Professor J. Anderson Thomson on Why We Believe

October 20, 2010 § 1 Comment

This is a great talk by Professor J. Anderson Thomson from the American Atheist convention in Atlanta, Georgia in 2009, which addresses ideas of human evolution, the mind’s coping mechanisms, and the way religion probably evolved with us as a by-product of social mechanisms which emerged within us.

Watch and enjoy!

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Greydon Square Interview – Prominent People Project

October 10, 2010 § 3 Comments

To celebrate my blog’s First Birthday, I am today launching the Prominent People Project.

This is the first in a series of interviews I will be posting of people who are prominent in the worlds of atheism, science, skepticism and rational thought.

My first interview is with the American Hip Hop artist Greydon Square. Born Eddie Collins in 1981, Greydon is an atheist musician whose topics cover science, faith and politics. His lyrics are intelligent and succinct, and since listening to his music I have been sent on a journey of discovery about topics like The Kardashev Scale, Extropianism, and Dyson Spheres, and have also been introduced to other prominent people in science such as Michio Kaku. His latest and third album entitled “The Kardashev Scale” includes samples from Michio Kaku and Carl Sagan among others.

This interview was conducted via email in October 2010.

Greydon Square - The Kardashev Scale

Greydon Square - The Kardashev Scale

AC: Greydon Square, I absolutely love your new album “The Kardashev Scale”. Musically it is complex and varied, and the whole album is refreshingly intelligent in a world where music is more about profiteering and selling product than making a true artistic statement. The content and context of your lyrics are intelligent, questioning, enlightening and thought-provoking. How difficult is it to write music and lyrics with substance?

GS: Well thank you first for your comments on the album. I would answer by saying you go through writing periods that are more substance filled than others. What I try to do is keep only the lyrics and songs that convey that substance, and the stuff that doesn’t rarely makes it to album.

AC: You have a very interesting story to tell about your life; orphaned and brought up in a group home, gang life, Iraq war veteran, and physics student. To what degree do each of these elements of your life influence your work? Which is the strongest influence on you?

GS: Nothing influences any more than the other as far as I know. I think it all depends on where I’m at at the time. I know that’s a simplified answer but, its only really as complicated as calling on life experiences to help fortify the meaning of lyrics I wish to convey more vividly. Group Homes, ganglife, deployment, school, it all plays a part in song writing.

AC: I was brought up in a secular household, where both of my parents had studied science in university in the USA. Their parents were strong Protestants, as were their grandparents. What was the religiosity like when you were growing up? Can you tell me if there was a pivotal moment in your life at which time you realized you were in fact atheist? If so, what was it?

GS: Nearly all of the group homes I was in growing up was sponsored or had some direct relationship with a church or religious organization. From 7th Day Adventist to LA church of Christ, Episcopalian group homes, even Catholic sponsored boys homes. I didn’t understand or became an atheist until I was 25. My de-conversion had to do with a devout ex and our disagreement on the nature of god. After a lot of reading, and research, I realized, I didn’t have any secret channel picking up secret messages from god or anyone else. That voice in my head was my own. Then I started thinking about if an all-powerful being is even possible, by that time, I had already declared my position agnostic, and shortly after denounced and rejected all other remaining religions. Since my beliefs do not include the supernatural or any deities, and stem from a humanistic perspective, I recognize that as an atheistic position.

AC: Your work is not all about atheism. You talk philosophically about the future of humanity, politically about problems in society, particularly in the USA, and also about science and technology. What would you say is your favorite topic for your music, and why?

GS: Believe it or not, my favorite subject is about how shady the music industry is. An old topic i know, but i find that a lot of underground and independent artists, still have this idea that some record company is going to ride in and sweep them off their feet. Give them the lifestyle they always wanted and dreamed of. Sadly, that’s never the way it was, and most artists never get the memo. Or research the history of the music business. I may not be a millionaire, but in the words of Immortal Technique “You don’t own me”. I like that.

AC: You talk about being “a black atheist, and there’s more of us than you think,” on more than one occasion. What importance do you give to being “a black atheist”, and is atheism becoming more prominent in black communities, in your experience?

GS: Well its a big deal because as a recent study showed agnostics and atheists tend to be more educated about the religions they reject. So you have to ask yourself, do blacks know enough about the religion they subscribe to so blindly? I think if blacks knew more about said religions, there would be more African American non-believers, but because in OUR communities blind faith is more valuable than “white man’s science”, it’s harder to convince your peers that religion is an empty answer regardless of your race or creed. I’m just trying to convince more blacks to just READ more about religion. I have no problem reading religious text, because i can process such information objectively, why can’t my reading suggestions be received the same way by my black peers?

AC: I have a huge love for Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s work, and take a lot of my worldviews from his words. What do you think was so special about Carl Sagan’s work that makes him such an inspiration for so many, even 14 years after his death? Who else influences your work and why?

GS: He was science’s poet as far as I’m concerned. Sagan’s passion for knowledge and truth is what drives me and what I do. He was always on a quest for knowledge, wherever it led. I think that’s brave. I aspire to be like that. Kaku is great, Robert G Ingersoll, Laurence Krauss, The Four Horsemen, and Fela Kuti.

AC: When we look at the news, climate forecasts, environmental reports and the like, the future for humanity seems quite bleak, and yet your lyrics talk optimistically about the future. Where does this optimism come from?

GS: I don’t know to be honest with you. I don’t know if I’m as optimistic as I once was. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no armageddonist or anything, but I do think in the next 5 to 10 years its going to get worse for humanity before it gets better. I’m optimistic about the far future, but i think this society has to see that it has been wrong the whole time about some of its major institutions. Only then can we actually try to take that next step, and THAT’S the part I’m excited about. Right now there isn’t much to be excited about though…Sorry.

AC: Religion is in the news much more commonly than in previous decades. From an outsider’s perspective it would seem that matters of faith are more prominent in people’s minds than ever before. What, in your opinion, would you say is the reason behind this? Is religion getting more powerful, or is it losing its grip on the psyches of humankind?

GS: Well first, a lot of what was done in the dark is starting to come to the light, just ask the vatican. Seriously though, I think its just becoming more polarized. The believers REALLY want you to know they believe, and non-believers really are tired of old fables and books having a say in our development as a species. So the voices are getting louder. I think more and more people are waking up, and the religious people are a bit concerned about it.

AC: Your latest album “The Kardashev Scale” and particularly the opening track “Star View” talks about longevity and immortality. We now have technologies that can change the way humans live, and yet a lot of these technologies are being held back for pseudo-religious and political reasons. Why do you think people are so afraid to step forward into a possible new human future? Do you think what we as a society will get past this fear?

GS: THIS society wont. Those who are interested in such an endeavor, are in the extreme minority, and probably wouldn’t be allowed to pursue something like extreme longevity legally. Our society fears this type of tech because its something we can’t really comprehend. To live for that exceptional amount of time, those would think those who have the ability to do so shouldn’t be able to. How do to you prevent this technology from being only available to the wealthy? This would make us have to challenge what rights we have at a fundamental level. I mean who has the right to live forever?

AC: Do you look to the future with fear and trepidation or with optimism?

GS: The short-term, I’m very pessimistic about the future of America, and the world. In the long-term, humans will be just fine. This is just a stage we are in, and in a couple thousand years, there will be virtual exhibits about the stupidity of today’s human.

AC: Discovering your music was such a refreshing change from the dull corporatized music that is prevalent these days. It has inspired me on more than one occasion. Tell me, what is it that inspires you to make music?

GS: Well thank you. Other non corporatized music. I like emcee’s that make me say “ugh” like the rhyme is just super gross. Check out cats like Canibus, Big Gripp, Johnny Hoax, Span Phly, Prince Ea & MegaRan. These are emcees that make me want to write.

Greydon Square’s latest album “The Kardashev Scale” and his earlier 2 albums “The CPT Theorem” and “The Compton Effect” are available for download at Bandcamp and also through iTunes. Go buy them! You won’t be disappointed!


“Who do you need to forgive?” – Outreach Media

October 6, 2010 § 2 Comments

It’s October, which can only mean one thing; Outreach Media have a new billboard! They seem to have hit a few nails on the head this time.

Who do you need to forgive?

Who do you need to forgive?

Not everything that religion touts is harmful, in fact there are some valuable lessons that can be learned from the stories and parables of the Bible. The idea of forgiveness, for instance, is a useful tool to allow people to move on from conflicts or incidents, and to not allow small problems to become larger ones. It is useful to us for letting go of people’s trespasses upon our own territories, and allowing us to balk around fighting or killing everyone who does us wrong. This is one of the basics of civilization, and it is one of the things that allows us to form societies and cultures, and to live in such close proximity to each other. It allows for tolerance of other people, and rather than us reacting against everyone violently or aggressively, we can allow others to go on with their lives in relative peace.

So I don’t really have a problem with the idea of forgiveness. It can be more difficult to forgive people than to hold a grudge, but holding a grudge can be harmful to the mental health of a person, and can be extremely harmful to a culture or society, especially when one of the Bible’s other tenets “An eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” is acted upon. The Gaza Strip is a perfect example of a culture not forgiving the acts of people from their own histories, and continually lashing back and provoking further conflict.

But the idea of forgiveness for the sake of appeasing a God that forgave me for its bringing me into existence in the first place is ridiculous. Having to forgive those around me for their wrongdoings unto me to please a god makes even less sense.

What I’m saying here, yes forgiveness is very important, and worthy of accolades, but not for the sake of going to Heaven. Forgiveness allows us to get along better on Earth. What use can it possibly be to a God? Forgive people because you are a good person, not because you want to appease your God.

On a side note, Steven Pinker speaks at length about the idea of “determinism” in his book “The Blank Slate“, covering off the fear that people have of either being fully at the mercy of our animal instincts to do wrongs to others (this has been used this as a defence against rape, saying that men can’t control their animal urges), as well as the opposite fear (which is scarier) that we are beings of choice and selfishness and do wrong to others because we feel like it or can see some benefit in it for ourselves (mugging and home-invasions etc.).

If either of these cases turned out to be true, in which situation would you find easier to forgive? Why would you forgive someone? Would it be because you can empathise with their situation, and would just like to move on? Or would it be because you were told to forgive so you can reap the reward? Would it make a difference to you if someone stole from you if they had to feed a small baby, or if they stole from you to buy drugs?

Empathising with a situation helps with forgiveness, but even if you can empathise with someone who was stealing to get their next drug fix, would you forgive them? We do use deterrents in society as a way to stop people from causing arbitrary harm to others, such as incarceration and fines, but what we see as acceptable is also up to the societal norms and accepted morality of the culture in which you exist. So when someone goes against what we call societal norms, and mugs, rapes, steals or murders regardless of the outcome, we tend to figure it must be for a reason, whether it is the result of upbringing or genetics or societal pressures.

Having some sort of insight into the reasons behind why someone might cause harm to someone else, regardless of what it might be, makes it easier to forgive. Of course I can see there are some situations where forgiveness is not necessary (someone bumps into int the street on accident), or situations where you don’t want to forgive (murder), and I think this is fine too.

The idea of forgiveness is a good part of human societies, it allows for people to get on with their lives and not dwell on situations they no longer have any control over. As the article from Outreach Media quite correctly says “Letting go of anger and bitterness is a real struggle and you may need to keep working on it all your life,” and counselling may be needed in order to get past certain situations.

Forgiveness was not invented by religion. It was developed by people as a way to get past conflict. It is a useful tool, and it makes for a less stressful society for us all. To be told we have to forgive in order to be forgiven by God is a carrot we don’t need in society today.

Science is irreconcilable with religion

October 4, 2010 § 17 Comments

There are people who claim that science and religion can exist side-by-side, one asking the “how” questions (science) and the other asking the “why” questions (religion). I’d like to say I disagree with this stance, and for a few simple reasons.

Atlas supporting Earth on his back

Atlas supporting Earth on his back

Scientific inquiry is based on measuring interactions and outcomes from observable and repeatable phenomena, based on established empirical principles and existing theories. Outcomes are then observed, tested and compared to create a hypothesis. Scientific method also allows for the falsification of any established hypothesis if information or data arises which is counter to the hypothesis being presented. It is constantly evolving and changing, and if the evidence is great enough, then an agreement is struck among the science community.

Theological inquiry, if it happens at all, is based on interpretations of texts written by men during times when little was understood about the world and the universe. Theological discourse about “what the texts really mean” as opposed to what they say makes up a great deal of the discourse between theologians. Those who go beyond the religious texts tend to talk in vague ways around metaphysical ideas, claiming there must be something more, although ideas like soul have never been observed.

Science does ask the “why” questions, because “why” follows “how” in inquiry, but the “why” of science is actually asking for an answer to the reason something occurs, whereas the “why” from theology is asked without any real intention of arriving at an answer.

Francis Collins, in his video interview at Big Think:

“But faith in its perspective is really asking a different set of questions.  And that’s why I don’t think there needs to be a conflict here.  The kinds of questions that faith can help one address are more in the philosophical realm.  Why are we all here?  Why is there something instead of nothing?  Is there a God?  Isn’t it clear that those aren’t scientific questions and that science doesn’t have much to say about them?  But you either have to say, well those are inappropriate questions and we can’t discuss them or you have to say, we need something besides science to pursue some of the things that humans are curious about.”

I would argue that there is a LOT of philosophy in science, but it lies more in the realm of interpretations for what a scientific outcome might mean for humanity, what the implications for society and cultures are, or what possibilities might arise from a scientific discovery. I say there are no questions that can’t be asked of science, but I would say that in lieu of an answer that mysticism is not a real-world solution to these questions.

I think the irreconcilable nature of religion versus science comes from their origins. Sam Harris makes a good point in this video, where he equates the role of religion historically as the one now filled by science.

When we ask questions of our universe using current methods of inquiry we arrive at answers that can then be compared against other observances and outcomes. When we use the method of inquiry of theology, the answer has already been pre-determined from the outset, and the answer is always “God”. This is not a viable way to find answers, especially if we truly desire to know truths.

I feel that Francis Collins is falling victim to his own cognitive dissonance, where he knows that science has the answers for the big questions, and I think he secretly believes that science will eventually  have the ability to answer the philosophical questions we all ask. At the same time he deeply wishes that there is a creator for the universe, whether it be an Abrahamic god, or an alien creator. If there were a creator then we can stop asking questions safe in the knowledge that the ways of the universe are out of our control and beyond our understanding. And some people find it difficult to imagine a universe without a creator because it leaves us alone and isolated in the universe even more so than we already understand ourselves to be.

Why is it such a horrible fate than man is the result of natural processes and not the result of some divine creature’s tinkering with subatomic particles? We do think ourselves so special that there must be some preordained reason for our existences rather than simply existing, and to be special means to be created.

Furthermore, rather than falling into the downwardly spiraling argument “if there is a creator then who created it?” I think it is enough to say this. Just because we don’t understand something fully does not mean we should attribute it to a universal creator. Just because emotions and other non-physical interactions occur between people does not make it magic. One day, as scientific inquiry advances forward we shall see where the “unaccountable” stuff comes from, and we’ll look back at our immaturity and laugh, much as we do about ancient mythologies of a flat earth, elephants and turtles. People once believed that Atlas held the earth aloft on his back, but does anyone believe that now?

Bertrand Russell said this in 1927:

“If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.”

Science remains unafraid to ask the difficult questions, while theology will skirt around the subject matter, posing questions with circular reasoning and asking for disproof of something science has never claimed to exist in the first place. It’s not the job of science to disprove the existence of god, nor is it the desire outcome. Science is here to help us understand the universe, and one day, given enough time, we may discover why we keep asking for there to be a god.

Further Reading:
Science and religion aren’t friends

James Randi speaks about Carl Sagan

September 28, 2010 § 5 Comments

James Randi’s talk about Carl Sagan’s influence is an eloquent and stirring call-to-arms for reason,  rationality and knowledge. It’s great to see one great thinker speak of another great speaker. In it he says:

“Our greatest enemy by far is ignorance. We have the weapons to defeat it, and we a re increasingly able to do so.”

Atheist Climber Prominent People Project

September 24, 2010 § 7 Comments

Atheist Climber Blog is turning One year old on October 10! Yay! And I remember like yesterday thinking “Do I have anything to write about? Will anyone care? Will anyone read it?” I just wish I had taken more baby photos!

Well you have all spoken to me by visiting and commenting on my blog. My measure of success has been reflected in the blog stats with over 60,000 page hits, over 100 subscribers, and more than 1500 comments for the 100+ articles and videos I have posted. This far surpasses my expectations and for that I thank you all.

To celebrate, I am in the process of interviewing a selection of prominent figures in humanism, atheism, science and critical thinking. Most of these will be in the form of written interviews, but who knows? I might, down the track, do some video or audio interviews too. This will be dependent on how these interviews are received by my readers.

I don’t want to say too much at this stage, but suffice to say, I already have confirmation from a few very prominent and important people who I’m sure you’d recognise. More information to come. So stay tuned!

The first interview will be published on Atheist Climber Blog’s first birthday, October 10, 2010. So come celebrate with me, and feed your brain with the words of some great thinkers.

Thanks again,
Atheist Climber

We’re All Doomed, Time To Get Positive! (part 1)

September 22, 2010 § 2 Comments

The world is in some real strife at the moment. We are approaching a point where experts believe that we will live in an unsustainable way within the next few years, and the population of Earth will reach 9 billion by the middle of this century. While it is true that, for the majority of people living on Earth today, our lives have improved in health and longevity, many of the poorest people are poorer than ever. Some countries like the USA are using on average up to 5 times the amount of resources than is viably sustainable on this planet, and in countries like India, population growth is out of control. The earth is unwell, and we are the cause of this illness.

I recently posted the RSA Animate video “Smile Or Die” on my blog, in which Barbara Ehrenreich talks about the darker side of positive thinking. She talks about “The Secret” and how it is misleading people into thinking that if you think positively enough about something, it will happen. If it doesn’t happen it’s because you weren’t thinking positively enough, or you were never meant to have it.

I totally agree with her in this sense, that positive thinking by itself is useless, except in that it may make you have a better outlook in general. But if you never act on these positive thoughts, all you are doing is effectively throwing your money into a wishing well and hoping for things to get better. I see the idea of The Secret and the idea of prayer in the same light. So many people put their hopes into the “hands of the divine” rather than actively doing something about their situation. Be it Oprah or The Bible, hoping for good things passively is not very helpful for anyone.

I can understand that when people are in times of extreme distress, where a bad situation is out of their hands, like after a natural disaster, in wartime, during times of illness and death, that one might feel less helpless if they at least hope or pray for better times, or to be delivered from a bad situation. This action alone, however, is as useless as masturbation. It might make you feel good for a while, but it won’t achieve much.

What has all this got to do with the state of the world? Well, with  the world being in such a state as it is, and with dire warnings from the likes of Stephen Hawking, telling us we “abandon Earth or face extinction”, it’s easy to fall back into an attitude that everything is hopeless. And I see increasingly an attitude among people who know of the plight of the planet which is “We are all doomed, nothing we do matters, why bother trying?” And this is further exacerbated by the media and its constant portrayal of all the bad things which are happening on and to the Earth. Apart from the aforementioned population and climate problems, we constantly see terrorist warnings, financial warnings, product recall warnings, disease outbreak scares, apparent increases of violence on our streets and the like. These constant warnings compound people’s tendency to fall back on the negativity that we all feel at times. It all seems hopeless.

These two ideas, the hoping helplessly for betterment and negativity toward the future are linked, and sometimes one can lead to the other. If one fails, why not try the other? People in hopeless situations can feel a bit better if they feel like things are out of their hands, and there is nothing easier than just giving up responsibility.

But is it actually hopeless?

Ozone Hole over Antarctica via NASA Earth Observatory

Ozone Hole over Antarctica via NASA Earth Observatory

Recently I read an article on Discovery Blogs entitled “Ozone Layer No Longer Thinning” which explains that after 20 years of concerted effort by the world’s populations to stop pouring CFCs into the atmosphere, we have actually halted the depletion of the ozone layer. This is great news! and the implications go far further than just making sure New Zealanders don’t get sunburnt all the time. What this means is twofold; that we can effect change in the atmosphere; and that we have effected change in the atmosphere (take that climate change deniers). What I mean by this is, it is accepted as fact that the emission of CFCs into the atmosphere cause ozone depletion, and that we by our actions as a global community have taken positive steps to rectify this situation.So why is it different these days? Why do people still claim that there is no link between climate change and human activity?

I propose there are a couple of reasons. Part of it to do with the apparently hopelessness of the situation, and partly because people are unwilling to change the way they live, especially in the USA, Europe and Australia (yes we are very bad too). We love our stuff, and we love it so much that it seems we would rather watch the world around us destroy itself and have a flat screen TV than try to employ more environmentally sustainable practices. Sad, really, but this really seems to be the case.

Let me, at this point say this about negativity. Negativity is worse than false positivity, because not only does it not achieve anything, but it also makes the person thinking negatively feel bad too. The likelihood of being antisocial is increased and may lead to a depressed state. At least people who think positively, whether well-founded positivity or not can be seen as positive people.

I’d like to propose something different.

Firstly, rather than being negative about the future, why not find some thing that are positive in the world. Technology is making leaps and bounds toward the betterment of society. People like Michio Kaku, Carl Sagan and even Ray Kurzweil to a certain extent talks of things that are worthwhile us striving for. The idea that we can strive for all people to be fed, to live longer, to reduce human population, save the rainforests, using the planets resources for ourselves instead of squandering them, all of these ideas are real and if not achievable now, will be soon. Space travel, solar and geothermal energy, green cities and the end to fossil fuels are all within our grasp, or just outside it, a few small steps away.

The key here is education. We need to be educated about our current situation, the way it’s headed now, the possible futures and the futures we want. It is not hard to learn, all of the basic information is on the internet, or in books. Learn what must be done, and learn what can be done.Start with the simple things and then make decisions based on ecology, economy and society.

There is one major hurdle here, and it comes in the form of global mega-corporations, who seem from the outset, to be against everything that we need to do as a planet. Remember however that these corporations are at the mercy of every human who uses their products. If we stop buying products from a company, they go broke. Humans are the ones who drive the market, regardless of what people may tell you. I’m not saying we need to boycott products by all corporations, but we do need to choose wisely what we buy, and what we see as necessary in our lives. Pressure on governments and corporations does work, but it is a slow process.

And don’t just hope for it. We need to actively participate in this discussion.

I do not have all the answers here. How could I? I’m not a scientist, philosopher, or an economist, but a person with a layman’s understanding of what’s going on here. And one thing is very clear to me; with a negative or even a passive positive attitude we are treading water and will soon lose steam.

See part 2

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