Open thread on AETV #822: Polls about Non-Belief

Russell and Jen talked about the current statistics of non-believers. One Christian caller thought quantum mechanics should be seen as proof of God, and one “skeptical” atheist thought that belief in an afterlife is plausible without God.


  1. says

    I’d like to nominate the second caller for the Worst Skeptic in the Universe award… who was find accepting claims from some other person without any evidence.

    The first caller’s rather confident “proof of God” (which isn’t unusual, for some reason) was bursting at the seams with logical fallacies… from begging the question about things like whether particles “know” you’re looking at them, to saying “Well how else do you think it works” as an argument from ignorance.

    I don’t think he ever even bothered to run that idea past anyone who didn’t already believe, before calling the show… which is definitely trial by fire.

  2. says

    I’d also point out that the “I’m skeptical” guy, who kept saying “I was skeptical and I didn’t want to believe this” reminded me heavily of the “I used to be an atheist” callers.

    As far as I could tell, he didn’t employ any skepticism at any point, so I’m not impressed.

  3. jacobfromlost says

    I love the conversations that go:

    Caller: I believe these weird things because strange things happened to me and (5 minutes of never explaining specifically what happened).

    Hosts: Why do you believe, again? What specifically happened?

    Caller: Well these very convincing, personal things happened to me and (5 minutes of telling a story that some other person told them about something that happened to a third person).

    Hosts: What specifically happened to YOU?

    Caller: Well, I had this set of keys, and I found them.


    Well, alert the media! How can we keep this a secret from the WORLD!???

  4. Paul Wright says

    Regarding the first caller who was talking about the double slit experiment, which then naturally went on to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. How desperate was that ? Seriously. It’s like trying to prove Santa is real because some stores sell gift wrap. Sub atomic particles may have consciousness ? Ergo god exists ? Talk about clutching at straws. Still, it was fun to listen to.

  5. Chris says

    How expensive are polls? Could the ACA sponsor a poll of Texas (or elsewhere) and ask the ‘correct’ questions and get an accurate reading of what people believe?

  6. Transhumanist says

    Thank you for a great show!

    I was listening to the conversation with Phil and I was thinking: There is nothing wrong with your arguments Jen and Russel, but I feel you were missing the point of the call. Phil did not call to argue about various examples of experiences, she simply has that feeling that weird things happen she cannot explain and I think what she wants is some hint on how to understand these things. You could give here all your arguments and she may accept them but it doesn’t solve here problem. It seems to me that rather than arguing on each single example, what she some very general understanding of human psychology.

    Phil, if by chance you are reading this, I would like to point out that lots of people have this kind of experiences you are mentioning. You may not have an idea how common those personal experiences and stories you mention are, but the first thing you need to know is that they are really really common.
    Did you see a face hovering above your bed before walking up in the morning? I did. My mother did.
    Did you make a phone call and someone else was calling at the same time? Everyone does!
    Did you hear sounds from somewhere else in the house when no one was there? The older the house, the higher the chance!

    We humans have some serious flaws that we all share such as susceptibility to influences that mess with our brains (fatigue, chemical substances, light phenomena, sounds), a natural inability to come to terms with probability/randomness/statistics, an evolved instinct to see connections where there are none. etc. etc. All this adds up to misunderstandings that end up as arguments for the supernatural. When you understand these flaws you will not only come to terms with that feeling and understand why your present conclusions are almost certainly wrong, but also know what is the a more constructive way to think regarding these kind of experiences.

    Here are a few reads, that I would warmly recommend, that address exactly these topics. They are all quite different in style and content but alltoghether very eye-opening:
    In order of my personal preference
    1. Leonard Mladinow: The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
    2. Carl Sagan’s: A Demon Haunted World
    3. Michael Shermer: Why people believe in weird things
    4. Thomas Gilovich: How we know what isn’t so

    Sure, suggesting to people to read more books does not necessarily make for a good show, but in many cases I think it is what people need.

  7. jacobfromlost says

    I’ve had this argument before with these people. They think “observer” means that a mind is causing results to be different, when that isn’t what it means at all. It simply means in order to observe something, you have to affect it in some way–and if you affect it in some way, it is unpredictably different than at that moment of “observation”.

    There is nothing in the results which imply (much less demonstrate) that a mind is something magical, supernatural, or necessary for the universe to exist at all.

    (And this was the first time I’ve ever heard ANYONE suggest the PARTICLES are conscious, lol. I gotta believe the caller was a troll, but I just don’t know.)

  8. unfogged says

    What I find interesting is the implication. Whether it is a pantheistic argument that all particles are part of a consciousness or just that their god is changing the results it means that god is playing games with the results. Do they think he is just playing a joke on his poor little creations or maybe he is afraid that we’ll learn that he made the universe from spare parts… Or maybe now that Satan has finished burying the fake dinosaur bones he has time to keep an eye on every electron and keep us from ever seeing it as both a wave and a particle simultaneously.

  9. John Kruger says

    The double slit experiment is so frequently misunderstood. In explaining it everyone uses a model of little dots moving across a field and through the slits. What gets left out is that the only way we know what electrons are doing at that level is by making them cause other really large scale things change so that the relatively enormous humans can see something happen on some kind of meter.

    Imagine a population of a million people. We could slip a spy in without disturbing too much and get a better idea of smaller mechanics of the society. Now reduce the number of people to a few hundred. A spy will have a harder time because people will have fewer interactions with complete strangers. In the extreme, if there is just a population of one person, there is no way a spy could interact with that person without influencing what that person would have done not having encountered anyone. That is the real challenge of quantum mechanics, everything is so small we can’t observe without disturbing what happens. The wave patterns and probabilities are the best we can manage, since a smaller more direct model is as yet unachievable.

    QM is a solid and well supported theory, but it in no way suggests that people observing things have a magic component that controls the universe in any way.

  10. says

    Feel free to tear into what I’m about to say, as I’m probably out of my element, but I’d like to venture an analogy about the observation/state question.

    Imagine that, instead of generic “particles”, we were talking about cylinders that are rotating randomly, that we’re “observing”.

    If one looks at one of these cylinders end-wise, we’d see a circle shape… or, depending on the rotation, we’d see it from a side, and see a rectangular shape.

    We decide to test and observe the response of shooting a bunch of these small cylinders through a double-slit, and see what arrives at the end-wall. The nature of the experiment (which is what we’re calling “observing” them), causes the cylinders to align end-wise to the opposite wall… causing circular imprints.

    But since they’re thin cylinders, our alternative, normal way of “observing” them, results in us only really seeing them from the side, instead of end-wise… so we see them as rectangular.

    The different acts of observation are resulting in different ways of seeing them… it’s not changing what the particle is… but more how they’re being interpreted.

    Of course, quantum physics actually has them going through both slits simultaneously, and other weird stuff… but the idea is that this is how they work naturally, and it isn’t so much that they’re sheepish and self conscious and decide to behave different when they “know” some guy is looking at them.

    Just like a multimeter slightly alters the circuit it’s testing the voltage on… the process of testing/experimenting the quantum events alters the end results.

  11. Corwyn says

    “They think “observer” means that a mind is causing results to be different…”

    Imagine *if* they were right: Observer minds cause collapse of the wave function. Therefore God. Who is omniscient and omnipresent. And thus observing everything, all the time. Therefore all wave functions collapse immediately. Therefore we would never experience wave-like behavior. So the fact that we ever see wave-like behavior proves there is no god.

  12. otrame says


    I agree, and I would like to add one that might appeal. Ken Feder’s Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, which not only debunks the archaeological nonsense, but describes what evidence would be needed to convince a scientist that the woo was true. It is entertaining and also gives very practical examples of what constitutes evidence and what does not. Very good read even if you aren’t particularly interested in archaeology.

  13. Lord Narf says

    I haven’t listened to the show yet, but this part about the double-slit experiment sounds familiar. Didn’t we have a guy who went to Liberty University who posted a bunch of questions for atheists, because of some evangelism class he was in? He was a comic book artist or writer of some sort, too.

    I swapped a few e-mails with him, before discovering that he was a dishonest prick. He mentioned the double-slit experiment as some sort of proof of God. When I asked him what the scientific consensus on the experiment is, rather than the interpretation of one lone, creationist nut, he didn’t have a good answer.

    Was the caller that guy, perhaps?

  14. Lord Narf says

    (And this was the first time I’ve ever heard ANYONE suggest the PARTICLES are conscious, lol. I gotta believe the caller was a troll, but I just don’t know.)

    I dunno, man. I’ve heard all sorts of insane stuff out of devout religious sorts who “love science”. They’ll grasp at anything they can wedge in to justify their beliefs, no matter how incredible the source.

    One of my coworkers brought up the assertion of fine tuning from (made up) exponents, from Apparently, if the total mass of the universe differed from what it is by the mass of a grain of sand … the universe would have collapsed back on itself, if there was one more grain of sand … and it would have flung itself apart, and no atoms would have formed, if there was one grain of sand less.

    There are so many idiotic statements like that, out and floating around, and the Christian apologetics field is just a never-ending recirculation of old lies that some apologist pulled out of his ass decades ago. If you have someone who likes reading about science but doesn’t have sufficient scientific education to filter the real science from the crap, you’re going to get a lot of people who genuinely believe the lies told to them by apologists.

    It never ends, no matter how many scientists say otherwise, because in the religious mind, the argument from authority is a sound argument. An apologists with no understanding of science is still right, because he knows God and has the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit, or whatever that particular apologist’s claim to authority is.

  15. Lord Narf says

    Yeah, I think a handful of us had e-mails with him going. In his defense, the fact that he was dealing with so many e-mail conversations must have made it difficult to keep it together, which would explain why he never addressed most of the objections I made to what he was saying. But, you should be honest and beg off, rather than spraying bullshit non-sequiturs all over the conversation.

  16. says

    Apparently, if the total mass of the universe differed from what it is by the mass of a grain of sand … the universe would have collapsed back on itself, if there was one more grain of sand

    Strange… I always heard that the universe only has a fraction (like 10-20%) of the mass needed to even stop the expansion.

  17. Lord Narf says

    Several thousand dollars, at the very least, I would imagine. I did tech support for a call-center that handled all sorts of polling projects. It would probably cost multiple tens of thousands to get it done professionally, by someone like them, with the polling numbers I would want, to consider it a valid result.

  18. Lord Narf says

    Well, yeah … if you want to go to physicists when you have a question about physics. But who would do something crazy like that?

  19. says

    You lost me, but I’ll potificate. The wave pattern on the other side is determined by the shape of the slit, the light source and how they’re arranged together. For instance, see:

    Either the light source is circular (laser) or its two holes instead of slits.

    One thing that seems to be misunderstood is that there have to be more than one photon to produce the wave pattern (we’re seeing them where the hit the surface behind), but its compared to single photons being measured only going directly through one slit (no wave pattern). I’m not much of a physicist (couple of college credits FWIW) and I don’t have any math basis for this, but it just seems like the photons interact together “somehow” to form the wave pattern. I realize that this may be a paradox for some, but its not like elephants are materializing in the air and land in wave patterns in fields when no one is looking and they fall right on your head if you look up.

  20. says

    The first caller was very cool, I liked him, but I have to say I didn’t understand his point. Even if the particles in question were sentient, how in the world would that prove a god exists?

  21. says

    To be fair though, Phil mentioned in the beginning that he was on the fence, so I think he pendulums between skeptic and believer…

  22. says

    Yes, the argument from ignorance is strong with him. I definitely bought into the “god of the gaps” or “unknowns = god” for a while. It is a bit incredible that they seem to think that wave-particle duality is a good place to put god/intelligence, but like the immorality of divine command on our laws, they love to pee their god urine on everything science hasn’t yet explained to their satisfaction.

  23. says

    The CFI, JREF or AA would probably have the resources to do it. Now, the bias in the questions can go both ways, so if their data was very different than the other polls, we’d probably need to be skeptical.

  24. says

    I know right! Science that proves god? Good! Science that disproves god (in their minds)? Eeeevil…Heck they would deny gravity exists if they felt it was a case against god, I mean, why believe your lying eyes? Craig even boasted that no amount of evidence would sway him against his belief in god. That is a wow. I on the other hand would become a theist the day irrefutable evidence pops up that there is a god.

  25. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Indeed. The true beauty of the double slit experiment is that we have developed machines for which we’re quite sure that it releases only one photon or electric at a time, and we know that there is only one stray photon or electric in the apparatus at any one time – itself IMHO an engineering marvel. When you shoot one electron or photon at a time through the slits, you still get the interference pattern, which in laymen terms means that the electron or photon went through both slits at once, and interfered with itself. That’s the truly amazing part of the experiment.

  26. says

    There’s an element to “good skepticism” that requires some critical thinking.. that’s mostly what I was detecting he was lacking.

    For instance, human memory is incredibly fallible. It’s possible that a dream from the distant past isn’t remembered as a dream… so the person can mistake it for a real event. A good skeptic would wonder which is more likely – that he/she’s mis-remembering an event, or whether laws of physics really were violated.

    By the time he was citing “I knew a guy who told me…” as evidence, he had forfeited his skeptics card.

  27. says

    That’s pretty much the gist of the problem. While he never fully explained, I was getting the impression the connection was something like “well, what else could account for it?”

  28. Lord Narf says

    Maybe he was working towards some sort of argument for a mind outside of a brain? I’m sure I’m giving him way too much credit there, though. I’d bet on some sort of colossal Argument from Ignorance, like the ones at the end of almost every first-cause argument.

    As Thomas Aquinas said it:
    … and this everyone understands to be God.
    … to which everyone gives the name of God.
    This all men speak of as God.
    … and this we call God.
    … and this being we call God.

    Why the fuck would you do that? That’s stupid and ignorant.

    I’m sure he was headed to something similar. “Well, there’s God.”

  29. jacobfromlost says

    I’m sure it’s a variation on that Chris Langan CTMU argument (the one Mark the troll used to harp about).

    The specifics are vague in my mind, but I seem to remember Set Theory was involved, and “god’s mind” was asserted at the end for some reason.

  30. Aaroninmelbourne says

    Scepticism, logic, and learning to keep your emotions out of your inquiries is a skill that takes time and effort to learn. When someone’s trying but failing, they need help and patience. But I’ll take them any day over someone using theism as a way to try to gain unearned power and authority over others using threats they’re issuing on behalf of their absent invisible imaginary friend.

    To the caller who was trying to be sceptical I would like to suggest that he view some series on logic and logical fallacies on YouTube (I recommend lazyperfectionist1 for his series on it). Logic and scepticism takes time to get used to using because it’s not a ‘natural’ way to think: as animals, we’re accustomed to acting on some fairly instinctive pattern-finding thoughts and behaviours. For example, the reason we initially presume that “crack” sound we hear in that lonely forest is a human or animal, and that it’s stalking, and stalking us is because it’s better for survival to be wrong most of the time on that question. We presume correlation is causation (as do pigeons… check out YouTube video titled “BF Skinner Foundation – Pigeon Turn”). Heck, we see patterns so much we can recognize shapes in clouds to the point of having it a childhood game. Our brains recognize patterns whether they’re there or not. Logic helps us to be much more critical about these initial impressions.

    The person who asked about whether there could be a life after death without a deity raises an interesting question because it helps demonstrate how interwoven theistic beliefs are with all manner of desires, even when they’re not remotely connected. The “I want to survive death, therefore God” is no different to me than “I want objective morals, therefore God”. Quite simply, if you drew a two-by-two table with the axes labelled “God/Not God”, and “Afterlife/Not Afterlife”, you can see that it’s conceivable for there to be an afterlife but no Gods, as well as there to be Gods but no afterlife (it’s even conceivable as a mind exercise to imagine a deity for life, and another for afterlife, and neither having any power to influence the other ‘realm’, but I digress). It’s simply another example of religions usurping any ideas or wishful thinking that help them prop up The Deity That Isn’t Home.

  31. jdon says

    I agree that Jen and Russell weren’t incredibly effective in addressing what Phil had to say, but I thought it was pretty clear the major reason for that was that Phil simply brushed aside questions without answering them, started talking about something else and then would ask “how do you explain that?” and then repeat the formula.

    Shotgun various vague statements, ignore questions, shotgun more, “how ’bout that, bro?”

    It made it hard to address anything.

    But yeah, Phil, read those books. You might find out what skepticism is, for starters. At no point does it involve saying you don’t want to believe something.

  32. jdon says

    At first I thought the first caller was going with what amounted to a “look at the trees” argument. Something pretty cool is happening, therefore god. The idea that the demonstration of particle wave duality was a conscious choice of electrons/light (perhaps due to feelings of modesty?) came way out of left field. What the double slit experiment teaches us is that the human constructed particle and wave models of matter and energy that we use to great advantage do not apply in all situations. That’s about it. It’s like when you learn that the square root of 9 is 3… then later you learn it’s also -3. The fact that it’s both doesn’t mean you were being taught something incorrect the first time, just something less detailed.

    Phil was a bit of a mess. It was hard to address him because he called himself a skeptic while clearly not knowing how skepticism works. He seemed to think it meant simply trying hard to overcome the overwhelming feeling the supernatural was real, pushing the emotion away. It’s hard to address someone who identifies as a colloquial and possibly personally defined when you’re used to dealing with the definition used by the majority of people who define themselves as . It’s hard to explain to someone that what they identify as isn’t the same as what others who identify as that thing are. A semantic nightmare.

  33. Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc says

    Weird shit happens at the sub-atomic level therefore god.

    We don’t find it that convincing but a lot of people do. As Dawkins has mentioned, we didn’t evolve to deal with the universe at that level so the fact that it’s counter-intuitive shouldn’t be any surprise.

  34. Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc says

    Good ones cost multiple tens: designing the script which is an art form itself (to avoid leading questions, previous questions colouring following ones, etc), paying for the call centres, and then extracting useful statistics from the resultant dataset.

    Also we have to remember that for a variety of reasons people are wrong about loads of stuff most of the time anyway which sometimes makes me think that a benevolent dictatorship is the way to go.

  35. gustercc says

    I actually find those callers quite entertaining. It’s like watching a monkey trying to ride a bike. It’s very funny, but a little sad too.

  36. Lord Narf says

    Yup. It’s maintaining that benevolent part that is the bugger, though. People with that kind of power tend to lose perspective.

  37. Lord Narf says

    Yeah, I specifically remember this one woman. She asked God for a sign, and a few weeks later, she randomly stumbled upon her childhood Bible out in the garage. And she was pissed at God, because she didn’t want to believe, but that was an absolute sign that she couldn’t deny.

    I can’t grasp people with that poor of a set of filters.

  38. jacobfromlost says

    These kind of experiences don’t limit themselves to believers, though.

    In 2000 I was on a film discussion list, and were discussing “Magnolia” which had just come out. The topic of Jung’s synchronicity came up, and someone suggested the idea of finding quarters on the ground simply because the idea of “finding quarters on the ground” had been suggested, and so you go around everywhere looking for quarters.

    And so I was walking around on campus (I had returned to college at the time), thinking about this movie “Magnolia”, this idea of synchronicity, and looking for quarters on the ground…when I had to stop because there was a tree in front of me, and a plaque dedicating the tree. The plaque said, “This Magnolia Tree dedicated by so-and-so”.

    I never did find any quarters, and stumbling upon that plaque blew my mind–not because I thought it was something supernatural, but simply because I recognized it as meaningful to me at the time, in that context.

    The only “sign” I took from it is that the idea of synchronicity is pretty cool. (And as a further synchronicity, it involves the idea of acausal events, which connects to recent discussions in the blog, lol.)

  39. Lord Narf says

    Hell, your experience is far more significant and meaningful than hers. Hers was just a vague demand for a sign. It could have been fulfilled by damned near anything, because despite the claims to being angry at God for proving himself, you have to want it very badly, in order to accept something that freaking weak.

  40. Paul Wright says

    Strange… I always heard that the universe only has a fraction (like 10-20%) of the mass needed to even stop the expansion.

    Yes you are correct. It is thought that the universe is made from 68% dark energy, 27% dark matter and the remaining 5% is ‘normal’ matter. In other words, everything we can see in the universe, planets, stars, galaxies etc. only makes up 5% of the visible known universe.

    Read more here — >

  41. says

    No, the caller actually said “I have an argument that proves god exists” essentially, and when the hosts indicated that this doesn’t prove god (it was god of the gaps) he wouldn’t let it go. He was sure he found irrefutable proof and that skeptics just didn’t want to believe…

  42. says

    Like hag phenomenon or sleep paralysis–suffered a couple of bouts in my twenties when I was religious, so of course I thought it was demons…

  43. escuerd says

    This is one of the better analogies I’ve seen on the subject, and while I don’t think it’s perfect, it sounds like one that would come from someone who has actually studied some QM on a mathematical level (i.e. like you’re making an analogy with different observables corresponding to different eigenstates).

    And yeah, the best conclusion I can see from what is known is that this weird quantum behavior with superposed states and whatnot is just the normal way reality works. The world we perceive (and that makes intuitive sense to us) is a consequence of the aggregate behavior of these “particles”. When you get down to the nitty gritty, they are described by weird state functions that don’t actually correspond neatly to classical observables, but get enough of them together, and their behavior averages out to classical physics in a sense. Certainly there’s no need to invoke the particles “knowing” anything or any such nonsense.

  44. escuerd says

    One thing that seems to be misunderstood is that there have to be more than one photon to produce the wave pattern (we’re seeing them where the hit the surface behind), but its compared to single photons being measured only going directly through one slit (no wave pattern).

    No, this is actually incorrect. As EnlightenmentLiberal pointed out, you only need one photon (or electron, or whatever) to go through at a time to get the interference pattern. You can build up a trace on the photographic plate over time, and whether it forms the wave interference patterns or not depends on whether you are “measuring” which slit it goes through (i.e. using any kind of setup that conveys information about which slit it went through). The meaning of “measurement” in QM is kind of weird and I think is the source of a lot of the confusion people have about the subject. They seem to think that it has something to do with having a conscious observer or not, which is just bollocks.

  45. Raymond says

    **hangs head in shame**

    I actually considered this very thing towards the end of my time as a christian. I was certain that the collapsing of the wave function proved god. Then I started reading the actual science and found out that I was being a moron. Maybe this guy will decide to actually read the science too.

  46. Raymond says

    Probably not the correct venue, but are there any papers exploring the possibility that particles are riding a heretofore undiscovered radiant energy field. That would seem to explain the dual properties of electrons, but it seems to simple to have not been thought of.

  47. Raymond says

    I can’t possibly tell you what someone else thinks, but I use to believe that too. Here was my line of thought.

    Electron going about it’s own thing acts like a wave.
    I look at electron, it becomes a particle.
    The only thing I’ve ever seen able to make a change without directly being affected by a third party is consciousness.
    Consciousness is supernatural.
    If that can be supernatural, then god must exist.

    I know, lots of problems in there. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how stupid that all was.

  48. Parlyne says

    Sounds like you’re thinking along the lines of David Bohm. He reformulated quantum mechanics in terms of deterministic motion affected by a non-local “quantum potential.” This works for standard QM sorts of things; but, so far as I know, no one has ever successfully extended it to include relativistic situations which introduce the need for particle creation and annihilation.

  49. Raymond says

    It seems that it should fit in nicely, actually; if the non-local field has the intrinsic capacity to actualize matter and antimatter. (I intentionally avoid the word “create” because even though this field may be part of the process, it is likely not the catalyst).