Friday, 29 February 2008

Baby scheme stands brain scan test

cute pup
According to Konrad Lorenz, the human reaction to "cuteness" is innate, triggered by a set of body proportions that he dubbed baby scheme (Kindchenschema): Big eyes, big head with small nose, chin and ears, rounded shape, short extremities. The reaction "so cute" is released immediately, by an instinctive reaction, as Lorenz stated.

His theory has resisted an attempt of falsification just recently: At Oxford University, the brains of adults have been scanned by magnetoencephalography (MEG) while they looked at pictures of unfamiliar babies and adults. Within a seventh of a second, baby face viewing produced a clear signal in a region of the front part of the brain that has been linked to reward behaviour. Viewing adult faces did not produce such a reaction. For rejecting the Lorenz baby scheme hypothesis, the delay time should have been much longer, and the reaction should have taken place in other regions of the brain. Thus, the Lorenz hypothesis still can be upheld.

In some way, it is also my hypothesis. My choice of studying ethology in the past seventies has been strongly influenced by Konrad Lorenz books. He also led me to the philosophy of Karl Popper and the idea that falsification rather than verification is the basis of science. About thirty years ago, Konrad Lorenz visited our institute of Ethology and Wild Animal Biology at Zurich University, and I shook hands with this great pioneer.

There are dark sides of this personality, as you may know and as I am fully aware. But today cuteness rules, and there is no need for ad hominem remarks here. The cuteness hypothesis, for sure, has changed my life. So I am quite happy that it has survived the test.

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Thursday, 28 February 2008

Nordic freedom when Thor ruled

Viking woman
There is only one reasonable way of judging religions: How do they influence the behaviour and the ethical (humanistic) standards of people? Of course, religious people claim a second way, truth. But the truth content of all human religions is equal, that is zero, when measured against standards of scientific knowledge.

This is how women have dressed at the times of the old Vikings, when Thor ruled in Scandinavia. Their gown has been made of one piece of fabric, with an opening in front. The breasts were accentuated by two clasps. In other words, Viking women liked to show what they had, according to new research done by Annika Larsson, University of Uppsala, Sweden.

What a contrast against the veiled muslim women of today. When we look at their bitter fate contrasting to the lives of the proud old Viking women, the judgment of religions must be clearly in favour of Thor. Let's suppose for a moment that the Vikings would have conquered Arabia and installed the religion of Thor there. Let's suppose that the oil sheiks would be Thor adepts still today. You can be sure that 9-11 never would have happened.

Another monotheistic religion has been the end of the sexy open gowns and breast clasps: They have been banned after the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity.

Photo credit: Annika Larsson

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

A reborn baby rapist

A barrel of hydrochloric acid has been found in the cellar of a house owned by the successful Swiss computer entrepreneur René Osterwalder. In 1993, he was arrested in Amsterdam for planned abduction of children. Videos have been found, showing him abusing babies in an extremely cruel way. Policemen who had to look at these videos needed psychological support for debriefing. The hydrochloric acid, obviously, had been purchased in order to dissolve the dead bodies of the babies after their planned abuse and murder. Osterwalder was sentenced to 17 years of prison in 1998. Recently he has asked to be released because he had converted to God.

Soon after his conviction, Osterwalder claimed to have converted to Jesus. In prison, he spent whole days praying and reading the bible. He even spread his thoughts online, on a website that has been taken down meanwhile. I have found a blurred screenshot where I managed to read the following navigation bar entries (translated from German):
"Do you believe that God exists? One man, two lives, and God. My experiences with God. My salvage by Jesus Christ. My first 6 years in prison. My arrest. My crimes. (...) My sexuality. My youth. My life at one glance."

Perversions of a religious "big loser"

In a big loser diet contest, the winner must be as slim as possible, but this is not enough. Before starting the diet, he must have been as fat as possible. It is the change that counts, not the end result.

Osterwalder, it seems to me, is someone who sees his crimes mainly not as what they are, cruelties to defenseless babies that nearly have killed them. He sees them as opportunities to become a big sin loser. Instead of suffering from his character, he has found a way to feel as a hero. This is disgusting. He only sees himself, which is best illustrated by the constant "my, my, my ..." on his former website.

Unfortunately, he has managed to be featured on the Swiss website He has managed that this site uses his story to illustrate the "power of Jesus", in a complete disproportion. On this Christian site, he is a story, the poor babies are not.

Religion as danger to humanism

Osterwalder's plea for release has been rejected, fortunately. But it is noteworthy that a convicted criminal tries to use religion to escape from punishment. Hopefully, he will stay in prison or other closed institutions for his whole life.

Another danger is the fact that the alleged inner change is not home-grown from a self-responsible being but is the result of a weak character's submission and obedience to rules that come from outside. To rules that are not kept because they are good but because the Bible tells us so. A weak character will be submissive as long as he profits from it, and he may change his mind on next best occasion.

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Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Religion is mental horror vacui

horror vacui
Nature does not fear empty space. So why should we fear empty space in our knowledge? I think that mental fear of vacuum is as unjustified as fear of vacuum is unreal in the physical world. Last week I have shown why I see gaps in knowledge not as a weakness but a strength of science. In contrast, religious people seem to suffer from a mental fear of vacuum. That is, all gaps in knowledge must be filled at any price.

Horror of vacuum, horror vacui in Latin, has first been postulated by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. He thought that nature had a horror of empty space. Empty space thus would try to suck matter in. This theory has been held for more than a millennium until Torricelli detected air pressure in the seventeenth century. Today we know that most part of the Universe is empty space. Nature, had it feelings, would be quite happy with it.

In mind, horror vacui may have two different meanings: Fear of gaps in knowledge or inner emptiness caused by a missing sense of life. Religion may fill gaps of both kind. The second kind has been the idea behind a film by Rosa von Praunheim.

Horror vacui - the film (1984)

The title of this film is derived from the inner emptiness of its characters, misleading them into the clutches of a sect. Its guru is Madame C, teacher of a cult called Optimal Optimism. Many fall for her, politicians as well as housewives, even children. Two of the protagonists are students and a painter. Rumours spread about terror in the inner circles of the sect. The film ends with a raid. The police rushes into the house and finds all sect members dead after a mass suicide.

With this film, Rosa von Praunheim, a German gay activist, has won the Independent/Experimental Film and Video Award 1985 in Los Angeles.

Praunheim's film plot is a very special and bizarre case, but I think the idea is fundamental. I think that every religion is an attempt to overcome a mental horror vacui.

Mental horror vacui as essential condition of religion

Lino Sanchez, author of the freethought site, has compiled a vast collection of quotes to support this view. He concludes:
"All the Gods of Homo sapiens (erectus, et al.?), including the famous Gods of the Greeks, the reported 1200 deities of the Romans, the Gods and God of the Jews and Christians, Jesus Christ, other myths, folklore (Bibles, etc.), have been and are, 'stuffing' for mental horror vacui."

What about philosophy and science?

Of course, not only religion but also certain schools of thought in philosophy and science seem to be powered by mental horror vacui. Qualia is a good example of a concept that serves no other purpose than filling a vaccum in the understanding of the world. The monads of Leibniz, three hundred years ago, are another example of philosophical horror vacui.

Isn't science with its eagerness to explain everything not just another example of mental horror vacui? Is it different from religion in this respect?

I think it is different. Whereas religions must fill the mental vacuum at any price, using gods and other stuffing material, science just tries to construct useful theories that grow into the empty space, but never filling it completely. There is always enough empty space left for more and better theories.

Horror of no space left

Just imagine that the dream of total knowledge would have come true: All would be perfectly known, there would be not the least trace of empty mental space. This would also mean the heat death of science. No need to learn new things. Pure horror, if you ask me.

I think that we should be happy with all the mental gaps that offer us opportunities to fill them with new knowledge.

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Monday, 25 February 2008

Refutation of Mary's room thought experiment

white square

Fix your gaze on the small mark in the center of the image, from a distance of about 25 cm or 10 inches. Keep fixing for two minutes as steadily as possible. Close your eyes and cover them with your palms. Watch the development of after images in the dark for about two minutes. Explanation: See below.


Are there such things as qualia? Those properties of things that cannot be described in physical terms, for instance the perceived "redness" of a tomato? The impression of "red" inside of us cannot be described by reflected wavelengths nor by monitoring the electrical activity of retina and brain cells.

I agree that the subjective impression of redness is something fundamentally different from anything that can be objectively measured. Yet I have my doubts whether the term qualia is useful at all. Its existence isn't falsifiable, therefore it cannot be of any use in the scientific understanding of the world.

Mary's room

As a defense of the qualia concept, several thought experiments have been designed. One of them is Mary's room, proposed 1982 by Frank Johnson:
Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. [...] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?
A refutation

As a brilliant scientist, Mary, in her black and white room, certainly would have performed the experiment above, gazing at a black and white pattern. Closing her eyes, she would have perceived first a dark red square surrounded by very light green as an after-image in the dark. Later, yellow and blue sensations can be perceived. From her perfect knowledge of retina cells, she would know that the delay in sensitivity is different for rods and for the cones tuned to different colours. Thus, after being over- or understimulated by white light or by dark areas, the retina cells would produce coloured after-images in a certain order. She would figure out that the dark red after-image square is caused by the same wavelength as is reflected by a tomato in a dark shadow. Thus, before ever stepping out of her room, she would have a perfect knowledge of the redness of a tomato.


Mary would learn nothing in the world outside what she didn't know already in her black and white room. Therefore, this experiment doesn't say anything about qualia.

It is no viable objection to state that Mary shouldn't be allowed to perform certain experiments. Every limitation would destroy the thought experiment as such and would make its conclusion meaningless.

On the other hand, Mary must have a healthy retina, capable of colour vision, because she needs it when stepping out of her black and white room.

I have not been a qualia fan before I tested the experiment that I would propose to Mary. Now, after having seen the outcome, I am even less so.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Doubt is a strength, not a weakness

Karl Popper
I am just about to finish a bout of theism vs. atheism blog reading. You can find such debates ad nauseam all over the blogosphere. I don't know how you feel after having read such stuff. My impression is that such debates are a clash of two completely different modes of thought. It is a clash between those who claim to know the truth and those who claim to know what not (yet) has been falsified. This difference is fundamental. And I have the impression that most debaters are not aware of it.

My mode of thought is based on Karl Popper's critical rationalism. This view, in very brief, states that all explanations of the world, such as scientific or philosophic theories, only can be falsified and never can be proven to be true.

Doubt is not a weakness. Doubt is our strongest tool in gaining more knowledge about the world. Doubt is the motor of scientific progress. Without doubt, we still would believe that Earth is flat and roofed by a huge dome with holes in it that give view to the bright light of the Universe.

Doubt is the wind that separates the wheat from the chaff. And the wheat that remains is only an interim selection because a part of it may be blown away with the next gust of wind. With every gust of doubtful wind they survive, the remaining grains gain more value.

The quality of claims

In other words, the quality of any claim relies on the number of failed attempts to falsify it. The more such attempts it has survived, the more reliable it is. The claim that Earth is a sphere has survived many round trips and space flights. Thus, it is pretty reliable. But research has also shown that our planet is not exactly a sphere but only approximately so. This shows another strength of doubt: Theories can be refined and overhauled.

Evolution is another pretty good example. In bacteria, evolution can be observed as a fact. Some strains formerly killed by some antibiotics now survive because a resistance has evolved. This is a fact and cannot be disputed. The explanation - Darwinian evolution theory based on mutation and selection - is not a fact or truth but a hypothesis, a theory. It never can be "proven to be true", according to the rules of critical rationalism. But it has survived thousands of attempts to falsify it up to now. I conclude that evolution theory is quite a strong theory.

In comparison, the claims of theism are much weaker. They did not pass one single attempt of falsification because they are not falsifiable as a matter of principle. In my view, it is quite adventurous to build one's whole philosophy of life on a claim that is not falsifiable. In other words, on a weak claim.

Only one valid answer of theism

Theism apologetics can only claim critical rationalism not to be the appropriate way of looking at things. This ends the dispute. Theism can only be challenged by applying critical rationalism. If someone decides to step outside this frame of thought, all arguments become invalid and irrelevant. And this, I think, is what happens in the theism vs. atheism debates all the time.

Freethought is the absolute contrary to dogmatism. It is the freedom of everybody to think his or her own way. If theists reject the philosophical basis of science, it is their freedom. It is a valid answer of theists to state that they don't look at things the scientific way. This also means that there is no common ground for a dispute. And this in no way is a counter-argument against any scientific claim or theory.

Invalid answers of theism

A common mistake of theists is the refutation of claims that science has not made. For instance, they may "prove" that evolution theory is not "true". Yes, right, it is not a truth. It is a theory. It is open to doubts. And this, see above, is not a weakness but a strength of the theory.

Another misconception of theists is their view of gaps. Gaps in knowledge are seen as a weakness of science, but this is based on the false assumption that the goal of science is the absolute positive knowledge of all things. On the contrary, gaps are the free space where the tree of knowledge can grow. Gaps are the raw material of falsification and therefore a vital element of critical rationalism. See also my earlier remarks on the gap filling fallacy.

All invalid counter-arguments of theists have one feature in common: They do not accept the rules of the game. They leave the playground of critical rationalism. They fight science on a field where it never has been and never will be. It would be more helpful first to agree on the rules of the dispute, not starting until these have been settled. And I guess many disputes between theists and atheists never would have come to a start under this condition.

Photo credit: Amazon

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Free will is deciding to have it

Free will seems to be paradox because it is an achievement of mind and mind is a function of the brain and the brain is a complex system of nerves and nerves consist of molecules and these of atoms whose behaviour is determined by chemical and physical processes. These processes are fully determined by the conditions of the environment, that is, by temperature, pressure, gravitational forces, electrical forces, presence and absence of other substances. All is determined on the level of physics and chemistry, leaving no room for such a thing as free will.

This is paradox because we feel inside of us that we have a free will. Whoever wants to keep this feeling alive and well must solve the paradox. And this can be done without resorting to a mind outside of matter idea. An extremely narrow view leads to paradoxes even in the material world.

Zeno's arrow paradox

The ancient Greek philosopher Zeno has tried to "prove" that a flying arrow is not in motion. Look at the arrow at a given moment of time. Just before this moment, the arrow has been in a different place, and the difference seems to show that it is moving. But the moment before is no longer reality, it has passed away. The arrow is only existing in the present, at this very moment. Just after this moment, the arrow will be in a different place but this moment has not yet arrived, it is not real. Thus, the present is a point of time without any dimension, and without dimension, there can be no movement. Thus, the arrow is not moving.

The refutation needs some basic math. Speed can be calculated by dividing distance by time, and it is not allowed to divide by zero.

But can this analogy be used to refute the free will paradox? The common fallacy may be this one: Looking at infinitely small dimensions and trying to use them to figure out the behaviour of larger systems. You cannot predict the shape of ice flowers by looking at single water molecules. You cannot predict singing dunes by looking at single grains of sand. And you cannot predict the behaviour of mind by looking at single brain cells. One of the reasons may be the butterfly effect that is responsible for sudden changes in the system - changes that cannot be predicted.

Two directions of view

But I don't think that the narrow view fallacy as described above can solve the free will paradox. It may be part of the solution, but the dichotomy of subjective versus objective view may be even more important.
  • The objective view: Looking at the brain, its nerve cells and molecules, or at the behaviour of persons.

  • The subjective view: Looking at one's own sensual impressions, feelings, and thoughts.
There is no doubt that both views are directed to the very same things, yet they are fundamentally different. My joy of life, my pleasure, my sensual and intellectual experiences, my good feelings when reached a goal, and much more of this kind is what counts most for me. I am aware that all this is only possible with a complex biological machine called brain, and that every thought of mine is somehow caused or made possible by bio-chemical processes.

So what?

As long as the machine works well, I do not care. I'll try to keep it in good shape, by enjoying life, reading, blogging, playing chess, discussing with friends, and much more. But I don't feel that I am just the machine and nothing else.

Nor do I feel that I am a mix of drives, compulsions, desires, cravings and the like that completely guide me, up to my moral decisions. Again, such a narrow view on single mind elements may be as fallacious as doing the same in the material world, see above.

It is up to me

It is up to me whether I want to see myself as a person with a free will or as a sort of bio-robot. I freely decide to have a free will. Nobody can take this away from me.

You may challenge this by stating that this decision has been caused by some constellations of molecules in my brain. Feel free to do so. Your direction of view is from outside, looking at me as an object. My view is from inside, looking at me as a subject. There is no contradiction in both views. I accept both as equally true, but I think living with a free will is more fun.

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Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Atheist view of Oser's religious stages theory

Fritz Oser
Two weeks ago I had an interesting dispute with my daughter who has a scientific degree in therapeutic pedagogy. She said that my atheism be also a religious belief, and she even assigned this belief to stage three in a theory of her professor, Fritz Oser at the University of Fribourg (now retired). He is a doctor multi honoris causa, and his theory on the religious stages is seen as his magnum opus.

Of course I rejected the idea of viewing atheism as a religious stage. Religion is not a universal mode of thinking. Religion is a very old and I would say primitive form of philosophy. There are also non-religious philosophies. Atheism is not a very useful term because it implies only a non-belief in God or gods which leaves a huge number of possible philosophies or thinking modes. Atheists can be rational scientists as well as magic-prone believers in spiritual woo-woo. Atheists even can be adepts of a religion, for instance Buddhism.

My daughter claimed that Oser's religious stages theory is based on empirical studies. Okay, the dispute ended at this point because I didn't know the theory nor the studies. Needless to say that I googled the professor and his theories. Here is what I have found. He has published his findings and theories together with Paul Gmünder who obviously lent his first name to a dilemma that has been used in research.

The Paul Dilemma

Oser and his co-workers presented the following story to kids and young people of various ages: "Paul is in a plane that is about to crash. He vows to God that he will devote his whole life to humanitarian work in Africa should he survive. He survives and is offered a well-paid job in a leading hospital. Should he go for a brilliant career or to Africa?"

Here is my answer. Paul should be aware that he is victim of a post hoc fallacy. He may think that his vow is the reason he has survived. But both incidents have nothing to do with each other. They are not correlated. If he gains insight in the psychological mechanism triggered by panic and fear of death, he may come to the conclusion that his vow is nothing that should be relevant for his life. If he is strongly religious, the situation may be different for him. Not for me, but for him. So I would give him the advice to take a decision he can live with, for the rest of his life.

Answers and stages

And now let's turn to typical answers given by the subjects in Oser's study. It is quite telling how Oser categorizes them, showing that his thinking is based on theism which I consider a weakness in an otherwise very interesting theory.
  • "Paul must keep his promise, otherwise God will make him sick." This is a typical answer of 5 to 7 year old children. Stage 1.

  • "God has helped Paul, so now it is up to Paul to help God." This is a typical answer of 11 to 13 year old children. Stage 2.

  • "It is up to Paul to decide what is best for him, this has nothing to do with God." This also includes "there is no God" (atheism) and is typical for adolescents and young adults. Stage 3. See my answer above.

  • "God wants Paul to decide on his own free will, according to his best knowledge and belief." This is an answer from a "mature adult religiosity", according to Oser. The two views that have separated in stage 3, God and reality, converge to a grand unified view of ultimate things and reality. Stage 4.

  • There have been no answers that could be classified as stage 5. This stage, according to Oser and Gmünder, is a universal perspective: Persons at this stage accept that there is no universal truth, and that religion X can be as true to person A as religion Y is true to person B. They both are true in a higher sense, just as light can be seen as waves or particles which both can explain the outcome of experiments. For some experiments, waves are better, and others can better be explained with particles. I am not sure whether this example is Oser's but I have found it in a dissertation on his theory.
Critical appraisal

Stage 3 is the crucial point in Oser's theory. At this stage, persons become aware of the fact that religion cannot explain the complex reality of the world. In fact, religion seems to have not the slightest influence on what happens. For those still believing in God, a split between the real and the religious world occurs. Atheism is often, but not necessarily, a consequence.

Oser has been criticized by theologians for his wide concept of religion, he even seems to view atheism as a special form of religious belief. I must support the theologians for once, definitely rejecting the religious label of atheism.

This and other serious weaknesses of the stage model could have been avoided just by giving it a different name. Why not philosophical stages? Or stages of moral decisions? Or stages of ethical thought?

Oser seems to dismiss the further development of the atheist side after the split of stage 3. They are thought to stay there forever whereas only the "religious" people manage to proceed to higher stages. This is a serious pro-theism bias.

A stage model of atheism?

This said, I cannot help being fascinated by the stage model as such. I have the impression that some kind of stages can be identified in atheism, too. I even would agree that the first two could be the same primitive (or fundamentalistic) stages as in the Oser model - theism as a precursor of atheism. The third stage, deconversion from faith, is characterized by a distinctive split. Atheists of third stage will often dispute theists and accuse the negative aspects of religions. Atheists of fourth stage will be less angry and more trying to make sense of their lives, the non-religious way. In my model, I would classify myself here.

Is there a fifth stage? Possibly it may be one that looks for common traits of good living in any philosophy or religion, as long as the view is guided by principles of humanity. But I have rather the impression that Oser's fifth stage is just an artifact of the fixation on religiosity - he never has observed it in his surveys. But the inter-religious question of truth has nothing in common with the question of truth in science vs. religion.

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Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Humanist Symposium at Café Philos

Café Philos
Paul, at his Café Philos blog, writes about values, spirituality (uh!), sexuality (wow), politics, religion, poetry, and offers us his late night thoughts and other interesting stuff, showing an open mind.

He is host of the 15th Humanist Symposium and presents a selection of top ten humanist posts - a post of mine has made it, too. Moral and ethics is the main theme of this issue, and I particularly liked a post refuting the claim that only atheists can be moral. I very much agree and would like to add that we atheists should avoid a "religious" kind of reasoning.


Monday, 18 February 2008

Greta Christina and her sexy freethoughts

Greta Christina
When I started this blog, among many other things, a blogroll has been on my to-do list. My first idea about such a thing is quality over quantity. You know how huge the blogosphere is and how short my sidebar. The second idea was transparency, letting my readers know why I put a blog on my blogroll. All blogs I put there must be so good that they deserve a review post. And here we are.

I never was in doubt which of all those great blogs in the atheosphere, freethinkosphere and humanosphere should open my blogroll: Greta Christina. The reason is that puzzling feeling of familiarity whenever I read one of her pieces. Something like can she read my thoughts? Of course there is nothing of such mind-outside-of-matter nonsense, but it seems that we share some modes of thinking and looking at facts.

One of the pieces I like very much is one I came across when dealing with a non-religious view of death and coping with death: Comforting thoughts about death that have nothing to do with God. I wish I had written this, really. I like her witty style of writing, her brilliant creativity shown in such pieces as Oscarology. I also like the scientific sharpness of her reasoning. She has no scientific degree but writes as if she had one.

And, last but not least, she is the host of 85th Carnival of the Godless which comes in a "dirty version" illustrated with lots of erotic pulp fiction covers, and a "clean" version with pics that are more earnest but less fun. I have the honour of being included: As far as I can tell from my hits analytics, the hot version is preferred by readers with a ratio of 9:1, and the "hot" visitors spend more time on my post. So I think I may be on the right track.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Butterfly effect and the Universe

butterfly effect
Thirteen point seven billion years ago, according to our best knowledge, the Universe has been a very very hot soup of energy in a rapidly expanding space, then basic elementary particles of matter formed, such as quarks, gluons and leptons, forming a plasma. This extremely hot particle soup was not homogenous; for instance, matter prevailed over antimatter, and larger particles such as atoms formed. This asymmetry can be seen as a result of a butterfly effect on subatomic level: Very small variations in the conditions lead to very large changes in the system. Without such an effect, atoms, stars, planets, and living organisms never would have evolved.

It is very interesting that this effect can be seen on all levels of energy and matter. Every human being owes his existence to a whole cascade of butterfly effects: Just suppose some time traveler would have delayed the moment of your conception by only a second, or the ejaculation of your father would have been a bit less lusty because of a negative thought, or your mother would not have enjoyed an orgasm because thinking of the unpaid rent, then you never would have existed because, in your place, another person would have been begotten.

Or imagine a person killed in a car, crashing into a tree. The tree has grown from a seed that was dropped by a bird. The seedling was about to die but then an earthworm loosened the soil, so the roots found sufficient nutrition, and the tree grew up. Then, twenty years later...

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Thursday, 14 February 2008

Listen to the singing dunes!

Yesterday, dealing with the scientific secrets behind sand, I have come across a natural wonder that has not yet been fully explained: singing sand dunes. Enjoy!

In brief, sand dunes, under certain conditions, emit a roaring sound that can be heard in a mile's distance. It is not the wind but the sand itself, pushed by the wind over the dune crest and flowing down at the lee side. The sand does not flow in a steady stream but in sort of a stop-go motion that produces a sound of about a hundred hertz. In one of the Wikipedia links this is shown in a slow motion video.

There are scientific explanations for it, but still disputed and not yet fully understood. There may be gaps in knowledge but one thing is for sure: It is nothing supernatural, nothing that requires a non-material world to explain it. There are no singing ghosts in the dune. It is the pure matter that produces the sounds.

Just take a hand full of sand, and apply all science on it, everything from atomic physics via chemistry up to such experiments as shooting sand jets on targets. You never will be able to predict such a thing as singing dunes. Why? Because the properties of a sand dune cannot be predicted from the properties of the sand grains.

I think that we can learn something from this example when it comes to life, evolution and intelligent design. It is about what we think matter is capable of doing. Singing dunes show that the simple matter of sand is capable of producing sounds. Organisms show that complex matter is capable of life. ID people have the idea that matter is too simple, without surprising properties, and that life must have been created by an intelligent being. Maybe they should dig for music instruments in the singing dunes.

Related post: Test your sense of natural wonder (about ice flowers).

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Are we all made of sand?

sand dunes
Sand is a fascinating matter. When densely packed, sand can be solid as a rock. Add a bit moisture and you can make sculptures out of sand. But sand can also behave like a liquid. The change between the two states can be very abrupt and is not yet fully understood.

Recently, at the University of Chicago, physicists have shot a stream of glass beads on a small coin-like circular surface. The glass beads swash away in the manner of a liquid, forming a bell-like hollow cone structure. Just the same can be seen when the water jet from a hose hits a small surface, for instance a finger tip, at a certain speed. As soon as the right speed is reached, the bell-like structure forms. Every child has seen it when playing with water.

The interesting point of the Chicago experiment is its purpose. It has been designed in order to simulate findings of an experiment with subatomic particles. We all are made of atoms, and all atoms are made of quarks. Thus, we all are made of quarks.

At the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), quarks have been shot with near light speed on a gold surface. The researchers expected the quarks to behave like a gas but were very surprised to see them form a bell-like liquid structure as if they were a water jet hitting a coin.

Quarks are thought to be particles, and this led to the idea of the sand analogy. Sand can exist in all three states of matter: solid as sandstone, liquid as quicksand and gaseous as standstorm. The Chicago experiment has shown that sand particles, under certain conditions, behave just like the quarks at the RHIC.

The idea that we may be made of something like sand is fascinating because of its sudden changes and non-steady behaviour. I guess that such chaotic elements, butterfly effects on subatomic levels, are the reason why life has evolved.

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Tuesday, 12 February 2008

A prize question

The German Academy of Journalism poses a prize question: "Wozu noch Zeitungen?" - Wherefore still newspapers? Interesting question, and of a kind that I like. That is, a pragmatic question. Sort of take it, test it, and have a look whether the world is still the same after you remove it. Sort of freethought, this time not concerning religion.

Therefore, today, I prefer not to write about the logic of satanism. This must wait because I have to deal with the question of what newspapers can do that other media can't do. Can you kill a fly with a cellphone or a laptop? This is, of course, only 1.6 percent of my answer, and the rules of the contest forbid me to give any more hints.

The first prize is two thousand Euros, the second is a thousand and the third is five hundred. I'm doing it for fun, not for the money. But some nice cash would be fine, though. Wish me luck.

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Monday, 11 February 2008

The logic of sin

In every religion with an all-powerful and all-good God, a huge cognitive dissonance will inevitably arise: How can the evil happen? Either the all-powerful makes it happen, so how can he be called all-good? Or the all-good is not able to prevent evil, so how can he be called all-powerful?

It is clear that such thoughts are forbidden for devout adepts of religion. In other words, the cognitive dissonance (clash of two conflicting views) is not allowed to be upheld, it must be solved. Two solutions are possible: The evil can simply be denied to exist, or it must be explained.

Denial is not very effective, but attempts have been made. For instance, the devout have said that evil is only evil in our eyes but not in God's eyes. We must accept what is put on us, in every case, because it is good in a higher sense. We may suffer, but our souls may be refined. Most people will not be able to follow such a reasoning. Therefore, a stronger explanation is required.

Human beings must be evil. They must be sinners. They must have offended the all-powerful and all-good God. They must have deserved punishment. The most famous example is Sodom and Gomorrah. If those cities ever have existed in history, it is most likely that they have been destroyed by an earthquake. The story of the sinful inhabitants has been invented later to explain why they have been killed. A similar story, by the way, has been told of the alpine village Piuro (at the Swiss-Italian border) that has been destroyed 1618 in a rockslide.

Looking for scapegoats

Such a view is a very dangerous threat to humanism, because if sinners are the cause of natural catastrophes, they must be prevented from doing evil, at any price. Even killing them may be justified. The history of the big three monotheistic religions is full of sad examples.

This is sort of a second degree cognitive dissonance, that is, religion supposed to be good and doing bad. The Christian dogma of salvation by the scapegoat death of Jesus can be seen as sort of a second degree escape from this dissonance. If all mankind has been saved from sin, nobody can be made responsible for all the evil in the world. But this does not really work because there still is evil happening all the time. And new explanations are ready at hand: Jesus is not served the right way, and we come to the case of the Spanish Inquisition and the burning of heretics.

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Saturday, 9 February 2008

The third dimension of my blog

Today I have discovered a new dimension of how to apply freethought. It's not new to me, not at all. I even have applied this kind of view, for instance in my post about gap filling. But I was not aware of the importance, of how fundamental this view is.

Up to now, I have been aware of two dimensions: truth and utility. But now I come to the conclusion that these two may be quite pointless without the third dimension, psychology. More precisely: cognitive dissonance.

Let's start with the first dimension. It deals with questions of true or false, non-existence or existence of God, evolution or creation, death or afterlife. Very interesting questions but only one dimension of the matter.

From a practical point of view, looking for a kind of thought that is best for living a good life, I have given more emphasis on the second dimension, pragmatism. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Regardless of what is true or not: What is better for my life, freethought or religion? And what kind of freethought or what kind of religion? It is very unlikely to be any religion, but I must be ready to stay open for any kind of thought that may be helpful.

I think that these two dimensions must be linked. That is, a thought based on false assumptions cannot be helpful for my life.

Cognitive dissonance

The longer I think about this psychological concept, the more I am electrified. Maybe Greta has infected my with this virus. I feel like Archimedes when he had his eureka experience.

Cognitive dissonance is a conflict of thoughts that do not fit together. And the most important coping mechanism is rationalizing, that is, explaining the conflict in a way that it no longer hurts.

All of a sudden, when I look at religious concepts or religious stories, I see reasons behind things I always thought unreasonable. One such example is sin. I not only can explain it now, I even can show why in every conceivable religion with an almighty good god there must be sin in the believers. Plus I see now why satanism can make the satan adepts feel better.

This is far too much for a weekend post. I guess it is enough stuff for my next blogging week. Stay tuned!

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Friday, 8 February 2008

My dad's morning prayer

morning jog
When I visit my old dad, eighty-seven, a bit frail but mentally fit, he uses to tell me how he got up in the morning. How he is grateful to his creator who has given him another day. And then he always looks at me, knowing well that I do not believe in God, and he sometimes adds "you know?". These are the moments when I am happy to play the agnostic card, even agreeing to a sort of pantheism. Starting at the undeniable fact that there is a huge mass of universal energy, part of which has sort of crystallized to matter, according to Einstein, and why not call this universal energy God? His Christianity does not prevent him from such thoughts, interestingly. I only avoid talking about God as a personal, all-knowing and all-planning being in which he believes and I do definitely not, by nearly a hundred percent.

Today, on my morning jog, I thought about dad's morning prayers, and I said to myself that for the most time of my life I have missed such an opportunity to start my day. What can be a better start than feeling, hey, what a wonderful gift that I am getting with this new day?

Nothing prevents me, as an atheist, from having similar feelings. The difference is not that great. He talks to his personal God, and this talk is a one-way lane anyway because he gets no answer other than those feelings generated by his own brain. I meditate about the universal energy, about my being reborn from the half-brother of death, for another day of life which will end again by plunging down back into the unconscious state of sleep that will merge with death some day or some night.

Well, I tried it out this morning, and I felt great with it. I never would call this a prayer, not even a spiritual experience because I do not believe in a spiritual parallel world. I just felt the fact that I am here, jogging, watching the new dawn rise, an exceptional wonder, and my sense of gratitude does not need a God listening to me. The Universe is so immense. It does not even care whether I am grateful or not. No generosity can be greater.

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Thursday, 7 February 2008

What I know nothing about

know nothing
There has been a time, not too long ago, when I used to call myself an agnostic. This is a very handy position when you are tired of discussions with religious people. You just tell them that we all know nothing about these things. That is, about the existence of God, what will be after death, what has been before the Big Bang, and the like.

Most religious people can easily follow this position. And this makes me suspicious. The divide arises when they say that faith must do what knowledge can't do. And this, in my opinion, is a serious weakness of agnosticism. A strict agnostic is not able to figure out whether faith is reasonable or not. He just says dunno, sorry.

The agnostic fallacy

Dear agnostic folks, what do you tell those who believe that behind our visible world there is an invisible spiritual world, populated by angels who watch over us and guide us? Right. Here is the problem: As this spiritual world is outside of the material world, and as we only can know things about this material world, we "can't know anything" about it.

This weakness of agnosticism is caused by a permissive stance concerning the set up of hypotheses, followed by an agnostic appraisal of these hypotheses. And here comes the famous Big Flying Spaghetti Monster into play. It has been invented to show the absurdity of radical and permissive agnosticism.

What will be after death

We know quite a lot about death. Even about our own death, as far as the loss of our conscious existence is concerned. We experience it every night. Sleep has been called the half-brother of death. As conscious beings, we "die" every night and are "reborn" when we wake up in the morning.

Just imagine that, while you have been asleep last night, a meteorite could have hit your house and vaporized you in a few milliseconds, too fast for any pain reaction to occur. Now try to figure out the difference in your consciousness just before the hit and at any given time after it. I did it more than a dozen times, and I find it very fascinating. There is no difference at all. Both states are the same when it comes to consciousness.

Thus, when our last hour will come, this will not be a first experience but a very familiar one. No reason for agnosticism here.

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Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Top 5 false mental ties

Religion is mental bondage. This is not my idea but a literal translation from Latin, re-ligare, tie back or tie again. Even those who enjoy bondage as a sex play never would agree to apply it outside of acting out fantasies.

When it comes to religion, there are several bondage methods being used. Even non-religious people may fall for them sometimes. The pattern is always the same: If A is true, then B also must be true, and vice versa.

Check up your brain and have a look whether these false mental ties are missing, which is hopefully the case:
  1. Being religious and being good
    The correlation is not absent in this case but most likely a negative one: Terrorist suicide bombers are extremely religious, human rights are least respected in the most religious countries, and the evolution of western civil rights has only been possible after the church has lost its influence on governments. Religion has been used and is still being used to enforce moral laws, but it is not and never has been the origin of these laws. As an ethologist, studying the behaviour of monkeys, I have seen that even these animals obey strict social rules, and for sure they are not religious.

  2. Being religious and living a meaningful life
    Life is not meaningful by itself, it is up to us to give it a meaning. Religious people may see it differently, waiting for God showing them their meaning of life. By such mental bondage, they may come to a meaning, and I won't deny that this can make sense to them. Atheists, using their brain in a different way, will find their own meaning of life. Thus, different ways of finding sense do exist, with religion as well as without it.

  3. Religion and coping
    In coping with death, pain, loss of loved ones, being mobbed, being fired, divorced, humiliated and the like, religion is often thought to be helpful. While this may be true in some cases, it is often the other way round: See my post about religious distress over at my old Med Journal Watch blog.

  4. Mind outside of matter and free will
    Free will is a subjective feeling, coming from introspection. The view that behaviour is guided by chemical and physical processes in the brain is a view from outside, looking at the brain as an object. The subject need not be different from the object, for instance as a spiritual mind existing outside of the brain. Mind is a phenomenon of the brain, both belong to one and the same thing, the difference comes from the direction of view. Therefore, in philosophical terms, I share the view of compatibilism.

  5. Existence of God and existence of afterlife
    This is a false tie only in the big three monotheistic religions. In Buddhism, there is no god but afterlife. On the other hand, in Judaism, afterlife is not a necessary condition but only for those who deserve it, and only after a period of death, followed by resurrection. In my view, the tie fallacy between God and afterlife is the most powerful refutation of the famous Pascal's wager: If God without afterlife is possible, then belief in his existence offers no chance of reward.
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Tuesday, 5 February 2008

The big gap filling fallacy

The Thor-God debate of yesterday deserves some more thoughts, quite important ones in my view. Today I am going to show why Thor and God have the same magnitude of plausibility. I prefer Thor as a main focus because, in our world, he is less laden with strong values and beliefs. I guess, as an ancient Viking blogger I would have chosen God.

Thor makes it a lot easier not to become distracted by questions whether he does or does not exist. We all, even theists reading my blog, will agree that Thor does not exist. This being settled, we are ready to come to the point now.

Useful gap filling

When using our brains, we should have at least some ideas of how this thing works. One simple mechanism, useful in the majority of everyday situations, is gap filling.

Just imagine you are driving on a highway uphill. At the top, the highway no longer is visible, yet you do not pound your brake because you know that the highway will continue. Your brain fills the gap. Gap filling even occurs on the level of the eye and is responsible for some of the well-known optical illusions.

The weakness of gap filling

The gap filling mechanism of the brain works well in normal situations but can be deluded by trick magicians who exploit the brain's imagination of objects being "still there" or "no longer there" when not visible.

For the ancient Vikings, thunder must have been sort of a magical trick because they could not spot the originator of this noise. The noise somehow reminded them of their blacksmiths, hammering swords. They filled the gap with Thor, swinging his giant hammer.

Common feature of all religions

When looking at all the big and small religions that have come and gone and still exist, we may be impressed by their richness and variety. But, basically, they all share the fact that they fill gaps in knowledge.

Some of these are small, such as not knowing why rain comes, filling the gap with a rain god. Thor fits in this category.

The "making" of the Universe is far less easy to understand than rain and thunder. But gap filling is gap filling, regardless of the complexity level. The common trait of all gap filling is human fantasy, applying concepts that have proven useful, to situations where they are no longer useful. Hammering and noise is useful in a blacksmith's shop but not in the atmosphere.

Thor and the Big Watchmaker

Theists may have followed me up to here, but now I see them cringe. Thor has made easy to understand the logical fallacy of gap filling. This is not a question of gap kind or gap size, it is fundamental: Either gap filling is reasonable or not, for any possible gap. And the Thor case shows that it is not reasonable.

Some orders of magnitude above the Thor level, we find the Big Watchmaker who is told to have created the Universe. I do not contend that he may be compared to Thor, but he is a child of the same process of the brain: gap filling.

Freethinkers be warned!

Gap filling is a part of human thought, freethought included. Be warned. Rejecting theism does not immunize the brain against this fallacy.

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Monday, 4 February 2008

How to talk with theists

For most believers in God, their faith has a very high value in their life. Therefore, atheists and other freethinkers are a threat to them. Just like most barking and biting in dogs is defensive, theist attacks on atheists are fear-driven. We, on the contrary, have nothing to fear from their side. So I think it is up to us to find a way to talk with them. I think I have found one such way, after years of discussions with loud voices, often ended by leaving the table and door-slamming. And such virtual door-slamming can be seen all over the blogosphere. The following talk is a medley of several recent discussions.

Theist: "I know that God helps me in my life, really. And Jesus loves you. I am sorry for you that you reject this."

"Oh, you don't have to be sorry. By the way, we are not as different as you may think. We can talk about these things."

The theist looks at me, puzzled.

"You don't believe me? I guess that we share ninety-nine percent of our beliefs and only differ in one percent."

"Oh no, it is the other way", he says. "The Universe has been created by God, the Almighty. We have lost our dignity and fallen into sin, and Jesus has saved us. For me, this is ninety-nine percent."

When people talk percent I always ask them: percent of what? Here, after some reasoning, he agrees that his ninety-nine percent are of Christian faith which is not the whole world. Now we come closer to my point.

"You believe not in just a god but in the God of Christianity, right?"

"You know me, how can you ask!"

"So when it comes to Baal, you share exactly my view, Baal-wise you are an atheist, right?"

"Not quite. The Bible says, thou shalt not have other gods besides me. This first commandment has been necessary because the Israelites have been deluded by Baal."

"So you believe that Baal exists and that it is a sin to worship him?"

He shakes his head, and very soon we both agree that Baal has been the invention of fraudulent priests trying to keep people under their control.

As an ex-Christian, years ago, I have read some stuff about the history of my religion. The Jewish God Jahwe, which is basically also the Christian God, has been formed in a time when the Israelites have been in Egypt. There, the sun-god Ra has been worshipped. Moses, a high Egyptian and later leader of the Israelites, has taken some ideas of the Ra cult, melting it with the war-god of his own people.

"What about the old Egyptian Ra?", I ask. "I guess you are an araist just like me."

He feels a bit uneasy, having to share another disbelief with an atheist, but of course he agrees. Next stations of our talk are Ishtar, Kybele, and Zeus, the Greek father of gods.

"There is only one goddess where I hesitate", I say. "Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. Love really is a mighty force, and sometimes I am inclined to believe that Aphrodite must exist." With tongue in cheek I wait him falling for my tactic. And he does.

"You can take all these ancient Greek gods and put them into one class", he says, excited. "They are mere symbols of human character traits, nothing more. They were the psychology of the ancient world. "

"So you say that Greek theism is an artifact that can be explained by human psychology?"


I smile, having found another common trait between us. Only that we apply it to different objects. After having named some more world deities, ranging from the Big Snake that has created the Universe of the Aboriginals, Manitoo, to Vishnu and others, we try to estimate the number of gods in the world and come to more than a hundred.

"Let's stop at a hundred", I say. "That's enough to show that we agree to atheism in ninety-nine percent of the cases."

"Quantity is nothing", he says, smiling triumphantly. "One God that exists is more than thousands of gods that do not exist." He thinks he has got me.

"You forgot Thor", I say. "I accept that you believe in God, but I must have the same right as you, to be fair. So you have to accept that I believe in Thor. For me, Thor is more important than all the thousands of Gods that do not exist."

"You are kidding!"

"No." I manage to stay earnest. "This is serious. Gods cannot be proven or disproven. Belief is belief. This is not a case of scientific reasoning but of human rights. I have the same rights as you have."

"How can you believe such a bullshit! There is absolutely nothing on earth to prove the existence of Thor." He gets loud, and obviously he falls into a behaviour that often can be seen in fresh atheists attacking believers. I must use all my diplomatic skills to cool him down and to bring our discussion to a decent conclusion. He finally agrees to a draw in the Thor-God debate. It is hard for him but he has to face the fact that we agree in atheism in ninety-nine percent of all gods.

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Saturday, 2 February 2008

Test your sense of natural wonder

ice flowers

The aim of this thought experiment is to explore the conditions that favour the human sense of natural wonder. This sense is an important part of life quality because it adds intensity to our feelings. Plus it is an important part of our respect of nature and of our responsibility for the environment.

First setting

Look at the above picture and imagine that it has been painted by a human artist. Imagine how the artist may have done it, whether he has used a paintbrush or an etching needle, how he might have spread the paint, and the like. Take the role of an art critic and rate how much you are impressed by this piece, on a scale from 1 to 10.

Second setting

Look at the above picture and imagine how moisture has condensed and frozen on a cold window pane. Imagine that water is made up of molecules that all look exactly alike, how these molecules have aggregated on the glass, guided by a mix of deterministic and accidental forces between them, under the influence of tiny differences in temperature and moisture varying over time. Done? Rate again the degree of impression on you.

My results

In the first setting I see that the artist has worked out nicely the theme of conflict between dynamism and inertia. I would not say it is a masterpiece but I appreciate the precise needle or paintbrush work. Today I feel generous, so I give 5 points.

In the second setting I am deeply impressed, considering how all these water molecules, looking exactly alike, spontaneously can form such wonderful structures. I see a principle at work that may help to explain the evolution of life from simple structures: the emergence of new features that cannot be predicted from the elements when these aggregate to compound structures. I find this really fantastic, 9 points.

Creationism and science

The first setting is a model of how theists (creationists) look at nature, and the second setting is the way scientists (freethinkers) do it. Of course there is a huge difference between the evolution of ice flowers and the evolution of living organisms. But both cases have one principle in common: Complex structures are more of a wonder when they are not created.

A naive creationist may look at ice flowers and say that God has painted them. He may be impressed by the artwork but hardly will rate it higher than the artwork of a human painter. On the contrary, such an achievement of an almighty being is not very impressive.

Replacing ice flowers with living organisms will, of course, raise the degree of impression by magnitudes - on the creationist side as well as on the scientist side.

Freethought and sense of natural wonder

And now I come to the point. The gap will remain when we move from the ice flower model to the whole universe. The freethinker looking at plants, animals, stars and galaxies will be more deeply impressed than the theist looking at creation. Thus, freethought is a better condition for the human sense of natural wonder.

This has been the first thought experiment to test the hypothesis that freethinkers live better than theists. The outcome does not allow to reject this hypothesis. I am going to plan more such experiments because the sense of natural wonder may not be the most important factor of life quality.

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Friday, 1 February 2008

The proof of the pudding

When it comes to philosophy, science, things that we know and don't know, beliefs and non-beliefs, religion or freethought, there are basically two sorts of approach. It is just like pudding testing: We may analyze the stuff in the lab, and we may taste it.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating

I like this aulde Englishe saying. In terms of philosophy, it is called pragmatism. And it is just this kind of approach that I take as a cornerstone of my blog.

One of the reasons why I like this approach is its experimental character. Experiments, more than just observations, are the most powerful tool of science. This holds true not only in physics, biology and medicine, but also in philosophy. That's why I love thought experiments. The Parable of the Eternal Prisoner, basically, is just one such experiment, juggling with hypothetical assumptions and looking at possible outcomes.

Suppose that freethought and religions of all kinds are different sorts of puddings. The question I like to ask is: Which of these tastes best? In other words: What kind of believing, thinking and reasoning makes me live a better life, for myself and for others? This is the point of the pudding or, as Faust would say, the core of the poodle.

Attempt of a blind test

As we all know, pudding testers should be blind, with no hint about brands and colours, in order to stay free of bias. In a philosophical thought experiment, this is kind of difficult because a mind cannot be blinded. But I'll do my best, trying to forget all I've heard before, and to take a fresh look at things. Okay, let's go.

It will be a test between two philosophies: Freethought vs. Christianity. All the others, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, never did play a big role in my life, so I prefer to exclude them from the test.

Test criteria

Freethought or Christianity, which of these two is better when it comes to
  • Personal wellbeing?
  • Social relations?
  • Our view of nature and the universe?
  • Coping with death?
These big four points are intertwined in many ways, for instance, we need good social relationships to feel personally well. It seems that I have started at the bottom of this list, dealing with death, and I think it's time now to move one step upwards. My next thought experiment will be about feelings at the sight of wonderful ice flowers. Stay tuned!

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