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Friday, October 30, 2009

Books, A Year in Review - 2009, Part I

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia CommonsA couple years ago, I read an article about an AP-Ipsos poll on people's reading habits. Among other things, it pointed out that around 1 in 4 adults in this country hadn't read any books at all in the previous year, and that among those that had, the average number of books read was 6. (Yes, that last sentence is copied verbatim from an older entry).

Since then, I've kept track of the books I've throughout the year, to compare my habits to the population at large. I've had two previous yearly reviews, one in 2007, and another in 2008.

Like last year's review, I'm breaking this one up into two parts. This first part will be an analysis of my reading habits, and probably won't interest anyone much other than myself, while Part II will give a brief review for each book.

Here are the books I've read between October 2008 and October 2009, though not in the order that I read them.

Children's & Young Adult Fiction

  1. House of Stairs
  2. Coraline
  3. Anne of Green Gables
  4. The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1)
  5. The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2)
  6. The Titan's Curse (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 3)
  7. The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 4)
  8. The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book 5)
  9. Brisingr (Inheritance, Book 3)
  10. Twilight (The Twilight Saga, Book 1)

Adult Fiction

  1. Luncheon of the Boating Party
  2. Angels & Demons


  1. Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters
  2. GOD - OR GORILLA : How the Monkey Theory of Evolution Exposes Its Own Methods, Refutes Its Own Principles, Denies Its Own Inferences, Disproves Its Own Case
  3. Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body
  4. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
  5. Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life
  6. Death from the Skies!: The Science Behind the End of the World
  7. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani in the British Museum

So, that's 19 books altogether - a bit less than last year (23), but still better than the year before that (13), and certainly better than the national average.

As far as genres, as in previous years, I'm still a bit biased towards children's & young adult fiction. This is partly due to reading some of the same book series that my daughter's reading, partly due to trying to catch up on classics, and partly just because I happen to like some of those stories. At least as my daughter's getting older, the series she reads are getting more mature, and I no longer have to read books like Junie B. Jones.

I did happen to get in two adult fiction books, one of which was very good (hint - it's the one that hasn't been made into a major motion picture).

Looking at my non-fiction reading, I'm heavily biased towards biology, particularly evolution. I need to expand my topics a bit, but to be honest, I expect to keep reading about evolution because I find it so darned interesting. It probably is time to get away from general evolutionary books, and more into those on specific topics (such as Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom). On the other hand, there are a few general evolution books that I'd really like to read (such as Why Evolution Is True and The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution).

I did manage to check off at least one book from this list. If I manage to read at least one book from that list per year, I'll have it all taken care of by the time I'm 124.

I have to admit to starting a book and not finishing it - The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays. This is only the 3rd book from my entire life that this has happened with (technically, I've had false starts on The Hobbit, Robinson Crusoe, and Moby Dick, trying to start them when I was still a bit too young, but I did go back and finish all three of them eventually - and it was worth it for all three, by the way). The other two are The Age of Innocence and A Tale of Two Cities, and I still plan on finishing A Tale of Two Cities. Camus lost me early on, using personal anecdotes as evidence, and expressing a kind of contempt for science (as Wikipedia summarizes it, "true knowledge is impossible and rationality and science cannot explain the world.") Science is the best method we have for answering questions with objectively true answers. Any philosophy that ignores objective truth, particularly in a book focusing on a real phenomenon, is one that I don't feel like wasting my time on.

Anyway, I still need to try to expand my reading habits, but at least I'm not doing too bad. And if you've read my previous two yearly summaries - I still haven't finished all the books on my night stand, and I've actually added a few more to the stack.

Oh, and for those interested (since I use these links in a shameless attempt to earn money through my Amazon Associates account), I've earned $2.28 from book sales in the past year. Even if I find a book that cheap, the order still won't be eligible for super saver shipping.

Stay tuned for Part II, where I'll give a brief review of each of the books.

Update: Part II is now online.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Evolution No More a Fact than the Civil War

There's a minor brouhaha over Nicholas Wade's review of Richard Dawkins's latest book, "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution". Wade claimed that Dawkins had confused fact and theory, which prompted quite a few letters to the editor explaining Wade's mistake.

Now, I don't often get involved in discussions in the comments sections on websites, but I did leave a couple comments on this one. Rather than give a long introduction, I'll jump right to quoting the relevant comments from the article. Here is the original comment that prompted me to reply.

These people who keep arguing that evolution is a fact because there is so much supporting evidence for it are very funny. Evolution is a fact only if you can directly observe it happening. Otherwise, it is not a fact and will never be a fact. What is a fact is the evolutionists religious zealotry… ;)

— island

I responded thusly.

Island wrote: "Evolution is a fact only if you can directly observe it happening."

Aside from the observed instances of evolution (Lenski's e. coli experiments are a popular recent example), this statement seems to imply that nothing from history can be a fact, since events that happened in the past can no longer be directly observed. I don't think that's the way most people use the word, since, for example, I think most people would call it a 'fact' that the U.S. Civil War occurred, or that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the U.S. There are other forms of evidence besides direct observation.

— Fatboy

Island responded to my comment as follows (this is the comment that made it worth reposting this whole exchange).

The civil war may be a fact, but you can't *know* this beyond any shadow of a doubt. You can know it beyond any *reasonable* doubt, however, so we can have an extremely high degree of certainty that it happened, but that is not the same thing. We can confidently assume that humans evolved from apes, because there is much supporting historical evidence in support of this assumption, but it will always be an assumption, and will never be a knowable truth…. or a fact.

— island

I responded again.


You're playing semantic games. You say it's not a fact that the Civil War occurred. Your definition of 'fact' is different from everybody I know personally, but at least now it's clear why you argue that evolution isn't a fact.

However, if something has to be proven 'beyond any shadow of a doubt' to be a fact, and the Civil War doesn't meet that criteria for you, I'm curious if there's anything that you would consider a fact. After all, one can always fall back on solipsism or Last Thursdayism to cast doubt on just about everything.


Island did follow up with a long comment, and a link.

Fatboy, you miss the point that the scientific method is not “solipsism” and there can be no room for slopiness in this because theories are **always** subject to a better theory as defined by efficiency, or accuracy in conjunction with Occam.

As I stated, “degrees of certainty” (or our confidence level), increases with the strength of evidence, and I don't expect evolutionary theory to be radically overturned because of this, but it is a fact that a better theory will always be possible that approximates the historic record more accurately or with equal accuracy, but in less steps than Evolutionary theory does.

In this case, “evolution” didn't necessarily occur via the criterion that define our current understanding of the process, and the author might choose not to incorporate the term into this theory. In which case, “evolution” never was a fact.

Like I said, I don't expect it, but there is no room for play or you are not representing science like you claim to be, which is the point where the lies embellishments and distortions of this politics hurt science.

My personal beef is the way that this ideological mentality predetermines the assumptions about impetus behind some of the less-well defined mechanisms of evolutionary theory that are automatically taken to be of random or accidental nature, rather than of necessity or natural law, because evolutionists wrongly perceive such an admission in favor of the creationists position.

Which, unfortunately, justifies the pressure of the “other side” in order to counterbalance the dogma of the left.

And those are observable facts… ;)

— island

This is an excellent example of what I am talking about:


— island

I responded one last time.


I was all ready to go with another long explanation of 'facts' and levels of certainty, but decided against arguing over semantics. If, as you already stated, your definition of 'fact' precludes including the occurrence of the U.S. Civil war in that definition, you're clearly using a definition well outside the standard usage. If 'fact' is to have any meaning at all, it must surely mean 'very high level of certainty', and not 'absolute 100% certainty'.

When you wrote, "theories are **always** subject to a better theory as defined by efficiency, or accuracy in conjunction with Occam," you're pedantically correct, but really stretching the point. Larry Woolf's quote of Gould above explains this point better than anything I could write, so there's no need for me to dwell on it.

To steer this back to the topic of the article, it seems that you may also be missing the point of what Dawkins wrote originally. Descent with modification occurred. We can be as sure of that as we can of the existence of the Roman Empire, the occurrence of the Civil War, Armstrong and Aldrin landing on the Moon, or the idea that the Earth orbits the Sun, whether you're willing to call those things facts or only grant them high levels of certainty. That's not being disingenuous. There really is that much evidence supporting common descent.

Now, there's the separate issue of what drives that evolution, the 'mechanisms' as you put it. That's where the theory comes into play, and is also where more of the uncertainty is, concerning natural selection, sexual selection, group selection, or genetic drift, to name just a few. We still know that those things occur, because they have been observed, too (except group selection - it's still questionable). However, there is a question as to how important each has been to the history of life on this planet.

— Fatboy

For reference, the Gould quote was this.

Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's, but apples did not suspend themselves in midair pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.

As another aside, I know I didn't address the link that island provided, but I think Douglas Adams already covered the anthropic principle quite well. (I've also seen an even less reverant refutation of the anthropic principle.)

This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in - an interesting hole I find myself in - fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.

If island responds again, I'll include the response here. However, I'm not sure if I'll leave any more comments on the NY Times site. There's an old saying about arguing with fools, and when someone resorts to saying that the historicity of the Civil War is something we can't be sure about, they may not be the type of people you want to be seen arguing with.

(There's always the chance that perhaps I'm a victim of Poe's Law. Island did, after all, leave a winking smiley in two comments. However, I get the feeling that island is being serious.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

What's the Point of Intercessory Prayer?

Hands Clasped in PrayerThis is something I've written about before (and has been written about by others), but it really struck me last night, so I felt like commenting on it today.

Last night, my daughter had her girl scout award ceremony. As is pretty common for these things, her troop meets at a church. The room where we had the ceremony is also a meeting room for one of the Sunday school classes, and one of the walls had a section for "Prayer Requests," where students put up little notes with things they'd like the congregation to pray for*.

One of the girl scouts, I'm assuming one who hasn't been exposed to church too much, asked what the "Prayer Requests" wall was about. The troop leader explained it to her, but I had a thought that made me smirk a bit, and bite my tongue not to say out loud - because God wouldn't know those people were having problems unless he heard about it through prayer.

When you stop and think about it, if you believe that your god is all knowing and all powerful, then intercessory prayer really is a weird thing. Sure, it makes sense if you believe in imperfect or fickle gods, who may or may not follow the daily events of our personal lives, and who may or may not care what happens to us. But that's not the type of god most Christians believe in.

Most Christians I know believe that Yahweh is omnipotent, omniscient, and that he has a perfect plan for us. If that's the case, what could you expect to achieve through prayer? Yahweh already knows what's going on - he doesn't need earthly informants. It's not as if it's a popularity contest, and Yahweh's going to count votes to determine his divine intervention. And it really is less than humble to ask the almighty to change his divine plan simply because you don't like it. The plan is supposedly perfect, after all.

I can understand other types of prayer - praise, thanksgiving, asking for strength for yourself. But when it comes to intercessory prayer, it seems a bit, well, odd.

Anyway, these aren't terribly original thoughts. But, the more and more I've been outside of Christianity, the stranger and stranger some of those old habits seem.

*I don't mean to belittle the actual topics of most of the prayer requests. There were definitely some serious issues on that wall.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?

I received an e-mail forward the other day, which contained a PowerPoint presentation giving the supposed origin of Arabic numerals. It claimed that when each number is written with only straight lines, the number of angles created is the same as the quantity being represented. The text accompanying the presentation made the additional claim that these numerals have remained unchanged for thousands of years.

That explanation is completely false. I won't go into detail on the origins of the numerals in this entry since there are already sources that cover this. There are several Wikipedia articles that overlap on this subject. The first one below is probably best for the history of the symbols. The second one has some good general information. The third one has a good picture of the first known use of Arabic numerals in Europe.

Hindu-Arabic Numeral System
Arabic Numerals
History of the Hindu-Arabic Numeral System

The unique feature of our numbering system, having each position represent a power of 10 (as opposed to a system like Roman numerals), developed some time between the first and sixth centuries. Most of the symbols in that early system came from Brahmi numerals (which themselves came from earlier sources), but a few seem to have come from other sources, such as Buddhist inscriptions. The symbol for zero is an exception, having been invented around the same time as the decimal numbering system. There's some question to how those Brahmi symbols were developed and what they originally represented, but it certainly wasn't for counting angles. One, two, and three are pretty easy, since, like Roman Numerals, they were simply one, two, or three lines (even in Arabic numerals, one, two, and three all seem to have been originally related to simple counting - follow those links). The other symbols may have come from their alphabet.

At any rate, the symbols have evolved quite a bit over the centuries, going down different paths in the different regions where they've been used. I've borrowed one of the images from Wikipedia and posted it below, a table compiled in 1757 showing various usages of numerals in European history (go to Wikipedia for a higher resolution image). Not only would we have a hard time reading the numbers from other regions of the world today, we'd have a hard time reading some of the earliest European uses.

Histoire de la Mathematique, 1757

Here's the full e-mail that I received, with the PowerPoint converted into a series of images. Scroll down for a bit more commentary following this.

How numerals 0 - 9 got their shape - Interesting

Do you know why numbers look like they do? Someone, at some point in time, had to create their shapes and meaning.

Watch this short presentation and then you will know how our Arabic numbers were originally created a very long time ago and what logic the people that created them used to determine their shapes. It is really very simple and quite creative? You have to admire the intelligence of a person that created something so simple and perfect that it has lasted for thousands and thousands of years and will probably never change?

When the presentation gets to the number "seven" you will notice that the 7 has a line through the middle of it. That was the way the Arabic 7 was originally written, and in Europe and certain other areas they still write the 7 that way. Also, in the military, they commonly write it that way. The nine has a kind of curly tail on it that has been reduced, for the most part nowadays, to a simple curve, but the logic involved still applies.

Slide 1

Slide 2

Slide 3

Slide 4

Slide 5

Slide 6

Slide 7

Slide 8

Slide 9

Slide 10

Slide 11

Slide 12

Slide 13

Slide 14

I've already given sources showing that this explanation is false, as are the claims in the accompanying text, but let's have a bit of fun looking at the numbers.

First, look at the 4. That is how 4 is typed, but most people I know don't write it by hand in that way. Most write it as:
Hand Written 4

On the 5, notice the little additional line on the lower left to make the count come out to 5.

Who writes their 7s that way? I know many people put the line through it, but who puts the serifs on the bottom?

The 9 takes the cake, though. It really takes some stretching to imagine that the 'primitive' form of 9 would look like that.

If there's one thing that all our letters and numbers have in common, it's that they're relatively simply - just a few strokes to create each one. That's the way you'd want it for an efficient handwriting system. It's really tough to imagine that 9 ever having been commonly used.

I suppose that one reason this e-mail continues to make the rounds is summed up in the second sentence of the first paragraph in that e-mail, "Someone, at some point in time, had to create their shapes and meaning." Many people like to think that something as important as our numerals had to be deliberately invented, that it couldn't have come about by a haphazard process. But, that's the way so many things have been developed, especially in language.

The actual history of our numerals really is pretty interesting. It's a shame for the people who miss out on that by getting the simple folk etymology in this e-mail.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Another Crazy E-mail

I received an e-mail forward recently. It was a story supposedly written by an airline passenger who got seated next to some soldiers who were on their way to receive special training in preparation for being deployed to Afghanistan. The airline was selling $5 sack lunches; the soldiers didn't have the money to spend; so the author bought them all lunches. Once crew and passengers learned what the author had done, there were some accolades, and a few donations totalling $75 in cash, which the author gave to the soldiers at the end of the flight. If you want to read the full thing, it's available on Snopes.

Nothing too special, right? It seems pretty typical for an e-mail forward - lots of non-specific information along with a moral lesson. Heck, it may even be true (though if I was a betting man, considering the reliability of e-mail forwards, I'd wager not). So why is it worth a blog entry?

There was a preface on the particular version of the e-mail that I received that actually made me chuckle out loud.

The liberal snopes.com cannot confirm this, so it is a good bet that it is valid for the most part. A beautiful story.

You just can't help but wonder what type of mindset it takes to write something like that. To begin with, the person was accusing Snopes of being too liberal. To be honest, I have seen this claim before, but it only holds up if Stephen Colbert was right, if reality really does have a liberal bias. Because honestly, the main thing that Barbara and David Mikkelson do is debunk urban legends, particularly those that get passed around in e-mails. It may be the case that Snopes debunks more conservative myths than liberal myths, but I'd be willing to bet that it's because there are far more erroneous e-mail forwards coming from the right for them to debunk. Besides, this particular story is about being nice to individual members of the military. I'd hardly consider that partisan. Or is the author implying that just being 'liberal' makes a source less trustworthy?

And then there's the main claim, that because Snopes doesn't confirm the story, that it's probably true. This just doesn't make sense at all. If the author were implying that the Mikkelsons are bad at doing research, there's still a lack of evidence. To make the claim that if a poor researcher can't find evidence, then the evidence probably exists, is a bit silly. I can claim that leprechauns exist, and I doubt the Mikkelsons would be able to find any evidence confirming the existence of leprechauns. Should I follow this author's lead and use this as confirmation that leprechauns are real? Or is the author so cynical as to think that the Mikkelson's lie about everything. If so, when should I be expecting my check from Microsoft?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Frustrated with the iPhone

No AppleArgh. I'm frustrated. My boss just got an iPhone. Since I'm the resident tech geek, he gave it to me to figure out how to do a few things with it. And guess what. I can't even transfer files to it from my computer. Apple doesn't support XP Pro 64. What the hell? I realize that Microsoft has pretty much abandoned the OS in favor of Vista and Windows 7, but it still has a pretty substantial user base. In fact, the companies that make the CAD and FEA software that we use actually recommend it, so we just bought 4 brand new workstations with XP Pro 64. The OS is going to be in use for a few more years, at least.

I've managed to at least get iTunes 8 to run on my 64 bit machine (which took too much work to begin with), but since I never had to hook up an iPhone before this, I didn't bother making sure those drivers got installed. Now, with iTunes 9, it looks like nobody's been able to get it to work on XP Pro 64. I could probably spend some time and figure out how to get iTunes 8 to work with the iPhone, but why didn't Apple just provide a decent distributable to begin with? (And why do you even have to go through iTunes to add files to an iPhone? My old Tilt does just fine acting like any other drive on the computer.)

I had been considering the iPhone before (my current contract's up in a couple months), but going through so much effort just to hook it up at the office, with an outdated version of iTunes, is a major drawback. And now that I've found out you can't do PowerPoint on it, either, and learned of a few other limitations, I'm even more hesitant (though the web browser may be enough to make up for it all).

I know Mac fanboys always talks about how great Apple's supposed to be, and how crappy Micro$oft is supposed to be, but this is simply terrible customer service on Apple's part. It's just so damned frustrating.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Reasons for Strong Atheism

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismWhen I first became an atheist, it was of the sort that people call 'weak atheism', and some would even have referred to it as agnosticism. Now that I've had some time to become comfortable with the idea that there aren't any deities, I've moved from the position that a god is a possibility simply lacking in evidence, to the position that gods really are pretty unlikely, and almost surely don't exist.

In a particular essay I wrote shortly after becoming an atheist, I summarized my position on deities and souls as follows.

To clarify my position on religious matters at the time of writing this essay, I'm not absolutely one-hundred percent certain about anything. However, I'm about as sure that the Earth is a globe that orbits the Sun as I am that the Bible was written by people, and that a God as presented in the Bible doesn't exist. I'm not as certain that no type of divine being exists at all. I don't see an absolute reason why there would have to be one, but that doesn't mean that there isn't one, or that a super powerful being didn't come into existence after the universe did. I'm also open to the idea that we have souls and will experience some type of afterlife. So, I may not buy into the arguments of Christianity, anymore, but I haven't rejected a spiritual aspect of the universe, altogether.

That certainly sounds sensible. So what's changed?

To start off, maybe I should begin with discussing certainties. In a philosophical sense, we can't be 100% sure of anything. There's always some small finite chance that whatever we think we know is wrong. The common arm chair philosopher argument is to ask how we can be sure that everything we know isn't just a dream, or a hallucination. Practically speaking, however, some scenarios are just so unlikely that their probability becomes infinitesimally small. So, while we admit that in a philosophical sense they have some finite probability, we live our lives as if they're impossible. Noone goes to bed at night worried that gravity will quit working and that they'll wake up in space. So, when I wrote in the first paragraph that deities almost surely do not exist, it's only in that philosophical sense that I grant that they might.

Let me digress one more time before getting into the main point. Let me explain just why I was religious before I became an atheist. It really had very little to do with evidence, and very much to do with emotion and tradition. I'd been brought up going to church, and having authority figures tell me over and over how important it was to be religious, and how important it was to have faith. Even certain parts of the Bible stress how important it is to have faith without evidence (think the story of doubting Thomas - John 20:29, or Jesus being tempted by Satan and replying that you shouldn't put God to the test - Matthew 4:7). I think the following comment I made on a blog during a discussion when I was still Christian shows just how much I valued faith over evidence.

I don't think it's a sign of personal weakness to believe in God. Knowing all that I know about science, it takes a lot of faith to accept the Bible. To me, that's more of a strength than a weakness.

I knew all along that I didn't have much evidence to support my religious beliefs, but I didn't let it shake my faith. In fact, the only 'evidence' I had for the divine were a warm fuzzy feeling that I assumed to be God's presence, and a very minor miracle that I personally witnessed (an object I'd lost turned up in a place where I was positive I'd checked very thoroughly). I knew all along that both of those forms of evidence were very shaky, and could very easily be explained through non-supernatural causes. I counted them as evidence because I wanted to believe, not because I thought they were strong evidence.

The reason I brought all that up is to reinforce that there really is no strong evidence for the divine. I've covered this in much more depth in the essay I mentioned above, but even when my faith was strong and I had no reason to doubt any evidence supporting a deity, I just didn't see it.

When I first became an atheist, it was through a rational approach. I recognized how little evidence there was for gods, and realized I was a Christian mainly through accident of birth, and didn't have any real reason to choose it over any other religion, so I was left with atheism as the only honest choice. But those emotional reasons that kept me a Christian for so long were harder to shake than any logic. Remember, the type of god that most Christians believe in isn't the fire and brimstone version from the Old Testament, it's the 'God is love' version you learn in Sunday school. I didn't like to lose that eternal protector, and I wasn't ready yet to give up the promise of an afterlife, either. I didn't want to admit there was no chance of ever having those back, so that's why I clung to a god as still being a possibility, even though there wasn't any evidence.

Now, let's leave emotion behind. Even if Christianity wasn't the result of Yahweh intervening with his creation, it still had to come from somewhere. One interesting observation is that nearly every culture has a religion, nearly all of which include deities. It's pretty unlikely that religion has been invented out of thin air independently in each of those cultures. There are a few options that seem much more parsimonious - 1) that there actually is something to religion, and all these myths are attempts to explain some mysterious force in the universe (think the fable of the blind men and the elephant), 2) there's something about human nature that makes people keep inventing religion, 3) religion was present in the common ancestral group of all modern humans and has been passed down, being modified along the way (similar to language).

Another interesting observation is that, not just do many cultures have religion, but the deities in these separate religions serve similar, specific functions. For example, the Greek goddess Ganymede, the Norse god Thor, the Aztec god Tlaloc, the Egyptian God Tefnut, are all gods of rain. The cultures all believed that rain was explained by the existence of these gods. It's a similar case in other cultures, and for many different phenomena. This would seem to indicate that the first of the three options above isn't true. It's not some mysterious force that early religions described - it was unexplained natural phenomena. It seems probable that the reason all cultures have religion is down to the latter two reasons from above, and quite probably a combination of those two reasons. Curiosity is part of human nature, as is a tendency to imagine agency where there is none. This could have very easily led early humans to conjecture that supernatural forces were controlling aspects of the universe that they couldn't yet explain. As people spread across the world and religious traditions were passed down from generation to generation, the slight differences in isolated groups led to the various religions that we have today.

Judaism (and hence Christianity), being monotheistic, may seem a bit different than the polytheistic religions. However, it appears that early Judaism was henotheistic - in other words, that they believed in multiple gods, but worshipped only one. The earliest roots of Judaism appear to be from a prior Canaanite religion, with an entire pantheon of gods. Certainly, some passages in the Old Testament hint at these polytheistic origins (the use of 'we' in Genesis, the worship of other gods, etc.) And certain stories from Judaism are certainly from earlier cultures, such as Noah's flood being a rehashed version of the Mesopotamian Flood Myth. Many aspects of the Old Testament also read as just so stories explaining why the universe is the way it is - going back to what I mentioned above about religion explaining the unexplained natural phenomena.

It certainly seems that religion was invented by our ancient ancestors, not as a deliberate fabrication, but like I said, as an attempt to explain nature. The very concept of gods is part of that invention. That is very important, so let me repeat it - the very concept of gods is an invention of human mythology.

So, there are two key points from what I wrote above - there is no evidence for any gods, and the very concept of gods is a human invention. Given those two points, it seems almost certain that gods don't exist. It's a bit like unicorns, leprechauns, or fairies. Gods are just another set of mythical beings. We don't go around saying that gnomes are a remote possibility simply lacking in evidence - we rightly say that gnomes are products of our imaginations and never really existed. Why, when it comes to a different invention of human mythology, do so many people say that it's something we can never know for certain, or that deities are outside the realm of investigation, or that it takes faith to think they aren't real? These are things I would have said myself when I was still Christian, but now I recognize them for the double standard they are.

Website Update - Top 10 Page List Updated for September 2009

Top 10 ListIt's a new month, so it's time for me to check back over the server logs. For anyone who's been following my little notes on these updates, now that I've gotten back into the swing of updating the blog once a week, my traffic is steadily recovering. Compared to just two months ago, which is the worst month I've had since I started keeping track, traffic is up 14.9%. Compared to last month, traffic is up 8.2%. I know I could increase my traffic quite a bit if I shamelessly self-promoted on popular blogs (everytime I post a link in a Pharyngula comment thread, I get a noticeable spike in traffic), but I try to let my posts speak for themselves, and only self-promote that way if one of my blog posts really is relevant to the topic.

Anyway, there weren't any big changes this month. Everything on the list has been on the list before.

September List

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  4. Blog - Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes
  5. Programming
  6. X-Plane as an Engineering Tool
  7. Factoids Debunked & Verified, Part II
  8. Blog - Running AutoCAD R14 in XP Pro 64
  9. Blog - A Few Comments
  10. Theoretical Max Propeller Efficiency

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