Big Bang for beginners-4: The speed of cosmic evolution

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

What may surprise people is how rapidly the universe went from a very hot initial state to one in which it was cool enough for atoms and molecules to form. If we push our theories back as far as we dare, bearing in mind that we have stretched them to the limits and that we may well be wrong in some aspects, the earliest time that we can speak of is 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang (called the Planck time). i.e., this is 0.0000… 0001 seconds (43 zeros in all, including the one before the decimal) after the Big Bang. In other words, it is a really tiny time. It is estimated that the temperature of the universe at that time was about 1030 degrees. That is 10 followed by 30 zeros, a really huge number.

It is now believed (according to the inflationary model of the universe), that roughly around 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang, the universe began undergoing an extraordinarily rapid expansion. This expansion lasted for a very short time (a tiny fraction of a second) but it was sufficient to increase the linear size of the universe by a factor of around 1026, which is such a staggeringly rapid expansion that it boggles the mind. After that tiny period of very rapid inflation, the universe settled into the steady and slow expansion that we currently experience.

It took just one millionth of a second for the universe to cool from its extremely hot initial state to a cooler (but still very hot) 1013 degrees, the temperature at which the photons’ energy became low enough that protons and neutrons could form out of quarks and gluons without being immediately blasted apart by them. So quarks and gluons existed in the free state for just about a millionth of a second after the Big Bang and ever since then have been confined in protons and neutrons. At this stage, the universe was now about the size of our Solar System.

About two to three minutes after the Big Bang, its temperature had dropped to about one billion (109) degrees, and now nuclei could also exist without being blown apart by photons. The size of our universe was now about 50 light-years (a light-year is the distance traveled by light in one year which works out to roughly 1014 miles), which is still pretty small when you consider that the radius of just our own Milky Way galaxy is about 50,000 light years.

After about 300,000 years, atoms began forming. The only atoms that could form were the very smallest ones (hydrogen, helium, and lithium) because only their nuclei existed at this time. The temperature of the universe is now about 3,500 degrees.

After about 100 million years all the matter that initially existed as a more or less uniformly spread out gas that occupied the entire universe, start forming into clumps. The atoms in the clumps attract each other because of gravity and they coalesce to form all the galaxies, stars, and planets that the universe now contains. It is estimated that the first stars began to be formed about 150 million years after the Big Bang. Galaxies started forming after about 1 billion years, when the temperature was about 20 K or -253 degrees Celsius. (The temperature scale called Kelvin (K) is used in physics and its value is obtained by adding 273 to the Celsius temperature. For very high temperatures, we can ignore this difference as well as the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit scales, which is why I have not been too specific about the temperature scale so far.)

The stars that were formed initially consisted of mostly hydrogen and helium. The energy that makes the stars so bright and hot is primarily caused by nuclear reactions in which hydrogen nuclei fuse together to form helium nuclei. It is only within stars that are above a certain size that all the other heavier elements we now have were created. At the end of their lives, these massive stars first collapse and then explode in what we call a supernova, spewing all the heavier elements that they created into space, where they end up in planets like ours. The mass of our own Sun is not large enough to explode in this way. Its life will end with a whimper, not a bang.

So that is the basic story of the Big Bang: Starting with a highly dense, uniform, and hot gas consisting of quarks, gluons, electrons and photons that was compressed into a tiny amount of space that was smaller than a golf ball, it rapidly expanded and cooled to become the vast universe we now have with all the basic elements.

Our universe began 13.7 billion years ago, stars came into being about 150 million years later, galaxies started forming after about one billion years, and our Solar System with the Sun, Earth, and other planets was formed about 4.5 billion years ago.

This graphic gives a summary of the time evolution of the universe.


If we want to run the clock further to see what happened on Earth alone, bacteria appeared about 3.5 billion years ago, followed by green plants and algae (1.3 billion years ago), the first wormlike animals (600 million years ago), fish (550 million years ago), amphibians (400 million years ago), reptiles (350 million years ago), mammals (250 million years ago), birds (180 million years ago), and humans (6 million years ago), bearing in mind that these numbers are approximate. The New Scientist magazine gives a more detailed timeline for evolution.

In subsequent posts I will examine some subtleties of the Big Bang theory and the evidence in support of it.

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on Australian TV

Richard Dawkins appeared on an Australian TV panel program called Q/A that takes questions from the audience. It is interesting that Dawkins is the person who most directly answers questions while the others tend to waffle and hedge. Calls for ‘respect for religion’ make their predictable appearance when Dawkins’s points against it hit too close to home. Well worth watching. (Thanks to Pharyngula.)

The program is a little under an hour and can be viewed in six parts. The last two segments deal mostly with a specific Australian issue about how they treat refugees who arrive by boat, an issue that has created a huge controversy in that country.

The very last question gets back to religion with a question about the afterlife. Again compare the wishful thinking of the other panelists with Dawkins’s directness.

Part 1:

(part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6)

Big Bang for beginners-3: The basic story

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

The starting point of the Big Bang story is a cosmic event that started out small and expanded rapidly (like an explosion). This event brought into being the universe we now inhabit and produced all the matter that our universe is presently composed of, though not in its present form. The time at the beginning is arbitrarily set to zero.

We do not know what happened right at the very beginning (at time zero by our convention) because our known theories are believed to not apply right at the beginning. So our story begins very shortly after the Big Bang occurred. It is believed that what existed then were quarks, gluons, electrons, and photons that were moving freely around in a hot dense gas called a plasma. (There were also a few other exotic particles that I will ignore as they are not central to a basic understanding of the evolution of the universe). As the universe expanded over time, these quarks and gluons and electrons and photons eventually became the ordinary matter that we now have. No new matter was created after the Big Bang, but the form that the matter took did change dramatically.

To understand how this process of evolution occurred, we have to understand two basic relationships.

  1. The ‘temperature’ of the universe is related to the average energy of the photons that the universe contains.
  2. As the universe expands and gets bigger, the same amount of matter now occupies a larger amount of space and so the density of matter gets smaller and the temperature of the universe drops.

So right at the beginning the universe was highly dense because all the matter that now exists in the visible universe was compressed into a region that was smaller than a golf ball, if you can imagine that. As a result, the early universe was extremely hot. Because the density of photons (the number occupying a given region of space) was huge and they were so highly energetic, they could (and did) blast apart every composite object they encountered, so that the only things that could exist in the very early universe were those that could not be further broken up into smaller bits, which is what we think that quarks and gluons and electrons are.

As the universe expanded, it became cooler and the photons became less energetic and after some time their average energy became so low that if some quarks and gluons happened to combine to form protons and neutrons, the photons could not break them apart anymore, so the protons and neutrons remained intact. So now the universe consisted of protons, neutrons, electrons, and (lower energy) photons, with all the quarks and gluons being trapped inside the protons and neutrons and no longer free to move around independently.

As the universe expanded and cooled even more, the photons became even less energetic and they could not break apart any nuclei that happened to be formed by protons and neutrons combining. So now the universe consisted of nuclei as well, along with protons, neutrons, and electrons. The only nuclei that formed during the Big Bang were those of the three lightest atoms: hydrogen, helium, and lithium in decreasing order of abundance, with hydrogen forming about 75%, helium about 25%, and just trace amounts of lithium. (The nuclei of all the hundred or so heavier elements that currently exist were formed in the interior of heavy stars, and so came along much later.)

As time went by, the temperature of the universe became even less, so that the photons could not break apart any atoms that formed by nuclei and electrons combining, so the universe now included atoms as well.

And finally, the temperature of the universe became so low that the photons could not even break apart any molecules that formed.

After that, as the universe expanded and cooled even further, the primordial photons in the universe (i.e., those that were created right at the beginning) had such low energies that they ceased to have any effect on anything else. They became, in effect, disconnected from the rest of the matter in the universe. But these photons still exist, getting steadily cooler, and occupy all of space, surrounding us. They give us important information about the origin of the universe, its evolution, and its eventual fate. It is these photons that are referred to as the ‘cosmic microwave background radiation’.

The term ‘microwave’ is used because the average energy of these primordial photons now is roughly equal to that of the photons produced by your microwave oven. Fortunately for us, the density of these cosmic photons is now extremely low (only about 400 per cubic centimeter) because the universe has become so large. Otherwise we would all be cooked in this cosmic microwave oven. The temperature of the universe at the present time is about -270 degrees Celsius, very close to the absolute minimum temperature that is possible which is -273 degrees Celsius.

Next: How rapidly did this cosmic evolution happen?

POST SCRIPT: Goodbye, Peter Graves

Actor Peter Graves, actor and star of the long running TV series Mission: Impossible, has died at the age of 83. Like Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack, he was better known for serious roles but their deadpan delivery helped make the spoof Airplane! one of the funniest films of all time, one that I watch every few years and it still makes me laugh.

Here is a compilation of the scenes with Graves (as Captain Clarence Oveur), though there was a funny opening segment with the Hare Krishnas that did not make this cut.

And here is the trailer:

Big Bang for beginners-2: The nature of energy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

In order to understand the Big Bang theory, we also need to have an understanding of the nature of energy in addition to that of matter that was discussed yesterday. The word ‘energy’ has a technical meaning in science but has also entered into the vernacular and thus has been used to mean many things. In everyday language, it usually signifies the source of the ability to do things, such as move objects or break them up or put them together. So gasoline provides the energy to run cars, coal the energy to heat things, and so on.

Energy takes many forms. Some of it comes from the motion of objects that have mass. For example, the energy associated with the motion of a speeding car can be used to break through a fence. Wind energy comes from the motion of air and can be used to power wind turbines. Water waves in the form of tsunamis can carry vast amounts of energy that can wreak widespread destruction. Some energy is stored as chemical energy in certain kinds of matter such as gasoline and coal that are released under certain conditions. Nuclear energy is what is stored in atomic nuclei. All these forms of energy are associated with things that have mass.

But there is a form of energy that is not associated with any mass. Electromagnetic energy refers to energy that is not associated with a tangible object that has mass but still has the ability to do things. In everyday language, we do not use the term electromagnetic but instead refer to this kind of energy according to the source that produces it. Sunlight is one such case. It has no mass but it has energy (what we call solar energy) and can heat objects, as anyone who has been warmed by the Sun can testify. A microwave oven produces a similar massless energy that we use to cook food. X-ray machines also produce massless energy that we can use to see through some things. Radio waves are another form of massless energy.

All these different forms of massless electromagnetic energy differ only in how much energy is carried by a single unit of that energy. The name given to this single unit is the ‘photon’. The energy that can be carried by a photon varies continuously and the popular names we assign, such as microwave, radio, visible light, X-rays, refer to ranges of photon energy that are based on somewhat arbitrary boundaries. So a photon in a radio wave has less energy than a photon produced by a microwave oven, which has on average less energy than a photon of sunlight, which in turn has less average energy than a photon produced by an X-ray machine.

The energy of each photon is tiny but any energy source that has an observable effect in everyday life, such as sunlight and microwave ovens, contains enormous numbers of them.

So to summarize in terms of increasing energy of photons:

radio waves→microwaves→sunlight→X-rays→ …

In scientific research, we often use photons to break matter up into its smaller constituents because photons can be aimed extremely precisely at small targets. In yesterday’s post I described a hierarchy of constituents of matter in order of decreasing size.


I also said that it takes larger and larger amounts of energy to break up the smaller constituents. If we use photons for this purpose, then we can split a molecule into atoms using a low-energy photon, while we would require a higher energy photon to split up an atom into nuclei and electrons, and yet higher energy photon to break up a nucleus into protons and neutrons. We have not as yet produced in laboratories or accelerators photons that have high enough energy to break up protons and neutrons into free quarks and gluons, assuming that this can be done at all.

As far as we know, there is no upper limit to the energy that a photon can have, just as we do not know if there is a lower limit to the size of the basic constituents of matter. In both cases, our knowledge is limited by our present technology to produce the required energies in the laboratory. There are photons with extremely high energy (many orders of magnitude larger than anything we can produce in the laboratory) that come to us from outer space in what are called cosmic rays but we cannot corral them to use them in controlled experiments.

With these preliminaries out of the way, we can begin to explain the Big Bang theory.

POST SCRIPT: Art films

Monty Python made an art form of parodying BBC-style interviews and in this clip That Mitchell and Webb Look pay homage to them and take on pretentious films and their directors.

Big Bang for beginners-1: The nature of matter

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I was recently asked by a relative to provide a simple explanation of the Big Bang theory ‘in words of one syllable’, i.e., without using jargon or esoteric scientific concepts and in a way that it could be understood by non-scientists. So here goes my attempt at fulfilling that request. In doing so I have tried to follow a paraphrase of Einstein’s dictum that says that when explaining something we should make things as simple as possible, but not simpler. In other words don’t distort in the search for simplicity. In trying to achieve this goal, I have created a multi-part series. (I promised my relative that my explanation would be simple, not short!)

But it is inevitable that in explaining a sophisticated scientific theory like the Big Bang to non-scientists, in essence telling it in the form of a story, some distortions will creep in, not the least because this is not my area of specialization and so I may simply not be as up-to-date as I should be. An excellent site for more current and authoritative information is one put together by Professor Edward Wright of UCLA. In particular he has put together a tutorial and a valuable FAQ page that enables one to quickly find answers to questions, and I have helped myself from that resource so generously provided.

I will readily acknowledge that I will also consciously introduce some distortions by taking the kind of liberties that film makers do when adapting books to create a screenplay, by omitting those characters that are peripheral to the story in order to maintain focus and brevity. My main omissions will consist of some elementary particles of matter that do not add anything to the basic story. Those who want a highly readable yet more accurate treatment of the basics of the theory are well advised to seek out what I think is still one of the best popular treatments of this subject, and that is Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes (1988). Though it does not have anything about the more recent observations and refinements (such as dark matter, dark energy, and cosmic inflation), the basic paradigm it presents is still valid.

The Big Bang theory seeks to explain how the physical universe that we now inhabit came about. Since it now consists of lots of stuff, one needs to first start by looking at what that stuff (i.e., ordinary matter) consists of. This exercise turns out to be like peeling an onion. As each layer of matter is examined, it reveals another layer below it.

Most everyday stuff (plants, animals, plastics, etc.) is made up of tiny but complex entities called molecules that give them their distinctive properties and which are held together by attractive forces. To separate matter into individual molecules, we need to apply an external force that is sufficient to overcome the force that binds a molecule to its neighbors. Doing so requires us to expend some energy as well.

Each individual molecule is in turn made up of simpler entities that we call atoms, which are also held together by attractive forces. Atoms are the units of matter that distinguish one element from another, and there are a little over a hundred such elements, oxygen, hydrogen, iron, carbon, being a few of the well-known ones. The periodic table lists all of them. A very simple molecule is that of water, which consists of just three atoms, two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen, held together by attractive forces. Other molecules, like the DNA that exist in the core of our body’s cells and contain our genes, consist of millions of atoms joined together.

Atoms were once considered the most basic units of matter. They were thought to be indivisible but we know now that that is not true and that they too are composite objects, consisting of a tiny central core (called the nucleus) and electrons outside the nucleus, again held together by attractive forces. Electrons do seem to be truly fundamental particles that cannot be broken up into any smaller constituents.

The nucleus of an atom, however, turns out to be yet another composite object that consists of still smaller entities called protons and neutrons.

The protons and neutrons are now known to be composite objects too, consisting of even smaller entities called quarks and gluons.

So to summarize, when we peel off the layers of matter, the component units of which it is made are, in order of decreasing size:

This is where things stand now.

Are the quarks and gluons (and electrons) the ultimate constituents of matter? We don’t know for sure but given past history with the onion-like nature of matter, we should not be too surprised if searches reveal yet another layer beneath the current one.

Why is it that we do not know if quarks and gluons are the ultimate components of matter? The reason comes down to the fact that it takes force and energy to separate matter into its smaller constituents, and the force and energy required increases rapidly as one moves down the chain of matter. It takes a small amount of energy to separate molecules into atoms. It takes much more energy to separate atoms into nuclei and electrons. (Some electrons can be removed from atoms by just rubbing materials together, which is the source of what we call ‘static’ electricity.) It takes much greater energy to separate nuclei into protons and neutrons, which is why we need huge and expensive accelerators to do so. When it comes to separating protons and neutrons into quarks and gluons we seem to have reached the limits of our ability. We have not actually been able to create quarks and gluons as free objects but instead can only study them while they are still inside nuclei.

The reason that we cannot produce free quarks and gluons is thought to be due to the fact that the forces holding them together in protons and neutrons are like the forces exerted by rubber. When you try to separate two objects that are joined by a piece of elastic, the force you need to apply keeps increasing as the objects move apart. With real rubber bands, the band breaks at some point and the two objects break free of each other. But with the rubber band-like forces holding quarks and gluons together, we have not been able as yet to create forces that can break the bands, leaving us unsure whether they can be broken if only we could to make the forces large enough, or whether they simply cannot be broken, ever.

Next: The nature of energy

POST SCRIPT: Harry Markopolos

In my series on financial frauds, I wrote about the Bernie Madoff scandal and how Harry Markopolos’s repeated warnings that Madoff was running a scam were ignored by the regulatory authorities and the media. He appeared recently on The Daily Show to repeat those charges.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Harry Markopolos
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Reform

Overdependence on technology

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I like a lot of the conveniences that modern technology provides. At the same time, there is so much new stuff that is coming out that I feel reluctant to waste my time learning things that will prove to be transient. I am also somewhat cheap and tend to wait until the dust has settled and only the truly useful is left standing before spending money on it. So an early adopter I am not. I tend to keep an eye on trends but not adopt anything new unless I think I really need it or it solves a problem that I have or it looks like something that will really improve my life.

Personal GPS navigation systems have so far not passed that threshold. Yes, I can see that it might be fun to have but so far I am not persuaded that it is a must-have.

Last Friday, someone knocked on my office door. He said that he was looking for a conference that the university was hosting. I knew that there was nothing going on in my building and asked him why he had come there. He said that this was the place that his GPS has sent him to. I asked him if he could give me the name of the building where it was to be held or the people organizing it so I might be able to help him more easily. He said no. He had simply plugged some information into his GPS device and followed its directions to the end, which happened to be my building.

It so happened that I was able, from the topic of the conference, to track down the exact location and send him on his way. But I marveled at his total dependence on technology.

He is not alone. Recently my cousin was driving to New York City from Toronto for a wedding that I also attended and depended totally on his GPS system to get him there. For some reason, the street address of the hotel was not the address that you are supposed to insert into the GPS to get accurate directions, but he overlooked that and as a result he got lost and spent several wasted hours wandering around NYC (at the end of a long drive from Toronto when everyone in the car was already tired and irritable) until he found the hotel. It had not occurred to him to carry a map with the location of the hotel on it or to use MapQuest or similar sources to gets directions as backup.

While these two cases were benign, overdependence on GPS can be potentially deadly as one Oregon couple found when they blindly followed their GPS directions into a remote forest road and became stuck in the snow for three days before they were rescued.

I myself do not use GPS because I find that I am perfectly able to get to places with just street maps or with help from MapQuest. I also dislike the idea of voices breaking into my consciousness when I am driving and telling me what to do, when most of the time I don’t need directions. Before I leave to go anywhere unfamiliar, I make sure that I have located my destination on a map and created a visual map in my head, and I take actual maps with me as a backup.

There s nothing wrong with using GPS. What surprises me is that some people are totally dependent on it and have no plan B, no backup, if the GPS goes awry.

POST SCRIPT: Wedding speeches

Over my lifetime I have attended many weddings and listened to quite a few speeches and I must say that That Mitchell and Webb Look captures their over-the-top praise nature well.

Film review: Up (no spoilers)

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Up is a truly outstanding film that I can strongly recommend to anyone.

This latest animation coming out of Pixar Studios tells the story of Carl, a 78-year old curmudgeonly man who, on the verge of being forced out of the home he lived in with his beloved late wife Ellie and sent to a retirement home, decides to carry out their unfulfilled joint childhood dream of following in the footsteps of a legendary explorer who disappeared long ago in South America in search of a mystical place called Paradise Falls that harbors an exotic bird that no one else believes exists.

The explorer used a blimp to travel and this inspires the old man to attach a huge number of helium balloons to his house and use it too as a blimp to get to his destination. But a complication arises when a little boy named Russell, a novice member of a children’s explorer’s club, accidentally ends up as a stowaway on his journey.

You get a good sense of the set up of the film from the trailer below, though it does not hint at what happens later.

The film has comedy and adventure in abundance and never drags. After watching it, it struck me how much superior it was to the film Avatar, despite all the hoopla generated by the latter. (See my review of Avatar.) Both films are fantasy adventures. Both have highly predictable storylines, Up even more so than Avatar. You have no doubt that both will have happy endings with some bittersweet elements thrown in. Both use computer graphics extensively, though Avatar is far more advanced and has 3D.

So what makes Up so much better? The answer is simple: it has a much better story, writing, and characters with depth. It does not hurt for a dog-person like me that it also has lots of dogs. Even though the main characters are a grizzled old man and a rotund little boy, you soon find yourself really caring about them in a way that you did not about the much better-looking lead couple in Avatar. There was one short and silent sequence early on, showing the life of Carl and Ellie from childhood to old age, that was extraordinarily beautifully done. I am not usually emotional while watching films but this sequence was so exquisite and poignant that it brought tears to my eyes.

It seems to me that it is the creators of animations that are making some of the better films these days. I recently saw another excellent animation Ratatouille and that managed to make a rat (a rat!) a highly engaging character. And going back to 1967, Walt Disney’s Jungle Book has remained one of my favorite films of all time, combining great songs with humor and suspense. Perhaps the reason that animations tend to be among the better films is that the creators of animations know that they cannot depend on film-star power and sex and violence to overcome a weak plot or clunky dialogue. The story, writing, and direction are always the keys to good films, and for animations they are even more important.

A good guide to how good a film is is the extent to which I pay attention to implausibilities, incongruities, and inconsistencies. In the case of Avatar, several such elements struck me even while watching the film, as I noted in my review. But while watching Up I simply did not care if there were any. Looking back, Up had a lot more plot holes than Avatar but I still don’t care. Maybe the reason is because it was an obvious animation while Avatar looked more realistic, and one gives animations more slack. But I think another important reason is that when you get absorbed in a film and its characters, one does not want to let small things destroy one’s enjoyment.

I have never quite seen the appeal of awards and so am baffled that there is so much anticipation about the Oscars and that people actually watch over three hours of the awards show. Having said that, I am glad that Up won for best animated feature film and was also nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. If that gets more people to see it, that is a good thing.

POST SCRIPT: On being an art critic

“People have pointed out evidence of personal feeling in my notices as if they were accusing me of a misdemeanour, not knowing that a criticism written without personal feeling is not worth reading. It is the capacity for making good or bad art a personal matter that makes a man a critic. The artist who accounts for my disparagement by alleging personal animosity on my part is quite right: when people do less than their best, and do that less at once badly and self-complacently, I hate them, loathe them, detest them, long to tear them limb from limb and strew them in gobbets about the stage or platform…. In the same way, really fine artists inspire me with the warmest personal regard, which I gratify in writing my notices without the smallest reference to such monstrous conceits as justice, impartiality, and the rest of the ideals. When my critical mood is at its height, personal feeling is not the word: it is passion: the passion for artistic perfection – for the noblest beauty of sound, sight and action – that rages in me. Let all young artists look to it, and pay no heed to the idiots who declare that criticism should be free from personal feeling. The true critic, I repeat, is the man who becomes your personal enemy on the sole provocation of a bad performance, and will only be appeased by good performances. Now this, though well for art and for the people, means that the critics are, from the social or clubbable point of view, veritable fiends. They can only fit themselves for other people’s clubs by allowing themselves to be corrupted by kindly feelings foreign to the purpose of art.”

- George Bernard Shaw, quoted in Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality by Hesketh Pearson (1961), p. 126

Tiger Woods skips the express line for forgiveness and redemption

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I have so far not commented on the Tiger Woods affair. While I enjoy salacious gossip as much as the next person and have followed the scandal in its general outlines, it is ultimately not a story with any deep significance. It is essentially a private matter for him and his family to deal with.

As far as I could tell, even before this story broke, Woods seemed like a calculating machine, using his skills and carefully controlling his image to rack up lucrative endorsements. He never used his celebrity status to address any issue of public interest that might be even remotely controversial. Mohammed Ali or George Clooney or the Dixie Chicks he was not. On the few occasions when his mask slipped, he revealed himself to be somewhat shallow. He may be a great golfer (a game whose appeal I find highly elusive) but that was about it. Basically, he was uninteresting as a person.

What I was curious about was how he would stage his comeback. There was never any doubt that he would and that this too, like every other aspect of his public life, would be carefully plotted and calculated by him and his handlers. His recent emergence and apology, consisting of a statement to a limited group with no questions, has been criticized as too obviously stage-managed but there was one mention of it in a brief report that caught my attention and that was when Woods referred to his religion. He said:

I have a lot of work to do, and I intend to dedicate myself to doing it. Part of following this path for me is Buddhism, which my mother taught me at a young age. People probably don’t realize it, but I was raised a Buddhist, and I actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years. Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously I lost track of what I was taught.

Returning to the basic principles of Buddhism is not the normal statement of repentance that one is used to hearing from disgraced public figures in the US. Typically, they fall back on the standard sin-and-redemption trope of Christianity, saying that they know they have sinned against god because of their human weakness but have now, thanks to Jesus, seen the light, are truly sorry, and started a new life. This approach has a solid record of success. Max Blumenthal’s book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party describes case after case where prominent Republican and conservative public figures, the very people who loudly condemn others whom they felt were deviating from the path of Christian morality (such as sex outside marriage, homosexuality, blasphemy, pornography, abortion, unwed parenthood, and teen pregnancy, etc.) were those who, after getting caught with their pants down indulging in those very same acts, have been forgiven and received back into the bosom of their Christian followers after making that kind of apology. It seems almost like there is a set script that everyone follows, hitting all the same notes.

It seems like evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the US can’t get enough of the redeemed sinner storyline, even if it seems patently insincere to the unbiased observer. Why is this so? Maybe it is because, as Gregory Paul argues in a recent study titled The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions, increased religiosity seems to correlate with the kind of behavior that these people condemn as immoral. He says that, “conservative religious ideology apparently contributes to societal dysfunction”. Paul uses comparative data from many countries and finds that “higher levels of conservative religious practice are associated with elevated levels of racial and ethnic prejudice. The patriarchal nature of traditional evangelical marriage may contribute to high levels of violence and instability, and conservative religious values do not appear to suppress uses of pornography to levels as low as those with more liberal views.” (Thanks to Machines Like Us.)

Blumenthal’s book supports Paul’s thesis and states (p. 68) that “, an evangelical anti-porn group, found in a 2007 survey that 50 percent of evangelical men and 20 percent of evangelical women are addicted to pornography; 37 percent of evangelical pastors… called porn addiction a “current struggle.””

Thus Christians may like the idea of forgiving what they condemn as immoral behavior by fellow Christians because many of them are also indulging in similar behavior themselves, and want to keep open that escape route if their own transgressions are also discovered and revealed.

Fox News personality Brit Hume earlier suggested that Woods’ Buddhism would be a hindrance for his comeback and that he might be better off converting to Christianity.

While Hume seemed to be concerned about how best to restore Woods’s immortal soul to good standing in god’s eyes after the danger he put it in because of his sexual escapades (because we know that the god is deeply obsessed with people’s sex lives) and received some derision for his comments, I think that viewed purely tactically, Hume was right. Woods’ public relations damage control would have been better served prostrating himself before Jesus than appealing to the teachings of Buddhism.

So why didn’t Woods take this tried and true path? Maybe his handlers thought that religious regret, whatever the religion, was sufficient to receive absolution from his fans and thus, more importantly, his sponsors. But if it is later revealed that they tried to make Woods claim to have had a come-to-Jesus moment and he resisted because he truly believed in Buddhism and would not abandon it, that would make him a far more interesting person. It would, at the very least, provide evidence that he cared for something more than making money.

POST SCRIPT: Tiger Woods announces his return to what?

The Tiger Woods story is just perfect for an Onion parody. But be warned that it has very explicit sexual language.

The Kierkegaard Gambit-4: Why evidence is crucial

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The Nineteenth Century Variation is similar to the Kierkegaard Gambit in that both seek to deflect attention away from awkward questions. The former is aimed at those who ask religious apologists if they really believe the absurd claims of their religions, while the latter targets those who ask believers for evidence for their claims about god. Both requests are embarrassing for religious believers and so people must be deflected from asking them.

The reason why evidence needs to be produced for empirical claims becomes apparent when the situation is reversed. When non-scientists demand to see evidence for the claims of science (say time dilation or evolution), we do not fob them off by saying that it is impertinent to make such a request until they have first studied Einstein’s or Darwin’s works in depth. We try to explain what those scientists’ theories assert and, more importantly, what evidence we have that makes us take those claims seriously. The questioners may not have the expertise to fully evaluate the evidence and for that they may need to do some studying on their own, but nonetheless we have an obligation to point them in the correct direction and indicate the nature of that evidence. Sophisticated religious apologists do not provide evidence and try to evade the issue altogether by saying that evidence is unnecessary or adopting the Kierkegaard Gambit.

The nice thing about the call for evidence is that it does not depend on expertise. If someone makes an empirical claim, we do not dismiss it simply because they may not be scientists. In fact, non-professionals often turn up evidence that has implications in astronomy, geology, biology, and physics. If you have evidence to counter the theory of evolution, then it does not matter if you are not a biologist. If you have evidence for the existence of god, by all means present it and atheists will consider it.

If the Kierkegaard Gambit is uniformly applied to all spheres of activity, then we would have to insist that only those people who can produce evidence that they have studied both science and religion in depth can form judgments about whether they are compatible. That would immediately rule out almost everybody, including many theologians and philosophers. And yet, that is not what happens. It is assumed that people like John Haught and H. E. Baber and Karen Armstrong are competent to talk about the implications of science for religion but Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne and P. Z. Myers are not. This is what makes so apropos Daniel Dennett’s statement that, “Debating a religionist is like playing tennis with someone who lowers the net for their shots and raises it for yours.”

What is fascinating is that ordinary religious people have no trouble understanding the need to provide evidence for their beliefs and they will attempt to do so if asked. Their evidence may be weak or spurious or inconclusive (faces of Jesus in toast, prayers allegedly answered, personal feelings, etc.) but at least they usually try. The whole problem with ultra-sophisticated religionists is that their beliefs are evidence free and thus content free which is why theology is so flexible, able to accommodate anything. If you are not constrained by evidence, then anything goes. As Carl Sagan wrote in Broca’s Brain:

[R]eligions are tough. Either they make no contentions which are subject to disproof or they quickly redesign doctrine after disproof. The fact that religions can be so shamelessly dishonest, so contemptuous of the intelligence of their adherents, and still flourish does not speak very well for the tough-mindedness of the believers. But it does indicate, if a demonstration was needed, that near the core of the religious experience is something remarkably resistant to rational inquiry. (my italics)

Carl Sagan, like Charles Darwin, called himself an agnostic. Both are people that I describe as ‘good’ atheists’, people whose beliefs are functionally indistinguishable from atheism but who go to great lengths to avoid hurting the feelings of believers, unlike us mean old new/unapologetic atheists. But what Sagan is saying here is as tough as anything that new/unapologetic atheists would say.

And he is right.

POST SCRIPT: And the murderer is…

I grew up devouring the entire oeuvre of English mystery fiction by writers like Agatha Christie. There was something endlessly fascinating about the eccentric and exotic private detective Hercule Poirot investigating murders set in quaint villages and country estates. The denouement was usually dramatic and took place in a drawing room in which the villain is unmasked and immediately confesses.

That Mitchell and Webb Look capture the mood perfectly.

The Kierkegaard Gambit-3: The Nineteenth Century Variation

The Kierkegaard Gambit (explained in yesterday’s post) is a tactic used to deflect attention away from the awkward request made by atheists to believers to provide evidence for god by challenging the competence of the people making the request. I freely acknowledge that I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher nor have I studied the works of the famous philosophers in depth. But the claims that atheists make are fundamentally empirical and can be credibly made by anybody, although they do have theological and philosophical implications.

As commenter Eric reminded me yesterday, Richard Dawkins points us to the intellectual paucity of the Kierkegaard Gambit by saying “Would you need to read learned volumes on Leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?” Jason Rosenhouse and P. Z. Myers provide other responses to it. Myers has fun pondering what those who use the Kierkegaard Gambit would have said if Dawkins had been the child who pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

As I said yesterday, what atheists say is simply the following: If the existence of your god has empirical consequences, then provide empirical evidence that supports your contention. If it has no empirical consequences whatsoever, then say so and we will not interfere with your theological and philosophical ruminations because we do not really care to speculate on the properties of what we consider to be a mythical entity.

The only god that concerns an atheist like me is some kind of active intelligent entity that exists in the same world that I live in and can thus interfere in its workings capriciously, thus violating the laws of nature that scientists have worked diligently to discover. It is these very laws that provide order to the universe and have enabled us to explain its workings and to create the vast edifice of science and technology that we currently benefit from. Surely it is a matter of some import if those same laws can be overturned capriciously at the whim of a supernatural being? A god who can mess with the laws of science is not someone whose existence I can ignore.

In response to the claim that I made that “There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns”, a commenter dismissed it by saying:

Absolutely specious. First off, it conflates names for God with God, showing that the questioner isn’t even treating his own claims seriously. Secondly, it groups physical beings (and here I assume that he means the existence of actual “unicorns”, “fairies” and “Santa Clauses” and not metaphorical ones, which do exist) with extremely complex, immaterial beings (Infinite and outside of physical existence), which either is meant as an attempt to belittle humble folks who think that they are limited and finite or simply indicative of a lack of complex approach to a complex subject out of arrogance or laziness.

It is interesting that this commenter is also claiming that there are “extremely complex, immaterial beings (Infinite and outside of physical existence)”? What does that mean exactly? What evidence is there that such beings exist at all? How does the commenter know that such beings exist if they are ‘outside of physical existence’ since the commenter is presumably inside physical existence? Or is he saying that they exist ‘metaphorically’ like metaphorical unicorns and fairies? How can one be so confident in assigning attributes to an entity for which there is no evidence?

People can have all the metaphors they want and endlessly debate the attributes of their metaphorical gods, just as they can argue about whether metaphorical unicorns are silver or white and whether these mythical animals are mild-mannered or ferocious in temperament. But they never come right out and say that their god is as much a metaphor as a unicorn. As Greta Christina so lucidly pointed out, even those progressive religionists who say that religion is a metaphor don’t seem to really mean it.

When Dawkins argues with theologians and sophisticated religious believers, he sometimes encounters an alternate form of the Kierkegaard Gambit which, to pursue chess terminology, I call the Nineteenth Century Variation. They often accuse him of being ‘nineteenth century’ in his level of sophistication and of arguing as if they still have the naive belief of god as an old man with a long white beard in the sky. Of course, since they don’t, they argue that that makes his arguments irrelevant. Dawkins wonders why they assign to him such a naïve concept of god when it should be obvious that he thinks no such thing:

What, then, is the coded meaning of ‘You are so nineteenth-century’ in the context of an argument about religion? It is code for: ‘You are so crude and unsubtle, how could you be so insensitive and ill-mannered as to ask me a direct, point-blank question like “Do you believe in miracles ” or “Do you believe Jesus was born of a virgin?” Don’t you know that in polite society we don’t ask such questions? That sort of question went out in the nineteenth century.’ But think about why it is impolite to ask such direct, factual questions of religious people today. It is because it is embarrassing! But it is the answer that is embarrassing, if it is yes.

The nineteenth century connection is now clear. The nineteenth century is the last time when it was possible for an educated person to admit to believing in miracles like the virgin birth without embarrassment. When pressed, many educated Christians today are too loyal to deny the virgin birth and the resurrection. But it embarrasses them because their rational minds know it is absurd, so they would much rather not be asked. Hence, if somebody like me insists on asking the question, it is I who am accused of being ‘nineteenth century.’ It is really quite funny when you think about it. (The God Delusion, p. 157-157)

The Nineteenth Century Variation is similar to the Kierkegaard Gambit in that both seek to deflect attention away from awkward questions. The former is aimed at those who ask religious apologists if they really believe the absurd claims of their religions, while the latter targets those who ask believers for evidence for their claims about god. Both are embarrassing requests for sophisticated believers and so atheists must be deflected from asking them.

Next: Why evidence is so crucial

POST SCRIPT: Monty Python sing the Philosopher’s Drinking Song

Sing along with them! Its fun! Sadly, Kierkegaard didn’t make it into the song.

The Kierkegaard Gambit-2: More sophisticated excuses for the lack of evidence

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Yesterday’s post discussed some of the simpler excuses offered by religious believers for the lack of evidence for god and why more sophisticated believers find them unsatisfactory. One alternative line of defense adopted by the later group is to argue that questions of existence are of no importance, that questions about god’s existence transcend such mundane concerns. For such people, their concept of god is such that evidence is irrelevant.

People like John Haught, H. E. Baber, and Karen Armstrong have pursued this line of argument to such an extent that it seemed to me that they have defined god right out of existence and are thus operationally indistinguishable from atheists. I have called such people ‘religious atheists’ because they clearly want to be considered believers. Thus they continue to claim that god does exist but in some vague way that is exempt from the normal expectation that existence claims require at least some evidence to be credible.

At the same time, these people are often formal members of actual religious sects that demand belief in the miraculous. John Haught, for example, is a Roman Catholic theologian at Georgetown University. The Roman Catholic church in particular requires belief in a pretty spectacular set of absurdities: the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, the perpetual virginity of Mary and her bodily assumption into heaven at the end of her life, etc. Does he believe that all those things are historically factual? Does he believe in transubstantiation? How can he not believe in any of them and still call himself a Roman Catholic, since those are fundamental dogmas that all Catholics are required to subscribe to?

Albert Mohler. President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observing an online debate between Richard Dawkins and Armstrong, realizes that these ultra-sophisticated theologians have pretty much lost the game and conceded the argument to atheists. He says that the arguments of people like Armstrong are ‘superficial’, ‘theologically reckless’, and ‘elegant nonsense.’ He says that, “Interestingly, it is Dawkins, presented as the unbeliever in this exchange, who understands God better than Armstrong… We should at least give Dawkins credit here for knowing what he rejects. Here we meet an atheist who understands the difference between belief and unbelief.”

Recently I have noticed an interesting wrinkle in the response of some apologists to the atheist’s challenge to produce evidence. Instead of providing evidence, our competence to speak on this topic at all is challenged. The form of this argument is to say something along the lines of “You really don’t know what you are talking about. Kierkegaard (or Kant or Aquinas or Wittgenstein or any other eminent philosopher or theologian) dealt with this issue with great depth and subtlety and until you have studied those works, you should not speak on this issue.” I call this debating ploy the ‘Kierkegaard Gambit’, although any other impressive name in theology or philosophy will do.

As an example, here is one such comment in response to one of my posts: “I wonder why so many physicists and evolutionary biologists and software engineers think that the exploration of meaning and religion must be so fundamentally simple that they can engage in sweeping statements without actually reading anything of the thousands of years of thought on the topic.”

As another example, here is the statement made by a commenter to my post arguing that religious atheists are getting even more atheistic who said, “I would suggest that you might want to bone up a bit on theology a bit before you pontificate on this particular subject… Your knowledge on religion appears to be quite limited, and you might want to learn a little more about it before you pontificate on it.”

Or again, “[A]ny number of philosophically illiterate folks can pretend to deal with the existence of God and not refer to Aquinas or Descartes or Kierkegaarde or any other notable genius who has spent the time and effort necessary to think about such a difficult and weighty and fundamentally complex topic… Any arguments about moral atheism are just amateurish attempts at what Kant and Spinoza and Berkeley were doing when they wanted to hold on to all the trappings of Christianity but do away with Christianity, and I’ll lay odds that anyone in the modern day who’s making similar arguments is going to be roughly a jillion times less intelligent than any of those three.”

That’s putting me in my place, isn’t it?

What is being asserted is that sophisticated theologians and philosophers, people who are much smarter than me, have studied these issues in great depth and have already explained everything and we need to go to them to find answers. God is so subtle that it is only through immersion in the works of these theologians and philosophers that we can obtain an understanding of him. Those of us who are not professional theologians and philosophers should shut up about our demands for dumb old evidence and not draw any conclusions on the question of god’s existence until we have devoted years to carefully studying the works of these theologians and philosophers.

This idea that god is so hard to grasp will no doubt come as news to the billions of religious believers who think they know god pretty well and have a good relationship with him without such study.

But we atheists are not talking about understanding the nature of god. We are not talking about the meaning of god. We are talking about whether god exists or not. This should surely be the prior question and is one that depends on evidence for an answer.

What atheists like me say to religious believers is simply the following: If the existence of your god has empirical consequences, then provide empirical evidence that supports your contention. If it has no empirical consequences whatsoever, then say so and we will not interfere with your theological and philosophical ruminations because we do not really care to speculate on the properties of what we consider to be a mythical entity.

Next: The Nineteenth Century variation on the Kierkergaard Gambit

POST SCRIPT: Philosophers playing soccer

As only Monty Python can imagine. As a background note, the ‘Beckenbauer’ referred to is a genuine legendary German soccer star who captained their victorious World Cup team in 1974.