Proof From Miracles (1)

September 21st, 1995, was a good day to be a god. Or, alternatively, to own a grocery store.

A worshipper of Ganesha offered a statue of their god a sip of milk. To their surprise, the milk slowly disappeared from their spoon. Word travelled around New Dehli like lightening, and soon other devout Hindus were astonished to find their own statues were just as thirsty. Temples struggled to keep up with the flood of visitors, traffic took all day to recover, and even distant, exotic locales like England saw a marked rise in milk sales. The event was officially sanctioned as a miracle by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, better known as the World Hindu Council.

The Catholic Church tends to use more careful words, like “worthy of belief,” when declaring miracles.

Take the events of Fátima, Portugal, as an example. Jacinta and Francisco Marto, plus Lúcia Santos, claimed to have seen a glowing woman while tending to their sheep on May, June, and July 13th, 1917. Each time, the woman told the children to perform sacrifices and penance, as well as pray regularly. On the July visit, the woman gave them three secrets. The first two were kept quiet until 1941. The third was supposed to be held until 1960, but was eventually revealed forty years behind schedule.[168]

Word spread quickly, especially after that third visit, and by August 13th thousands of pious had flocked in to have an experience. The three children were jailed for that day, on the grounds that religious visions were politically disruptive, and alas no vision occurred. On August 19th, however, they claimed the woman came knocking again while they were alone. There was a crowd around on September 13th, but all that happened was a quiet picnic in the country.

Excitement was building for October 13th, however, which was supposed to be the “big reveal” that would convince even the sceptics. At least 30,000 people gathered in hope of a good light show. The angels didn’t disappoint.

From the road, where the vehicles were parked and where hundreds of people who had not dared to brave the mud were congregated, one could see the immense multitude turn toward the sun, which appeared free from clouds and in its zenith. It looked like a plaque of dull silver, and it was possible to look at it without the least discomfort. It might have been an eclipse which was taking place. But at that moment a great shout went up, and one could hear the spectators nearest at hand shouting: “A miracle! A miracle!”

Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bareheaded, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws the sun “danced” according to the typical expression of the people.

Standing at the step of an omnibus was an old man. With his face turned to the sun, he recited the Credo in a loud voice. I asked who he was and was told Senhor Joao da Cunha Vasconcelos. I saw him afterwards going up to those around him who still had their hats on, and vehemently imploring them to uncover before such an extraordinary demonstration of the existence of God.

Identical scenes were repeated elsewhere, and in one place a woman cried out: “How terrible! There are even men who do not uncover before such a stupendous miracle!”

People then began to ask each other what they had seen. The great majority admitted to having seen the trembling and the dancing of the sun; others affirmed that they saw the face of the Blessed Virgin; others, again, swore that the sun whirled on itself like a giant Catherine wheel and that it lowered itself to the earth as if to burn it in its rays. Some said they saw it change colours successively….

(“The Immaculate Heart,” quoting from Avelino de Almeida’s article for “O Seculo.” John de Marchi, 1952)

Crack open any holy book, and you’ll find all types of events that are “worthy of belief,” from reviving the dead to candles that burned longer then they should.

Only a god is capable of breaking the laws of the universe. Doesn’t this clinch it?


Before going any farther, we’ve gotta agree on what a “miracle” is. In the Transcendence proof, I defined a miracle as any permanent or near-permanent change in the universe. This is a good start, but there are shades of grey that need to be examined.

Changes are easy to make, after all. I can change this spelling of tis word, for instance, and yet no-one would call that a miracle. The sort of change that qualifies as a miracle has to violate the laws of the universe, in some way. This leads to some awkward situations. If a magician threw down a stick and had it turn into a snake on hitting the ground, we’d clap and think it was a good show; magicians don’t claim to violate the laws of the universe, after all, they just fool our expectations of how the universe works. There’s always a material explanation behind the curtain.

Actually, the stick is a snake at the very start. The trick depends upon a species called the naja haje, or the Egyptian cobra. A peculiarity of this snake is that it can be made motionless by pressure just below the head. Thus temporarily paralysed, the naja haje becomes rigid, like a stick, but when it is thrown on the ground, it is jolted back to action.[169]

(“Secrets of Magic,” by Walter Gibson. 1973)

If Aaron or an Egyptian holy man turn a staff into a snake, however, it’s now a legitimate miracle.

 וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר

(The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying,)

כִּי יְדַבֵּר אֲלֵכֶם פַּרְעֹה לֵאמֹר תְּנוּ לָכֶם מוֹפֵת וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל אַהֲרֹן קַח אֶת מַטְּךָ וְהַשְׁלֵךְ לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה יְהִי לְתַנִּין

(“When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, ‘Provide a sign for yourselves,’ you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff, [and] cast [it] before Pharaoh; it will become a serpent.’ “)

 וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶל פַּרְעֹה וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כֵן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הֹוָ־ה וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת מַטֵּהוּ לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה וְלִפְנֵי עֲבָדָיו וַיְהִי לְתַנִּין

([Thereupon,] Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and they did so, as the Lord had commanded; Aaron cast his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent.)

  וַיִּקְרָא גַּם פַּרְעֹה לַחֲכָמִים וְלַמְכַשְּׁפִים וַיַּעֲשׂוּ גַם הֵם חַרְטֻמֵּי מִצְרַיִם בְּלַהֲטֵיהֶם כֵּן

([Then,] Pharaoh too summoned the wise men and the magicians, and the necromancers of Egypt also did likewise with their magic.)

וַיַּשְׁלִיכוּ אִישׁ מַטֵּהוּ וַיִּהְיוּ לְתַנִּינִם וַיִּבְלַע מַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן אֶת מַטֹּתָם

(Each one of them cast down his staff, and they became serpents; but Aaron’s staff swallowed their staffs.)

(Torah, Shemot 7:8-12, English translation by Rabbi A.J. Rosenberg)[170]

While both situations look identical to any witnesses, only the second is claimed to be a miracle, because only it broke the laws of the universe. On the surface this seems to be no problem, since both the magician and prophets have made the situation clear. But what if the magician lied, and claimed their own work was a miracle? A witness has no way of spotting the lie, and would happily believe a false miracle. Conversely, what if the magician is mistaken, and there really is no material explanation? Our witness would falsely agree that no miracle happened, when in fact one did.

It all points to a simple conclusion: it doesn’t matter if something is declared to be a miracle or not. We need to examine the evidence, in every case, and cannot take it on faith.

This story of duelling snakes is not the first ever miracle; a few people claim that the very existence of the universe counts as a miracle. That’s already covered by the Fine-Tuning proof, which is examined in another chapter.

However, the creation of everything and the creation of the Earth are two separate things.

That Agni, when in loftiest heaven he sprang to life, Guardian of Holy Laws, kept and observed them well. Exceeding wise, he measured out the firmament. Vaisvanara [Agni] attained to heaven by mightiness.

Wonderful Mitra[171] propped the heaven and earth apart, and covered and concealed the darkness with his light. He made the two bowls part asunder like two skins. Vaisvanara put forth all his creative power.

The Migbty [?] seized him in the bosom of the floods: the people waited on the King who should be praised. As envoy of Vivasvan[,] MatariSvan[172] brought Agni Vaisvanara hither from far away.

(Rig Veda, Mandala 6:8.2-4,  translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith)

Declaring who came first is a bit of a challenge. The followers of Jainism point to the birth of Rishabha, the first Jain “Tirthankar” or enlightened person, as miraculous; the wind became perfumed, the sky had a warm glow, and a good vibe flowed over the land. According to legend, that was about 10224 years ago, which puts it roughly 10224 years before the Big Bang. Worse, Rishabha is only the first Tirthankar in our own epoc; Jainism believes there were an infinite number of cycles before then, so that year represents the first known miracle, but nothing [HJH: looks like I forgot to write a part back then. Whoops! Please accept this crude approximation…] in their religion states there was ever a first miracle, full stop.

Un-shockingly, there’s no evidence to support any of that. The source of Rishabha’s legend, the Adipurana, was written between 941 and 1000CE by the poet Adikavi Pampa. In contrast, Jewish tradition states the Shemot was revealed to Moses by God around 1312 BCE; no written copies existed until after 600 BCE, however, and some evidence suggests it was created at that time.[173] By historical standards, Judaism can claim to be earlier.

Hinduism has both of them beat. Thomas Oberlies estimates the last Mandala of the Rig Veda was composed in 1100BCE.[174] The earliest Mandalas, which includes the one I quoted above, were crafted between 2000 and 1400BCE, with the second date being the most widely accepted. While the Rig Veda itself wasn’t written down until about 10BCE, the text gushes on and on about holy rivers. By comparing their descriptions within the work to the historic paths of rivers, archaeologists can estimate when the oral versions of the Mandalas were first written. Some claim this adds an additional millennia or two to their age; others dispute this.

There may be earlier records of miracles. Imhotep was an advisor to several Pharaohs, and one of the few commoners to be declared divine by the ancient Egyptians. His skill as an architect, physician, and sage were long celebrated, and most likely he could perform some sort of “magic.” Alas, no record of his tricks have survived, and without details I can’t declare him to be a true miracle worker. It’s too bad, since he could have easily stolen the crown; he lived from 2655 to 2600BCE, after all.

[168]  Maybe. There are a lot of sceptics who claim the Catholic Church forged or altered this prophecy, pointing to oddities like the number of pages (the official release had four, yet previous reports claimed there was only one). The Church has continually denied this.

[169]  I’m sceptical of Gibson’s explanation, but my point survives even if he’s wrong. You’ll see why shortly.

[170]  This passage is also in the Christian bible, filed under “Exodus” in the same location.

[171]  This god was named after contracts, but also influenced friendship and honesty.

[172]   Vivasvan is the name of a sun god, while MatariSvan is the person who brought fire to the rest of the world.

[173]  “Exodus,” by William D. Johnstone, an essay published in Eerdmans Bible Commentary (2003).

[174]  “Die Religion des Rgveda,” Wien, 1998.

Proof from Transcendence (2)


No doubt, this seems like I’m stretching. How can spiritual transcendence be the same as the non-spiritual kind? The two seem very different.

In the past two decades, a new term has sprung up: neurotheology. Scientists armed with brain scanners have begun using them on the devout, looking for any interesting patterns. Unfortunately, most approach this from the theological side, either taking the existence of a god as fact or explicitly stating they are uninterested in its existence. This tends to colour their interpretations of the data.

Still, there are interesting nuggets to be found. For instance, Andrew Newberg has compared the minds of believers while they meditated to those of atheists doing the same thing, and found no difference between the two. In study after study, this pattern holds:

When we look at how the brain works, it has a limited set of functions. So if one has a feeling of euphoria — whether one gets that through sex or religion or watching your team win the championship — it’s probably going to activate similar areas of the brain. There’s a continuum of these experiences. […]

Are we really capturing something that’s inherently spiritual? This is a big philosophical question. If the soul or the spirit is really non-material, how does it interact with us? Of course, the human brain has to have some way of thinking about it. Perhaps the most interesting finding I could have would be to see nothing change on the brain scan when one of the nuns has an incredible experience of transcendence and connectedness with God. Maybe then we really would capture something that’s spiritual rather than just cognitive and biological.

(Andrew Newberg, interviewed by Steve Paulson for Salon. Sept 20, 2006. )

If there were some legitimate difference between believers and non-believers, we’d expect some difference in the brain itself. Instead, it seems that behaviour is far more influential than belief; by merely repeating the same actions, we see the same patterns across both categories.

Note that this is not disproof against a god by itself. Others have used the very same observations to claim that everyone has a spiritual connection, even those that don’t believe in it. This is a valid interpretation, but it doesn’t line up with the claims of believers. People who don’t believe or are in the wrong religion are fundamentally different from those in the right religion, since only the last has true contact with the real god or gods. We should see this difference reflected somewhere. Secondly, it depends on the existence of a god to make sense. This is a problem, since the alternate explanation does not depend on the existence any god, it only discounts that the brain has a special channel to the gods, but the theory is otherwise agnostic about them. We can begin sharpening Ockham’s Razor.

But first, there’s more evidence to ponder. The Pentecostals, a Christian sect, believe that “speaking in tongues” is the highest form of worship. Also known as glossolalia, it’s a sort of spoken gibberish, sometimes while writhing around on the floor, and is claimed to be the sign of God speaking through those people. This makes an interesting test case, since both prayer and glossolalia attempt to contact the same god through different behaviours. If both have the same brain activation patterns, this would be clear proof that a deity was involved; if the brain and body were material things, different external behaviour must correspond to a different internal state.

Newberg’s studies show that the brain states are different. He’s catalogued the regions of the brain involved in both activities:

  • thalamus: linked to processing the senses. More active than usual in both prayer and glossolalia.
  • temporal lobes: linked to processing our emotions. More active in both.
  • frontal lobe:[167] linked to our ability to concentrate and focus. More active in prayer, but inactive in glossolalia.
  • parietal lobe: linked to feelings of self, and how it relates to the world. Less active in prayer, no effect during glossolalia.

Interesting, isn’t it? When people pray, they focus on losing their sense of self and the external world, feeling an emotional lift they think is a real experience; at the same time, the corresponding areas of the brain fire up or shut down, according to need. Meditation has roughly the same effect, and roughly the same brain patterns. When people speak in tongues, losing their focus (but not their sense of self) to an emotional lift that feels very real, the brain also changes accordingly. The areas of their brain responsible for language do not light up, and linguists studying the sounds uttered during glossolalia can find no evidence of linguistic structure. Note that every activated region is not reserved for religious use, but one that we discovered being used by some secular activity.

This pattern is exactly what we’d expect if the brain was purely material, and the feelings attributed to religion were just existing ones put to a different use. This pattern is not what we’d expect if a divine being were beaming those feelings directly into our minds.

Still, this is not a dis-proof of the gods; I can find no studies that checked if the feelings of transcendence came before the brain activity, for instance, which could have provided evidence for the theist side. It’s quite possible that a god grants us these feelings by tugging on the appropriate portions of the brain. On the other hand, if we said this pattern were the actions of a god we’d be assuming a god existed, while if we claimed it was purely material we’d make no such assumption. Ockham’s Razor says we should go with the material theory, rendering the gods irrelevant yet again.

Precision from the Non-Precise

There’s an odd hypocrisy to this proof.

Have a careful look at the two squares, and tell me which one is lighter:Adelson's checker shadow illusion.

Sorry, that was a trick question: both squares have the same tone.

Are you feeling any anger at your senses? I doubt it, we’re happy to admit they lead us astray. That goes doubly so for the religious, because it allows them to dismiss a lack of physical evidence and invoke the Transcendence Proof.

[FUTURE HJH: I left this bit incomplete. My basic plan was to link to Descarte’s invocation of God as a fundamental belief. This website provides a basic sketch.]

Why, though, are we so content to accept this inaccuracy? We rely on our senses to an astonishing degree, after all. I think it’s a safe assumption that you’re absorbing this text through your senses. Was any part of it blocked by a malfunctioning sense? Did you have to repeat certain passages, because the words kept changing on you? Did the page suddenly zip away or flip upside down? Think of all the possible moments, and all the possible ways, this text could have been screwed up by your senses, and total up how many of them have happened so far. For most people, I’m sure, that total is comfortably close to zero.

Now total up the number of moments that went right. Are they near zero? Or substantially higher?

Let’s say you’re one of the unlucky few. Pretend that on average, one out of every ten words you absorb were not written by me. Does that make this book unreadable? Certainly not. If you scan each passage twice, the odds of a word being wrong both times drop are one in a hundred. Three readings pushes the odds down to one in a thousand, and the more readings you’re willing to do, the more confident you can be that you’re reading what I wrote.

What if we don’t know the odds? Fortunately, the English language has roughly 200,000 words, so there are far more ways to be wrong than right. The odds of the same wrong word being picked twice in a row are roughly one in 200,000, so if you read the same word twice you can be quite confident it’s the right one. Switching to a language with a ridiculously small vocabulary still doesn’t stop you from moving forward, it just requires more scanning.

We don’t fret over unreliable senses because it’s trivially easy to make them reliable enough. Consider the colour puzzle; in that case, multiple samples will never lead you to conclude both squares are the same shade. However a simple mask, cut out of paper, will quickly make the truth obvious. When you start to employ multiple senses, and use or augment them in multiple ways, you can be quite sure they haven’t led you astray.

What about our feelings, though? Can they be fooled, like our other senses? It would be very odd to claim that easily verified senses like vision are unreliable, and yet fuzzy, non-specific feelings are perfectly reliable.

If they can steer us the wrong way, then how can we trust them without putting them to the test? How can we rely on them to tell the truth, without looking for and ruling out alternate explanations first?

[167]  From one ear, draw around the front of your head at eyebrow-level to the other ear, then return by going over the very top of your head. You’ve just outlined the boundaries of your frontal lobes.

Proof from Transcendence (1)

In the span of your life, you’ve probably experienced a lot of highs and lows. Sometimes, things are going so well that you completely forget yourself; sometimes, things are so bad that you are desperate for any sort of help.

Did you ever stop to think where those feelings were coming from? Perhaps they are little hints from a deity, wee stone markers placed on a giant mountain that whisper “I’m here.” Just like a pebble hitting the top of an unsteady slope, these little nudges could trigger much greater changes within you. Maybe it can pick you up when you’re down, or even save your life:

Travis Barker’s ex-wife, Shanna Moakler, told US Weekly that she was supposed to be aboard the private jet that crashed in South Carolina on September 19, injuring Barker and DJ AM and killing four others, but she changed her plans at the last minute because she had “a bad feeling.”

“I was supposed to go with [Travis] to South Carolina, and at the last minute, I had this gnarly feeling and said, ‘I don’t think we should fly together anymore,’ ” she told the magazine in its October 17 issue, which hits stands Friday. “God forbid something ever happened … our kids wouldn’t have both parents. Instead of flying a commercial flight back home, they decided to take a private jet. He e-mailed me pictures of the plane and wrote, ‘It’s really small and scary.’ I had a bad feeling, but didn’t want to sound strange, so I said, ‘Be safe.’ “

(a news article for, by James Montgomery, dated October 16th, 2008.  )

It could explain why we’re so curious about deities. What if we all have a concept of the gods built into us, one that will only bubble up if we let it?

The most frequently mentioned barrier to a personal relationship with God is never having experienced God’s presence. “If only I felt something,” some Catholics have told me, “then it would be easier to pray.” “If only God made his presence known,” say seekers, “then I could start down the path of faith.” Even agnostics like my friend-as well as atheists-seeking intellectual proofs for God’s existence admit that if they saw a glimmer of God, maybe they’d consider believing.

(“More than a feeling: A desire for God,” by James Martin. U.S. Catholic, July 2010, Vol. 75, No. 7)

Older than Dirt

I suspect this proof is one of the oldest, if not the first. For one, it doesn’t need any sort of logic or language to make. Simply feeling a wonderful feeling is enough, and we have every reason to think emotions pre-date human beings. Fear, for instance, has been linked to our thalamus, one of the most “primitive” portions of the brain.[164] Paul Ekman has found that some facial expressions, our external signal of emotion, are nearly universal across all human cultures and thus likely pre-date humans.[165]

For two, we know human beings have been searching for feelings of transcendence for some time. Some tribes of North America sent their children on a vision quest, which usually consists of a multi-day fast and constant meditation in the wilderness, sometimes helped along by narcotics or sleep deprivation. The goal is to find their life’s purpose via the spirit world. Some people experienced actual visions, complete with a guardian animal; others just got a feeling of transcendence. The Bhagavad Gītā, a key holy text of the Hindu religion, discusses transcendence at some length.

[When] the yogī engages himself with sincere endeavor in making further progress, being washed of all contaminations, then ultimately, achieving perfection after many, many births of practice, he attains the supreme goal.

A yogī is greater than the ascetic, greater than the empiricist and greater than the fruitive worker. Therefore, O Arjuna, in all circumstances, be a yogī.

And of all yogīs, the one with great faith who always abides in Me, thinks of Me within himself, and renders transcendental loving service to Me — he is the most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is My opinion.

(Chapters 6.40-6.47, translated by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada)

Notice that both accounts describe much more than feelings, though. Krishna is also talking about his Vishvarupa, or “Universal Form:”

Arjuna saw in that universal form unlimited mouths and unlimited eyes. It was all wondrous. The form was decorated with divine, dazzling ornaments and arrayed in many garbs. He was garlanded gloriously, and there were many scents smeared over His body. All was magnificent, all-expanding, unlimited. This was seen by Arjuna.

If hundreds of thousands of suns rose up at once into the sky, they might resemble the effulgence of the Supreme Person in that universal form.

At that time Arjuna could see in the universal form of the Lord the unlimited expansions of the universe situated in one place although divided into many, many thousands.

Then, bewildered and astonished, his hair standing on end, Arjuna began to pray with folded hands, offering obeisances to the Supreme Lord.

Arjuna said: My dear Lord Krishna, I see assembled together in Your body all the demigods and various other living entities. I see Brahmā sitting on the lotus flower as well as Lord Śiva and many sages and divine serpents.

(Chapters 11.10-11.16, translated by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada)

 That sounds suspiciously like proof by Witness. Prayers can also bring feelings of transcendence, yet are frequently tied to proof by Miracle as well:

Although everyone was puzzled about my condition, even me, I knew that the one thing for sure was that God, my Lord and savior was in control of my life. As I laid there in that hospital bed day and night, I prayed, meditated and spoke to God reflecting on my life, trials and tribulations.I believe I had an out of body experience with a peaceful bright light pure moment. I made up in my mind that I was going to let go and let God! I started making peace and preparation mentally to God that if it was my time to go in his plan, I will trust him.

That being said, I knew my life had purpose and that he wasn’t through with me yet. When I let God have total control, I started to make progress and improve. Giving God high praise for His grace and mercy for me. All the prayers from family, friends the medical staff and complete strangers helped throughout this ordeal.

I don’t know why I suddenly became so ill that year, and doctors not giving me a diagnosis, but I trust God’s plan because I never would have made it without him and his son Jesus! There’s a saying that “God works in mysterious ways and he’s a miracle worker”. I know because I’m a living testimonial miracle, thank you God, thank you Jesus!

(“C.R.” from Tennessee, retrieved June 6th 2011)

To clear up this tangle, I’ve set up borders around each proof:

  • Miracle proof: A deity makes a change to the universe for multiple people, directly through the senses.
  • Witness proof: A deity makes a change to the universe for one person, directly or indirectly through the senses.
  • Transcendence: A deity changes a person without involving the senses.

By the above definitions, “hearing voices” or “seeing visions” is the domain of the Witness proof, even if the person experiencing them claims they were entirely internal. I don’t limit the senses to the traditional five, either, so your ability to sense how your limbs are positioned or how hungry you are count just as much.

That doesn’t leave a lot left for Transcendence. We have logic, our method for exploring the external world and our internals via conscious effort, and emotions, which are a representation our internal unconscious state. The first part’s already been covered by the Logic proof, which leaves us to consider emotions.

Hooked on a Feeling

Emotions are… a lot of things.

They can bring us to action. For seven weeks in 1904, Upton Sinclair took several jobs at meatpacking plants. He wanted to write a novel that would explore the plight of new immigrants, by showing the harsh conditions they were forced to work under. Sinclair filled the book with vivid tales of con men and corruption, but it was the descriptions of those meatpacking plants that caught the public’s imagination. Bowing to the public’s feeling of disgust, the U.S. Government and Teddy Roosevelt passed the “Meat Inspection” and “Pure Food and Drug” Acts, which began regulating the food industry.

Emotions can paralyse us. Depression is a persistent feeling of sadness, by far the most common psychological problem in humans. Most of us will go through it at some point in our lives, and feel a little of its paralytic sting. An unlucky few have it to such an extreme that their paralysis is almost literal; they rarely get out of bed, spend most of the day sleeping, and need to be taken care of by others.

Emotions are somewhat independent of conscious thought. The brain structures are in quite different places, and the key emotional centres are close to the brain stem and other ancient structures. This makes a lot of sense: not all food is created equal, for instance. Fats contain more calories per unit than sugars. An organism that was better at seeking out fat would do better than one that did not in the long term. An organism that was given a reward for eating fat might do better still. And a happy feeling certainly counts as a reward.

Similar reasoning applies to running. A little while ago, we only ran to escape being eaten or to catch food. Afterwards, our bodies would begin to repair any damage received. As part of the process, it would dull the sensation of pain and inadvertently give us another high. Not only would that encourage us to run again in future, but we’d be far more likely to run while playing with others. This “exercise” would prepare them for a future encounter, increasing their odds of survival.

Having said that, consciousness can exert some control over emotion. In modern times, humans usually run for “fun.” More accurately, our reasons to exercise aren’t directly linked to survival; we jog to look more attractive to the opposite sex, or for the social atmosphere a group provides, or to enjoy the challenge of training, or to take advantage of the feelings exercise triggers within us. Exercising has become a more conscious decision, yet the boost to our mood remains.

We also control our feelings more directly. Cognitive behaviour theory holds that your thoughts about the world effect your emotions. By challenging the negative views you hold and substituting neutral or positive ones instead, CBT claims it can cure mild to moderate depression. The science seems to back that up; CBT is the most successful verbal therapy in the psychologist’s toolkit, and out-performs most medicine- or surgery-based therapies.[166]

I would place more credence in the transcendence argument if the only people who experienced it were from a specific religion. This isn’t the case; Jains and Buddhists both feel that divine touch, for instance. In particular, Jainism does not attribute that to a god, instead claiming it as proof that someone is getting in “touch” with the universe. I myself have experienced this feeling several times, and in each case it’s been triggered by the material world, with no sign of divine prompting.

So how can something that is normally linked to a god also appear in the god-less? It must be caused by something other than a deity.

Suppose you have a group of people chanting passionately and enjoying themselves. Human beings are social critters, so we try to read what other people are thinking. We’re hoping to exploit this, either directly by lying or indirectly by forging closer ties that might save our bacon later. Mirroring other people is a good way to get close to someone, since it shows they’re not alone. If they appear sad, we feel sad; if they’re happy, we feel happy as well. It also saves precious brain resources, by allowing some cells to do double-duty and respond to other’s emotions as well as our own.

If you’re within this group, then, their emotions will have a strong influence on your emotions. Lacking a connection to someone could lead you into conflict, in the worst case; having a conflict with a group can be somewhat unhealthy! So if there’s a state of euphoria or transcendence in the air, you’ll pick it up. The entire process is so basic that it’s been built into us by evolution, and is largely unconscious and automatic.

Now suppose you’ve been told those feelings are due to a god. Because this process is automatic, you might not realize why those feelings are bubbling up in the first place. Feelings are primitive, older than rational thought, so you can’t easily use the other to examine the one. With no clear cause to be found, it would be easy to convince yourself those feelings are due to a deity. If the god-transcendence connection is hammered into your head repeatedly, you become conditioned to think it automatically, to the point where you can consciously trigger those feelings by thinking of the deity.

And so, a desire for pleasure becomes a desire for pleasure through the gods.

[You] feel lifted up, or likewise, a sense of exaltation or happiness. Different from longing to know what it’s all about, you feel that you are very close to, or are about to meet, the object of your desire. You may even feel the warmth of being near God, though you may be reluctant or embarrassed to define it as such.

Each of these feelings, by the way, may overlap. And there’s no need to identify them precisely. Sometimes the feelings that are the most difficult to describe are those that are the most personal, the most tailored to your own situation. Here God may be speaking more clearly than anywhere else. Just because you can’t describe it doesn’t mean it’s not real.

(“More than a feeling: A desire for God,” by James Martin. U.S. Catholic, July 2010, Vol. 75, No. 7)

Likewise, a desire for learning becomes a desire for learning about a god.

A desire for fulfilment becomes a desire for fulfilment with gods.

A desire for security becomes a desire for security within the god.

Suppose instead this chanting group was at a concert or party. Again you’d feel transcendent, but the blame for that would fall elsewhere. It might transfer to the band, making you a fan. Listening to a recording of their work, or even thinking about that night would bring back those feelings. It might transfer to the friends by your side, which would strengthen your social ties further. It might get associated with what you’re drinking, or parties in general. Or it might be a combination of these, or none of them.

Those feelings have a non-spiritual origin, but can be associated with spirituality or anything else you like. Adding the supernatural does not change those feelings in any way, nor does it offer proof of the supernatural.

Because feelings are just another sense, only about your internal state instead of the external world. The fact that you can’t point to what triggered your sensation, unlike most other senses, doesn’t rule out a natural explanation.

[164]  Picture your brain as a lollipop, with your spine as the stick. The thalamus is right at the top of that stick, deep within the brain. We call it “primitive” because it’s in nearly every animal with a spine, so it must have evolved early in order to be so widespread.

[165]  “Constants across cultures in the face and emotion,” Paul Ekman, Wallace Friesen. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 17 (2), 1971.

[166]  Antidepressant drugs, long thought to be about as effective as CBT, have been called into question for mild-to-moderate depression recently; for one example, see “Antidepressant Drug Effects and Depression Severity,” Jay C. Fournier et al, JAMA. 2010; 303(1):47-53. Electroconvulsive or shock therapy is on a comeback, but only for the most severe cases. Transcranial magnetic stimulation is used when shock therapy fails.

Proof from Fine-Tuning (2)

Do Androids Dream of Anthropic Sheep?

I doubt that will feel like a satisfying answer. Even if the universe is not perfect for us, the fact that we’re even here seems too good to be true. Isn’t it more likely that unintelligent life should be here instead of us? Why is there something instead of nothing?

I think I can answer that through a series of questions.

What would this universe look like if it was inhospitable to life? This is clear nonsense, since there’d be no life around to ask the question, let alone answer it. We can use our theories of the universe to guess, but as pointed out above we’d need to assume they can be tuned, guess what settings we could change, and then via some assumptions rank their friendliness to life. This leads to an important point: life can only bloom in a universe that is compatible for life, and only life can ask questions.

What would this universe look like if it didn’t allow intelligent life? This is an equally silly question, for the same reasons. Because we can ask it at all, our universe must be compatible with intelligent life.

Time for a tricky one: How can we tell a compatible universe from a tuned one? If we’re lucky, the answer will be buried in either the initial state or the laws of the universe. If not, we could check if we’re in the best possible universe, and argue that’s unlikely to happen by chance. Failing that, we’ll have to tally up the tunings better than ours, calculate the odds of our particular tuning, and decide if it’s sufficiently unlikely to happen by chance.

In all three cases, we’re not only dependent on the missing information I pointed out earlier, we may need to add more, like the odds of a specific tuning happening. Worst of all, in one case we’re forced to consider when we transition from “unlikely to happen by chance” to “impossible to happen.” Even if the odds were a million to one against something happening, it could still happen by chance. It’s like a lottery winner claiming they were destined to win the lottery, because the odds of anyone winning the lottery are so low that no-one should have been able to win it.

Faced with so many unanswered questions in the way, both believers and unbelievers have simply made up answers to the compatibility problem. And when the answers are invented, the conclusion is predictable:

Design advocates argue that the universe seems to have been specifically designed so that intelligent life would form. These claims are essentially a modern, cosmological version of the ancient argument from design for the existence of God. However, the new version is as deeply flawed as its predecessors, making many unjustified assumptions and being inconsistent with existing knowledge. One gross and fatal assumption is that only one kind of life, ours, is conceivable in every conceivable configuration of universes.

However, a wide variation of constants of physics leads to universes that are long-lived enough for life to evolve, although human life need not exist in such universes.

(“IS THE UNIVERSE FINE-TUNED FOR US? ”, Victor J. Stenger , Emeritus Professor of Physics, University of Hawaii)

Stenger attempts to show that our universe isn’t really fine-tuned by showing that long-lived stars are not unusual. He fails for five reasons. 1.) He gets his formula wrong, and in so doing ignores an important case of fine-tuning. 2.) He fails to consider the effect of altering the strength of gravity. 3.) He “cherry-picks” a very favourable fine-tuning example to suit his purposes. 4.) His probability claims are vacuous, following trivially from his unjustified hidden assumptions. 5.) He rightly exhorts us to consider varying multiple parameters at once, but commits the opposite mistake: he fails to consider multiple life-permitting criteria. Even if he were right about long-lived stars, it doesn’t follow that life-permitting universes do not need to be fine-tuned. I conclude that Stenger’s claims are worse than mistaken; they are misleading.

(“No Faith In MonkeyGod: A Fine-Tuned Critique of Victor Stenger (Part 2),” Luke Barnes, Postgraduate Researcher at the Institute for Astronomy at ETH Zurich, in Letters to Nature, April 18, 2010)

A compatible universe can look like a tuned one, if you invent the proper answers. Refuse to do so, and all you can conclude is that the universe is compatible with intelligent life, because intelligent life exists.[163]

Carts and Horses, Meet Cranes and Skyhooks

There’s one more assumption floating around behind this pseudo-proof: the universe is tuned for life.

Is that really the case, though? In the Design proof, I discuss evolution and how it works. Specifically, I pointed out that the products of evolution are tuned to the environment around them by the environment itself. Life, from all indications, is a product of evolution.

Thus, life tuned itself to the universe, and not the other way around. This explains why the two seem unusually compatible: life has adjusted to the challenges thrown down by the universe, altering itself appropriately. If it had not, you wouldn’t be around to ask why the two seem so compatible.

Douglas Adams compared the Fine Tuning pseudo-proof to a puddle:

It’s rather is if you imagine a puddle, waking up one morning and thinking hmm this is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, it fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it. In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!

This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and, as gradually the puddle gets smaller and smaller it’s still frantically hanging onto the notion that everything’s going to be all right because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it. So the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this maybe something we need to be on the watch for.

Indeed, lest we push a proof that isn’t one at all.

[163]  Notwithstanding the old astronomy joke about searching for intelligent life in the universe.

Proof from Fine-Tuning (1)

You are alive.

This may not seem like much, but consider the other options. Our planet could have been a little closer to our sun, near enough to boil off all the oceans and prevent life from forming. Alternatively, it could have been too far away for liquid water to persist and thus a lifeless ice-ball.

It could have orbited a more massive star, which are quicker to swell into a red giant. From there it could have either expanded and consumed our planet with its scorching plasma, or gone nova and blasted all life on this planet from existence. Smaller stars are actually worse; all stars throw a tantrum during their early years, frying all but the most distant comets with radiation, and the less a star weighs the longer this rebellious phase lasts. We could have been closer to our galaxy’s black hole (death by radiation and random debris), or further away (lack of material and more inter-galaxy cosmic rays). We could have been in a binary system, like nearly all stars out there, and been hurtled into the frigid darkness by the resulting gravitational ballet.

And what if gravity wasn’t as strong? Suns would not have collapsed enough to properly create the higher elements, preventing life from forming. Too strong, and stars would go from “crunch” to “bang” too fast for life to grab a tentacle-hold. Or the entire universe would have reversed its expansion and popped back out of existence before an eye could have blinked.

There are much, much fewer ways to exist than to not exist. And yet here we are, nicely placed around a well-behaved star in a quiet galaxy, in a universe that’s comfortable and gives us a great view.

The odds against our very existence make even the most well-documented miracle seem  inevitable. This is clearly one of god’s fingerprints.

Coming Out of Retirement

As the references to biology imply, the Fine-Tuning proof is closely related to the proof from Design. The difference is largely one of emphasis; Design concerns itself with the patterns in biology, while Fine-Tuning points to the patterns within the world that permit biology.

Aristotle’s First Mover is an early example. While Plato’s “Form of the Good” is defined in terms of justice and intelligence, and implied to take an interest in human affairs, the First Mover does not meddle. It merely acts like the pendulum or battery of a clock, ensuring the entire machine runs smoothly. Some other deity does the more personal things. Another ancient Greek philosopher named Cicero puts it better:

When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artificers?

(De Natura Deorum, ii. 34)

When Nicolaus Copernicus published De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium from his deathbed two thousand years later, a new line of argument began to open up. The planets and stars did not circle the Earth, as everyone thought, but instead twirled around the Sun. It didn’t take long for other thinkers to examine the evidence, and reluctantly agree Copernicus was on to something. The structure of the heavens was starting to disagree with the assertions of the ancients and the religious, which prompted questions of how much their elders really knew. The same thing was happening to biology; De Humani Corporis Fabrica, by Andreas Vesalius, was one of the first books to honestly take apart the human body, and revealed there weren’t as many magical bits as previously thought.  Instead, our bodies were just messy hunks of meat, with few signs of clear design.

But while biology was getting much more complicated, cosmology was cleaning up its act. The old Ptolemeic system of the heavens was a messy and arbitrary collection of circles moving in circles. The new system, hinted at by Johannes Kepler and fully fleshed out by Isaac Newton, had the universe running according to fewer and much simpler rules. Everything ticked along smoothly, like a precision clock, and there was far more everything than we could comprehend.

In contrast, the simple, perfect body designs we saw from a distance were becoming ridiculously complex plumbing. Even when the simple laws finally showed up, all they described was the overall pattern instead of the detail.

Heading into the 1900’s, the smart money was giving up on biology, and looking to the heavens for evidence of design.

The bet quickly paid off. Scientists were still going along with Plato and Aristotle’s assertion of an infinite, eternal universe at that time. Ironically, the rationale most gave was that it dodged around the infinite chain of the Cosmological proof that was pushed by both ancient Greeks. Most religions, in contrast, were very clear that the universe had a beginning and weren’t willing to give that up.[161] They didn’t have to; in 1929 Edwin Hubble and Milton Humason peered at distant galaxies, did some math, and discovered the universe was running away from us. This matched up with the work of Alexander Friedmann and Georges Lemaître, who noted that General Relativity implied the universe would collapse unless it was expanding. Scientists were grudgingly forced to agree with the old creation stories; the universe had a beginning, after all.

Stay Tuned

But before we can properly begin this chapter, I need to answer one simple question first:  Could the universe be tuned at all?

If there’s only one way to create a universe, there’s no way for the gods to tune it. Try pulling the knobs off a radio then changing the station, if you doubt me. And the only way to know if the universe can be tuned is to know exactly how it began and how it developed.

Surprisingly, the only people who fess up to having this information are the religious. Astronomers have been formally studying the universe for centuries, informally for at least ten millennia, and it’s only in recent times that they’ve made progress. When the first fictional spacecraft entered the public’s mind around 1860, astronomers had measured the distance to a second star and the speed of light, and discovered a new element from a hundred million kilometres away. By the time we’d tossed a human to the moon in such a capsule in the late 1960’s, we knew how the elements were formed, how stars and the universe “evolved,” and suspected that most of the matter in the universe is invisible. These are all basic facts about how the universe is structured, without which we couldn’t even start to guess how it was formed, let alone if it could be formed another way.

Thanks to particle accelerators, cosmologists can create hotter temperatures than we’ve ever observed in the universe, which simulate the universe a fraction of a second after it began, and the theories we have extend to within a hair’s breadth of the beginning.[162] Neither can reach time zero, though. Any tip that could get physicists that last step would be rewarded with a Nobel Prize and a permanent spot in physics textbooks.

I find it surprising that theologians, who claim to hold a key piece of the puzzle about the early universe, would stay silent and turn down these riches. Still, I have to either give them the benefit of doubt, or end the chapter right here.

But if I grant that one exception, I’m quickly forced to concede more. It doesn’t matter if the  universe can be tuned, if all the possible tunings are equally comfortable for life. For instance, there are about 26 settings related to sub-atomic particles that could be tweaked, but most of them control exotic forms of matter that we never deal with outside of a particle accelerator. Little to nothing would change if they did. To answer the question, we also need to know what settings can be tuned, and by how much.

This proof isn’t just asking for a universe that’s compatible with life, though. It’s claiming the current settings are the best possible. To properly show that, you have to explore all other possible tunings and demonstrate that they don’t cut the mustard. There may be an infinite number of tunings to select from, and there may be radically different kinds of life in wildly different universes that need to be judged against our own; without answering all the questions I’ve just asked, we’ll never be sure.

Few theists have even started this, and yet the Fine Tuning proof depends on their answers. As mentioned in the introduction, you need evidence to have a proof. Since Fine-Tuning has no evidence, it’s more of a hope than a proof. Believers and critics alike are forced to invent the missing pieces to make it a proof at all:

More specifically, the values of the various forces of nature appear to be fine-tuned for the existence of intelligent life. The world is conditioned principally by the values of the fundamental constants a (the fine structure constant, or electromagnetic interaction), mn/me (proton to electron mass ratio, aG (gravitation), aw (the weak force), and as (the strong force). When one mentally assigns different values to these constants or forces, one discovers that in fact the number of observable universes, that is to say, universes capable of supporting intelligent life, is very small. Just a slight variation in any one of these values would render life impossible.

(“THE TELEOLOGICAL ARGUMENT AND THE ANTHROPIC PRINCIPLE,” Dr. William Lane Craig, retrieved May 29, 2011)

[…] the most important quantities that determine stellar properties — and are allowed to vary — are the gravitational constant G, the fine structure constant α, and a composite parameter C that determines nuclear reaction rates. Working within this model, we delineate the portion of parameter space that allows for the existence of stars. Our main finding is that a sizable fraction of the parameter space (roughly one fourth) provides the values necessary for stellar objects to operate through sustained nuclear fusion. As a result, the set of parameters necessary to support stars are not particularly rare.

(“Stars In Other Universes: Stellar structure with different fundamental constants”, Fred C. Adams, Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, August 2008)

[161]  Notable exceptions include Jainism, which proposes an eternal universe, and some branches of Hinduism, which propose an eternal cycle of universe creation.

[162] Actually, that’s not a fair analogy. A hair is about a hundred microns across, or 10-4 metres, while our theories are helpless only in the Planck epoch, which ranged from time zero to 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang.

Proof from Popularity (2)

Over-active Pattern Matching

One key element is our phenomenal ability to find patterns. Scientists have recently started to capitalize on this.

The “Rosetta” project followed the same pattern as many other distributed computing projects, at least at the start. David Baker and his colleagues were dealing with the difficult problem of protein folding. These little molecules are the workhorses of all living things, and do everything from speed up chemical reactions to transmit signals in your brain… yet they’ve been remarkably difficult to study. The problem is not with our understanding of molecular forces, or the blueprints to make any protein, but the sheer number of computations required to combine both into a folded protein. On a single computer, crunching through the numbers can take years. [149]

Baker decided to solve that problem by distributing the work; his group created a software program that could do protein folding, then gave it away to anyone interested. As of this writing, about 30,000 people are running Rosetta on at least one computer, [150] and speeding up the process by at least that many times. Every single one of them is doing this voluntarily, with their only compensation being a pretty picture of the folding process in action.

Soon, however, Baker’s group was fielding emails about those pretty pictures. The people running Rosetta noticed the software would get “stuck” in places, or waste time on solutions that even a non-expert could tell would go nowhere. They wondered if there was any way to “nudge” the software with hints.

Baker decided to take the hint himself, and hired Zoran Popović and David Salesin to turn his science program into a game called “foldit.” Users could now do much more than help their computer along; they could team up with others to solve “puzzles,” compete with others to earn a high score, or even write their own scripts to help remove some of the grunt work.

Adding humans into the mix paid off. One user named “Vertex” came up with the “Blue Fuse” helper script, and with refinements developed by others it rapidly became the most popular such helper on “foldit.” [151] When Baker had a look at the code, however, he was astonished to find it was a near-duplicate of an algorithm his lab was privately testing. Some comparisons between the two revealed that in seven months, a community of novices had managed to best years of research by experts in protein folding. [152] Other citizen science projects have found the same pattern; pooling together the opinions of non-experts gives results equal to what an expert could churn out, in a fraction of the time.

This ability to suss out patterns comes at a cost, however. As mentioned in the Witness proof, we’re also prone to finding patterns that don’t exist. It takes a minor stretch of someone else’s imagination to start assigning a language to random sounds, or guess there’s a mind behind mindless processes. From that, gods can be formed.


Back in the Morality proof, I used a little game theory to describe how morality could be evolved as an instinct. In the process, I also showed how classism[153] could also be bred into our bones.

Henri Tajfel made a career out of studying this, in fact. One fascinating study asked people to judge the length of lines. The participants were split into two groups, one of which was given the lines without any labels. The other group had their lines labelled by length, either “A” if the line was shorter than average or “B” if the line was longer. The second group automatically lumped lines by label, consistently guessing longer lengths for short lines and shorter lengths for longer ones to match up with their expectations for the two categories. The first group didn’t show any bias. [154]

What applies to lines also applies to people. Here’s an example from Tajfel himself:

The boys, who knew each other well, were divided into groups defined by flimsy and unimportant criteria [in this case, they were told it was how well they could count groups of dots; in reality, the researchers randomly assigned groups]. Their own individual interests were not affected by their choices, since they always assigned points to two other people and no one could know what any other boy’s choices were. The amount of money were not trivial for them: each boy left the experiment with the equivalent of about a dollar. Inasmuch as they could not know who was in their group and who was in the other group, they could have adopted either of two reasonable strategies. They could have chosen the maximum-joint-profit point of the matrices, which would mean that the boys as a total group would get the most money out of the experimenters, or they could choose the point of maximum fairness. Indeed, they did tend to choose the second alternative when their choices did not involve a distinction between ingroup and outgroup. As soon as this differentiation was involved, however, they discriminated in favour of the ingroup. The only thing we needed to do to achieve this result was to associate their judgements of numbers of dots with the use of the terms “your group,” and “the other group” in the instructions […]

        Tajfel, Henri. “Experiments in intergroup discrimination.” Scientific American 223.5 (1970): 96-102.

It’s a sobering thought. If we can start favouring an ingroup and punishing an outgroup, along lines as arbitrary as how good we are at counting dots, what are the odds of us carving lines in the sand over skin colour, or genitalia?

Or for that matter, beliefs and rituals?

There’s two key differences, however. You can’t change genitalia or skin colour, and gradations and variety are guaranteed. [155] Behaviour, however, is easily changed, allowing anyone to hop from outgroup to ingroup. It’s quite possible then for a behaviour-based ingroup to grow in size and dominate over all their outgroups. At a magical tipping point, the special treatment enjoyed within the ingroup outweighs any harm that could be inflicted by an outgroup, and the reverse is true from any outgroup’s point of view. There’s a strong incentive to switch, which only grows as more people give in. The eventual result is the disappearance of all outgroups, and the people that remain are nicer and more trusting to one another than they would have been in a non-classist situation.

In theory, of course. There are a number of practical barriers to this utopia.

For one, the ease that we divide ourselves means that in-groups are prone to splintering along the most trivial lines. This becomes a problem when the in-group cannot provide the benefits it once used to, or there is no real out-group, as there’s very little enforcing group cohesion. If only there were some way to invent an out-group, either by spreading tales of extreme debauchery and mayhem about a group that doesn’t live nearby, or simply making up an all-powerful one out of, say, folklore or leftover gods. If only.

I alluded to another in the Morality proof. Classism is easy prey for cheaters, who will happily wave around the in-group symbols but refuse to act as nice; the obvious counter is to add costly symbols and rituals, such as piercings and other body modifications. A less obvious one is to invoke an always-present, always watching police-thing to ensure everyone toes the line.


While the above two components are enough to get a religion off the ground, they don’t explain why religions have such staying power. For that, you need one more ingredient: evolution.

As I discussed in my chapter on the Design/Teleological proof, evolution applies to far more than biology. It’s a general-purpose feedback loop that works equally well with culture and ideas. Religions are no exception, as they have all the basic requirements.

Traditions and rituals are easily passed from person to person, forming new copies of themselves. African-Americans brought over to the United States for the slave trade readily absorbed the religion of their captors, to the point that they are more likely to be Christian than those of European descent. [156]

The Christianity they adopted differs in important ways, however. African-Americans placed far more emphasis on music; while their European counterparts specialized in boring chants of ancient lyrics, they formed lively quoirs of freshly-minted words and created an entire musical genre known as “gospel.” [157] While their fellow European citizens became useed to dealing with a distant, aloof church system, African-Americans made theirs keenly interested in social justice and humanitarian causes. [158] By changing Christianity to suit them, they made it more suitable and thus tougher to walk away from.

This hasn’t escaped the notice of non-Africans. Faced with emptying pews, church leaders elsewhere have started adopting the innovations of African-Americans to woo churchgoers back. The use of popular music is on the uptick, [159] as well as an emphasis on charity and improving the lot of your fellow human. [160]

Self-replication, variation, limited environment, and feedback. Every aspect is there, creating a feedback loop of self-preservation replication.

Social Attachment

While evolution is the key ingredient, that doesn’t rule out some spices to help seal the deal.

We are social creatures, at heart. Like dogs, bats, prairie dogs, and our fellow apes, we rely on teamwork to survive. Not surprisingly, the process of evolution has strengthened that by planting various rewards within us.

[TODO: friendship bonus]

[TODO: parent bonus]

These same rewards could be redirected to other ends, however. Making friends with an imaginary being would convey some of the same rewards granted by hanging around with a real-life friend, only this imaginary being will never talk back to you. Having an imaginary being as a parent would provide a sense of security that a real-life parent could never provide.

Fear of Death

[TODO. But see “Terror Management Theory“]

How Religion Started

All merged to form religion. Hunter-gatherer society had good punishment for misbehavior, in the form of ostracism, but as population grew it became less useful. No police around to enforce rules, so who could? Religion evolved a solution with divine punishment via afterlife and a central authority, which made social organization of large groups much easier. Can see this in tribal spirituality vs. Early religions.

Thus: religion is social structure that benefits members by policing group behavior via a supernatural justice system. Evidence:

  • As countries get wealthier and more secure, religosity drops off dramatically
  • More likely in less secure nations, such as US (high health bankrupcies, high prison population, low feelings of security)
  • Religion is strongly correlated with large groups; smaller tribes just don’t need it.
  • Belief in god isn’t important, playing along with group is. EG:
  • limited grasp of important religious precepts, ignorance of holy texts
  • ease of ignoring basic codes when impractical (churchgoing stats in US, “believing in belief”)
  • afterlife more common than god
  • emphasis on community and communal ritual, instead of private prayer
  • the highly religious are treated with disdain, like the non-believers
  • wait, what role do true believers play? They make it easier to accept tribal markers, but also raise the bar for the rest; thus a love-hate relationship (“I wish I felt what they did”).





[153]  Early drafts used the word “tribalism,” but I found a lot of people took me to task for promoting discrimination against “less advanced” people. I struggled to think of a better name, but even “classism” carried an implication of discrimination. Then it hit me: there is no name for this which is free of discrimination, because by its very nature it is group-based discrimination, no more or less. It isn’t fair to say we were born and bred to discriminate, but it is fair to say all of us have that capacity built-in at the lowest possible level.
[HJH of the FUTURE: I’ve since seen “groupiness” tossed around in the scientific literature.]

[154]  “Human groups and social categories: studies in social psychology,” pg. 91-104, Henri Tajfel, 1981.

[155]  24 different genes have been associated with skin colour, and genetalia come in even more varieties; see here for illustrations:

156  Pew Forum, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 2007.”


[158]  Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya. The Black church in the African American experience. Duke University Press Books, 1990.

[159]  TODO

[160]  TODO

Proof from Popularity (1)

Proof from Popularity

Some things never go out of style.

The Sun always rises in the East and sets in the West. The seasons come and go in an orderly manner. Tides rise and fall; there’s never a miscommunication.

We always seem to have a god around. The vast majority of human beings, living or dead, believe or believed in one or more gods. The details differ, of course, but not the desire.

Nothing else in our cultures has been as permanent. Traditions get created, changed, lost, and revived all the time. In the United States, an ancient fertility festival has become an excuse to eat chocolate. In Japan the tradition of Seppuku, or ritual suicide by slicing open one’s stomach, has died out. Norway has largely given up blót, which consisted of hanging various animals (including humans) and creating a feast from their flesh. Fondue was revived by Swiss wine and cheese producers, to encourage people to buy more wine and cheese. Something similar happened in the United States in the 1930’s; diamond producers had an excess of diamonds, so they hired marketers to create more demand by linking marriage proposals to the gift of a diamond ring.

Doesn’t the continuous popularity of religion speak to the existence of a higher power?

Bridge Jumping

Many of us were taught at a young age that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s right. Humans, like other social creatures, tend to form packs or tribes with a hierarchy of power. We reinforce these groupings through shared behaviour, by grooming one another or parcelling out food.

So if a high-ranking member does something notable, like harass someone not in the clan, there’s an incredible amount of pressure to imitate them. Our culture has decided that this instinct should be resisted,[146] so we try to teach children to think of the greater good instead. Wrong is wrong, no matter how popular it is.

This idea persists into adulthood. Think of the people you consider moral heroes. I’m willing to bet that while their neighbours cried yes, they said no. Oscar Schindler is praised for saving a thousand Jews while his peers were hunting them down. From the opposite end, the Neurumberg trials sent out a clear message that “I’m just following orders” is not an excuse; if a superior commands you to do something amoral, or everyone else in your unit is committing vile acts, you must refuse to go with the crowd. Otherwise, you are as guilty as them.

Therefore, we try not to judge the truth of things based on popularity. Adding a special exemption for religion is a poor idea. The non-religious[147] are currently the third most popular “religion,” after Islam and Christianity, and have never held a larger proportion of the world’s population. Does this mean a god is less likely to exist as time goes on? If Europe were hit by a giant meteor, wiping out a large chunk of the non-religious, does this mean religion is now more truthful?

Judgement Day

So if we can’t judge religion to be useful by how popular it is, how can we judge it?

No, wait, we have another question to answer first: can we judge religion? The religious claim to be above the fray, after all, pulling from a divine mandate of some sort that secular people lack. Doesn’t this make them impossible to judge?

I’d be more swayed by this argument if there was only one religion in the world. Instead we find thousands of religions, many of them splintered into various sects. How will you decide which religion to follow, without judging one against the other? If you dodge that by saying you worship all faiths, even though you don’t follow all of their must-follow rules, then I have some bad news:

Strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites! Be harsh with them. Their ultimate abode is hell, a hapless journey’s end.

(Quoran, verse 9:73)

He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto Jehovah only, shall be utterly destroyed.

(Old Testament, Exodus 22:20, American Standard translation)

If you worship any religion other than Islam, you will suffer eternally. If you worship any religion other than Judaism,[148] you’ll be killed. Worship both Islam and Judaism, or neither religion, and you’ll have both fates. Ignore one or both of these lines and you’ve placed your moral judgement above god’s, since both of these sources are divinely-inspired words from a god.

Before reading this book, you were forced to make a judgement on religion. Since I presume you’re still alive and in reasonably good health, I think that signals it’s A-OK to judge religion in general.

What criterion should we use for judgement? I’d argue that the best way is through behaviour. All religions tell their adherents how to live a moral, just life. We should expect the religious to live better than their godless counterparts, perhaps by having to deal with less crime or consistently coming up happier in surveys.

In the Pragmatic Argument I consider this, and reject it.

The Ascent of Religion

If you agree with my assessment in Pragmatic, though, we’re left with an unsettling conclusion. If religion is not that useful, why do so many people insist on being religious? Couldn’t that imply we must believe in something, or that we’re being compelled to join religion by something external?

I think I can answer this by sharing my theory of how religion got started in the first place.

I’m not the first to come up with a theory, not by a long shot: for instance, Edward Burnett Tyler had a reasonable one back in 1871. Modern theories tend to fall into a few categories, such as those that invoke evolution:

Perhaps the most basic question is whether the trait is an adaptation that evolved by a process of selection. Does a given element of religion exist because it helps an entity (such as an individual or a group) survive and reproduce better than competing entities? If so, then we need to determine the relevant entity. Does the given element of religion increase the fitness of whole groups, compared to other groups (between-group selection), or by increasing the fitness of individuals compared to other individuals within the same group (within-group selection)? With cultural evolution there is an interesting third possibility. A cultural trait can spread by benefiting whole groups or individuals within groups, but it can also spread by enhancing its own transmission at the expense of human individuals and groups, as if it were a parasitic organism in its own right (Dawkins 2006, Dennett 2006). The concept of religion as a disease is highly novel against the background of traditional religious scholarship.

If a trait it not an adaptation, it can nevertheless persist in the population for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it was adaptive in the past but no longer in the present. For example, our eating habits make excellent sense in a world of food scarcity but have become a major cause of death in modern fast-food environments. Perhaps some elements of religion are like obesity—adaptive in the tiny social groups of our ancestral past, but not in modern mega-societies (Alexander 1987).

Alternatively, a trait can be a non-adaptive byproduct of another trait. An architectural example made famous by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin (1979) is a spandrel, the triangular space that inevitably forms when two arches are placed next to each other. Arches have a function but spandrels do not, although they can acquire a secondary function such as a decorative space. As a biological example, moths use celestial light sources to navigate (an adaptation) but this causes them to spiral inward toward earthly light sources such as a streetlamp or flame—a highly destructive byproduct. Perhaps some elements of religion are like a moth to flame (Dawkins 2006).

Finally, a trait can have no effect whatsoever on survival and reproduction and simply drift into the population. Many genetic mutations are selectively neutral, enabling them to be used as a molecular “clock” for measuring the amount of time that species have been genetically isolated from each other. Some elements of religion might similarly have no rhyme or reason, other than the vagaries of chance.

        (“Evolutionary Religious Studies (ERS): A Beginner’s Guide ,” David Sloan Wilson and William Scott Green, draft copy dated September 12th, 2007)

Others point to psychology. Religion could be a cultural system to ease our fears, or a proto-science that satisfied our curiosity and need for explanations before we thought up science proper.

Religion is primarily a search for security and not a search for truth. Religion is what we so often use to bank the fires of our anxiety. That is why religion tends toward becoming excessive, neurotic, controlling and even evil. That is why a religious government is always a cruel government. People need to understand that questioning and doubting are healthy, human activities to be encouraged not to be feared. Certainty is a vice not a virtue. Insecurity is something to be grasped and treasured. A true and healthy religious system will encourage each of these activities. A sick and fearful religious system will seek to remove them.

(“Q&A on biblical criticism,” John Shelby Spong, a weekly mailing dated June 15th, 2005)

The idea that religion is an early form of science is found in many Enlightenment authors, usually with the implication that it has now been replaced by science. Moderate versions of this thesis are found in Auguste Comte and Émile Durkheim. Primarily, however, it was the British anthropologists of religion Edward B. Tylor and James Frazer who defended this view. On the basis of a cognitively oriented associationist psychology, they identified religion with early forms of rational and, especially, scientific thought. For them, religion represented an insufficient answer to cognitive problems such as the explanation of dreams or death. Religion and magic were related in the same way as theory and proctice or science and technology. This tradition is represented today by anthropologists such as Robin Horton, who maintains that “primitive” religion is primarily a rational attempt to interpret the world.

(“The promise of salvation: a theory of religion,” pg 56-57, Martin Riesebrodt and Steven Rendal, 2010)

My own theory is primarily evolutionary, but borrows freely from both branches. Religion likely emerged from five separate elements, two of which are optional.

[146]  I agree. We have other, less destructive ways to define and foster groups. Our tendency to live close to each other and our toolmaking skills can fan small flares into big fires.

[147]  This category lumps people who are “spiritual but not religious” in with atheists and agnostics. If you only consider the latter two to be truly non-religious, then the atheist/agnostic stance becomes the fifth most popular “religion” in the world.

[148]  Christianity includes the Old Testament in its bible. Does this mean Christians would kill Jews for refusing to worship the same god, even though they wrote that rule?

Proof from Design, or the Teleological Proof (6)

I Fought The Law

To some, this is a huge contradiction.

Scientists have been studying heat for as long as we’ve had fire, and from that effort have produced the Laws of Thermodynamics,[139] plus the concepts of entropy and systems. You can think of a system as a really sturdy container, like a pot holding a nice clay sculpture. If the container is closed, you won’t be able to touch the sculpture or tip it out; likewise, a “closed” system is completely isolated from everything else. The analogy doesn’t quite fit; since the container isn’t thermally closed, you can heat up the sculpture by heating up the container. In a proper closed system there’s nothing you can do from the outside to effect the inside, and vice-versa.

This sculpture probably doesn’t take up all of the container, though. The remainder is likely “air,” the random hodge-podge of atmospheric molecules that were floating around inside until the container was closed. This creates a clear boundary, between the air molecules and the clay molecules; we’ll call this a “low” entropy state, which means there is a lot of order present. Suppose we abuse this analogy a little, and kick the container off a cliff. The sculpture would likely shatter, becoming less organized itself. If we repeat this a few million times, you’ll wind up with fine clay dust mingling with the air itself. There’s no longer any sort of boundary or order here, which means it’s now a “high” entropy state. [Read more…]

Proof from Design, or the Teleological Proof (5)

Evolution and Chaos

That’s a real problem, because there are a lot of similarities between the math I’ve taught you and evolution.

Flip back to my earlier definition. The copying process is a form of positive feedback. Unchecked, it would lead to exponential growth as the original made copies, and the copies also made copies, and the copies of copies also made copies, and so on.

The limited environment is negative feedback. It’s continually throttling or cutting down self-replicators in a multitude of ways; a lack of food, no more room to grow into, the length of a day, imperfections that kill it off after a time, predators in the environment, and a lack of mates are but a few examples from biology.

The changes to the copy are a nudge value. They’re a real wild card, sometimes increasing negative feedback (such as birth defects in biology), positive feedback (making tail feathers more attractive to the opposite sex), neither (changing eye colour), or even both (boosting metabolism and cancer rates). The rate of change can vary too, unlike the constant in our math.

The simple rules of evolution contain all the components needed for complex behaviour.

You may have noticed that I’ve avoided the word “organism,” and tacked on “in biology” in the examples above. While biologists were the first to stumble onto evolution, the same process works just as well on the non-living.

Musicians learn music by copying what’s come before. Their songs are different, but not because the songs are mixed via sex or tweaked via an error in the copying process; instead, creative exploration is to blame. All these songs, old and new, have to make an impression on other people, otherwise they won’t be played and will wind up forgotten, which is a limitation imposed by their environment.

All the pieces are in place, so it’s no surprise that music shows signs of evolution. When the Motown genre began, it was etched into vinyl records with the volume turned down slightly, just like all records at that time were. By the time this genre had faded in popularity, Motown records were as loud as the vinyl physically allowed. Why? Motown was usually played at loud parties and clubs; the louder it was, the more likely it would be heard and enjoyed, and the more likely it would be bought. Musicians and record producers inadvertently evolved to be louder, as a result.

The principles that drive evolution have been used to build more efficient antennas, stronger concrete reinforcements, robots that can walk, and even create art. I’ve used it myself several times, to find the minimal value in a complicated formula without doing a lot of messy math, and to find ideal exam schedules for a school assignment. It explains why music became louder after portable music players were invented; the environment changed to be louder, and feedback unconsciously shaped our music in response. In theory, anything that can be quantified into a number or imperfectly copied, then measured in some way, could be developed further by using evolution.

Baby Steps to a Light-Sensitive Patch…

Time to return to biology, to explain how eyes developed. Thanks to a mutation, an organism was born with a light-sensitive patch of skin. This patch allowed it to hide in dark corners or locate food better than organisms that didn’t have a patch, so it was more likely to survive and reproduce. A mutation that caused the patch to “cave in” protected it somewhat, so again that organism had an advantage. As the patch sunk deeper, it could sense light direction, and as the top nearly closed over it became a pinhole camera. A clear membrane kept out debris, but also acted like a lens. Muscles formerly used to control skin hair could bend this lens, moving the focus around. Detaching the outer layer of skin allowed it to rotate, and skin muscles went from having a slight effect to being dedicated to providing this rotation.

Each of these intermediate steps has been found in an existing species, so the entire process is very plausible.[132] There’s no intention behind his process, no great plan, and yet the end result is careful design.

The immune system took a similar arch, but with one crucial difference. For the eye, we have a pretty good idea of how it started. While scientists can roughly pin down the dates for when the immune system evolved,[133] and understand the aftermath quite well, they aren’t sure what it evolved from.

Some believers have seized on this. If scientists don’t know how the immune system started, that must mean it was created by a god! The same line of thought has been applied to countless other examples, ranging from the bacterial flagellum[134] to thunder.

Recognize this? I covered the same line of reasoning back in the Cosmological proof. Not knowing what caused something does not prove YHWH or Shiva or whatever agent you’d like did the deed, it does nothing but leave the causer unknown. And if we ever think of any mechanism that also explains how it came about without relying on a god, Ockham swoops in and rules out the supernatural version.

Again we have two theories, design by deity and design by evolution. One requires a god, the other does not, so we could invoke Ockham’s Razor if we wish.

Take A Chance

We can do better, though.

Evolution is a slow, haphazard process, that only improves by small steps. Gods are smarter and more powerful than us, capable of large improvements and planning ahead. We could infer the method of design, then, by looking at the results.

Most land dwellers on this planet are capable of producing Vitamin C. Indeed, by examining our DNA, scientists have found that we too would be capable of it, if not for a disabling mutation. This would have been crippling if not for our varied diet, which consumes enough vitamin C producers to make up the loss. It took the recent invention of long sea voyages to even discover this missing ability; as luck would have it, our best sources of vitamin C tend to rot quickly.

Both designers seem to be on equal footing, until you notice one detail. If our inability to make C was due to the gods, why did they leave a crippled deactivated version of it within us? A designer capable of foresight would have omitted it completely, saving us from accidentally re-activating it up and mucking up the plan. A blind single-step process, on the other hand, could never yank the entire thing out in one go. Instead, we would cart around the damaged copy until mutations and deletions had whittled it down to nothing. This process takes time, so a nearly-intact copy is a sign the change was pretty recent. This squares nicely with the evidence, too.

Design by deity has problems with the nerve connecting our voice box and brain, too. This pathway runs down our neck, into our chest, around the major arteries and veins by our heart, and back up our neck. There’s no benefit to this long route, yet we spend precious resources to create it. It’s a stupid design, and any competent designer would have gotten rid of it long ago.

So why hasn’t evolution trashed it too? Perhaps re-routing the nerve would require too big a change to happen by chance. Evolution only deals with small random tweaks, after all, so if any “repairs” need large co-ordinated adjustments, they’ll never be made.

Thanks to genome sequencing, we’ve been able to confirm this; multiple simultaneous mutations are needed to reroute that nerve, and the odds of that happening by chance are basically zero.

If there’s no reason for it now, evolution tells us that there must have been a reason in the past; otherwise, such a crazy combination never would have survived in the first place! As the changes mounted over time, this original “purpose”[135] was lost.

We can’t rewind the clock and track down our ancestor,[136] but we can look to our cousins instead. While every organism has been evolving for the same amount of time, they live in quite different environments that may have changed dramatically over the aeons. Since evolution is directed by the environment, if we can find a species that has always lived in an environment similar to our distant ancestors we might get a clue to the original “reason” for this layout.

It’s a long shot, and our first searches don’t lend us much hope. Chimpanzees, who must be very close to us by their anatomy, have the same detour. Dissecting other apes shows they have it too. Desperate, we start analyzing lemurs, sloths, squirrels, dogs, horses, mice, kangaroos… each time finding that blasted detour. Even giraffes have it, a ridiculous 5 metre long nerve to connect two bits of anatomy 10cm apart! Every animal with legs and a spine has that silly detour; insects and spiders don’t have it, but their insides look nothing like ours, and plants and fungi don’t have any nerves at all. Dejected, we turn to the sea, hoping to learn something from whales.

Instead, we’re shocked when we cut open our first fish.

They have air bladders and gills instead of lungs, of course, but they do have muscles, stomachs, spines, rib cages, and a lot more anatomy that looks similar to ours. Most importantly, they have vocal cords, a heart and a brain too…

… and the heart is in a direct line between the other two!

We keep dissecting fish, and each time we find the same brain-heart-vocal cord pattern. Our quest for a reason is over; that nerve heads for the heart because that once helped it to the voice box. As our bodies changed, and moved the vocal cord and brain into the head while leaving the heart lower down, single-step random mutations weren’t able to change this nerve’s path and thus it was forced into an odd detour.

Quests are known for granting important knowledge to the people that undertake them, and this one lives up to that ideal. To start, we now know we must have evolved from a fish-like creature. Not only that, but every land animal with a spine must have done the same.

It’s possible that large numbers of land animals originally made their home in the ocean, but over time all of them packed up and moved ashore. Since it would be highly unlikely for all of them to trace their ancestry back to the same style of sea organism, we should expect a wide variety of body plans. Instead, all of them conform to a four-limb spine-and-ribcage layout, have their internal organs in eerily similar spots, and develop in very similar ways.

From all this similarity, we’re forced to instead conclude that it’s far more likely that all land animals, including humans, evolved from a single creature that lived in water.

Insects and the like may not have, but our findings are suggestive: if creatures as diverse as elephants and snakes share a common ancestor, perhaps every living thing evolved from one organism.

The evidence from our basic building blocks all but confirms it. Every protein used by your body is encoded in a gene. There’s no need for every organism to use the same code for the same protein, and yet the overwhelming majority do. The protein that is used to exchange energy within our bodies, ATP,[137] is put to the same use in every multicellular organism we’ve found, and even a few single-celled ones. And most convincing of all, Douglas Theobald of Brandeis University ran a computer simulation that tested a variety of possible origins for life on a widely diverse set of life’s genomes. The odds of life having multiple ancestors, as opposed to sharing a single one, were 1 in 103,489. The odds of human beings spontaneously popping into existence, with no ancestors whatsoever, were a mind-shattering 1 in 106000.[138]

This is a problem for design by deity. Any intelligent designer would not hesitate to toss out useless code. Even if it did let evolution take over at some point, the net result would look like multiple ancestors for all modern life. Since we don’t find that, no deity could have designed any species save the first one. We’re forced into a biological sort of deism, at best, where a deity kick-starts a chemical chain-reaction then leaves it alone.

Is evolution the only designer? By no means; remember, all it took to generate complexity from simplicity were two conflicting feedback systems. With the bar set so low other examples should be easy to spot, and are. From the formation of ice crystals to the existence of stars, it’s clear that the laws of nature can create design without a supernatural designer.

[132]  Land, M. F. and Fernald, R. D, “The Evolution of Eyes.” Annual Review of Neuroscience, vol. 15, 1992.

[133]  Did you know you have two immune systems? The “innate” system appeared a billion years ago, while the “adaptive” popped up about 450 million years ago. Over time these two systems have integrated… mostly. I’d share more details, but quite frankly I don’t understand them!

[134]  Never heard of it? Then why did you skip past the introduction?!

[135]  There’s no intelligence driving evolution, as I’ve shown, so don’t take “purpose” and “reason” literally.

[136]  Sort of. Since mutations are small and random, you can reconstruct an earlier genome (and thus an earlier animal) by overlapping thousands or millions of sequences, and looking for the most common version of each gene. Without a womb, though, you’d never be able to convert this into a living animal.

[137] Adenosine-5′-triphosphate. Interesting fact: a typical Homo Sapiens Sapiens contains roughly ¼ of a kilogram of the stuff, yet uses enough in a day to duplicate its body weight.

[138]   Theobald, Douglas, “A formal test of the theory of universal common ancestry.” Nature, Volume 465, May 13 2010.