They really are that weird

It won’t come as a surprise to a lot of you that, by their own admission, atheists tend to be neurologically atypical. This is based not only on their behavior, but on diagnostics like Asperger’s tests and other tests that demonstrate a lack of empathy. But if you need more evidence, here it is.

During an exchange on Twitter, someone questioned whether God is moral, because there is terrible suffering in the world for no obvious reason. I asked this guy to explain to those who suffer that they are going to be annihilated by Nature after this one crappy life. Because, that’s the reality if there is no God. This is how he responded:

“Sorry if you have a crappy life, but not everyone does.” And meanwhile Richard Dawkins and James Watson will enjoy their good lunch.

That’s their response to horrible suffering in the world, and it’s supposedly better than telling someone God allows suffering for reasons we don’t quite understand, but if you accept Jesus, you will have eternal joy with Him.

Bill Nye the ignorant guy

A philosophy student asks Bill Nye what he thinks about other science popularizers, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking, dismissing philosophy as unimportant:

While Nye claims in his response that philosophy raises “cool questions,” he essentially dismisses it, and in a manner that betrays an ignorance of essential Western philosophy. A writer at Quark describes his statements as “ludicrously wrong” and explains why philosophy is, in fact, relevant not only to science but to our everyday lives.

What stood out to me in Nye’s dismissal of philosophy was his skepticism of the idea that “reality isn’t real or that what you sense and feel is not authentic.” Most of us do indeed go about our daily lives on the assumption that what we sense and feel is authentic, but that doesn’t mean we can dismiss the idea that it’s all an illusion. So, why does Nye dismiss it? Because he can drop a hammer on his foot and feel the sensation of pain.

I’m a little astonished that a Science Guy would use such an example to address one of the most fundamental questions in philosophy, given that it’s not only a logical fallacy, but demonstrably, scientifically flawed. Amputees experience a sensation known as phantom pain in limbs that no longer exist, and neurological experiments have been able to create the sensation of touch by directly stimulating the brain. The sensations exist in both cases, but are those experiences authentic? Not by Nye’s definition.

I’m also a little astonished that a Science Guy would ignore one of the most fundamental scientific arguments against the authenticity of experience, which is the Boltzmann Brain idea. The Boltzmann Brain idea is a version of the brain-in-a-vat argument that has been popularized by the Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, who makes frequent use of it in debates with atheists. The idea is that in the absence of a personal entity creating the universe, it’s statistically much more likely that atoms in the universe would spontaneously arrange themselves into brains that hallucinate having experiences than that these same atoms would spontaneously arrange themselves into the vast, complex, and ordered structure we observe in the universe. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, if we are merely Boltzmann Brains, then the sensations we think we’re experiencing are nothing more than the atoms in our brains, for physical or chemical reasons, arranging themselves in a certain way that give us as a by-product these sensations. The question of whether this is the case goes beyond a simple inability to disprove it; it’s much more likely to be true if the material universe is all that there is.

The only way you can be reasonably certain that you’re not just a brain in a vat is to assume that a personal entity — God — created the universe, an assumption I’m reasonably certain Nye, the avowed agnostic, rejects. Nye is therefore entirely unjustified in dismissing the idea that reality might not be real or that experiences may not be authentic. This is why philosophers have been discussing the nature of reality and experience for thousands of years. It’s also why science could only have arisen from the Christian worldview.

Now, here’s the punchline for the agnostic Science Guy who dismisses the importance of philosophy in favor of the “realism” of science. When you understand the big questions of philosophy sufficiently well, you understand why belief in God is necessary for science to even exist.

Replay: Heroes sometimes fail: Why Stephen Hawking is wrong

Traffic’s up after the announcement of the publication of our Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum, so we’re replaying some of our more important posts from the archives for our new readers.

** Written by “Surak” **

As a human being who often struggles with relatively trivial difficulties in life, I have long felt admiration for Stephen Hawking’s courage and determination to continue working in spite of a highly-debilitating disease. As a physics enthusiast, I have the greatest respect for his accomplishments. But now, as a result of an article published in The Guardian two weeks ago [May 2011], I also feel embarrassment for, and disappointment in, Hawking. The article reported his views on religion and metaphysics — they were unoriginal, ill-informed, biased, insensitive, and even arrogant.

The article was entitled, “Stephen Hawking: ‘There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story’.” I don’t believe Hawking is capable of such an inane statement, so I attribute this bit of silliness to the reporter’s desire for an attention grabbing headline. It’s just another example of why no one can trust reporters. Unfortunately the rest of the silliness that follows is undoubtedly Hawking’s.

For example, Hawking believes the human brain is like a computer that will stop working when its components fail. This is an old and discredited view of the human mind. The brain is not like any known computer. For one thing, computers process serially, while the brain has the wonderful ability to process things in parallel. Hawking simply has the metaphor backwards, as any computer engineer struggling to make computers more like the human brain can tell you.

This simplistic view of humans can also be faulted for his apparent ignorance of the related problems of consciousness and mind/body dualism. Consciousness is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the universe, and there are no conscious computers except in movies. Since Hawking doesn’t say anything new about consciousness, his statements about the human condition are pretentious.

The dualist/monist debate about whether or not the mind and brain are the same thing has been raging for about 2,500 years. The best philosophers in the world have failed to resolve the question, something of which Hawking seems unaware, since he takes the monist side and simply dismisses the dualist view without argument. When it comes to philosophical arguments, scientists — even great scientists — need to understand that they have no special privileges.

Hawking was also reported to have said, “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” From an uninspired and misleading analogy he leaps into metaphysics with an arrogant disregard for the limitations of science. Science is the study of our material universe, and as such it can have nothing to say about heaven or the afterlife. It is destructive of science for one its best to loudly proclaim scientifically unsupportable and irresponsible conclusions.

Hawking certainly has as much right as any other person to speculate on the great questions of human existence. But, honest inquiry and open communication do not appear to be his intent. Hawking does not acknowledge his lack of expertise in these matters nor does he invite the rest of us to discuss heaven or the after-life as his equals. Instead he engages in a condescending and mean-spirited condemnation of deeply-held religious beliefs. There is no empathy for those who fear the darkness of an existence devoid of genuine love, objective moral truths, and the hope of eternal purpose. His message seems to be ‘here is the way smart people think, and if you think differently, you’re a pathetic dimwit.’

Hawking is blind to the wrong he is doing science. He reportedly told Diane Sawyer that “there is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win, because it works.” There are three parts to this statement, all of which are wrong:

  1. There are at least three relevant definitions of the word ‘authority.’ Hawking is using the word in the following sense:

    The power or right to control, judge, or prohibit the actions of others.This would be a generally accepted definition of religious authority. Hawking certainly has in mind the atheist myth that Christian leaders have over the centuries prohibited scientists in significant ways. The false allegation of Galileo’s persecution by the Catholic Church is a notable example1. The undeniable historic truth is that Christian faith and beliefs were the necessary foundation of modern science.Hawking should keep in mind two other important definitions of authority:An expert in a particular field.The ability to influence or control others.Hawking, as a renowned expert in physics, has significant influence over others — he is a scientific authority. When he uses this sort of authority to make pronouncements that go far beyond the scope of legitimate science, Hawking is the one abusing authority.
  2. I wholeheartedly agree with Hawking that science is largely based on observation and reason. So, what has Hawking observed to lead him to the conclusion there is no afterlife or heaven? Has he teleported to the far reaches of the universe? Has he managed to visit the other seven dimensions that string theory posits to exist? Has he somehow escaped the confines of our universe to see what is outside? Has he at least had a near-death experience? If his beliefs are not based on direct observation, then what exactly does Hawking’s reason tell him that has eluded so many other great thinkers before him?
  3. In what way does science work better than religion? Science gives knowledge of one kind, but it cannot give humankind a viable ethics to live by2or explain the meaning or purpose of life. The Bible does these important things for billions of people. Even for non-Christians, the dominant moral system in the world today has its roots in Christianity, which is the major reason the world has never been safer or more prosperous than it is now.Furthermore, the Bible is arguably superior to science as a source of truth about our universe. Is Hawking aware that the Bible states that the universe had a beginning3, that it was created out of nothing4, and that time in our universe is relative5? Scientists didn’t figure any of this out until the 20th century. Genesis 1 alone makes at least 26 scientifically testable statements about the creation of the universe and the origins of life. All 26 are consistent with current scientific understanding and in the correct order. The inconvenient truth for atheists is that the Bible somehow beat science to important truths by about 3,000 years.

    Science works in an important but very narrow sense — it assists humankind in understanding and controlling much of the natural world. But it also gives people tremendous destructive power. Without religion to give people direction in the choices they make about using that power, humankind could end up destroying itself.Finally, if you compare societies around the world in regard to which works best, science or religion, one fact of supreme importance will jump out at you. Generally speaking, non-religious peoples are not reproducing themselves while religious ones are. This single aspect of a society overrules all others; if a nation doesn’t reproduce itself, it is irrelevant how many other wonderful qualities it may have because they won’t be projected into the future. In the long run, atheist or secular humanist societies, no matter how scientific, don’t work because they lack the power to continue.

Hawking goes on to say that the concept of religion is in constant conflict with his life’s work — science, and understanding the most basic ways in which the universe works — and it’s almost impossible to reconcile the two. The first part of this statement is an old atheist lie: there is no inherent conflict between Christianity and science. Hawking either ignores or is ignorant of the historical fact that the Christian faith and beliefs made science possible in the first place. If you doubt this, take a look at when and where modern science developed and flourished, along with the religious beliefs of the great scientists who laid the foundations of science.

This is not to say that there hasn’t been conflict between science and religion, but it’s not the fault of Christianity. From at least the time of Darwin, secular humanists such as Thomas Huxley have misused science and misrepresented Christian beliefs in an effort to undermine the influence of Christian faith. The truth is that some scientists are in constant conflict with religion because of their atheist beliefs, and they betray science as a result.

The report reminds the public of Hawking’s position that it is “not necessary to invoke God … to get the universe going.” He has maintained this position since very early in his career, telling German news-magazine Der Speigel in 1988 that “what I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began.”

He’s not saying that he knows the cause of the Big Bang. He is saying that he has constructed a mathematical model of a possible explanation. To say something is possible is meaningless and useless. It’s possible that somewhere in the universe, blue gooses lay gold coins with Hawking’s likeness on them. Like Hawking’s statement, it’s not scientific, because no one can prove it’s not true. The other weakness of his argument against the necessity of God is that it requires the laws of nature to be eternal. They would have had to ‘predate’ the universe in some manner that can never be scientifically proved, such as the emerging atheist myth of the multiverse.

Hawking continues, “This doesn’t prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary.” Hawking is at least aware that science cannot be used to prove that God does not exist. Instead, he engages in the weasel argument that there is effectively no God since anything that is not necessary can be ignored or discarded. It’s like a child denying the necessity of parents. Child to parent: “I’m not saying you don’t exist, you just aren’t necessary. I can live without you, so just give me the keys to the house and the car along with your credit card, and go away and leave me alone.”

Scientists such as Hawking and Richard Dawkins start from a bias against God and then play in a child-like way with concepts to justify their prejudice. Just as a child cobbles together some rough approximation of an airplane out of Lego, Hawking imagines that he has constructed a viable worldview that doesn’t rest on the notion of God. But he has explained nothing and ignored almost everything of significance. He has his mathematical model of a godless universe; don’t bother him with the mysteries of what came before the Big Bang, the origins of life, the sudden Cambrian explosion of animal life, the nearly universal human need for spiritual beliefs, or the greatest mystery of all, the origin and meaning of human consciousness. He has his toy and wants to show it off.

Then Hawking says something that gives an important insight into the workings of the atheist mind. The report continues, “And it’s his work that keeps him going — even if there isn’t a heaven.” “I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.” This statement illustrates the most telling and annoying aspect of atheism: atheists seem incapable of taking any of their beliefs and reasoning to necessary and obvious conclusions. They dismiss God and the afterlife, argue that the material world is all that exists, assert that man is the measure of all things, and conclude that people can free themselves of religious restrictions and do whatever they want. If you ask them to continue with this train of thought, they usually make some kind of vague statement about a life in the service of humankind and the possibility of a kind of immortality in the sense that society will remember a person’s good deeds ‘forever.’

The problem, of course, is that it is delusional nonsense. What any good scientist should know is that our material universe is very likely heading toward what is called heat death, a state in which energy no longer exists in a form that can support life. But even before this occurs, the human species will have become extinct anyway. What is the point of doing anything in this life when you will be annihilated in the blink of a cosmic eye followed in short order by the rest of humankind? If atheists really believed this, they would either commit suicide or become Buddhist monks. But the vast majority of them continue to act as if human existence has some kind of meaning greater than that of their material state. If Hawking is right about God and the afterlife, every trace of humanity will be destroyed, all of Hawking’s work will be lost, and every effort he makes will be futile.

What he is really means when he says he is in no hurry to die is that he values his existence and he wants to keep on existing. He feels he has purpose, but he does not wonder where that purpose could possibly come from. He’s not thinking his own position to its logical end, which is that without God his existence is pathetically finite and ultimately meaningless. He says there is no God, but acts as if there is.

Interestingly, Hawking has also made headlines in recent years over his views about the existence of aliens, and what interactions between our races would be like. “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans,” he said.

Here we detect the pessimism that will always be a result of atheism (as well as a lack of imagination based on what little he thinks he knows about the past). Without God and the hope for the redemption of humankind, he has no reason for optimism, no belief that things will work out better in the future than in the past. Christians believe this because they believe that good is stronger than evil, that by following God’s direction people can always triumph over evil, and that good therefore must be the future of humankind. That’s why, for instance, evangelical Christians, not atheists, put an end to the worldwide slave trade; that’s why Christians, not atheists, marched into horrendous Civil War battles singing, “He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,” and ended slavery in America.

In spite of all this, I still believe Stephen Hawking is a hero. He has persevered with a debilitating disease and done tremendous work in theoretical physics. But what do you do when a hero lets you down? There’s a line from the Gordon Lightfoot song, “If You Could Read My Mind,” that goes “The hero would be me. But heroes often fail …” That’s what I think about Stephen Hawking. When it comes to religion and metaphysics, he has failed, but he is still a hero in a way that does not diminish the meaning of the word.

I came to believe in God because of what I learned about the universe. I had the good fortune not to go to Oxford and be saturated with humanist bias against the “God hypothesis.” When I look at the structure of the universe and life on Earth, I see evidence of a great mind at work. I am sorry for Hawking that he can’t.


[1] Dinesh D’Souza provides a succinct reopening of “the Galileo Case” in Chapter 10 of What’s So Great About Christianity.

[2] Not that atheists haven’t tried. See Vox Day’s review of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris.

[3] Genesis 1:1.

[4] Genesis 1:1. See Gerald Schroeder’s explanation of the significance of the word “create” in The Science of God (pp 143-144).

[5] Psalms 90:4.

Mapping the human brain

Scientists are making strides in their understanding of how the human brain is wired, but given its complexity they’ve still got a long way to go:

Among the most complex structures in the universe, the average brain contains about 100 billion specialized cells called neurons—as many cells as stars in the Milky Way— linked by 150 trillion or so connections known as synapses. By current means, it could take researchers years to trace the 10,000 or so synapses that branch from just a single neuron. By comparison, the scientists who sequenced the first human genome had to map only three billion base-pair sequences of DNA.

Where in this structure will consciousness be found? It’s one of the greatest mysteries of existence.

This is Surak’s field of interest, but my thought on this is, as we improve our ability to build sophisticated machines and other functioning things, we’re producing closer approximations of what already exists in nature. Someday in the far future, when we’ve constructed the perfect machine, I think we’ll be shocked to discover that all we’ve managed to do is recreate the human body.

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Heroes sometimes fail: Why Stephen Hawking is wrong

Please excuse the inactivity of the last few weeks. I was busy with extensive travel and work, but am now back to posting on a regular basis. The biggest story to emerge while I was away concerned Stephen Hawking’s comments about the non-existence of heaven and the nature of the human brain. I asked Surak to write a response to this, since he has a particular interest in the monist vs. dualist argument. – Ed.

** Written by “Surak” **

As a human being who often struggles with relatively trivial difficulties in life, I have long felt admiration for Stephen Hawking’s courage and determination to continue working in spite of a highly-debilitating disease. As a physics enthusiast, I have the greatest respect for his accomplishments. But now, as a result of an article published in The Guardian two weeks ago, I also feel embarrassment for, and disappointment in, Hawking. The article reported his views on religion and metaphysics — they were unoriginal, ill-informed, biased, insensitive, and even arrogant.

The article was entitled, “Stephen Hawking: ‘There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story’.” I don’t believe Hawking is capable of such an inane statement, so I attribute this bit of silliness to the reporter’s desire for an attention grabbing headline. It’s just another example of why no one can trust reporters. Unfortunately the rest of the silliness that follows is undoubtedly Hawking’s.

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Nerve cells link up through tiny tubes

The affinity of nerve cells for exploring tiny tubes could lead to futuristic neuroscience developments:

Nerve-cell tendrils readily thread their way through tiny semiconductor tubes, researchers find, forming a crisscrossed network like vines twining toward the sun. The discovery that offshoots from nascent mouse nerve cells explore the specially designed tubes could lead to tricks for studying nervous system diseases or testing the effects of potential drugs. Such a system may even bring researchers closer to brain-computer interfaces that seamlessly integrate artificial limbs or other prosthetic devices.

The technology required to interface the brain with a computer is apparently still a long way off, but every step in the right direction counts. (Unless of course this is one more step toward a Borg future, in which case prepare to be assimilated.)

Separating philosophy from science

** Written by “Surak” **

An article appeared several months ago in the Daily Telegraph with the headline, “Neuroscience, free will and determinism: ‘I’m just a machine.’” It describes how a British neuroscientist, Professor Patrick Haggard, found that magnetic fields can be used to affect a person’s brain and exert some small degree of control of his body without touching it in any way. The magnetic field is created by a device held close to a person’s head; a technique he calls “transcranial magnetic stimulation.” Although the amount of ‘control’ he was able to demonstrate was only the waggling of his index finger and the twitching of a hand, it was a wonderfully original experiment that sparks the imagination with intriguing visions of further research and possible cures.

Unfortunately the article wasn’t about the scientific possibilities. The researcher chose instead to make wildly speculative philosophical statements in the guise of science:

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