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The Multiverse is a Dead Parrot? Is Atheism In Trouble?

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 26, 2011

Is the Multiverse theory dead? If so, what implications might this have for belief in g0d?

I’ve written on cosmology from time to time. Recently I picked up Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, which does a far better job of explaining M-theory than Hawking and Mlodinow’s recent book. At this point I need to send a public shout-out to Lunagrrrl, who sent me her copy of The Grand Design, which I previewed here. I had good intentions of reviewing it again, but I can’t add much to what I wrote. Get Greene’s book and skip to chapter thirteen instead, it’s much better.

The words below were originally posted last month by Santi Tafarella in his blog, Prometheus Unbound. I think this is worth sharing. Go check out the comments on his blog too.

Santi writes:

parallel multiverse

In 2008, cosmologist Bernard Carr of Queen Mary University of London, told a science journalist for Discover the following:

If there is only one universe, you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.

Carr said this because our universe appears to have numerous wildly improbable properties hard to explain by chance (especially if our known Big Bang universe is the only roll of the cosmic dice, setting its cosmological constants). Put bluntly, the cosmos appears to have been designed, and with very particular purposes in mind.

In whose mind?

Well, God’s of course!

Like an apple tree following its genetic imperatives, the universe appears to be following the imperatives of its cosmological constants. It apples galaxies, carbon-based life forms (like apple trees), and minds (like our own).

On planet Earth alone, there are 7 billion minds right now and counting.

Whooda thunk it?

Maybe Someone did.

The Discover article gave examples that illustrate our universe’s mind-boggling good luck (or creation by God, if the multiverse doesn’t come to the rescue of atheism). Here’s one:

The early universe was delicately poised between runaway expansion and terminal collapse. Had the universe contained much more matter, additional gravity would have made it implode. If it contained less, the universe would have expanded too quickly for galaxies to form.

The 2008 article that Bernard Carr was quoted in also noted this:

The credibility of string theory and the multiverse may get a boost within the next year or two, once physicists start analyzing results from the Large Hadron Collider, the new, $8 billion particle accelerator built on the Swiss-French border.

Now, fast forward to 2011. What’s the status of string theory and the multiverse in light of the data that has come in from the LHC (Large Hadron Collider)?

Answer: Not good.

Atheists, are you listening?

Theoretical physicist and mathematician Peter Woit of Columbia University, discussing this summer’s String 2011 Conference at his blog, writes that at past conferences they:

. . . often featured a call for progress towards making predictions that could be tested at the LHC [Large Hadron Collider]. With LHC data now coming in, [opening speaker David] Gross acknowledged that this had been a failure: there are no string theory LHC predictions.


As for what the String 2011 Conference’s opening speaker, David Gross, said of the multiverse, here’s Peter Woit again:

Surprisingly, not a word from Gross about anthropics or the multiverse. I assume he’s still an opponent, but perhaps feels that there’s no point in beating a dying horse. Susskind isn’t there and oddly, the only multiverse-related talks are from the two speakers brought in to do public lectures (Brian Greene and Andrei Linde, Hawking’s health has kept him from a planned appearance). So the multiverse is a huge part of the public profile of the conference, but pretty well suppressed at the scientific sections. Also pretty well suppressed is “string phenomenology”, or any attempt to use string theory to do unification. Out of 35 or so talks I see only a couple related to this, which is still the main advertised goal of string theory.

A dying horse. Isn’t that sad? And remember: as goes string theory, so goes the multiverse.

And perhaps even atheism. As uber-atheist Jerry Coyne noted recently at his blog, how the multiverse debate pans out among physicists has unmistakable consequences for the God question:

[M]ultiverse theories . . . represent physicists’ attempts to give a naturalistic explanation for what others see as evidence of design.

But here’s how Peter Woit describes the String 2011 Conference summary by Jeff Harvey:

In Jeff Harvey’s summary of the conference, he notes that many people have remarked that there hasn’t been much string theory at the conference. About the landscape, his comment is that “personally I think it’s unlikely to be possible to do science this way.” He describes the situation of string theory unification as like the Monty Python parrot “No, he’s not dead, he’s resting.” while expressing some hope that a miracle will occur at the LHC or in the study of string vacua, reviving the parrot.

That the summary speaker at the main conference for a field would compare the state of the main public motivation for the field as similar to that of the parrot in the Monty Python sketch is pretty remarkable. In the sketch, the whole joke is the parrot’s seller’s unwillingness, no matter what, to admit that what he was selling was a dead parrot.

And, as for Scientific American’s recent coverage of the multiverse hypothesis, Woit is critical:

One might be tempted to criticize Scientific American for keeping this alive, but they just reflect the fact that this pseudo-science continues to have significant influence at the highest levels of the physics establishment.

The multiverse is pseudo-science. Really?

Based on what Bernard Carr said in 2008, and what Woit reports of the goings-on at the String 2011 Conference and in Scientific American, should this alert us to the possibility that atheism itself might be quietly trending in the direction of Monty Python’s dead parrot?

Monty Python | Dead Parrot Sketch


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The Age of Doubt (and The Day of Hope). Christopher Lane’s New Book on Agnosticism

Posted by spritzophrenia on May 7, 2011

Christopher Lane has recently released a book, The Age of Doubt, on doubt and agnosticism (surprise!). He’s adapted a chapter for New Humanist (UK), which I’ve excerpted below. But first, for those who saw my last post, an update on my sister, Carol.

Carol had her surgery yesterday, and the news post-op is much better than we thought. The colon tumor has been removed, and the ??? in her ovary was not, in fact, cancer. It was removed and her ovary is still intact. No other new signs of cancer were found, so that’s good news too.

She’s walking around a lot today, as that’s a requirement to aid the healing of the colon. Apparently it heals very fast, perhaps in 48 hours. In a couple of weeks she’ll be starting chemotherapy to get the small tumors in her liver. So all in all, the news is very positive.

That’s the hope. Here’s Christopher Lane on doubt:

Our culture has become impoverished by certainty. In our overheated climate of polarised public debate, we give less credence to uncertainty; yet the crises that preoccupy us – including religious extremism – demand that we tolerate increasing amounts of it.

Doubt and its religious cousin agnosticism, a word rarely heard nowadays, may have fallen out of fashion, but they have much to teach us, despite the disdain of Richard Dawkins, who famously wrote in The God Delusion: “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” He also quotes approvingly Quentin de la Bédoyère, science editor of the Catholic Herald, who in 2006 wrote that the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson respected firm religious belief and certain unbelief, but “reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.”

To see doubters and freethinkers such as Herbert Spencer, Leslie Stephen, George Eliot, Thomas Huxley (who coined the word “agnostic”) and Darwin himself mocked in this way, given their intense engagement with complex human issues, only highlights the boldness of their thinking and the intellectual hubris of today’s unbridled certainty. The stridency of both Dawkins and de la Bédoyère misses how these and other Victorian intellectuals saw doubt as a creative force – inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, and a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and zealotry.

Ironically, it was the Victorians, often dismissed as prudish and uptight, who led the way to an open-mindedness and engagement with ambiguity that stands in stark contrast to the impoverishment of contemporary thinking about religious doubt and belief.

Fifteen years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the Scottish editor, writer, and publisher Robert Chambers anonymously brought out a book called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). In it he argued that the progressive evolution of species was fully compatible with God-given laws. Vestiges reached a transatlantic and cross-European audience far larger than David Hume could secure with broadly compatible claims in the mid-18th century. Among Chambers’ fascinated, sometimes horrified, readers were Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln, Alfred Tennyson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Florence Nightingale, Benjamin Disraeli and Charles Darwin. The book became a widespread topic of conversation across Britain in particular.
[Interesting: Darwin wasn’t the first to have a concept of evolution, only one of the first to come up with a successful model of how it might work. Apart from Chambers, there was another chap who’s often regarded as a co-inventor of evolution, whose name escapes me. Can anyone remind me?]

[As a sociologist, I find Herbet Spencer’s inclusion illuminating:] One of the most prominent thinkers to advance [the agnostic] claim was Herbert Spencer. The polymath sociologist, philosopher and biologist argued in First Principles (1862) that religion and science must grapple with “the Unknowable”, a blind spot in human understanding that faith had once seemed to fill.

Despite his forceful defence of Darwin and agnosticism, however, [Thomas] Huxley did not embrace full-blown atheism. He acknowledged “a pretty strong conviction that the problem [of existence] was insoluble”, a position that asks doubt and intellectual inquiry to replace hedging, complacency and anything resembling easy acquiescence.

A more astute contemporary thinker than Dawkins on the issue of agnosticism, in its broadest, existential sense, is the American playwright John Patrick Shanley. In the preface to his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt (also a film), he argues that “doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise.” While such questioning takes us past a point of comfort, he claims, it is “doubt (so often experienced initially as weakness) that changes things”, and thus represents “nothing less than an opportunity to reenter the Present”.

Lane’s full essay is here and the book The Age of Doubt is at Amazon.

Even in the last day I’ve had new subscribers to this blog– thankyou. It really flatters me that forty-five people value my thoughts enough to want to be updated when there’s something new. If you haven’t yet subscribed, it’s easy, just enter your email in the box at the left.

Doubt, Hope; let me conclude with the trivial. Today we hired a car seat for the impending arrival of baby (7 weeks or so away), test played the new board game my son Master T is working on and I bought some new clothes. It’s strange how new clothes can make one feel so much better. Not that I was feeling bad, I’m refreshingly happy these days. (Note to self: Get new depression meds on Monday.) Sometimes maybe it’s best to ignore the big picture and enjoy the small things in life.


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Split Enz | Poor Boy

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The Crowd of Unknowing

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 23, 2010

A while back I wrote a brief summary of my life story for Crystal’s blog which I’m re-posting here. There was a word limit, so I condensed a lot. You earn extra points if you can pick where my title above comes from 😉

My Agnostic Journey

It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while… But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.
~ Yann Martell, Life of Pi

I used to agree, so how did a born-again Christian become agnostic?

After university I became bored with a church culture inherited from 19th century Europe. I read about rave churches, picked up the newly published Post Evangelical and tried to do church from within my own culture. These days we call this “emergent”. I love techno, extreme metal and folk music. We support contextualisation for other cultures, why not our own, right?

Skipping ahead a few years, divorced and drifting, I decided to return to a more conservative faith. I prayed, “God, I don’t understand why, but I’m gonna try and do things your way,” specifically praying for a Christian girlfriend.


Shortly afterwards, I met a Christian woman and considered this an answer. Long story short, I fell in love but she’d been lying all along. It ended with my suicidal despair after discovering her multiple betrayals. I raged at divine betrayal too; I was angry at God for years.

I know that compared with the suffering others go through, mine seems incredibly trivial. But we can only experience our own suffering, and for me it was shattering. My departure from churchianity was caused by three archetypal problems: Why prayer isn’t answered, the problem of evil, and the hypocrisy of Christians. Ironically, I’ve always been an intellectual and spent many hours wrestling with these arguments. Conclusion: It would have been so easy to make a couple of small changes in my life without violating anyone’s freedom or requiring miracles. God failed and a twenty year faith died. Or did it?

I’m not sure I could honestly claim to be an atheist after God let me down. For a few years I simply ignored God. I still find nihilism compelling, if I were convinced there were no God I think I’d become totally self-indulgent, and for a while I was.

When I came to think about spiritual things again, I found myself not knowing if God is there or not. I’d become agnostic. Agnosticism is about knowledge, and is a solid belief, rather than an in-between state. I’m an open agnostic, but it seems the majority are atheists in practice. I’m not satisfied with standing back and assuming God isn’t there, I’m still searching. There are even Christian agnostics, though I don’t count myself among their number. I’ve written that all believers are un-knowers.

What’s it like being agnostic in day to day life? I never pray, lost the habit. After reading through the entire Bible every year- even the boring bits- I never pick it up. Occasionally I’d like to find a local group of similar souls, but this is hard. And I’m SO over meetings. Wiccans have a concept of the solitary practitioner, perhaps Christians need to recover that practice, based on the desert fathers?

Do I feel guilt? Well, one of the really good things I took from Christianity is the concept of grace, something that seems to be lacking in most public Christian proclamations.

My gateway to God was always the mind; reading Antony Flew’s biography and a book on the Mystics inspired me recently. My girlfriend gave me the three volume Integrative Theology, I love that stuff. At this point I’m closer to believing in a g0d than for some time, but it’s an expansive g0d, a beautiful Mind behind the universe. If I do return to Christianity, it will be on my terms. I cannot believe in a God who condemns gay people, treats women as second-class or tortures people eternally.

I’m agnostic but I’m genuinely seeking truth. I find the search wonderfully fresh and am surprised at the progress I’ve made. I don’t know if God is there, and maybe I never will. I do know that love is more important than belief. I think I’m OK with that.


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Paul Collier | Facing the Unknown

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How God Tickles Our Brain (Part Two)

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 17, 2010

Religious experiences, near death experiences, mystical oneness, spiritual feelings: How are they experienced in our brain? What bearing does this have on the question of God’s existence or our escape from Samsara? Bill continues his guest post from part one:

The lobes in the mind become active from some source of input, and your mind reacts to that stimulation.

For example, there are localized spots in two lobes (the nucleus accumbens and the ventral pallidum) which, when activated, give you a deep sense of pleasure. (Aw, come on, there has to be something in the brain that causes the pleasure sensation). An experiment with Rhesus monkeys (who have similar spots) involved giving them a button, which when pressed, stimulated their pleasure centers. If left to their own devices, those monkeys would have starved themselves to death as they became fixated in a non-stop cycle of pressing their button.

When someone tells you that the purpose of human life is to seek pleasure, it is not impossible for that purpose to be fulfilled by a suitably engineered helmet.

The lobes in the human brain fall into two broad groups: the four lobes that make up your conscious mind, and all the others that make up your subconscious.

brain and skull

A large number of activities in the sub-conscious are reflex conditions that have evolved over time, and exist in us because that reflex in ancient times made our specific ancestors survive in primitive settings.

Being subconscious, we are not aware of the mechanism, but we are aware of the resulting emotion. Public speaking today is often difficult because our successful ancestors fled when surrounded by eyes, and survived. We have a built in reflex to want to flee when surrounded by the eyes of an audience.

Our personality is not inherited – it is a mix of life time experiences reacting with the underlying reflexes. And in acquiring our personality, we acquire our belief system.

There is constant feed back from those we trust as infants (infants who have trust in elders tended to live longer in primitive times, so we also have a built in trust during our infancy). This feedback influences our personality, and as a side effect, our belief system.

Some beliefs rapidly become self-evident through proof: pain is unpleasant and avoiding it is worthwhile.

Some beliefs become self-evident through repetition: if you are bad you will go to hell.

And some through reflexes giving us internal input-response relations. When I stroke a pet cat, it purrs and that gives me a pleasurable sensation. Therefore it is nice to stroke a pet cat.

Now, there was a relevant experiment that used human volunteers. It involved a helmet that stimulates the subject’s temporal lobe.

The temporal lobe’s prime purpose is to give us feelings of empathy with others – it meant that humans could work in packs a long time ago, and as teams nowadays.

When there is no one present, stimulation of the lobe causes the person to emphasize with no-one, and through a process known as agenticity, create some sort of “being” to account for the presence felt.

The device became to be known as “the God helmet”. It was placed on the subject’s head, the button was pressed, and the subject reported a sensation that was consistent with the subject’s core religious attitude.

It was found that the stimulation of a theist’s temporal lobe produced the presence of the relevant god, of a Buddhist led to a heightened oneness with the universe, and atheists reported a warm and fuzzy feeling that they couldn’t quite pin down.

To understand religious belief mechanisms properly, we need to tie to this phenomena those of the Limbic system and the three lobes that carry religious conviction. Then we shall be able to decide if religion is a by-product of stray neurological activity, or the way a God “tickles” lobes to confirm his presence to the believer.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I was once in the triage ward of a hospital. I was waiting for surgery to deal with an internal burst blood vessel. In the early hours of the morning, my blood pressure caused an alarm to sound, and suddenly my bed was surrounded by several nurses and a doctor, doing all sorts of presumably coordinated activity. One nurse smiled at me, stuck a syringe in my arm and said “You are going to be ok” A few seconds later, I went to sleep, and when I woke up, all had been put good, and I was discharged a couple of days later.

Now – something very strange happened in the period between the needle jab and falling asleep.

I was suddenly aware that I was in the presence of an invisible (to me) entity that had an intellect vastly superior to my own. What is more, I instinctively “knew” that this being was totally aware of every single detail of my entire life.

When I was discharged, you might be curious as to why did I not run to church? Well, there was in my way of thinking a serious fault in what this superior being had done – or rather not done. Why had it arrived at that particular moment, and then simply watched as an idle bystander? Why no communication? And where was he or it all the rest of my life? This did not seem at all rational. And I found no solace in the catch-all “God moves in mysterious ways”.

I later came across a paper published by Dr R. Joseph. His research material showed that activation of the amygdala, hippocampus, and temporal lobe are responsible for religious, spiritual, and mystical trance-like states, dreaming, astral projection, near death and out-of-body experience, and the “hallucination” of ghosts, demons, angels, and gods.

These lobes are not part of the four bits that make up the conscious part of the brain. When stimulus in the subconscious turns on the images visible to the conscious, the conscious part of the brain has no idea where those images are coming from. And the conscious is absolutely certain that the images are not self induced.

More than one F-84 pilot flying at night, through a cone-of-silence, reported on landing safely that during the scariest part of the flight, they had hallucinated that they were sitting on the wing of their jet fighters, watching themselves fly the airplane. This was originally thought to be a consequence of spatial disorientation, but is now seen to be a result of limbic stimulation caused by the extreme anxiety of flying solo at night in life threatening circumstances.

In short, when the limbic system is activated the subject has strong religious experience, when the temporal lobe is activated when no one is present, the subject has a mild religious experience, and when the conscious part of the mind becomes aware of the subconscious part, the subject invariably reports being in the presence of an invisible all knowing being who has total knowledge of the subject’s life.

These three responses has a causal effect in that three other lobes of the brain may then hold a belief in a deity, either for the first time, or to reinforce an existing belief.

A side effect of the three lobes holding the belief, is that whenever input is heard or seen that challenges that belief, the conscious brain looks for any reason whatsoever in order to be able to discount the input.

The same thing happens with non-believers – they are also constantly looking for any reason possible to discount any input that might disprove their non-belief. We all inherit the same systems.

The limbic system, the temporal lobe and mind expansion can be triggered by stress, drug, illness, random internal neural activity, external electro-magnetic activity, input from any of the five senses and, not proven but included for the sake of completeness, a deity activating these components as part of his divine will.

So – you look at a starry night, a newborn child, a perfect rose, a portrait of Christ – whatever – and the sheer majesty of the emotion evoked from what you see or feel causes the temporal lobe to activate. You could become convinced you are in the presence of god, whose presence now explains the mystery of what you are seeing.

The only thing you have to resolve is whether that temporal stimulation is natural or supernatural.

In my case, I became convinced it was natural.


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Masif Djs | Reaching Into My Brain (Edison Factor Mix)

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The Multiverse Returns, or “Daddy, Is There A God”?

Posted by spritzophrenia on November 8, 2010

Some of you may know I’m a fan of webcomics. That’s why I have the link to Dr McNinja down there along with the more “serious” ones. Via Twitter, Iain introduced me to Scenes from a Multiverse:

Dad is there a god? Comic

If you’re wondering what a “multiverse” is, see my preview of The Grand Design.

And while we’re on the topic, I’ll quote one of “The Thirteen Missing Explanatory Links in the Atheist v. Theist Debate” by one of my favorite agnostic bloggers, Prometheus Unbound:

Universe/multiverse. If you are an atheist, the multiverse hypothesis is a godsend. As cosmologist Bernard Carr told Discover magazine, “If there is only one universe you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.” Like the God hypothesis (or Linus’s Great Pumpkin hypothesis), the multiverse hypothesis is a tidy catch-all for getting out of every thorny dilemma of probability: Life’s beginning? “With God the multiverse all things are possible.” Consciousness? ”Ditto.” If you adopt belief in The Great Pumpkin the multiverse, it makes every implausibility inevitable. But how the multiverse multiplies itself, or ever arrived at its spectacular powers of creation, who knows? If atheists have a god in the closet, it’s Fortuna, their Great Pumpkin.


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Posted in agnostic, god, humor, humour, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

What the World Needs Now

Posted by spritzophrenia on November 4, 2010

I wonder if yesterday’s post overwhelmed you? Many of my friends in the US were caught up in the fever of mid-term elections. Many of you are Democrats who were disappointed with the results. The last thing you wanted to hear was more misery.

I don’t always tell the whole story in my blogs, I leave some space for your opinion. So let me be up-front here. I believe in optimism instead of pessimism. Call it positive thinking if you like. I know I blogged about the irrational side of positive thinking, but I still believe in encouragement. I believe in “realism”, if you like, although we’re all gonna disagree on exactly what “being realistic” is. It’s hard, as I’m naturally drawn to the negative— perhaps that’s why I suffer from depression.

Regular readers know I’m fairly rigorous about what I believe; call me a skeptic if you wish, although as I’ve explained here, I don’t consider myself a rationalist. I want to hold those things together: rigorous thinking, an openness to spiritual reality and an activism and optimism toward the greater good.

There is a time for pessimism. There is a time for grief. But I don’t want to stay there. It doesn’t help.


Years ago I was fascinated by the late 60s and the hippy movement. I was inspired by their optimism; for a short time it seemed some people believed that peace was really possible, that the world really could be a better place. All we had to do is love enough (and perhaps “drop out”). Laugh all you like at their idealism, but frankly if I have to choose who I’d spend eternity with, it would be hippies. I may not have the look— I think we’re well beyond that now— but I still have the hope, sometimes.

I have a vision of ten people gathering in a room, extremists of all forms: Democrats, Republicans, Anarchists, Terrorists, Peaceniks, Atheists, Fundamentalists, Foreigners, The Rich, The Poor, the Apathetic, you, and me. If we leave contentious issues aside and ask, “Tell me about your family?”, “Who means the most to you?”, “What art do you like?”, “What is the most beautiful place you’ve travelled to?”, “What do you hope for the future?”, “What do you think when you look at the stars?”, “How do you experience love?”. If we could truly hear each other, if we could somehow ditch the rhetoric and just talk as human beings, I believe we would have much more in common than hate.

I don’t care if it’s corny. I don’t care if it’s idealistic.

What the world needs now, is love.

It’s the only thing there’s too little of.


What do you think? Am i too idealistic?
[Edit: An example would be my meal with a Muslim]
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Jackie DeShannon | What The World Needs Now (1965)

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Why I Will Always Be Agnostic

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 15, 2010

I came to the conclusion a little while ago that even if I adopt a particular belief, I will technically have to call myself an agnostic. The reason is that “agnostic” is about knowledge, what we can know. This is different to belief. Agnostic means “I don’t know”

We tend to place belief as an on/off black/white yes/no question. I think there can be shades and nuances, in terms of my own experience. Some time ago I came up with the Agnostic Scale. (We can argue about whether it should be called the “belief scale” or the “knowledge scale” 1) It looks like this:

Both zero and ten are not possible for us. We cannot “know” there is no God. Equally, we cannot— in this life at least— “know” there is a God. So let’s add to the diagram:

The best we can do is be at position one— “I strongly believe there is no God”, or position nine— “I strongly believe there is a God”. I strongly believe Morocco exists, even though I’ve never been there 2. Also note that position nine doesn’t specify what kind of God, a Deist could also be at position nine.

All believers are un-knowers. Having a concept of belief rather than knowledge allows me to move up and down the scale, as my beliefs change over time. At times in the past I’ve been at position nine. A few years ago I moved to about a three, which would be something like “It’s not very likely there is a God”, or perhaps “I have strong doubts about whether God exists.”

Pascal made me think about the distinction of belief versus knowledge. My other example is Bertrand Russell, who called himself an atheist but if his audience were more savvy would call himself an agnostic, as he couldn’t say he “knew” God didn’t exist.

My point is that even If I decide there is a Being behind the universe, it will always be a belief, not knowledge, however strongly I may feel about it.

Right now I’d put myself at about a 7, something like “I think it’s likely God might exist”. I may move back towards the zero, or up towards the 10. But no matter what, I’ll always be an agnostic.


How would you label other points on the scale?
Where would you put yourself on the scale?
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[1] In conversation Phrenic Philosophy pointed out that Richard Dawkins published a similar scale in his book The God Delusion. I’d forgotten that, but my scale was conceived independently, so sucks to you, Dawkins 😉

[2] Philosophy alert: Language enthusiasts can amuse yourselves trying to finesse what the statement “Morocco exists” means. The study of how we know something is called epistemology. The classic definition of knowledge is “justified, true belief”. To be extra snarky: Do you “know” YOU exist?

Posted in agnostic, epistemology, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , | 80 Comments »

Hawking’s Grand Design – Cosmology Still Needs God?

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 17, 2010

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is the answer to “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything”. It’s a mathematical non-answer to the meaning of life. Stephen Hawking references this in his new book The Grand Design, and in a strange parallel also suggests a mathematical answer, as theoretical physics essentially relies on mathematics. But does it work?

The Grand Design

Cards on the table, I’ve read a vast amount of commentary but haven’t read the book yet. [Edit: I’ve read it now, see below] So this is a review of the reviews, and it’s fair to say the reviews are mixed. There are some five star articles which praise the book as an easy read for a popular audience. Others castigate Hawking and Mlodinow’s book for being dumbed down too much, and for not actually explaining the science.

As I understand it, Hawking isn’t proposing anything new, this is simply a popular account of the current state of play. It happens the author is Stephen Hawking, and he gets a lot of media love. I wonder if a similar book by someone else would have got as much attention?

Blake, Grand Architect of the Universe

William Blake, that hoary old Mason: The Grand Architect of the Universe

Background reading: Cosmogony (Cosmogeny) is the study of the very start of the universe. Cosmology is the study of the whole thing and Wikipedia has a rather good summary of current ideas, although you might need a little science understanding to appreciate some of it.

Hawking and Mlodinow‘s current view is that one version of multiverse theory, M-Theory explains it all, however some reviews say the authors don’t really explain M-Theory, and just use it as a magic bullet. M-theory, as some critics have pointed out, is currently only a mathematical construct in theoretical physics, lacks predictive power and so far is untestable. As happened with its predecessor string theories, it would not be surprising if contradictions or incompleteness are found in the near future. There are also other possibilities under discussion.

Because they’re unobservable, multiverse theories are also untestable, blurring the line between science and speculation and making them controversial in the scientific community. Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt has called the multiverse “a dangerous idea that I am simply unwilling to contemplate.”

The same article also speaks of “the growing credibility of multiverse theory”.

So really, Hawking is saying “A few of us think the M-theory multiverse and gravity can generate this universe from nothing, and it doesn’t require a God. (But also doesn’t rule one out.)”

Poor on Science and Philosophy

There are some very positive reviews but I was surprised how many mediocre and even scathing reviews of the book there are by atheists, who want the book to succeed but find it derisory. From a couple of the better reviews:

“Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing […] Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to […] set the universe going.”

This quotation from the book is a good summary of its main thesis. As a statement of our understanding of physics and cosmology this is very likely correct. … As a philosophical statement, however, this is a total disaster. The authors say early in the book that “philosophy is dead”. It certainly is— in their heads.

For instance, what is the meaning of “is” when they say that “there is a law like gravity”? Do they mean that gravity has a real existence, like you and me exist? In this case the creation of the universe is not really spontaneous, because the existence of gravity is necessary to it. …

It is possible that gravity and quantum mechanics allow the “spontaneous” creation of the universe and everything in it. This is, however, not a solution to the problem of existence, because the nature of the existence (or reality) of gravity and quantum mechanics is left unexplained. The authors are too ignorant of basic philosophy to understand this.

My two-star rating is not just because of the bad philosophy. It is to point out that there are much better books on this subject for the general reader. I particularly recommend Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality as an informal, but deep introduction to cosmology. I also recommend Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications as a book on the theory of everything. Deutsch’s book is particularly important because it is very sophisticated from a philosophical point of view. Of course, Deutsch’s philosophy is totally wrong, but it does not matter: Deutsch’s book is an important one, while the present book is lightweight fluff (just look at the illustrations!)

~ Filipo Neri (accessed from Amazon 12 Sept 2010, but now unavailable)

Another cites errors:

On philosophy, he takes many out of context. An example of this can be given on page 22, “Epicurus (341 BC-270 BC), for example, opposed atomism on the grounds that it is “better to follow the myths about the gods [than] to become a ‘slave’ to the destiny of natural philosophers”. Yes, Epicurus certainly says that; but, he was also a staunch materialist. He certainly didn’t reject atomism— he even created his own special kind. Again, on page 135, “Over the centuries many, including Aristotle, believed that the universe must have always existed in the order to avoid the issue of how it was [caused].” Aristotle believed God created the universe and set it into motion before retreating to self-contemplation. Above and beyond outright confusing statements, there are also many statements that are left without support, and kind of feel out of place. Claims that “[Pythagoras] did not discover the theorem that bears his name”— then who did and what is your point?

The science explanations are also exceptionally poor. …

On speaking of Ptolemy’s model being poor “it contains dozens of adjustable parameters whose values must be fixed to match observations, rather than being determined by the theory itself”. I’m just not sure I can conclude that M Theory or String Theory aren’t fixed to match observations. From the text it sounds like they are.
~ from Amazon

The book opens with the claim “Philosophy is dead”, which in context probably just refers to the particular area of philosophy that discusses the origin of the universe. I doubt philosophers are afraid they’ll be out of a job (echoes of the Hitchhiker’s guide, again). Several reviewers point out the book spends a great deal of time presenting what is actually philosophy, not science, and poor philosophy at that.

The God Question

Now for the big question, the one the book is marketed on: Does a multiverse pose a problem for belief? A very useful look at this topic written before Hawking’s book was published says multiverse theory “has failed to create the opposition between religion and the multiverse that [some critics] expect.”

Oxford’s professor of theoretical physics, Frank Close, writes, “I don’t see that M-theory adds one iota to the God debate, either pro or con.” And the University of Surrey’s equivalent, Jim Al-Khalili, calls M-theory “tentative” in The Times, quoted here.

Physicist and science writer Paul Davies, referencing Hawking’s book says that the multiverse hypothesis doesn’t necessarily do away with the idea of God. While accepting that cosmology can probably now explain how our universe began— a claim I was unaware of— Davies writes: “A much tougher problem now looms, however. What is the source of those ingenious laws that enable a universe to pop into being from nothing?”

The multiverse comes with a lot of baggage, such as an overarching space and time to host all those bangs, a universe-generating mechanism to trigger them, physical fields to populate the universes with material stuff, and a selection of forces to make things happen. Cosmologists embrace these features by envisaging sweeping “meta-laws” that pervade the multiverse and spawn specific bylaws on a universe-by-universe basis. The meta-laws themselves remain unexplained— eternal, immutable transcendent entities that just happen to exist and must simply be accepted as given. In that respect the meta-laws have a similar status to an unexplained transcendent god.

Davies concludes “there is no compelling need for a supernatural being or prime mover to start the universe off. But when it comes to the laws that explain the big bang, we are in murkier waters.”

It appears The Grand Design is a very easy popular book, with some serious flaws, and which doesn’t actually remove the need for philosophy, or perhaps God. I’d like to read it and see if there really are black holes in the book.



[Edit: Having read it, I think it’s a pretty good basic introduction and a good read. However, I agree with the criticisms – very poor on argument. My review coming.]


Have you read it? What did you think?

Blast from the past: Thomas Dolby | She Blinded Me With Science
(featuring the wonderful Magnus Pyke)

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How to Find God

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 30, 2010

Before setting out on a journey, it would be wise to decide how you will travel. Having a good map will help. I’d like to explain a little about my map.

If you’re going to find g0d, how will you know what she is like, and how will you know when you’ve found her? Broadly speaking, there is the way of the intellect and the way of experience. My method is twofold, I need both. I value truth, and I value connection.

By the way, that word “God”, has lots of baggage, so please substitute Brahman, spiritual reality, or another term if you prefer. In this post I’m not too particular about the nature of the goal I’m seeking. Reality, or Truth will do. I’ll use g0d.

Desert landscape

Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play. ~ Kant

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. ~ Albert Einstein

I value the intuitive mind, or “experience”. I’ve been dipping into Carlos Castaneda’s Teachings of Don Juan, an ethnography of his time with a Yaqui shaman, taking peyote, datura and magic mushrooms. I like the idea of going into the desert, getting high, and meeting g0d. After all, I like deserts, and I like getting high. This seems like an experiential path that would be good for me. The problem is, how could I trust I was experiencing true Reality, rather than just curious experiences in my mind? Experience without reason could quickly lead me astray.

Most religions have a mystical element, a part that allows an experience of g0d. I’ve learned quite a lot about all kinds of approaches, and there is one thing I can guarantee— if you follow a spiritual path, you WILL have an experience. People all over the world, in significantly different faiths have had very trippy experiences. What I cannot guarantee is that your experience will be True. It’s quite possible that many mystical experiences, or even all of them, are false. Nice experiences, sure, but not experiences that actually connect with eternal Beauty. I think if the society of our time makes any mistake, it is this one.

Alternatively, it may be that I can discover “the g0d of the philosophers” through reason – science, philosophy, psychology, history, sociology… In brief, through the doorway of the mind. I’m not looking for proof. As I’ve written, we rarely get that kind of strong proof for most things in life. But I AM looking for reasonable evidence. Just because guru Mudinmipants says he experienced it does not mean it‘s true. (Do you think it would help to think about what “reasonable evidence” might be? I have a sense of it, but haven‘t written out explicit details.)

I ended up in this “mere intellectual” state the other day, saying to myself, “OK, so right now, intellectually, it looks like g0d might really be there. What now?” If there is good reason to think that g0d exists then it seems natural to try and make contact with this Reality. A dry assent that the Infinite exists, followed by life-as-usual, seems somehow flat.

Now, there are some assumptions I’ve made which you’ve probably spotted. Perhaps you think it doesn’t matter which path I take, all of them will lead me up the mountain? I think the evidence points away from this, but that’s for another time. It’s also possible that g0d is there, but we are not able to experience him. Mystical experiences on their own prove very little. These ideas are worth considering.

For me, I need both mind and heart. I hope that a path can be found which improves my life beyond mere intellectual satisfaction. And I cannot follow an experience that is not supported by reason.



What about you? Are there any ways of finding Reality that I’ve missed?
I generally start with reason and end with experience. Should I try the other way around?
Are there problems you can see with my chosen method?


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A wonderful song that reminds me of what‘s important
Alan Parsons Project | Cant Take It With You

Posted in agnostic, epistemology, God, god | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

100 Posts!

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 25, 2010

Welcome to my 100th post on Spritzophrenia! Not bad for a little over eight months, don’t you think? Perhaps I should wait for the 108th post, a Hindu mystic number? Or the 888th, a propitious Chinese number? Or the 69th, Hugh Hefner’s sacred number? Meh, let’s get on with it…

Numbers make me think of the ancient Hebrew story of the Babylonian King Belshazzar having a feast, and suddenly seeing a ghostly hand writing upon the wall of the banqueting chamber, the words:

Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin

Number, number, weight, division.

Which means, “you’ve been weighed in the balance, and found wanting”. (And your kingdom will be divided among the Medes and Persians.)

100 posts!


I don’t know in whose balance I shall be weighed, but I appreciate you guys approving my “weight”. Today, I’ll simply point to some Spritzophrenia posts you might have missed:

* Mystical experience in a godless universe More of that atheist spirituality stuff.
* Satanic Panic Some thoughts on satanic hysteria.
* My Avatar spiritual experience Can a film be a spiritual gateway?
* Let there be light relief Cartoons via BiggerThanCheeses.
* There’s Probably No God? Atheist advertising.

I’ve quietly been adding more features. You may have also noticed the new Search box which will help you find topics of interest more easily. Also, because I’ve never had one before, I present my first poll so that you can dictate my future spiritual path

To conclude, I present not one, but TWO of my favourite tunes, if you wish to listen and enjoy. First, “Run” by Ecano (Oliver Lieb in one of his many incarnations). I DJed this song over a 120,000 Watt system to 13,000 people. Ahh, memories.

and Abyss by Wizzy Noise

Thanks for reading Spritzophrenia! Tell me something I didn’t expect to hear:


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