Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Fig. 1: Schrodinger's cat in an insulated box with inlet pipe for cyanide gas IF a radioactive isotope triggers release of a cyanide pellet in a separate tank (not shown). According to quantm mechanics the cat can only be described as "50% live, 50% dead" until one actually observes inside the box.

Let's consider two hypotheses, and their relative merit: the hypothesis that the dinosaurs were wiped out (along with 75% of other species) 65 million years ago by the impact of a comet or asteroid, and the hypothesis of "cold fusion" (that nuclear fusion can occur in a test tube at room temperature).

In the case of the first hypothesis, one begins by noting that at the layer in question (of the fossil finds) one detects abnormally high readings of Iridium - consistent with extra-terrestrial objects (asteroids, meteoroids, comets) but not terrestrial. Indeed, it is impossible to put forth a natural, prosaic hypotheses (Earth-centered) to explain the high levels of Iridium detected at those layers. These facts, along with others (topography of the Gulf of Mexico as an impact crater, computer models showing effects of nuclear-winter type effects of vast dust blanket in atmosphere) lead to a very high degree of quality assurance for the hypothesis - say 8.5 out of a possible 10.

By contrast to the case of confirmed Iridium findings by different groups, the original cold fusion claims of Pons et al, suffered from being non-reproducible. In addition, results very similar to theirs were found - if the content of helium in the atmosphere was not taken into account in the error treatment. When it was, the heat quantity evolved from the "reaction" became significantly less than the heat energy (enthalpy) of the solution. Taken in concert, these indicate a much lower degree of "QA" and hence reliability than the dinosaur-comet hypothesis, say 1.2 out of 10.

3. What's an Atheist To Do?

So, what exactly can the scientifically literate Atheist do, beseiged as s/he is by a tidal wave of scientific ignorance in the larger society? The first and most obvious thing is to use education as much as possible - both to raise the level of scientific literacy of fellow atheists, and to raise that of people in the larger society. This means, of course, that one must first be prepared to read widely and discriminately. In as much as a great deal of debate focusses on the issue of origins, a good starting point is Evolution and Cosmology. (If I may, I can also heartily recommend my book: The Atheist's Handbook to Modern Materialism, which delves into the full spectrum of scientific concepts and issues - from stellar evolution and cosmology to natural selection, radio-isotope dating and chaos (non-linear dynamics))

Sources of information can be found easily: for example, on this blog - with its dozens of resident files - many of which include references in the above areas for further reading. Also, one can access vast sources of current information through the InterNet, specifically its newsgroups (sci.phys. research, astronomy).

My personal preference is for the many video courses now available from MIT, Yale University and the University of California- Berkeley.

For MIT video courses:


And Biology and Physics are the two most rewarding courses here, in terms of the present context for discussion.

For Yale:


(Note: courses in The Old and New Testament also available here, as well as Physics, Biology. Both OT and NT courses show how very wrong biblical inerrancy is and why it can lead so many to false conclusions about the bible)
For UC Berkeley:


Again, the focus is on astronomy and biology.

The process of bringing educational resources to others is beneficial to all atheists, as well as lay people. That's one major reason why this blog contains not only a lot of articles on physics (especially areas not generally taught at universities at the undergrad levels) but also blogs to do with dialectic or argumentative encounters. (Including with religionists like my brother!)

Beyond the world of cyberspace, the active atheist should not ignore accessing the mainstream press whenever possible. Often, provided arguments are coherent and rationally framed, one's letter can be published in entirety. This was often the case when I lived in the Baltimore-DC area. Now, it is more convenient to write articles as part of the Freethinkers columns in the local Indy paper (though these are always limited to 550 words). But they serve as a useful means to whet an intellectual curiosity, then to learn more.

What about the twin specters of cultural prejudice and emotional reaction(to atheist articles - as in Edwin Chong's reply to my FT piece)? Unfortunately, it's often not possible to predict the venue wherein these will manifest. My own attitude has been to accept cultural prejudice as a "given", the price of being an atheist in a god-obsessed society. There is little probability this will change until more atheist memes (informational counterparts of genes) take hold in a hostile culture. Or, until the educational system changes enough to value critical thinking (now viewed as a subversive activity) over rote memorization.

Emotional reactions are another matter. My policy, and that of many atheists I know, is simply to "pull the plug" on any debate in which the (religious) opponent becomes hysterical or over-emotional. This is usually revealed when there is resort to ad hominem attacks - as in name calling, or invoking the old "hellfire" and "damnation" routine. Whenever these surface, the atheist can be reasonably certain his (religious) opponent is bereft of solid arguments and there is no point to continuing the discourse. Why waste energy on expending intellectual resources on one who cannot appreciate them? (Though - in the case of blogs - a small advantage does accrue in terms of revealing arguments to other atheists, or imparting information in the course of arguments.)

It would also seem to be counterproductive to continue a discussion when one's opponent is much less informed, say about Evolution, the Big Bang, or whatever. In this case, sound rational argument is opposing the irrational (or pure subjective opinions without basis) and the rational will always appear to "lose", since as one wit (I believe Isaac Asimov) once pointed out.."there are invariably more irrational statements that can plausibly be made, than rational ones to countermand them - since rational statements are delimited by specific evidence available and laws of logic". In other words, when one is at liberty to say whatever he wishes - without constraint or cross checks - he will appeal to the broad masses who "think" (similarly) without constraint - or information! (Often, and perversely, if he can add humor he will reinforce his irrational case! - the "Limbaugh Effect")

What about the limiting effect of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem(s), which have been alluded to in a number of previous blogs? Godel's Theorem, as it is called, can be crudely paraphrased by stating that all formal, logical systems - consisting of a set of axioms or propositions, will inevitably possess one or more statements (axioms, propositions) which contradict others within the same system. The presence of contradictory statements or axioms indicates that the system is "incomplete", i.e. does not embody all the axioms needed to logically describe the system.

A simple example will suffice. Let x,y and z all be integers belonging to a set S. None of these members can be equal to the other. The system of "axioms" for their algebra is given as:

1) x + y + z = 1

2) y - z = 0

3) x + y = 1

On inspection it is seen that all of the system axioms cannot be correct. Given the conditions, at least two of them are contradictory. For example, to satisfy (2): y = 1, and z = 1. To satisfy (3):x = 0, y = 1, and there is contradiction since z = y = 1 (which also yields 2 for statement (1), instead of 1.) To satisfy (1): x = 2, y = -1, z = 0, which also satisfies (3), but not (2). In fact, no set of non-equal integers will satisfy (1) - (3) simultaneously. Hence, the system of axioms is incomplete.

More elaborate systems can include logical propositions, say in Boolean form. Scientific disciplines are subject to Godel's theorem - to the extent they represent systems of axioms. Fortunately, however, there is no science that rests exclusively on logical propositions or axioms - since ultimately ALL must be subject to experimental test, else they are jettisoned. This is a key point of which all atheist debaters should be aware, and one which scientific detractors often overlook - focused as they are on science's logical arguments. Indeed, at least one group of important experimental results - to do with electron diffraction - violates the cherished either/or code of classical logic. While classical logic dictates that one electron must pass through either slit A OR slit B, the actual experiment can show that a given electron will pass through BOTH slits simultaneously!

The example of the "Schrodinger Cat", in regard to the Principle of Superposition of States, is even more dramatic. In the experimental setup - first envisioned by Erwin Schrodinger in a thought experiment --a cat is placed in a box with a contraption from which a cyanide capsule is released when a certain isotope decays (the latter is governed by probabilistic laws). The simple setup is depicted in Fig. 1, with the cyanide capsule release tube leading into an airtight compartment. At the instant of correct isotope decay, the compartment opens and the capsule jettisoned to kill the cat. (This is not being "nice" to animals, but don't blame me - blame Schrodinger!)

Classical logic demands that that the cat in the enclosed box is either A) alive, or B) dead, at any given time. However, a multitude of quantum mechanical results disclose the cat will always be in a superposition of states (50% dead, 50% alive) until it is actually observed! This violates common sense, and logic, but not quantum mechanics - which is the most comprehensive and accurately validated physical theory ever formulated.(For an excellent, readable presentation see: Consciousness and the Cat in The Quantum Self, by Danah Zohar, Wm. Morrow & Co. New York, 1990, p. 38).

The point of all this, to atheists, is not to allow oneself to be swayed by religious skeptics' reasoning that science is also forever circumscribed by Godel's theorem. One must always factor in the crucial element of empirical test, as the quantum mechanical examples demonstrate. In the end, distasteful as it may seem - classical logic, "common sense" and even Godel's theorem must defer to the measured experimental results! What will "displace" these results, to refine the theory - or to upend it altogether? The answer is better experimental results - e.g. to a much higher precision, preferably coupled with more extensive confirmations. This is what one means by saying that science advances by "successive approximations". This is a totally alien concept to the absolutist who simply can't grasp not arriving at total, final and absolute truth all at once!

Finally, what is the scientifically literate atheist to do when confronted by a religionist who employs the "equalization" gambit? That is, equating science to a "belief system" in the same category as any religion? I have found the best strategy is to assemble a set of ready-made examples which resoundingly refute this absurd proposition. That is, provide concrete examples of scientific validation which shows convincingly that no "belief" is involved. Among my favorites:

a) Using the equations of celestial mechanics I can tell a religionist exactly where in the sky he will find Jupiter, or Saturn, or Mars or Venus in 6 months, a year or two years. (Same principle that was used to predict the recent impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter). The repeated fulfillment of the predictions shows clearly it is not a matter of "belief".

b) Set up an LC, or LCR tuning circuit, using an inductor or particular value L (henries or micro-henries), a capacitor C (farads, micro-farads) and resistor R(ohms). The frequency can be computed from the these, e.g. for an LC tuning circuit:

f = 1/ 2p(LC)^1/2

Then, use it to tune in a radio station at the same exact frequency already calculated. This can be done a number of times with a number of different (L,C, R) combinations - showing that the station tuned in is not a matter of "belief" - but sound application of electronic principles to arrive at a prediction.

c) Point out the nature of quantum "tunneling" and how it arises from the quantum theory; in this case a low energy particle is able to "tunnel" through a thickness (x/X) of a high potential energy (V) "barrier" with a finite probability: P.

This "tunnelling" is the basis of the tunnel diode, used in solid state electronics. Remind the religionist that each time s/he turns on VCR or TV or compact disc player they are unequivocally validating the tunnelling effect, and showing at the same time it is not a matter of belief.

d) Ask the religionist if he seriously thinks it is "belief" which gets the Space Shuttle into a particular orbit, for a given mission - say to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, or retrieve a Canadian satellite, in a totally different orbit. Odds are your believer will be tightlipped because s/he hasn't clue one as to how it comes about!

There are many other examples, of course, but these are among the most effective that I've found. Maybe the interested (and ambitious!) reader can compile a set of his or her own.


The trends of the past quarter century would appear to indicate that we can expect a further retreat from numeracy as well as literacy in the U.S., continued falling SAT scores, lower science enrollments, further proliferation of magical thinking and increased difficulty in distinguishing opinion from evidence. Cumulatively, this does not bode well for the atheist - who relies on science and rationaltiy to justify his position to others. Not to put too fine a point on it - it seems clear that an enhanced inclination toward cultural and political conservatism - combined with the above - will conspire to make life increasingly difficult for atheists in the U.S. (at least those bold enough to declare or reveal themselves).

While there appears little that atheists can do (other than move to another country) to combat the growing cultural imperialism and prejudice toward unbelievers, there is much that can be done in their own locations, and in cyberspace. The thrust in these areas is, clearly, to promote as rational and scientifically literate a formulation (and justification) of atheism, as is within the capabilities of the particular atheist. It is hoped that the suggestions given herein will assist in that objective.

To that end, I hope this two-part blog has made a further contribution in that direction!

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