-full piggy-bank, but when he gets going, his face lights up in a different way, and the cadence of a black preacher starts working its way in. Preach it, brother! I’m in the Amen Corner!

  77. #77 poke
    December 10, 2006

    I’m not saying they’re expressing their personal feelings about atheists. Is every case of sexism a case of expressing personal feelings about women? “There has to be something more” implies that the materialist position is lacking in some way regardless of whether you’ve given much thought to materialism. Maybe you heard the expression somewhere else and it clicked for you; I’d still say it exhibits bigotry against atheists/materialists.

    I’m sure people are trying to honestly articulate their own ideas and feelings, but they can be doing that and be marginalising atheists, just as they could be doing that and be marginalising women or minorities. Not every case of discrimination is conscious; most aren’t.

  78. #78 drew hempel
    December 10, 2006

    Well Schenker is definitely NOT the “father of modern music” or whatever. I would say Hindemith’s theory is used more than Schenker or whatever. I’m a fan of Bartok’s theory via Erno Lendvai, myself, but Lendvai is rejected outright.

    For the source of music inspiration read the book “Talks with Great Composers” and also a book from the 1950s call “The Creative Process.” The great compositions for Brahms, Mozart, etc., all come in an “instant flash” usually while just waking up or going to sleep or in some altered state of consciousness.

    In fact D. Scott Rogo focused on spiritual sound — NAM — celestial music. Sometimes this is heard in dreams by composers, and then just written down (I’ve had this happen many times and I was in the UW-Madison composition major program).

  79. #79 Blake Stacey
    December 10, 2006

    mlb wrote:

    Chopras thougths seems largly to derive from Indian filosophy, an over 5000 years old honorable tradition that I am very fascinated by at the moment. It somewhat ridicoulus to dismiss it as fairytales and delusions, when at the heart of the philosophy you find a search for the objective truth, and methods to reach it.

    Chopra’s thoughts derive from wishful thinking, cloaked in terminology of both science and “ancient wisdom” in order to give his mumblings the superficial appearance of respectability. Indian philosophy has a tradition of materialism, even atheism, running right back to the most ancient sources. Back in the Vedic ages, they took drugs to get enlightenment, too. If you really want to appreciate what those sages were going on about, I suggest you try soma.

    You profess an admiration for the Indian philosophies which sought “the objective truth”. Today, we have learned a portion of that truth. Not the entirety of it, but a respectable piece even so.

    I am more of a sceptic, as i see it, neodarwinists make claims that are metaphysical. They are reductionists. They don’t understand (perhaps don’t want to understand) religion, and their wiew of religion is hopelessly tainted their feelings for contemporary islam and christianity.

    Perhaps we are talking at cross purposes. In my book, “metaphysical” means something much like “philosophical”: thoughts you can tell are true by just thinking about them. This is not what physics, biology or any of the other sciences is about. The whole point is that we can test our ideas against the world, see how our ideas measure up, and discard the ones which fail. We extend provisional acceptance to those ideas which prove themselves against the harsh standard of reality.

    What, exactly, is “metaphysical” about the claim that our species came to be thanks to a long sequence of evolutionary steps which transpired over billions of years? Each facet of that statement can be, and has been, tested by the most rigorous experiments the human mind has been able to devise. We did not reach this truth via contemplation. Physics, chemistry and biology approach the truth using laboratory methods, observation and deduction — but the metaphysician has no laboratory. This is a crucial difference.

    It is an abuse of terminology to say that a statement becomes “metaphysical” if it attains a degree of wonder and speaks to us of beautiful things.

    I said (according to dawkins) “the cause of a change (ie mutation) is random.” So you disagree?

    Mutations are random. We cannot predict in advance when or where they occur, nor the consequences of their occurrence. However, we can say with high confidence that certain conditions will greatly raise the probability of mutation: exposure to radiation, mutagenic chemicals and so forth. We can understand the process of mutation at the molecular level, by studying how living cells build chains of DNA and learning how the process of DNA replication can go wrong. We understand mutation in terms of molecular biology, which is founded on chemistry, which in turn is based on physics.

    Mutations are the hands our molecules are dealt as they go about the game of life. But physical law is the rules by which the game is played. The former are random, the latter — at least the way we understand the Cosmos today — are not.

  80. #80 J. J. Ramsey
    December 10, 2006

    Ichthyic: “it often takes pages of careful explanation to dispel one sentence of creationist drivel.”

    A similar thing can be said about theistic arguments. The analogy isn’t exact; for example, I suggested that Sam Harris could have blunted several different theistic arguments about the problem of evil simply by appealing to Occam’s razor. However, in that case, it takes some slogging through theistic arguments to find their common weakness.

  81. #81 Caledonian
    December 10, 2006

    Not at all, if you can demonstrate it.

    ‘If’, folks, if we can demonstrate it!

    But the claim that something doesn’t follow the usual laws of physics is not inherently illogical.

    Clearly, then, it must follow unusual laws of physics. (giggle)

  82. #82 anomalous4
    December 10, 2006

    Drew Hempel says:

    Well Schenker is definitely NOT the “father of modern music” or whatever.

    I said modern music theory. That’s a whole ‘nother aminal.

    I would say Hindemith’s theory is used more than Schenker or whatever.

    Hindemith et al. started from Schenker and expanded into post-tonal theory. Regardless of what’s most widely used these days, the first formal musical analysis you’re going to run into as a student will be Schenker’s, just as thermodynamics and physics start out with massless, frictionless constructs moving infinitely slowly. Not very useful in real life, but necessary for understanding the basic concepts. Then you start playing around with the real stuff.

    The great compositions for Brahms, Mozart, etc., all come in an “instant flash” usually while just waking up or going to sleep or in some altered state of consciousness.

    Conversations (which I read a long time ago) is a fascinating book, and it bears out my point. When all the rational thought barriers are down, that’s when intuition is set free to come out and play, and that’s where “musicality” – or any other artistic effect – begins. It doesn’t just happen to the “greats” though, and not to the same degree, but it seems that most composers I’ve known have worked that way to some extent, and that’s where a lot of their best stuff comes from. The “musical sketch pad on the night stand” thing is for real. (Hey, we’re not all gifted with the ability to remember in the morning what we heard in our heads in the middle of the night. So sue us.) Huh……? whaaa………..? oh, you’re composing again………….. g’nite. =rolling over and going back to sleep=

    Gaak. All theory and no play will rot your gonads. And Schenker’s “music” still stinks! =grin=

    I think we’ve pretty much managed to leave the rest of the assembled multitude scratching their heads. Back to the business at hand…….

  83. #83 anomalous4
    December 10, 2006

    Oops, that was Talks, not Conversations. I was already in preview mode when I wrote that paragraph. It’s been along time since I read it. Gotta look of it again.

  84. #84 anomalous4
    December 10, 2006

    Gaak! I can’t bleeping type! How about: “It’s been a long time…. Gotta look for it again.”

    Having said that, I think I’ll quit for now and curl up with Ken Miller’s book and a nice cup of hot chocolate.

  85. #85 mlb
    December 11, 2006

    Blake Stacey said:

    “What, exactly, is “metaphysical” about the claim that our species came to be thanks to a long sequence of evolutionary steps which transpired over billions of years?”

    Well it happened as you say over millions of years, and for most contemporary species millions of years ago. So noone has observed it happening. And there are still many questions not solved by science. And there might be underlying causes yet to be discovered, which is what Chopra is saying. Neodarwinism is metaphysical in its claim that evolution is derived ONLY from the mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection. Impossible to know I say.

    Secondly, in science you study an occurence, take it apart and try to make it fit a theory. If it fits it is usually taken as proof of the theory. I have always been sceptical of this way of thinking since it leads to reductionism. A theory is a useful thought construction, reality it seems to me is always stranger/more varied and nuanced than the theory. I work in science myself and i see how information is often selected in order to support a certain theory. Or rather information that does not fit or does not make sense is ignored or seen as unimportant. Your claims about Indian religion is derived from selected information that fits with your worldview. Nice for you but it is not the whole picture.

    Your small lecture about random mutations corresponds to what i mean with “essentially random”.

  86. #86 Ichthyic
    December 11, 2006

    …and you shouldn’t start sentences with and.

    Neodarwinism is metaphysical in its claim that evolution is derived ONLY from the mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection. Impossible to know I say.

    based on your grand knowledge of all things testable and hypothetical, Mr. Science?

    let’s see if you made even ONE accurate statement anywhere in your ramblings…

    Well it happened as you say over millions of years

    hey, correct! you start off with the obvious..

    and for most contemporary species millions of years ago.

    *buzz* wrong. It still goes on for ALL contemporary species (including humans), as has been documented thousands of times in the literature which I’m sure you’ve never bothered to look at.

    So noone has observed it happening.

    wrong, see above. It actually is constantly being observed.

    And there are still many questions not solved by science.

    correct, but not to imply that they can’t be, as you seem to be.

    And there might be underlying causes yet to be discovered

    causes of what? if you mean mechanisms underlying the process of selection, it’s actually pretty unlikely at this point that any major new mechanisms will be discovered. currently known mechanisms pretty much explain the vast bulk of what we have observed pretty well, actually. so I’m going to mark this as incorrect in detail, and entirely superficial otherwise (of course science will always discover new mechanisms for things in general, that’s a large part of the joy of being a scientist to begin with).

    which is what Chopra is saying

    incorrect, what Chopra is saying is entirely random spewings with nothing behind it. did he propose testable mechanisms? nope. so, you are even wrong about Chopra himself.

    Neodarwinism is metaphysical in its claim that evolution is derived ONLY from the mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection

    but it doesn’t, so your argument that it’s metaphysical based on that is wrong. moreover, even IF it were the case that these two elements described the entirety of the ToE, how on earth would that be “metaphysical”? so not only are you wrong, but you don’t even understand what “metaphysical” even means.

    Impossible to know I say.

    so it’s impossible to know if your version of a strawman is a correct description of the current ToE?

    not hardly. It’s obviously wrong, and not just because “I say”.

    ok… speeding up because you obviously haven’t a clue what your on about…

    Secondly, in science you study an occurence, take it apart and try to make it fit a theory.

    wrong, and another strawman, this time of the operation of science itself (which you could easily look up).

    If it fits it is usually taken as proof of the theory.

    wrong, hypothesis testing works on trying to DISPROVE a null hypothesis, not prove anything.

    I have always been sceptical of this way of thinking since it leads to reductionism.

    both a non-sequitor, and, wrong.

    A theory is a useful thought construction

    it’s far more than that, so I’ll mark this incorrect.

    reality it seems to me is always stranger/more varied and nuanced than the theory

    if that were true, no theory would have sufficient predictive power to maintain itself, so obviously it isn’t.

    I work in science myself

    as a janitor in a lab, maybe, based on your actual knowledge of even the general scientific method, let alone any details of anything you actually posted on.

    Your small lecture about random mutations corresponds to what i mean with “essentially random”.

    no, it doesn’t. mutations are even the only causal mechanism to provide variation, and selection itself is about as far from random as you can get.

    so, let’s count up…

    I give you 1.5 correct statements, of an entirely trivial nature (evolution of humans occured over millions of years), and by my count 13 incorrect.

    you fail.

    do try to study the actual materials, and even the scientific method you purport to having knowledge of, and maybe next time you won’t embarass yourself quite so badly.

  87. #87 Ichthyic
    December 11, 2006

    change “mutations are” to “mutations AREN’T”

    yeesh.

  88. #88 Numad
    December 11, 2006

    Incidentally, it seems that several talking heads at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation are madly in love with Deepak Chopra for no visible reason.

  89. #89 mlb
    December 11, 2006

    Thanks to Ichthyic for his comments. As i said in my first post: most atheists/biologists are inable to argue about existensial/philosophical matters. Your reply is a great demonstration of this. Yes my post is somewhat inaccurate at times, but you completely fail to adress or even understand the points i make.

    re my claim “Neodarwinism is metaphysical in its claim that evolution is derived ONLY from the mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection.”

    from wikipedia:Metaphysics (from Greek: ???? (meta) = “after”, ?????? (phúsika) = “those on nature”, derived from the arrangement of Aristotle’s works in antiquity) is the branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the nature of the world. It is the study of being or reality.[1] It addresses questions such as: What is the nature of reality? Is there a God? What is man’s place in the universe?

    the philosophy of neodarwinism as propagated ba Dawkins et al. clearly make statements in this area. The essence of Dawkins argument is that evolution is a result of random mutations. Why is that so hard to agree with? Do you dislike the word random?

  90. #90 MarkP
    December 11, 2006

    Ah, so when it’s all said and done, the “intelligent theism” we are supposed to give so much respect to amounts to nothing more than the MSU method (making stuff up).

    I’m shocked. Thanks for playing.

  91. #91 dzd
    December 11, 2006

    Mutations may be random but the survival of organisms in an environment is the least random thing in the world.

  92. #92 dzd
    December 11, 2006

    And in re randomness, Dawkins himself repeats this over and over throughout his work. What a surprise, yet another creationist who only reads the strawman creationist version of evolutionary theory.

  93. #93 Steve_C
    December 11, 2006

    mlb,

    Saying that mutations are random is not the same as saying Evolution is by chance.

    Natural selection is not a chance endeavour. Beneficial mutations are carried on, nonbeneficial mutation do not survive. There’s no chance about it.

  94. #94 mlb
    December 11, 2006

    Thanks for the replies. No wonder creationism is so popular in the us, the way you argue.

    As someone else has noted, in most scientific fields being sceptical and asking questions is seen as a good thing. Not in neodarwinism though, where you are called a creationist or child abuser or worse if you express doubt.

    “Natural selection is not a chance endeavour. Beneficial mutations are carried on, nonbeneficial mutation do not survive. There’s no chance about it.”

    I don´t see your point. random mutations are still the basis of change. There is no natural selection without mutations. Mutations are random. And i know Dawkins climbing mount unprobable hypothesis. It may be some truth to it, i don´t know. But i don´t blindly accept it. And i don´t think all biological phenomena can be reduced to this model.

  95. #95 Steve_C
    December 11, 2006

    You really don’t understand the theory of evolution.

    Is rain random?

  96. #96 Steve_C
    December 11, 2006

    Geneticists wondered if the lactose tolerance mutation in Europeans, first identified in 2002, had arisen among pastoral peoples elsewhere. But it seemed to be largely absent from Africa, even though pastoral peoples there generally have some degree of tolerance.

    A research team led by Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Maryland has now resolved much of the puzzle. After testing for lactose tolerance and genetic makeup among 43 ethnic groups of East Africa, she and her colleagues have found three new mutations, all independent of each other and of the European mutation, which keep the lactase gene permanently switched on.

    The principal mutation, found among Nilo-Saharan-speaking ethnic groups of Kenya and Tanzania, arose 2,700 to 6,800 years ago, according to genetic estimates, Dr. Tishkoff’s group is to report in the journal Nature Genetics on Monday. This fits well with archaeological evidence suggesting that pastoral peoples from the north reached northern Kenya about 4,500 years ago and southern Kenya and Tanzania 3,300 years ago.

    Two other mutations were found, among the Beja people of northeastern Sudan and tribes of the same language family, Afro-Asiatic, in northern Kenya.

    Genetic evidence shows that the mutations conferred an enormous selective advantage on their owners, enabling them to leave almost 10 times as many descendants as people without them. The mutations have created “one of the strongest genetic signatures of natural selection yet reported in humans,” the researchers write.

    The survival advantage was so powerful perhaps because those with the mutations not only gained extra energy from lactose but also, in drought conditions, would have benefited from the water in milk. People who were lactose-intolerant could have risked losing water from diarrhea, Dr. Tishkoff said.

    Diane Gifford-Gonzalez, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said the new findings were “very exciting” because they “showed the speed with which a genetic mutation can be favored under conditions of strong natural selection, demonstrating the possible rate of evolutionary change in humans.”

    from this times article….
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/10/science/10cnd-evolve.html?_r=1&hp&ex=1165813200&en=459da82e1510cecf&ei=5094&partner=homepage&oref=slogin

  97. #97 mlb
    December 11, 2006

    “You really don’t understand the theory of evolution.

    Is rain random?”

    Yes and no
    It depends on what scale you are studying it, and what the randomness consist in.

    Now i´m curious what this has got to do with evolution.

    I never said that evolution is random btw.

  98. #98 Steve_C
    December 11, 2006

    Essentially random?

    The pattern of rain falling on the ground is random. The patterns of weather and rainfall are not.

    We didn’t “observe” dinosaurs either but we know they existed… evolution CAN be observed and studied just not in real time.

  99. #99 Ichthyic
    December 11, 2006

    Thanks for the replies. No wonder creationism is so popular in the us, the way you argue.

    nice bit of projection, there, but not unexpected.

    you should have quit while you were far, far, behind.

    As someone else has noted, in most scientific fields being sceptical and asking questions is seen as a good thing.

    it’s that way in ALL scientific “fields”, far be it from yourself to actually ask intelligent questions based on actual understanding of the source material to begin with.

    this further supports the idea that you were lying about being involved in any scientific endeavor to begin with.

    Not in neodarwinism though, where you are called a creationist or child abuser or worse if you express doubt.

    If I say I doubt your notion of a God because I simply don’t see a God here in front of me while I type this, would you consider that “intelligent” doubt?

    same with your “doubt”, which of course is at best based on your own army of strawmen. Again, if you really had even the slightest clue of what happens in any scientific endeavor, you would know that scientists argue about the specifics of mechanism all the time. NOBODY who has the slightest clue about evidence argues that evolution has happened, and that the current theory has excellent explanatory AND predictive value.

    I don´t see your point. random mutations are still the basis of change. There is no natural selection without mutations. Mutations are random.

    like i said, if you had the slightest clue what you were talking about, you would know that the idea of random point mutations is only one of many known mechanisms of producing variability for selection to act on, and again, selection is far from random, so stop trying to prop up your strawman.

    And i know Dawkins climbing mount unprobable hypothesis. It may be some truth to it, i don´t know.

    If you actually knew how science worked, you could easily figure out, based on your knowledge of the actual evidence out there, whether or not Dawkins analogy applies. So, my point is, if you weren’t pig ignorant, you WOULD know.

    But i don´t blindly accept it.

    nobody is asking you to. all anybody is asking you, and the rest of your pig ignorant ilk, is to actually go and read some actual published research, look at the evidence, and learn how to evaluate any scientific evidence, not just the evidence for evolution, without applying your pig ignorant filters to it. ALL ID is, is pig ignorant perceptions applied to observations without any conception of what has come before. It’s the same thinking that maintained geocentrism and flat earthism for so many centuries, until enough people finally grasped that the evidence, while not intuitive, simply did not support the idea of a flat, geostationary, geocentric earth.

    so, stop being a flat earther and actually do some research if you think yourself “associated with science” somehow.

    …or heck, just be happy staying a janitor, but STFU already, as nobody really cares what a janitor with no training in physics or biology has to say on astrophysics or evolutionary biology.

  100. #100 Ichthyic
    December 11, 2006

    evolution CAN be observed and studied just not in real time.

    this too, is incorrect. there are literally thousands of published articles detailing the observation of evolution, both in the field and in the lab, whether you want to talk about shifting of trait frequencies within a population, or even if you wish to document observed instances of speciation, using the most conservative definition you wish.

    please don’t keep repeating this without refering to exactly what you mean, as even Talkorigins is filled with articles refering to evolution in action, as you should know.

    if you mean evolution on the scale of tiktalik to modern amphibians, or the like, THEN, yes, these things take time on geoligic scales to occur, but then, that’s trivially obvious.

  101. #101 Ichthyic
    December 11, 2006

    change the second has to hasn’t:

    NOBODY who has the slightest clue about evidence argues that evolution has happened

    spell checkers don’t seem to catch these for some reason

    ;)

  102. #102 Steve_C
    December 11, 2006

    That’s what I meant. Should of been more specific. It’s obvious to me but apparently not to mlb.

  103. #103 Ichthyic
    December 11, 2006

    yes, you have to take into account just how dim his bulb really is before stating just about anything, apparently.

    cautionary note for us all, as this is exactly the kind of thing that ends up becoming quote mined by the likes of the creobots at places like AIG, and then we have to spend hours of time to patiently explain why the quote mine is wrong.

    can’t you just picture it:

    Headline:

    “Biologist says evolution currently unobservable!”

    I think you can imagine the yarn that would follow.

  104. #104 Scott Hatfield
    December 11, 2006

    If I can interject here, I believe that no one here has actually identified mlb’s biggest conceptual misstep, which is the one that leads him to emphasize the random aspect of mutation. mlb does this, I believe, because he is under the mistaken impression that all the information is in the genes.

    But this is false, of course. In addition to their genes, populations carry information which, while difficult to assess, is definitely non-genetic. As a crude example, tree rings carry information about past climatic conditions. We can even think of the genes, as Burbank suggested, as ‘frozen environment.’

    So, mlb, what say you now? (And, just out of curiousity, am I speaking to Bud Selig?)

    Randomly….SH

  105. #105 Ichthyic
    December 11, 2006

    In addition to their genes, populations carry information which, while difficult to assess, is definitely non-genetic

    …and non heritable. Which makes me wonder what it has to to with the ToE?

  106. #106 Stanton
    December 11, 2006

    Forgive me if I’m repeating what’s already been said, but…
    Mutations are random, yes, but natural selection is not.
    The two work together just like a game of poker…
    Sure, the odds of a person getting a hand of the Queen of Spades, 3 of Spades, Duece of Diamonds, 4 of Clubs, and the Jack of Hearts is astronomical, but it happens. Furthermore, while yes, one places a lot on “the luck of the draw,” it’s what one does with one’s hand that determines whether or not you win.

    Also, Scott, are you talking about taught information, like, say, the way all the squirrels in the park learn how to, then teach how to raid all of the local squirrel-proof birdfeeders, or the way organisms will store chemicals they pick up from the environment?

  107. #107 Torbjörn Larsson
    December 11, 2006

    mlb:

    I wrote this while reading the thread. Later on it become clear you can’t recognize your preconceptions so you can start to understand what science is really about and why it is not philosophy. (One would think different names for different areas would clue you in. But nooo…) But FWIW, as it is already composed:

    the laws of physics are not random

    Wrong in two senses. First, they could have been randomly set within constraints – that is one possibility in string theory, for example. Second, quantum mechanics contains genuine randomness as an immediate consequence in the theory.

    But classical deterministic behaviour follows from decoherence, and is well guarded against this randomness. The universe we observe has a lot of ordered processes.

    how this creativity came to be

    It’s effects can be observed, so it can be analyzed. And this has nothing to do with evolution, which your mislabel “Darwinism” pretend to describe.

    the question of free will

    “Free will” is folk psychology. There is no such correlate observed.

    when at the heart of the philosophy you find a search for the objective truth, and methods to reach it.

    You are woo-ed to wrong goals. The “objective truth” we know so far is facts from repeatable observations. Science works with that.

    noone has observed it happening

    This is not what observation means. An observation is something measurable, for example finding a fossil in a dateable strata, and repeatable, for example measuring a fossils characteristics or finding more fossils from the same species.

    No one observes in real time, all our observations have delays in the chain, which can go from microseconds to millions of years. For example, particle physics and astronomy are often a lot like archeology, first they amass data and later they go through the data sets after events that they are interested in at a particular test.

    As for evolution, it is of course still ongoing, and there are plenty of observations of current evolution too.

    If it fits it is usually taken as proof of the theory.

    You are forgetting that science is discarding theories by falsification and hypotheses by reductio on data. Science is more about trying to disprove than trying to prove.

    information that does not fit or does not make sense is ignored or seen as unimportant.

    I believe you are discussing modeling. Ignoring non-modeled effects is a part of that. One temporarily defer effects that the model at the moment doesn’t cover. There is no such thing as a perfect model or full knowledge.

    Unavoidable coarse-graining and errors of observations are a problem too, that is why you often see terms describing noise. Models can always be made better and remaining misfit and noise can be characterized, though. 99.8 % explanation of data (often used minimum goal in tests of physical theories, for example) is a bit better than 0 % explanation (untested preconception).

  108. #108 Torbjörn Larsson
    December 11, 2006

    mlb:

    I wrote this while reading the thread. Later on it become clear you can’t recognize your preconceptions so you can start to understand what science is really about and why it is not philosophy. (One would think different names for different areas would clue you in. But nooo…) But FWIW, as it is already composed:

    the laws of physics are not random

    Wrong in two senses. First, they could have been randomly set within constraints – that is one possibility in string theory, for example. Second, quantum mechanics contains genuine randomness as an immediate consequence in the theory.

    But classical deterministic behaviour follows from decoherence, and is well guarded against this randomness. The universe we observe has a lot of ordered processes.

    how this creativity came to be

    It’s effects can be observed, so it can be analyzed. And this has nothing to do with evolution, which your mislabel “Darwinism” pretend to describe.

    the question of free will

    “Free will” is folk psychology. There is no such correlate observed.

    when at the heart of the philosophy you find a search for the objective truth, and methods to reach it.

    You are woo-ed to wrong goals. The “objective truth” we know so far is facts from repeatable observations. Science works with that.

    noone has observed it happening

    This is not what observation means. An observation is something measurable, for example finding a fossil in a dateable strata, and repeatable, for example measuring a fossils characteristics or finding more fossils from the same species.

    No one observes in real time, all our observations have delays in the chain, which can go from microseconds to millions of years. For example, particle physics and astronomy are often a lot like archeology, first they amass data and later they go through the data sets after events that they are interested in at a particular test.

    As for evolution, it is of course still ongoing, and there are plenty of observations of current evolution too.

    If it fits it is usually taken as proof of the theory.

    You are forgetting that science is discarding theories by falsification and hypotheses by reductio on data. Science is more about trying to disprove than trying to prove.

    information that does not fit or does not make sense is ignored or seen as unimportant.

    I believe you are discussing modeling. Ignoring non-modeled effects is a part of that. One temporarily defer effects that the model at the moment doesn’t cover. There is no such thing as a perfect model or full knowledge.

    Unavoidable coarse-graining and errors of observations are a problem too, that is why you often see terms describing noise. Models can always be made better and remaining misfit and noise can be characterized, though. 99.8 % explanation of data (often used minimum goal in tests of physical theories, for example) is a bit better than 0 % explanation (untested preconception).

  109. #109 Steven
    December 11, 2006

    No god could be that powerful.

  110. #110 drew hempel
    December 12, 2006

    Randomness is out-dated but no one is surprized that PZ and his cult-followers aren’t up on the latest science:

    Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information US, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.
    All Rights Reserved

    New Scientist

    September 25, 2004

    SECTION: Features; Pg. 28

    LENGTH: 3347 words

    HEADLINE: In the lap of the gods;
    Whether you flip a coin or roll the dice, the outcome is utterly unpredictable. Or so we like to think. We rely on randomness for cryptography, engineering, physics — and to explain the workings of some ecosystems. But is it quite what it seems? In this 10-page investigation, we take a closer look at random events and the part they play in our world, from quantum theory to coincidence. Ian Stewart kicks things off with a provocative question: is randomness anything more than an invention of our superstitious minds?

    BYLINE: Ian Stewart; Ian Stewart is a professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick, UK

    BODY:
    THE human brain is wonderful at spotting patterns. It’s an ability that is one of the foundation stones of science. When we notice a pattern, we try to pin it down mathematically, and then use the maths to help us understand the world around us. And if we can’t spot a pattern, we don’t put its absence down to ignorance. Instead we fall back on our favourite alternative. We call it randomness.

    We see no patterns in the tossing of a coin, the rolling of dice, the spin of a roulette wheel, so we call them random. Until recently we saw no patterns in the weather, the onset of epidemics or the turbulent flow of a fluid, and we called them random too. It turns out that “random” describes several different things: it may be inherent, or it may simply reflect human ignorance.

    Little more than a century ago, it all seemed straightforward. Some natural phenomena were ruled by physical laws: the orbits of the planets, the rise and fall of the tides. Others were not: the pattern of hailstones on a path, for example. The first breach in the wall between order and chaos was the discovery by Adolphe Quetelet around 1870 that there are statistical patterns in random events. The more recent discovery of chaos — apparently random behaviour in systems ruled by rigid laws — demolished parts of the wall completely. Whatever the ultimate resolution of order and chaos may be, they cannot be simple opposites.

    Yet we still can’t seem to resist the temptation of discussing real-world processes as if they are either ordered or random. Is the weather truly random or does it have aspects of pattern? Do dice really produce random numbers or are they in fact deterministic? Physicists have made randomness the absolute basis of quantum mechanics, the science of the very small: no one, they say, can predict when a radioactive atom will decay. But if that is true, what triggers the event? How does an atom “know” when to decay? To answer these questions, we must sort out what kind of randomness we are talking about. Is it a genuine feature of reality or an artefact of how we model reality?

    Let’s start with the simplest ideas. A system can be said to be random if what it does next does not depend upon what it has done in the past. If I toss a “fair” coin and get six heads in a row, the seventh toss can equally well be heads or tails. Conversely, a system is ordered if its past history affects its future in a predictable way. We can predict the next sunrise to within fractions of a second, and every morning we are right. So a coin is random but sunrise is not.

    The pattern of sunrise stems from the regular geometry of the Earth’s orbit. The statistical pattern of a random coin is more puzzling. Experiments show that in the long run, heads and tails turn up equally often, provided the coin is fair. If we think of the probability of an event as the proportion of times that it happens in a long series of trials, then both heads and tails have probability 1/2 . That’s not actually how probability is defined, but it is a simple consequence of the technical definition, called the law of large numbers.

    The way coin tosses even out in the long run is a purely statistical feature of large numbers of tosses . A deeper question, with a far more puzzling answer, is: how does the coin “know” that it should be equally likely to come down heads as tails? The answer, when you look more closely, is that a coin is not a random system at all.

    We can model the coin as a thin, circular disc. If the disc is launched vertically with a known speed and a known rate of rotation we can work out exactly how many half-turns it will make before it hits the floor and comes to rest. If it bounces, the calculation is harder but in principle it can be done. A tossed coin is a classical mechanical system. It obeys the same laws of motion and gravity that make the orbits of planets predictable. So why isn’t the coin predictable?

    Well, it is — in principle. In practice, however, you don’t know the upward speed or the rate of spin, and it so happens that the outcome is very sensitive to both. From the moment you toss a coin — ignoring wind, a passing cat and other extraneous features — its fate is determined. But because you don’t know the speed or the rate of spin, you have no idea what that inevitable fate is, even if you are incredibly quick at doing the sums.

    A dice is the same. You can model it as a bouncing cube whose behaviour is mechanical and is governed by deterministic equations. If you could monitor the initial motion accurately enough and do the sums fast enough you could predict the exact result. Something along these lines has been done for roulette. The prediction is less precise — which half of the wheel the ball will end up in — but that’s good enough to win, and the results don’t have to be perfect to take the casino to the cleaners.

    When Albert Einstein questioned the randomness of quantum mechanics, refusing to believe that God throws dice, he chose entirely the wrong metaphor. He should have believed that God does play dice. Then he could have asked how the dice behave, where they are located, and what the real source of quantum “randomness” is.

    There is, however, a second layer to the problem. The difficulty in predicting the roll of a dice is not just caused by ignorance of the initial conditions. It is made worse by the curious nature of the process: it is chaotic. Chaos is not random, but the limitations on the accuracy of any measurement we can make means it is unpredictable. In a random system, the past has no effect on the future. In a chaotic system, the past does have an effect on the future but the sums that ought to let us work out what the effect will be are extremely sensitive to tiny observational errors. Any initial error, however small, grows so rapidly that it ruins the prediction.

    A tossed coin is a bit like that: a large enough error in measuring the initial speed and spin rate will stop us knowing the outcome. But a coin is not truly chaotic, because that error grows relatively slowly as the coin turns in the air. In a genuinely chaotic system, the error grows exponentially fast. The sharp corners of dice, which come into play when the perfect mathematical cube bounces off the flat table top, introduce this kind of exponential divergence. So dice seem random for two reasons: human ignorance of initial conditions as with the coin, and chaotic (though deterministic) dynamics.

    Model behaviour

    Everything I have described so far has depended on the mathematical model that was chosen to describe it. So does the randomness, or not, of a given physical system depend on the model you use?

    To answer that, let’s take a look at the first great success of random models in physics: statistical mechanics. This theory underpins thermodynamics — the physics of gases — which was to some extent motivated by the need to make more efficient steam engines. How efficient can a steam engine get? Thermodynamics imposes very specific limits.

    In the early days of thermodynamics, attention was directed at large-scale variables like volume, pressure, temperature and quantities of heat. The so-called “gas laws” connect these variables. For instance, Boyle’s law says that the pressure of a sample of gas multiplied by its volume is constant at any given temperature. This is an entirely deterministic law: given the volume you can calculate the pressure, or vice versa.

    However, it soon became apparent that the atomic-scale physics of gases, which underlies the gas laws, is effectively random: molecules of gas bounce erratically off each other. Ludwig Boltzmann was the first to explore how bouncing molecules, modelled as tiny hard spheres, relate to the gas laws (and much else). In his theory, the classical variables — pressure, volume and temperature — appeared as statistical averages that assumed an inherent randomness. Was this assumption justified?

    Just as coins and dice are at root deterministic, so is a system composed of vast numbers of tiny hard spheres. It is cosmic snooker, and each ball obeys the laws of mechanics. If you know the initial position and velocity of every sphere, the subsequent motion is completely determined. But instead of trying to follow the precise path of every sphere, Boltzmann assumed that the positions and speeds of the spheres have a statistical pattern that is not skewed in favour of any particular direction. Pressure, for example, is a measure of the average force exerted when the spheres bounce off the inner walls of their container, assuming that the spheres are equally likely to be travelling in any direction.

    Statistical mechanics couches the deterministic motion of a large number of spheres in terms of statistical measures, such as an average. In other words, it uses a random model on the microscopic level to justify a deterministic model on the macroscopic level. Is that fair?

    Yes it is, though Boltzmann didn’t know it at the time. He effectively made two assertions: that the motion of the spheres is chaotic, and that the chaos is of a special kind that gives a well-defined average state. A whole branch of mathematics, ergodic theory, grew from these ideas, and the mathematics has advanced to the stage where Boltzmann’s hypothesis is now a theorem.

    The change of viewpoint here is fascinating. An initially deterministic model (the gas laws) was refined to a random one (tiny spheres), and the randomness was then justified mathematically as a consequence of deterministic dynamics.

    So are gases really random or not? It all depends on your point of view. Some aspects are best modelled statistically, others are best modelled deterministically. There is no one answer, it depends on the context. This situation is not at all unusual. For some purposes — calculating the airflow over the space shuttle, for example — a fluid can be considered as a continuum, obeying deterministic laws. For other purposes, such as Brownian motion — the erratic movement of suspended particles caused by atoms bouncing into them — the atomic nature of the fluid must be taken into account and a Boltzmann-like model is appropriate.

    So we have two different models with a mathematical link between them. Neither is reality, but both describe it well. And it doesn’t seem to make any sense to say that the reality is or is not random: randomness is a mathematical feature of how we think about the system, not a feature of the system itself.

    Quantum roots

    So is nothing truly random? Until we understand the roots of the quantum world, we can’t say for sure. In its usual interpretations, quantum mechanics asserts that deep down, on the subatomic level, the universe is genuinely and irreducibly random. It is not like the hard-spheres model of thermodynamic randomness, which traces the statistical features to our (unavoidable) ignorance of the precise state of all the spheres. There is no analogous small-scale model with a few parameters that, if we could only see them, would unlock the mystery. The “hidden variables”, whose deterministic but chaotic behaviour governs the throw of the quantum dice, simply don’t exist. Quantum stuff is random, period. Or is it?

    There is certainly a mathematical argument to justify such an assertion. In 1964 John Bell came up with a way of testing whether quantum mechanics is random or governed by hidden variables — essentially, quantum properties that we have not yet learned how to observe. Bell’s work was centred on the idea of two quantum particles, such as electrons, that interact and are then separated over vast distances. Perform a particular set of measurements on these widely separated particles and you should be able to determine whether their properties are underpinned by randomness or in thrall to hidden variables. The answer is important: it dictates whether quantum systems that have interacted in the past are subsequently able to influence each other’s properties — even if they are at opposite ends of the universe.

    As far as most physicists are concerned, experiments based on Bell’s work have confirmed that, in quantum systems, randomness — and the bizarre “action at a distance” — rules. Indeed, so keen are they to put over the fundamental role of randomness in quantum theory that they tend to dismiss any attempt to question it further. This is a pity, because Bell’s work, though brilliant, is not as conclusive as they imagine.

    The issues are complex, but the basic point is that mathematical theorems involve assumptions. Bell makes his main assumptions explicit, but the proof of his theorem involves some implicit assumptions too, something that is not widely recognised. Tim Palmer, a meteorologist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts in Reading in the UK who trained as a physicist, has published a paper in which he explains these implicit assumptions (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, vol 451, p 585). His paper also shows that the observed properties of the quantum world are consistent with deterministic hidden-variable theories that allow only “local” influence, rather than an ability to influence systems from the other side of the universe.

    The loopholes are technical. For example, one is the implicit assumption that certain correlations between the spin states of distinct particles, computed as integrals, actually are computable, when in fact they may not be. Another is the precise role of the hidden variables, which need not be what Bell assumes. A third is that Bell’s proof involves “counterfactuals”, discussions of what would have happened if an experiment had been performed under different circumstances. There is no way to test a counterfactual, which conventionally should render it “unscientific”.

    So, despite the vast weight of opinion, the door is still open for a deterministic explanation of quantum indeterminacy. The devil, as always, is in the detail. It may be difficult, or even impossible to test such a theory, but we can’t know that until someone writes it down. It may not change quantum mechanics much, any more than hard spheres changed thermodynamics. But it would give us an entirely new insight into many puzzling questions. And it would put quantum theory back among all the other statistical theories of science: random from some points of view, deterministic from others.

    So quantum stuff apart, we can state with assurance that there really is no such thing as randomness. Virtually all apparently random effects arise not because nature is genuinely unpredictable but because of human ignorance or other limitations on possible knowledge of the world. This insight is not new. Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Man, wrote: “All nature is but art, unknown to thee/ All chance, direction which thou canst not see/ All discord, harmony not understood/ All partial evil, universal good.” Apart from the bit about good and evil, mathematicians now understand precisely why he was right.

    The law of averages

    Ian Stewart

    If you toss a “fair” coin, then in the long run heads and tails should even out. Colloquially, this fact is known as the “law of averages” and it is often misapplied, which is why statisticians acknowledge no law by that name. However, the law of large numbers provides a sense in which it is true.

    A coin has no memory: future tosses happen without any input from past ones. How, then, does the coin “know” that the numbers should even out? Many people think that if a coin has come up heads a lot more times than tails, then tails becomes more likely. (The worldly wise think the opposite: the coin is probably biased towards heads.) But fair coins can perfectly easily produce a run of heads. I once threw 17 consecutive heads with a normal coin, an event with probability 1 in 131,072.

    So you’ve got a fair coin but you have just thrown 17 heads. How does the number of tails catch up to make the proportions equal? Surely tails must now become more likely? Not so. The next toss is just as likely to produce another head as a tail, and the same goes for all subsequent tosses. In the long run, subsequent tosses should be very close to half heads, half tails. So, in 2 million additional tosses, we expect, on average, a million heads and a million tails.

    Although 17 is very different from 0, 1,000,017 is proportionately much closer to a million: their ratio is 1.000017, very close to 1. Instead of tails catching up with heads, the future tosses swamp the first few, and the longer you keep tossing the less important that initial difference becomes.

    Newspapers publish lists of how frequently numbers appear in the UK’s Lotto draws. At one stage 13 was relatively infrequent, reinforcing the view that 13 is unlucky. Some people therefore expect 13 to come up more often in future. Others think that its unluckiness will persist. The mathematics of probability, supported by innumerable experiments, says both camps are wrong.

    In future, all numbers have the same chance of being picked. The lottery machine treats all balls alike, and it doesn’t “know” what number is written on them.

    Paradoxically, that does not mean every number will turn up equally often. Exact equality is highly unlikely. Instead, we expect to see fluctuations about the average value, with some winners and some losers. The mathematics even predicts the size and likelihood of those fluctuations. What the maths can’t do is predict which numbers will be winners and which losers. In advance, it could equally well be any of them.

    Ignore the newspaper tables: they belong to a dead past and tell you nothing about what will happen in next week’s draw.

    The upside of randomness

    Ian Stewart

    Randomness is usually looked on as being a problem. Think of the effort made to remove noise from hi-fi systems, for instance. But there are circumstances in which randomness can improve performance. In 1999 David Russell, Lon Wilkens and Frank Moss of the University of Missouri at St Louis discovered that an effect of randomness called stochastic resonance can make living creatures work better. This effect was proposed in the early 1980s as a mechanism for regulating the occurrence of ice ages, but in 1991 it was realised that similar effects could occur in nerve cells.

    Russell and co-workers studied the feeding behaviour of paddlefish, which hunt plankton by detecting the electric fields the plankton emit. The researchers found that the presence of random noise in the fish’s sensory nerve cells improved its ability to detect plankton. What happens is that the noise can push the plankton’s weak electrical signals over the threshold at which the paddlefish can detect them. In effect, the noise interacts with the signal and amplifies it.

    In 2002, a team from Boston University, including James Collins and Wen Liu, found a medical application of the same effect. They showed that elderly people’s sense of touch can be improved by applying small random vibrations. It might seem that these would just confuse the tactile cells, but the opposite is true.

    There are many other ways to use randomness to advantage . Many problems in engineering and elsewhere require the optimisation of some quantity: mathematically, this is like finding the lowest point in a landscape. The obvious approach — taking the steepest downhill path — can get you stuck in valleys that are not the lowest point. Random noise can shake you out of these valleys and enable you to explore further parts of the landscape. This “simulated annealing” is a very powerful tool.

    Genetic algorithms are another example. Here, possible rules for solving a given problem are randomly cross-bred and the best performers are selected, mimicking Darwinian evolution. Many practical problems, such as the travelling salesman problem — finding the shortest route that visits a specific list of cities, or places on an electronic circuit or a microchip — can be solved very effectively using genetic algorithms.

    LOAD-DATE: September 27, 2004

  111. #111 Steve_C
    December 12, 2006

    Dwoo…. post the damn link not the whole fricking article. It’s stoopid.

  112. #112 drew hempel
    December 12, 2006

    Tht’s Clt-mstr PZ’s flt. H’s cnsrd ll my prvs ttmpts t pst lnks (cn’t s th ntrnt fr rl dlg y knw — jst lm ttmpts t crt clts).

  113. #113 Kai Terran
    December 13, 2006

    Quoting Depak:
    “Yet there is a deeper question lurking here. I may feel that I want a banana, but where did this “I” come from” Maybe it’s a delusion as some philosophers and brain scientists assert, since no once has ever found the region of the brain where the personal self resides. Even so, we don’t have to take a leap into arch materialism. Buddhists believe that the individual ego is an illusion, and this fact points them toward a universal intelligence (not a personal God) that is consistent with recent neurological findings.”

    Deepak, the illusion of an indiviudal ego does not necessarily point toward a universal intelligence. It could just as easily point to somewhere else. If someone was schooled in the practice of Pure Land Buddhism, it might point this way:

    The Thinker: Who is reciting the Buddha’s name?
    Thought: I am.
    The Thinker: Who is ‘I’?
    Thought: Wrong question. The right question is What is ‘I’?
    The Thinker: ‘I’ is a product of thought. I am the product of thought. I don’t make thoughts, but AM thought.
    Thought: Thought is generated by the brain.

    Deepak, the ‘universal intelligence’ is cunning thought spinning a new illusion.

  114. #114 Kai Terran
    December 13, 2006

    In response to posts by mlb and Deepak:

    “Life results from the non-random survival of randomly varying replicators.” This is how Dawkins summarises the theory of evolution by natural selection.

    Let me unpack that a little for you.

    For evolution to occur three factors are required.
    1. variation.
    2. selection.
    3. hereditary.

    1. Variation.
    Variation is generated randomly by mutation. This is where people get (perhaps understandably) confused. People think evolution is just about the mutation. Mutation can only explain simplie changes. Something zigs instead of zags. But thats not the whole story.

    2. Selection.
    Selection is non-random. The environment does the selection. A very simple non-biological example of how the environment can non-randomly select for and against a property. Imagine you have a bag of flour that has several cups of sand randomly distributed in it. How do you seperate the sand and the flour into two seperate piles? One way would be to use a seive. A seive lets through matter (flour for example) that is small enough to fit through the holes in the mesh. It prevents matter that is in chunks larger than the holes passing through the holes. After sifting, you have seperated the flour from the sand and have two higly ordered, non random piles.

    3. Hereditary. I won’t go into why Dawkins uses the word Replicator, though I think it is an excellent term. Do some research and I’m sure you will agree. I recommend Susan Blackmore’s ‘The Meme Machine’ for an excellent introduction the General Replicator Theory.

    The Hereditary principle is just as important as the principle of variation and selection. You really can’t understand any of the three principles without seeing how they work together. The Hereditary principle explains how non-randomly selected single mutations can ACCUMULATE over time. This concept of accumulation is really key. Billions of years of accumulating the randomly produced but non-randomly selected good changes in the recipe that develops an organism from a zygote leads to marvels such as you and me (and the rest of our cousins in the biosphere).

    I hope this has been helpful :)

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