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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Sorry the site was down for a while today. My credit card on file with the domain name guys had expired. Normal service, I hope, resumed.

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Is God a Psychological Phenomenon?

Please don’t take the title as pejoratively as it sounds. I’m working on my always-in-progress-but-never-done systematic theology project. I could do with knowing if there are any ways in which you can think that monotheists (particularly Christians) understand God as other than an internal subjective psychological actor.

I can think of just one. The doctrine of ongoing creation. That the natural cosmos is dependent for its continual existence on a creative act of God. That without a continual and direct intervention of God, the physical laws of the universe would not hold from Planck-time to Planck-time. This, as a doctrine, is obviously non-psychological.

I should add that I’m explicitly allowing myself to deny the existence of miracles, by an argument from the complete lack of any evidence for them (i.e. they are potentially verifiable, and therefore are not part of any sensible modern theology).

It seems to me the theologies I’m reading talk about the agency and actions of God, but all those actions are purely psychological. God may be personally redemptive and transformative, he may free someone from the guilt of sin, or promise them eternal life to come. He may appear in revelation or in visions, he may reveal information or provide mental or emotional resources for his adherents, he may provide spiritual gifts or new abilities.

But I haven’t found modern theologians wanting to claim that God directly and super-naturally impinges on the world independent of people.

Even as understood by believers, God’s stage is in the psyschology of human beings. Is that fair? Or can you think of a theological claim that could be made by mainstream liberal theologians where God currently acts otherwise?


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Who Were the Twelve? — Mark 3:16-19

And he appointed the twelve:
Simon (whom he gave the name Peter),
James son of Zebedee and
John the brother of James (whom he gave the name Boanerges, the sons of Thunder), and
Andrew and
Philip and
Bartholomew and
Matthew and
Thomas and
James son of Alpheus and
Thaddaeus and
Simon the Cananaean and
Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him

— tr. mine

One thing you notice in the New Testament. There is a pretty good agreement that there were a group of Twelve. We call them the Twelve disciples, or Twelve apostles, though both terms have problems. In the NT they are often just called “The Twelve”.

An icon of the Twelve

The Twelve Disciples from a Greek Icon. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But what you don’t notice is complete agreement about who was in the group. Here is Mark’s version. Matthew agrees with Mark, but there are variations in some texts that change Thaddaeus to Labbaeus (and even a later scribe who hedges his bets and write “Labbaeus called Thaddaeus”). Some variants of Matthew have other Judases, Judas the Zealot, and others add Judas the son of James. Luke has this Judas son of James in his version (both in Luke and Acts), and Simon the Zealot. Earlier, however, during the stories of the calling of the disciples, Luke has Levi son of Alphaeus (James’s brother?), who is called in a story that Matthew uses for Matthew (and this is one of the reasons Matthew’s gospel is so named). John’s gospel doesn’t even name the full set, but he does include a Nathanael who isn’t elsewhere. Paul doesn’t give us a list either, but he refers to them, in terms of their obvious authority in the early Jesus movement (and one can’t help but hear a less than respectful tone for that authority).

There are traditional ways to reconcile these differences (somewhat creatively). What’s fascinating is that it seems clear that the individuals aren’t important. What’s important is that there are Twelve.

Obviously a highly significant number for Jews, mirroring the twelve tribes of Israel. And there’s the irony. There are three different sets of “Twelve Tribes” in the bible too – over time the constituents of the twelve change, but the important part is that there are twelve.

Decades after Jesus, the specifics about the Twelve might have been forgotten, but the number had not. But what’s also interesting is that the era of the Twelve was brief.

After Judas’s exit from the Twelve, Acts tells the story of how a replacement was elected (Matthias). To the early church the number was important enough to hold this election. But then Luke tells us nothing more about them. Paul uses “Twelve” as a name, but doesn’t talk about them as if there were twelve. For Paul (c.f. Galatians 1 and 2), there is only Peter. The other major heavyweight is James (Jesus’s Brother), who doesn’t appear in any list of the Twelve.

Who knows if the loyalty of the Twelve really did survive the Crucifixion. There are hints they did not. We know that their symbolism was more powerful than their reality very soon afterwards. And as the new religion grew beyond Judea, there was very little need for the symbolism any more. The calling of The Twelve was remembered, I think, as an authentic act of the historical Jesus. Like many things he said and did, it was something the early church, particularly the Pauline church, found it no longer needed.

I wonder what Jesus would have made of Paul.


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What is the Probability of God's Existence?

There’s been a few posts recently about using probability theory to illuminate questions of biblical historicity. It reminded me of a review I wanted to post on last year, but didn’t get time for.

In this review (via clayboy) of the new “Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction”, Vernon paraphrases one (among many) of the book’s arguments on the probability of the existence of God:

Atheism is not the default position when it comes to God – as if the burden of proof was on the theist – for a number of reasons, but most interestingly because atheism is not the most likely as a prior probability (that is, the probability before you consider any evidence.) Anthony Kenny has offered one argument as to why: atheists have to deny every definition of God; theists have only to affirm one. So the atheist has to prove more than the theist to ensure their position stands, which suggests atheism is a lower prior probability.

The use of probability to talk informally about the existence of God has a long pedigree, but a rather ignominious one. And indeed folks like Swinbourne, and Tony Kenny have dabbled in making it a little more explicit. But this specific argument, whilst also being methodologically confused (it doesn’t understand what ‘prior probability’ means, technically) is also naive in a very freshman-probability-course way.

What is the probability of you not rolling a 6, on three fair dice? It is 5/6 on the first die, 5/6 on the second, and 5/6 on the third, giving 125/216 of not rolling a 6. So even though the chance of rolling a six is small, with three shots at doing it, the odds of avoiding a 6 come out at not far from 50:50 (if we had a fourth roll, the chance would drop below 50:50).

This is Kenny’s hypothesis – what is the chance of no God existing, of atheists being right. We calculate it in the same way: What is the change of Yahweh not existing? What about the Christian Trinity? Vinshnu? Zeus? Allah? Isis? Each probability might be close to one: each God may be unlikely. But multiply them together and the chance of none of them existing drops way down. For example, if we had one thousand potential Gods, each with only a one-in-a-thousand chance of existing, the likelihood of the atheist being right is only 35%.

Unfortunately this line of argument is crock. It assumes independence.

When you first learn statistics and probability, chances are your instructor would have spent a lot of time telling you that things are independent. Flipping heads 10 times on a coin does not mean the next flip is more likely to be tails*. This is counter-intuitive, so it gets a lot of emphasis.

But unfortunately, things in the real world are very rarely independent. The independence isn’t normally the kind that we intuit (our intuitions really are most often wrong in probability**). But we cannot assume independence in general. And in my experience even graduate students of science find it hard to shake the idea, planted in high school, that every probability is independent.

The non-existence of Gods, for example, is highly dependent. And without independence, the Kenny system is laughably naive (and a good way to flunk undergraduate statistics). Yahweh isn’t a completely new option to Allah, or even Isis. The mythologies are connected, deeply, historically and psychologically.

Taking the probability of each of a thousand broadly similar Gods as being one-in-a-thousand, the final probability of there being any God, would end up being pretty much still one-in-a-thousand. And that is definitely not a good argument for agnosticism.

There are better ways to argue for agnosticism, I think, and in fact in Vernon’s article he goes onto a much better one, that the existence of God reduces the number of explanations, which in general tends to be associated with better explanations. I disagree with that, too, but that’s a topic for another day.

* I’ve said before on this blog, that the correct answer is that, a coin that flips heads ten times in a row is more likely to flip heads on the eleventh. When I said that before, I was disagreed with. But, nevertheless, I was right 😉

**Here’s a famous example: My sister has two children, one of whom is a boy – what is the probability of the other child also being a boy? (assume that there is a roughly 50:50 male/female split among children as a whole). For the answer, drag your mouse over this invisible text to select it and read it: There is roughly a 1/3 chance the other child is a boy – if that matches your intuition (and you haven’t heard the puzzle before), then you’re very, very unusual.


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