Friday, December 3, 2010

Do You Live in Real Life or Fake Life? (10/22/2010)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

In my recent post "Yes, You Imagined It", I mentioned how unreliable the human memory is in recalling events from our life. A reader commented, "With that in mind, don't you doubt yourself? If you can't rely on your own memory, what can you rely on?"

Your memory is unreliable. That's a fact that has been experimentally documented. You can accept that fact, or you can choose to go through life with the notion that everything that has happened to you occurred just the way you remembered it. But in doing so, you are remembering a fake life, as every one of your memories, upon recall, is subject to associations, suggestions, and other errors that get reinforced every time you recall it.

I know that this is a little troubling. But I prefer to live a life that is troubling but real, as opposed to comforting but fake.

This desire to live a comforting life, even if it forces us to deny certain aspects of reality, is rampant in the human race. Religion (and related worldviews that suggest life after death) is the most obvious example. To the believer, it is a huge bummer to imagine that when your life is over, it's over — that one's consciousness and self-awareness is totally finite in duration, and that being dead feels exactly the same as not yet having been conceived. Yet, religious faith notwithstanding, it certainly appears to be the case that death is the end. And I choose to live my life acknowledging this, even though theists are constantly telling me, "It must be so depressing to believe that when you die, it's over."

My fellow atheists know it isn't depressing for a person who has accepted this as fact. It is thoroughly eye-opening and exhilarating to accept that life is finite, let's make the most of what we've got here on Earth, because this is it!

I don't exactly know why it rubs me so wrong when I see people choosing comforting self-delusion over difficult reality. I feel as if they're cheating themselves somehow. I value my own life so much, and I find reality so interesting and challenging as it is, that I am downright offended when someone puts themselves in a delusional bubble. It's the same feeling that I might have if I were attending an incredible Stravinsky concert, and then learned that the guy sitting next to me is wearing headphones and listening to elevator music, because that's more comforting to hear than Stravinsky. I would want to yank off those headphones and force the guy to listen to some real music for a change.

Here are some other realities I choose to acknowledge. I sometimes find myself fighting people online because of these (largely unpopular) viewpoints.

• No, kids cannot be "anything they want to be" when they grow up, or achieve any dream they may have if they "believe" or "try" hard enough. There are such things as talent and circumstance. Sorry, moms and dads.

• No, if you ran for public office and won, you would do exactly the same things that all elected politicians do to stay in office.

• No, you would not be immune to abuse of power or moral decay if you found yourself in a position of absolute power. See the Stanford Prison Experiment.

• No, those corporate "ribbon campaigns for the cure" aren't all sweetness and goodness. There is a huge, self-sustaining industry behind every major cause, with thousands of people gainfully employed (no, many of them are not doing any research), and all kinds of tax-writeoff and PR motives going on for the sponsors. "Cause marketing" is not without controversy. I know it feels wonderful to buy a pink box of cereal and everything — but how about giving directly to a charity, rather than tossing in a few cents by way of the cereal company? What's that, you just wanted a box of cereal, but couldn't resist the opportunity to pretend that you're actually a charitable person? Oh. (Update: Here's a blog post on pink-ribbon saturation.)

• No, your thoughts, beliefs, or trivial actions will not impact events in ways that you desire. The outcome of the game does not revolve around whether or not you put on your lucky hat — there are other people in the world besides yourself, and they have lucky hats, too. This especially applies if you're at home and watching the game on TiVo. See also: Prayer.

• No, your pet conspiracy theory is almost certainly false. Conspiracy theories are like movie scripts: They dress up reality to make it more interesting and exciting. They also deny the uncomfortable reality that sometimes, a few random piss-ants with a mission, like the 9/11 hijackers, can cause a huge world-changing event. (Typically these theories put the control in the hands of a far more deliberate and powerful entity, like the CIA — which in an odd way is more comforting.)

• Speaking of 9/11, no, the Al Qaeda hijackers were not cowards. I don't exactly approve of mass murder or terrorism, but the hard reality is those hijackers gave their lives for what they believed in, as warped as those beliefs may have been. Objectively speaking, that means they were acts of courage. (Of course, part of their motivation was a reward in the afterlife, but I'm talking strictly about the acts themselves.) The moment President Bush called the hijackers cowards, I knew he was wrong. People wanted to think of 9/11 as a cowardly act because the hijackers were so vilified. But from a neutral viewpoint, a suicide mission is anything but cowardly! Is it so wrong for an American who denounces mass-murder terrorism simply to acknowledge this one hard fact? Bill Maher tried, by saying about a week later, "We're the cowardly ones, launching missiles from 2,000 miles away" — but people didn't want to hear that, and his ABC show was canceled as result. So much for acknowledging reality.

• And finally, no, an intrusive, expensive safety measure is not worth it "if it saves just one single innocent life." This is another feel-good platitude that has no basis in reality. Banning cars in America would save tens of thousands of innocent lives per year. Do we do that? Why not? People are used to chalking up car-crash deaths as "accidents," a consequence of living in a free society. Terrorist attacks really are accidents; contrary to popular belief, they almost never happen, and that's not because of the TSA, which has yet to intercept a single explosive device some 90+ million flights (and counting!) after 9/11/01. If only we had treated that event as an accidental failure of the imagination — remember, airport security allowed passengers to carry boxcutters back then — the terrorists would not have defeated America, which they most certainly have, as any stroll through an airport today will indicate.

What are some hard realities that you accept, even though your viewpoint is less comforting than the more popular view? What difficult facts do you choose to acknowledge, simply because that's how the world actually is?

Kill "God Bless America" NOW (10/19/2010)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

I find it incredible that more than nine years after 9/11, Major League Baseball teams still have to perform "God Bless America" during the 7th-inning stretch of all postseason games, as well as certain other games. Fans are asked to please stand and remove their caps for the song, just like the National Anthem. (Even though GBA isn't the National Anthem.) And prior to a civil-liberties lawsuit a couple of years ago, the New York Yankees' security guards famously kept fans from leaving their seats during the singing of said song. No, this isn't North Korea. Yet.

Here's my beef with "God Bless America." First of all, it is without question a patently religious song. Consider the introduction, rarely sung today except sometimes at Yankee Stadium:

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free,
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.

"God Bless America" is intended to be sung as a prayer for the well-being of America. (Of course, not necessarily for anyone else in the world, even though a huge proportion of MLB players were not American-born.) People from other countries are amazed that the phrase "God bless America" is even a thing here in this country; I can't count the number of times a person from Europe or Asia has left a comment on a video of mine saying, "Why not God bless the world?" Yet this is the message we send out every time 50,000 baseball fans are asked to stand and sing.

Even worse, "God Bless America," since its resurgence after 9/11, has taken on a more sinister subtext: May God watch over America as we fight those godless Muslims overseas. It has a Crusade ring to it. I have to ask, given all of the other nonreligious, non-jingoistic, non-divisive, beautiful patriotic songs out there — "America the Beautiful" is my personal favorite — is GBA really the best choice, if only in the interests of not fomenting more terrorism?

To anyone who says get over it, it's just a patriotic song, one that celebrates our freedom — let us not forget the prophetic words attributed to Sinclair Lewis:

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."

Yes, You Imagined It (07/24/2010)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

In a recent online discussion about spiritual matters, a woman wrote about an encounter she’d once had with a supernatural being. She spotted a figure standing about ten feet away, watching her, and suddenly, it moved to more than 100 yards away. “I didn’t imagine it,” she wrote.

I always find these kinds of expressions interesting. Aside from being oddly defensive — like the crazy person who tells you “I’m not crazy,” even though you didn’t ask — it reveals the distorted, almost bizarre way in which we view our perceptions, our memory, and the objective world. The world is like a giant machine that runs one particular course of events “out there,” and we like to believe that through our senses, we take in a perfectly accurate representation of what that machine is doing. We then store that representation in our memory bank, which we assume operates like a video camera: We “record” the event, and when we want to remember it, we “play it back.” Being like a video camera, it always plays back the same accurate representation of reality, or so we think.

Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t work like that. It is a complex biological organ; it doesn’t run mechanically and predictably, like a camera and hard drive. Instead, it has the astonishingly difficult job of sorting through a barrage of light and other stimuli, and producing a coherent internal representation of the world that it perceives — a mental picture. This mental picture must be assembled internally, and then reassembled, again internally, every time an event is remembered, even moments later.

When a person says “I didn’t imagine it” — whether it’s a shadowy figure that zips across space, the ghost of a loved one, or the voice of Jesus speaking through prayer — they are wrong. But they are also wrong when they see a meteor streaking across the night sky, or a hawk catching a field mouse, and they say “I didn’t imagine it.” We all imagine everything. The brain that produces the mental representation of a meteor or a hawk is the same brain that produces the mental representation of a ghost or heavenly voice. Alone, how can any one of us distinguish the difference? We can’t — and therefore, the veracity of one person’s eyewitness account of the laws of physics being broken, or anything else for that matter, must be considered accordingly.

When multiple persons are involved, eyewitness accounts can be taken more seriously, but even then there are exceptions. One of my favorite examples is the Hindu milk miracle, in which thousands of Hindus claimed to see statues of Ganesha taking offerings of milk. Really, the only reliable way to assure that something actually happened is if it was mechanically recorded, preferably on multiple devices — meaning that it holds to the scientific standard of being demonstrated predictably and repeatably, upon playback. In many ways, the common expression of dismissive skepticism, “pics or it didn’t happen,” is correct. (Camera images of Ganesha would have revealed that the milk was being drawn onto the statues’ surface by capillary action, something that believing eyewitnesses probably weren’t looking for.)

Finally there is the huge problem of human memory. All recalled memories are imagined, by definition, so it’s ludicrous to claim any objective authority when recalling an event. Also, when we remember something, we aren’t necessarily remembering the original event. Instead, I believe that we’re remembering the last time we remembered the event. What else in our brain would we be accessing? This is why memories tend to shift and evolve over time. How many times have you noticed this: Re-watching a movie many years later, a scene that you remember vividly is surprisingly different; or, reading an old letter or book, a sentence that you have recalled many times, it turns out, wasn’t worded that way. “I could have sworn it was ...” you tell yourself. Yes, and you would have sworn if given the opportunity, because a vivid memory can seem as real to us as reality itself. But study after study (a review can be found here) have found that the human memory, particularly of eyewitness accounts, is dreadfully unreliable.

By eliminating the purely artificial distinction between perception and imagination, a lot of things make sense — like how a normal-seeming person can believe, with all their heart, that a supernatural or otherwise impossible experience was a real event. (I toyed with this theme in my satire video “How I Know That God Exists”.) So the next time you meet someone who’s had a religious vision or personally witnessed a miracle — and swears they “didn’t imagine it” — tell them, “Yes you did.” But, bear in mind that even if your life revolves around reason and rationality, you imagine plenty of things, too.

Light Does Not “Race” Through Space (5/14/2010)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

When it comes to the light from distant objects, most people think of the Universe as a giant cosmic shooting gallery: There’s a star over here, a star over there, maybe a galaxy that way, all spitting out tiny packets of light called “photons.” These photons careen through space at an amazing speed, we are told, and a few of them reach Earth after their lengthy travels, allowing us to see the stars and galaxies they came from. Even prominent science writers sometimes describe a photon “racing along” for billions of years, only to go splat against someone’s retina or a photographic plate on a telescope. This isn’t too surprising; things in our everyday experience go fast and go splat, so depicting bits of light like this makes intuitive sense.

But it’s just wrong. The “common sense” view of the Universe as a shooting gallery of light — while somewhat easy to grasp — has been out of date for over 100 years. It’s as incorrect as saying that life on Earth appeared fully formed from the Creator’s hand within the span of a week. Yes, creation is easier to grasp than evolution by natural selection. But just because something is easy to comprehend doesn’t mean it resembles the truth.

Photons cannot be said to “race,” “speed,” or “careen” through space like bullets, in any manner at all. They may seem to race, and we may get “splatted” by them — but they do not, themselves, race. In 1905, Albert Einstein showed that as an object’s speed through its environment goes up, its relationship with that environment changes: distances become shorter (a phenomenon known as Lorentz contraction), and durations of time also become shorter (known as time dilation). Special relativity turns the speed of light into a kind of “cosmic speed limit”: Nothing can go faster than that, because for anything that travels at that speed, the distances traveled contract to exactly zero, and the duration of travel similarly contracts to exactly zero. No time or distance is “experienced” by a photon, ever. It is therefore wrong to say that a photon races anywhere (“races” being an intransitive verb describing what it, itself, does), or that it “spent five billion years traveling” through space. Such anthropomorphisms are our own invention; they don’t reflect the photon’s reality, as defined by special relativity.

If a photon isn’t a little particle flying at a terrific speed, what is it, then? Here’s where it gets odd: A photon’s path is a line that connects all points in space and time that are equivalent as far as relativity is concerned. Starting from any point on the line, 186,000 miles away from that point, the cosmic clock is one second earlier. So, the line could connect the following equivalent points in space and time: Your eyeball right now, the Moon 1.2 seconds ago, the Sun 8 minutes ago, the star Sirius 8.6 years ago, and the Andromeda Galaxy 2.5 million years ago. A photon “traveling through space” could cross all five of these points. Except that it isn’t traveling. It’s a dimensionless “thing” which an observer at one of the similarly correlated points in familiar space and time will encounter. Because in the bigger picture of relativistic spacetime, there’s no difference between these points at all.

Photons are objects which all observers seem to witness moving — they are seen at different places in space at different times — but which don’t, themselves, travel anywhere or experience any time. This has profound implications for the way we view the Universe as a whole, but that’s a topic for another time. Suffice it to say, we should abandon the archaic idea that particles of light race ontologically through space for billions of years. They don’t.

A Physics Riddle (5/3/2010)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

Your assignment is to design a simple system in which a laser beam can be made brighter — i.e., its intensity increases — by having the beam pass through a particular “mystery object,” as opposed to the beam not passing through that object. You may not use any additional power (the object must be entirely passive), you may not change the beam's diameter or wavelength, and the beam must remain in a straight line from beginning to end.

This is not a trick question -- the solution can be easily demonstrated in a tabletop setup. Without the mystery object, it’s a dark beam; hold the object so that the beam is passing through it, and it’s a bright beam.

Hint #1: In preparing the system, you will be doing something to make the laser beam less intense. Adding in the mystery object will then remove this effect to some degree, making the beam brighter again.

Hint #2: If you put the mystery object in front of a standard, unprepared laser beam, the beam will actually get darker! But putting it in the prepared beam makes it brighter. Yeah, it really does.

The solution is below...scroll down to read.















The secret ingredient is polarization. It turns out that if we orient a laser beam so that it is polarized (for example) vertically, we cannot re-polarize it horizontally merely by then passing it through a horizontally oriented polarizing filter. Doing so cuts out almost the entire beam, because there is virtually no horizontal component of vertically polarized light. However, we can rotate the polarization of a beam of light by 90° if we do it in two stages of 45° each. Doing so cuts out about half of the light -- but half is more than almost nothing. So...

Set up a laser pointer so that the beam is polarized vertically.* Then put a horizontally oriented polarizing filter in front of it. (3-D movie glasses consist of two such filters, each oriented differently.) This will reduce the beam to almost nothing. Now here comes the magic trick: Place another polarizing filter oriented at 45° between the laser and the horizontal polarizer. The beam will become much brighter with the 45° filter in place than with the filter out.

This is counterintuitive, because when viewed in ambient, non-polarized light, the polarizing filter (at any orientation) appears dark, like a tinted window. You wouldn't think that a "darkening" filter could make a laser beam brighter, right? But in this case, it does. Magic.

One clever way to solve this would be to realize that it's patently impossible to take an ordinary laser beam and amplify it using a passive device. (If we could do that, we'd have an unlimited source of energy, like a perpetual-motion machine.) So, the laser beam must have to be prepared in some special way -- one in which the "extra" light has already been produced; it's just been made temporarily unavailable. The problem then becomes simpler: how to "hide" light such that it can be revealed by bringing in something else. But if you start by assuming that the passive device must somehow generate energy out of nothing, you'll never solve this problem. You may also be tempted to assume that the passive device has to be the last thing in the optical chain, when there's nothing in the riddle that says that it has to be. So, the riddle is a good illustration of how we unwittingly apply assumptions all the time -- assumptions that can paralyze our ability to solve a particular problem.

* Both laser pointers that I tried emitted polarized light. If you happen to have a laser that emits a non-polarized beam -- i.e., the polarizing filter cuts out 50% of the light at all orientations -- you'll have to add a third filter (in this case, one oriented vertically) immediately in front of the laser. The "trick" should still work.

Superposition: Not That Strange (1/29/2010)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

Quantum mechanics is considered one of the weirdest areas in modern physics, and one of the weirder aspects of quantum mechanics is the idea of superposition. Superposition is the theoretical coexistence or "overlaying" of more than one state of an object, where that object's state is unknown. For example, when a photon of light has not been measured for location, its location is said to be a superposition of all its possible locations. Similarly, a radioactive atom that may or may not have decayed is said to be a superposition of its decayed and undecayed states — that is, until we look to see if the atom has decayed or not, at which time it can be described as being in one state or the other. This is not an intuitive concept on the human scale, as best illustrated by Edwin Schrödinger's famous thought experiment: Imagine a cat in a box along with a radioactive atom, plus a mechanism whereby poisonous gas is released if the atom decays. If the atom has a 50/50 chance of decaying during the hour-long experiment, does that mean the cat is in a state of superposition — i.e., simultaneously both alive and dead — right before the experimenter opens the box? In fact, Schrödinger used this thought experiment to show that it's silly to consider a macroscopic object like an animal being in superposition like this. A cat that's both alive and dead? Yeah, right!

And yet, some interpretations of quantum mechanics — including my favorite, the relational interpretation — suggest that yes, a cat in that situation is, in fact, "both alive and dead." So how can we wrap our brains around this notion?

I have a 16-year-old cat, Pokey. (You may know her as Miss Delilah.) Let's say she has a 50/50 chance of living to age 20. How do I presently describe her state on January 29, 2014? You guessed it: The 2014 cat, as described today, is both alive and dead. As I write this, her future state is a superposition of two states, simply because her future is uncertain to me. Superposition doesn't seem strange at all when viewed this way, because we're used to things in the future being uncertain. It's only strange to think of an object as being in two "overlapping" states at once — but you don't need to think of it so literally. A better description is that from our (present) perspective, the future cat is in a probability state, where there's a 50% chance of 2014 Pokey being alive and and a 50% chance of her being dead.

Similarly,* Schrödinger's cat isn't somehow a ghostly overlap of alive-and-dead cats in that box. From the perspective of the experimenter, the animal simply dwells in a probability state whose final outcome has yet to be discovered. You could say that even though an hour has elapsed and the experiment is over, the state of the cat remains in the experimenter's future, and therefore it's uncertain and/or in superposition.

This view of superposition isn't just my twisting of QM theory to make it more palatable to human intuition; it's fully consistent with the relational interpretation. Consider the three main tenets of RQM:
1. We cannot attribute any absolute states or properties to any object, in and of itself. It would be wrong to say, "The apple has an absolute velocity, spin, color, etc., independent of other objects or observers." Rather, states and properties can only be defined in terms of interactions between things — whether they be microscopic or macroscopic, inanimate or living, observing or not observing. RQM makes no distinctions among these. Our observations of the world consist only of our interactions with objects in the world (e.g., our perception of an apple appearing to be the way it is), not any absolute properties of the objects themselves.
2. Two observers can have different, but equally accurate, descriptions of one object or system, depending on the nature of their respective interactions with that system.
3. Our description of any system depends specifically upon the information transferred or extracted during our interaction with the system.

The key here is that relational quantum mechanics is a theory about information. If we're involved in an interaction where we acquire information about an object's momentum, for example, the property of momentum then becomes defined by us for that object; before that, it remains undefined or uncertain to us. In the case of Schrödinger's cat, at the end of the hour, the cat has received information about the state of the atom, and that is why the cat — from its own perspective — is either alive or dead. Meanwhile, though, the experimenter has no information about what went on inside the box, so from his or her perspective, the cat is in superposition, i.e., its state is uncertain.

In the future, literally everything is uncertain to us, dwelling in probability states only.** The total lack of information from the future means that everything about it must remain undefined. Even the surest bet we know, that the sun will rise tomorrow, is a probability; there is a
tiny but non-zero chance that the Earth's rotation will be halted by an
asteroid impact before then.***

And this may be a stretch, but you can apply the same principle to the very distant past: How did the first reproducing life form, our earliest ancestor, come about? We have absolutely no direct information about this event, so the best we can do is offer potential scenarios and gauge their respective probabilities. You could say that from our current perspective, the various possible earliest life forms exist in superposition — but "uncertain" feels a lot more natural.

Perhaps that's the most confusing thing about superposition: the word itself. It conjures up an image of overlapping, partially transparent alternate versions of an object. It's no surprise that students and researchers alike have been uneasy about the concept for 80-some years. But superposition is merely uncertainty based on a lack of available information. That's all it is.

* One can well argue that traditional superposition is a mathematically "real" state of affairs for an atom or even a cat, whereas my conception of "future" superposition is a metaphorical extrapolation. While it's definitely an extrapolation, there are fewer differences between these cases than you might expect. Mathematical uncertainty is mathematical uncertainty, such descriptions having no direct bearing on the actual nature of the objects themselves. But that's a topic for another day.

** I floated this idea in an earlier essay, where I argued that time appears to flow in one direction because information only comes from the past, never the future. Even though the "arrow of time" is often explained thermodynamically, where the inevitable increase in disorder (entropy) points in only one direction, that explanation doesn't shed much light on the phenomenon in conscious observers of a definite and unidirectional "flow" of time. Is it a coincidence that both arrows point in the same direction? No — entropy is a key element in quantum information theory.

*** Someone once asked me that if the "realness" of objects depends so strongly on our observations, do the table and chairs in his dining room go away when he goes to bed? It's not that they "go" anywhere; it's just that as soon as information on them stops being collected, they lapse into an increasingly uncertain probability state. There is a small but non-zero chance that his house will be emptied by robbers, a flood will wash out the downstairs, etc., and this goes up the longer he sleeps.

The Bullshit Syndrome & How to Spot It (1/11/2010)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

In my first-ever standup comedy routine, I remarked that the purpose of life is to learn to distinguish between truth and lies. Everyone in our society is jockeying for power, money, and attention, and dishonesty plays a huge role in that. I can't pretend that I can tell a liar from a truth-teller, but in my dealings with creationists and others, I've gotten pretty good at identifying a certain recurring mode of intellectually dishonest behavior, which I call "the Bullshit Syndrome."

As an example I'll tell you about an individual I learned about last week. Like me, he's a wannabe scientist. We're about the same age; he's an artist who writes about alternative physics, while I am a comedian/musician who writes about alternative physics. On his website he has posted over 100 articles totaling over 1,400 pages, in which he reformulates basic math and physics, from scratch.* Impressive! When I first heard about him, I was intrigued. But within about 15 minutes at his site, I began to realize that his ideas and rhetorical devices were dubious; after 90, they were fraudulent to the point of delusion. (To cite one example, admittedly out of context, he explains that a lead cube weighs more than a cardboard box because the cube has "more atomic bonds" and is therefore more structurally rigid than the box. "If I were more rigid, I would weigh more," he writes.)

I noticed that there was no discussion area on his website or a way to publicly ask questions. I Googled him — a few followers were citing his articles in physics discussion forums, but I found no place where he publicly sought reader engagement or an exchange of ideas. I did, though, find another essay he had written: a long screed declaring that Wikipedia is elitist and exclusionary, undemocratic, and that anyone who promotes alternative ideas there is labeled a nut or a conspiracy theorist.

Folks, normal people don't whine about being called nuts and conspiracy theorists. Only nuts and conspiracy theorists do.

It’s all part of the same Bullshit-Syndrome pattern that can be seen among creationists, 9/11 "Truthers," ultra-conservatives, and plenty of other groups, including some on the left. Here are five behaviors that most if not all of these groups exhibit, regardless of the topic:

1. Creation of a compelling alternative narrative. While in reality the subject matter requires education, dispassionate thinking, and nuance, in the Bullshit Syndrome this is replaced with a story that seems more like a film script — with heightened drama and intrigue, where some mysterious unseen entity is pulling the strings, typically with ulterior motives of control. These theories are an improvement on reality, where the narrative is more exciting, interesting, or comforting on a human emotional scale than the mainstream account. They may be popularized through grassroots propaganda materials, for example "agitprop" videos that feature rousing imagery and tense, insistent, dramatic music. (Here's a classic example.)
2. Appeal to simple-mindedness and intuition. Since the subject matter is difficult and nuanced, the Bullshit version is made more palatable and graspable. This may explain why these people are much more certain of their convictions (to the point of insularity and tribalism) than their opponents; while most people are likely to admit mistakes or concede points, the Bullshitter concedes nothing. The Bullshitter presents child-like rhetorical questions that appeal to the desire for easy answers and comprehensive understanding, and tells us that the mainstream account just doesn't make sense. "A five-year-old could understand this," they claim. Curiously, though, when challenged, they often fire back with, "Apparently you're just too dumb to understand."
3. Claims of exclusion by the establishment. The Bullshitter complains that they are being systematically shut out by the mainstream in order to protect the status quo, and this is why their ideas don't take hold. They typically exhibit other paranoid behaviors. I poked fun of these aspects of creationism in my video "Intelligent Design Really Is Being Expelled."
4. Accusations of servitude to the establishment. If you call the Bullshitter on their bullshit, that automatically makes you a "pawn," "shill," "toadie," etc., of the establishment. You are being controlled by, or are actively working for, the government, big business, the Illuminati, etc. — thus rendering your opinion worthless. But that's probably because of the propaganda put out by the mysterious monolithic entity to keep the "sheeple" under control. The Bullshitter of course is immune to this, and can therefore see the situation with a clarity that you'll never understand.
5. Control of criticism or discourse. Bullshitters are all about wanting opinions to be heard — until you publicly try to voice your opinion that theirs is wrong. Then your comments are removed, you are blocked from posting, etc., if you were ever allowed to comment in the first place. Emotionally charged disruption ("shouting-over"), both verbal and written, is a common tactic, as their ideas maddeningly just do not break through, despite what seems to be overwhelming proof. In online discussions, the frustrated Bullshitter has all caps and WILL USE THEM, DAMMIT!

Here is a chart with some examples of these behaviors in various groups that typify the "Bullshit Syndrome."

So, if you come across someone with an "alternative view" who's exhibiting this distinctive constellation of behaviors, you can be pretty sure that their version of the truth is patently false. Reasonable people who are actually interested in learning and debate simply don't resort to these tactics — at least, not to the predictable, systemic extent that Bullshitters do.

By the way, if you generally agree with my premise but you find yourself in one of the groups I mentioned, which of course invalidates the entire essay … well, all I can say is you've missed the point. Most likely, you will never get that point. Because you're Bullshitting yourself, too.

* If you'd like to check out his site and judge his ideas for yourself, Google one of his quotes from this article.

The "Multiverse" & Occam's Razor (12/27/2009)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

Everyone is talking about the "multiverse" these days — the idea that our Universe is just one of many, that there may be billions of "pocket universes" as real as our own Universe but extremely far away, or in the form of isolated "bubbles," such that we may never be able to contact them. The cover story of the January 2010 issue of Scientific American is "Life in the Multiverse," and the illustrations depict universes connected to each other like grapes on a vine. Once pure speculation and a science-fiction device, this concept of multiple alternate universes is now front-and-center in mainstream physics as well as pop culture.

In part, the motivation has been to explain the "fine tuning" of our Universe: the handful of physical constants which, if any were different by a tiny amount, would disallow the existence of matter and therefore us. Some of these amounts are so minuscule, our Universe seems to balance on a knife-edge between various prohibitions to our existence. While theists consider this proof of an intelligent designer, the prevailing approach among physicists is to invoke the anthropic principle: We must find ourselves in a universe with conditions suitable for life, because if we weren't in such a universe, we wouldn't be around to notice.

This raises a couple of questions. Do we find ourselves in a life-allowing universe because ours ended up this way by accident? Or, is it because there must be many different universes, and we are here because, by sheer numbers, at least one of them must support life? The second has become the conventional explanation.

I wish to challenge this conclusion. It reminds me of a moment in Carl Sagan's Cosmos, during a discussion of past theories about life on Venus. "Observation: Can't see a thing. Conclusion: Dinosaurs!" In this case, it's, "Observation: One universe and one universe only. Conclusion: Billions of universes!"

Imagine you are watching TV through a cable box that's broken (unbeknownst to you) and gets only one channel. You then learn that the cable company is providing hundreds of other channels, and that the signals are getting into your home, even though you've never seen any of them. So, you go searching for the hundreds of other cable wires passing through the wall, and finding none, you conclude that the cables must be there, and must be perfectly real, but they are coming in where you can't find them. Now, is that the only conclusion, or the best conclusion, that could be drawn from what you know? A more elegant solution is that the other channels are coming through the same one cable — the one that you know exists — but for whatever reason, you can see only the one channel.

Similarly, I believe a more elegant solution to the "multiverse" question is that all potential universes are interlaced with the one that we observe, but for whatever reason, we observe only our familiar Universe. In other words, the alternate universes are not real to us in the way that our own Universe is real, but rather, they coexist with ours in a state of potential.

This issue seems to be a good candidate for the conceptual tool known as Occam's Razor. It says that if one solution to a problem requires multiple things with special conditions and assumptions, and another solution has fewer of these requirements, then the simpler solution is preferred. If there is another explanation, why must billions of perfectly real universes "out there somewhere" be required to exist just for ours to be able to exist?

Physicists have no problem describing a light wave as a probability function, a summation of all potential locations for a photon. I don't see why our Universe cannot be viewed the same way as the photon in this example: one possible universe "filtered out" or "made real" among all potential universes, all of which make up one giant probability function. This just seems to be a far more elegant solution than an insane web of billions of individual, discrete "pocket universes." Stop the madness!

God & the Fallacy of Astonishment (11/03/2009)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

One of the questions we nonbelievers often get is, "So, did the universe just pop into existence out of nothing?" Let's ignore for a moment the point that if God didn't need to be created (and always existed), then perhaps the universe or multiverse didn't need to be created, either. The question of whether the universe was designed by an intelligent being or "popped out of nothing" encapsulates why faith in God, even in the 21st century, still exists: total human astonishment. Most of us assume that since many beautiful, complex things have been created by intelligent human beings, then complex or beautiful things in nature must have been created by an intelligence, too. After all, how could all of this pop out of nothing?

I can't answer that question. But the fact that I can't answer it doesn't prove or disprove anything. We human beings are astonished by the wonders of the universe — but our mere astonishment doesn't prove anything, either.

Here's an example of what I call the "fallacy of astonishment." Imagine that it's the 1970s and some anthropologists in Borneo come across a tribe that's never had contact with Western civilization. The explorers make friends and bring out a Polaroid camera. Someone takes a picture of the tribe's chief and hands it to him. As the chief sees his image develop before his eyes — he's never seen any kind of photograph before — he becomes astonished and concludes that the explorers must be gods, drops to his knees, and begins to worship them.

One can imagine such a scenario actually playing out (if it didn't in reality at some time). The tribal chief witnesses something that is so beyond his personal experience, seemingly the only logical explanation is a supernatural one. After all, from his perspective, there's no other way a two-dimensional image of him magically appeared on a little gray square. So, does this mean the explorers actually are gods? Of course not. The chief merely doesn't have enough information to make an informed opinion on the matter.

I believe that we "civilized" humans of the 21st century are like the tribal chief when it comes to questions of the origin of life and the universe. Really, we have very little information in these areas. We know that the visible universe is a certain age and size, but we know nothing at all about what's beyond the visible universe. (I've even suggested that the age of the universe is a biocentric extrapolation, and that the Big Bang never actually "happened" as a real, physical event at all.) We know how long life has been around on Earth, but we don't know how or even where it got started. We are that tribal chief, watching things apparently develop out of nothing, and then falling to worship that which must be responsible for making them happen.

The really religious people talk about the absurdity of explosions in outer space, and point out that tornadoes passing over junkyards don't create 747 jets. They speak of something coming out of nothing and life jumping out of "goo." But when I hear these cliché arguments, all I can think is, You have no idea what you're talking about. But none of us does — and that's the whole point.

I understand why so many people believe in God. It isn't easy to imagine things that lie far beyond our human-scale, human-experience personal world, and unless one can conjure up such a vision — or at least acknowledge that our origins are currently far beyond our understanding — it's quite natural to give in to our astonishment and assume that a personal supernatural being created it all.

But that doesn't make it the truth.

The Moon Landing Was Faked...Sure, Why Not? (7/19/2009)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

I watched a Fox News clip with Geraldo Rivera, and learned that 25% of young people currently believe that the moon landing was faked.

Isn't that good news?

But consider some of the arguments that are being put forth by conspiracy theorists: It's possible to exactly replicate the grainy, black-and-white look of the 1969 event. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin refused to swear to God on the Bible that he had walked on the moon. (Now that's powerful evidence!) There were no stars visible in the background -- just a big black sheet, apparently, as you can't see anything in the crude video image. Neil Armstrong refuses to talk to anyone...what about that? And those reflectors that anyone can shine a laser at, they were put there by the Russians, not Apollo 11 as claimed, you see.

All of this is in a video on YouTube. You can watch it yourself!

If you want to believe, I'm sure it's highly compelling evidence. It tends to work that way, you know?

What Are You Doing Here? (7/5/2009)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

Several months ago I came across a quote from the geneticist and author Richard Dawkins that I found incredibly profound: "Not a single one of your ancestors died young. They all copulated at least once." (New Yorker magazine, 9/9/96)

Think about this for a second. Assuming that you believe life really did evolve over millions of years (and I think we're pretty sure it did), what does that mean? It means that thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions even -- indeed, many tens of millions of generations IN A ROW absolutely, positively must have survived at least to reproductive age in order for you to be here today reading this blog.

Have you ever watched a nature program? It's a dog-eat-dog world out there. Sea-turtle eggs hatch in the sand, and the young crawl toward the water, only to be snatched up in large numbers by waiting gulls. And it wasn't that different for our distant ancestors. By any stretch of the imagination, it's an unfathomable, freakish "accident" for any given person to exist. Think of the odds: Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak of 56 consecutive games may never be broken -- and decent players have something like a 70% chance of getting at least one hit in each game. How does one of the greatest feats in sports stack up to the odds of tens of millions of consecutive surviving generations preceding you, me, and billions of other people on the planet?

A religious person (who doesn't reject evolution) might say this proves that a loving God had a plan to bring you into this world. It's a good argument, as theistic arguments go, although of course it ignores the 99.99999+% of lineages that didn't make it. Instead, this incredible "accident" only shows how silly it is to argue that Earth must have been set up by God to be a fertile place for life, that the favorable conditions are too much of a coincidence. Whatever the odds are that a planet would have water, moderate temperatures, a protective magnetic field, oxygen (eventually), etc. -- I'm sorry, but all of that is much, much more likely to occur than for tens of millions of consecutive generations of animal ancestors to dodge eons' worth of predators, diseases, and hazards (no healthcare, ever, mind you) and survive to maturity. And yet, we're all here, aren't we?

Another argument a theist might make: How did all of those species survive, through millions of years of evolution and countless extinctions (including several massive ones), such that the human lineage as a whole is around today? And an atheist would counter by pointing out that if they didn't, we wouldn't be around to notice that we didn't make it (see: the anthropic principle).

Something You May Not Know About Carbon (6/5/2009)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

Pop quiz: Let's say you have a pile of dry leaves that you raked and want to dispose of. You could burn them in a big fire, or you could compost them and put the compost on your organic vegetable garden. Which method would release more carbon into the atmosphere?

Or, you have a pile of firewood. You could burn the wood in your fireplace, or you could let it decay naturally with the help of fungus and termites. Which choice is more carbon-friendly?

The answer is that in each case, both methods put exactly the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere: all of it. The cellulose and other carbon-containing molecules are broken down and oxidized, whether by fire or by living organisms, and the eventual waste product is carbon dioxide. Burning merely accomplishes this very quickly. Burning leaves and wood also releases other pollutants, which makes burning environmentally less desirable -- but in terms of carbon alone, the carbon in the plant matter will reach the air either way. It's just a question of whether it will take minutes, or months/years.

When people talk about "carbon footprint," they're really referring to how much new carbon a person is responsible for bringing into the environment. Coal, gasoline, and natural gas represent sequestered carbon (in the form of hydrocarbons), having been taken from the atmosphere by plants and animals millions of years ago and stored underground. Burning this material releases carbon that hasn't been in the environment since the age of the dinosaurs, or earlier.

Conversely, with your pile of leaves or firewood, the only way to prevent that carbon from going back into the air would be to bury it far underground, or otherwise sequester it in some way (something that green industries are trying to accomplish with carbon dioxide). If you don't do that, at least in terms of carbon, it doesn't matter how you get rid of it. The carbon is already in the environment, and there it'll stay.

Another "Proof of God," Refuted (5/15/2009)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

A couple of people have sent me a fictional story about two Christians in a philosophy class confronting their atheist professor. (Maybe you've seen it; apparently it's been circulating by e-mail for years. A version can be found here.*) The story, which frankly is an embarrassment to anyone who has sat in a philosophy class or studied science, is an elaborate take on one argument for theism that I see over and over. Basically: "Yes, it may be true that we cannot see God, but what about magnetism, or electrons, or the wind? We can't see those, either. And what about love, or hope, or compassion, or any kind of thought -- not only can we not see them, but in addition science can't detect them, can't explain exactly what they are or how they work. If God doesn't exist, then the wind, hope, and love all must not exist, either."

This idea was touched on in the film "Contact," in the scene where Ellie Arroway demands proof of God, and Palmer Joss responds by asking her to prove that she loved her father.

If you're inclined to believe, it's fairly convincing. Surely, there are intangible things that actually do exist, so of course God is like that, too. But the argument introduces two classes of entities: merely invisible things, and states of mind, and it conflates the two classes into one class, the assumption being that God must be in that class as well.

Let's think of some merely invisible things: Air. Wind. Magnetism. Radiation. Low-voltage electricity. Hydrogen gas. "You can't see any of them, right?" Perhaps, but why the sudden emphasis on human vision? All of those things, and any other real-but-invisible thing you can think of, have effects that can be directly observed. Air, when it circulates as wind, makes leaves move. Magnetism affects a compass. Radiation can be picked up with a Geiger counter, electricity with a voltmeter. Hydrogen burns when ignited along with oxygen. Unlike acts of God, these things are all 100% predictable, testable, and repeatable; there is no case where hydrogen is not flammable or a magnetic field doesn't affect a compass. Basically, for all real-but-invisible things we know about, we have some kind of device or process that will reliably detect their presence. So, could we come up with a device that detects the presence of an invisible "God field"? Perhaps -- but if we do, atheists will no longer have much of a defensible position. To date, such a device hasn't been invented, so atheists remain atheists.

The other class in the argument comprises human states of mind: emotions, feelings, thoughts. I'm prepared to say that hope and compassion didn't exist on Earth in, say, the Devonian period 350 million years ago. Are theists prepared to say God didn't, either? I doubt it. But if they are, then we are in complete agreement. To me God seems to be a state of the human mind in the same way as love, anger, or hope are: a subjective phenomenon confined exclusively to the self. I have no issue with that kind of God whatsoever. (Just don't tell me He caused the Steelers to beat the Cardinals.)

The most likely counter-objection to what I'm saying would be something like, "God is more like a state of mind than a mere invisible thing, except that He exists independent of humans, existed before humans, and will exist after humans." Well, fine, but that kind of destroys the analogy between God and fleeting, human states of mind, doesn't it?

If God exists, then He exists in His own class separate from merely invisible things and states of mind. That's the God that the theist must argue for.

* The most egregious misstatement in the story is, "According to the rules of empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol, science says your God doesn't exist." There's a subtle but critical distinction between having a position (saying something) and not having a position (saying nothing). "Science" -- and by the way it's quite a stretch to identify science in such singular, authoritarian terms, as in "the Vatican" or "the White House" -- is unable to take any position whatsoever on the existence of God.

Good Intentions, With Perspective (4/22/2009)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

It's Earth Day. On my favorite news/commentary site,, there are a bunch of blog postings about green topics. One called "Mercury, Like the Planet, Gets Around," tells how to clean up a broken CFL (compact fluorescent lamp), according to governmental guidelines. CFLs contain a small amount of mercury in vapor form, and even though the recommendations are probably overkill, you're better off cleaning up a mess like this carefully.

It's my opinion that CFLs are a terrible idea, a well-meaning but flawed in-between technology -- like the auto-erasing Divx discs the video-rental industry unsuccessfully introduced several years ago, or "Polavision," which was an "instant" home-movie system from Polaroid that came out in the late '70s, just as home VCRs were coming onto the market. CFLs try valiantly to fill a need but fail. In addition to containing a poison that doesn't break down even after billions of years (mercury, like lead, is an element that can't be destroyed except through nuclear processes), each CFL requires the manufacture of semiconductor components and whatnot, all of which requires energy and resources, resulting in even more non-green pollutants eventually going into the waste stream. All this because we've been told CFLs save energy and reduce global warming.

That's the "good intentions" part. But how about some perspective? Consider what goes on up and down a city street each evening. Every 100 feet or so, on both sides of the street, there's an electric light that uses 250 watts. This light remains on for 10-14 hours per day, 365 days per year. The mercury issue aside, how many CFL replacements, with typical household usage, would it take to offset the energy usage from just one street light? How about an entire block of them? How about an entire city of them? How about an entire nation of them?

There was a TV commercial that ran recently, encouraging people to unplug their electronics chargers when not being used. Don't get me started about the proliferation of these things; that's the subject of another blog. But how much energy does such a well-meaning gesture really save, in the grand scheme of things? It would certainly be more effective, and easier, just to turn off one additional light for five minutes each day. Hell, shut off your TV during the two-minute commercial breaks. You will save a lot more energy that way than by fastidiously unplugging your chargers.

Changing our bulbs to CFLs, or unplugging our chargers, is more about making us feel better in a consumerist culture than about "cooling the globe." What we need are actual solutions, not feel-good ones. How about some revolutionary street-lighting technology, for example? (People are, in fact, working on this.) If we're serious about using less energy as a nation, we should get some perspective, look at the big picture, and go after things that actually make a difference...not just make us feel like we've done something to help.

Because changing a few bulbs, while the mega-lamps up and down the street operate at full blast all night long as you sleep, is a bit like switching to a diet soft drink while you're consuming 10,000 calories per day.

No perspective.

I De-Converted Someone (12/28/2008)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

Update: I borrowed one of the ideas from Derek's letter for a line in my new video, "A Christian Meets The Invisible Pink Unicorn."

My intention in making my series of YouTube satires is not to directly turn Christians into non-Christians, but rather to embolden other nonbelievers to speak up and be heard -- in a way, to pass on the effect Sam Harris's book Letter to a Christian Nation had on me. To realize, as Bill Maher puts it, that "we're not the crazy ones." Still, I occasionally get notes from former Evangelicals who say I had a hand in helping them give up their faith. The following is one of the best and most gratifying examples:

Hello Mr. Current. My name's Derek, a 19-year-old student. Let me tell you a bit about my childhood. I was raised a devout Christian. I attended church every week, went to Christian concerts, handed out pamphlets, wore a cross around my neck -- the whole deal. I believed that the earth was 6,000 years old and that the Grand Canyon was caused by the great flood. As I grew older, I realized that I had a gift of reason that most of my friends and family did not possess. I started to notice flaws within my belief system -- flaws that I could not explain. Since my faith in God was so strong, I merely began to view religion more liberally, drawing on the teachings of Buddha and Hindu deities in addition to those of Moses and Jesus. However, this did not satisfy my mind, and I spent so many nights crying and praying to God that he would show himself to me. Ultimately, I broke completely from the faith I had grown up with. I began to research science -- biology and physics -- to gain a more thorough and accurate understanding of the world. I read the works of Darwin, Hawking, Einstein, and Dawkins, and everything became clear to me. I finally learned to push the deadly concept of god from my mind, and it is the greatest thing I have ever done for myself. I truly appreciate the amazing and awe-inspiring universe that wholly consumes and belittles us. I now realize that I am not separate from nature -- I am a part of it, like every other living organism. I finally take full responsibility for my misdoings towards others instead of justifying it in bed at night by saying I am forgiven by some omnipresent (yet persistently elusive) father figure. In short, I have really never felt happier.

The catalyst for all this -- the driving force that started this snowball enlightenment -- was you, Mr. Current. I found one of your videos over a year ago on YouTube while looking for something quite the opposite. Although I didn't agree with your message, I was entertained and eventually watched all of them. Your take interested me deeply, and it helped me to find some solid ground when everything else was shaky. For that, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I am a strong atheist, and I don't know if I could have done it if it wasn't for you.


Theory vs. Law (12/23/2008)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

In the evolution "debate" you frequently hear people discussing the definition of the word "theory" (as in the theory of evolution, germ theory of disease, etc.). That has been written about extensively, so I won't go into it here. But occasionally you also hear a creationist say, "If evolution is so true, why is it still a theory and not a law, like gravity?"

Here's the scoop: In science, a "law" is something that can be described by a simple mathematical equation, one that is never seen being deviated from in nature. So, yes, gravity is a law, because there's a simple equation that predicts how two bodies will react gravitationally to each other, given a couple of variables: their masses and their distances. And it always works out. Force equals mass times acceleration -- that's a law. Energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light is also a law. They're laws because you can test them by plugging in the numbers and comparing the real result to the predicted result, which are always the same.

Natural processes like evolution don't work like that. There's no equation to describe how evolution works, any more than there's an equation that describes how cells divide or how memory is stored in the brain. Biological systems -- unlike, say, the planets and the sun -- are complex and chaotic, with tens or hundreds of variables. You can predict exactly when a solar eclipse will occur because the bodies of the solar system are simple and obey Kepler's and Newton's laws of motion. But you cannot predict the weather three days from now with any certainty, because there is no "law of weather." There are too many variables; each particle of air is doing its own thing.

However, in meteorology we have non-law theories which are very useful and predictive. A cold front moving into warm, moist air will cause precipitation and maybe thunderstorms; that is the prediction from meteorological theory, and from observation we know it is very much a truth. The germ theory of disease predicts that if people inhale anthrax spores, they will contract anthrax. And we know that they will -- we know because the germ theory has been supported to the point of virtual certainty. Even if there isn't a simple equation expressing this knowledge.

"Why isn't evolution a law?" is just another fallacy that creationists and IDers throw up because it sounds half-reasonable, and because they don't know better. Don't let it flummox you.

Why Time Appears To Move Forward (9/19/2008)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

We think of time as something that's in constant motion. Unlike anything else we can imagine, time could never stand still: It must always "flow," passing us by (and passing through us) at a constant rate. Even if we remain completely motionless, time passes inexorably, like water in a river -- and once a moment in time passes, it's gone. Much has been written about this phenomenon, as well as the question of why there is an "arrow of time." Why does time move in a specific direction, and only one direction? We can remember the past, but the future is a total mystery, a void of darkness. Why such a marked difference between the past and future?

Going through time is a bit like traveling through space, at a constant speed, in a ship that rides on a giant stationary ruler. There's one narrow window on the ship, through which the only thing you can see is a sliver of the ruler. Inches, feet, and miles pass by at a constant rate, and even though you can't see the inch marks and mile marks coming, from experience you know that they will come eventually. The length markings are moving in a specific direction -- toward the ship and then past the ship -- and disappearing. But this singular direction of time may not be as real as it seems.

Many physicists like to think of time in terms of the "block universe," where the past and future merge as a single entity. Any event in the history of the universe can be defined as a point in this block, in terms of its location along four dimensions -- three of space and one of time. For example, the first human reaching the summit of Mt. Everest is an event that can be defined by its three-dimensional location in space and its one-dimensional location in time (May 29, 1953). Time doesn't need to actually pass by in order for a date to help define an event, any more than miles need to "pass by" in order for New York to be described as being 100 miles northeast of Philadelphia.

What is it that connects these events together in the block universe? Information. When a massive star explodes, the explosion creates information about the event, in the form of light and other radiation emanating outward. Another event -- the observation of a supernova -- occurs when that information reaches humans on Earth. The explosion is an event that causes the observation event. This same principle of causation between events can be seen on the human scale (causing event: I drop a hammer; resulting event: floor gets dented), as well as on the scale of the very small (causing event: photon interacts with atom; resulting event: electron changes energy state). In all of these cases, the resulting event happens "later in time" than the causing event, as information flows from one place to another. How much time elapses between events? That depends on the speed of the information. Information can travel as fast as the speed of light, or much slower, as with the falling hammer. But as far as we know, no kind of information can travel faster than the speed of light. So, causally related events cannot occur simultaneously; there always has to be a time interval between them.

The block universe is like a stack of events, with newer events at the top. In this stack, causing events are located below events that result from it. In other words, the events in the stack aren't arranged randomly; in terms of vertical placement at least, all events are arranged in a specific order of causation, with every resulting event located somewhere above its respective causing event. Causally related events are connected by channels of information flowing. So what we have is an unimaginably complex web of events and the information that connects them.

Now, as a thought experiment, put yourself in the place of one single event in our stack. You are frozen in both time and location; below you in the stack are "previous" events, and above you are "future" events. From this position, what would you be perceiving? You would perceive only past events -- the ones below you. This is because perceiving any event has to be a result of the event, the event being exactly the thing that caused the perception. Causation can never come from the future, because we've defined a cause as something that must occur earlier in time than its result. However, from your spot in the event stack, where you're frozen in time and location, you wouldn't perceive all past events. You'd only perceive events that are at specific distances and times, relative to you, for their information to be reaching you at that precise moment.* What about future events? They would all be hidden from view, owing again to the very definition of cause and effect. So, some past events could be perceived, but most of them wouldn't be. And all future events would be imperceptible.

In the real universe where you and I live, existing is like sitting in a movie theater. Turning around in your seat and trying to see the back of the theater, which is like looking into the future, there is always darkness. But from the "past" direction of the screen, information comes to us constantly, and always from this one direction. The result is the distinct sensation that time is advancing relentlessly forward, just like the action in the movie, or the slivers of the ruler in the first example. But we could never find out what the future is in advance, because information does not travel from the future; that would require inverting the very definition of cause and effect. The future will always reveal itself only as fast as we can receive information about it.

One thing I like about this informational view of time is that it solves things like the "grandfather paradox" -- the question of whether you could go back in time and kill your grandfather when he was a youth, preventing your parents from meeting. This would require information (you with a knife) coming to your grandfather from the future, and causation does not allow information to go from the future into the past. Information only goes in the past-to-future direction. As a result, in our universe, you could never successfully travel into the past, at least not to participate in causation in any way. You can travel into the future, however -- in fact, there's no way not to; you're time-traveling into the future right now. And as Einstein discovered, if you also move through space, you'll increase the rate at which you travel into the future, relative to someone who isn't moving.

Interestingly, the idea suggested in this essay -- that of a timeless, eternal universe that "knows all," including every event of the past and future -- sounds something like the traditional idea of "God." However, nothing here calls for a sentient being that can direct or change events, listen to our prayers, or judge us after we die.

* Physicists use the terms "light cone" or "plane of simultaneity" to describe the set of events perceivable from a single point in space and time. For example, the Sun eight minutes ago and the Moon 1.5 seconds ago lie on the same light cone as the Earth now, so right now we are receiving information about the Sun and Moon as they were at those times in the past. Hermann Minkowski (1864-1909) was a leading theoretician in this field.

My Problem With Christianity (7/23/2008)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

Viewers on YouTube ask me, "Why do you feel the need to bash Christianity? Why not just let people believe what they want? If you don't believe in God, why do you talk about him so much?" I understand these questions; looking at it from the opposing perspective, making dozens of religious satire videos may seem like a strange pursuit. It's not because of some church-related trauma; actually, I was raised in a secular household and allowed to make my own choices. (I think I decided to not believe in God around age eight.) Instead, I'm trying to embolden atheists, agnostics, and "apatheists" to stand up against what I consider a cancer in the United States: the willful, collective ignorance of Evangelical Christianity, which is weakening the nation intellectually and bringing it closer to the Dark Ages, instead of forward into the future. And I'm trying to do it through comedy.

First of all, I do not "bash" a specific group of people, but rather, a set of beliefs that people may choose to have or not have. Just as I could become a born-again Christian tomorrow, so could a born-again Christian let go of their faith tomorrow. It's not the same as ridiculing someone for their race, disability, or anything else they can't change; that's an entirely false analogy. Also, I pick on Christianity because it's the religion that personally affects me the most, and it's the one I know the most about. I'll let someone else bash the other religions if they're motivated to do so.

Fully acknowledging that not all Christians believe the same things, certain beliefs are worthy of ridicule, in my opinion. These are:

1. The idea that whatever force or entity responsible for the creation and order in the universe (if there ever were one) is a conscious being that watches over us earthly humans today, and can interact with our consciousness in a way that measurably, unambiguously affects the real world. This is a huge leap supported by nothing that has ever happened in reality. Biblical accounts of miracles, or other dubiously witnessed events or personal testimonials, are not evidence of anything; we have video cameras now. Show me a video of a person praying for her shotgun-victim brother and his brain tissue spontaneously growing back, and we'll talk. Show me a form of prayer that can reliably, repeatably do anything outside of one's own mind, and we'll talk.

2. The idea that after we die, our souls persist and are judged according to what we believed when we were alive, those beliefs then determining the eternal fate of our souls. This claim is beyond baseless; it's rife with problems of logic and morality, given the large numbers of people on earth who don't subscribe to the Christian faith. This tenet of Christianity (and some other religions) has been used as an instrument of fear and coercion for millennia.

3. Most ridiculous to me is the idea that because of what the beginning of the Bible says, the scientific method must be fatally flawed -- that evolution could not have happened on earth, despite 150 years of unsuccessful attempts to discredit evolutionary theory. This topic has been dealt with in many places, including other blog posts of mine.

4. Other beliefs (shared by some Christians) worthy of ridicule include: Adam and Eve having been real people who ate a fruit that caused the fall of an otherwise perfect world; the Flood and Noah's Ark; the idea that the Bible's predictions of events that appear later in the same book are evidence of anything "miraculous" or "prophetic"; that humans have a soul that dogs and dolphins and chimpanzees absolutely do not have somehow, even in a more primitive form; and that the Creator's plan includes a final apocalyptic event, at which time all nonbelievers will be swept into a lake of fire while Christians ascend to Heaven.

If that were all, I probably wouldn't ridicule these beliefs openly. But they are part of a larger organized system that keeps millions of people in a perpetual state of intentional ignorance. The popularity of "intelligent design" is the most obvious example. It kills me that so many people -- we're talking about something like half of the United States! -- doubt that evolution ever actually occurred, just because it's a difficult concept for them to understand, even though their information on the topic may have come from their church, their home-schooling parents, and/or Christian websites, all of which have obvious and blatant biases. So, science education in public schools must then change and include religiously motivated "alternatives"? As a science enthusiast, I am appalled that this was (and still is) promoted, and seriously considered, by some. I fear for our culture's ability to advance and thrive when a great many of us lack the intellectual tools to distinguish science from magical thinking.

Whenever "God did it" becomes an answer, it's the tragic death of an intellectual pursuit. If a religious way of thinking becomes legislated and affects everyone (see: stem cell research, abortion, gay marriage), it is catastrophic.

But the willful ignorance also manifests in subtler ways. Christians believe that God has a plan for us, and that everything happens for a reason (i.e., things don't occur randomly or in a manner indifferent to humans, collectively or individually). In my opinion, this paralyzes a person's ability to navigate the world rationally and with a clear vision of reality. I can't imagine what it would be like to go through life fulfilling or not fulfilling a "cosmic plan" depending upon how righteous my own actions were. And while prayer may have some value in terms of contemplating the self and one's own life, or in some cases, self-healing, it is a colossal waste of time when it is believed prayer will affect the real, physical course of events beyond one's own mind and body. ("Please pray for the return of Baby Jennifer.") The time spent engaging in this kind of prayer costs the world an incalculable amount of productivity, every day.

There's no doubt that we can learn from Christianity; the New Testament sermons of (the character) Jesus are cornerstones of early Western thought. But "love thy neighbor" isn't what I have a problem with. It's all of that other stuff that doesn't quite work in a post-Enlightenment era of reason and discovery. If all Christians chose to practice in solemn privacy, and their faith impacted no one outside their personal sphere of inner influence, I'm sure I never would have made these videos. But that's not how it is.

I also probably wouldn't make videos if they weren't being watched. But they are, and as someone who's been trying to attract creative recognition for decades, I find this highly motivating. So, although my inspiration comes from a deeper place, the primary reason why I create videos is to make people laugh -- not at other people per se, but at beliefs that I would very much like to see disappear. As of this writing there are 8,684 YouTube subscribers who want me to continue. Can you blame me for trying to help make the future a little brighter, while getting people to laugh along the way?


I touch on some of the above concepts in my satire videos. Some links:

People should believe whatever they want:
"People's Religion Should Be Respected!"

Prayer is a reliable and effective way to affect the external world:
"Who I'm Praying For Today"
"Proving The Power Of Prayer"

Our soul is judged after we die:
"An Atheist Meets God"
"The Lord Will Not Be Mocked!"

Evolution could not have happened:
"People Are Not Animals!"
"Science Is Wrong ... Only God Knows The Truth"

I.D. is a legitimate alternative to evolution:
"Intelligent Design Really Is Being Expelled!"

God has a plan for us:
"God Knows Absolutely Everything"

Intelligent Design Isn’t Science (7/17/2008)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

Sometimes people watch my religion satires and ask why I never get serious and actually state my position in a "mature" manner. Well, for one, because I don't want to be the comedian who started taking himself seriously and therefore stopped being funny. But I do enjoy writing, so this blog is a good place for me to do that without making unfunny videos. The following is adapted from a message to a YouTube viewer who engaged me in a discussion about evolution.


The basic premise of science is rigorous observation and testing. Even if God exists, his presence and influence cannot be objectively observed and tested, and therefore God (or an intelligent designer) cannot factor into any form of scientific inquiry. It has nothing to do with whether or not scientists believe in God; that's not the issue.

You mentioned that oxygen and the wind cannot be seen, so how do we know that they exist? Because oxygen (like another gas, hydrogen) has specific measurable properties that allow it to be identified in the laboratory. If you determined in this way that two gas samples are hydrogen and oxygen, then that determination can be tested: Combine them and add a spark, and they will react and the hydrogen will burn, producing water. The fact that there's a certain amount of water is a prediction, based on what we know about the chemical makeup of water, that came true (and always comes true). The test confirmed the prediction, telling us that the initial determination was correct. The test is also 100% repeatable; anyone in the world can do the experiment and they'll get the same results. All of this works so well because we have a well-supported scientific theory -- yes, it really is a theory -- about the chemical composition of water.

Evolution is harder to observe than burning hydrogen, because it happens over millions of years, but the theory still makes predictions. Before DNA was discovered, biologists knew that related organisms would have to be related genetically somehow, the similarity being in proportion to their relationship on the evolutionary tree of life. This prediction was found indeed to be correct, as confirmed countless times by biologists all over the world from every culture.

Humans have one fewer chromosome than lower apes. This was initially a mystery, but evolutionary theory predicted that two chromosomes must have combined at some point in our distant past. And today any biologist can look at human chromosome 2 and see the structures of two separate chromosomes that somehow combined. This can actually be seen under a microscope, in the tissue of any human (even a creationist), and it's one of many lines of evidence that have supported evolutionary theory for 150 years.

You can't do this kind of thing with an intelligent designer -- not even close. Intelligent design can't make any predictions, and there are no testing schemes that result in objective, repeatable results. I.D. is therefore unable to offer anything useful or practical, the way evolutionary theory helps scientists at the CDC come up with vaccines for rapidly changing pathogens, or the way the chemistry of gases helps engineers design hydrogen fuel cells. I.D. is an attempt to explain something, but without testable or predictive qualities, the plausibility of that explanation cannot be determined. That makes I.D. scientifically useless.

There's a reason why open-minded people like Judge John Jones III,* when presented with arguments by people on both sides who know their fields well, come to the conclusion that I.D. does not qualify as science.

It's fine if you believe that God created the world. It's even okay if you don't believe what evolution says (although I'd argue that's merely because it's complex and difficult). But you can't say that intelligent design is a scientific alternative, because it really isn't.

* The conservative federal judge, appointed by George W. Bush, who heard the 2005 case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board, and wrote unequivocally in his opinion that "I.D. is not science." This case was profiled in the excellent episode of PBS's Nova titled "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial."

Confirm My Identity? Fuck You (12/31/07)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

For years I've hated spammers worse than anyone else in the world. But I'm starting to wonder...I think I've found a type of person I hate even more: People who sign up for a "spam arresting" service, wherein when you send them an e-mail, the e-mail is rejected and you have to follow additional steps to confirm your identity -- specifically, click a link, read bullshit, and then type bullshit into a box.

I understand why some people would do this. Spam is a nightmare, and not everyone has the tools to fight it on their end. And it kind of makes sense when they're receiving an e-mail out of the blue and you've never communicated with them before. Except that I think every time I've seen this happen, it involved either someone who had contacted me first and asked for a reply, or someone I had recently exchanged e-mails with. When it happened today, I was delivering the manuscript for the second edition of my book to my contact at the publisher. Of course, I had to comply and follow the steps. But it was the first time -- in every other case, I've just figured, "Hey, guess what? For all you know, my spam filter just zapped your confirm-your-identity message. I guess you'll just never get that e-mail. Sorry! I tried!"

This "solution" to spam is rude, thoughtless, and arrogant. It puts the onus on the sender, who has acted in good faith, to take care of the receiver's problems, with no effort at all on the receiver's end. It tells the sender, "I'm too busy to look through my trash folder, enter your e-mail address on a safe list, or give you the time of day for that matter. Now, who the fuck are you again?"

I mean, imagine if you wrote on the envelopes of the Christmas cards you received this year, "Return to sender. Must confirm identity before I open." (If only I had gotten a Christmas card from someone who had blocked my e-mail in this way.)

Another reason why this annoys me: The "confirm your identity" message is, itself, spam. It is an unsolicited e-mail generated automatically, sent by a commercial business with an e-mail address I don't recognize. Worse, when I did confirm my identity, I received *another* automated e-mail from the spam blocker, this one announcing that webmasters can earn big buck$ by publicizing the service. Yep, folks, that is a real, true piece of spam -- no doubt about it. (My spam filter actually blocked that one, but I saw it in my trash folder. Which I do go through before emptying, by the way.) And now this company has acquired my e-mail address without my permission. Do you think they'd ever fatten their bottom line by selling it (along with the millions of other active addresses they're acquiring) to a mega-spammer in China or Russia? No......

I still hate spammers. But it would be highly gratifying if the people who signed up for these services started getting *more* spam in their inbox as a result. So, I guess if I had to root for either spammers or lazy, inconsiderate people who won't lift a finger to receive e-mails they actually want, then I guess I'd root for the spammers.

Dumb Move: Accelerating Through a Red Light (9/3/2007)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

We've all seen someone "gun it" when they approach a light that's changing from green to yellow or yellow to red. It dawned on me that among the many stupid, knee-jerk things that people do, this has got to rank as one of the stupidest.

When someone is approaching a changing light and they decide not to stop but to step on the gas, they're doing it so they'll get through the intersection faster, thereby perhaps making them less likely to get a ticket. I can't think of any other explanation; they aren't doing it out of kindness, to get out of the way of the people waiting to go. But let's think about this. Assuming that accelerating increases your speed by 10 MPH (say, from 30 MPH to 40 MPH), and even assuming that you're able to achieve this acceleration instantly just before you reach the light (which of course doesn't happen), stepping on the gas will get you across an 80-feet-wide intersection less than a half a second sooner. In reality, accelerating through the intersection, it's probably more like a quarter of a second. Now, I ask: If a cop is watching this, is a quarter of a second or a half of a second really going to make a difference whether or not you get pulled over? Also ask yourself: If you're a cop, which driver would you more likely go after -- one that coasts through a changing light, or one who conspicuously, noisily guns it? In terms of getting a ticket, there's a small chance you could elude a camera-generated ticket by getting through a blink of an eye earlier -- but if a real human is writing the ticket, he or she will go after the roaring, accelerating car first, every time. Guaranteed.

But there's a more important reason why this is a stupid move. Any golfer will tell you that if you accelerate the club through impact, applying force the whole time, you'll hit the ball much farther than if you accelerate only during the downswing and let the club "coast" through impact. Similarly, if you hit another vehicle as you go through an intersection, you'll cause more damage if you're accelerating through the impact than if you're coasting or deaccelerating. And of course, if accelerating makes your car go faster (as it tends to do), this will make the damage far greater. In other words, you're much more likely to kill someone at the precise moment that you're most likely to broadside another car -- when you're going through an intersection.

There's also the issue that if your foot is on the accelerator, it will take you that much longer to move it to the brake in the event of an imminent collision -- hence, a delayed reaction and more damage.

Finally, if your car has air bags, it also has a device called an Event Data Recorder that will reveal to investigators not only the speed your vehicle was going at impact, but also whether the brake or the accelerator was being applied, and for how long prior to impact. There are numerous cases in which EDR data have been used in court to increase criminal penalties due to recklessness of the drivers involved. If you find yourself in court after killing two kids in a broadside crash, it's not going to look very good for you if the prosecutor can prove that you were flooring it when you hit them.

If you're going to clip a red light, just let the car coast, keep your foot on the brake, and be alert. Accelerating through a red light is stupid and dangerous. Don't do it anymore.

Why I Am Not An Agnostic (2/17/2007)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

2009 update: These days I think of myself as an agnostic atheist, meaning I don't claim to have knowledge either way, but I consider the atheistic interpretation to be much more likely true.


I am an atheist, and I often meet people who consider themselves agnostics. "How can you be sure God doesn't exist?" they ask. I answer that I call myself an atheist not because I'm certain that God doesn't exist, but rather because, given the information that we have, the most likely scenario is that there is no God.* And I always say, if God came and clearly announced his presence tomorrow, I would switch from a non-believer to a believer in an instant.

But for now, I am a definitive non-believer. And given that certain prominent political figures -- such as the horrible Sam Brownback -- want more God in government as opposed to less, I am not ashamed to declare my unequivocal secularity, and wish to fight against that which I believe is threatening our society: organized religion gone wild.

To help explain why I choose the term "atheist" rather than "agnostic," I'll use an analogy. Imagine you are out dining with friends, and while leaving the restaurant, you are conked on the head by a falling flowerpot from an apartment window above. You are knocked unconscious but are otherwise okay. The next morning you wake with a headache; the last thing you remember is leaving the restaurant. Opening your eyes, you look around. Ahead you see your television. To the left you see your clock-radio on your end table, and to the right you see your reading glasses, where you last left them. Under you is your bed. Given this information, within the first five seconds, what do you conclude?

The simplest and most reasonable conclusion would be that you are in your bedroom.

Yes, there are other possibilities -- unlikely, but possible. For instance, you could be in someone else's bedroom, and by sheer coincidence, their room looks exactly like yours. Or, you may have been unconscious long enough for someone to build a museum in your honor, complete with a perfect full-scale replica of your bedroom, and that's where you woke up. But neither of these possibilities is likely to cross your mind. You'll simply assume that you're in your own bedroom, based on what you see, because anything else would be, well, a stretch of the imagination.

This is exactly how I see the God question. We have certain information about the size, age, and structure of the universe, on the grandest scales as well as the smallest. We have discovered certain physical laws, and there isn't a single reliably recorded case, in the history of the world, of those laws being violated by an external influence, whether in the form of a "miracle" or otherwise. There are stories and speculations about purported miracles happening, but when was the last time one was scientifically observed? It's just never occurred. Which is interesting, because if the laws of physics ever were observed being violated, I don't think the scientific community would want to cover it up or ignore it. That's the kind of thing that wins people Nobel Prizes.

Given what we know, then, the simplest, most reasonable, most rational conclusion is that God does not exist. To wake up in our bedroom after a minor head injury and conclude that we're in a museum built in our honor would be the height of delusion. So it is that finding ourselves on earth, and concluding that just because we're here, an omnipotent external power must have created it all (and perhaps even that it was created all for us, as some zealots believe), is equally delusional. Yes, it is possible, but highly unlikely, given what we know.

Furthermore, I just don't buy the notion that even though something is remotely possible, it should be considered a real possibility, to the point that it affects our worldview and behavior. To make another analogy, yes, it is remotely possible that a bridge could collapse at any minute -- but if I then refuse to cross that bridge, based on this remote possibility, most people would consider that an irrational decision, a delusional take on reality. Generally, people accept the risk of bridge collapse because it is astronomically small; they don't cross the bridge "uncertain" that it will hold up; they don't say "the jury is still out" on whether the bridge will stand; they don't call themselves "engineering doubters." They just go on the damn bridge! Is it a form of faith to believe the bridge will hold up? Yes -- but it's faith that the most likely outcome will prevail, based on the history of the bridge and the tradition of bridge-building. Unless you see metal sagging and cracking, or the span swinging back and forth in the wind, or a van marked "Al-Qaeda" driven by a guy holding a detonator button, you'll operate based on what you know: the bridge was designed and built by professionals and has held up for years, so, most likely, you will be safe to cross it. It's a simple conclusion based on simple information.

Some will argue, then, that the simplest explanation for the universe's existence is that God created it. But as Richard Dawkins and others have pointed out, there's nothing simple about that explanation at all: It assumes the universe began with immense complexity -- as any omnipotent, creational God would have to be. And then of course there's always the old saw, if God created the universe, what created God? It is astronomically, mind-bogglingly more likely that the universe had simple beginnings, and that the complexity we now observe is due to the fact that it's had some 15 billion years to get that way.

The problem is, as a being that stands roughly six feet tall and lives 80 or so years, humans have a difficult time comprehending scales of time in the billions of years, or scales of size in light years. It's so much easier to think small and say "God created the universe" -- or even, "Maybe God created the universe" -- and leave it at that, rather than contemplate the vastness of time and space and our insignificance in it. And that was a hell of a lot truer millennia ago, when organized religion took root.

So, here's to the advancement of reason and rational thought, and the drawing of simple conclusions about the world -- however difficult they may be for our limited brains to wrap themselves around.

Signed, an atheist. For now.

* A definition is important here. By "God" I mean any sentient entity that created the universe with some kind of intent aforethought, and/or that can (and does) influence the course of events at will universe-wide.