The Arrogance of Science and Atheism

Humility. If there is one thing most religions have in common, it is the idea that people should be humble before some form of deity. And that if a person does not bow down or even just acknowledge the existence of such deities, he or she would be perceived as incredibly arrogant. Being humble is what the religious love to brag about. A common remark against atheists is that they have become too smart to believe in gods. It is as if using one’s mental faculties (as in science) is of lesser importance than just blindly accepting certain ideas (as in religion). But is the devout to dogma really humble compared to the sceptic who espouses science? Let us find out.

It is the month of February. There are neither religious nor secular holidays to speak of for this month. (No, Valentine’s Day is not a real holiday. You do not get a day off and you certainly do not get double pay). Except perhaps that the two people, whose ideas are truly humbling, happen to be born in February. They are, of course, Galileo Galilei, born on the 15th in 1564, and Charles Robert Darwin, born on the 12th in 1809.

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Gandalf and Dumbledore? Not really, it’s the February Guys: Galileo and Darwin. Contrary to popular knowledge, these two were not scientists. They were WIZARDS. Just look at those bad-ass beards.

Let us start with Galileo as he was born earlier. Galileo was an Italian astronomer and physicist. Although the telescope has been invented for some time, he designed his own telescopes and used them to observe the sky. Now, his “humbling idea” was not entirely his. It was developed earlier by the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Indeed, what he actually did was collecting and analyzing data he gathered from his observations with the telescope. Copernicus originally proposed heliocentrism, the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun along with the other planets as opposed to Ptolemy’s geocentrism, in which the Earth was the center of the Universe with the Sun, planets, and other celestial bodies moving around it. However, nobody liked Copernicus’ system and thus, his writings were suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church.

But Galileo did his own research and found out that everything he had observed with the telescope conformed to the Copernican model and placed the Ptolemaic model in obsolescence. He published his findings in “A Dialogue on the Two Principal Systems of the World.” What Copernicus hypothesized, Galileo confirmed with empirical observations. For Galileo, who was also a professor of mathematics, the Ptolemaic system does not compute. However, for the dominant authority at the time, the Roman Catholic Church, the very idea of a non-geocentric Universe was offensive to its religious feelings. Under the Ptolemaic system adopted by the Church, the Earth was the center of the Universe thereby making the planet, and most especially its human residents, the center of attention for its creator, the god of the Bible. But Galileo’s discoveries put that idea into question. If the Earth was never the center of the Universe, what more of the humans living on it?

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Even our Solar System is not at the center of our galaxy.

Now, you might ask, what is so humbling about Galileo’s idea? First, that the Earth has been reduced to just another object orbiting a much larger object. This planet is not in any special position in space. The very ground we stand upon is but one of many worlds that exists across the vastness of the Universe. The only difference is we are on this particular world and not on another. Second, our planet is truly insignificant on the astronomical scale. In Galileo’s time, the picture of the Universe is that of the Sun at the center with the Earth and other planets going around it. If that was not humbling enough, we now know that even the Sun is just a small star among the billions of other stars in the Milky Way galaxy. And there are billions of other galaxies. To make things even worse, scientists today have observations suggesting that everything we can see in the Universe, all the planets, stars, and galaxies, are less than ten percent of what the Universe contains. The rest of the Universe, it seems, is stuff we cannot directly observe. This is the part where science is the opposite of arrogance, as it does not claim truths about what is not yet known.

So, the Earth is no longer at the center of the Universe. But what about humans? If the Universe does not revolve around Earth, can the humans at least claim to be at the center of the living world?

This brings us to Charles Darwin, born some two hundred forty years after Galileo. Darwin was an English naturalist who proposed the idea of evolution by natural selection. Like Galileo before him, Darwin’s “humbling idea” was also not entirely his. Several other naturalists, including his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, had also suggested the idea that all living things had come about by evolution. The only difference was Darwin, like Galileo, painstakingly collected numerous and consistent evidence supporting his idea.

Now, Alfred Russel Wallace also came up with the very same idea of evolution by natural selection as Darwin. And the two in fact had been in correspondence with each other. Darwin already had his manuscript for his ideas ready way before Wallace came up with his but he had deferred having it published fearful of the potential uproar it would bring. Even when he had known of Wallace’s idea, being the gentleman Darwin was, he decided to submit his paper together with Wallace before the Royal Society so both of them would get credit. Of course, though both deserved credit, it was Darwin’s name that was attached to evolution by natural selection, giving us the term Darwinism.

So, what is Darwinism and what is so humbling about it? The modern theory of evolution is the scientific explanation that “life on Earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species – perhaps a self-replicating molecule – that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago that then branched out over time, throwing off many new and diverse species, and the mechanism for most, but not all, of evolutionary change is natural selection” (Coyne 2009).

Before Darwin, there has never been a rational explanation based on observations for the apparent design of all living things. Many theories of evolution had been proposed but none had the simplicity and overwhelming amount of evidence that Darwinism had. Of course, there are religion-based creation myths that tried to explain how life came to be but all of them are in conflict with each other and not supported by any evidence.

So where is the part where we are supposed to be humbled? Most, if not all, creation stories tell versions of a narrative about gods, giants, dragons, and other monsters playing a part in creating the world and the creatures that inhabit it. And since human beings are telling these stories, they are, often than not, central to these myths thereby making themselves special above all other living things.

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Our family tree. No, the monkey is not your uncle. He is, however, a very distant cousin.

These are in contrast with Darwinism in which humans are just another species of organisms that arose from earlier and more primitive life-forms. Human beings evolved just like every creature that ever existed. We were neither created from molded clay, spitted out from the belly of a giant, nor came out of a bamboo that split in two. All these stories are simply that, stories. They have no basis in fact. They were simply the products of people who had insufficient data for meaningful answers to nagging questions of their existence. And, whether intentional or not, these stories have human conceit in them.

Christianity in particular has a history of opposing purely naturalistic evolution because it removes man’s special place in the world. As with the Roman Catholic Church’s objection to heliocentrism during Galileo’s time, opposition to Darwin has largely been from organized religion. The religious establishment could not accept that humans are closely related to chimpanzees, more distantly related to monkeys, even more distantly related to birds, reptiles, and fishes. The very thought was degrading as it diminishes humans to just mere beasts.

Now we can clearly see how this view contradicts most creation myths wherein humans are the main characters with the other beasts as mere supporting cast. In Darwinism, each kind of organism is a star of its own right. Every living thing that exist today are all pinnacles of survival. No single creature can claim to be the best among all others because each one is best suited in their respective environment. Indeed, if we are to crown a type of organism as the king of the beasts for dominating the most number of ecosystems, we would give it to the lowly insects as their kind has conquered nearly every niche in every biome they have been exposed to.

People might differ and maintain that we humans are special because only we have unique traits such as self-awareness, symbolic language, and intelligence. But even these traits are not restricted to humans only. Recent research studies have found out that other creatures have, to a lesser extent, some form of awareness, language, and intelligence. They just do not exhibit them as much as we humans do because of genetic differences in their biological makeup.

Where does this leave us now? Since humans are simply the result of millions of years of evolution, just like all other species, what significance do we have left?

Some religions, like the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, have already accepted the fact of evolution by natural selection. But they still assert that humans occupy the biological pedestal, claiming that humans have souls created by their god. Of course, this begs the question: where in the evolutionary tree did this god insert the human soul?

Another contentious issue with a deity guiding the process of evolution is that the whole thing is incredibly wasteful. Just think of it as manufacturing a thousand cars and then rejecting nine hundred and ninety-eight of them, leaving only two to make it out of the factory. No intelligent designer would do that. Surely a human engineer could do better. The way it actually plays out in nature is that most offspring never survive into reproductive stage. Only the fittest few ever make it. Either they are eaten by predators, outrun by competition, fatally infected with pathogenic microbes and parasites, or simply victims of natural calamities.

There are no perfect individuals and no perfect species. The best or fittest individual is only slightly better in any given trait than worst one in any given population. But these differences in fitness all add up under varying circumstances. If there is a deity designing all of this, then it deliberately designed most of these individuals to fail. Why such a cruel fate?

However, if we understand evolution as Darwin did, we would see that nature is neither caring nor cruel but simply apathetic to the plight of creatures big and small. If a god had any hand in this, it is not the god of any organized religion but an impersonal god unconcerned with the goings-on in the living world. Darwin was particularly aghast at the idea of a benevolent creator which designed a wasp’s parasitic larvae which hatched under a caterpillar’s skin and devouring it from the inside, slowly killing its host as it developed into an adult wasp thereby repeating the same macabre method.

For most of human history, we were like that poor caterpillar, suffering from the various parasites and microbes we could not see, and barely surviving from natural disasters we could not yet explain. Yet the religious argue that the whole world was designed with us in mind. Is this not arrogance? Is this not human conceit? Putting ourselves on a pedestal at the center of all things and then claim humility before some god?

Now, while both Galileo’s heliocentrism and Darwin’s evolution do not specifically claim to deny the existence of religion’s gods, they certainly call into question man’s true place in the Universe. Even if a god exists, it most likely would not be so parochial and anthropocentric to focus all its attention on a single species of bipedal apes on a small planet revolving around an average star in just one of billions of galaxies.

Suppose an anthropomorphic god with infinite wisdom does exist, would it be so insecure as to restrict what humans would think? Even Galileo once said, I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.

Let us go back to question in the first paragraph: is the devout to dogma really humble compared to the sceptic who espouses science? Clearly, this is not the case. We now know from Galileo and Darwin the undoubtedly humbling facts that we humans are neither at the center of the Universe nor at the top of the living world. Rejecting this reality is not only arrogant but intellectually dishonest. The faithful pretends that he has knowledge of the world as he imagines it to be as revealed from some divine source. This is in contrast with the unbeliever who only has her mental faculties to try and understand the world as it really is. And finally, the atheist does not bow down to gods not because she is full of herself, but because she realizes no human should be ever a slave to the whims and caprices of imagined petty cosmic dictators.

So, what consolation do we still have if we are insignificant like mere dots on a cosmic canvass? Knowing that the Universe is indifferent, we should treat one another more kindly as we are significant only to each other, because “in our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves” (Sagan 1994).

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Yes, we are all significant. To ourselves.

On Miracles and Saints

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Last October 21, 2012 Catholics in the Philippines celebrated the canonization of Pedro Calungsod. He became the second Filipino to become a saint as recognized by the Vatican; the first was Lorenzo Ruiz.

Before demolishing the superstition surrounding saints and miracles, let me define the terms I will use to avoid confusion.

According to Merriam Webster dictionary, a miracle is an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs or an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment. In this discussion, it is the first definition that applies. A saint is a person officially recognized especially through canonization as preeminent for holiness or a spirit of the departed in heaven. Again, the first definition applies in this discussion.

For a person to become a saint, he or she must have allegedly lived an exemplary life worthy of emulation, exemplary as defined by the Roman Catholic church. And, more importantly, the candidate for sainthood must have at least two miracles attributed to the intercession of the said person.

Now, I will not dispute whether any person has indeed led a virtuous life. It is a question of subjectivity in the sense that different people will have varied opinions on the matter. For example, Osama bin Laden may be considered a saint in the eyes of the Muslim jihadists, while Stephen Hawking may be considered a morally corrupt person in the eyes of fundamentalist Christians because he does not believe in any god.

Whatever sketchy details of Calungsod’s life are not for me to debunk as there is hardly any verifiable evidence of his martyrdom. It is obvious of course that any biography of his will likely be exaggerated in favor of his church. In fact, the Catholic church claims that his martyrdom was committed In Odium Fidei (‘In Hatred of the Faith’), meaning he was killed because of religious persecution. Nonetheless, I find the whole idea of martyrdom a sham.

Why was he killed? Because he took part in converting the indigenous people into his beliefs. What’s so wrong about this, you might ask. For starters, this meant that he accompanied priests who told the native people of Guam that their religious beliefs are not only false but that they, the missionaries, have the one true religion. There is nothing commendable in this endeavor. In fact, in those days, converting the locals was a step to taking over their land. Remember this was in the 1600s at the height of the “Age of Discovery” when the competing naval powers in Europe sent ships all over the world in the quest to become the dominant nation. Once the invading marauders have portrayed themselves as heaven-sent benevolent masters, the natives would be easily conquered without having to fire a single shot.

What makes Calungsod’s martyrdom even more appalling is that he was killed because he apparently enraged the father of a baby girl who was baptized without his consent. So, not only was he complicit with the taking away a father’s right to choose how his child should be raised, he is also a party to denying an innocent girl’s freedom to choose her own religious beliefs. How can a child exercise the “free will” that the Catholic church claims she has when she could not object to anything as she was still a baby? Screw logic, you will be a Catholic, whether you like it or not.

To those believers who say that we should just respect each other’s beliefs, I ask with sincerity: Did the conquistadors and priests respect the beliefs of all the indigenous people of the world? Hell, no. They demonized the native peoples’ beliefs, destroyed their sacred objects and places of worship, raped their women (hint: “missionary position”), and took their lands, all in the name of a god which in all likelihood does not exist.

This reminds me of an anecdote about an Eskimo and a priest which goes like this:

‘If I did not know about god and sin, would I go to hell?’

The priest says ‘No, not if you did not know’

Then the Eskimo says ‘Then why the hell did you tell me?’

But I digress. Now on to more important things. As mentioned earlier, it takes at least two miracles for a person to be declared a saint. The first one is for beatification and a second is needed for canonization.

According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer website:

“Cebu Archbishop Emeritus Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, the postulator for the cause for Calungsod’s sainthood, revealed that he submitted a case to the Vatican about a female patient in a Cebu hospital in 2003 who suffered cardiac arrest and was declared brain dead. The woman returned to life after her family prayed through Calungsod’s intercession. The cardinal refused to reveal the woman’s name, saying only that she is working in Cebu. The cause for sainthood was passed on to a group of theologians who verified that the possible miracle was made through Calungsod’s intercession.”

So far, there has never been any verifiable evidence for the efficacy of prayer. The scientific studies done to investigate the power of divine intervention in the recovery of dead or dying patients have mostly shown that prayers have no effect whatsoever. It doesn’t matter what religion the patient or the praying persons has, prayer has never been proven to work.

So why does the average religious person of any faith believe in miracles? (Most liberal theologians and science-inclined believers do not belong in this category.)

One possible reason is the “god of the gaps” fallacy. It goes something like this: because no explanation has been found sufficient for a phenomenon, therefore God. Not only does this glorify ignorance, it smacks of idiocy of the lowest level. We know from history that people have resorted to the supernatural to explain natural phenomena. For example, lightning was a deep mystery and the ancients have regarded it as a demonstration of the awesome power of this or that god, that is until science came along and says it’s just super high energy static electricity.

Humans have a need to know the answers. It’s this curiosity that the “god-of-the-gaps” argument tries to satisfy. Unfortunately, it does not satisfy and merely stops a person from going further.

By using this argument, believers would make it seem that their gods thrive on people’s ignorance. (This is probably why the liberal theologians and science-inclined believers are less likely to buy this as I alluded to earlier.) Who would want to worship such a deity?

Nobody may know exactly how the said woman came back alive after being declared brain dead. But it is no reason to conclude that the Catholic god or Calungsod had anything to do with it. Perhaps the attending physician made a mistake in pronouncing too early the death of the woman. Maybe the woman’s brain readjusted itself by some still unknown biological mechanism. It is like claiming that because nobody saw who killed a man, therefore his neighbor must have done it. If we demand proof beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law, an even higher standard is set in science for such unbelievable assertions. As Carl Sagan succinctly expressed it, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Another possible reason for belief in miracles is confirmation bias. This is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses while disregarding any evidence to the contrary. While this may be acceptable in a court of law where legal counsels routinely try to suppress incriminating evidence, this would be contrary to how science works. As human beings with egos, some scientists do try to highlight the data which would prove their pet hypothesis. But fortunately, there is such a thing as peer review where other scientists would try to verify their findings through thorough investigation and experimentation.

Confirmation bias is so commonplace that it has achieved a level of acceptance among the general populace. We can see and hear this in commercials; the most notorious are those incredible claims of the so-called “alternative” or “all-natural herbal medicine.” And judging by their numbers, it seems that these products sell very well.

It must be emphasized that confirmation-biased testimonials are not good evidence for anything, be it miraculous healing or magic panacea. People who make these claims often exaggerate to make up for the lack of independent evidence. And since no one can contradict their claims, it would often become accepted as truth.

But let us for a moment play along with the idea of a miracle by a saint. Suppose we say that indeed the woman came back to life after being declared dead by her doctor and that Calungsod made the necessary paperwork(?) to intercede for her to the Catholic god. What does that tell us about the kind of god Calungsod had faith in?

It raises the issue on the alleged benevolence of this god. Why would a perfectly loving god subject his faithful people into much suffering even to the point of death or near death? Does this god enjoy the abject misery endured by millions of people since time immemorial? And what is so special about this particular woman? What makes her more deserving of this god’s better treatment than, for example, those children who are dying of cancer? As far as the reports go, she suffered a deadly cardiac arrest. Unless proven otherwise, we can safely assume that she was probably more than forty years old as heart attacks are usually associated with older people who led unhealthy lifestyles.

In claiming that her survival was a miracle of the Catholic god through Saint Pedro, believers trivialize the non-survival of millions of other people who weren’t so lucky. The usual cop-out of “God works in mysterious ways” does not hold water. It misses the point completely. It merely reinforces the idea of a feudal lord who arbitrarily grants the requests of his serfs from time to time if he feels like doing so. This isn’t surprising when you take note of the words believers often refer to their deities, words like king, lord, prince, master, worship, humble, glorify, serve, exalt, and praise, all remnants of the medieval politics.

The whole miracle sainthood business is just a thinly-veiled attempt at filling the collection box. It works on the (often correct) assumption that people will buy a product on mere hearsay and on little or no evidence. One must believe in it even if it could not be justified rationally.

In the grander scheme of things, the people’s belief in miracles only shows how incredibly petty and cosmologically insignificant their deities are. In all the vastness of the Universe with more than a hundred billion galaxies, each with billions of stars and planets, their deities are intent on micromanaging the affairs of a species of bipedal apes among millions of other life-forms on a relatively tiny planet orbiting a small star among several billions in this galaxy. It is anthropocentrism the size of a super-massive black hole. It assumes, wrongly, that the entire Universe is centered around humans. (We must remember how the Roman Catholic Church persecuted Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno because of this.) It is sheer arrogance in the face of what science has discovered, especially in astronomy and biology, because we are hold no special place on Earth and even more so in the bigger picture of the Universe.

If their deities are truly universal and infinite, then they would not be bothered to interfere in human affairs. To do so would reduce their existence to the level of feudal overlords. Thus, the gods’ characteristics are mere reflections and projections of the humans who worship them. Not the infinitely powerful and inscrutable gods they vigorously say they have.

It is not my intention to indiscriminately bash beliefs but to merely shed some light of reason on the matter. If any claim, be it political, religious, or scientific, cannot be scrutinized and criticized, then it is a claim not worth of anyone’s attention. As we are, or so we claim, Homo sapiens, we must always try to use our own minds in understanding the world around us and demand evidence instead of relying on what other people tell us.

July Headers – Clownfishes are Hermaphrodites & other Bits

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From left to right:

1. Clownfish in Bubble-Tipped Anemone.

Popularized by the film, Finding Nemo. Clownfishes are sequential hermaphrodites: they develop into males, then females. Clownfishes live in harems with a single dominant female at the top. When the dominant female is removed, the most dominant male moves up the rank. :)

Bubble-tipped anemones are the favorite homes of Clownfishes. A young anemone has around 20 tentacles; the number of tentacles increases as the anemone gets older.

2. Moon Jellyfish

Moon Jellyfish live in coastal waters. They are easily recognized by the four bright gonads at the center of the bell.The adult is also called Medusa and yes, they can be male or female. Watch them in action.

3. Lettuce Coral, Phoenix Islands

Lettuce Coral, also known as Cabbage Coral, Ruffled Coral. Not the leafy kind you can munch on. Header picture is from National Geographic.

 

Updated “About” Content

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The About page has been updated, featuring a watered-down version of a parable, which what we hope is a gentle introduction to skepticism. This is a derivative of a comment made by a TAFW author, happyhumanpinoy.

Imagine yourself lazing around one fine Sunday afternoon. Suddenly, a man knocks at your door and tells you, “Congratulations! You won a million dollars and a round trip ticket to Hongkong! All you have to do is hand over your wallet. “

You vaguely remember betting on a lottery and you never met or heard about the man in your life. Would you hand over your wallet without asking for evidence of the man’s claim?  — Continued Here

Must Watch Tributes to Science, Reason and Freethinkers

Must watch tributes to science, reason and the freethinkers. Great words, with images and music, are just awe inspiring. It’s art and science coming together in glorious HD.  <3

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The Prejudice Of Faith

Isn’t it odd that faith discriminates? In the sense that a person will choose to believe in certain ideas that are extraordinary and unsupported by evidence and reason, but will have no interest at all in believing a host of other similar unenvinced extraordinary ideas. So what then is one’s criteria for having faith in X but not Y? Why X instead of Y, and why neither? What kinds of claims must we have faith in? What are the characteristics of those claims for which we must forgo reason/evidence, but must believe in fully nonetheless rather than just ignore or be agnostic about? Continue reading