“Life Begins at Conception”

Background

I found myself recently in another one of those online religion-vs-atheism arguments, this time following the controversial Twitter remarks of Richard Dawkins on the morality of allowing a Down Syndrome foetus to run to a full pregnancy term, rather than terminating it in favour of a ‘healthy’ pregnancy.  Of course, despite Dawkins’ attempt to explain his position thoroughly and apologetically, the holier-than-thou brigade have continued to demonise him and ignore the logic of his explanation.

However, the core topic of that particular discussion is not what this post is about.  Rather, I want to focus on a related issue that came up in the course of the ‘debate’, which was basically about abortion.  Much of the religious opposition to Dawkins was concerned with the dogma that any deliberate termination of a foetus was immoral because it equated to the taking of another human life.  It is this point that I took exception to, because there is no universally-agreed moment at which a human life begins.

Abortion

In terms of defining when legal abortions can take place, this varies among western countries.  It is subject to debate, informed by scientific and medical experts primarily on the basis of how mature and responsive the central nervous system is at any given stage. Of course, a particular stage of development of the brain and nervous system does not provide any basis for marking where a human life begins.  Instead, it provides at least a guideline for scientific and medical experts to make a judgement about what kind of pain or suffering could be experienced by a foetus. This in turn allows law-makers, and society-at-large, to draw a (somewhat) arbitrary line at a particular stage of foetal development, up to which they are mostly ‘comfortable’ with elective terminations.

However, defining ‘human-ness’ is even harder than this. 

Prenatal “Human-ness”

Few would likely argue that a healthy newborn isn’t fully human.  It has all the physical features of a human and it is recognised, loved and valued as such by its family. But the newborn is not likely to be self-aware in the same sense that an adult or even an older infant is.  It has no conscious concept of the human society that it has just been born into. It has no ability to formulate or enact decisions and is totally dependent on others for its survival. Despite this, we generally accept that a baby is fully human – a legitimate member of our society.

One could argue that until a baby has been born alive that it is not yet human, because it is not a participant (not even passively) in any human society.  However, most folks would reject this, particularly an expectant mother, who might claim that they have already been bonding with their child while it is still in the womb.  Furthermore, there is not a great deal of physical difference between prenatal baby in the final weeks of pregnancy and postnatal one. Hence an argument that “human-ness begins at birth” is not one that will ever likely find universal agreement.

I argue that ‘human-ness’ isn’t a quality for which we can have any kind of useful scale.  While we can identify stages of prenatal development and reasonably describe various features and functions as being more developed, there is no point in talking about a foetus being ‘more human’ according to this timeline.  The pro-life / anti-abortion movement will probably agree with me on this point.  However, this is likely where our agreement will end if they choose to claim that a human life begins at the moment of conception.

 Conception

The term ‘conception’ has been used and defined, primarily by Christians and more specifically by Catholics, as the moment when a human life begins in utero.  And this is indeed a convenient and intellectually satisfying label, because it refers specifically to the fertilisation of the mother’s egg by the father’s sperm.  The combining of the separate DNA of two people to create the new and different DNA of a new individual.  It’s not possible to have a more specific start-of-life-defining-moment than this, right?

Furthermore, modern science has even helped us to define this moment – after all, it is only relatively recently in human history that we’ve had the techniques and the understanding to recognise what genetic material is and how it combines during sexual reproduction.  We now know that a zygote is uniquely different to the individual gametes from which it is formed.

But let’s step back from this apparent physical reality for just a moment, and at least recognise that this claim is more a philosophical than it is a practical one. As well as providing us with the knowledge of gametes and zygotes, modern science and medicine also tell us that between one third and one half of all fertilised eggs are lost spontaneously (aborted) early in the first trimester of pregnancy and often before the woman even knows that she is pregnant.  Spontaneously aborted embryos are almost never (as far as I know) mourned as losses, either by the mother or by society at large. These types of losses can be reasonably characterised as ‘biologically natural’ – in fact they are often due to chromosome abnormalities or other biochemical factors that are just not compatible with a healthy pregnancy or offspring.

Lost embryos and zygotes are not considered to be human deaths by most people and by society at large. We do not hold funerals for them, and don’t recognise them as ever truly being human.  Hence the claim that a zygote (the scientific label given to the result of a conception) is a human is at best a philosophical claim only, not one that applies in practice.  Let’s return to this point later.

 The (Abridged) Biochemistry of Conception

If we’re going to rely on the moment of conception as our definition for the start of a given human life, then we should understand this as clearly and as specifically as possible.  As described above, the ‘pro-conceptionists’ will claim that they’ve got this pinned: The combining of the separate DNA of two people to create the new and different DNA of a new individual.

However, this description is not a single event. It is a process – a cascade of numerous, complex events that really have no specific beginning or ending.  When we use a word like conception, we need to understand that this is an artificial label that we apply, with some arbitrariness, to the events that start with approximately the time that a sperm enters an egg, and ends approximately with the formation of a zygote before it divides into the so-called daughter cells of the new embryo.  These events are not exact, unless one can give a very precise – in fact, an infinitesimally precise – definition to the specific biological events involved.

In particular, consider the (approximate) moment when a sperm cell bonds to the cell membrane of the unfertilised egg.  Do we have a new human life at this point? Most will argue no, because the key criterion in defining life from conception was concerned with the combining of the separate haploid chromosomal complement to make the diploid complement of the resulting zygote. Technically, this combination happens as the in-process zygote is preparing biochemically for its first mitotic division.

Despite the animated descriptions in various youtube videos of the fertilisation process (and there are some good ones out there), the combination of the sets of DNA is not a temporal singularity. In other words, it is not an instantaneous event – it takes some time, even though it may be short, for that to occur.

 How Much Genetic Material has to Combine?

If you’re going to insist on calling ‘conception’ the unique new-human-moment, you need to ask yourself if this process were to be halted after, say, 10% of the separate DNA material was combined, would you have lost a life at this point?  Surely it makes no sense to think of this moment as being only 10% of a new human life.

What about if it reaches just over 50%?  Does a half round up to the full?  An undergraduate biologist will be able to tell you that 50% of a chromosomal complement is a long way from compatibility with life, and if this were indeed the biological result, the outcome would be one of those spontaneous embryonic abortions referred to earlier.

Well, what about at 100% combination then?  Again, no, because a diploid complement that was missing a very small proportion number of chromosome pieces here and there – depending on which ones they were, could certainly be compatible with life.  This is not uncommon in fact, because bad genes on one chromosome are frequently compensated for by those on the ‘good’, matching chromosome.

The problem with this proportion-of-DNA-combination approach is that there is no number that can apply in any given case, because it all depends on which pieces of DNA combine successfully. One only has to extend this understanding to recognise that there are no unambiguous biological criteria for defining the instant of when not-a-new-human-life material switches to become definitely-a-new-human-life material.

Therefore, if one persists in saying that conception is the moment, because that’s when maternal and paternal DNA is combined into a new cell, then one is still equivocating on the precise, singular moment of human-ness. The process of conception actually occurs within a smear of time, with no specific beginning and no specific end.

And so we come full circle to Richard Dawkins, who has described other natural processes in similar terms in his 2011 article on The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind.

A Philosophical Argument

There are two objections I’ve encountered to this observation. The first is that this argument doesn’t matter, because even at the moment of the sperm meeting the egg, or upon penetrating it, we already have a potential new human anyway.  However, this counter-argument misses the key point that one’s decision of when a potential new human begins is still entirely arbitrary. With this viewpoint, one could say that they were a potential human as soon the gametes within their own parents’ cells were formed, or even trace a pointless regression back through one’s ancestral genetic formations to the very beginning of life on earth.

The second objection I’ve heard is that biochemically dividing up the events at conception like this is ‘splitting hairs’, with a reference to Zeno’s paradox thrown in. (I had never heard of this before, so I had to look it up before I could determine that it was (or rather, they were) irrelevant to the issue).  Superficially, this objection seems to have merit. Because yes – in dissecting the process of human fertilisation down to tiny time slices, in which we could hypothetically observe the progressive appearance of diploid DNA, we’ve gone beyond the practical definition of conception and the practical account of what makes one human.  However, when we’re dealing with biology on the scale of ‘conception’, as discussed above, we’re no longer in the realms of practicality. We’re in the murky, ambiguous, equivocating and unresolved depths of philosophy.

So finally, if you must insist on sticking with the label of ‘conception’ as your definition of the start of human life, you really ought to think it through. Understand that not only does your label have no practical relevance, but it is philosophically flawed as well.

I’ll Pray For You. And Deny Your Free Will.

I hear frequently from Christians the offer that they will pray for someone who is not a believer. No doubt there is a range of possible meanings by such an offer. It may be just a cynical, passive-aggressive insult. It could be an innocent and simple request to generally keep the recipient safe from harm.

Or, it may be a request that God help the person to come to know and understand Him. This implies a potential path to belief, faith and eventual salvation for the prayed-for person.

Prayer seems to take different forms – not all prayers are requests (some are offers of thanks). However, request prayers are thoroughly pointless. When someone makes a request of God through prayer, it can only be with a childish naivety that they would ever expect their request to be granted. Leaving aside the fact that prayer has been shown not to work, the thinking (or lack thereof) behind the request prayer seems to be that the human act of praying itself will somehow influence a omniscient deity’s decision-making.  As if he didn’t already know what the praying person was about to ask for.  And as if His mind hadn’t been fully made up before said prayer about smiting or saving someone, or delivering world peace, or fixing the cataracts of Sam’s mum, or allowing a particularly pious football team to be more deserving of a victory on a given day.

More profoundly illogical than this is the prayer for a non-believer – that somehow they will change their minds, see the light, allow God into their hearts, and (eventually) become a Christian.

In the previous post here, I described one of the core Christian doctrines – that of the existence of free will.  This is the assertion that we all have the choice of what we believe.  We are apparently free to choose to accept the Christian God, or to reject Him, according to Christianity.

As part of a recent online discussion with some Christians, I made the point that “praying for an atheist” in this way is completely contrary to the notion of free will.  Their reply was that when Christians do this, they obviously don’t mean something in the sense of a “spiritual mafia” (their words), or a forced, instantaneous conversion.  They were implying a more gentle persuasion approach – one in which God would reveal Himself more subtly, not make the person believe, but rather help them to, perhaps over a course of time and through interactions with other believers.

But this misses the point that even such a ‘gentle’ approach contravenes the principle of free will with respect to belief.  If God plays any role whatsoever in influencing the thinking of a non-believer, then He has interefered with the free will of that person in their apparent choice to not believe.  It makes no sense for an omniscient God, who wants their subject to believe and indeed follows through with the evidence or revelation required, to do so in a way that just falls short of success – even if that success takes the form of a last-minute death-bed conversion.

The belief or non-belief position of a person is something that is arrived at by a complex psychological process.  It is influenced by the teachings of people close to that person from a young age, the individual learnings and discoveries throughout their lifetime, the persuasion of others and the memories and lessons from the individual’s past. Basically the sum total of all of a person’s experiences.  There may even be a biological or genetic component to the psychology of faith vs. scepticism (although I personally doubt the significance of such a component in the context of all the other aforementioned influences).  The power of all of these factors demonstrates that free will, and certainly the supposed free will of theistic belief, is clearly a psychological illusion. We cannot examine our beliefs in a conscious manner that is independent from these influences.

However, Christians that believe in limited atonement – and this seems to be nearly all of them – insist that free will of belief is true. Therefore they cannot escape the point that if they pray for a non-believer (ie., make a request to God to persuade them of the Christian ‘truth’), then they are asking God to intervene – no matter how gently or subtly – and influence the belief system of the individual in question.  It is a direct contravention of one of the core tenets of Christian belief.

Of course, the logic of this will be lost on most Christians who still feel the need to pray for their atheist friends.  The next time one of them does, see what they come back with when you point out the flaw in their logic.  If they do see it, perhaps they have the potential to see some of the other logic flaws in their beliefs.

Free Will, Belief and Salvation – The flaw in the heart of Christianity

One of the key components of Christian doctrine is the notion of free will. This is the freedom to make conscious decisions and choices about what to think.

Free will is a controversial and much-discussed topic, unresolved by science or philosophy. It is also confusing, because people use the term to mean different things. I use it here in the more classical context, which says that free will is our ability to make decisions independent of the constraints of our physical circumstances and selves. It implies a dualist nature of consciousness – a component of our conscious mind that exists independent of our brain and body (a ‘soul’ perhaps?).

Suffice to say, my view is that this type of free will is an illusion. There is no component of our consciousness that exists outside of our brains, and therefore no free will that allows us to think in a way that is independent of our physical selves, our memories and our environment.  No scientific observations have ever been made to demonstrate that a dualist free will might exist. And while we all have a compelling sense that our thoughts are our own to control, we do not have any persistent sensation of our thinking occurring outside our physical bodies or independent of our physical circumstances. At least, I don’t, and I would doubt and dismiss the claims of anyone who said that they did have such experiences (ie., free of brain chemistry-altering substances and psychological disturbances).

Christians (and followers of other religions) maintain that belief and worship of their God is a conscious choice – an ability endowed by free will. Believers are saved (they go to heaven when they die); non-believers are damned (they go to hell).  According to Christian free-willers, when we reject belief, we are doing so entirely of our own volition. There is more than one philosophical argument against this position, including the point that if God is omniscient and omnipresent, then He must already know what all of our conscious decisions will ever be. This therefore means they must be predetermined, putting a lie to the claim that our decision-making ability was ever truly free. Theists have an out-clause for this argument, however, and for those interested I suggest looking up the wafflings of William Lane Craig and others to hear the rhetorical gymnastics of how they escape from it.

But I’m more concerned with the direct, more personal and less metaphysical observations of conscious thinking. What we know – what we come to believe (or disbelieve) – is not something that is wholly (or at all) within our control. Everything we ever learn is the result of life-long conscious experiences – what we’ve been taught by others, what we’ve discovered and how these things have been shaped by our memories, our circumstances and environment, and even our genetics. Although it may ‘feel like’ any conscious decision we make is truly under our control, it is impossible to eliminate influences from these sources.
In a recent online discussion with some Christians, I made this point to them. And yet they still argued that I had the ‘choice’ to believe. In response to my suggestion that God needed to be more convincing if He truly wanted me to believe in Him, one said that He had already done enough, and that ‘the rest was up to me’.

No.

If God is truly omniscient then He ought to know what kind of knowledge is sufficient to convince a skeptic in the 21st century. He should know that contemporary society, for which none of us are individually responsible, contaminates us with the bogus trappings of modern lifestyles and of centuries of recorded history of superstition and alternative belief systems. He should know that we ought to be discerning about what we accept as truth and what we reject as lies. And He should see that many of us are already discerning about those things.

So no. If God really, truly, wants us to believe, then He needs to do more. The fact that He apparently chooses to reveal himself to only a subset of the human population demonstrates either that He isn’t there at all, or that His existence isn’t consistent with the claims of Christianity – in particular that we are all equal in the eyes of God. For if all people were truly equal, then all people ought to be given the same opportunity at salvation by the Christian God making himself known to them.

“The Cows Can Tape Something By Now…!”

“…Just shut up.  He doesn’t get it.  He’ll never get it.  It’s been four hours – the cows can tape something by now…!”

I love this scene from City Slickers.  In online discussions with various folks, I try to be like Billy Crystal’s character, and explain things patiently and even repetitively if I have to.  Admittedly, I’m often not as nice and diplomatic.

But sometimes I just lose patience and feel more like Bruno Kirby’s character instead.

If you’ve been referred to this link, it could mean that your online debate opponent thinks a cow could learn and understand a given point being made sooner than you could.

No offense.

Science is not a Movement: Reflections on Steven Pinker and his Critics

Until about a month ago (ie., Aug 2013), I’d never even heard of Steven Pinker. Or Leon Wieseltier, or Massimo Pigliucci, or even Daniel Dennett. I do have a background in science, in a ‘previous life’, but more than 15 years ago my career shifted sideways, via software development project management to sales and marketing (which seems to rank with used car salesmen, real estate agents, and lawyers for nobility of professions).

I’m a complete newcomer to discussions involving scholarly philosophy, having only recently joined in a handful of online debates that seemed to have drawn battle lines between scientific rationalism and theology. Nothing more (or less) than an opinionated layperson directed by a little bit of reading and some common sense.  I’ve never had any respect for religious beliefs, but have been comfortable generally to live and let live. Provided the believers don’t force their beliefs onto me, hijack our secular public institutions, or try to indoctrinate my children, they can continue to practice harmlessly whatever they want.

I had always assumed that religious beliefs were a result of a particular upbringing, combined with a tendency to superstition, a deep faith, and various other psychological factors and symptoms of ignorance. So I was surprised to find recently that there are intelligent and articulate Christians in Australia that actually believe that rational approaches, empirical evidence and science in general provide support for their beliefs in God. Indeed, in one particular Facebook debate I found myself buried in, one particular theist (apparently a PhD student in philosophy) declared that “an empirical approach [to life] should lead to belief [in God]”.

The attitudes of some of these articulate Christians is that science is not capable of providing answers to some of our most profound human questions, and in fact philosophy and theology are the only relevant tools to address such things. Some go further and assert that empiricism is a rather less important approach than is philosophy in our collective goals of learning about our universe. But more on this later.

Following an unassuming Twitter lead, I discovered Steven Pinker’s recent piece referring to scientism. Here was another ‘thing’ I hadn’t really encountered until now, but in light of the arguments I was having with theists, his essay made complete sense. In fact, I found it truly inspirational – this section in particular:

…As for literary scholarship […] Linguistics can illuminate the resources of grammar and discourse that allow authors to manipulate a reader’s imaginary experience. Cognitive psychology can provide insight about readers’ ability to reconcile their own consciousness with those of the author and characters. Behavioral genetics can update folk theories of parental influence with discoveries about the effects of genes, peers, and chance, which have profound implications for the interpretation of biography and memoir—an endeavor that also has much to learn from the cognitive psychology of memory and the social psychology of self-presentation. Evolutionary psychologists can distinguish the obsessions that are universal from those that are exaggerated by a particular culture and can lay out the inherent conflicts and confluences of interest within families, couples, friendships, and rivalries that are the drivers of plot. And as with politics, the advent of data science applied to books, periodicals, correspondence, and musical scores holds the promise for an expansive new “digital humanities.” The possibilities for theory and discovery are limited only by the imagination and include the origin and spread of ideas, networks of intellectual and artistic influence, the persistence of historical memory, the waxing and waning of themes in literature, and patterns of unofficial censorship and taboo…

It’s no surprise that Pinker’s piece would attract criticism. But what is surprising is the nature of that criticism and how aggrieved the critics seem to be with his goal of the collective discovery of truths using science as a key source of knowledge.  From Leon Wieseltier:

…Is the beauty of ancient art nullified by the falsity of the cosmological ideas that inspired it? I would sooner bless the falsity for the beauty. Factual obsolescence is not philosophical or moral or cultural or spiritual obsolescence…”

Scientists have no issue with the ‘beauty of ancient art’.  What they do have an issue with is when this is declared to be truth. Wieseltier’s attitude seems to be that the humanities, including the arts, have some grasp on intrinsic human truth that science has no access to. The suggestion seems to be that the ‘false beauty’ of the humanities is more important than the truth offered by scientific investigation. No doubt this will be a debate without end any time soon, but I have to disagree with this view with extreme prejudice. Scientists don’t claim to have all the answers, but are accused of arrogance when venturing opinions outside of their original fields of study. This attitude of keeping ‘science’ in its own well-demarcated box is classic hypocrisy by virtue of arrogance!

Science is concerned with the truth of nature. It can provide some insights into the aesthetics of nature and art and human reasoning, but this in no way diminishes the beauty of those things. But more importantly, it can – and should – replace any claims of the natural ‘truth’ of those things.

This ‘scientism’ thing – if it really is a ‘thing’ and not just a pejorative label – might be a movement.  I suspect it isn’t really though, despite Dr. Pinker’s embrace of the term. Science, on the other hand, definitely is not a movement.

As I mentioned previously, scholarly philosophy is something very new to me, and while I am yet to appreciate that it has a whole lot of practical value, in past few days I had started to warm to the ideas of Massimo Pigliucci. However, I have been left disappointed by the views expressed in this piece.  Here are a few selective snippets:

…Pinker seems to ignore much research in the history and sociology of science that shows that sometimes that system goes wrong, occasionally worrisomely wrong (e.g., a lot of medical research on drugs is seriously flawed, particularly – but not only – when the funding for it comes from the pharmaceutical industry).

…He also conveniently dismisses or minimizes the problems that science and technology have brought to us: it’s ok for science to take credit for vaccines (as it should), but not ok for critics to point out nasty stuff like atomic bombs and biological warfare. See, those aren’t really the results of “science,” but of bad politicians misusing science. This is such a naive understanding of human power relations, not to mention of the complex social role of science, that it is downright laughable.

…he should have acknowledged that some criticism of science is well founded and sorely needed.”

Pigliucci isn’t using the terms science and scientism interchangeably here. A distinction between these terms is implicit but clear throughout his piece. The thoughts behind these statements (and throughout the article) seem to position science as some kind of worldview, or movement, with some kind of coherent collective agenda.

Science is not a movement. It is a method. It is a collection of tools, an approach to understanding our universe and our ourselves. Science has no agenda.

While there are various processes that can help us formulate ethics, nothing can be said about the ethical accountability of the processes themselves. A process, in general terms, does not belong to any category that can have an ethical position as one of its attributes! (I learnt the language of category errors from some recent reading in philosophy.)

While science can be ‘hard’ (even according to Pinker), it is a technique accessible to anyone.  Having some formal training can make one better at doing good science. But anyone can formulate a view, test with empirical data, and form a conclusion and/or modify their original views. Here is a good summary by Richard Feynman (thanks to Prof. Brian Cox for referencing this in a recent lecture I found on youtube). This is ten minutes long, but the key part is in exactly the first one minute:

Throughout the history of scientific discoveries, the role of philosophy as an authority to explain nature, including our existence, has been edged gradually and progressively out of relevance.  This does not mean that the importance of the humanities in the large has declined. Arts, as far as I can tell, are no less valuable today than they were in antiquity. The role of ethical studies and discourse for our institutions, both public and private, may have even increased in recent times, supported strongly by empirical data.

But ‘science’ does not over-step its boundaries.  I don’t accept – and nor should anyone – that scientists shouldn’t be allowed to venture opinions outside their main field, nor attempt to apply the scientific method and conclusions to questions that they couldn’t attempt previously. Scientists deserve to attract criticism for their interpretation of the evidence and their reasoning, but not for the fact that their formal training was in a discipline outside their main area of research. Challenging arguments is valid discourse. Ad hominem (or perhaps, ‘ad communis’?) arguments are not.

Science is simply a process. It helps us discover what is true and real. It doesn’t discriminate. Science can even help us explore the realities behind ‘the beauty of ancient art’. But intrinsically, it doesn’t care whether we like those realities or not.

Brief Review: A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

This is a brief review of A Universe from Nothing (Why There is Something Rather than Nothing), by Lawrence Krauss (2012).

ISBN-10: 1451624468 | ISBN-13: 978-1451624465. Amazon.

I loved making it through this book, but I have to admit that I couldn’t follow much of the physics described by Lawrence Krauss. I am scientifically trained, but my own field was biology and more specifically neuroscience and physiology, with a little bit of biochemistry. My physics is very much limited to the basics covered by first year university science programs (from nearly 30 years ago)!
Having said that, I feel that if I persisted – probably by re-reading the book a few more times and/or following up some of the fundamentals from other sources (I reckon Wikipedia would suffice!) – I would probably appreciate the material a lot better. However it is certainly straightforward enough to follow the key points, such as the flat, eternal expansion of the universe, dark energy and cosmic background radiation, that the total energy of the universe is zero, and the outrageous but statistically balanced properties of virtual particles (see Ch 10: Nothing is Unstable).

One of the excellent features of Krauss’ coverage is that it is very much an outlined history of the major discoveries in cosmology and particle physics over the past century or so and their significance to our existing understanding of physics on the sub-atomic and the whole-of-universe scales. Credit is paid to the vast array of famous and not-so-famous physicists that have made the important contributions to the field. The material is all presented honestly, from the ground breaking findings that are not in dispute, to false paths that some researchers have taken in their quests for the truth, as well as the poorly-understood and even highly-speculative fields such as string theory.

However, it really isn’t necessary for the reader to follow precisely every description of every important discovery in cosmology or quantum mechanics in order to appreciate the circumstances of the origin of the universe. The physics basis is critical to the conclusions, of course, but the most important implications come out in Krauss’ final chapters and the Epilogue. A distinction between science and theology that is highlighted here (and indeed, throughout the book), is that scientists don’t claim to know all the answers. The very fact that we don’t know it all is indeed the main driver for further exploration and experimentation:
…That is why we have science. We may supplement this understanding with reflection and call that philosophy. But only via continuing to probe every nook and cranny of the universe that is accessible to us will we truly build a useful appreciation of our own place in the cosmos.
In contrast are “…those who have decided in advance […] that the supernatural (i.e., God) must exist so they define their philosophical ideas (once again completely divorced from any empirical basis) to exclude anything but the possibility of a god.

Furthermore, Krauss doesn’t need to get bogged down in esoteric metaphysics. All he does is highlight a few salient points and questions about our origins, and whether there really is any need for God in our rationalisation for existence. The philosophical discussion has now been pushed back, to beyond whether ‘something can come from nothing’ by virtue of rational, physical, natural causes, because we now know that it definitely can. Instead the metaphysical ponderings are now about the laws of physics, and the question apparently first highlighted by Albert Einstein. To paraphrase: “did God have any choice in the creation of the universe?”. Or more specifically now, did God have any choice in the laws of physics? (“God”, in this context, can be taken as the omnipotent deity if you’re theistically inclined, or as Einstein and Krauss would contend, simply the profound nature of all reality that doesn’t require intelligence, morals, or any other anthropomorphised attributes.)

Despite what theologians might have to say on this matter, no one yet has the answer to this question (was there any ‘choice’ in the laws of physics for our universe), including Lawrence Krauss. Importantly, the question is a human one, and while we can ‘supplement our understanding’ of it with philosophy, the most robust approaches we have to address it, as well as any other question of relevance to humanity, are those of scientific enquiry.

Superstition and scepticism

This post is a further reply to the conversation started on the Atheist Forum blog, here.

Our Different Backgrounds and Cognitive Processing
The last few comment posts here are certainly highlighting our impasse, but also provide some important indicators for me about our different backgrounds, education, and beliefs.
I mentioned previously that I’ve had some formal training in the sciences, which include the neurosciences in particular. Throughout this part of my education, I was often struck by the capabilities and capacity of the human mind for cognition, abstract thought and imagination. And also by some of the profound effects that ‘natural’ external influences, and our own physiology, can have on these processes.
I am convinced there is nothing more complex that we have ever encountered (so far!) than the human brain. I am also convinced that this capacity of the human brain has evolved ‘naturally’ over the course of millions of years, driven initially by environmental pressures that favoured the most primitive behaviours of planning and decision making. (More on this in another post, perhaps.)
The entire body of human scientific knowledge has demonstrated overwhelmingly that the world – in fact the whole universe – is natural . And this is very important: This includes the astonishing capability of the human brain to imagine, construct and assume the existence of the supernatural.

Psychological Predisposition to Superstition
On the subject of Port Arthur ghosts – and this may sound offensive, although I don’t mean it to – you (and many, many others, I’ll grant) are inclined to believe that ghosts exist because you are more psychologically predisposed to accepting superstitious claims. This is a normal, natural, human property, perhaps an evolutionary side-effect of the important and very valuable emotion of fear. I must admit that I take for granted that most Western educated adults understand this, so I continue to be surprised when apparently smart people seem to be drawn in to what are obviously (to me) bogus claims.
Beliefs, hallucinations, odd feelings: These are things that are certainly very real. Scientists have measured these things for decades, perhaps even a century or more. Ghosts themselves: These things are as-good-as-definitely not real. I’m convinced that if they were, scientists would have ‘measured’ them too by now. More on that in a moment.

‘Quick to Dismiss’
In some of your comments there is an implication that I (and presumably other sceptics) are ‘quick to dismiss’ miracles and the supernatural, in particular when no strong alternative hypotheses are offered. I’d like to counter this by asking you to step into the shoes of a sceptic, just for a moment. Many of us sceptics (although again, I speak only for myself) have not formed our world views hastily. Over the course of decades of our own lives, we have read, studied, experienced, experimented on and observed the world and the people around us. Those of us with questioning minds exempt nothing from enquiry and challenge. That includes deeply-held societal beliefs and behaviours and even the nature of our own existence and creation. So while ‘quick to dismiss’ seems like an accurate description of our response when it comes to some supernatural claim, please understand that an enormous amount of thought and analysis has already gone into considering that something belongs in the category of superstition.

Ghosts Revisited
As mentioned above, this includes ghosts. Consider any report of ghosts: What do they comprise of? At their strongest, they interfere physically with the ‘natural’ world and people within it. These interferences must therefore be measurable objectively, and yet they have never been shown. We are left to rely on people’s personal (and occasionally, collective) verbal accounts. Hearsay. Not evidence.

Coming down the spectrum of ghost interferences, we have the more common accounts of visualisations (seeing them!), sounds, and even tactual accounts (ie., feeling their touches). Again, if these experiences are true to human senses, they are measurable by objective means – cameras, sound recorders, etc. Yet again, never has there been conclusive evidence recorded. Within a couple of years, the large hadron collider in Europe has allowed us to measure the effects of sub-atomic virtual particles. These must be some of the most elusive things in the entire universe. Ghost experiences are so ubiquitous that I suggest they are a daily occurrence throughout the entire world. And yet, no scientist has ever published a single picture of a ghost in the nearly 200-year vast and pervasive history of accessible photography, and been taken seriously. The logical contrast is astounding: We can measure virtual frikkin’ particles!, and yet the ghosts that apparently visit us every day remain statistically non-existent.

Moving on, at the simplest end of the ghost experience then is the basic visceral sensation of another presence. The hard-to-describe ‘feeling’ of someone else being present, but not physically. I imagine every single thinking, feeling person on earth, and who has ever lived, has experienced such a feeling, perhaps many times during their lives. Again, these sensations are measurable. Heart rates quicken, skin temperatures drop, pupils dilate, stress hormones are excreted into the blood stream. Physiological feedback loops are invoked and these responses can be amplified. Hallucinations – visual, auditory, and tactile – can be experienced. And the human brain, with a little bit of the right kind of environmental stimulation (like a dark room, or even a verbal suggestion), is capable of producing all of this. These things have been demonstrated in the laboratory, countless times. The evidence is falsifiable. The experiments are repeatable.
Staying within the shoes of the thorough and honest scientific researcher, prepared to lay bare all of his/her materials, recordings, conclusions to their independent peers, how readily will you stand up and say, “I’ve seen a ghost.” In light of all our knowledge and all the logic described above, it is this type of conclusion that is hasty.

Rationalising Superstition
The sceptic does not dismiss people’s accounts of seeing ghosts as readily as it might seem. Instead, the sceptic considers these reports against an exhaustive and well-understood history and science on the nature of superstition and human physiology and psychology. We then ask simply, what is more likely – that a ghost really was present? Or that the astonishingly powerful human mind imagined it?
Given the above background, hopefully this helps you understand why the sceptic turns to Occam’s Razor. We favour the natural explanations, not simply as the more logical, but also as the obvious.

Joseph Smith Revisited (Briefly)
I haven’t come back to the Mormons in this post, but it’s somewhat reassuring to learn that you treat these claims with scepticism: “…it appears the most reasonable explanation is that Smith created the story of Mormon.”
Indeed – this entire cult is differentiated from the rest of Christianity on the basis of a mythology that is utter bullshit.
And yet, 14 million people in first-world countries are vested heart and soul in this bizarre collection of beliefs. What are they seeing that the rest of us are missing?

And Finally, The Resurrection Revisited
“…Yet, if I do demonstrate that this is unlikely [that one or more persons made up the resurrection story], I would suggest that it is on the sceptic to either revise their theory or accept the thesis? Would that be fair?….”
Rob, if you have successfully been able to get into the shoes of the sceptic as I’ve tried to describe above, then you’ll understand that I see your question almost as a kind of logical non sequitur.

By all means, give it your best shot. If you have some compelling evidence that is truly new, I’ll be open to it (and I reckon you’d be in the running for a Nobel Prize).
However, I do doubt, in the strongest, most sincere terms, that you will be able to get within a million miles of convincing me that the resurrection wasn’t made up. If the evidence really was overwhelmingly convincing and truly incontrovertible, I’d already believe in it.
I suspect that applies to the other five billion non-Christians on the planet too.