“New Agnostics” or “Same Old Ineffectual Wafflers”

My brain has been blasted by the confident inanity of Ron Rosenbaum. He’s a chipper flibbertigibbet who is proudly agnostic (no problem with that) and as dumb as they come (which is a problem). He has written an essay on Slate titled “The Rise of the New Agnostics” which has a few little quirks. No such movement exists, which he admits, it’s strikingly unoriginal to invent a ‘new’ epithet for your nonexistent movement by appropriating a three letter modifier from the “New” Atheists which we all detest and groaningly disavow over and over again, it is a remarkably incoherent manifesto, and he says so many stupid things that I was confused into thinking it was a comedy piece for a while. It’s like he’s ripped off the worst theistic arguments and repackaged them into a mess that he proudly calls agnosticism. John Wilkins, who is a proud agnostic, should be embarrassed by it. More about John in a moment.

Rosenbaum begins with one of the hoariest old cliches around. Groan along with me, please.

…I think it’s time for a new agnosticism, one that takes on the New Atheists. Indeed agnostics see atheism as “a theism”–as much a faith-based creed as the most orthodox of the religious variety.

Picture the first meeting of the New Agnostics, Ron Rosenbaum presiding.

Ron: That New Atheism is just another religion, and I reject religious dogma! Therefore, I have established this new and unique view, the New Agnosticism.

Fred: Errm, Ron…but isn’t the New Agnosticism just another religion, then?

Ron: No, it’s not. We have none of the characteristics of a religion, unlike atheism.

Bill: Wait, Ron, I think Fred is onto something. I’m a true agnostic, and I reject your attempt to shoehorn me into your dogma. I’m leaving your cult to form the New New Agnosticism.

Fred: I’m so confused. Isn’t that another religion? You’ve got a name for it after all…

Walt: Exactly right, Fred! So come join my new group, the Revised Agnostics!

Ron: Splitters! Heretics! Schismatics!

It’s awfully easy to sit there and call anything a religion, so we often get this absurdly circular argument: religion is bad, we don’t like people who say we shouldn’t follow a religion, therefore the non-religion is a religion. I wish people like Rosenbaum — and there are a lot of them — would stop and think for once. Atheism is not a religion, and it’s ridiculous to assert that it is. It’s fine for people to dislike [group that opposes religion] for some reason, but it’s ludicrous to use the argument that it’s because [I dislike religion]. It puts them in the same set! Please try to formulate specific objections.

Now Rosenbaum does have some gotchas that he throws at the New Atheists as reasons why they are wrong other than that they’re “just another religion”. The problem is that they’re either ignorant or hilarious. First, you have to read the funny one. This is the remark that had me wondering whether this was comedic satire. Notice that now science has become a religion:

Let me make clear that I accept most of the New Atheist’s criticism of religious bad behavior over the centuries, and of theology itself. I just don’t accept turning science into a new religion until it can show it has all the answers, which it hasn’t, and probably never will.

Read it again. Savor it. Contemplate it. I’ll understand if you are ready to stop right now — Ron Rosenbaum has declared himself a world-class idiot. To quote Dara O’Briain: “Science knows it doesn’t know everything, otherwise it would stop.”

One other specific issue I have to take with Rosenbaum is that he’s lazy. He’s got one question that he’s absolutely sure will stump the atheists, and justify his rejection of them. It’s an old and distinguished philosophical question, but hardly relevant.

Faced with the fundamental question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing. But the question presents a fundamental mystery that has bedeviled (so to speak) philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Aquinas. Recently scientists have tried to answer it with theories of “multiverses” and “vacuums filled with quantum potentialities,” none of which strikes me as persuasive.

He’s even phrased it as a direct challenge.

In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I can’t wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

Allow me to bounce that right back to him. What is the New Agnostics’ answer to why there is something rather than nothing? If the failure of atheists to be able to answer it (which he affirms by simply throwing out physics as unpersuasive) is grounds for rejecting their philosophy, then why isn’t it equally damning to his New Agnostics?

I can guess. Because the New Agnostics take great pride in answering “I DON’T KNOW” to as many questions as possible. Probably in a Mr Gumby voice, too.

Although, actually, some of us do have pretty good answers to the question, and it’s apparent that Rosenbaum hasn’t even tried to look them up before posing with his challenge. He could have looked up Sean Carroll, who gives a characteristically thoughtful and rather philosophical answer.

Ultimately, the problem is that the question — “Why is there something rather than nothing?” — doesn’t make any sense. What kind of answer could possibly count as satisfying? What could a claim like “The most natural universe is one that doesn’t exist” possibly mean? As often happens, we are led astray by imagining that we can apply the kinds of language we use in talking about contingent pieces of the world around us to the universe as a whole. It makes sense to ask why this blog exists, rather than some other blog; but there is no external vantage point from which we can compare the relatively likelihood of different modes of existence for the universe.

Or perhaps he could have looked up Victor Stenger, who is a bit more blunt.

What this example illustrates is that many simple systems are unstable, that is, have limited lifetimes as they undergo spontaneous phase transitions to more complex structures of lower energy. Since “nothing” is as simple as it gets, we would not expect it to be completely stable. In some models of the origin of the universe, the vacuum undergoes a spontaneous phase transition to something more complicated, like a universe containing matter. The transition nothing-to-something is a natural one, not requiring any external agent.

As Nobel Laureate physicist Frank Wilczek has put it, “The answer to the ancient question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ would then be that ‘nothing’ is unstable.”

Of course, those guys are mere physicists. Nothing they could say would be at all persuasive.

Rosenbaum goes on a mad scramble to drop names in a scattershot fashion, including such luminaries as Eagleton, Berlinski, and Plantinga, which ought to dazzle you right there, but unfortunately among all the twits he also dug up a friend, John Wilkins. John is a nice guy, but he does have an ugly blind spot when it comes to atheists, despite being one himself (oh, he will hate me for that). It might be because we Affirmative Atheists have been poking him in the eye with this stuff for so many years. Anyway, Rosenbaum wrote to Wilkins and asked him to do his homework for him, and list some of the nasty habits of the New Atheists.

For now my objections to the “New” Atheists (who are a vocal subset of the Old Atheists, and who I call Affirmative Atheists) are the same as my objections to organized religion:

1. Too much of the rhetoric and sociality is tribal: Us and Them.

Oh, that is just too much. I can guess John actually will be a bit embarrassed about the fact that Rosenbaum is using his argument to justify setting up a new tribe, Usagnostics, in opposition to Themtheists and Thematheists.

It’s a silly argument in the first place. Whenever we take a position on anything, it immediately opens up the possibility of opposition and segregation into multiple camps. We don’t like brussels sprouts; They love the slimy little things. Tribes are what people do, naturally and spontaneously. The question is always about how they deal with other tribes — shall we execute Brussels Sprouts Eaters, or is it sufficient to merely deport them, or shall we just have an information campaign and make fun of the crazy people who eat the awful green balls?

John throws out another canard. We’ve been over this so many times…

4. Knowability: We are all atheist about some things: Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on. [Which is why the “are you agnostic about fairies?” rejoinder is just dumb.] But it is a long step from making existence claims about one thing (fairies, Thor) to a general denial of the existence of all possible deities. I do not think the god of, say John Paul II exists. But I cannot speak to the God of Leibniz. No evidence decides that.

“Are you agnostic about fairies?” is a good question, because it highlights what people actually think. John gives the right answer; he doesn’t believe in fairies. Most people say the same thing. The point is that it is not only possible, it is reasonable to reject major categories of belief. John also gives the right answer about the Catholic god, which is just as phantasmal as fairies, and he also gives the very same answer about deist or pantheist gods that all the New Atheists give. Neither I nor Dawkins nor Larry Moran nor any atheist I’ve ever talked to will say that we have evidence that the remote and abstract God of Leibniz does not exist.

I know he hates it when we say this, be Wilkins is awfully hard to distinguish from any other atheist, except for the fact that he insists on the label “agnostic”. If it makes him feel any better, he can always call the rest of us agnostics, too. We’ll humor him.

You get the idea — I’m not going to try to take apart every word in Rosenbaum’s disjointed agglomeration of poorly thought out nonsense. But I will leave you with one little phrase from the article that tells you everything you need to know:

Having recently spent two weeks in Cambridge (the one in the United Kingdom) on a Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship…

Goodnight, Ron Rosenbaum.

I want to…DANCE!

But I can’t. I am quite possibly the worst dancer in our galaxy (notice the nod to my self-esteem: I can acknowledge that there might be an entity worse at dancing somewhere in the universe). But still, this announcement spoke to my inner Balanchine.

Who said scientists can’t dance? The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is proud to announce the third annual “Dance Your Ph.D.” interpretative dance video contest. The contest, which is open to anyone with a Ph.D. or pursuing a Ph.D. in a science-related field, asks scientists to transform their research into an interpretive dance. Winners of each of the four categories (physics, chemistry, biology, and social sciences) will receive $500, then compete head-to-head for an additional $500 grand prize for best overall dance. Submissions are due by September 1, 2010. All winning dances will be screened at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York City in mid-October, where the best overall dance will be determined by a panel of judges and the audience. A more detailed description of the rules and how to enter can be found at http://gonzolabs.org/dance/.

True confession: I once upon a time, 25 years ago, considered doing part of my thesis defense with interpretive dance, but decided that my profound lack of talent and the impracticality of bringing together a dance troupe on short notice made it impossible. I cobbled together an animation instead — on an Apple II. In lo-res graphics mode. Don’t laugh, it was a simpler time.

My thesis was basically an analysis of the construction of the motor circuitry of the zebrafish spinal cord. I was particularly interested in how descending outputs from the hindbrain, especially the Mauthner cell, connected to the segmental motoneurons of spinal cord. You see, we knew that if you stimulated the Mauthner cell, it sent a signal down the nervous system that made all the body muscles on one side contract abruptly, causing the animal to make a fast bend that was part of its escape response.

What I did was work out the anatomy of the cord, identifying two classes of motoneurons: the very large primary motoneurons, 3 per segment, which innervated large blocks of muscle, and smaller secondary motoneurons, which innervated smaller groups of muscle fibers. Then I determined that the Mauthner axon seemed to only contact the primary motoneurons; I also, with Judith Eisen, used fluorescent probes to mark motoneurons and watch them grow out over time. Those developmental studies and the anatomy of the cord — new fibers are layered onto the outside, so there’s a time-series laid out in space from deep cord (early) to superficial fibers (late) — led me to a choreographic model of development.

The Mauthner and primary motoneurons grew first, but the Mauthner had a long way to go, so in each segment primary motoneurons sent out growth cones, then the Mauthner axon arrived, and then after it had passed by, the secondary motoneurons sent out their growth cones. It was all in the timing (although my work in those ancient days could not rule out the possibility of specific molecular cues in addition). So the dance was obvious. Here’s what I would have done, given time and resources and complete shamelessness.

Picture a football field. Gathered on one sideline in clumps ten yards apart are groups of dancers. One in each group represents the primary motoneuron, and is dressed in brilliant blue. The others, in bright green, are the secondary motoneurons.

At the goal line is a single dancer in red, representing the Mauthner growth cone. At the start of the dance, she moves alone, trailing a red ribbon representing the axon behind, heading towards the opposite goal line. Since she’s a growth cone, the dynamic leading edge of a developing axon, she should be flamboyant and exploratory, reaching out all around her as she moves across the field.

As Mauthner starts, the primary motoneurons all wake up and send out their growth cones — they shouldn’t do it at precisely the same time or in any order, but asynchronously. The should move across the field in exactly the same pattern, however, trailing their blue ribbons behind them. Primary motoneuron growth cones are initially huge and expansive, so the blue dancers should be outdoing the Mauthner cell as they move.

Mauthner, as she crosses each blue ribbon, should pause and stroke the ribbon, and then tie her red ribbon to the blue, indicating the formation of a synapse. And then she moves on to the next and the next and next.

The secondary motoneurons rest quietly while all this is going on, but after Mauthner passes them, they should also jump up and start moving across the field, passing over the red ribbon but clinging to the blue, eventually diverging from it to explore their own little patches of the field.

It woulda been beautiful.

I missed my chance, though, for lack of talent and ambition. Don’t miss your opportunity: if you’ve got an idea, go for it, just so you don’t end up a gray-haired old geezer moaning about how he should have created some art, once.

What is Mooney going on about now?

Chris Mooney has another vacuous op-ed in the Washington Post. It’s aggravating because he actually starts out well, saying stuff that I agree with entirely, and then suffers a massive failure of either nerve or logic to offer meaningless noise as a solution.

The part I agree with is that he points out that education is not the only answer to our problems with creationism, climate change denial, and anti-vaccination movements. Many of the noisemakers behind these denialist machines are quite intelligent and well educated, and there isn’t a clean and simple correlation between, for instance, having a college degree and accepting evolution (this does not diminish the importance of education—without it, your views are at the mercy of popular fads).

The real drivers of anti-science are toxic ideologies: modern Republican politics (there is a deeply buried strand of Republicanism that is pro-science and industry, but it seems to be lost among the Beckians and Palinites), naive libertarians, fear of exploitation by Big Pharma, and one that Mooney strangely omits from his list, religion. Republicans and Libertarians and Christians are not necessarily stupid people at all, and the reason they turn to denialism isn’t always because they are ignorant, but because their ideology skews their perspectives in destructive ways.

I actually agree with Mooney on this.

Unfortunately, he ruins it all with his conclusion, which is a fantastic example of do-nothingness.

Experts aren’t wrong in thinking that Americans don’t know much about science, but given how little they themselves often know about the public, they should be careful not to throw stones. Rather than simply crusading against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes.

Go talk to the social scientists? Now the social sciences are wonderful tools, and I agree that we need to get their insights, but Mooney has already given us the perspective of social science research: that bad ideas aren’t simply the product of bad education, but of bad ideological priors. Fine. Let’s move on. Now how can we weaken the influence of the know-nothing wing of the Republican party and religion? Once upon a time, Mooney was one of the better artists of confrontation, who did an excellent job of tearing up Republican policies and making positive suggestions for strengthening the influence of science. Since he started listening to certain ‘specialists in public opinion’, he has lost his fire and turned into a passive follower who seems to do nothing but advocate deference to the very ideologies that are elevating anti-science into the public discourse.

We don’t need any more acquiescence to the status quo. That’s how we got here in the first place.

What we need from social scientists is better strategies for dismantling the influence of religion and demagoguery on American politics, and that requires clearly identifying and targeting those bad beliefs as the enemy of good science and good education. I already know that Mooney will run away from that kind of forthrightness.

Let’s also not forget that the one group that is growing fast and challenging the hegemony of Christian politics in this country is the aggressive, assertive, affirmative, activist atheist advocates (that A stands for more than one thing, you know) — and that Mooney detests them. We are going right to one of the roots of the problem, we aren’t assuming that simply educating everyone about science will make creationism and global warming denial and anti-vax lunacy go away — we’re promoting more science education and criticism of superstition. We seem to be putting into practice what Mooney only mumbles ineffectually and non-specifically about.

I guess I won’t ever be visiting the Maldives

It’s a tiny little island nation in the Indian Ocean, and it sounds like an interesting place. Unfortunately, the people there make it a hellhole.

In the Muslim-majority nation of Maldives, a man stunned an audience during questions and answers period in a lecture given by an Islamic cleric, by stating that he had chosen freedom of conscience not to follow Islam. The man, Mohamed Nazim, was promptly attacked, taken into custody, and has been threatened with death and beheading, or other punishments for choosing his freedom of conscience. Maldives media are reporting that it is the first time in many hundreds of years that a Maldivian has publicly renounced Islam, since Sultan King Hassan IX converted to Christianity in 1552 and was deposed.

Religion is an evil mind-rot with varying degrees of infection, but I think the worst of them all has to be Islam. What a nasty little superstition it is.

Here’s a real twist, though: The Maldives is on the UN Human Rights Council. I like the idea of an international tribunal like the UN, but this is the kind of insanity that makes it a joke.

Nazim was taken into police custody for expressing his conscience, where he received “Islamic counseling” and threatened with execution. The fact that he has now reverted to Islam in the face of such dire oppression does not change the fact that he’s got to be the bravest atheist alive.

Here’s a video of the odious Zakir Naik addressing Mohamed Nazim’s question. Theologians are all the same: he tries to turn it into an argument that god must exist, because otherwise there is no reason to have morality. Naik is a moron.

He does back off from insisting that Nazim be put to death, saying that there’s a difference between leaving the faith and advocating against the faith; the latter warrants killing the apostate, but not necessarily the first.

How not to run a blog

A strange little blog has been carping at various atheists blogs for a while now. Called “You’re Not Helping”, it pretended to have the goal of keeping internet atheists honest and holding them to a higher standard. It wasn’t very interesting — it’s main claim to fame was a tone that combined self-righteousness with whining — but it has just flamed out spectacularly. The author has admitted to committing flagrant sockpuppetry, with four identities (“yourenothelping”, “Polly-O”, “Brandon”, and “Patricia”) who were active commenters there, all reinforcing the same views and sometimes congratulating each other on their cleverness.

So much for honesty and a higher standard.

You can watch sockpuppets in action here. After this revelation, it becomes hilarious. Highlights include this comment from “Brandon”:

Ha! Polly-O! beat me to it. Great minds….

Next best bit is where the blog author screws up and posts under the wrong name, making the sockpuppetry evident…and then tries to make this clumsy correction, posting as “yourenothelping”.

OK, it appears that Brandon is Polly-O! Both commenters have identical IPs. And now both are banned, too.

It’s total chaos. It’s a beautiful illustration of why sockpuppetry is a bannable offense here.

It’s the best example of blatant conversational masturbation that I’ve seen since the days of Earl Curley on Usenet. Curley was one of those net.legends, totally insane and convinced of his psychic superpowers, who used to frequent sci.skeptic with a collection of aliases that would chatter among each other about how clever Curley was. In fact, here’s the original invention of the phrase sockpuppet on usenet:

Earl “voted most popular with hosiery!” Curley lisped:

>but as I
sit here with a room full of friends (yes, gays were welcome to)

Why does the image of a person infinitely uglier and more awkward than Mr.
Bean come to mind, sitting in a room strewn with crumpled printouts, empty
cola cans, smashed beer bottles, and greasy pizza boxes? The chairs are
arranged in a circle, with Earl in one of them, wearing 3 day old boxer
shorts. On each of the other chairs is a sock puppet, with those silly
googly eyes and a name tag scotch-taped on them. One of the sock puppets
has a gay chat line ad from a sleazy weekly paper scotch taped to the back
of its’ chair. Wow, Earl, you sure are “with” the 90’s with your

You had to be there. But really, people who resort to sock puppets to prop up their arguments are universally reviled as pathetic — the author of You’re Not Helping has just had his credibility completely eradicated.

Believe me, if you’re playing games with sock puppets the worst thing that can happen to you is not that you might get banned — it’s that you’ll look pitiful.

I came to this story very late, after the final shameful confession. Much of the legwork that exposed the lies was done by The Buddha Is Not Serious.

And what’s really surprising me right now is the bizarre attitude some of the other commenters at YNH have — they’re still supporting the guy despite the fact that he has a long history of self-congratulatory lying. People are very peculiar.

Self-immolation is complete. The You’re Not Helping blog has closed its doors and is no longer accessible. I guess that means Will from Alabama will pop up somewhere else under a new pseudonym…or more likely, a few dozen pseudonyms.

It’s strange: since some of the persistent and obnoxious New Atheist haters on the internet have been exposed as having inflated their numbers at least four or five fold, suddenly my perception of the number of my critics has diminished, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Great Beards: Ned Kelly!

We have achieved victory in the great beard debate, reaching the goal of £1500, and also the votes for beards have a dominating lead over no beard. The Trophy Wife™ is relieved.

We aren’t quite finished, though — the poll will remain open for another week, and those sneaky bare-faced people might still pull together a bunch of votes and snatch victory from our grasp. Just in case, I’m mobilizing the Australian hordes with this awesome beard on the face of Ned Kelly.



7 out of 8 isn’t bad

I actually listened to a little bit of that Chopraesque blithering about the Gulf from “Evolutionary Leaders” — I really, really despise them for taking that name — and you can, too, at this link. I don’t recommend it: the incompetent boobs who set it up had created a two-way conference call with swarms of people, and configured it so every time someone dialed in, there was a chime…a horrible, awful piercing chime. So throught the whole thing you get to hear ‘ping – ping – ping – ping’ at about the same volume as the speakers. It will drive you insane, if listening to Chopra doesn’t do that to you first.

I still hate these slimebags, but I do have to admit, Chopra actually gave some practical advice, and it wasn’t quite as awful as I feared. Except for the pinging. And I did give up early, so it could have gone downhill fast. Here’s Chopra’s list of things for people to do, and all except the last one are reasonable.

  1. Give direct financial aid

  2. Learn more about organizations

  3. Volunteer to help organizations

  4. Engage in global conversations with social networks

  5. Make conscious choices that are green

  6. Support investments in sustainable technologies

  7. Educate yourself on successful approaches

  8. Support spiritual education — the cause of the problem is scientific dualism that separates the organism and the environment

I was impressed — he actually didn’t propose thinking happy thoughts to change the universe, so he greatly exceeded my expectations. That last one is standard Chopra ignorant inanity and makes no sense at all, but we can always hope that the listeners are so tired after doing the first seven that they get to #8 and decide it’s a good time to take a nap.

So, not very enlightening, at least some practical if slightly fuzzy suggestions, and one moment of anti-scientific folly from the woo-meister. Not that bad.

Except for the pinging, which will haunt my nightmares.

A suggestion for the Pope

Ol’ Ratzi is quite upset at the Belgian raids on Catholic church offices — he’s calling them “deplorable”, a “moment of sadness”, and is calling in the Belgian ambassador to the Vatican for an angry dressing-down.

He’s doing everything all wrong. Here’s what he should be doing: he should be calling the actions of priestly sex abusers deplorable and wrong, and insisting that the church will do everything in its power to correct the deep problems that have led to these awful acts. Then he should announce that the church will cooperate fully with all legal secular actions — and the Belgian raids were fully authorized by the Belgian state — in getting down to the heart of the matter, and go even further, offering to open up all relevant records to inspection. Then I might be convinced that the church is sincere in its pursuit of justice for all, not just its priests, but also its parishioners.

But then, I’m an atheist. Ignore me. I’m kind of enjoying the spectacle of the Catholic church putting on the indignant act of a guilty criminal caught red-handed and insisting that the police shouldn’t be working so hard to catch them.