Gatsby

Gatsby PosterI expected The Great Gatsby (2013 version) to be at least elegant and exciting. Unfortunately it is more like a visual essay on what is wrong with modern art.

I’m not talking about the director’s irritating visual mannerisms (the zooms, the peculiar clarity of distant items, and so on) which I didn’t like in Moulin Rouge! either. After all, tastes may vary and perhaps we can pat the director on the head with a “nice try for some artistic stylisation, pity it didn’t work”.

Spoiler alert: reading on will reveal plot points. Then again, I don’t recommend you bother seeing the movie anyway.

What I really didn’t like was the standard modern hemi-intellectual’s view of the rich – vile, nasty people with vast, apparently causeless wealth where all they can think of to do with it is splash it out on vastly mindless hedonism. What I really really didn’t like was the malevolent sense of life the movie projects. Yes, little boy, if you dream and have passion you can achieve wonders, but your real dreams will just keep on receding into futility; and if you try really hard and do really well and are in actual danger of achieving your dream, not only will losing your temper once make your girlfriend forget the years of your mutual undying love, but some brainless loser will shoot you as well, so why bother?

I haven’t seen the original movie, let alone read the book, so I don’t know how much to apportion the blame between  the author and the director. But so much more could have been done with this basic plot – which just adds to the disappointment of this incarnation.

It wasn’t all bad. I think Leonardo DiCaprio did a creditable performance as Gatsby, albeit in something of a “Jack’s life if he’d actually survived the Titanic but Rose didn’t know and married the other vile rich guy” way. Tobey Maguire was his usual charming gormless self, playing Peter Parker without much sense, let alone Spidey sense.

But the glamour was empty, the elegance a death mask and the only thing authentic was malice and stupidity. A big disappointment which could have been so much better. Ayn Rand once wrote a book, “Philosophy: Who Needs It?” Clearly movie directors and producers do.

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Whose God is Real?

Freska_od_Sv._Ilija_vo_Melnica_09The recent attacks on USA embassies by Islamists who cannot handle the thought that someone might <gasp> mock their irrational beliefs in a <gasp> film without being shot made me wonder: maybe we should just settle this by the traditional means.

Islam is an Abrahamic religion so the Old Testament of the Bible is part of their religious tradition. I am reminded of the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal from 1 Kings 18:16-46:

Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the LORD’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”

Then the prophets of Baal called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “O Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made…

At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”… Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

Then Elijah built an altar in the name of the LORD, and he dug a trench around it [and they poured water over the sacrifice, the wood, enough to fill the trench as well].

Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

Then the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.

When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The LORD—he is God! The LORD—he is God!”

Then Elijah commanded them, “Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!” They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there.

So here is my simple proposal. Let’s pit a division of the best armed division of the USA against the best the Islamists can come up with, and they can fight out it. Winner takes all. If Allah is really the supreme God, how could the Islamists fail to win? Unless of course he’s sleeping or on holiday (this is not blasphemy, it is irony sanctioned by Elijah himself). If on the other hand a secular philosophy of reason, individual rights and capitalism is the truth: why, I imagine the USA will win. Now to make it really fair, the Islamists should just dance around unarmed calling down fire from Heaven, but somehow I doubt they have that level of faith – though I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

Let’s settle it once and for all by the God-sanctioned method. Hilary? Barack? Are you listening? Over to you.

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Gene Therapy Advances

Dna-splitThree interesting advances in gene therapy have recently been reported.

The first reports gold nano particles to deliver gene therapy directly to skin cells, simply by including them in commercial moisturising cream. This particular therapy uses siRNA to specifically target and silence disease-causing genes.

Even more exciting is the discovery of a DNA-cutting enzyme which is guided to its cutting site by RNA. Since RNA recognises DNA by easily worked out and synthesised base pairing (unlike the much more difficult to engineer direct recognition by the protein’s 3-dimensional structure), this has the potential for a universal gene targeting system.

Finally, other scientists have found that zinc finger nucleases can directly penetrate cells so they don’t need to be delivered using DNA vectors: this could lead to much simpler and safer ways of editing genes in stem cells or differentiated cells. (For more on what’s good about zinc finger nucleases, see here.)

The rate the science is advancing, it can’t be too many years before routine gene therapy is a reality.

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Nothing Will Come of Nothing

universe-from-nothing-coverThere is a surprisingly unskeptical review in eSkeptic of Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing.

As an atheist I applaud Krauss’s intent to address attempts to prove the existence of a God by the “well, where did the Universe come from, huh?” argument. However his attempt to do so by arguing that science supports the notion that the universe popped out of literally nothing is replacing bad philosophy (theism) by worse philosophy (the very poor philosophies that bred by quantum physics – not that there is anything wrong with quantum physics, just the weird philosophical interpretations people like to impose upon it).

Here is the rub:

“I think it is virtually certain that everything we see came from empty space,” Krauss exposited. “And all the physics I know is highly suggestive that our universe popped into existence as a quantum fluctuation.” The book develops this by explaining that because of the laws of quantum mechanics and special relativity, empty space consisted of a bubbling brew of virtual particles spontaneously popping in and out of existence on timescales too small to notice. (It is this behavior that makes them virtual.) This was the “nothing” out of which the universe arose. These bubbling activities, known as quantum fluctuations, caused a mass density fluctuation which, in combination with the process of cosmological Inflation, resulted in the Big Bang.

The obvious question to the claim that the universe popped into existence as a quantum fluctuation is: a quantum fluctuation in what? The theory presupposes the existence of some kind of substratum, and not only that, one subject to the existence and laws of quantum mechanics. Logically, it cannot “solve” the question of how the universe can exist without a creator.

As I have argued elsewhere, the existence of the Universe is no argument for any god, let alone any specific God. So attempting to answer it by introducing the invalid notion of a whole universe popping out of nothing is not even necessary. (I have written more on the topic of where a rational philosophy can and should guide scientific theory in Philosophy and Science).

To paraphrase King Lear: “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again, lest you mar your philosophy.”

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Quantum Time

Drip_of_waterThe article “Freezing Time” published in The Scientist describes the development of extremely powerful enzyme inhibitors. Because of their vastly higher affinity for the enzyme, they can not only be used in much smaller doses for medical purposes, but persist for longer in the target enzyme but not the bloodstream: increasing effectiveness while decreasing side effects.

The trick is to create “transition state analogs”, molecules whose shape mimics that of the enzyme’s target in the moment of catalytic change. And “moment” is pretty accurate: the time scale we’re talking is a few femtoseconds – a femtosecond is 10-15 seconds, a time so short that even light wouldn’t even cross the width of a human hair.

An interesting aspect of the article is the use of computational quantum chemistry to find the right structure:

Computational quantum chemistry is used to search through thousands of possible transition states to find the one that matches the experimental observations from kinetic isotope studies. This structure is then analyzed using Schrödinger’s equation to obtain the wavefunction, which contains information about both geometry and electrostatic charge, and in fact is the most complete description that can be given of a transition state. This information provides enough of a picture, a virtual blueprint, to allow us to design analogs that mimic its geometry and electrostatic features.

This is another example of the power of quantum mechanics. Instead of sitting around talking about how “spooky” it is and speculating that there is no objective reality, these scientists actually applied quantum calculations to solve real problems in that objective reality, giving real solutions that one day should save health and lives.

(Speaking of quantum “spookiness”, I have argued that the true nature of quanta is waves and the particle aspect is the illusion – a view which resonates with the description of the wave function above.)

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Free Will Forever

Continuing the grand tradition begun by the behaviourists of attempting to use the science of the mind to banish free will is Sam Harris’ opinion piece Free will is an illusion – and must be exposed (he also develops this theme in a recent book on the topic).

No doubt it will find a ready audience in those who like controlling other people, because making people question the efficacy of their own minds is a quick way to make them surrender their souls. Thus it is one long fallacy of self-exclusion: nowhere does Harris confess that he has no free will, that his opinions are the result of unconscious processes he cannot control, and that he doesn’t really know why he’s saying this stuff to other equally enslaved objects, except that I suppose he can’t help himself. Or perhaps he can’t help himself there, either.

Indeed, the whole exercise relies on free will – for example the ability for people to change their minds. He even notes that one of his motives is he doesn’t think justice should include vengeance, and other such things he considers (?) to be primitive (?). What meaning does any of that have, in the absence of free will? He thinks that we should not seek vengeance because vicious criminals “aren’t responsible for it” – yet in that case why should we not seek vengeance: if they aren’t responsible for their criminal acts, why is he trying to make us guilty and responsible for how we respond?

I have shown elsewhere that free will, in every sense that matters – the sense to choose your values, choose how to pursue them, and act accordingly – is inherent in having a thinking mind. And despite his surface words, Harris agrees: for the whole purpose of his writings are to convince people to change their minds and change their attitudes and actions accordingly.

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Get A Brain

Brain-PETLife extension by using stem cells or cybernetics to fix or replace organs is all very well, but it doesn’t help us if our brain decays. Our memory of who we are and the processes that result in our consciousness all reside in our brains. Brain goes, we go.

So it is interesting that scientists have isolated a new progenitor cell population from two regions of the adult brain that are able to differentiate into numerous cell types including neurons.

While there’s a long way to go, the eventual ability to repair brains is going to be needed for any life extension worth having, so this is a useful step. Of course we will need to be able to repair brains while retaining those precious connections and memories – but that’s what brains do, really.

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The One True God

I was travelling along the road to Helensvale the other day when a bright light did shine upon me from Heaven and a voice as thunder spoke to me: “Hear the words of the One True God!”

Then I was surrounded by fiery beings whose countenances shone upon me like the sun, and their touch was as flame, yet my flesh was not consumed. And lo, I was transported even unto the Seventh Heaven, where I saw sights man was not meant to see and heard voices man was not meant to hear and the Voice of God spoke unto my soul.

Then I found myself back on Earth, and only a moment had passed. Yet the visions held me, and the message I had received burned within me, and as the flesh of man cannot contain such wonders I must needs bring that vision and that message to the world.

For I had taught men that Truth was to be found in the world of the senses illuminated by Reason’s bright light, and to have Faith apart from evidence was an evil for mankind, for it is our nature to think. And the One True God had seen my words, as he sees so much, and bade me speak further. And these are His words. Listen, you  who have ears to hear!

For the One True God is our Creator. He is not a jealous God, for there are other True Gods like Him, but he is our One True God for our corner of the universe is His. It is He who pushed that ancient nebula where push were needed, and did cause our Sun to coalesce out of it, and our Earth in its place where life could flourish, and mighty Jupiter to guard us, for he is ancient and patient and wise. And out of the long slow path of life on Earth, he did reach down, and set our far ancestors on the path to Thought. He did this because Thought is the great virtue, and while our thoughts are but a dim shadow of His, yet He approves of them, for a commonwealth of thinking beings is the true end and glory of existence. Yea, we evolved, as our scientists have learned, for they too follow the path of glory. But that one push, that one spark to light the flame, was His. The One True God does not meddle or command or concern himself with the private affairs of men and women. He merely watches and waits for us to find our own path, that we may one day find Him.

But his Truth has been corrupted. False Gods came to lead men astray. The One True God allows this, for while the False Gods try to deceive, they can only deceive those who wish to be deceived, for the One True God does not allow them to use their power to force men’s obedience. And the False Gods do bribe men with promises of paradise, so that men will give up their Holy Reason to follow Faith instead, Faith in the words of these faithless false gods, that the false gods may win their souls for themselves. For Reason serves neither man nor God, but Faith is self-chosen chains binding men to slavery. This angers the One True God, and there will be a reckoning, but the One True God is patient. There is yet time, if only you heed His words.

Hear now His words. The lies of the false gods, like all good lies, are part clothed in truth. The faithless will indeed be cast out into the Outer Darkness where men will weep and gnash their teeth at the sight of the glories they have cast aside. And the faithful will indeed live forever in glory. But the faith of which I speak is keeping faith with your true nature, the nature the One True God gave you; and the faithless are those who give up their nature. And that nature is the nature of a thinking being: that glorious creature that looks at the universe with clear and honest eyes, and seeks to understand it and rule it through the power of Reason and the clarity of Thought.

For His Heaven is real and reserved for those who live by the nature He created for them: who seek truth in reality and reason, not faith in the words of false gods and their false prophets. And yea, those who live by faith, instead of paradise will receive exactly what they were promised. For the One True God is a God of Justice. But what they were promised is an eternity of grovelling servitude to their false gods and the sight of the unbelievers’ fate: and they will find, when they get it, that it is ashes in their mouths, for they will see the glory they have given up, forever beyond their reach. And as they are bound to praise their unworthy gods for all eternity, they will know their chains were forged by themselves.

The One True God asks for no service, no praise, no faith. He asks nothing but that you live by your nature as a thinking being, therefore honouring the right of others to do the same. And he offers neither reward nor punishment, only consequences. Your life will be as the life you lived and your fate will be what you have chosen for yourself. He does not even ask for your belief, for that would be contrary to reason. Such is the mystery of His truth. And verily this is the one test of the One True God: for only false gods do ask for faith.

If you would truly serve the One True God, serve Him not. But if you would know what pleases Him, his prophets are the men of reason, who follow His path while neither knowing nor caring of His existence. Therefore hold this image as your image of what you can and ought to be and can become, the words of one of those prophets: “man as a heroic being, with your own happiness as the moral purpose of your life, with productive achievement as your noblest activity, and reason as your only absolute.” Then yours will be the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Too many theists have told me that being unable to prove there is no God is an excuse to believe in one, and have not understood that in our understanding of reality there is not only proved and possible: there is true, false and arbitrary. The arbitrary is that for which there is no valid evidence, and is worse than false: it is meaningless and dangerous. So to all those who say: prove my God is not real, I have only to say: prove that the One True God is not real, or know that yours is a false god leading you to destruction.

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Lies, Damned Lies and Creationism

Archaeopteryx

Archaeopteryx

This is the gist of my recent reply to a post on Objectivism Online about debating creationists, which thought might be of interest to others who encounter those pesky creatures:

Arguing with creationists – that way lies madness. Many years ago I had an extended argument with a creationist (by mail – yes, children, there was an era before email 🙂 ) and at one stage, I even convinced him. But then he slowly slid back and the convincing didn’t stick.

One of the problems with creationists is that the creationist literature is rife with errors. If the errors were true, then they would actually have a case! But what I found in the course of arguing, by looking up the primary literature quoted by creationist luminaries, was almost all of it was either misquoted, out of context in a way that changed the meaning, or otherwise inaccurate. Creationist “intellectuals” in general troll the literature for word bites they can use, without attempting to understand their real meaning. And the problem with that is that short of taking apart every claim, it is hard to get to a creationist: they just jump from one to another and you usually find yourself running in circles.

Unless you are dealing with a creationist actually open to having their mind changed (possible, but rare), the best you can do is point them in the direction of some of the books written by scientists that refute the creationist arguments (yes, it takes a book’s-worth, hence the impossibility of doing it verbally) for the details, and just approach it from a higher level. Things that you might find useful are:

  • Evolution is not random: the raw material (mutation, gene shuffling etc) is random but the directional accumulation is non-random via natural selection.
  • Natural selection is not a tautology: it is a direct and in fact necessary consequence of reality and causality, of the fact that organisms have to survive and reproduce in the real world, and that real world imposes conditions on what they have to do.
  • Theories are not inferior to “facts”: theories are explanatory frameworks, and can themselves be facts (e.g. the “theory” of universal gravitation).
  • Complex organs (and organisms) do not have to arise by “chance” or all at once: they arise by accumulations of smaller changes, each in itself an advantage in its own right (or at least, not a severe disadvantage – many changes actually happen by random drift). Creationists do dispute this (hence “irreducible complexity”) but:
    • In nearly all cases of alleged irreducible complexity, there are plenty of examples among living creatures or fossils that there is a sufficient range of complexity, all perfectly functional, for the change from simple to complex to have evolved naturally. Examples are the classic case of the eye (in nature, a myriad of forms of increasing complexity from pigment spots to vertebrate eyes); and the mammalian jaw (an excellent series of fossils showing how, yes, the lower jaw bones of reptiles did evolve into the single lower jaw + inner ear bones we possess, despite the apparent unlikelihood of doing that).
    • In some cases, the structure may be so ancient and/or non-fossilisable that we have no direct information like that. But “I do not know how this could have evolved” or even “I cannot believe this evolved!” is not proof that it couldn’t. Especially in the light of all the irrefutable evidence of what can and has evolved.
    • A good example, I forget where I read it, is that of an arch. It might be impossible, looking at a finished structure, to imagine how it could have been constructed piece by piece. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t. In the case of evolution, things get mixed and matched and something that evolves for one function can be co-opted for a quite different one (many examples are known). In the case of an arch, you can build one stone by stone: you use a scaffold, then remove it when the arch is complete. Same kind of thing in evolution. Unless we have fossils, we see the end point, not the steps, and the steps that constructed that endpoint may not be obvious.
  • There are transitional fossils: so many that creationists should be embarrassed to still be creationists. The fossil record is never going to be complete (the number of fossil species identified is far less than the number alive today, which shows you the scale of the problem of getting complete evolutionary sequences), but even then it is good enough to crush creationism. Good examples are the recent findings on birds (a whole menagerie of creatures from feathered raptors to obvious birds) (Archaeopteryx alone was enough for any honest mind, but now…); the transitions from fish to amphibian, amphibians to reptiles, and reptiles to mammals; well, the list goes on and on with less grand changes, such as the evolution of aquatic whales from land-dwellers, not to mention human beings from apes.
    • In some cases, fossils with transitional forms are dated after the time when the transition must have occurred. However this is neither surprising nor a problem. For the reasons stated above – each stage in a transition is viable in its own right – it is not surprising that transitional forms live on while others of their type move on. We do after all see that all around us today. Chimps are approximately structurally transitional between monkeys and humans – they have a common ancestor with us but have diverged less from the ancestral form. But they are still here. Ditto all the way back to bacteria.
    • The “point” of such belated transitional forms is not to prove evolution occurred: but it does prove that transitional forms existed and were viable. And they are a prediction of evolutionary theory in their own right, as demonstrated above.
  • The Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy) and (a related topic) Information Theory do not contradict evolution. Earth is not a closed system, it is bathed in sunlight which provides the bulk of the energy living things need to live, grow – and evolve. Each living thing itself goes against entropy by the fact that it not only survives but grows and develops. And yet, they are here. For the same reason.

I think that covers the bulk of the kinds of arguments creationists present. If they want to argue the details – point them to a good book. And a good book, almost by definition, is one not written by a creationist 😀

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A Theist Review

religionI came across an interesting review of The Australian Book of Atheism recently, from a Catholic perspective by Frank Mobbs. The review is thoughtful (he actually read the book!) but naturally critical. My fellow contributors can answer for themselves, but the comments on my chapter “Good Without God” raise some issues worth pursuing.

Mobbs does not really understand the gist of my argument, which is not an inconsistent juxtaposition of “you can’t derive an ought from an is” with “we all want to go on living so we must be rational” – but is that answering the is-ought problem is central to morality (any morality), the conditional nature of life is what answers it, and that is what makes rationality and its subsidiary virtues moral.

But the most interesting comment is one he makes not only of me but the book in general: “Repeatedly the writers assert religious faith is belief without evidence. This is sheer ignorance, for all the classical arguments for God appeal to evidence.” There are two comments we need to make on that:

  • An attempted argument from evidence doesn’t mean there actually is objective evidence. Yes, many Christians believe in God for reasons. The problem is, all their arguments are invalid. They all fail the test of inductively valid evidence (you can see my reasons for claiming that here). The simplest demonstration is that if parents did not teach innocent, trusting children that their own religion is truth, no scientifically literate person would find God in the observable facts of nature.
  • It is impossible to target every variant of religion in any brief argument. Just as one can find evidence in the Bible for any number of contradictory doctrines, so religions, sects within religions, and even finer divisions within those, will hold innumerable contradictory positions. But faith is certainly central to most religious beliefs, and despite Mobbs’ protestations, how many Christians, faced with a contradiction between their faith and the evidence of their own mind, will choose the latter?

For my own part, I am quite aware that some Christians think they have good reasons for believing in God, and that many Christians accept that one can be good without God. Unfortunately the ridiculous levels of controversy we saw over an atheist campaign to advertise that you can be good without God shows how pervasive the contrary view is, and indeed, how invested religions are with their claims to moral authority. And they are not merely concerned with the behaviour of their own adherents: whenever they have the chance, religions push for enforcing their own morality by law. That is why such claims need to be fought.

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