Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Great American Moose

"In America, therefore, animated Nature is weaker, less active, and more circumscribed in the variety of her productions; for we perceive, from the enumeration of the American animals, that the numbers of species is not only fewer, but that, in general, all the animals are much smaller than those of the Old Continent. No American animal can be compared with the elephant, the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, the dromedary, the camelopard [giraffe], the buffalo, the lion, the tiger, &c."

George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

n the wake of the American Revolution the fledgling United States was eager to assert its national identity, and proclaim its capacity to create a new society which could be morally superior to those of Europe. Yet one man proved to be a fly in the ointment; Georges Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon (1707-88), the best selling scientific author of the eighteenth century. Work after work from Buffon’s pen claimed that the New World, upon which the new Republic was staking its territory, was fundamentally inferior; a land of weaklings, limp foliage and stunted animals. How could the American experiment in liberty flourish in such surroundings?. It was soon realised by Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson that Buffon would have to be refuted. If not the United States would fail to gain sorely needed financial assistance and credit in Europe. The very future of the young state was in jeopardy.

The thesis Buffon presented in the ‘Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière’ was that the New World, in which he had never set foot in his life, was an immature landscape. The continent had only recently been raised up from the depths and was substantially younger in geological terms than the Old World. Its flora and fauna, including its native peoples, were under-developed and greatly inferior. Its mountains were higher, its environments wilder and more inaccessible and its animals much smaller; including the European livestock which had been shipped over. According to Buffon only snakes and insects could survive in such a cursed land:

‘Even those which, from the kindly influence of another climate have acquired their complete form and expansion, shrink and diminish under a niggardly sky and an un-prolific land, thinly peopled with wandering savages, who, instead of using this territory as an master, had no property or empire; and having subjected neither the animals nor the elements, nor conquered the seas, nor directed the motions of the rivers, nor cultivated the earth, held only the first rank amongst animate beings and existed as creature of no consideration in nature, a kind of weak automatons, incapable of improving or fecunding her intentions.’

Later on, Buffon described the American Indians in these somewhat derogatory terms:

‘The American savage is feeble and has small organs of generation; he has neither hair nor beard, and no ardour whatsoever for his female.... he is also less sensitive, and yet more timid and cowardly; he has no vivacity, no activity of mind, the activity of his body is less an exercise, a voluntary motion, than a necessary action caused by want; relieve him of hunger and thirst and you deprive him of all the active principle of all his movements; he will rest stupidly upon his legs or lying down entire days.’

We might question Buffon’s objectivity when critiquing the genitalia of America’s native peoples. He was relying on purely anecdotal evidence and idle speculation. A principle motivation of the Comte was his vehement opposition to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's notion of the "noble savage" which argued that humans had lived in a state of primeval grace before becoming corrupted by the evils of civilisation. Another was undoubtedly his aristocratic snobbery towards the United States, a country with a somewhat too egalitarian outlook which irritated the French aristocracy. In time other writers such as the Abbe Raynal and Corneille de Pauw were to extend the ideas of Buffon, even going so far as to claim that Europeans emigrating to the United States were also becoming degenerate. Native American males, wrote de Pauw, were not only reproductively unimposing, but 'so lacking in virility that they had milk in their breasts'. In his Histoire philosophique et politique des deux Indes, the abbe Raynal wrote:

"One must be astonished that America has not yet produced one good poet, one able mathematician, on man of genius in a single art or a single science.

These European attitudes, and some of the more arrogant pronouncements of Buffon, incensed Thomas Jefferson who exclaimed that in two hundred years:

"in war we have produced a Washington . . . in physics we have produced a Franklin, than whom no one of the present age has made more important discoveries . . . [and] we have supposed Mr. Rittenhouse second to no astronomer living."

In 1781 Jefferson threw himself into writing his only book, ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’, in which he mounted a vigorous defence against Buffon’s accusations. As well as defending the American Indian by referring to eloquent speeches by native celebrities such as Chief Logan, he also addressed the claim that the animals of the Americas had been stunted. Here he pointed to the fact that the American black bear weighed in at an impressive 412 pounds compared to the European bear at 18. The American beaver, Jefferson wrote, trounced its European counterpart at 45 pounds to 18. He wasn’t above being a little economical with the truth, claiming a little unrealistically that the American cow weighed 2,500 pounds against the European version at 763.

Yet Jefferson lacked a decisive trump card. At one point he was excited to discover a fossil claw, which he incorrectly identified as belonging to an American lion that had been larger in size than any lion of the old world. Sadly, as it transpired, the claw had come from a sloth, a somewhat less inspiring creature. He also tried to use the Mastodon as an example to refute Buffon; not realising it was extinct.

In the end Jefferson was to build his argument around the moose, an animal, he claimed, that was so big a European reindeer could walk under it. When Jefferson moved to Paris he went so far as to write to his friend General John Sullivan, the governor of New Hampshire, asking for a large specimen to be sent over in order to add force to his arguments. Accordingly, in one of the most bizarre military operations in recorded history, 20 men were sent out into the northern woods to prove the strength of American quadrupeds. After two weeks of searching they were able to shoot a moose, but when inspected, it was found that the specimen lacked the imposing horns that Jefferson had asked for. General Sullivan therefore decided to attach a set of anthers from a stag which bestowed a greater sense of majesty to the corpse.

Having been decorated, the moose was shipped to France and delivered by Jefferson to Buffon’s associate "in hopes that Monsieur de Buffon will be able to have it stuffed, and placed on his legs in the King's Cabinet.". Sadly, Buffon was too sick at this point to view the by now rancid carcass, but by this time he had been sufficiently impressed to retract his thesis. Jefferson later told Daniel Webster that Buffon had "promised in his next volume, to set these things right . . . but he died directly afterwards."

The efforts of Benjamin Franklin had been no less important in persuading Buffon to change his mind, although the way he went about it was much different. At a dinner party in Paris when a great number of American guests and French dignitaries were assembled, Franklin asked his fellow countrymen to stand up. When the Frenchmen including the Abbe Raynal rose to their feet, it quickly became apparent that their American counterparts towered over them. Rather than revelling in this victory, Franklin graciously remarked that he wasn’t exactly the tallest of men.

Following a number of scientific discussions with Franklin, Buffon was to remark that:

"because we know from the celebrated Franklin, that in twenty-eight years the population of Philadelphia (without immigration) doubled . . . in a country where the Europeans multiply so promptly, where the life of the natives is longer than previously, it is not possible that humans degenerate."

Honour had been restored and the flora and fauna of the great American continent had been elevated to the high esteem it has remained in ever since; mainly thanks to the efforts of a few founding fathers and the far less appreciated moose.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why is the Universe so big?

It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil — which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.

Richard Feynman

People frequently ask me ‘Humphrey, why is the universe so big?’. Actually that’s a lie, I wish people would quiz me like that. Invariably they ask me questions like, ‘would you like to come into your local branch of Lloyds TSB for a personal finance review?’, or ‘would you like to have wholegrain bread or Italian bread with your side salad?’; all things I have a limited opinion on and frankly couldn’t give a toss about. Here we are, spun into existence and breathed into life by a mysterious universe and all people seem to be concerned with is what motorway you take to get to Basingstoke; it’s the M3 in case you were wondering.

The short answer to the question ‘why is the universe so big?’ is that, since Erwin Hubble’s observations in the first half of the 20th century, we have come to realise that the universe is expanding and therefore its huge size is a consequence of its great age. This rate of expansion and vast expanse of time turn out to be critical for the development of complex life for a variety of reasons.

Any universe that contains the kinds of things you need to develop complexity must be sufficiently old enough for stars to form and generate the elements on which life is based. The universe throughout its history has been constantly changing and has gone through around 10-15 billion years of expansion. As the universe expanded it became a continually changing enviroment; sparser, more rariefied and cooler. As this process occurs certain conditons can then arise. The tempreture of the universe at the moment is pretty low. If we ran the tape back to when the cosmos was 300,000 years old, the conditons become very extreme and too hot for even atoms to exist. As things got cooler atoms and molecules were able to form and basic chemistry was able to begin. Once this occurred, great islands of material were able to form and get denser, until eventually their gravity became great enough to form stop them expanding. They formed great achipeligos of material where such objects as stars, planets and people could eventually form.

The first microscopic life forms appeared on earth just 3 or 4 billion years ago, making the origin of life remarkably close (in cosmic terms) to the beginning of everything 13.7 billion years ago. This emergence of life requires elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, which were formed in the first three minutes of the Big Bang. All the heavier biochemical elements, like carbon, have to made from these simpler elements by nuclear reactions in the stars. These reactions are delicately poised to produce a lot of carbon, but not too much oxygen. When stars die and explode these biochemical elements are dispersed into space and ultimately find their way into planets and into people. Its enjoyable to reflect that every carbon nucleus in your body has been through a star, probably more than once. This process of nuclear alchemy is long and slow. It takes tens of billions of years to run its course. Thus a universe that contains curious anomalies like us must be billions of years old and hence billions of light years in size due to the expansion rate.

We could not exist in a universe which was significantly smaller and even if we represent the only living creatures in the cosmos, the universe would still have to be roughly the size it is just to support us. You could have an economy sized universe the size of a galaxy (about 100 billion stars), but a universe the size of our galaxy would be only about 3 months old, which is barely enough time to pay your gas bill.

These are necessary conditions for life to be possible, but there are further advantages to a big expanding universe. The universe turns out to be a bit lumpy, in fact it has pretty much the same level of lumpiness whereever you look in the night sky at around 1 part in 100,000. In a more lumpy universe stars would form rapidly and turn into black holes, everything would be too dense and the tidal forces from other stars would disrupt our solar system. If there wasn’t enough lumpiness there wouldn’t be enough material together to form planets and stars. According to Guth’s cosmic inflation theory the universe went through a period of incredible acceleration, which smoothed out the bumps and wiggles and gave us the big smooth universe we observe today. The continued expansion of the universe ensures that it has a very low average density and so galaxies and stars are widely separated. Areas where life can develop are likely to be separated by vast astronomical distances. If there were more material it would change the rate at which the universe expands, exerting more gravity and making the universe evolve too quickly for stars and galaxies to emerge.Hence the apparent emptiness of the universe transpires to be a rather good thing.

The large amount of expansion also ensures that the universe is very cold. The temperature fall inversely to the size. This, in turn, means that the night sky appears dark as there is too little energy density in the universe to make it bright. Another curious component of the universe’s expansion is the small value of the cosmological constant (a repulsive force believed to be dark energy), which counteracts the force of gravity. If it were 10 times bigger, no complexity could exist in the universe as the acceleration would have begun too early for structure to form in the universe. As things stand the expansion will continue for ever and the universe will not end in a big crunch or a big rip.

It is an important fact to grasp that many of the aspects of the universe which appear so obviously in conflict with any interpretation of the universe as hospitable for life, turn out to be crucial features that are necessary for a universe to support complexity of any known sort.We shouldn’t be surprised to find that the universe is so big because that appears to be the only kind of universe we could in principle observe. Furthermore we should not be surprised not to observe extra-terrestrials as the distances involved are so vast. Universes that meet the necessary conditions for life are big and old, dark and cold. ‘All the worlds a stage’ as Shakespeare would say, and it has to be an unimaginably big one to have any players on it.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

An Interesting Reaction

One theistic argument is the moral argument (or axiological argument). It's the idea that in order to say that there are actual moral rights and wrongs, we have to presuppose a sort of metaphysical anchor or ground for these values that transcends individual cultures and epochs, something in fact which looks very much like the Judeo-Christian God. If we reject such a ground, then we are left with pure relativism, where nothing is actually right or wrong. This may be OK when the issue under discussion is whether you should be completely forthcoming on your taxes, but when we point to horrific atrocities, it becomes very difficult to say that there is simply nothing morally wrong going on.

However, rather than defend this argument, I want to point to an interesting reaction to it. Many atheists who hear the moral argument misunderstand it to mean that atheists cannot be moral people or upstanding citizens. If you need to believe in God in order to believe that rape is wrong, then you're essentially arguing that if you don't believe in God, then you must not believe that rape is really wrong. But of course, this isn't the argument. The point, rather, is that the moral judgment "rape is wrong" -- made by theist and atheist alike -- must have a metaphysical ground in order to be valid. Thus, according to the moral argument, the atheist is being inconsistent in affirming that rape is wrong while denying that God exists. But this does not mean that atheists don't know right from wrong.

Now part of the reason I find this reaction interesting is that I could present a parallel argument which almost certainly would not provoke the same reaction. Say, for example, I argued that in order for mathematics to be possible we have to posit a metaphysical foundation for numbers, a Platonic realm of forms, which is best understood as the mind of God (such arguments have been made). So in order to affirm that 2 + 2 = 4, we have to presuppose something like the Judeo-Christian God. How many people would misunderstand such an argument to mean that if you don't believe in God, you don't really believe that 2 + 2 = 4? I suspect very few, if any. Yet this argument is exactly parallel to the moral argument: in order to affirm X we have to presuppose a metaphysical foundation for it that is best understood as God.

So why are some people so liable to misunderstand the moral argument? Again, I suspect (although I could very easily be wrong) it's because our views on morality are inextricably bound up with our views of ourselves: what we do and what we think should be done says a great deal of what kind of person we are. So when someone tells an atheist that her worldview is inconsistent with believing that rape is wrong, she reacts. Instead of realizing that the moral argument is saying something about the relationship between her worldview and moral beliefs, she only sees it as saying something about her moral beliefs, and thus about herself: whether she is a good person.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Comte de Buffon and the Sorbonne

Throughout the whole of the eighteenth century one man was at work on natural history who might have contributed much toward an answer to this question: this man was Buffon. He had caught the idea of an evolution in Nature by the variation of species, and was likely to make a great advance with it; but he, too, was made to feel the power of theology.

As long as he gave pleasing descriptions of animals the Church petted him, but when he began to deduce truths of philosophical import the batteries of the Sorbonne were opened upon him. For his simple statement of truths in natural science which are to-day truisms, he was, as we have seen, dragged forth by the theological faculty, forced to recant publicly, and to print his recantation.

Andrew Dickinson White

In the eighteenth century Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon published the first volumes of his ‘Histoire Naturelle’, a work which anticipated some of the ideas of Charles Darwin. Buffon was an eccentric, especially when he was at his most creative. In order to begin writing he had to dress up in his finest regalia, from braided wig to silk waistcoat, to a lacy high-collard shirt. He was also fond of saying that there were only five truly great men: Newton, Bacon, Leibniz, Montesquieu..and himself. The ‘Histoire’, which would eventually reach 36 volumes,was a work of stunning ambition, which aimed to include everything known about the natural world up until that date. In it Buffon considered the similarities between humans and apes, and the possibility of a common ancestry.

Upon publication of ‘Histoire Naturelle’ in 1750, which was paid for by the King of France, the work became an astonishing success, the first printing selling out in around six weeks to be followed speedily by German, Dutch and English editions. Eventually ‘Histoire Naturelle’ was to become the most widespread work of the eighteenth century, outselling even the Philosophes ‘Encylopedie’ and the works of Voltaire and Rousseau. This inspired jealousy amongst some in the salons of Paris, including the Abbe Raynal who remarked that the work ‘did not succeed particularly well with educated people’ but that ‘women, to the contrary, attach importance to it’. Amongst Buffon’s greatest admirers were the Jesuits, who dedicated four articles (a total of 100 pages) in their journal ‘Journal de Savants’ to praising him. During October 1749 the Journal published a glowing analysis of the first volume of ‘Histoire Naturelle’, but then fell silent as a controversy erupted. Buffon had caught the attention of the Jansenists.

French intellectual opinion of the time was bitterly divided. The outlawed Jansenists were in great favour with the general public because they were seen as defying royal authority and hostile to absolutism. They fought bitterly with the Jesuits who were more liberal and open to new ideas. These two religious groups were too often at each others throats to pay much attention to the Philosophes. Jesuits tended to admire and prefer the writings of Locke and Bacon to those of Descartes; yet because they asserted papal authority they were unpopular. In the Jansenists eyes, the Jesuits were responsible for the decline of religion in France because of the indulgence they showed to dangerous works. In turn the Jesuits tended to regard the Jansenists as reactionary.

The Jesuit endorsement of Buffon was enough for them to resolve to condemn him. The official journal of the Jansenists was the ‘Nouvelles Eccclesiastiques’, which was officially banned by the French government but regularly published and distributed. In February 1750, in response to the Jesuit's review, the Jansenists published a scathing attack on the ‘Histoire Naturelle’, criticising it for its overt scepticism, its contradiction of Genesis and its implicit insult towards both God and the king. ‘Should such a pernicious book go unstigmatised’, claimed the Jansenists who went on to denounce the entire Academy of Sciences, the Jesuit’s Journal des Savants and the Academy of Inscriptions, which had published works by Alexander Pope; and the Academie Francaise, which had just elected Voltaire. This condemnation immensely irritated Buffon who wrote:

‘I hope it is out of the question to blacklist it...and in truth I have done everything not to deserve it and to avoid theological harassment, which I fear much more than the criticism of natural philosophers of geometers’

The Jansenists had stirred up a row amongst the populace and this forced the Sorbonne (the faculty of theology in Paris) to react. The Jansenists were demanding some kind of censorship, but this put the Sorbonne in a very difficult position. The power to censor depended on the royal administration, but the theologians did have the power to make representations to the king if the situation demanded it. In this case the book had been published by the royal press and was the work of a very high ranking civil servant; to make matters worse it was now an outstanding commercial success. Yet not to act would be to hand a victory to the Jansenists and expose the Sorbonne to rebuke. D’Argenson was exaggerating but captured something of the public’s mood when he wrote:

‘The Seigneur de Buffon...has been greatly affected by the grief that his book’s success gives him. The devout are furious and want to have it burned by the executioner. Truly he contradicts Genesis in every way.’ (this may be the source of the for the idea Buffon's books were burned which I can't find reference to elsewhere)

The Sorbonne made the decision to come to a secret agreement. In ‘Buffon – A life in natural history’ Jacques Roger notes that:

We do not know the details of the secret dealings which permitted Buffon and the Faculty to find an honourable solution for both parties. We know only that these dealings took place, certainly with Riballlier, the Faculty’s syndic, probably during the fall of 1750.

On January 15 1751 Buffon recieved the following corteous letter from the Sorbonne:


We have been informed, by someone amongst us on your behalf, that when you learned that the Natural History, of which you are the author was one of the works chosen by order of the faculty of Theology to be examined and censured because it contained principles and maxims that are not in accordance with those of religion, you declared to him that you did not have the intention of dissociating yourself from it and that you were prepared to satisfy the faculty in regard to each of the articles it found reprehensible in your work; we cannot, Sir, praise you enough for such a Christian resolution, and in order to put you in a position to carry it out, we are sending you the statements taken from you book that seemed to us to be contrary to the beliefs of the Church.
We have the honour of being respectfully, Sir, Your very humble and obedient servants'

Attached to the letter were the 14 ‘reprehensible statements’ including the idea the earth was eternal, Buffon’s theory of planets formation and the discussion of truth and immaterialism. In reply Buffon made the necessary concessions and stated in a letter that he believed ‘very firmly in all that is told in the scriptures about creation, both as to the order of time and the circumstances of the facts’.

According to Roger

‘The proposal was clever...for we have every reason to believe that Buffon’s answer had been composed by the theologians themselves and Buffon had only to sign it. He should therefore have been sure of the success of his approach’.

Regarding the Sorbonne, Buffon was to note:

‘Of the one hundred twenty doctors assembled, I had on hundred fifteen on my side, and their decision even contained praise which I was not expecting’

Honour had been saved and the Sorbonne must have been relieved at the outcome. The Jesuits praised the retraction while the Jansenists cried foul:

‘What shame for the applaud such a amounts to hoping everyone will be taken in as the Sorbonne carcass has been..this academician has made fun of them and they deserve it’.

Buffon’s dealings with the Sorbonne were to protect him against all official accusations of irreligion for the next 30 years without him having to change a single word. With the publication of ‘Les époques de la nature’ in 1778 he further developed his ideas, discussing the origins of the solar system and speculating that the planets had been created by comets colliding with the sun (this idea was described by Voltaire as ridiculous, reminding him of an old fable in which Minerva had emerged from the brain of Jupiter). He also suggested that the age of the earth was 75,000 years, denied that Noah's flood ever occurred and observed that some animals retain parts that are vestigial and no longer useful, suggesting that they have evolved rather than having been spontaneously generated.

Buffon’s work was again attacked, both on scientific and religious grounds by figures such as the Abbe Royau and the Abbe Grosier. The Sorbonne became involved in 1779 to issue a criticism of Buffon's ‘general principles of the manner of understanding scripture’. Buffon contacted the Sorbonne directly and engineered a new retraction, very similar to the one he had signed in 1750. He promised to print this in the next edition, but in the event, refused to do so. In retaliation, and without bothering to issue any formal censure, the Sorbonne printed the correspondence in a Latin brochure in order to embarrass Buffon. Unfortunately for the faculty, no-one paid any attention to it. Theological debates has ceased to interest anyone in the 1780s; a fact acknowledged by Buffon’s religious critics who chose to attack him on purely scientific grounds in the hope people would listen. Abbe Royau in particular castigated Buffon for his hypothetical writings, remarking that 'at first leave is asked for a hypothesis, and once granted it becomes transformed into a demonstrated truth'.

As for Buffon, in 1785 he said to Herault de Sechelles:

‘The people need a religion....When the Sorbonne picked petty quarrels with me, I had no difficulty giving it all the satisfaction that it could desire: it was only a mockery, but men were foolish enough to be contented with it.’

Later on, in the late 19th century, the story of Buffon and the Sorbonne was used by Dickinson White in his ‘History of the Conflict between Religion and Science’ ( and as a favourite anecdote in the introductions of biology textbooks) ; although as we have seen, the Buffon retraction of 1751 was prompted by the rabble rousing Jansensists. The Sorbonne was far from hostile and actually worked to protect Buffon from criticism. Eventually in 1779 the Sorbonne and Buffon became involved in a petty squabble but there was no formal condemnation and the faculty's low-key protest fell on deaf ears. Rather than some sinister suppression of science by religion, the activities of Buffon and the religious groups in 18th century France merely displayed the factionalism, squabbling and double dealing we are all familiar with. When history is co-opted for other agendas, these subtleties tend to be lost.

Further Reading : Buffon : A Life in Natural History - Jacques Roger

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dawkinsia commentator of the month - January

Atheists, agnostics and religious believers alike have been immensely irritated in recent years by the media phenomenon known as ‘new atheism’. This is in certain respects an extremely dogmatic and fundamentalist movement; regarded by some commentators as another round of scientific atheism or what was commonly known as logical positivism in the 19th century. Its appearance has been prompted by the writings of Richard Dawkins, ‘The God Delusion’, Sam HarrisThe End of Faith’, Christopher Hitchens, ‘God is not Great’ and Dan Dennett, ‘Breaking the Spell’. These were in turn provoked by the collapse of the vast secular mass movements of the 20th century, the accompanying de-secularisation this brought about; the rise of Islam in Europe, and the continuing influence of religion on American politics and society.

Among the key concepts promoted by the new atheists are that atheism or metaphysical naturalism is, beyond reasonable doubt, the only valid belief system, that all religions are damaging and highly infectious ‘viruses of the mind’, and the that religion has always been a destructive force in human affairs, promoting superstition, persecution and backwardness in a manichean struggle against reason, philosophy and science. Accordingly, New Atheists tend to suppress the fact that modern ideas of toleration together with a profound tradition of scepticism, the underlying methodologies of modern science and the conception of the individual human being as an object of fundamental value, all arose within western theism and were profoundly shaped by it. The movement holds that religion must be purged from society and be replaced by a free thinking utopia of ‘rational thinking’; a rerun of the 19th century positivist myth that all human history is moving towards a global civilisation based on science which will eventually drive out faith. Anyone who doesn’t adhere to these quaint but ill-judged principles is denounced as a ‘faith-head’ or ‘faitheist’.

Although the arrival of ‘The New Atheism’ has provoked some interesting and stimulating debates, it has also chosen the internet as one of its key battlegrounds and spawned a great multitude of less eloquent acolytes. These pepper the comment boxes and discussion threads of the web with their anti-religious bile in a kind of modern day ‘Kulturekampf and are known as the ‘Dawkinsia’ (as in intelligentsia) for their slavish adherence to the critically-panned ideals of Richard Dawkins. By way of illustration, and because I believe in democracy, I thought it would be fun to start a ‘Dawkinsia commentator of the Month’ slot which can be voted for in an online poll. If it proves popular we can have a sort of Oscars at the end of the year. The following categories should be taken into account when voting.

1) Dangerous Stupidity

If the Dawkinsia commentator's ideas expressed in the comment or post were actually implemented they would most likely lead to genocide, persecution and mass sterilisation. Think Francis Galton.

2) The Order of the Brown Nose

The Dawkinsia commentator expresses particularly sickening and unquestioning adoration of Dawkins, Hitchins, Harris or Dennett. Extra points if the subject does this while extolling the virtues of ‘free thinking’.

3) Russells Chamberpot

The Dawkinsia commentator thinks the ‘Russell's Teapot’ analogy is the greatest argument ever proposed and continues to express it in as many ways as possible (e.g the flying spaghetti monster, fairies, the loch ness monster etc..), all the while revelling in his/her own intellectual brilliance.

4) 19th Century Revival

The Dawkinsia commentator revives some aspect of White and Draper’s discredited 19th century ‘conflict thesis’, e.g the flat earth myth, the ‘Christian’ Dark Ages, the hounding to death of Vesalius by the inquisition, etc...

Here are the nominations for this months poll which is located here.

Number One – ‘Thickheads’

This Dawkinsia commentator, discovered by James, deserves nomination for being a courageous ‘social visionary’; although given the billions of religious believers worldwide, its going to take quite a network of insane asylums to implement his masterplan.

The only Shared Strategy worth anything is the elimination - or at least the reduction - of the influence of religion. By far the biggest threat to all the world and everything that is valuable and good comes from religion.
Until religion is relegated to a position more relevant to its worth - that is inside the minds of certified mad people locked-up safely away from the rest of us, there can be no long-term peace, no safety, no more progress.

The present troubles in the Middle East caused by the evil inherent in all religion, will be as nothing as compared to what is likely, unless we neutralise the power and the influence of religion. If we do nothing never mind if we continue to encourage religion with our mad scheme to promote faith schools - disaster is inevitable.
Unfortunately, we can no longer separate ourselves from the very mad people and their religions.

The very mad people are no longer over there they are over here working to bring to us, their own brand of mindless fantasy, cruelty and generalised vileness that is religion...
Until the thickheads who rule over us understand that - everything will be lost.

Those damn liberals!.

Number Two – ‘Lazy!’

Flagged up by Al, this member of the Dawkinsia deserves praise for his unyielding faith, both in his own staggering intelligence and the memetic ideas of Dawkins. Also worthy of mention are the use of short punchy sentences such as ‘Thats Sad’ to frame and emphasise the points being made. This goes together to create a devastating writing style which is reminiscent of the late A.J.P Taylor.

Charles Darwin gave us a truly brilliant theory of evolution. It explains beautifully how all the breathtaking life on Earth was developed from nothing. Before you criticise the theory of evolution be sure you really understand it! According to Richard Dawkins many don't understand. That's sad. The explanation of the whole universe and it's existence is perhaps not darwinistic. God is a very bad explanation, lazy.

Religion tend to say it's ok not to try to understand things. That's why I hate religion so much. I am far too intelligent for that. I have NEVER believed in God, not even in my childhood. I have always understood how silly the idea of God is (in our age). We know too much to think God's existence makes sense.

Yeah, I can't prove God doesn't exist. In my mind the probability of God's existence is a very small number, perhaps 0.00000000001 %. That is a damn good justification for being an atheist!
Believing in God is silly. Intelligent people do it because 1) they were indoctrinated in childhood (outracious brainwashing!) and 2) Religion sadly has an insanely strong status in society.

Religion is dangerous. Religion is a virus exploiting the malfunctions of brain. All people free of that virus should promote reason and hope for secular tomorrow.

Number Three – ‘Fetch the bulldozer’

This member of the Dawkinsia from Richard Dawkins's 'Clear thinking oasis' gained nomination for accumulating points in the ‘dangerous stupidity’ category. Although to be fair he does say later in the thread that his comments were ‘perhaps a bit over the top’. You think!?!?!.

Maybe it"s time for Western Countries to declare Islam a dangerous cult, and arrest the damned Imams, and bulldoze the mosques. Stuff any idea of religious tolerance, they want to kill us all. So-called moderate muslims are merely camouflage.

Number Four – ‘A.C Grayling’

This article from A.C deserves its nomination for the bizarre but entertaining outburst at the end, with references to smells and sticky fingers. Which particular apologists he is referring to isn’t clear. Perhaps Andrew Brown?.

Secularists in the west say to the apologists of the religions: your beliefs are your choice, so take your place in the queue. They also say: you've had it your own way for a very long time - and committed a lot of crimes in the process - and you still fancy yourself entitled, but you aren't. You don't smell too good at times, so don't try to tell me what I can read, see on TV, do in my private time, think or say. In fact, keep your sticky fingers off my life. Believe what you like but don't expect me to admire or excuse you because of it: rather the contrary, given the fairy-stories in question. And when you are a danger to the lives and liberties of others, which alas is too frequently the wont of your ilk, we will speak out against you as loudly, persistently, and uncompromisingly as we can.

The observant will note that in the picture at the head of this post, the book cover of the copy of 'The God Delusion' the Gumby is holding is the wrong way round. This is not a silly mistake on my part; the book is in Hebrew.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster

One of my great heroes was the late great Douglas Adams, sometime resident of London and Santa Barbara California; now decaying gracefully in Highgate cemetery along with such luminaries as Karl Marx, Michael Faraday and Herbert Spencer. Despite having the bleak world-view of the militant materialist, Douglas was always able to find the humour in the situation. One of my favourite quotes of his was a remark he made at Digital Biota in Cambridge:

‘There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be’

But that isn’t even the half of it. According to recent research, right now our tiny pea green speck of a planet and its accompanying solar system is moving at about 600,000 miles per hour rather than the previously estimated 500,000 miles per hour. This additional rotational velocity means that our galaxy’s mass is half-again as great as what had been thought, making the Milky way just about as large as the Andromeda Galaxy. Our particular sprinkling of stars probably has four, not two, spiral arms of gas and dust where stars are forming and we are probably justified in calling ourselves a regional heavyweight.

The residents of the Andromeda galaxy might be looking on jealously, however it looks like with the greater mass, we will collide with them in the near future (2-3 billion years away). This kind of Galaxy merging is fundamental to building up structure in the universe and the process of star creation. In case you are actually worried about this, I should point out that, as with all such collisions, it is unlikely that objects such as stars contained within each galaxy will actually collide. To give you some idea of how diffuse a galaxy actually is, if the sun were scaled to the size of a quarter (or 10p if you prefer) the next closest star would be the equivalent of 475 miles away. If the collision occurs, the galaxies will likely merge into one larger galaxy. As with all mergers there will have to be corporate re branding and possible redundancies. The current intention is to call the new super galaxy ‘Milkomeda’ which sounds a bit too much like a suburban shopping plaza for my taste; but thankfully we have quite a while to come up with a better name; possibly 'The Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster'. There is also a remote possibility our solar system will be ejected from the new galaxy, which will have no adverse effect on it, but will be rather humiliating.

Another mystery which has been solved is the conundrum of how young stars manage to exist in the center of the Milky Way where logically they should be ripped apart by gravitational tides. The explanation is probably that molecular gas and dark matter at the center of our galaxy is denser than previously thought. Greater density means greater gravity, enough to overcome tides from the black hole and hold together sufficiently to form new stars.

We should delight in the fact that we seem to be part of such an elegant and beautiful system. Stephen Hawking once said humanity is nothing but ‘a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet’, yet despite these lowly origins and the onset of paralysis, he still managed to develop theorems regarding singularities, discover Hawking radiation, father three children and have an extra-marital affair with his nurse.

Not bad considering he is supposed to be the Universe’s equivalent of a yeast infection.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Papal science

A friend sent me this interesting article about the Pope's views on science and Christianity. Here's a short quote:

The fact that matter carries within itself a mathematical structure, or is full of spirit, is the foundation upon which the modern natural sciences are based. It is only because matter is structured in an intelligent way that our spirit is capable of interpreting it and of actively remodeling it.
Much more at the link, including the Pope referring to "the great Galileo."

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Anthropic Principle for Misanthropes, part 3

In part 1 I explained what the Anthropic Principle is: in order for life to exist anywhere in the universe at any time in its history, multiple conditions must be met which make it virtually impossible that the universe would be hospitable to life if left to its own resources. Since the universe is hospitable to life, it follows that it was not left to its own resources: Something that exists independently of the universe made it so that it would be able to support life. In part 2, I dealt with several objections to this monotheistic conclusion. In this post I'm going to take a look at two more objections to it. I saved these two for their own post because they require a fuller response than the others.

1. "Maybe there are an infinite number of universes and this just happens to be the one with all the necessary conditions for life." This is known as the multiverse hypothesis (also called the "many worlds" or "world ensemble" hypothesis; Humphrey's been blogging on it lately), and it has some gynormous problems. The first is that it violates Occam's Razor. This is the idea that the simpler explanation is more likely to be the correct one. Often, atheists misunderstand this to mean that a qualitatively simpler explanation is preferable, and then argue that an omniscient and omnipotent God would be the most complex explanation imaginable. Unfortunately, at least for their case, there are two difficulties with such an understanding. First, it just flies in the face of the doctrine of divine simplicity. This is the view that God is the least complex entity in existence, and was held by most of the Christian theologians and philosophers in history, although it's fallen on hard times recently. But even if we ignore that, this argument completely misunderstands what is meant by simplicity. It's not that the cause of an effect must be understood as ontologically simple; it's that it must be numerically simple: the more entities you have to posit, the less likely your theory is correct. In other words, Occam's Razor is the claim that the quantitatively, not qualitatively, simpler explanation is more likely to be true.

To apply it to the case in point, the multiverse hypothesis has to posit an unfathomable or infinite number of universes in order to account for one universe having the necessary conditions for life. By contrast, Monotheism posits the existence of one causal agent who brought the universe into existence with the necessary conditions. Obviously, the latter is the simpler explanation, and so according to Occam's Razor, we should prefer it to the multiverse hypothesis.

The second problem with the multiverse is as follows: if you watched someone flip a coin a million times and it came up heads each time, you could either conclude that it's fixed in some way (maybe it's a two-headed coin) or you could conclude that there are an infinite number of coins being flipped and you just happened to see the one that came up with a million heads in a row. The gambler takes the chance on the latter and so bets that the coin is due to come up tails on the next flip. But 1) even if it is an honest coin, it only ever has a 50-50 chance of coming up tails at any particular flip. It isn't "due." This is the gambler's fallacy. The multiverse hypothesis, however, does not commit the gambler's fallacy, it commits 2) the inverse gambler's fallacy. Basically, regardless of whether the gambler was right to think the coin is due to come up tails, his assumption that it's an honest coin would only be valid if he actually saw all the other infinite number of coins coming up with all their different results. When you have a sample of one, it is much more rational to conclude that the game is fixed. (This, incidentally, is a further response to the third objection in part 2, that we cannot draw any conclusions about probability because we only have the one universe to work with.) So the fact that we have a universe that appears rigged is best explained by the hypothesis that it is, in fact, rigged. The universe is the way it is because someone decided it should be.

Third, no one has been able to come up with a multiverse that does not itself have a beginning as well as numerous anthropic coincidences of its own. So it doesn't evade the question of why the universe can support life; it just forces us to ask it again with slightly different terminology.

Fourth, the supposition of other universes by itself does not evidently lead to a solution of the Anthropic Principle. As William Lane Craig writes,

even if we conceded that a multiple universe scenario is unobjectionable, would such a move succeed in rescuing us from teleology and a cosmic Designer? This is not at all obvious. The fundamental assumption behind the Anthropic philosopher's reasoning in this regard seems to be something along the lines of

8. If the Universe contains an exhaustively random and infinite number of universes, then anything that can occur with non-vanishing probability will occur somewhere.
But why should we think that the number of universes is actually infinite? This is by no means inevitable, not to mention the paradoxical nature of the existence of an actually infinite number of things. And why should we think that the multiple universes are exhaustively random? Again, this is not a necessary condition of many-worlds hypotheses. In order to elude the teleological argument, we are being asked to assume much more than the mere existence of multiple universes.
Finally, the multiverse hypothesis is just as metaphysical as the monothestic hypothesis. For those who don't like metaphysics in their science, the multiverse is no better than saying "God did it." So it's not a choice between one theory that's metaphysical and one that's not (or perhaps one that's less so); it's a choice between two equally metaphysical solutions, one of which commits fallacies and one which does not.

2. "These characteristics are just for life as we know it." Another way of stating this objection is that life accommodates itself to its surroundings. Observing how the universe just happens to meet the necessary criteria for life is like a puddle observing how the pot hole just happens to be shaped for the puddle to fit in it.

So let's clarify our terms. When we refer to life in this context we mean physical life, life that is composed of matter, i.e. atoms. Moreover, in order for something to be physically alive it must be capable of processing physical energy to perform work; when a living thing stops processing energy we call it death. Now of course, one may simply say that there may be non-physical life out there. Certainly. In fact, most religions maintain that there are entities that are not physical. They're called angels. Or one could say that non-living material entities are alive in some sense; perhaps each rock is conscious for example. But this would merely be ascribing an occult property (rather than a physical property) called "life" to physical objects; as such it would also be a form of non-physical life. And if one is willing to accept the existence of a non-physical realm in order to explain the Anthropic Principle, there can be no objection to the monotheistic explanation of it. In order to avoid such an explanation, therefore, this objection must say that the Anthropic Principle only applies to physical life as we know it.

In order for a physical entity to process energy, it must have complex molecules which are physically capable of such processes. Complex molecules are those that are based on atoms that are able to form a large number of bonds with other atoms. There are only three elements capable of forming complex molecules: silicon, boron and carbon. Silicon can only form about a hundred amino acids, which is insufficient for physical life. Boron is rare, and poisonous to life where it does exist in concentration; plus, wherever boron exists, carbon exists in much greater abundance, so it's not very likely to happen. Thus, when we discuss the necessary parameters for life, we refer to carbon-based life. One might think if the laws of nature were different it would change the situation. True. The Anthropic Principle shows that if the laws of nature were different, physical life could not exist at all.

Now some might suggest that I'm simply not taking the concept of "life as we know it" far enough. I'm still working in terms of atoms, and perhaps if we look into the subatomic realm, we would find ways for different types of atoms to form into different types of molecules that could then form living creatures. The problem here is that the ability of atoms to form bonds is directly related to the configuration and properties of its electrons. So the capacity for something to be alive in a physical sense is based on the basic properties of atoms, and thus of matter. Now the question arises: would it be possible to alter the basic properties of electrons or other subatomic particles in such a way that they would still be able to form into complex molecules capable of processing energy to perform work? To the best of my knowledge, the answer is no. The properties of electrons, protons, and neutrons as well as their interaction are some of the most dramatic examples of anthropic coincidences. Their masses must be precisely what they are, their decay processes must be precisely what they are, their ratios to each other must be precisely what they are, etc. in order for life to exist. For example, the ratio of electrons to protons that were created in the Big Bang must be exactly the same number to within one part in 1037 in order for their charges to balance out. Otherwise, the electromagnetic force would have dominated gravity and prevented the formation of planets, stars, and galaxies.

One might still object, though, that if completely different subatomic particles were created in the Big Bang which then formed completely different atoms and molecules, it would be possible to have a different type of life. But as soon as we're positing a completely different type of matter, it becomes difficult to continue calling it matter. In other words, this would (again) be just as metaphysical a solution as the monotheistic one. Moreover, at this point, we're positing different universes in order to explain the Anthropic Principle, so for this suggestion to have any force it must be wedded to the multiverse hypothesis with all of its failings. Thus, the monotheistic solution to the Anthropic Principle is preferable.

There's one more installment to go. Stay tuned.

Update (13 Feb): See also part 1, part 2, and part 4.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Great expectations: the importance of genre for NT criticism

There was a story recently in the news about the discovery of yet another fabricated memoir. The author, Herman Rosenblat, had become famous for his story of how he first met his wife while in a concentration camp, only to be reunited much later in New York. He appeared twice on Oprah and this was actually to be his second published book. Alas, scholarly scrutiny revealed that the story couldn't have played out like Rosenblat said it did, and he was forced to admit that he made the whole thing up. As a result his publisher canceled the book along with a children's book based on his story, expressing 'shock' and 'disappointment' at having been misled (see here for the original reporting that brought this controversy to the public).

Why did this revelation produce such a negative response? One might argue, as do his agent and a producer making a movie of his story, that even though the love story was fabricated the important thing is that he was really a Holocaust survivor and he "found a way to tell his story and bring a message against hate." Isn't it good enough that the story 'might have happened' or that it is representative of other stories that did? (As the defenders of Rigoberta Menchu argued in the face of anthropologist David Stoll's demonstration that her own highly acclaimed autobiography of Guatemalan oppression contained significant distortions and embellishments) Isn't it good enough that the story might express some truth about the author's life, such as redemption from the horrors of the concentration camp through the love of his wife?

Well, no. The problem is not that Rosenblat's memoir mixes fact with fiction. Historical novels do this all the time, while composite characters are a commonplace in autobiographical writing. What makes the fabrication a moral wrong and not just a literary device is that the popularity and acclaim for the book was explicitly based on its having actually happened. There is an emotional resonance true-life stories have that fiction cannot achieve. Rosenblat evoked this resonance by telling his love story as if it actually happened, and people took him at his word. When it came out that he had lied about this, people felt betrayed and misled.

The upshot is that Rosenblat broke a contract with his readers that we usually call genre. In simplest terms genre is simply a set of expectations that a reader brings to a literary work, which expectations were also the author's intentions in writing. It is important that we acknowledge the latter element as well as the former. People are often misled about the genre of a book through no fault of the author, either because of cultural distance or carelessness. It is the responsibility of the author to communicate clearly to the reader what he/she should expect: whether the events recounted actually happened the way they are described, and if so whether the account is comprehensive or selective, etc. This does not have to be set out explicitly: often there is a tacit understanding between author and reader communicated through various literary devices in the text itself. But at the end of the day the reader comes to the author expecting to learn in advance what kind of literary work they are reading, since that will determine their emotional investment and how they let it affect them.

Again, the important issue here is not whether a book, even one called a memoir, can mix together fact and fiction. What is crucial is that the author informs the reader in advance or at least from the text as a whole whether there is fiction and to what extent. The fictional material may very well express some deeper truth about the author's life, but the reader must know that the material is fictional and has that particular function.

Turning now to the Gospels: a common motif in skeptical criticism of the Gospels is to find inconsistencies within and between them as proof that they cannot be trusted to give an accurate account of Jesus' life. The equally common response is that many of the objections stem from cultural distance: chronological and thematic re-ordering of events, or giving different versions of the same event were all common biographical practices in the ancient world, even if we in the modern West find them bizarre or even unethical. This response seems to always go over the heads of atheists, however, so it bears repeating and expanding in light of the above discussion of genre: criticisms of a text must only be made in light of the contract between the author and the original readers. It is hardly the evangelists' fault that we come to the Gospels with different expectations from the first Christians.

Note that this is not an argument for the irrelevance or incomprehensibility of texts from distant historical periods or cultural settings. On the contrary, after careful work by historians and textual scholars we can understand the original contract between author and reader and appropriate the text for ourselves in light of that understanding. Of course there is the danger that due to cultural distance a certain understanding of a text will have become so embedded in the consciousness of its readers that the correction of this misunderstanding is very upsetting. Say for example a biblical passage that we read as straightforward factual narrative was actually a complex parable. We might feel betrayed and hurt because our appreciation of the passage was based on our assumption that it was factual. But that does not cast a negative light on the author the way Herman Rosenblat's intentional deception did.

I conclude that a true debunking of a biblical book or passage only occurs when a critic demonstrates that that book or passage doesn't have the meaning, genre or relationship to other passages we have come to expect, and that this resulted from a deliberate fabrication and intent to deceive on the part of the author. So far I have seen many examples of the first part of the criterion, but none of the second.

This article is cross-posted at Christian CADRE

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Friday, January 02, 2009

Those darn replicators

When not penning depressing materialist diatribes, Dr Susan Blackmore has been engaged in a heroic but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to bring the ‘meme concept’ into credible scientific discourse; as opposed to the badlands of fringe pseudoscience where it currently lingers. The meme was first proposed by Richard Dawkins as a kind of cultural replicator ‘a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation’. This would provide a physical basis for ideas, thus banishing Cartesian dualism and unifying biology, psychology and cognitive science. As Dawkins suggests:

‘Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves by leaping from brain to brain by…imitation’

In this view of human nature, minds do not simply produce original thoughts, they get infected by them, directly from other people and indirectly from viruses of the mind. People are not completely in control of their own thoughts; rather they find themselves taken over by parasitic ‘cultural transmission units’, which once unleashed take on a life of their own. So for example, I wouldn’t say that I became a communist from reading and being persuaded by the writings of Karl Marx; rather, I would say I picked up a book in my library and upon reading it became infected by a parasitic meme which took over parts of my brain and manipulated me into referring to my friends as comrades and wearing a Che Guevara t shirt.

The meme concept has floundered in recent years, mainly because it is extremely silly, adds nothing to an understanding of the history of ideas and has no evidence supporting it whatsoever As the paleontologist Simon Conway Morris points out:

‘Memes are trivial, to be banished by simple mental exercises. In any wider context, they are hopelessly, if not hilariously simplistic. To conjure up memes not only reveals a strange impression of thought but, as Anthony O’Hear has remarked, if memes really existed they would ultimately deny the reality of reflective thought’.

Undeterred, Blackmore has written a piece for the ‘Edge’ discussion site in which she unveils her view of the human condition and its future fate. It starts badly and goes downhill from there.

All around us the techno-memes are proliferating, and gearing up to take control; not that they realise it; they are just selfish replicators doing what selfish replicators do—getting copied whenever and wherever they can, regardless of the consequences. In this case they are using us human meme machines as their first stage copying machinery, until something better comes along. Artificial meme machines are improving all the time, and the step that will change everything is when these machines become self-replicating. Then they will no longer need us. Whether we live or die, or whether the planet is habitable for us or not, will be of no consequence for their further evolution.

In case you can’t be bothered to wade through it here is a summery. First there were the genes ,the selfish replicators, which found a way to mercilessly copy themselves. In the fullness of time they produced blindly programmed sex robots called humans as copying machinery. But this had an unintended consequence. The gene copiers accidentally made themselves into meme machines which could copy and transmit mind viruses. What next I ask?. Apparently , with the advent of technology we are going to unwittingly unleash a frightening new entrant into the mix.

‘As we old-fashioned, squishy, living meme machines have become overwhelmed with memes we are happily allowing search engines and other software to take over the final process of selection as well. Have we inadvertently let loose a third replicator that is piggy-backing on human memes? I think we have. The information these machines copy is not human speech or actions; it is digital information competing for space in giant servers and electronic networks, copied by extremely high fidelity electronic processes. I think that once all three processes of copying, varying and selecting are done by these machines then a new replicator has truly arrived.’

A new replicator?!?

We might call these level-three replicators “temes” (technological-memes) or “tremes” (tertiary memes). Whatever we call them, they and their copying machinery are here now. We thought we were creating clever tools for our own benefit, but in fact we were being used by blind and inevitable evolutionary processes as a stepping stone to the next level of evolution….When memes coevolved with genes they turned gene machines into meme machines. Temes are now turning us into teme machines.

Brilliant. As I read this my ‘sense of the ridiculous’ meme is causing me to erupt into involuntary giggles and is bringing forth tears of laughter from my face. And yet, unbeknownst to myself, this article I am writing is a ‘teme’ which, when posted, will become part of a mighty ‘temeplex’ which will one day enslave my gene and meme copying descendants.

At the moment temes still need us to build their machines, and to run the power stations, just as genes needed human bodies to copy them and provide their energy. But we humans are fragile, dim, low quality copying machines, and we need a healthy planet with the right climate and the right food to survive. The next step is when the machines we thought we created become self-replicating. This may happen first with nano-technology, or it may evolve from servers and large teme machines being given their own power supplies and the capacity to repair themselves. Then we would become dispensable. That really would change everything.

Thus the genes have produced the gene replicators, which produced the memes which defied the genes, but in a cruel twist of fate the memes are producing the temes which will enslave the genes and the memes. I imagine this state of affairs will continue until the temes produce, and are enslaved by ‘even more technological-memes’ (emtemes), and so on and so forth. Bit of a bum note on which to start 2009.

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This Blog Contains Adult Material

I entered our blog into a blog rating site and, someone to my surprise, the following came out.

OnePlusYou Quizzes and Widgets

The problem is apparently our emphasis on pain and death. Still, at least this shows we take things seriously around here.

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This is interesting. Astrophysicist Frank Tipler has raised some hackles in science with his omega point theology, the view that the universe will eventually evolve into God, which he identifies as the Judeo-Christian God. His books include The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, The Physics of Immortality, and The Physics of Christianity. Now it looks like he's trying to raise more hackles. Urgent Agenda has posted a letter from Tipler where he argues that anthropogenic (i.e. man-caused) global warming "is a scam, with no basis in science". Here's one of his eight points:

It is obvious that anthropogenic global warming is not science at all, because a scientific theory makes non-obvious predictions which are then compared with observations that the average person can check for himself. As we both know from our own observations, AGW theory has spectacularly failed to do this. The theory has predicted steadily increasing global temperatures, and this has been refuted by experience. NOW the global warmers claim that the Earth will enter a cooling period. In other words, whether the ice caps melt, or expand --- whatever happens --- the AGW theorists claim it confirms their theory. A perfect example of a pseudo-science like astrology.
In case you're wondering, my views on anthropogenic global warming are those of the utterly ignorant. I just don't know enough about the issues to justify having an opinion.

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