Sunday, December 28, 2014

Unlike watches, easy to break beliefs have more value

By Mathew Goldstein

A robust watch that "takes a licking and keeps on ticking" is better than a fragile watch.  A belief is unlike a watch in this respect.  A belief should be defeasible to have merit and warrant our support.  The easier it is to defeat a belief the more justified we are to hold that belief by virtue of a failure to defeat it.  When a belief attempts to claim the allegedly unbreakable status of a Timex watch that indicates that the belief is likely to be ill-defined and to lack value.  People who proudly assert that they adopt their most important beliefs on faith and actively resist the doubting of this faith, or who deliberately select their beliefs to be as inscrutable and invulnerable to defeat as possible, are making a fundamental mistake.  They are self-defining themselves as unreasonable ideologues.

To be properly justified our beliefs need to be derived from an honest effort to obtain a best fit with the available evidence.  Accordingly, we should hold those beliefs that are most consistent with the conclusions reached by a current consensus of the experts who carefully examine the empirical evidence and who adopt only those defeasible conclusions that withstand skeptical scrutiny.  Using this standard we are not restricted to adopting only those conclusions that are published in science textbooks, but we are confined to adopting only those beliefs that are the closest match with the conclusions published in science textbooks.  

The evidence favors, as best fit beliefs, that biology is chemistry is physics, that humans are primates that evolved from evolved fish that evolved from single celled organisms that emerged from chemistry and physics, that our universe has total energy in the vicinity of zero and that a stable initial condition of absolute nothingness is a fictional concept, that human cognition is flawed and biased and the very different religious beliefs among different people reflect our cognitive biases, and that libertarian free will is a fiction.  It thus becomes difficult to simultaneously hold traditional religious beliefs.  We should not be seeking a religious belief or any pre-determined belief, we should be seeking best fit with the available evidence beliefs.

The Great Silence paradox

By Mathew Goldstein

SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, has detected nothing.  This result gives us "the Great Silence" paradox, which can be stated thusly:  The size and age of our universe incline us to believe that many technologically advanced civilizations exist. However, this belief is in conflict with our failure to find observational evidence to support it. 

Maybe intelligent life requires more than physics and chemistry and exists only on earth because a creator god of some sort put us here.  Maybe technologically advanced intelligent life is rarer than we assumed.  Maybe our current observations are misdirected or our search methodologies are flawed.  It turns out that the last two explanations for this failure are both likely true.

Earth is located 27,000 light years from the center of our galaxy.  SETI researchers look towards the center of our galaxy because that is the direction where the largest concentration of nearby stars are found.  New evidence implies that long gamma ray bursts are more common in places where stars are more dense and also where elements heavier than hydrogen and helium are less common.  

Long gamma ray bursts function like a reset buttons, they destroy multi-cellular life.  Intelligent life, which we can define here as life that achieves an understanding of how stars give off light, is possible on earth because of our location on the outer periphery of a large galaxy where there are fewer nearby stars and where there is a significant quantity of heavier elements. Earth appears to have experienced a partial biological reset from a gamma ray burst resulting in the Ordovician extinction, a global cataclysm about 450 million years ago that wiped out 80% of Earth's species.

During the first 5 billion years after the Big Bang there were arguably too many long gamma ray bursts to make plausible the emergence of intelligent life.  Furthermore, most galaxies are smaller than our Milky Way galaxy, with densely packed stars and/or with fewer heavy elements.  It is estimated that about 10% of the observable galaxies are sufficiently large and with enough heavy elements to have planets in their outer regions with conditions amenable to the evolution of intelligent life.  10% of 100 billion is still 10 billion galaxies, but the large distances between galaxies reduces the probability of our finding evidence for intelligent life in other galaxies even when it exists.  

Thus the initial SETI results appear to be not so paradoxical after all.  Our chaotic universe provides a mostly harsh environment that is ill-suited for the evolution of intelligent life.  The search for extraterrestrial intelligence may be more effective if it focused on the outer regions of our galaxy and nearby large galaxies, but this constraint also makes it less likely that we will ever find them.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

State constitutions, public office and people's belief in God

Edd Doerr (

Roy Torcaso and I were friends. I met him shortly after moving to Maryland in 1966 to work for Americans United. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service at his Unitarian congregation in Maryland. Roy was a very gutsy guy.  His Supreme Court case, Torcaso v Watkins, was a great victory for church-state separation and religious freedom.

That said, it is important to comment on the Dec 7 NY Times story.

1.      Yes, there are statements mandating certain religious beliefs in order to hold public office in MD and several other state constitutions. However, thanks to the Torcaso ruling, these are all inoperative museum relics,  dead letters. But, then, many state constitutions are crammed with such inoperative relics, such as one state’s ban on a guy kissing a woman in public on a Sunday., and other nonsense.

2.      Can these relics be removed? Very unlikely. And attempts to do so will surely fail. Not only  will they fail, but they could well generate backlash that will actually harm the secularist cause. Further, tinkering with a state constitution could open a real can of worms, whether through a legislatively proposed constitutional amendment or a state constitutional convention. The result could be constitutional changes that divert public funds to faith-based private schools, further restrict abortion rights,  allow “creationism” to be taught on public schools, or cause other mischief.

3.      Let’s note that the US Constitution, Article I, Section 2, still contains language that says that African Americans only count as 3/5 of a person for determining the composition of the House of Representatives. This was rendered inoperative by the 14th Amendment, but it’s still in the Constitution forever.

4.      Attempts to remove these offensive provisions from state constitutions will not only fail but will distract attention and energy from dealing with really important hot issues like climate change, right wing attacks on public education and reproductive choice, the transfer of wealth to the top 1% from the rest of us, and other matters.

5.      Instead of wasting time, energy, money and good will on a lost cause, secularists need to be broadminded and practical enough to work with others across the religio-political spectra to accomplish important  goals on the issues that really count.

(Edd has been a Full time church-state activist for the last 50 yeara)

Marylanders: Request repeal of antiquated laws

By Mathew Goldstein

The Secular Coalition for America recently sent out emails to their members in Maryland inviting them to send an email to their Delegate and Senator requesting that Articles 36 & 37 of the Declaration of Rights be amended to comply with a 1961 Supreme Court decision, Torcaso v. Watkins, that Article 37 violates the first amendment.  Articles 36 & 37 allow a religious test for qualifying to be a juror and a witness and to hold public office.  The first two links below quote the laws, the next link describes the issue, and the last link displays the SCA form to send the email.

As of this week, the Secular a Coalition for Maryland has given a Model Secular Policy Guide to 19 Senators and 28 Delegates.  Our goal is to give a copy of the Guide to most of the Senators and Delegates prior to the start of the 2015 General Assembly session.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus

by Don Wharton
We all know that religion is a cosmic joke. Our evolutionary background leaves us with massive opportunities to fall into quite delusional belief systems. For some the results are incredibly painful. However, there are others that celebrate the cosmic joke of it all with humor and delight. Consider the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus. This is a new official religion. The high priest of this religion is Ryan Ballard.

From an article, “When asked if he felt any more spiritual since his ordination, Ballard said: "I'm absolutely on a higher plane. I can feel the furry fingers of the sacred drunken Wookiee stirring in my soul." Read the article here.

We can only hope that as more people recognize the cosmic absurdity of religion it will move the world toward a happier reality for us all.

The main web site for the group is here.

Any religion must have its rules. The major ones are that there must be no unicorns, elves or whinebots. Of course, the major purpose of these rules are to enable the dynamic civil rights contingent called the Mystic Krewe of P.U.E.W.C. or People for the inclusion of Unicorns, Elves and Whinebots in Chewbacchus. From their web site, “Unicorns, Elves, Faeries, Potterheads, Were-beasties, and all the rest of the supernatural and magical creatures in the universe can now join in the fun. Fantasy fans are welcome to roll in the Chewbacchus Parade under the mighty banner of the Mystic Krewe of P.U.E.W.C.”