Response to FOX Interview of Weather Channel Founder

•August 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment

“CO2 is going to turn the climate of Earth into an oven. We’re all gonna bake and die.”

– Exaggeration. Average global temperature will increase. Some localities may get colder: cutting down trees near polar latitudes makes those areas cooler, whereas cutting down trees near the equator increases temperature in the tropics. This change in local temperature is directly related the photosynthesis of plants, which is implicitly and directly related to the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Also, the trend is towards more extreme, erratic, and unusual weather patterns across the globe. For example: increased drought in the tropics, more and stronger hurricanes generated by warmer ocean surface water.

“We might have raised the temperature by 1/10 of 1 degree – maybe.”

– Wrong. Average global temperature has increased by 0.8 degrees Celsius since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Earth has warmed 1° Celsius since 1500, half of it in last 100 years. The global temperature is presently increasing at the rate of 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade. If current emissions rates continue to rise, we could warm another one degree Celsius by 2050, which would threaten civilization, and lead to runaway global warming. A concentration greater than 450 ppm of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere will lead to a runaway greenhouse effect that will threaten all life on Earth. The atmosphere’s temperature works in a positive feedback loop. The warmer the atmosphere gets, the more the rate at which the atmosphere warms increases. Once that happens, there is no stopping it. Carbon Dioxide is increasing at the rate of 2.5 parts per million each year; at this rate carbon dioxide levels will exceed 400 parts per million by the year 2014. This is a level not seen by the Earth for several hundred thousand years.

“CO2 is a natural compound in the atmosphere. It’s not a pollutant. Plants have to have it…I breathe out. I create it. It is no big deal. And it’s certainly not going to end the world.”

– Misleading. The CO2 people breathe out is not the problem at all. Fossil fuels, deforestation, and combustion reactions are the main problem. CO2 itself is not a pollutant, but higher percentages of it are a problem because more solar heat gets trapped – hence, why it is called a greenhouse gas.

Two-thirds of the carbon dioxide entering the Earth’s atmosphere comes from natural sources such as animal respiration and volcanoes, while one-third is anthropogenic (caused by humans). The sun’s effect has also been demonstrated to be insignificant: over the past 50 years, the troposphere (layer of atmosphere next to Earth’s surface) has been steadily warming while the stratosphere has been steadily cooling. This is the opposite of what would be expected if the sun were having a pronounced effect on Earth’s warming. However, due to human activities such as the combustion of fossil fuels and deforestation, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased by about 36% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

In addition to data from tree rings, there are also of measurements of the 13C/12C ratio in the CO2 trapped in ice cores. The tree ring and ice core data both show that the total change in the 13C/12C ratio of the atmosphere since 1850 is about 0.15%, which is very large relative to natural variability. The results show that the full glacial-to-interglacial change in 13C/12C of the atmosphere — which took many thousand years — was about 0.03%, or about 5 times less than that observed in the last 150 years.

Another, quite independent way that we know that fossil fuel burning and land clearing specifically are responsible for the increase in CO2 in the last 150 years is through the measurement of carbon isotopes. CO2 produced from burning fossil fuels or burning forests has quite a different isotopic composition from CO2 in the atmosphere. This is because plants have a preference for the lighter isotopes (12C vs. 13C); thus they have lower 13C/12C ratios. Since fossil fuels are ultimately derived from ancient plants, plants and fossil fuels all have roughly the same 13C/12C ratio – about 2% lower than that of the atmosphere. As CO2 from these materials is released into, and mixes with, the atmosphere, the average 13C/12C ratio of the atmosphere decreases.

The cost of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change can be limited to 1 percent of economic output while doing nothing could lead to damage costing as much as 20 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. By 2050, when the global population will be an estimated 9 billion people, per-capita gas emissions will need to have fallen to about 2 tons a year, compared with levels as high as 20 tons a person currently in the U.S.

“It’s no different than water vapor.”

– Completely false! Carbon dioxide is CO2; water vapor is H20. CO2 is heavier than H2O, and can’t hydrogen bond. It has a completely different chemistry than water vapor. In fact, they only thing they have in common is that they both contain atoms, and are both gases in standard conditions.

“[CO2] is just a substance that’s out there.”

– Non-point. Neurotoxins are “out there”, too. Does that automatically mean they’re healthy? Are you going to go breathe sulfur dioxide because it’s also “out there”?

The rest is ad hominem attacks making people who accept the evidence for global warming look like unquestioning and intolerant religious fanatics – they were even called “freaks” by the host.

A Temple Built on the World of Fact

•July 17, 2009 • 1 Comment

The strength of humanity has been the ability to find meaning in a chaotic world saturated with suffering – to build a temple of ideals upon the unpredictably shifting ground of unyielding, unconscious Nature. However, this strength has also been a burden on humanity.

Across the world, at different times, tribes of humans built their own temples, each tribe thinking it was the ultimate possessor of the one true Temple. They spilled each others’ blood as they plunged the world into darkness over imaginary crimes. Even those who genuinely wanted to know the universe with the tools of science were swallowed up in the carnage. The atmosphere in those days was toxic to an unorthodox thought.

But, the light of reason, although nearly extinguished, sparkled for long enough to bring about the modern age from the jaws of the Ages of Faith. Human progress accelerated at an unprecedented pace. Some resisted this modernization by seeking refuge in the antiquated temples from whence a recent fireball ignited a global powder keg of passions.

Some proclaim and hope that the end is near. They see a Plan underlying all the ruin. They say it must get worse so that the world may be redeemed. And, that their Savior will come down to make it all right, or that their Way shall finally triumph. Because in the end, they thought, there was a preconceived plan for it all. Extraordinary comforting hopes are usually born of extreme circumstances, but the situation of humanity is more grim than that.

As troubling as it may seem, no amount or intensity of sincere belief and want can preserve human achievements for eternity, much less keep the human personality from the relentless pull of mortality. We all come to an end, including our hopes and wants, and our fears and troubles – no matter how much we wish to endure beyond the grave.

The whole of humanity’s greatness will be swept away by the forces that change matter and energy. These harsh words are the foundation for humanity’s unquenchable despair. Yet, these same forces of matter and energy, by the accretion of billions of mindless accidents over billions of years, are the ones that gave rise to humanity.

While we are here, we are free to enjoy the countless wonders the cosmic forces have produced. We can experience: beautiful nebulae, ringed planets, gigantic spheres of burning nuclear fusion, the cells that make up the universe of our bodies, the forms of life on Earth, the picturesque sunrises and sunsets, the worlds that lay beyond our eight-planet neighborhood, making music and poetry, falling in love, raising our children, and knowing right from wrong. Indeed, it is a miracle to just to be alive. Out of the nearly-infinite possible codes of genetic material, ours were the lucky ones. We now have the ability to: imagine, criticize, reason, enjoy, explore, discover, and know about our world. These abilities are what give humanity freedom in the face of a hostile universe. To squander this freedom would doom humanity to ending itself.

There are many who wish to abolish this freedom. Humanity has been beholden to the utterances of people who think they have a special line to the Infinite. They told humanity to submit to them no matter how unreasonable their decrees, or how impossible the miracles may seem. These people abhorred free thought, and called it heresy. They said eternal punishment awaited the doubters, thereby putting the shackles on the human mind.

The dogma of hellfire has been perhaps the most pernicious blemish on the face of humanity. It is unworthy of any civilized person to believe it today. It is consistent with the barbarism of the ignorant men who devised the creeds that a finite offense deserved an eternal punishment. That unspeakably terrible dogma is worse than any weapon that has ever been invented. It is arguable that no idea has cost more lives, and been the cause of so much suffering, especially to the young children who have been taught to believe it. The sooner this virulent dogma is abandoned, the better for humanity. Many lament the fading away of this scourge on humanity because we now have evidence that the first humans evolved from now-extinct apes; not fashioned out of clay by a divine potter in a garden with an evil talking snake who tempted them into their Fall.

This has a dire consequence for the churches: if there is no Fall of Man, there is no need of atonement; no atonement, no need for a savior. Once we realize that no help will come from above, we can set our sights down here below knowing, as a great intellectual once did, that a pair of hands working is better than a pair of hands clasped in god-fearing prayer.

But, no church creed can survive using the threat of hellfire alone. Eternal reward and joy is the incentive for belief. This is sort of the ‘freedom of thought’ offered by the churches – their way of showing how faith “moderates” reason, and how reward replaces evidence. We have free will, we are told, but if our choice is deemed sinful, we will be eternally punished. This is the sort of ‘free will’ offered by the churches.

If the churches do not instill fear, they bribe their followers without any regard for evidence or for that cursed demon, Reason. Believing for reward is the capital act against the freedom of the mind. It follows from believing something for reward that those who support freedom of thought and expression should be punished. One who is unsure of their beliefs punishes other-thought, and retreats further into their own cocoon. A brave, free person asks for reasons. The cowardly hypocrite asks for reward. All the sermons that preached that belief would bring eternal joy have been one more tightening of the pious coil around humanity. They have corrupted the moral sense, and dulled the mind.

The churches had to deal, eventually, with the people who doubted. Whenever doubt arose, it was labeled “a test of faith” instead of “the mind breaking free” with its native intelligence. When this was not enough to foil doubt, they put a dictator in the sky, who would separate the “sheep” from the “goats” at the End of Time. Among the goats would be the thinkers who had freed themselves from his tyranny through their doubt.

Then, humanity was told that it would become wicked if it did not hold to the dogmas of faith. Actually, the opposite has been demonstrated through experience. We find that the more intense the belief, the more dogmatic the people, the worse has been the state of humanity. Imaginable cruelties were inflicted upon thousands, countless people were burned as witches. To speak that the Earth was not the center of Creation was an abomination. Such were the times when humanity was benighted by the ideas of those who feared truth and progress. Therefore, it is the duty of those who love liberty to make their minds their own churches, and to work for the liberty of other minds. Only by encouraging an open forum of ideas can we wither away at our problems, and proceed with attaining our noblest goals.

The failure of the imagination, fear of death, the unknown, and defeat, the seductiveness of anti-rationalism, anti-intellectualism, and the dogmas of militarism have enchained humanity since its primitive beginnings. It is the duty of those who want to remove these chains to conquer fear, which is both the parent of superstition and cruelty and the enemy of truth and progress. To move forward requires the acceptance that there is no one else who will look after humanity except for humanity itself – that humanity is but one voice of Life in a life-less solar system.

The universe is not for humanity, and reality is not its friend. To grasp that the temple of ideals is separate from the world of grim and unpleasant fact is an act of independence of mind and sheer courage that most will resist and avoid. For to live in a world of comforting illusions is a fool’s paradise, which the fool will end up paying for in the end. But, to staunchly preserve a mind against the tyranny of the forces humanity cannot conquer is the true paradise, for in vanquishing the timeless forces, the mind can truly be free. We can try to understand this world, to master some of its forces with our own intelligence, and to make it a more fit place to live with our own hearts, instead of trying to looking for invisible means of support.

Why should we try to understand the world and question it? Firstly, bad ideas are one of the principle causes of strife and suffering in the world. Secondly, they do not allow us to reach our goals. Lastly, truth is better than falsehood. Happiness that depends on deception is the same as living a pitiful lie. But, to be happy in the face of truth is the conquering of slavish fear.

This uncaring universe abounds and surrounds us with tragedy. It is tragic: that we lose those whom we love, that all our possessions can be lost in seconds, that our achievements may be unappreciated, that sorrows await at every turn, that we must suffer the vagaries of natural forces we cannot control, and that we make friends who vanish from us as quickly as they came. But, there is an austere beauty in this tragedy. During the brief time we have with our neighbors, we can decide to lighten their lives with our affection, wisdom, and strength without a regretful hankering after soothing falsities. When their time is over and become part of the irrevocable past, we can know that we treated them with love, endured their sorrows with them, consoled them, encouraged them when they were struck with inspiration, and shared our joy with them. We inhabit a blue speck traveling in the vastness of a cosmic darkness: let it be us who show some more empathy and kindliness towards our fellow travelers.This is how, regardless of the exigencies of blind and deaf forces, we may endure the challenges to our survival and happiness.

Once we acknowledge that all of our genius and all of our creation on this planet will pass away as an ember in the growing Sun, we can realize that we all share a common end that separates no human from another. Then, among the individuals of humanity a strong may be formed, yet this bond will not come about by: abolishing regional cultures, submitting to slavery and tyranny, denying the flaws of the human mind, believing in the superior virtue of the oppressed, disabling our critical thinking, bending our knees to phantoms, prophets, and popes, upholding sacred cows, or espousing Utopian ideologies. Instead, by the realization of an undeniable fact: that humanity will come to an end. This is an inescapable fate that binds us all. From that fate, we may find our own life’s meaning, and our own strength. And we may also find cause to show sympathy, share pleasure, and shed sunlight upon the paths of those who we meet on this tiny fragile vessel, our home.

Christ, Evil, and Their Compatibility

•June 22, 2009 • Leave a Comment

When Robert Green Ingersoll asked, in his About the Bible (1894), questioned “why should we place Christ at the top and summit of the human race,” he wrote:

If Christ was in fact God, he knew all the future. Before him like a panorama moved the history yet to be. He knew how his words would be interpreted. He knew what crimes, what horrors, what infamies, would be committed in his name. He knew that the hungry flames of persecution would climb around the limbs of countless martyrs. He knew that; thousands and thousands of brave men and women would languish in dungeons in darkness, filled with pain. He knew that his church would invent and use instruments of torture; that his followers would appeal to whip and fagot, to chain and rack. He saw the horizon of the future lurid with the flames of the auto da fe. He knew what creeds would spring like poisonous fungi from every text. He saw the ignorant sects waging war against each other. He saw thousands of men, under the orders of priests, building prisons for their fellow-men. He saw thousands of scaffolds dripping with the best and bravest blood. He saw his followers using the instruments of pain. He heard the groans — saw the faces white with agony. He heard the shrieks and sobs and cries of all the moaning, martyred multitudes. He knew that commentaries would be written on his words with swords, to be read by the light of fagots. He knew that the Inquisition would be born of the teachings attributed to him.

He saw the interpolations and falsehoods that hypocrisy would write and tell. He saw all wars that would he waged, and he knew that above these fields of death, these dungeons, these rackings, these burnings, these executions, for a thousand years would float the dripping banner of the cross.

He knew that hypocrisy would be robed and crowned — that cruelty and credulity would rule the world; knew that liberty would perish from the earth; knew that popes and kings in his name would enslave the souls and bodies of men; knew that they would persecute and destroy the discoverers, thinkers and inventors; knew that his church would extinguish reason’s holy light and leave the world without a star.

He saw his disciples extinguishing the eyes of men, flaying them alive, cutting out their tongues, searching for all the nerves of pain.

He knew that in his name his followers would trade in human flesh; that cradles would be robbed and women’s breasts unbabed for gold.

And yet he died with voiceless lips.

Why did he fail to speak? Why did he not tell his disciples, and through them the world: “You shall not burn, imprison and torture in my name. You shall not persecute your fellow-men.”

Why did he not plainly say: “I am the Son of God,” or, “I am God”? Why did he not explain the Trinity? Why did he not tell the mode of baptism that was pleasing to him? Why did he not write a creed? Why did he not break the chains of slaves? Why did he not say that the Old Testament was or was not the inspired word of God? Why did he not write the New Testament himself? Why did he leave his words to ignorance, hypocrisy and chance? Why did he not say something positive, definite and satisfactory about another world? Why did he not turn the tear-stained hope of heaven into the glad knowledge of another life? Why did he not tell us something of the rights of man, of the liberty of hand and brain?

Why did he go dumbly to his death, leaving the world to misery and to doubt?

I will tell you why. He was a man, and did not know.

This excerpt elicited a reader’s response:

An alternative reason is that it’s all part of the plan. It’s obviously a really fantastic plan because otherwise Christ wouldn’t have let all that crazy stuff happen. It’s just really unfortunate that for whatever reason we can’t understand any aspects of the plan except that it’s a really good one.

I have some ideas about that explaining away of evil in the world. The argument that suffering is part of Christ’s (or some other god’s) plan is a rather ancient one.  It might raise a couple of questions:

Should we reward violent criminals for doing God’s plan?

Is God willing, but not able, to prevent evil, or able and not willing?

My answer to the first is an emphatic “no.” To the second, a far more probable, reasonable, and less uncomfortable alternative is that there is no one watching out for us except ourselves, and it is up to us to prevent the evils of the world.

Saying that the horrors committed in Christ’s name are all part of a “really good” and “really fantastic” plan is so ghastly insensitive, absurd, and numb to human suffering as to afford ridicule. It smacks of the incurable optimist Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide. If Christ ever conceived of such a “plan”, then he would be more worthy of contempt than praise.

Author Sam Harris also has written on the inscrutability of the divine plan:

One wonders just how vast and gratuitous a catastrophe would have to be to shake the world’s faith. The Holocaust did not do it. Neither did the genocide in Rwanda, even with machete-wielding priests among the perpetrators. Five hundred million people died of smallpox in the 20th Century, many of them infants. God’s ways are, indeed, inscrutable. It seems that any fact, no matter how infelicitous, can be rendered compatible with religious faith. In matters of faith, we have kicked ourselves loose of the Earth.

Of course, people of faith regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering. But how else can we understand the claim that God is both omniscient and omnipotent? There is no other way, and it is time for sane human beings to own up to this. This is the age-old problem of theodicy, of course, and we should consider it solved. If God exists, either he can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities or he does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil. Pious readers will now execute the following pirouette: God cannot be judged by merely human standards of morality. But, of course, human standards of morality are precisely what the faithful use to establish God’s goodness in the first place. And any God who could concern himself with something as trivial as gay marriage, or the name by which he is addressed in prayer, is not as inscrutable as all that. If he exists, the God of Abraham is not merely unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.

There is another possibility, of course, and it is both the most reasonable and least odious: The biblical God is a fiction. As Richard Dawkins has observed, we are all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor. Only the atheist has realized that the biblical god is no different. Consequently, only the atheist is compassionate enough to take the profundity of the world’s suffering at face value. It is terrible that we all die and lose everything we love; it is doubly terrible that so many human beings suffer needlessly while alive. That so much of this suffering can be directly attributed to religion–to religious hatreds, religious wars, religious delusions and religious diversions of scarce resources–is what makes atheism a moral and intellectual necessity. It is a necessity, however, that places the atheist at the margins of society. The atheist, by merely being in touch with reality, appears shamefully out of touch with the fantasy life of his neighbors.

Skepticism Doesn’t Sell

•June 7, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I’m tired of hearing about chakras, crystals thought to alleviate medical conditions, using “your heart” to verify truth claims, remembering past lives, and the existence of the autonomous rational mind. However, when I express this discomfort, people shake their heads presumably because it looks “intolerant” or “close-minded” to balk at unsupported claims to knowledge and emotive reasoning. It is a thankless action to be the one who expresses skepticism, and it is an action I would rather not do. But, am I supposed to let the intellectual charlatans go on to convince other people with their bombastic nonsense? Even when such beliefs kill?

I can understand why some people can perceive me as intolerant. We have freedom of religion in this country, which is confused as an excuse to call reasonable people, who try to destroy bad ideas, intolerant (even totalitarian!).  We do need to acknowledge, as members of a civil society, that people have a right to believe whatever they want, but we are not expected to let their beliefs go without scrutiny or criticism.

In daily life, we demand reasons for just about everything, but when the topic turns to metaphysical claims, all bets are off: you can say whatever you want, although it’s unseemly to look too adamant. This double standard needs to be eliminated because beliefs determine what people will live for – and, sadly, what they will kill for. Beliefs have real-world consequences. And, to frown upon those who try to make the world more reasonable is a costly way of maintaining humanity’s sanctimonious ignorance.

Contradictions Revisited

•June 6, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Recently, I have discovered two gigantic contradictions in the beliefs that formerly colored the way I see the world. I find them amusing, and surprisingly quite simple. The first one is about free will:

Suppose someone came up to you, and said you could choose what flavor of candy you wanted out of his collection. It sounds like you have plenty of options. Then, the man says if you don’t chose the color he wants, he’ll beat you to death.

This is the sort of free will one can expect from the God of Abraham. You can choose to believe in and love him, but if you don’t you’re going to suffer for eternity.  This is not exactly what being free from coercion looks like. If you are being coerced to make a decision, you have no moral responsibility and no free will. What is needed for free will is absence of coercion, and the doctrine of hell is one of the most pernicious examples of moral coercion. Either there is no hell, or there is no free will. There cannot be both.

The second contradiction I have found concerns the nature of the Creator, who allegedly both omniscient and omnipotent. But, there is a problem: if God is omniscient, he knows how he is going to act in the future, and so cannot change those actions. Therefore, he cannot be omnipotent.

Now some believers might be disturbed by these frightening or uncomfortable internal inconsistencies in their theology. I suggest that the most reasonable and least odious alternative is the idea that God is imaginary, no matter who or how many illustrious people sincerely believe in him.

Notre Dame-gate

•May 17, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Many believers did not approve of President Obama being awarded an honorary law degree from Notre Dame because of his support for reproductive rights. The Catholic protesters have shown that they are part of the backlash against modernity affecting many of the world’s religions as they perceive that their influence and traditions are being threatened and eroded.

Whether this indicates a rise in fundamentalist-minded Catholicism remains to be seen, but certainly popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have paved the way for a ghastly conservative faith by appointing Church leaders, who both take a more traditionalist, rigid interpretation of Catholic doctrines and are more strident apologists for these dogmas.

Further rejection of pluralism, modernity, and open-ended conversation could dwindle the ranks of moderate and liberal Catholics, make the Church more extremist, alienate the Church from public life, and render the Church irrelevant to the issues it seeks to influence. Prior to the Enlightenment, Thomas Aquinas set the Catholic Church free from being only faith-driven, but will today’s Catholics blinker the faith completely by abandoning the use of reason?

If so, then it is not the time, as Obama said in his speech, for people who are becoming increasingly radicalized “to bring their ideas” into the public debate on social matters. Presenting either evidence or a water-tight argument to believers will not change their minds; it may actually make them feel more validated in their belief.

That is obviously the nature of faith itself: to believe in spite of poor, non-existent, or even contradictory evidence. Faith enables someone to think that they are being reasonable while foresaking reason. The problems civilization faces will neither be solved by ratifying all opinions as equally valid and true, nor by unctuously preserving the moral barriers that balkanize us into separate moral communities. As Thomas Paine wrote, “The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason.”

Why We Believe in Gods – Andy Thomson – American Atheists 09

•May 12, 2009 • Leave a Comment

YouTube – Why We Believe in Gods – Andy Thomson – American Atheists 09.

This is a lecture by psychologist Andy Thomson on the cognitive science of religion, specifically, why religions persist and arose from cognitive mechanisms that were mainly for other purposes than devising, say, spirits and ghosts. It is well-organized, accessible, and richly informative. Expand your mind, and enjoy!

(I am greatly indebted to one of my friends at Washington University for letting me know about this video.)