Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Great to be Independent

Today is Independence Day in Barbados. The island has reached 44 years of being free of British rule. It's one more year that I won't be there to join in the celebrations which may mean a little bit more than usual since this year has undoubtedly been a challenging one for the population. Congratulations are therefore in order for all "Bajans" at home and abroad.

For me, I can't help but reflect on my own journey to independence over the last year. I see myself as having broken ties every bit as significant as the one my country . It's as if my flag with the big Scarlet " A" is being raised as I watch the lowering of the cross I bore and the crown I wore with pride for so long. Independence really is a great feeling!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ghosts have us on the run again!

Well, just as I said it was quiet in the Caribbean, things have stirred up again. This time it's not a hurricane, it's something a lot more sinister. Yes, from Jamaica in the north to Trinidad in the south, the duppies are back. You can watch the Jamaica episode in the video above and read here about the Trinidad encounter which appears to have involved the devil himself.

These accounts always have two impacts on me. On the one hand the absurdity of these stories always provide welcome comic relief at the end of a long day. However, after watching I am always very scared. Not of the sceptres or malevolent beings described in the accounts but of the fact that people can treat stories like these as serious news items. People always ask what's the harm of religious beliefs, but just think of the media resources that are used to bring these stories into our homes. Makes you wonder how many real stories that could actually edify and educate are left on the cutting room floors.

Then again, shouldn't we keep an open mind? Many Christians will admit that the Jamaican boy, his family and his pastor, are either crazy or acting but then go on to say that there are still real spirits out there. It's almost like the fake ones make the belief in the "real" spirits more valid; much like how the many replicas of the Mona Lisa make the one that hangs in the Louvre even more invaluable. I have heard debate after debate where it is logically made clear that the burden of proof is always on the believer; the one making the supernatural claim whether it be for God, leprechauns, Santa Claus or the flying spaghetti monster. But that is not the world we live in, the unwritten rule of "social logic" suggests the burden of proof is on the person that is considered by society to hold the more outrageous position. This means the burden of proof is on us atheists, we can complain all we want but that is simply how it works. So by default we have to accept that some ghost, at least the holy one, is real.

What surprises me, is that if the bishop in Jamaica was so sure the ghost he encountered was real; is the haste with which he chased it away. It is unimaginable what the impact on the island would have been if he had managed to convince the ghost to stick around a bit longer. There didn't seem to be immediate danger to life, even the boy claimed that he had reached the point where he was able to laugh at his tormentor. In the worst case scenario, the perils of flying stones or knives seems a small price to pay for the opportunity of gaining potentially world altering knowledge. We had a really great chance to get an understanding of ghost behaviour and the supernatural realm. The ghost might be a coward as the bishop suggested, but I am sure we could have elicited an interview if we had been more patient.We could have asked the demon so many questions. Where the hell did you come from? Do you work for the devil? Do you know the holy spirit? How powerful is God? Have you ever been haunting around Rose Hall in Montego Bay? Are you involved in the demon possessions now going on at the Trinidad school?

Apart from the million dollars from the James Randi foundation for verified supernatural entities, there was certainly a Nobel Prize waiting for some fortunate doctoral student at the University of the West Indies. The tourism that would have been generated by marketing the place where the first ghost was positively identified could have potentially transformed Jamaica and even the wider Caribbean in the midst of harsh economic times .We could have led the world in the field of Ghost R&D the way we once did in the sport of cricket. Tragically, with the pouring of a bottle of "sanctified" olive oil bought from a Spanish Town grocery store that chance has been lost forever.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Nothing to write about

Well, things have settled down a little in the Caribbean. There has been thankfully no need for mass appeals to the gods for mercy since the ravaging storm Tomas and the illness and subsequent death of the Barbados prime minister. Things have also been relatively quiet on the international faith scene and there are no recent crazy believer statements on my facebook page. In short, there is nothing to write about. So, that's exactly what I thought I would do this week, write about nothing. It's fitting I think, because there is nothing that the faithful like more than telling us atheists that we are right about nothing. Moreover, I have found that religious people when debating with atheists tend to engage a lot in "nothingness" talk.

"How can you get something from nothing?" is eternally the theistic cry. You can bring your arsenal of arguments from physics, chemistry, paleontology, biology,cosmology, archaeology, geology or psychology to justify your position that God does not exist. It matters not to them, because they tell you that you simply can't get something from nothing. They go on to say we atheists believe in nothing and nothing could change our minds. I suppose given all of this it is no surprise that they should think we have nothing of substance to say.

It amazes me that religious people don't see that there is nothing in their argument. Firstly, I am not sure why they are so sure that there had to have been nothing to begin with. Lawrence Krause, a leading physicist, gave a fascinating lecture where he explains that what we consider "nothing" actually has more mass than all the stars, planets and other "somethings" put together. But I don't think we even need to go to a level as sophisticated as that to see the problems with the concept of "nothing." What is a "nothing"? I have certainly never seen one. In my experience "nothing" is used as a relative rather than an absolute term.

Whenever we say the words, " there is nothing" we mean that there is none of the thing or category of things which we are looking for. If we go into a room and state that we see nothing, it doesn't mean absolutely nothing. It may mean there is no furniture. However, the room might have a carpet on the floor or pictures hanging on the wall but it would still be defined as "empty". Of course at the molecular level the room is filled with gases and microbes. Going further down there are atoms with electrons, protons , quarks etc. If you are worried about having a cancer and go to a doctor who looks at an x ray and tells you he sees nothing; he is not telling you have no bones, tissue or muscle fibres.

We can apply this model conceptually to anything that we define as "nothing". Even if we speak of a vacuum, that is not a "nothing" because it still has particular properties and that makes it a "something." Indeed, once we can define a thing it is not a "nothing." In my mind a "nothing" would have to be something devoid of any properties or characteristics. Once we can define it, we have a "something." If we accept that the universe had a beginning, it would have to have existed at that point in some state "X." Even if it was a void that would still have to have some properties, some defining qualities that differentiate it from every other state. The more I think about it, I really don't think there is any such thing as "nothing." I don't believe in "nothing." So, there is one atheist myth debunked. In that respect God and "nothing" have a lot in common, both vacuous concepts. God is undefined because it can include everything while "nothing" is the obvious antithesis.

Once we recognise that the universe was in some state at the beginning, our "nothing" problem goes away. For we have any number of examples in nature where we see one state change in to another. In most of these cases we do not assert that an intelligent supernatural agent is needed in the explanation. At school I did countless chemistry experiments where changes of states occurred. You could get a precipitate salt forming from the mixing of an acid and alkaline solution, but these were never regarded as metaphysical mysteries. It was all natural, a consequence of the interaction between the chemicals which gave rise to something completely different. Indeed, what would be surprising in these experiments would be if you didn't get the product that you expected to get. That would be the mystery and in almost every case it was because you, the experimenter, made an error. Ironically, in such circumstances, it was you, the supposedly intelligent agent, that was getting in the way of nature. I think this analogy is interesting, perhaps the intervention of a God would have impeded nature and prevented the formation of a universe rather than the other way around . In any case, if no divine hand is needed to explain the appearance of colourful solutions or gelatinous precipitates in lab experiments why is a god needed to explain that "big bang reaction" at the beginning of time?

When we look through the universe we see changes that occur all the time; tectonic plates shifting, volcanoes erupting, stars exploding, black holes and dark matter affecting space and time. This is all part of this wondrous thing we call nature. Even though some people think it's all part of God's grand design, I have never heard anyone argue that God is needed to explode a star any more than he is needed to give a "push" at the top of a cliff to ensure a dropped stone reaches the earth below. But then comes the argument which is closely related to the "something from nothing" question. How can we get life from non life? This is a very strange question in light of what we have already said. We know that "life" and "non-life" are made up of all the same elements. We know that elements when they rearrange themselves can form things with different properties. Why are some people so adamant therefore that we can't get life from non life? Why don't they say it is impossible to get stars from non stars, precipitates from non precipitates, colour from non colour or a tsunami from a non tsunami? Why do we consider this thing called "life" so different that we regard it as outside of nature's capabilities?

That's the thing about religion, it makes us the most important thing in the world, rather than just one minuscule part of the many things nature does . We are the great "something" that could not be here unless nature had some help from the outside. We need to have been specially created by a God without whom we would of course be nothing.

But wait, I just remembered I had nothing to write today. Yet I am seeing eight paragraphs above this one. That's amazing ! Well theists, the existence of this blog post seems to suggest that something can come out of nothing after all.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Ernie and the invisible ice cream

One of my friends posted this video on facebook today. It brought back so many memories. Sesame Street was one of my favourite tv shows growing up and this sketch with Ernie and Lefty is definitely one of the classics. I highly recommend watching it now if you haven't before, because in watching it today, after reliving those great Ernie reactions, I saw for the first time that religion is written all over it.

Yes, that invisible ice cream cone, the one that could help you get away unscathed if you were unfortunate enough to encounter Louis the Lip. Ernie in this case is ever the skeptic. "Why would I need an invisible ice cream cone?" he asks. For in spite of the sinister tones used by Lefty in describing this Louis, Ernie confesses he has no idea who he is and obviously has never encountered him and certainly previously lived with no fears of this demon. This is evangelist meets non believer, substitute invisible saviour for invisible ice cream cone and there you have it.

Whenever I watch a video like this I always read the comments below to see what people now get from it so many years later. It's interesting that in this case everyone is saying " Good for you Ernie!" Delighted that Ernie was able to see through Lefty's scam play along with him for a while and then hit him with that devastating come back," I'll pay you with an invisible nickel." Back in my school days in Barbados, we would have said that Lefty really "get kill off."

A curious thing happens though when we move the scenario in the adult world of invisible deities. Suddenly the roles become reversed. Ernie is no longer the hero in the piece. Indeed, Ernie now becomes the naive one. "Of course you can't see an invisible God, he's invisible, that's what invisible means!!" We can all hear the faithful responding exactly like Lefty in this clip. They will say that Ernie is the close minded naturalist, believing only in what he can see touch and feel, not being open to experiencing the metaphysical. Obviously incapable of enjoying the spiritual things of life like the arts, music or poetry. Living oblivious to powerful emotions such as love and devoid of the humility that comes with observing the grandeur of nature.

The response to the evangelising Lefty might be a bit more complicated. Many may still see him as con man, but not because there are no such things as "invisible ice cream cones." It would be argued in many circles that Lefty just hasn't got the real one or that his emphasis on money making has obscured his ability to recognise the "true pure invisible ice cream." I love the part of the clip where Lefty asks Ernie what his favourite ice cream flavour is and instantly produces the desired "Banana Royale Tootsie Frootsie." At that moment we see the liberal Christian breaking through, flexible enough to give the masses the God that they want. "No you don't have to be baptised if you don't want to. Yes, you can eat pork, you'll still get to heaven." Oh, things are just so easy to  manipulate when you are working in the world of the invisible.

Continuing with the adult evangelist parallel, there will be those that will clearly see that "invisible ice creams" are ridiculous but will not be cheering for the Ernie in the scenario. They will lambaste Ernie for mocking Lefty's faith with his insensitive joke about paying for the ice cream with invisible money. Some will call Ernie a militant and say that even though Lefty might be delusional he has a right to have his beliefs respected especially if selling his "ice cream" gives him a strong sense of purpose in life. There may be some who will go out of their way to present evidence to show that Lefty does a lot of good in the community from the money he collects from his invisible trade. Maybe he has helped to give shelter to the homeless or feed the poor. If he takes a cut to purchase a Mercedes Benz for himself or build a church altar made of gold he should not be admonished.

Oh, how things change when we lose the innocence of childhood. Back then we could so easily see "Lefty the con-man" for who he was. We learnt the lesson that skepticism beats credulity in coping with a world filled with scammers of all types. But, alas we become adults and we forget. We so badly want to trust in the invisible. And this week in the Caribbean, most markedly, the invisibility of our God was there for all to see. We didn't see him when we asked for the prime minister of Barbados to be healed. He once again failed to appear as Hurricane Tomas made its way through our islands leaving widespread destruction of homes and some loss of life in St. Lucia. His invisibility powers have continued to be especially strong in the island of Haiti where he has been unseen during a trinity of events; a devastating earthquake, a cholera outbreak and now the arrival of Tomas.

Yes, it seems God's invisibility endureth forever. After much thought I think I agree with Ernie. Invisible money is fair exchange for an invisible product. I wish I could be as bold as Ernie though. I could just imagine myself laughing like him as people stared at me blankly while I dropped my invisible dollar into the collection plate.