Monthly Archives: January 2011

Why Are We Here?

In the recent post on Occam’s Razor, we touched on this topic, instigated by Boz.

There seem to be two types of answers to this question. And I think that is the root of a certain degree of frustration with science.

If you ask a scientist or most atheists why we are here, they will give a more or less detailed description of how we came to be here. If you stop them and say, no, you misunderstand; why are we here? They might say something like “science can’t answer that kind of question” or “that question is strictly meaningless” or “there just is no reason, we just are” or “if we weren’t we wouldn’t be having this conversation”.

Science generally lacks teleology: the idea that there is a purpose to things. Teleology is deeply engrained in our psyche. You could call it a psychological bias. And it seems clear to me that as such, it is going to be wrong in some cases. Some things have no purpose, but that doesn’t stop our minds desperately searching for one. Or feeling deeply dissatistifed if we can’t find one.

Here religion is very good, of course, it provides answers to those questions. Why are we here?: “you were created in the image of God to enjoy relationship with him for eternity.” Simple, beautiful, and (in my opinion) wrong.

I wonder if we as atheists could do a better job of helping people break free of religious dogma if we were more sensitive to these questions. I’m not sure what a great answer would be, but the lack of a good answer I’m pretty sure is a problem.

Religious or not, how would you answer (or reject the premise of) the question “why are we here?”


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Why Minds in Pieces? — Four Reflections


I have a model of mental processes that I use a lot.

It views the mental life of an individual as being made up of smaller elements: you might call them ‘modules’, or ‘agents’. I tend to refer to them as ‘thinkers’.

A thinker is some set of mental behaviours that can usefully be clumped together. There are two important things to say about that:

Firstly the clump is a clump of behaviour, not a physical clump. It may be that a certain area of the brain is more associated with certain behaviours, but that isn’t important to me. I can just as well differentiate a clump of behaviours related to being a husband, for example, which I’m sure I don’t have a brain region dedicated to!

Secondly the definition of clump is completely and intentionally vague. There are many levels to look at this: we can look at small clumps of specific behaviours (my ability to do a particular magic trick, for example), or larger clumps of general behaviour (my ‘science-side’).

The way I behave is the result of the interactions of all these thinkers. At any point, some of them might have sway over me, at other points they go quiet. Usually many thinkers are working in tandem: I’m route planning as I walk, while figuring out some problem in my head, while emoting about some lingering issue.


What we call a ‘mind’, or a ‘self’ for me is just a group of these thinkers. At one level I have one mind, because I have one physical brain and endocrine system, and I’m sure that all these thinkers are running on that hardware. At another level, as Sabio often says, I’m not ‘one’ self, I don’t have one mind, I have many of these thinkers jostling for control, and working in concert.

My behaviour rises from the interactions between thinkers. Collaboration between emoting, planning, innate goals and refined expertise. Although some kind of repressed bigoted thinker might occasionally rear up and get control of me for a while (to the chagrin of my more liberal thinkers), alone it can’t do much. It would need the collaboration of other thinkers to achieve more than a petulant phrase here and there. On the other hand, when I work, I try to give the R&D thinker every resource it needs to get the job done, suppressing the other stuff that would hamper it.


So if, a) thinkers can be seen as separate things, b) minds* are a collaboration between thinkers, I find myself drawn back constantly to an important question:

Can a mind be made up of thinkers in different people’s brains?

I think so, absolutely. And the best example I’ve thought of for this is the dynamics of a small company (larger ones too, I guess, but I don’t have experience of that personally). In a small company the company itself has some kind of mental life. That mental life depends on thinkers in the brains of its employees. If one of those employees is replaced, then the behaviours of the company might change somewhat, but the overall ability of the company to think is not damaged.

But we can go beyond that. I’ve been in companies that have seemed to have a mental life that is qualitatively different from that of their employees. I’ve seen companies that have become depressed, when the individuals within them are not depressed. I’ve seen companies that were smarter than their employees, that seemed to be working to a strategy that nobody could quite capture, but was just right. And I’ve seen the opposite: a company that had a great on-paper strategy, but just seemed to be dumb as a whole.

In those cases, I want to say two things about those companies:

a) That the mental processes of the company has as much right to be thought of as a mind as yours or mine.

b) That the mind of the company can run on the brains of its employees, yet is not just a simple concatenation of their minds.

In other words, when people get together and share their thinkers, that gives rise to a new kind of mind.


I originally stumbled across the issue of new minds when thinking about God. God, I reasoned, is a psychological phenomenon of exactly this kind: people contribute thinkers, and a new mind arises from that. Not a mystical process, just a result of shared thinkers: the way minds always arise.

It has been pointed out to me several times that this a) can’t possibly be unique to God, and b) feels like I’m trying to push some agenda about the existence of God. The first is correct, and is something that comments on this blog has taught me. The second, I’m sorry for. I hope it isn’t true, but my blogging thinker doesn’t have complete access to the motivations of my other thinkers, so I can’t be entirely sure.

* I use the terms ‘mind’ or ‘mental processes’ here deliberately vaguely. I don’t have a particular definition of either in mind. But just about any definition I can think of would do for the purposes of this argument, formal or casual. The only ones that don’t are those that treat ‘mind’ as a synonym for ‘brain’.

** Anyone get the reference in the title? Shane should, I hope 🙂


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Atheists: Occam's Razor is Not Your Friend

I’ve often wondered about atheists use of Occam’s Razor in theological discussion. And particularly as a way of battering anti-scientific theists. It seems to me to be an incredible irony.

Occam’s Razor is expressed in many different ways. It suggests that explanations with fewer numbers of causes, or with causes of lower complexity, are better. It might be said, as Newton did: “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.”, or as Occam himself did: “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”.

If you can say anything about “God did it” as an explanation; its that it is pretty darn simple. Certainly the explanation of why human beings are as they are is a darn sight simpler as “Because God made them that way”, or “Because God wanted them to be that way”, than the necessarily scientific explanation of the highly contingent history of biological life and its evolutionary branching.

I’ve heard atheists go on, at this point, to claim that Occam’s razor should apply to new ‘entities’ or new ‘agents’. So an explanation with fewer agents is always to be preferred. But this is crap. Nobody would take seriously an explanation, for a find of pottery, of how natural forces formed the clay in the right shapes, engineered that they were exposed to forest fires, and had the patterns applied to them by a series of insects running across their face. We explain stuff by positing actors, often many of them, when it is the best explanation.

So Occam’s razor might be useful in some technical senses in science (it is better to tie a hypothesis into existing knowns than to build a tall theoretical framework for a new observation). But in theology? No, I’m afraid it is rather a shot in the foot.

There are very good reasons not to accept theological explanations. In particular they are non-predictive. But if you honestly put your faith in Occam’s razor, you should be a theist, as far as I can see.


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The Transfiguration — Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36

Shane over at AnswersInGenes has been posting about the Transfiguration. He posted three synoptic accounts there.

I thought it might be interesting to show the accounts in their normal form as a synoptic parallel. Here in the NRSV (because I don’t have time this morning to translate them myself – sorry):

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Matthew 17:1–8 Mark 9:2–8 Luke 9:28–36
Six days later Six days later Now about eight days after these sayings
Jesus took with him Jesus took with him Jesus took with him
Peter and James and his brother John Peter and James and John Peter and John and James
and led them up to a high mountain, by themselves. and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. and went up on the mountain to pray.
And he was transfigured before them and his face shone like the sun, And he was transfigured before them, And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed,
and his clothes became dazzling white. and his clothes became dazzling white, and his clothes became dazzling white.
such as no one on earth could bleach them.
Suddenly there appeared to them And there appeared to them Suddenly they saw two men,
Moses and Elijah, Elijah with Moses Moses and Elijah,
talking with him. talking with Jesus. talking to him.
They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.
Just as they were leaving him,
Then Peter said to Jesus, Then Peter said to Jesus, Peter said to Jesus,
“Lord, it is good for us to be here; “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; “Master, it is good for us to be here;
if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, let us make three dwellings, let us make three dwellings,
one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
He did not know what to say, – not knowing what he said.
for they were terrified.
While he was still speaking, While he was saying this,
suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, Then a cloud overshadowed them, a cloud came and overshadowed them;
and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.
and from the cloud a voice said, and from the cloud there came a voice, Then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my Son, the Beloved; “This is my Son, the Beloved; “This is my Son, my Chosen;
with him I am well pleased;
listen to him!” listen to him!” listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, When the voice had spoken,
they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
And when they looked up, Suddenly when they looked around,
they saw no one they saw no one with them any more,
except Jesus himself alone. but only Jesus. Jesus was found alone.
And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

There are four significant differences, I think.

1. In Luke, he wants us to understand that the disciples should have been asleep (they saw something they weren’t supposed to, maybe).

2. Luke describes what Jesus, Elijah and Moses were discussing: “what he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem”.

3. Matthew uses the Jewish convention of having those who hear God’s words fall to the ground in fear.

4. Luke tells his readers why they hadn’t heard this fanciful story at the time. This formula occurs in various places in the gospels. To me it is a good indicator of a story that received some resistance when it was later introduced to the Jesus community, and is therefore a good indicator of inauthenticity (if the rest of the story wasn’t a good clue for that!).

I don’t have any great theological point to make. But I thought it would be interesting to see the parallel in more formal style.

If you’re interested in this kind of parallel, then get yourself a copy of “Gospel Parallels” by Throckmorton, or if you do the Greek, “Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum” (yes, I know the title is in Latin) by Kurt Aland.


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Why The Case Matters

No Jews Allowed Sign

by Iwan B. Creative Commons Attribute Non-commercial.

Today two Christian hoteliers were found in court to have discriminated against a gay couple whom they refused a double bedroom. The Christian couple had a long standing public policy that only married people were allowed a double room in their hotel. And they defined marriage to be one man and one woman.

To some, the fact of their long-standing public policy on the issue is persuasive. They should be allowed to set the rules. Their business, their choice. This sign shows why that view is wrong, and why the court decision matters.

If you think I’m comparing these Christians to Nazis then you’re missing the point (and ignorant of history). It wasn’t only Nazis who put these signs up. It wasn’t only Germans, or even Europeans.

There are a million and one excuses for bigotry. Your religion may mandate your bigotry (though many Christians seem to manage fine without homophobia), or it might be your nationalism, or your gender or your class. But ultimately bigotry leads only to dark places, and we have a right as a society to legislate against it.


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The Perception of Time

We do not perceive time at a constant rate. As we get older, time appears to speed up: days, then months, years and finally decades begin to fly by. I propose a formal unit of perceived time to quantify this.

I suggest that your perception of time is proportional to the amount of life you’ve had. So your third year of life was 33% of your total. A huge long time. But your 30th was only 3%, making it feel a tenth as long.

The summer before I went to high school, I was 11. I remember that summer. I remember each day stretching out, full of fun and mischief. I propose that a day during the summer when you’re about to turn 12 be the standard unit of perceived time.

The equation for converting between earth days and 11-year-old’s-days (eyo-days) is:

1 day = (12 / age) eyo-days

According to this formula, a day for me now, feels like a less than a third of a day for my 11 year old self, and a year to my 11 year old self feels like three and a half to me. Both those ratios seem about right to me.

To my three year old son, two calendar months without seeing my 70 year old parents feels like 8 eyo-months to him, but only 10 eyo-days to them. No wonder they think he’s changed so much, and he doesn’t remember much about the last time he was there.

And no surprise when I say “we only have to wait an hour” to my son, he groans – because in perceived time he’ll be waiting 13 times as long as me. And I sure as hell get bored on a 13 hour flight.

Which is a long way of saying that I haven’t posted for a week. My excuse is that the week has just flown by. It was only 2 eyo-days long, after all.

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