Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category


Aristotle’s Peaceful Non-Christian God

October 25, 2019

The Christian God is derived of course not only from biblical scripture, but also from Plato.

But theologians also borrowed (along with an entire cosmology) some terminology from Aristotle: ‘unmoved mover’ and ‘first cause’, among many others. But they explicitly and vehemently rejected Aristotle’s notion of God.

Islamic portrayal of Aristotle, 1220 (partly damaged)

They didn’t like it that, unlike Plato’s God, the god of Aristotle did not create the universe. This is a needless abdication of power. Christians are supposed to feel infinitely subordinate to God and irreversibly indebted to Him as well. That’s an easier place to get to theologically (i.e. politically), if you can say that God created us, and that we are thus his property.

Aristotle thought the earth and the heavens had simply always been there: the spherical earth at the centre of the universe; the heavens slowly turning above, in an unchanging and unbroken circle. The animals, a category to which humans also belong, live out their lives as their predecessors always have done, beautifully attuned to their respective habitats.

For Plato, the demiurge created tiny geometric particles and shared out some creative tasks to lesser deities, who did the best they could to create a world out of this rather unforgiving material. All they could do though was to create a pale and unsatisfying copy of the divine master plan: the eternal “Forms” that are the immaterial true essence of the various things in the universe. Our world, according to Plato is a realm of shadows and imperfection.

This accorded well with Christianity, as did the path to “true knowledge” that Plato installed in this model as well. Only by revelation can knowledge be gained. His famous simile of the cave has a prisoner who has only seen shadows, led out into the light to see real things themselves. As with Christian revelation, knowledge gained in this manner grants the knower a special status. Better still, the knowledge itself is invulnerable to criticism as well as to revision. Its more baffling aspects can be “interpreted” by a priesthood, who attain special and unquestionable special status, which can be maintained as long as they maintain a grip on political power.

The Great Chain of Being: Christian cosmology based on Aristotle, 1579. (Source)

For Aristotle, the world was worth knowing about in itself. While Christianity indeed adopted his cosmology (with the heavens above, eternal and unchanging, and the realm of change below — the sub-lunary realm), the Church added Plato’s Creator-God into the mix. Thus it reintroduced what Aristotle had explicitly rejected in Plato: a beginning, a Creator, and the Forms.

While the heavens were for Aristotle governed by different laws (of circular motion) and consisting of different stuff (a fifth element, the quintessence), they weren’t separated by the same gulf as with Plato and Christianity. Knowledge of the world is genuine knowledge,m for Aristotle, whereas for Plato and the Church, true knowledge can only come from revelation.

In a way, Aristotle drew the invisible Forms of Plato a few steps closer to earth. That same wonder Plato invoked for a revelation of the Forms (and Christianity invokes for the presence of God), was for Aristotle the same thing we all feel when we gaze at the stars.

The encounter between reason and revelation, that has occupied theologians for so long, is, in Aristotle, simply the encounter between reason and reality as we perceive it.

Plato’s somewhat intolerant impatience for the natural sciences, which says ‘Ok, you can study that stuff, but ultimately who cares?‘ is the most enlightened position on scientific inquiry that theology has ever come up with. Tolerant theologians have always seen it as the study of the works of the Creator. Some have even granted that it might possibly be a “path to the divine”, though always with a cautious glance over their shoulder. It is always, however, seen as a circuitous and unreliable route to take.

They accept the reasoning that if God created the world, then to study the world is to study the works of the Creator… but that “IF” is barely audible, and usually surgically removed before it can do any further damage. The most liberal modern theologians are prepared to accept free inquiry, but always with one hand resting on the handbrake.

But for Aristotle, with no Creator-God, there is also no fear of disproof or disappointment; no burden of assumptions, and no big stick for any priest to wield.

“Humans”, as Aristotle said, “by their nature desire to know.”

The soul dies with the body, according to Aristotle, although he did see consciousness in a de-personalised sense continuing somehow. Prayer also went out the window for Aristotle. He saw it not only as useless but, under his conception of God, also impossible and pointless. And he said so. (And yes, he did spend his final years in exile.)

Not that he said people shouldn’t pray, but rather, that if they do, God won’t hear it, because he doesn’t love us, doesn’t care and doesn’t even know we exist.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book 7, translated by William of Moerbeke c. 1250 (source)

This is a horrifying thought not only for those who find solace in prayer, but also for the priesthood. Prayer is the currency of Christian theology. It’s a “thing” that people can “do”, can even be seen “doing”, can be told to “do”, and can say they’ve “done”. It’s a way that guilt can be resolved, that one can feel one’s own status has been raised, and one can feel a connection to one’s God. Above all, it confirms and reinforces the submissive, subordinate relationship that a believer has not only to their God, but — most importantly for the purposes of this piece of writing — to their priesthood.

So Aristotle’s God didn’t create anything, doesn’t answer prayers, doesn’t grant absolute knowledge through revelation, doesn’t keep the universe ticking over in some mysterious way, doesn’t reveal Himself unexpectedly to people or impregnate virgins or appear in human form. He also doesn’t perform miracles, sit in judgment, or grant any person eternal life.

What’s left then?

There are two aspects to that.

The first is that Aristotle’s God touches people and moves people. But not in the active sense of reaching out; rather in the passive sense: in the same way as people are “touched” by a work of art or “moved” by the beauty of nature. (The language is Aristotle’s.) The things of the natural world — the animals, the plants, even rocks and minerals — embody their closeness to the divine in the form they take. Aristotle saw a great hierarchy, a scala naturae, as it was called by the Christian theologians who embraced this idea, from the lowliest worm to the pinnacle of this great pyramid — humans, of course.

This particular idea — the Great Chain of Being — though it survived the destruction that Galileo and Newton wrought on Aristotle’s cosmology, did not survive Darwin. there is no grand hierarchy. Living organisms are adapted to their particular habitat, not to any kind of absolute or external hierarchy. (This is too rarely emphasised. Darwin didn’t just demolish creationism; he also dismantled the idea that the differences between species — and more importantly races — are of no intrinsic significance or value. They are related to habitat and chance mutation, and are not marks left by a divine Creator.)

Darwin’s conception of species branching out from a common origin, c. 1837

The second (and final) aspect is Aristotle’s consideration of what exactly God is and what it does.

God, according to Aristotle, thinks. He thinks about thinking. Or if I may risk a little pseudo-Buddhist supposition about what Aristotle is referring to, God is conscious awareness that is aware of itself. It contemplates its own awareness. (Maybe meditators will have a clue what I’m babbling about, and maybe it even means something.)

For Aristotle, it is good to be aware of the objects of the world — the search for knowledge is intrinsically good. But it requires an effort to “possess” the things of the world in one’s mind. You have have to go outside yourself to do it. But for awareness to simply be aware of itself, it takes no energy. Or maybe to today we might speculate that it takes less to be simply aware of awareness itself, relatively untroubled by the distractions of sensory input.

I’m not claiming necessarily that this kind of thing is psychological possible, but there’s the kernel of an idea there that I think is similar to the ideas found in Zen Buddhism, and also — I think — able to explored for oneself.

Whatever the case, Aristotle, as much as he valued scientific inquiry — and he did value as highly as anyone and in fact founded a genuine science of biology — he also saw conscious awareness itself as divine.

This happy state does not involve the endless prattling inner dialogue of ‘normal’ thought; not does it passively fall asleep. It is aware, but it doesn’t actually do anything. Awareness just is, ultimately. (Perhaps.)

Thought, Aristotle says, “seems to contain” what he calls the “divine element” (yep, that term also comes from him). And “the act of contemplation is what is most pleasant and best. If, then, God is always in that good state in which we sometimes are, this compels our wonder…”

And life also belongs to God because the actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality; and God’s self-dependent actuality is is life most good and eternal.

If that sounds like cheap theology, it’s partly because his rather pedestrian lecture notes are all we have on this, and also because it’s exactly the style theologians try to emulate. (The passage is from the Metaphysics, Bk 7, Ch 7.)

Whatever the case, and whatever Aristotle means by all this, it is clear that this “God” is not the Christian God. It doesn’t confer privileges on one class of people over another, nor does it claim it will rescue you or your soul. Nor will it even so much as raise an eyebrow at our private antics.

It’s just aware. A silent, non-judging witness.

Aristotle as portrayed by the Germans, 1520 (don’t ask)

Posted by Yakaru


Two Modes of “God”: the Sticky Label & as Anaesthetic

March 28, 2019

Science and religion do in fact have one thing in common: both are very effective means of closing down subjective conscious experiencing of our inner world. Science can do it by denying that consciousness even exists, or by limiting itself to the study of its appearance in others instead of direct first hand experience (which admittedly can anyway not be shared with others). In any case, the wonder of consciousness, surprise at one’s own existence, and the uncomfortable awareness of complete aloneness and fact of mortality operate mostly in the subconscious, and anyone who denies these things affect their behaviour simply hasn’t looked very hard.

Religion, on the other hand, (and I include its soft core version found under the label ‘spirituality’ here), can shut down this awareness by immediately declaring the whole territory of ‘the inner’ as already well known and in the private possession of some entity called “God”.

This goddy tendency is ubiquitous among humans, and for me personally (an atheist of pseudo-buddhist orientation), quite baffling. Awareness — consciousness — is all we have. Why switch it off and label it? And why then start yelling at or killing anyone who tells you you’ve been hasty and you’re missing something? Why assume that anyone who stops using that word is shallow?

Whatever the reason, I identify here the two main ways in which the “God”-word seems to me to be used:

  1. as a kind of sticky label with the word “God” written in it that the believer wants to stick onto some part of their private subjective experience; and
  2. as a kind of anaesthetic, which is administered through vague words and soft priestly intonations that are designed to be so fuzzy around the edges that no one even tries to pin down to any specific meaning. It is especially used at times of crisis in the attempt at switching off pain.

(There is of course, a third, in which belief in “God” is a supposedly rational conclusion, derived only through reason — usually with the words “I didn’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” It usually amounts to either an argument from design, or the insistence that the resurrection of Jesus was a historical event attested to by eye witnesses, so we are compelled to believe it. I find this argument so utterly fatuous that I can only assume it is rhetorical and insincere, and only masks a belief in 1 or 2 above. The idea that such a creator has any interest in humans or exists in any way comprehensible to humans no doubt sounded a little better when people thought the earth was the center of the universe. It sounded slightly better until 1925 when we thought there was only one galaxy and our sun was the centre of that. But now that we know the size and age of the universe it is just absurd to use that argument, regardless of whether it is is given a fancy title like ‘The Anthropic Principle’ or not.)

The Sticky Label Theory of God

So you were born, and everyone was already using the word “God” as if it means something, and you didn’t know what it meant. You probably thought you were the only one in this boat, so you tried your best to know what it means. It means ‘authority that can’t be questioned’, or ‘big power that created the universe’, or — even more mysteriously — ‘love’: that much is clear; but what exactly IS it? Or HOW is it?

In any case, you’ve got this word written indelibly on a metaphysical label, and everyone else seems to have stuck it somewhere. They say they have stuck it onto the most valuable and precious location in their inner world that they can find.

So what about you? Well?

…A limited number of possibilities are apparent at this point.

You can stick it somewhere and it feels right — and good luck to you!

You can say you’ve stuck it somewhere and occasionally toss the word into conversation, often enough to keep the mullahs or the annoying uncle with the fake smile off your back; but the whole things seems a bit weird and pointless, but you’ve got other more pressing concerns in life.

You can try out as many different places as possible to stick it, and agree that this label could, in principle, be stuck in many places, so they all must be “God”. This is a popular one these days, especially among academics and anyone who for whatever reason wants to avoid making waves, but couldn’t be bothered to take any clear position.

….Or you could say the label was already peeled off by someone and handed to you by default, and you don’t see any point in sticking it anywhere.

This last option seems to upset everyone who has stuck their label onto something, and even enrages the aforementioned group who think that in principle you should have stuck it somewhere. All seem to think that you deny the existence of whatever it is they stuck their label onto: that which is most valuable. How could you, you unfeeling cad. Ha — you don’t believe in yourself! Etc.

In fact all you have done is declared your inner world an unexplored continent open to no one else. You might find it has rocks and trees and deserts and rivers, and places you can fall to your death into if you’re not careful; or if you are just unlucky.

But that “God” label stops that exploration. It’s too loud, and too meaningless. Too burdened with other people’s meanings, that they only guessed at and asserted in the first place. And always — ALWAYS — that sticky label you were given has some fine print that indicates who you are indebted to, and which agents can collect that debt.

Perhaps worst of all, having stuck the label somewhere, it means that all the rest of you is not “God”, and therefore unclean. For fanatics and those terrified from birth by fanatics, it often means that another label called “Satan” has been stuck onto other parts. (The wonderful comedy duo Garfunkel & Oates wrote a nice song for repressed puritanical teenagers on this topic, called F*ck me in the Ass Because I Love Jesus. “Careful not to touch Satan’s doorbell.”)

This dissociation from and denial of one’s mammalian origins and nature has pointlessly blighted humanity with incalculable misery.

The Word “God” as an Anaesthetic

This usage of the word “God” tends to see God as an external and benign force. It is used to switch off thought, discussion, and inner exploration. The whole point is that the words don’t mean anything. Their fuzzy edges are supposed to dull sensation, not to clarify or locate a source of pain. In an utterly hopeless or extreme situation, I can understand trying it, but unfortunately it is used routinely by priests and theologians. (New Age spiritual teachers use it too, but they usually intersperse it with concepts from quantum physics in the place of Jesus.)

The danger here is that it may also distract one from locating a source or cause of pain, and debilitate one from finding a solution to it. But pointing out the meaningless nature of such intonations, or that the accompanying behaviour (the smirking and stooping of popes and Dalai Lamas) is insincere and fake, makes the critic appear “not nice”, and a spoil sport, at best.

Despite what proponents of this approach say, it chews up a lot of energy to generate the desired neurochemicals associated with these pious words. Just because others don’t share the addiction to these substances, doesn’t mean that they don’t also use or value those same neurochemicals, perhaps in a different manner.

Eschewing all of this doesn’t make an atheist or non-theist a klutz who sees no mystery or wonder in the universe. Rather, it leaves doors and gates in the inner world open or unmarked. Although this does make it harder for such people to talk about their experiences, it does mean that when they do, they are forced to develop their own terminology to describe what they experience. Those more accustomed to the use of the “God” label will find such words glib or baffling, but if they took the time to ask any of their co-religionists what exactly they mean by the “God” word, they would find it just as glib and baffling.

Posted by Yakaru


Three academics launch a vague attack on science and propose a vague solution of some kind

January 27, 2019

Here is a brief critique of a truly awful and vague attack on science. I just saw it mentioned on Jerry Coyne’s website and decided to look at it.

It is written by no less than three academics. It’s called The Blind Spot, but the title in the URL gives a bit more detail ‘the blind spot of science is the neglect of lived experience’. Many will already be able to guess what their argument is going to be at this point, and the same number will also find it hard to nail down exactly what it’s all about. They will get no help from the authors.

Before starting, I want to note that I think there is a case to made for the idea that there are some things which can only be experienced or decided subjectively. Do we see green all the same? is an obvious one, (which usually first occurs to 8 year old children, and is swiftly forgotten as being insoluble). A more pressing one is the question whether or not others feel pain. I can only surmise that they do, based on their reactions and statements. I could of course remain skeptical and start hitting people with hammers when I feel like it, but it would quickly cease to be an abstract philosophical issue, and would ruin my life and the lives of those who got hit.

That example is clichéd and ridiculous, but it illustrates the point where these science-can’t-really-know-anything arguments fall down. They only seem compelling or substantive as long as they remain hypothetical, and as long as nothing is riding on the answer.

Well, let’s see how their particular argument pans out.

They start off talking about the difficulties in thinking about the beginning of the universe, and note the same problems that occur to the average 8 year old: “We can’t step outside the box in order to look within, because the box is all there is.” Ok, but what about within the box?

Many of us like to think that science can give us a complete, objective description of cosmic history, distinct from us and our perception of it.

For me, this is a bit too vague. Which “many of us” think this? At least one name would give me a pointer to the kind of thinker they are referring to. Such a view would barely rank as a caricature of scientists whose work I’ve read or studied. Before even hitting the math, quantum physics confirms that the our mammalian perceptual system evolved in a way suited detecting the things that most immediately impinge upon survival. These limits are completely obvious from the point of view of evolution, not baffling, as the authors imply.

But this image of science is deeply flawed. In our urge for knowledge and control, we’ve created a vision of science as a series of discoveries about how reality is in itself, a God’s-eye view of nature.

But what about the approach summed up so succinctly in Karl Popper’s term ‘falsifiability’, which limits science to that which is testable. Narrow as this strikes some people, it does not preclude speculation. All it does is insist that speculations be clearly labeled as such.

Science can appear authoritarian, dogmatic and unimaginative if one picks a science text-book — so many blunt statements of fact. But that is because it is for the most part only blunt statements of fact that make it into the text books — that’s why they’re text-books. Scientific research, on the other hand, is all about identifying gray areas and pursuing unanswered questions. Facts are used as a basis for speculation. Theoretical understanding based on the apparent facts sets the parameters and helps guard against wasting time. Speculations are clearly labeled as such, before the researcher tries to back them up with facts. Facts are what scientific progress is built upon.

This is not a “God’s-eye view”. Quite the opposite. Mythology or religion, on the other hand, does try to give a God’s-eye view of reality, by trying to make a home in the universe for the human psyche. But science is committed to leaving such a home half built at best. If the facts aren’t there to construct a roof on it, it stays without a roof. All there is a sign saying “No one knows what goes here.”

Instead of ‘truth’ or ‘fact’, a better word might be ‘certainty’. There are things which we are so certain of, it would be a waste of time to check them again. I can’t know for a fact that this cup will fall if I let go of it, but I am certain of it. I don’t know for a fact that God didn’t create the world 5 minutes ago, (complete, as Bertrand Russell put it, with Englishmen with holes in their socks), but I live my life as if it existed much longer than that.

Such an approach not only distorts the truth, but creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world.

This is an unfounded assertion, made with no attempt to support it.

That divide arises from what we call the Blind Spot, which science itself cannot see. In the Blind Spot sits experience: the sheer presence and immediacy of lived perception.

Ok, so the eye cannot see itself. But it can see; and it can see other eyes; and the brain it belongs to can recognise that it has an eye that sees. I reject this vague notion that this somehow “creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world”. Rather, it creates a fairly realistic sense of that distance. There is a distance. When I die, it just won’t be the same, at least from my perspective — for me that is an important distance between me and the world.

And what is “lived perception”? And what does it have to do with this supposed distance?

Behind the Blind Spot sits the belief that physical reality has absolute primacy in human knowledge…

They are already leapfrogging away with this “Blind Spot” stuff, but they haven’t shown why it is especially ‘scientific’; why it has bad consequences; why it detaches people from reality; or how it can be overcome by some kind of non-science.

….a view that can be called scientific materialism. In philosophical terms, it combines scientific objectivism (science tells us about the real, mind-independent world) and physicalism (science tells us that physical reality is all there is).

As noted above, science takes what we can be certain of, and tries to use it to gain a better understanding of what we aren’t certain of. There are cases where what we are certain of not only tells us about what is, but also what is not. We know that all the non-genetic theories for reproduction are wrong, for example…

The authors note that science can check its hypotheses–

But these tests never give us nature as it is in itself, outside our ways of seeing and acting on things.

Again, 8 year old children get this, note how odd it is, and move on. But these authors don’t. Instead, they add another vague and unsupported assertion:

Experience is just as fundamental to scientific knowledge as the physical reality it reveals.

What are they talking about? Who knows. I doubt they do themselves. But what they have achieved with this move is to equate “experience” (that is, “lived perception”) with scientific knowledge. And instead of trying to back up this deceitful and extraordinarily stupid claim, they leapfrog to the next point.

The second problem concerns physicalism. According to the most reductive version of physicalism…

Note that they use the “most reductive” version, but continue as if this represents science.

…science tells us that everything, including life, the mind and consciousness, can be reduced to the behaviour of the smallest material constituents. You’re nothing but your neurons, and your neurons are nothing but little bits of matter.

As always when spiritual folk pull this trick, just cross out the entirely anti-scientific “nothing but”.

Here, life and the mind are gone, and only lifeless matter exists.

They speak as if ‘life’ is an independent thingy of some kind. There are good reasons why biologists dropped the idea of vitalism: after searching for the life force for 300 years, the concept bore no fruit. Instead ‘life’ can be clearly defined and identified: it involves an imperfectly replicating molecule that is capable of undergoing evolution.

Consciousness is of course much harder to pin down, and it is not uncommon for scientists to be a bit bold here. But the authors use this as a launching pad for asserting that consciousness disproves that ‘physical reality is all there is’, because consciousness can’t be explained by the physical sciences.

Again, this assertion is left unsupported. The authors don’t realise they have wandered into Maybe/maybe-not’s-ville. In this village of the damned, science becomes a mediocre branch of speculative philosophy, and we can all sit about in armchairs and talk about how ‘our intuitions are an inner path to understanding objective reality which is isn’t objective anyway.’

The authors mention a few philosophers, while retracing the steps that Fritjof Capra took more deftly but just as fruitless in his 1975 book The Tao of Physics — which also placed speculation on the same level as fact; and also ended up sitting in the same armchair that Aristotle was trying coax Plato to get up from and look at the nature he found so dull and second-hand.

The only new thing from these authors is labeling it The Blind Spot. They conclude:

To finally ‘see’ the Blind Spot is to wake up from a delusion of absolute knowledge.

Again they repeat that science is unaware of perception; is hindered by this failing; and that becoming aware of it will somehow rescue the supposedly blind from their supposed “delusion”, whose existence has merely been asserted.

It’s also to embrace the hope that we can create a new scientific culture….

Yes, to do this thing that scientists supposedly haven’t done, is to embrace a hope. Very nice.

…in which we see ourselves both as an expression of nature…

Another baseless and completely unsupported assertion. We are a product of nature. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, you know. Thinking you’re an “expression” of nature sounds like something a Romantic like Schelling might have said (and far more coherently), but Schelling could at least point to Goethe as proof. All these guys have got is Rupert Sheldrake and Deepak Chopra.

…and as a source of nature’s self-understanding.

Well that’s a nice way of reframing it, though also not exactly new. Would it surprise any biologist to hear that they are a product of nature, and that as such, a portion of nature understands part of itself? I doubt it.

In fact, all this speculation-presented-as-fact that we are “expressions” of a nature which is seeking “self-understanding” is exactly the kind of theoretical guff that detaches people from the natural world and the present moment, preferring instead to speculate about how in the golden future a non-Blind-Spotted New Science will be when it finally arrives.

Their great conclusion:

We need nothing less than a science nourished by this sensibility for humanity to flourish in the new millennium.

Uhuh. That would be good, wouldn’t it. Whatever it is.

Posted by Yakaru


The Ego (or ‘Self’) is an Illusion — Free Will Must Be Too

November 23, 2018

This is one topic I usually avoid discussing or even thinking about. I decided, however, to write some thoughts about it, after reading an excellent blogpost written by John Freestone — whom regular readers here will know as @lettersquash. John sums up the main viewpoints on this ridiculously abstract and fiddly topic, discusses the relative merits of each, and makes the case that the only reasonable conclusion to draw is that there is no such thing as free will. (And anyone wondering why I avoid the topic need only read the comments — where John patiently debates a philosophical believer in free will.)

I recommend reading John’s article before deciding whether or not to read my semi-coherent digressions here!

This post will necessarily involve wandering about through numerous topics, some of which don’t often seem to be covered in this debate. I will argue that asking “is there free will?” is a bad way to approach human consciousness. Subjective experience as well as neuroscience strongly suggest that the ‘self’ as a psychological entity is an illusion. As far as I can see, this fact precludes the idea of free will for human individuals altogether. Who or what has it?

Below I will discuss how what we think of as our self can be investigated using introspection or meditative awareness, and found to be an illusion. Then I will turn to what neuroscience says about the same issue: in particular, the extraordinary ‘split-brain’ studies for which psychologist Roger Sperry won a Nobel Prize.

The Subjective Case for No Self & No Free Will

For there to be any meaningful free will, there would have to be some particular thing in the brain that both does the doing and knows it’s doing it too. But despite centuries of searching, it’s never been found. The record of millennia of Buddhist meditation would suggest it was only a set of needless and erroneous assumptions that made us look in the first place.

Ultimately,  when one looks in, all we notice is that there is awareness, and there is a body. The way I conceive of meditation is that I can watch the body kind of ‘from the inside’ (thanks to the kinesthetic sense, aka proprioception). The next step is becoming aware of thoughts as they bubble up carry me away from the awareness of my body. The practice of meditation often consists in letting the thoughts go and then returning to a relaxed, non-judgmental awareness of the body. Watching the body is in itself fairly easy. Letting go of the thoughts is a bit harder — they are tempting and seductive. At some point, one can also become aware of the the emotions. These are kind of a glue that stick the thoughts together and impel them onwards. (Where thoughts are seductive, emotions just use brute force to close down meditative awareness and introspection. It’s harder to let go of these, but one can learn to deal with them better.)

Getting out of the state of unawareness long enough to observe one’s inner workings with meditative awareness is, as any meditator should admit, not easy. It can feel strange and unsettling at first. Suddenly there’s awareness of one’s own body, maybe a bit like noticing a stranger’s body up close, sitting there, breathing, and heart-beating. Who the heck is that? What is it? The usual orientation-points of familiar or reassuring thoughts disappear; the usual comfort of identity (the internalised opinions of others) is gone too. There’s just this vulnerable, soft body.

Letting go of the imagined visual image of the body, and simply feeling what sensations are there can feel like there’s really no body there at all, just a few pressure points pressing on a chair or floor. Then there’s the awareness itself, like a dark room with only a little light there — the inner eye needs time to adjust… And it’s boring! Don’t look in there! Why bother? It’s more interesting outside where the lights are on and all those interesting, stupid, or sexy people are….

And the volume control on one’s thoughts suddenly seems to have been turned up. Behind this wall of inner dialogue, hides everything that one avoided dealing with or couldn’t cope with: fears, sorrow and anger at how one has been treated; anger at compromises one made while hoping to be loved. It’s all there — hopeless defeat: a terror, or at least a right royal pain in the arse. And perhaps a deep desire to indignantly clutch it all to yourself, hoping that some saviour will finally rescue you from your misery — as you so fully deserve. (I’m writing about my own quirks and cop-outs here of course, but I don’t think I’m the only one!)

Worst of all is the feeling of being of utterly, inescapably alone. Moments of great danger or imminent death can force one to face up to this abyss of aloneness, but meditation can take you there too. (Meditation teachers don’t usually mention this journey to Holy-Fucksville in their advertising material, and probably don’t know about it either, but it’s there. Luckily, for most people, including all meditators, our defense mechanisms are usually well enough developed and maintained to defend against the opening of this door.)

Learning to detach from the mad circus that constantly bubbles up into consciousness, and to simply be aware, is what meditation is all about. At some point, pure ‘awareness of awareness’ can kick in for a while. This awareness of awareness seems to be a ‘natural state’. But absorption in one’s actions, thoughts, and emotions drives one away from it, resulting in a state of unawareness. Meditation is an artificial technique to try to return to it.

Yes, in everyday life I don’t mind thinking or saying ‘I will stand up’; and when I stand, having the feeling that I ‘did’ it. I can even have a feeling of the “I” that did it: that this “I” is in there somewhere. But as soon as I sit down and calmly return to simple meditative awareness, it’s gone. 

This “I”-feeling exists only in a state of unawareness. 

This state of unawareness is, however, where I usually live, dragged about by impulses and sensations. “I” either hop on board the next train of thought and tell myself I’m enjoying it… or try desperately to stop it, usually telling myself it’s not my fault I climbed aboard in the first place.

This state of unawareness is where most people live. And it’s also, I believe, the venue where the entire free will debate also takes place. In fact, meditation involves detaching from, or disidentifying from all the activities that believers in free will claim to somehow be ‘doing’ themselves. I think any experienced meditator would have noticed that the body and its nervous system is perfectly capable of amusing itself regardless of the plans its “I” might have for it.

Some, doubt, would argue that this disengagement of ‘being aware’ is in itself evidence of free will. But awareness is just something that arises: it happens — even if it’s couched in dualistic language. Consciousness doesn’t really do anything. Just as a river reflects the sky without intending to do so — there is no will involved. (This blunt assertion is not intended as a statement of fact, but a description of how it looks to me after much introspection.)

The Case from Neuroscience for No Self

Psychologist Roger Sperry conducted a spectacular set of experiments that demonstrated the non-existence of a self as conclusively as could be possible. Sam Harris, in his (excellent) book Waking Up highlighted the significance of these experiments.

Sperry studied patients who had undergone an operation whereby the neuronal connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain are severed. (This is a treatment for extreme life-threatening epilepsy.) Remarkably, patients neither display nor report any impairments or behavioural changes. However, Sperry found that under very specific conditions, an extraordinary trait emerges.

As is popularly known, there is a fairly clear division of labour between the two hemispheres of the brain: the left is neuro-anatomically connected to the right side of the body, and is mostly responsible for speech and logical thought; the right is connected t the left side and is carries out more non-verbal and creative tasks.

In Sperry’s study, a patient would have their right eye (connected to the left brain) covered. An image of an object, for example, an egg, would then be shown to the left eye (connected to the ‘non-verbal’ right brain). Next, the image would be removed and the right eye uncovered again. 

“What did you see?” asks the experimenter; to which the subject almost answers, “I didn’t see anything.” Only the left eye, and therefore also only the ‘non-verbal’ right brain has been exposed to the picture. In someone who has not undergone the operation, the image can be communicated to the ‘verbal’ left brain and a verbal answer can be formulated. In those whose left and right brains have been separated, this communication apparently does not seem to occur.

It is at this point that the experiment turns decidedly weird. The subject is asked to reach behind a screen and detect a number of items, using their left hand (connected to the right brain). They are instructed to select from them “the item that you didn’t see”. The subject selects the egg. The experimenter asks why they have done this. Rather than being baffled, the subject usually begins to confabulate: “I had eggs for breakfast this morning”, or some such.

More specific testing, exposing on side of the brain to information or a question and not the other, can result in the two hemispheres contradicting each other, even arguing with each other. Each of these ‘modular selves’ appears entirely coherent, complete, and self-contained.

In those of us with our corpus callosum still intact, it appears that communication between the hemispheres does not so much unite the hemispheres so they can democratically reach a consensus between the various voices, as instead suppress the non-verbal silent witness under the conclusive dominance of parts with verbal capability. As Harris puts it:

Why is it that the right hemisphere is generally willing to bear silent witness to the errors and confabulations of the left? Could it be that the right hemisphere is used to it? (Waking Up, p. 73)

Anyone who is even slightly capable of introspection must already have had first hand experience of such a process as this: realising you have just not quite exactly spoken the truth. Some people (me for example) have even realised at some point in our lives that virtually word we have ever spoken falls into this category. The silent witness within the right hemisphere just gives up after a few years of being ignored and goes off to sulk in the corner.

While this may not preclude the possibility that our various autonomous ‘selves’ might themselves have free will, it does preclude the possibility that an individual person without a complete ‘self’ can have it.

There appear to be many autonomous ‘modules’ in the brain. Even if one were to argue that each of these has a ‘will’ that is ‘free’, one would still be forced to concede that the struggle among to influence behaviour must be determined by non-free neurological processes. I don’t see any way around this.

If anyone wants to argue that all these ‘selves’ have a free will, I would wish them luck, but they would need to define their terms. What would it mean to be a ‘self’ be in this case? Or in any other case, when it gets down to it?

Posted by Yakaru


WordPress censors Jerry Coyne’s website in Pakistan

June 21, 2018

My webhost, WordPress, has (almost) always been good to me. They have been swift to provide assistance when I’ve had technical problems, even though I pay them no money. (Instead they place ads here occasionally.)

Jerry Coyne, however, pays them quite well to keep his site free of ads and with daily postings of high resolution nature photos.

However, during the odd moments when he is not feeding baby ducklings, he is busy upsetting the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, who “demanded” that WordPress block his entire site from Pakistan.

Faced with this demand from these religious fanatics, WordPress immediately capitulated.

As we know, Muslims tend to have identical autonomic nervous systems which seize up if they see a line drawing of a man with a beard, or a brief written text inviting them to ponder an idea if they feel like it. Some might find the previous assertion racist, bigoted, idiotic, insulting to Muslims and to humanity, and completely and utterly wrong. Some might argue that Muslims are a diverse bunch who are every bit as capable of taking responsibility for their emotional responses to things as anyone else on the planet. Some might argue that even the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority along with every other theocrat knows this too and is merely using mob mentality and hatred as a cloak for their own assertion of earthly political power.

But WordPress thinks it’s better to avoid such speculations and simply side with theocrats, and block an entire website from the entire population of Pakistan.

In other words, WordPress has clearly decided it is in its own financial interests to decide what Pakistanis can and can’t read.

Okay, at least now we know where they’re coming from. But we also know that their “Beat Censorship” page, which they included in their message to Jerry Coyne is missing one option: Don’t censor things yourself in the first place, unless you want to be exposed as a hypocrite as well as a coward.

I hope, and expect that WordPress will cop so much flak for their disgraceful capitulation and complicity, that they will reverse their decision. I will keep readers here posted.

Posted by Yakaru


Religion, Spirituality and the ‘Inner Hierarchy’

February 25, 2018

This post is a collection of thoughts that starts suddenly in the middle of nowhere and then wanders off somewhere else. It is not especially coherent, but it is supposed to mean something. I am still clearing up the ideas involved in it. It might be interesting, dull, utterly inscrutable or mundanely obvious.

Humans, like other mammals and primates, have a more or less pre-programmed ‘inner hierarchy’. We automatically size up other people we encounter, to determine whether or not we feel dominant or submissive to them, and adjust our behavior accordingly. Much of this is learned and socialized of course, but there is also a substructure of automatic behavioral patterns that automatically kick in, especially if the dominance or submission is clear cut.

In other words, humans have a kind of map for sets of behaviors for each level of a hierarchy. Clearly, a similar set of psychological conditions accompany these.

These behavior patterns sit deep in the psyche, often largely beyond conscious awareness or control. these are triggered by certain signals — body posture, certain types of language use, adornment, etc. I assume anyone reading this has experienced a situation where they were shocked at their own behavior in some kind of unexpected response to such signals: too submissive to an authoritarian, or maybe nasty to someone who signaled submission.

I am arguing that we automatically place ourselves somewhere on a scale of dominance/submission, according to a kind of ‘inner map’, which also contains behavioral patterns which are triggered according to where we place on this scale.

Everyone tends to go a little weak in the knees when encountering an especially high status person. (There are of course good evolutionary reasons for an instinctive tendency to express submission to highly dominant individuals.) But it’s not just crass power games involving survival or receiving favors. Our sense of awe when encountering an extraordinary landscape, or a wild animal, or work of art, etc., probably comes from this same aspect of our psychology.

We are carrying, in other words, a complete program for how to act, and how to feel for each status level of this inner hierarchy.

So people can feel genuine awe for “God”, regardless of whether or not there are any gods, if they happen to stumble into that part of the brain where the feeling of awe for a higher power is located.

Mystics, especially outside the three dominant monotheisms, report feeling like they themselves have been transported to this higher status position, without feeling dominant over others, but more like they are observing themselves and everyone else as if from a great height or distance.

The existence of this ‘inner hierarchy’ makes humans very susceptible to religion. The notion of an ultimate alpha male is close enough to deep seated mammalian instinctive feelings and behaviors. We are at the utter mercy of external factors, regardless of whether they’re due to random chance or deliberate intention of a “higher” being. It’s not easy to live with that fact, and it is easy to feel stress related to powerlessness.

The biologist Robert Sapolsky has argued persuasively (using research o primates including baboons and humans) that stress is most closely associated with lower status. In fact merely occupying a lower status position is itself a cause of stress.

We can also note that under stress (aka lower status in relation to some stressor) or who feel helpless, are more likely to trust an authority figure.

All this makes it quite easy for priests to convince people that “God” is up there on the top step, and that there are steps descending downwards towards us — the hierarchies of seraphim and cherubim, the angels, a few saints, and then splashing out into physical reality, the popes, cardinals and bishops, down a few more stairs to the priest who is standing before you, one step up. You can see the stairs leading upwards, maybe the last visible step being some magnificent church, before it disappears into the clouds.

And that priest is at the immediate end of all that power, right in front of you.

Some religions and sects (and cults) are very particular about the status its sheep are allowed to occupy. They use ideology to prevent people from moving up the scale on their own ‘inner hierarchy’ as it exists in their psyche. They even define humanity in a way that denies the very possibility of such inward mobility.

Humans are guilty of original sin, or do not belong to a lower caste, etc. The whole thing is framed to keep followers stuck in one position on their ‘inner hierarchy’. (This is why religious authorities are unfailingly opposed to the idea of evolution. It loosens their grip on their power to define humanity, and therefore loosens their ideological control over their subjects.)

Should a subject feel themselves being tugged upwards, they should immediately dismiss it as hubris. The fear of falling even further downwards can be used as a constant threat over them.

Gautama the Buddha said “be a light unto yourself”, implying, I suppose, that humans are in fact free to move upwardly in this ‘inner hierarchy’.

The dissolution of the illusion of self — so surprising at first, and maybe a little shocking too — is a key to this. A ‘self’ can be fixed at one level on the inner hierarchy, and held there until its future Day of Judgment, where this single unified ‘self’ will be condemned or redeemed, according to its acts.

For this reason, mystics who preach the illusory nature of the ‘self’, have never been tolerated by any authoritarian religion. The practice of meditation is also treated with immense caution at best (and seen as a subset of prayer); and usually without outright condemnation. They don’t want people locating themselves at many different points on that inner hierarchy, or maybe, all points and nowhere on it, simultaneously. That ‘self’ is the thing that authoritarian religions hold power over.

(It is instructive to note here that despite appearances New Age esoteric spirituality is also guilty of this. They have carried over the Platonic/Christian view of the “soul” as something unitary and immortal. Thus the stakes for salvation are just as high as in Christianity, and the power of its priesthood just as great — though without any moral strictures for priestly behavior. This is bad for actual spirituality, but great for marketing.)

As a small child, I accidentally discovered this myself. I used to lie awake at night looking for who “I” refers to. I couldn’t find it, yet there was still consciousness, somehow, without any “I”, just bubbling up out of nowhere like a slow, happy fountain. I used to just lie there, completely astounded by this experience. As a teenager I once remembered that I used to be able to do it, but when I tried I couldn’t get there anymore. Too much inner turmoil.
Conscious awareness is a tiny little window onto the present moment, like a little piece of sky, with clouds swirling in and out of view. It is surrounded by a wall of words and thoughts about hopes and dreams, tied together ultimately, by emotions. Emotions resulting from the pain of loneliness and the fear of death or dissolution.

It does seem to me that it is possible for the frame of this window to expand or disappear, and reveal the vast empty sky — a sky of consciousness, which is just there: it is, by its nature, aware, but it doesn’t do anything.

Posted by Yakaru


Useful Spiritual Teachings from Frank Zappa

August 26, 2017

Some readers, perhaps, have not heard of the great Frank Zappa. I have referenced him once already here, to contrast his teachings with some flaccid spiritual pabulum from Neale Donald Walsch. Zappa’s first musical creation, some time in the early 1960s, was a rock opera called I was a Teenage Maltshop, which was unfortunately never recorded. His first recorded performance led to him being arrested by the FBI. In 1963 he played the bicycle, after a useful lesson on how to play bicycle, on a popular TV show, to the bewilderment of the host. (If you watch the clip, the young Zappa seems far more relaxed and sensible than the hyperactive host.) He had only been playing bicycle for two weeks beforehand.

Zappa died, far too young, in 1992. In my opinion he was the only person who, had he lived, would have been capable of beating Trump in the 2016 US election.

He was one of the greatest percussionists of the modern age never to be recorded playing percussion, and certainly the greatest drummer ever to become one of the greatest guitarists ever to have started out as a drummer. He also opposed a movement to ban or censor “filth” in pop music, and would have taught today’s leftist free speech opponents a thing or two about giving idiots freedom of speech in order to show them up as idiots.

And here is a song that sums up at least half of the Dhammapada, and none of the Bible, and says everything that anyone who has access to other sources of good advice would ever need to hear.

It’s even clearer than Neale Donald Walsch’s

“You are an Individuation of Deity, a singularization of The Singularity, an aspect of Divinity. You are the Localized Expression of the Universal Presence… You are God… You are in the Realm of the Physical — what has also been called the Realm of the Relative…which is where Experiencing occurs.”

Or Deepak Chopra’s
“You are a holographic expression of the entire universe that is manifesting as a continuum of probability amplitudes for space/time events.”


It’s called You Are What You Is.

Read the rest of this entry ?


A.N. Wilson’s Stupid Creationist History of Charles Darwin

August 6, 2017

Well known writer of serious biographies, A.N. Wilson, claims to have spent spent 5 years studying Darwin’s life. His summary of his resulting book suggests that he has taken 5 years to make the same unbelievably stupid and ignorant mistakes that the average Creationist needs only 5 minutes to make.

Unfortunately, the imminent devastating reviews by biologists will probably be overshadowed by breathless and triumphal accolades from clueless left wing academics, right wing religious fanatics, and left wing hack journalists.

I haven’t read his book, but here’s my take on his own atrocious summary of it in the UK’s Evening Standard. I’m no biologist, but neither is Wilson. I haven’t spent 5 years studying Darwin’s work, but have read a couple of his books, a string of popular and some fairly specialized books on evolution, and Janet Browne’s wonderful two volume biography of Darwin.

The headline:

A.N. Wilson: It’s time Charles Darwin was exposed for the fraud he was

Ah, finally — after 160 years, someone is going to break the silence and criticize Darwin. No one ever thought of doing that before.

And the subheading:

Two of his theories about evolution are wrong — and one resulting ‘science’ inspired the Nazis

And he’s already off and running:

…I found both pride and prejudice in bucketloads among the ardent Darwinians, who would like us to believe that if you do not worship Darwin, you are some kind of nutter. He has become an object of veneration comparable to the old heroes of the Soviet Union, such as Lenin and Stalin, whose statues came tumbling down all over Eastern Europe 20 and more years ago…

Wilson carries on venting like this — like some kind of nutter — for another two long paragraphs. I will ignore them, beyond noting that equating Darwin with Lenin and Stalin is both ridiculous, and a sure sign that biology is about to be treated as an ideology and not a science — and therefore to be countered by rhetoric and not facts.

Darwinism is not science as Mendelian genetics are.

Bingo. Stupid Bingo. And of course he is completely and utterly and stupidly and embarrassingly wrong. The field of evolutionary biology is demonstrably a science. It makes testable predictions whose accuracy can be determined to a degree of certainty. As a science, unlike rhetoric or creationism, it progresses, according to an objective standard. Rather than link to a stack of text books, I will link to one page from a stack of text books, John Endler’s classic study of natural- and sexual selection in the wild. (See Footnote 1.)

It is a theory whose truth is NOT universally acknowledged.

Here he is right. Only about 99% of biologists accept it. Of those who don’t, none have come up with any better explanation. Those who have claimed to have done, (like Stephen Meyer in his Signature in the Cell) have produced no new discoveries and contributed nothing beyond the assertion that their idea must be valid.

Intelligent Design Creationists have correctly identified exactly the kind of evidence that would be devastating to evolutionary biology if it were ever to be found. This is the idea of irreducible complexity — a characteristic that must have appeared fully developed, as any earlier stages would not have been viable.

No such case has ever been found, and dozens of purported cases have been shown to be erroneous. (See Footnote 2)

But when genetics got going there was also a revival, especially in Britain, of what came to be known as neo-Darwinism, a synthesis of old Darwinian ideas with the new genetics. Why look to Darwin, who made so many mistakes, rather than to Mendel?

Now this is just stupid.”Especially in Britain”? One of the central figures, Ernst Mayr, was a German who worked mostly in New Guinea, where evolution seemed to work just as effectively as at Oxford. And what on earth is Wilson talking about when he claims that the neo-Darwinian synthesis rejected Mendel? It was a “synthesis”, (note the definition), both of Darwinian ideas and population genetics (based on Medelian genetics).

Genetics had advanced greatly since the rediscovery of Mendel’s work around 1900, and it was found that genetic mutation (unknown to Mendel) was the cause of the heritable variability that Darwin had correctly intuited from masses of evidence. I have no idea why Wilson thinks the modern synthesis — the link of Darwinian natural selection with population genetics — is not based on genetics.

Ah, here we get it:

There was a simple answer to that. Neo-Darwinism was part scientific and in part a religion, or anti-religion.

This is not stupid. It is flaming idiocy of the kind that does not deserve to published. Shame on Wilson’s pig ignorant editor, proof reader, publisher, and all of his friends, his family and children above the age of twelve, for not rescuing this stupid man from making a stupid idiot of himself in public.

Its most famous exponent alive, Richard Dawkins, said that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist. You could say that the apparently impersonal processes of genetics did the same. But the neo-Darwinians could hardly, without absurdity, make Mendel their hero since he was a Roman Catholic monk. So Darwin became the figurehead for a system of thought that (childishly) thought there was one catch-all explanation for How Things Are in nature.

You fucking stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid idiot, A.N. Wilson.

You flaming fucking idiot.

Go to the library and take out a biology text book right now, A. Stupid. N. Stupid. Wilson, and open it up. Now flip through the pages until you find Mendel and a bunch of fucking goddam motherfucking peas on a grid. Why do you think they are there?

Correct. They are there because that is normal, accepted biology, and Richard Dawkins did not order people to stop talking about Mendel. He likes Mendel. They all like Mendel, and they couldn’t care less if he was a monk or a Mormon or a freaking Martian.

It is you, Mr Wilson who is obsessed with personalities, not scientists. It’s only creationists like you who obsess about Darwin. “Darwinism” only looks like an ideology if you don’t know what it is, where it came from, or how it works. It only looks like an ideology if you have managed to remain pig ignorant of scientific progress.

Wilson continues:

The great fact of evolution was an idea that had been current for at least 50 years before Darwin began his work. His own grandfather pioneered it in England, but on the continent, Goethe, Cuvier, Lamarck and many others realised that life forms evolve through myriad mutations.

Wrong. There were speculations that used the term, but all lacked Darwin’s unique combination of natural selection acting on inherited variation.

Darwin wanted to be the Man Who Invented Evolution…

What? Where is your evidence for this stupid assertion?

And even if there was evidence (which there isn’t), so what if he did want to be that? Lots of great scientists were assholes, but it doesn’t mean their science can’t be built upon for further progress.

And all the evidence points to Darwin being a remarkably compassionate man. He was famously prepared to cede priority to Wallace for his life’s work. He opposed slavery. (There’s an entire book about that!) In his private dealings, he was probably one of the most decent scientists in history.

Wilson continues–

Darwin wanted to be the Man Who Invented Evolution, so he tried to airbrush all the predecessors out of the story. He even pretended that Erasmus Darwin, his grandfather, had had almost no influence on him.

He happily studied, was deeply influenced by, and referenced them all. He carefully catalogued items from thousands of correspondents. He even acknowledged Aristotle as a predecessor, even though he was quite mistaken to have done so.

He then brought two new ideas to the evolutionary debate, both of which are false.

As noted earlier, the two ideas that distinguish Darwin from his predecessors were (a) that inherited variation within a population is (b) acted upon by natural selection.

I assume Wilson is referring to these.

One is that evolution only proceeds little by little, that nature never makes leaps. The two most distinguished American palaeontologists of modern times, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, both demonstrated 30 years ago that this is not true. Palaeontology has come up with almost no missing links of the kind Darwinians believe in. The absence of such transitional forms is, Gould once said, the “trade secret of palaeontology”. Instead, the study of fossils and bones shows a series of jumps and leaps.

Sigh. Gould’s work was (like the work of every other evolutionary biologist), a confirmation of the central tenets of Darwin’s work. Given that Wilson thinks evolutionary biology is not a science, I have no idea why he suddenly thinks it *is* a science when Gould does it.

Hard-core Darwinians try to dispute this, and there are in fact some “missing links” — the Thrinaxodon, which is a mammal-like reptile, and the Panderichthys, a sort of fish-amphibian. But if the Darwinian theory of natural selection were true, fossils would by now have revealed hundreds of thousands of such examples. Species adapt themselves to their environment, but there are very few transmutations.

Even at this late point in Wilson’s atrocious summary of his obviously atrocious book, this is stunning. He thinks Gould’s ideas are not part of Darwinian evolutionary theory. This is just flat wrong. It’s like saying Newton wasn’t a mathematician because he invented calculus. Furthermore, the term “missing link” only means something to creationists. Depending on one’s frame of reference, every single species that ever existed, and did not go extinct, is a transitional species.

And all this has absolutely nothing to do with Darwin’s ideas in history. So why is Wilson babbling about this? He doesn’t say it, but the person who Gould was squabbling with over this ultimately minor quibble in biology, was Richard The Beast 666 Dawkins. So of course Wilson picks a side in an argument he doesn’t understand, and doesn’t even know is utterly irrelevant to his own baseless claims.

Darwin’s second big idea was that Nature is always ruthless

Wrong. He noticed that nature is at times horrible and at times sweet and cutesy.

Look at his extraordinary and still relevant book, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. Darwin argues, for example, that animals, including humans, signal submission/non-threatening behavior by exaggerating the opposite of what a species’ aggressive stance would be. He studied all kinds of behaviors, from the aggressive to the peaceful and subtle, in relation to how they may have evolved.

that the strong push out the weak, that compassion and compromise are for cissies whom Nature throws to the wall.

Wrong again, you ignoramus. You spent 5 years on this and didn’t come across any of Darwin’s work on the role of social cooperation in evolution? In fact There’s a wonderful book on how altruism can evolve: let me direct you to The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

Darwin borrowed the phrase “survival of the fittest” from the now forgotten and much discredited philosopher Herbert Spencer.

Darwin did indeed say he approved of the term as an alternative to “natural selection”, but as wikipedia notes, he used it to mean “better designed for an immediate, local environment”. — In other words, not objectively fitter”, as the stupid and ignorant Wilson is about to proclaim.

And just how “ruthless” and aggressive does Wilson think the barnacles and vegetable molds upon which Darwin based his studies were?

He invented a consolation myth for the selfish class to which he belonged, to persuade them that their neglect of the poor, and the colossal gulf between them and the poor, was the way Nature intended things.

Evidence for these assertions about Darwin’s character and motives? Competent biographers avoid speculating about such things. Wilson should know that. I don’t need to speculate that Darwin wasn’t like that. I can simply point to his trenchant opposition to slavery.

He thought his class would outbreed the “savages” (ie the brown peoples of the globe) and the feckless, drunken Irish. Stubbornly, the unfittest survived. Brown, Jewish and Irish people had more babies than the Darwin class. The Darwinians then had to devise the hateful pseudo-science of eugenics, which was a scheme to prevent the poor from breeding.

Darwin used the terminology of his day, both when opposing slavery for “savages” and when speculating that “savages” would become “civilized” if they were raised in a society such as Darwin’s own.

We all know where that led, and the uses to which the National Socialists put Darwin’s dangerous ideas.

No, Mr Wilson, we don’t “all know”. And especially you don’t know. There was a thing called Social Darwinism, and it’s a fairly complex topic. But despite containing the name “Darwin”, social Darwinism was no more Darwinian than it was social.

As noted earlier, Darwin measured “fitness” purely in the context of specific local habitat, not according to some invented ideal standard as the Nazis did.

Secondly, Social Darwinism is the polar opposite of Darwinian evolution. Eugenics tried to use artificial selection (the kind of selective breeding that farmers use), not the kind of natural selection that occurs in nature. This should be obvious to someone who has spent 5 years studying Darwin’s ideas.

Furthermore, eugenics is in fact based on Wilson’s beloved Mendelian genetics — which Wilson claims the evil Nazi evolutionary biologists have rejected.

Same old targets — Darwin (check). Dawkins (check). Nazis (check). Really, why can’t miserable deranged hacks like Wilson come up with a few new targets for their ignorant bile?

In case you still want to buy it, I should say that Wilson’s book is unironically titled Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker. It costs £25.


1 Briefly, Endler found colorful fish in one pond in a forest, and dull colored ones in another. He found they were same species, and postulated that there was a predator in the dull colored ones’ pond, meaning less noticeable fish are more likely to survive; and that predators were absent from the other pond, meaning that color meant a reproductive advantage, being more noticeable to mates. He took specimens and switched them in the lab — put colored fish in a pond where the predator had some access, and the dull fish in a predator free pond. After numerous generations, the dull population had become colorful, and the colorful one dull. This illustrates the action of genetic mutation leading to variation; which is then acted upon by natural selection (here, predation and sexual selection)

2 For example, in the Dover case (involving the argument that Creationism is a science and should be taught in schools), the extraordinarily complex cascade of chemical reactions involved in blood clotting was asserted as a case of irreducible complexity. In testimony, biologist Ken Miller describes of how each step of the cascade can be found in isolation in nature. So while we don’t know the exact process by which it evolved in humans or other mammals, we do know that the steps are not irreducibly complex.

More to be added — see comments section, where I have posted some reviews by proper biologists.

Posted by Yakaru


From a Theologian in 1909: Stop Deceiving Children About Science

March 18, 2016

I recently found an old book in a second-hand bookshop here in Berlin, entitled Darwin: His Meaning for Our Worldview and Values. It’s a small collection of essays by scientists and academics, and was published in 1909 — 50 years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and 49 years after it appeared in translation in Germany. The essay that struck me most was written by a theologian called Friedrich Naumann. (Biographical details at the end of this post.)

Warenhaus A. Weiss, Schöneberg, 1907. Das Haus steht noch und ist ein lohnendes Objekt um die Verschandelung von Bauwerken zu studieren.

Schöneberg, Berlin, 1907 (source)

Naumann begins by noting that although religious people don’t usually accept evolution, they do concede that Darwin was a decent fellow who was sincerely seeking the truth. This is already a stark contrast to today where the religious frequently hold Darwin more or less to have been inspired by the devil, and evolution to be “lies straight from the pit of hell”.

Naumann then makes an interesting and rarely made point: that Darwin’s ideas were in fact no more “anti-Christian” than a great many other ideas which had already been proposed for quite some time, albeit without any complaint about them from the church. Religious leaders, he says, failed to discuss these new ideas and discoveries amongst themselves, and withheld them from parishioners.

He continues:

Through the writings of Darwin and Haeckel, what was until then the preserve of scientists erupted into public awareness. For many, “Darwinism” came as a completely unexpected “anti-religious” revelation… Those of us who experienced the years 1860 to 1890 in the company of pious Christians, remember how powerful the waves were. Even today the waters have not been stilled.

From his tone, I suspect Naumann would be quite surprised if he knew that the shock waves would still be felt in many countries more than 100 years later.

Next, he makes an important and I think undeniable point — undeniable even from a Christian perspective:

Darwinism would have come as less of a shock to the pious if they had already been speaking more openly with each other about scientific discoveries and the implications for religion. This rarely happened. Although some religious thinkers like Schleiermacher familiarized themselves with current scientific learning and “adjusted” their Christianity accordingly, those who preached in the church or taught in the schools deliberately and timidly avoided presenting these new ideas and discussing their implications.

Deliberately and timidly avoided teaching such ideas in the churches and schools. Exactly.

There follows another noteworthy passage.

Look, we’ve long known that the Bible does not place the sun at the center of the solar system; that it presents heaven as being located above the earth… Similarly, the Creation and the Great Flood were known even before Darwin to have been derived from earlier oriental myths, and cannot be taken as historical events. Had the faithful already been clearly and unreservedly informed of these facts, then Darwinism would not have arrived like a hailstorm on the field of religion.

A hailstorm on the field of religion. And how telling it is that even science teachers today avoid teaching evolution for fear of upsetting the faithful (or losing their job). It is even customary for academics to place trigger warnings and apologies prior to any mention of human origins. 

Yet in 1909 it was already clear that such pussyfooting ultimately serves no one. Those who reject science, merely find that they have to push back harder and harder in their denial as science progresses — and become proportionately stupider and stupider. Naumann would have been stunned to discover that climate change is rejected by political leaders in the US because they and the voters believe that God promised Noah that there would be no more floods. I can understand why people are shocked by the idea that we are a species of ape, but…. getting upset about Noah’s Ark being a myth????

Our theologian continues, to make a rather rhetorical argument that Jesus would have embraced Darwinism, because he was the quintessential reformer. I am in no position to comment on that (and neither was he of course, but it’s his religion not mine, so I will let it pass). The Bible, he points out is itself a historical record of reform and changes in religious thought. And he makes another excellent point when he says that by failing to teach the facts of science:

we allow people to develop false hopes. This sets them up for disappointment and confusion if they ever discover the truth.

These days, theologians are reluctant to write as boldly as this. Even the most science-friendly theologians keep one hand cautiously on the hand brake whilst discussing anything to do with science. But Naumann clearly believes that if God created the earth and its creatures, then the study of nature is a path to God. Modern theologians are far more nervous about that “if” being in there.

Religions of course, always face a dilemma, not only with science but with facts in general. Even St Augustine noticed it’s hard to proselytize when some doctrines are clearly false or hilariously stupid. He saw no option but to “interpret” the craziest parts of the Bible allegorically. But once that decision has been taken, it’s hard to stop reality swamping in and ruining dogmas that useful or even essential to the whole faith. Once Noah’s Ark is accepted as a myth (as Naumann conceded in 1909, and as Ken Ham doesn’t concede in 2016), then why not also concede that the “Virgin” Mary was a mistranslation that even the early Christians were informed about by the Jews? Don’t expect a coherent answer from any theologian. There’s too much riding on it. Naumann himself could have, or maybe should have known about this, but he says nothing about it. Is it too close to the bone? Did he know it and simply blend it out? 

I see no way to rescue believers from this collision of their faith with reality. But I also see no alternative to Naumann’s positive attitude to science.


For the record, Friedrich Naumann (1860 – 1919) was a somewhat recognized theologian, priest, and author, who was involved in politics, (for the most part on the progressive side). A foundation named in honor of Naumann is connected to the mainstream but distinctly right-wing Freie Democratische Partei (FDP) in Germany. This Foundation, ironically, promotes climate-change denial. Unfortunately, he advocated a mild form of eugenics — a position that was opposed on ethical grounds by other writers in that book. Naumann was, however an outspoken activist for women’s rights, and other worthy causes. 

Posted by Yakaru


Children’s Conception of God

February 20, 2016

I’ve often wondered what children think when they first start hearing about “god”. 

Non-physical entities like elves and gnomes are fairly easy for small children to conceptualize, but what about god? — A formless, all seeing, all-knowing invisible creature that is everywhere and nowhere; and is also somehow three beings in one. Despite being boundless and infinite, it is also a “he”, so clearly it must have genitals and go to the toilet. Whatever the case, it inspires adults to talk in serious, hushed tones and use incomprehensible but significant-sounding rhetoric.

In my case, I’d heard of this character by the time I was four, but I didn’t have any clear notion of who or what it could be. In the “book corner” at my Kindergarten, there was a slim hardcover that didn’t have any pictures. I asked the teacher what it was about, and she said in an odd tone, “It’s a book about God.” I turned the book over, and saw on the back cover a photo of a pleasant looking oldish lady with glasses. I can still remember her face. I asked the teacher, “Is that God?” and she became flustered and said “No, no, no, no…” But it was too late. The neurons had fused, and despite the words of the teacher, my little brain had imprinted the image of this sweet old dear, as God. Having had this initial image immediately invalidated, I have never been able to replace it with anything more intelligible.

Then I went to primary school. Due to a rather traditional old head master, the weekly school assembly was started by singing the national anthem. At that time in Australia (1972) the national anthem was a dreary old dirge entitled “God Save the Queen“. I’d seen a picture of the Queen, and she looked rather like that other lady who I had briefly thought to be God, so something resonated.

But the words were distinctly odd: “Send her victorious”, it droned. What exactly is this “victorious” that we are supposed to send her, I wondered. I never received any meaningful answer. But we were also supposed to send her some “happy” and some “glorious” as well. Okay, but how do you send those those things? And why is she going to “rain all over us”?

But the biggest and most fascinating mystery was the very title of the song. I had understood it as “God Saved the Queen”.

What? When did he do that? And how? ….So she was in some kind of trouble, like tied up or in a net or something, and God came and saved her? What did he look like? Who saw it happen? My teacher explained that I had got the song wrong: “We are asking God to save the Queen.” — So the Queen is still in trouble? “No no, it means if the Queen ever gets into trouble, then… oh, never mind…”

And this God character showed up in other places too. Once a week we had scripture classes with a tubby old fellow with glasses and not much hair. His name was “Canon Veril”, which the older kids in the school — who took him rather less seriously than we mystified first-graders did — turned into “Cannon Barrel”. He taught us to close our eyes when we prayed, and not to start crying or hide under the desk when he talked about the Holy Ghost. 

He also taught us The Lord’s Prayer. Its first line mystified us even more with its arcane language:

Our Father, who aren’t in heaven…

Well if he’s not in heaven, where is he? Did he have to go off and rescue the Queen again?

Hallo, what be Thy name?

So no one even knows who he is, even though they keep asking him every day?

In second grade we were told the story of Jesus being stuck in a cave and lying there for a few days and then getting up again or something. It was all quite weird. We had to draw a scene from the story on the cards that Cannon Barrel handed out. I drew Jesus’ body in the tomb, and then for some reason decided to draw a combine harvester in there as well, driving over him. The Canon didn’t like this at all, and as a punishment, snootily refused to collect the drawing like he did all the others. He was a strange person. Both authoritarian and oddly impotent. Not a nasty man, but given to regular bouts of choleric but strangely passive anger.

One little girl, who was very smart because she had glasses, was made to sit in the corridor and do other work of some kind, because her parents didn’t want her to go to scripture classes. Sitting alone in the corridor was usually a punishment, so we were confused about why she was sitting there if she wasn’t in trouble. But she sat there alone for an hour once a week for the whole six years. (As the top student in 6th grade, she was awarded what is known in Australia and the UK as the “Dux of the School” award — another term that had mystified us first-graders when we first heard it, and left us disappointed when no ducks came waddling out to collect their award.)

Posted by Yakaru

Coming soon: a post on religious instruction in schools 


There is No “Western Paradigm”

October 4, 2015

The argument that there is an inherently exploitive “Western” way of perceiving the world, reflects justifiable concerns about neo-colonialist oppression and bigotry. But while it is perfectly valid to criticize lazy or demeaning assumptions about other cultures, the term “Western paradigm” can also be used in a similarly lazy manner, to discredit a particular line of inquiry.

There are other problems with the use of such terminology, too. Often, characteristics that are labeled “Western” are in fact universal. Racism, greed, and colonialism are not exclusively Western; nor, on the positive side, are curiosity and reason. 

It’s neither Western, nor inherently oppressive, to ask straight forward questions about matters of fact. Yet, as we shall see below, such questioning is often dismissed as part of the Western paradigm that tries to subjugate everything to the standard of reason.

The historian Tom Holland made a documentary film a few years ago. in which he asked whether or not the early accounts of the Prophet Mohammed’s life and the development of Islam are really true.

Holland, of course, was aware that the questions he was asking (as well as the evidence he found) were likely to upset some people. He was not merely concerned for his own safety, but also aware that he occupied a privileged position of some academic power, far removed from the people whose history and traditions he was studying. Of course he also comes from a culture that has often exploited and oppressed many predominantly Muslim countries.  

At one point in the film, Holland asked a professor of Islamic Studies if he thought that this line of inquiry was “complicit with the brute fact of Western imperialism”. The professor, Seyyed Hossein Nasr responded:

No, not necessarily, as long as you remain aware of what you are doing. If you come as a western scholar or historian and in all honesty present what your world view is, and say, “When I look at the Islamic world from this paradigm, this is what I see”, and bring out why this is different from how Muslims see themselves, then I think it’s a very honest effort…

This is an intelligent and reasonable answer — an invitation for Holland to do his research and present his results. It is a stark contrast to those who screamed abuse and Holland and made death threats. But Nasr also makes some highly questionable assumptions.

He continues:

Gradually in the West, for the intellectual elite, the sense of the sacred was lost. A tribal person in Africa or in the Amazon has a natural sense of the sacred, whereas a graduate student at Oxford probably doesn’t….. It is from the West that this kind of history came up: that reason is the ultimate decider and judge of the truth…

But “this kind of history” — checking stated facts against available evidence — did not arise “in the West”. It arises pretty much all by itself from human nature. To ascribe it purely to “the West” does a disservice to everyone who has ever asked the simple question, “Is that really true?”

In the 9th Century in Persia, the celebrated physician Al-Razi considered the scriptures of his own culture and started a discussion for which he clearly was not celebrated. He noted that the various prophets contradicted each other and therefore cannot possibly all be right; nor can revelation — varying so wildly between the divine authorities — be trusted as reliable.


Prophets are impostors, at best misled by demonic shades of restless and envious spirits. But ordinary folk are fully capable of thinking for themselves and in no need of guidance from another….

How can anyone think philosophically while committed to these old fairy tales founded on contradictions, obdurate ignorance and dogmatism?

Reason, he argued, unlike revelation, is available to all.

Persian_Scholar_pavilion_in_Viena_UN_(Rhazes)Muhammad Zakariyā Rāzī (Al-Razi/Rhazes)

Al-Razi’s genius and importance as a physician no doubt protected him from serious persecution. (His heretical writings, however, were destroyed and are known only from quotations by those who argued against him.) Obviously, anyone daring to speak like that in Iran today would be in grave danger. 

Moreover, if someone speaks like that today in the West, they will probably be accused of letting their imperialist Western paradigm get the better of them. Or, that label’s big brother would be applied and they’d be called an Islamophobe. And, of course, the accusers would remain baffled by the issues raised, and meekly capitulate before their own ignorance for a few centuries more.

Naturally, bigots find it easy enough to doubt the religions of others too — but never their own. (One You-tube user who uploaded a copy of Holland’s documentary used the name martyr4Jesus!)

If there is a peculiarly “Western paradigm”, it would involve the use of the term paradigm.

This idea of a paradigm is quintessentially Western. Of course, the complete package includes the notion of a paradigm shift — which for some reason is only ever predicted to be awaiting those who supposedly hold a “Western” or “materialistic” paradigm. I can’t imagine Professor Nasr predicting that the Amazonian natives will have a revelation and drop their supposed “sense of the sacred” in favor of a materialistic paradigm.

Similarly, the “sense of the sacred” is a vague notion whose only clearly defined quality is a fence that divides it from the “materialistic West”.  The whole of Western scholarship is deemed to be an inherently exploitive paradigm that ethnocentrically distorts and demeans its subject matter, simply to avoid the uncomfortable truth that some stories are myths rather than factual history.

One non-Western academic who took issue with this over-simplification is Ibn Warraq. His book Defending the West identified three aspects of Western culture that are overlooked by those who see Western scholarship as inherently colonialist.

Here is Warraq’s list:

1. Universalism, i.e. recognition that the rights granted to oneself must be granted equally to others.
2. Curiosity and learning for learning’s
sake. (Edward Said had claimed that all knowledge of the Orient was acquired merely to enable colonialist exploitation. Warraq refuted this by pointing to the vast German scholarship of the 19th Century that was carried out in countries where Germany had no colonial interests.)
3. Self criticism.
(I would place the awareness of various paradigms in this category!)

To sum up, it is certainly easier to practice free inquiry in the West. But this should make us want to try to spread this freedom to non-Western countries, not do the opposite: to hinder and devalue it with pejorative labels and lazy judgments. It is ironic, and potentially disastrous, that the only truly Western idea that might ever spread to the Orient is that reason is not a universal quality, but part of an exploitive Western paradigm.

Posted by Yakaru


How Aspects of “moderate” religion morph into dangerous politics

August 11, 2015

Religious leaders are routinely invited to participate in the running of the state, and to enter public discourse on matters about which they haven’t a clue. Their ideas are often totally absurd and transparently self-interested, yet it is widely considered impolite to remark on the worthlessness of their contributions.

Curiously, it is not just religious types who enforce this blanket of politeness. It is often non-believers (especially those inhabiting the “liberal left“) who are quick to tell critics of religion to shut up. “Religion”, they feel, must not be treated as a single category. We must distinguish, they say, between religious “moderates” (who can be indulged as harmless or as potential allies), and extremists (about whom it is frequently asserted are not even religious at all).

Society gains little or nothing from this meek politeness. But worse,  extremists — whether “truly religious” or not — use this welcoming and non-judgmental climate, as a context for gaining access to the hearts and minds of the young.

Below, I outline numerous elements of “moderate” religion that are routinely indulged by democratic societies. These elements themselves may be more or less harmless, but refusing to contest their obvious (if at times trivial) flaws, we are effectively abandoning our first line of defense against extremists.

Problematic Aspects of “Moderate” Religion


While religion does build communities, it also inevitably creates outsiders and heretics. Due to the arbitrary nature of religious beliefs and practices, there is no way to engage rationally with others about doctrinal matters. Agreeing to disagree is the only peaceful option. But there can be no resolution. The differences will remain, ticking away like a time bomb for generations. They can at any time be invoked as a means to divide people for political ends. (Mussolini cited the monophysite heresy of the Abyssinians, dating back to the 5th Century, as a justification for his invasion of Ethiopia in 1936!)

Ownership and Personal Identity

Religious people identify deeply with their religion or sect. This is no doubt partly a consequence of human nature, but it also involves a calculated strategy on the part of religions to effectively own people. A child is declared to “belong” to some strain of belief, before they can even speak or run away.

To illustrate the extent of this “moderate” presumptuousness, allow me to share that the Church Tax Office in Germany (where I live) is currently checking the records of the Catholic Church in Australia (where I was born) to see if I was baptized. Were they to find my name I would be legally forced to pay an 8% tax on my income for the last 15 years. 

Despite having failed to realize that Nazism is unethical, the Church in Germany is still taken seriously enough to be granted legal access to people’s earnings — on the grounds that they know the mind of God and represent His financial interests.

St Bernhard Hitler Gruß St Bernhard still gives the Nazi salute from a 1936 church tower in Berlin (author photo)

Special Status for the Priesthood

In a healthy society, any special status a person might be granted is attached to the special role that person plays, not to the person themselves. A police officer is only allowed to boss people around under strictly defined circumstances when on duty. Otherwise they have no special rights. Priests, however, claim that they are themselves special — that they belong to an elite class with divinely ordained privileges. 

Obviously, when religious fanatics start recruiting, or when crooks have seized government, this special status immediately gives them swift access to people’s private lives and instinctive submissive impulses. The hierarchical nature of this power structure conditions people, whether they are religious or not, to accept political and religious overlords as a fact of life. (Christopher Hitchens makes this point cogently in the latter chapters of God is Not Great.)

Reward and Punishment

Closely related to this is the fact that priests promise their subjects that god will reward temporal obedience with eternal life in paradise. Priestly authority is built squarely on this foundation — and they don’t have to lift a finger to reward anyone. 

They also invented hell of course, (the most repellent and immoral idea ever formulated). But while they entrust God with rewarding people, they have always happily accepted the burden of punishing sinners themselves. For some reason they don’t want to leave sinners in peace and trust God to deal with them later.

False Ideals and Denial of Human Nature

By creating impossible ideals, religions set people up for guilt, failure, and fear of punishment. It is also psychologically unhealthy to believe that some people (saints, prophets and priests) are holy and have no shadow.


This pernicious nonsense is damaging even at its most moderate, yet it is routinely tolerated. In the hands of religious fanatics with power, it becomes perhaps the most invidious tool of oppression and misery. With barely a stricture needing to be altered, it can form an ostensibly credible basis for arbitrary persecution.

The Surrender of Reason

To steal a few lines from Christopher Hitchens, religion — moderate or extreme — involves deciding that the deepest questions about the nature of reality and of our personal existence are to be decided without recourse to rational inquiry. There is of course a long religious tradition debating the role of reason in relation to revelation, but reason has always come out second best.

How can the young be expected to see through the ravings of a religious extremist, when they have never seriously encountered the idea that God does not exist in the first place? As Al Razi pointed out in the Tenth Century, the revelations of the prophets are contradictory, irrational and divisive; but reason is equally accessible to all. (Had he said that today in Iran, he would certainly be persecuted. In the West he would no doubt be called intolerant by the left, or an Islamophobe!)

Closing Thoughts

Religious freedom is a civil and human right. In a secular society people must be free to practice their religion and identify themselves as a member of any peaceful religious group without fear of persecution or discrimination. Strangely, (or maybe not so strangely) many religious people don’t like this idea at all. Ensuring the religious freedom of others necessarily involves curtailing one’s own proselytizing ambitions. This potential loss of power is, no doubt, what religious leaders find so threatening. Public criticism of religion doesn’t “upset the moderates” as much as liberals claim, as open debate should hold no danger for sincere and sensible believers. It does however, undermine the status and influence of a privileged and useless elite.

Let us stop meekly and politely pretending that the elements listed above are useful or necessary for a productive or creative life. They are the accumulated mistakes of history, kept alive for oppressive and parasitic purposes. We need to see them for what they are, and to allow the young access to an antidote for their poisons.

Posted by Yakaru