The evil of homophobia

The denial of equal rights for gays is inexcusable. There is absolutely no justification for it. Homophobia seems to be entirely based on religion or sexual insecurity or both.

The ugly face of homophobia is visible in the vicious and disgusting campaign by the assistant attorney general of the state of Michigan against the president of the University of Michigan student council, as seen in this CNN interview (via Pharyngula.)

One can see within seconds that this guy is a really nasty piece of work. What drives people like this to obsess about other people’s sexuality? This guy is positively creepy.

Certain segments of the population seem to be much more homophobic than others. The Christian Science Monitor has an article that says that the allegations that Eddie Long, the anti-gay head of a megachurch in Atlanta, used his influence to entice four young men to perform sex acts on him, has brought the silent issue of rampant homophobia in the black community to the surface.

The number of prominent, religious, obsessively anti-gay people who turn out to be themselves closeted gays is quite impressive.

Book review: The Grand Design (Part 4 of 4: Religious implications)

In part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this review, I reviewed the physics in the book The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. In this last part I want to look at the book’s implications for religion.

The book seeks to address three questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? These are, of course, big questions. Many people will recognize these questions as those on which sophisticated religious apologists have pinned their hopes as being the last remaining mysteries which science cannot answer and for which god is the only answer. What the book argues is that this hope, like similar hopes before it, has been dashed, and that what is called M-theory and the no boundary condition have eliminated any need for god.

It is important to realize that M-theory was not invented in order to eliminate god from the universe, any more than Darwin and Wallace’s theory of natural selection was deliberately created to eliminate god from the creation of species. Questions of god’s existence play no part in the normal workings of scientists. Despite what some religious people think, scientists do not spend their time trying to find ways to make religious people sad. Scientific theories rise and fall on the basis of how good they are in relation to empirical evidence and data, and their implications for theology are at best an incidental by-product or afterthought. As Hawking says, the “multiverse idea is not a notion invented to account for the miracle of fine-tuning. It is a consequence of the no-boundary condition as well as many other theories of modern cosmology.” (p. 164)

In his books, Hawking refers to god a lot. I suspect that this is partly a publicity ploy. He knows how to market himself by pushing people’s buttons and whenever an eminent scientist talks of god, people listen and buy their books. The very last sentence of his A Brief History of Time was, “If we find the answer to [why it is that we and the universe exist], it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.” This sentence has been widely quoted and led to hope among religious people that the world’s most famous living scientist was religious, though those who know him said that he was not a believer and that his use of the word god is in the same sense as Einstein used it, as a label for the laws of nature, not in any sense the way that religious people use the term as some kind of entity that actually exists and can do things. In reading that earlier book, it was not clear to me whether he believed in the existence of a god-like entity or not. I got the sense that he was using the word god in both real and metaphorical senses but tellingly, God was not listed in the index, the way that other people mentioned in the book were.

What his latest book does is definitely eliminate any hope that Hawking believes in god. As the authors say, “Some would claim the answer to these questions is that there is a God who chose to create the universe that way… We claim, however, that it is possible to answer these questions purely within the realm of science, and without invoking any divine beings.” (p. 172) This probably explains why this time around, religious dignitaries have been quick to dismiss him. Woo master Deepak Chopra, who has made a career out of mixing quantum physics with religious ideas to create a ghastly mess of confusion that religious people like because they think that god is hidden somewhere in his fog of words, is of course disappointed with Hawking’s conclusion.

Cosmologist Sean Carroll has a nice three-minute video that I’ve shown before that summarizes some of the points made in this review.

Of course, theologians and philosophers will rightly claim that Hawking has not proved that god does not exist. But that is a cheap point since science can never prove the non-existence of anything, whether it be god or Santa Claus or unicorns. What science has shown (even before Hawkng’s book) is that god is an unnecessary concept. As Steven Weinberg says, “One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious.”

I would actually put it in a shorter and stronger form than Weinberg. Science can never prove that there is no god but it has shown that there is no need for god. Disbelief in god is far more intellectually coherent than belief and thus should be the natural choice for any thinking person.

Although I said that there would be only four parts to the review, I have some final thoughts on the book and Hawking’s views that I will add as a coda tomorrow.

Helping silent atheists and agnostics find their voice

In a previous post, I mentioned an essay by John Shook, education director of the Center for Inquiry, where he took a gratuitous swipe at those he called “Know nothing new atheists” without naming any or giving any evidence, thus tarring all of us with the same brush.

He is receiving a well-deserved shellacking in the comments section of his blog. One comment by someone named wbthacker was particularly insightful in pointing out why what the new atheists are doing is much better than the accommodationist stance of feigning respect for religion.

Recognize that there are many potential atheists who are not currently “on our side.” They are atheists afraid to “come out”, and theists who don’t really believe, but claim to be religious because it’s easier than being an agnostic.

These people might add their voices to ours, if they hear us saying something that inspires them. When we feign respect for religiosity, we tell these people that they may as well stay where they are: that there’s nothing wrong with believing myths, if you’re nice about it.

I think that’s why the New Atheists, have done more to popularize atheism in a few years than happened in the entire century preceding them. They boldly state that it’s NOT respectable to believe in something without good evidence, let alone to make important decisions based on myths you can’t prove. And this is logically self-evident.

This certainly angers the theists, who are used to being treated with respect they never deserved. But it inspires atheists; it compels them to follow their rational mindset, instead of burying it.

Good point.

Matt Taibbi on the Tea Party

From the Rolling Stone of October 15, 2010.

It’s taken three trips to Kentucky, but I’m finally getting my Tea Party epiphany exactly where you’d expect: at a Sarah Palin rally.

Scanning the thousands of hopped-up faces in the crowd, I am immediately struck by two things. One is that there isn’t a single black person here. The other is the truly awesome quantity of medical hardware: Seemingly every third person in the place is sucking oxygen from a tank or propping their giant atrophied glutes on motorized wheelchair-scooters.

A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries as they cheer on the vice-presidential puppet hand-picked by the GOP establishment. If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can’t imagine it.

This, then, is the future of the Republican Party: Angry white voters hovering over their cash-stuffed mattresses with their kerosene lanterns, peering through the blinds at the oncoming hordes of suburban soccer moms they’ve mistaken for death-panel bureaucrats bent on exterminating anyone who isn’t an illegal alien or a Kenyan anti-colonialist.

You should read the whole thing.

Book review: The Grand Design (Part 3 of 4: The background physics)

In part 1 of this review I discussed the main issues raised by the book and in part 2 I said that the book by Hawking and Mlodinow argued that M-theory and the no boundary condition can provide answers to the three big questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?

To understand what lies at the basis of M-theory, we need to appreciate a key difference between classical physics (which describes the large-scale structure of the everyday world we live in and from which we draw our intuitions about how the world works) and quantum mechanics (which describes the microscopic atomic and subatomic world).

What classical physics says is that if we release an object at some point A, it will subsequently wander off on some trajectory (or path) that depends on its initial state of motion and the forces that act on it. This is what enables good football quarterbacks to throw passes to receivers with such accuracy. If the ball is poorly thrown on a windy day and/or we stop observing the ball, we may not know or be able to predict which path the ball will take or where it will land but our classical intuition tells us that it will go along some specific path that is determined by the initial throw and the wind conditions.

But quantum mechanics has this counter-intuitive idea that once we stop observing the object, the object takes every conceivable path simultaneously. This means that there is no unique location for the object at any given time, that it is everywhere at the same time and could eventually end up anywhere at all. Another way to say it is that an object has many different histories. This is what boggles most people’s (including scientists’) minds about quantum theory but we have to learn to live and work with it (i.e., develop ‘quantum intuition’, so to speak) because this theory is phenomenally successful and there seems to be no getting around it at this time. Some people are working on developing alternative theories that do not have its strange features but have not had much success so far.

Now if we detect the object at some later time to be at some point B, this eliminates some of the potential paths we started with because they would not have resulted in the object ending up where we detected it. So the act of detection picks out a subset of the initial set of possible histories, limiting the ones of interest to those that began at point A at the specified time and ended at B at the later time, which still includes an infinite number of paths or histories. An elaborate mathematical machinery (called the ‘sum over histories’ or more technically ‘path integrals’) has been created to add up all the possible paths the particle could have taken in going from A to B. The calculated results correctly predict the empirical observations, which is why scientists have confidence in quantum theory despite its counter-intuitive features.

What M-theory does is take this key idea of quantum mechanics and apply the ‘sum over histories’ approach to the universe as a whole. Building on the idea of the inflationary universe (see part 9 and part 13 of my series Big Bang for Beginners for more details), since the net energy of the universe is zero, there is no restriction on the number of new universes that can ‘pinch’ off from previously existing universes. Since the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that you can never have truly empty and inert space (p. 113) but that space constantly has particles coming into existence and disappearing again, any one of those fluctuations in space could form the seed of a quantum fluctuation that triggers the birth of a new universe.

So universes are being created all the time and there are a vast number of possible histories of the universe, of the order of 10500. They each have their own forms of matter and their own laws. According to the ‘sum over histories’ in quantum mechanics, all these universes exist simultaneously, giving rise to the name ‘multiverse theory’. When we observe our universe, we are picking out just those histories that could produce the present state we see. As Hawking and Mlodinow state:

Quantum physics tells us that no matter how thorough our observation of the present, the (unobserved) past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities. The universe, according to quantum physics, has no single past, or history. (p. 82)

We seem to be at a critical point in the history of science, in which we must alter our conception of goals and of what makes a physical theory acceptable. It appears that the fundamental numbers, and even the form, of the apparent laws of nature are not determined by logic or physical principle. The parameters are free to take on many values and the laws to take on any form that leads to a self-consistent mathematical theory, and they do take on different values and forms in different universes. (p. 143)

Given the staggeringly large number of possible histories, it was almost inevitable that one of those universes would have the properties that ours has. It is like rain. If you pick a point on the ground, the probability of it being hit by a raindrop is infinitesimally small. But in a rainstorm, there is such a huge number of drops that it is inevitable that at least one will hit the ground there.

Hawking and Mlodinow’s book does not shy away from making strong claims, such as that the theory they describe has to be the right one. “M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe… M-theory is the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find.” (p. 181, emphasis in original.)

That seems hubristic to me. If the history of science teaches us anything it is that theories, however successful at any given time, tend to be later replaced by other theories as the questions that need to be addressed change. However obviously important they may seem, is usually a mistake to think that the questions that concern us now will be the same questions that future generations care about. Also the theory of supersymmetry, which is central to M-theory though not necessarily to the idea of multiverses, has been around since 1970 or so, with none of the exotic partner particles it predicts having been detected as yet. The theory’s supporters are pinning their hopes on the Large Hadron Collider that has just started operations, hoping that its energies will be sufficient to produce these particles.

In the last part of this review, I will look at the implications of M-theory for religion and give some of my reactions to other features of the book.

It’s time to put up or shut up

John Shook, Director of Education at the Center for Inquiry, has written an essay attacking those whom he calls “Know nothing” atheists who supposedly attack religion while being ignorant of sophisticated modern theology. Larry Moran, professor of chemistry at the University of Toronto, has had enough of this kind of vague accusations and issues a very direct challenge [link fixed].

The question before us is whether there is a God or there isn’t. So far, I have not been convinced by any argument in favor of supernatural beings. Every single argument that I’ve encountered seems flawed. Many of them are stupid and nonsensical.

I challenge all theists and all their accommodationist friends to post their very best 21st century, sophisticated (or not), arguments for the existence of God. They can put them in the comments section of this posting, or on any of the other atheist blogs, or on their own blogs and websites. Just send me the link.

Try and make it concise and to the point. It would be nice if it’s less than 100 years old. Keep in mind that there are over 1000 different gods so it would be helpful to explain just which gods the argument applies to.

I don’t care where they post the argument, just get on with it. I’m not interested in any other details about theology. Those points only become relevant once you’ve convinced this atheist that you have a rational argument for the existence of God. Don’t bother telling me how you reconcile your God with evil, or why you believe in miracles, or why transcendence is important in your life, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Don’t insult my intelligence by pointing out that religion has done a lot of good things in the past as if that were proof of the existence of the supernatural. Don’t be silly enough to try proving god by telling me that religion makes people feel good. So does chocolate, and wine.

That sounds reasonable to me.

“Know nothing new atheists”

A few days ago had a discussion with a philosopher (himself not religious) who railed against those whom he called “Know nothing new atheists” who argued against religion on a very low-level and were not aware of the best of modern theology. I pressed him to name names but the ones he gave (Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers) do not fit this category at all. In fact, they know quite a lot. But I occasionally find the philosopher’s attitude among atheists and agnostic accommodationists who seek to separate themselves from people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Coyne, Myers, and other mean old new/unapologetic atheists (like me), and accuse us of ignorance.

Hence it was amusing to get a link (thanks to reader Norm) to an article giving the results of a new Pew survey that found that atheists and agnostics were the most knowledgeable about “the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.” You can read all the survey questions and the results for each here. (Not to boast, but there was only one question for which I did not know the answer and one for which I was not sure.)

Of course, the philosopher could argue that this survey tested largely low-level factual knowledge and not deep theology. But I am willing to bet that if a similar survey were done on theology, atheists and agnostics would again come out on top. It is because we have studied theology at least to some extent that we realize how content-free it is. In fact, I suspect there is a causal relationship: the more you know about religion, the less likely you are to believe in god. As Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, said, “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Book review: The Grand Design (Part 2 of 4: The basic ideas)

In part 1 of this review, I argued that the lack of a unified theory of gravity and quantum mechanics is what has stymied scientists in their attempt to understand the origins of our universe and even what came ‘before’, assuming that the question even makes sense. M-theory and the no boundary condition is what Hawking proposes as the candidate for a unified theory that can address the physics of the early universe.

M-theory is not an elegant theory expressed in a single equation (like Newton’s law of gravity) or even a few equations (like Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism) but instead consists of a patchwork of theories, each with its domain of application, and overlapping with other theories so that the whole space of nature is covered. Hawking argues that this patchwork feature may not be due to our lack of imagination or inventiveness but intrinsic to the nature of the laws of science.

It is like the way we create accurate but flat maps of the Earth’s surface. Because the Earth’s surface is curved, no single flat map can ever do the entire job for us. Instead we are forced to take small portions of the globe and map each region separately. As long as the boundaries match up correctly, we effectively have a global flat map, although such a collection is not as elegant as having a single flat map. The versions of M-theory in each domain are referred to as ‘effective’ theories and are supposedly as real as those theories can get.

One big problem with dealing with the origins of the universe is how to deal with the so-called ‘singularity’ problem, in which the gravitational fields are so large due to the compression of the universe into a tiny space that space becomes so warped that the laws of physics we have (which were designed for flat spaces) break down. Hawking suggests that there is a way to overcome this hurdle, which he calls the ‘no boundary’ condition. He says that, “once we add the effects of quantum theory to the theory or relativity, in extreme cases warpage can occur to such a great extent that time behaves like another dimension of space.” (p. 134) This is because of a technical maneuver in which time is treated as an imaginary quantity. (‘Imaginary’ in the scientific sense has a very precise mathematical meaning and does not have the everyday meaning of existing only in one’s head.) “The realization that time behaves like space… removes the age-old objection to the universe having a beginning, but also means that that the beginning of the universe was governed by the laws of science and doesn’t need to be set in motion by some god.” (p. 135) (In chapter 8 of his earlier book A Brief History of Time Hawking describes the no boundary proposal in more detail and says that its predictions have been borne out.)

The amalgamation of M-theory with the no boundary condition is the central feature of Hawking’s argument.

M-theory itself is a combination of string theory (in which elementary particles are assumed to be not point-like but like bits of vibrating string, either open or closed in loops) and supergravity (which itself is a combination of the theory of gravity and a theory of particle physics known as supersymmetry, one feature of which is that every particle we are familiar with has to have a partner particle with specific properties.)

M-theory requires eleven space-time dimensions. We cannot directly determine (at least as yet) the form of the laws of science in the eleven-dimensional space. Since we appear to exist in four space-time dimensions (three space and one time), the absence of those other dimensions need to be explained. The unobservable seven dimensions are assumed to be curled up to be so tiny that we cannot detect them at the present time with our present technology, giving us the illusion that we live in just four dimensions. The way the seven extra dimensions curl up is not uniquely determined and how they do so determines the nature of the laws we perceive in our reduced four-dimensional space. The number of ways in which they can be curled up, and hence the resulting number of potential universes each with its own laws and matter and parameters, can be as high as 10500! This is a staggeringly high number that is hard to even wrap our minds around but, as I will discuss in the next part of this review, it plays an important role in answering the questions raised in the book.