Have you ever wondered how schools of fish move in mesmerizing unison? How termites build their colossal and complex homes? Where consciousness comes from?
At the heart of these phenomena lies one of the most fascinating concepts in science. It’s called ’emergence’, and we can learn an important lesson from it as a species.
The things ants do
Ants seem to roam this earth for the sole purpose of demonstrating what emergence is all about. Ant colonies show a remarkable and robust ability to solve problems.
Some species are able to build bridges out of themselves to cross gaps in the road:
Or they form rafts – to survive floods, or travel over water:
They build stunning cities:
In witnessing a colony perform stunts like these, one might wonder which one of these critters is giving the orders.
Who’s in charge?
The answer is: none of them.
A single ant always seems to know exactly what to do. It never runs off to the “Executive Officer Ant” for instructions. The key lies in the fact that each ant is following a tiny set of rules. Trivial rules, dealing only with its local environment. An ant is just minding its own damn business, really.
When a legion of these simple creatures live together, though, magic happens. The group starts displaying astonishing feats of organisation. It acquires problem solving capabilities a NASA rocket scientist would be proud of.
Systems consisting of simple components sometimes exhibit properties which are absent in any of the components themselves. This is called emergence, and it’s the underlying phenomenon at work in ant colonies. The resulting collective behaviour emerging from such a system has a more dramatic name: Swarm Intelligence.
How do ants gather food?
To illustrate the principle, let’s look at the way ants form those characteristic single file lines when gathering food:
One might assume that an ant found the food source earlier, went to tell the others to come help collect it. And then promoted one of them to executive officer in charge of coordinating the enterprise.
In reality, a few simple facts explain the entire event:
Ants tend to follow the strongest pheromone trail they can find when they don’t carry food
Ants explore randomly if there is no food or trail to follow
Pheromones decay over time
Short paths take less time to travel along
Let’s break the process down in steps.
Step one: random exploration
Step 2: Gary finds food
Step 3: Gary goes home
Step 4: Cindy finds Gary’s trail
Step 5: Cindy finds the food as well
Step 6: Cindy reinforces Gary’s trail
That’s the basic principle. More ants will stumble upon the successful trails of others. Short paths get reinforced while long paths decay.
Whenever an ant follows a trail, it might deviate from it. It might need to avoid obstacles like other ants. Trails are fuzzy because they’re based on ‘smell’. Some of these deviations happen to be shortcuts.
This leaves pheromones on a shorter path, and shorter paths take less time to travel along. So, the pheromones on those shorter trails have less time to decay. Therefore shorter paths are more likely to be followed by other ants and get reinforced in the process.
Effects like these cause the ants to work towards a shorter path between nest and food over time.
And so, a bunch of ants start walking between their nest and your picnic basket in a single file line, stealing food in a coordinated manner. They seem quite smart collectively by acting quite stupidly on their own. (One would expect major swarm intelligence at frat parties.)
The same sort of simple rules give rise to the examples mentioned at the beginning of this article. (Even the ant cities!)
Emergent swarm stupidity
There are loopholes in the ways ants behave. Take army ants, for example. These ants are blind. They start following nearby ants when they lose a foraging pheromone track. This can culminate in a fascinating disaster:
This is called an ant mill, a clear indicator that there is no CEO ant coordinating the whole. None of the individuals caught in the mill have a clue they’re not making progress. Unless they get some external stimulus they will keep walking till they starve. Any CEO would be giving his employees stern talkings-to when noticing the problem.
These mills can be huge. There have been cases where it took a single ant over 2.5 hours to walk the full circle – a circle with a diameter of hundreds of meters. Some people make a game of nudging ants in such a configuration (please don’t).
I’ll come back to this phenomenon near the end of this article.
Other swarms in the animal kingdom
Interesting as ants are, there are many other examples of emergent behaviour to be found in the natural world.
Bees building honeycombs
A beautiful example of the power of emergence is this:
A honeycomb’s intricate structure might tempt one to start looking for a genius architect bee.
In truth, bees sit next to each other and start out creating their own circular cell. They then heat up the wax, making adjoining cell walls fall flat, like soap bubbles meeting each other. More details here.
The point being that each bee does its own local thing, and a hexagonal structure happens to emerge.
Earlier in evolutionary history, honeycombs must have been a lot messier. Natural selection has favoured species that made the most of available space and resources. Hexagons are the perfect solution to the problem.
Another example would be the flocking of birds. When the birds doing the flocking are starlings, the swarm is called a murmuration. Usually caused by a predator, this is a sight to behold in many parts of the world:
Each individual bird merely reacts to what its seven nearest neighbours are doing. The amazing fluidity and cohesion displayed by the flock is the high level product.
In the marine world, many species of fish form similar groups. Even though each fish is just minding its own immediate vicinity, these schools as a whole might well be mistaken for conscious entities.
This is on especially spectacular display during the ‘Sardine Run’, an annual natural event off the coast of South Africa. This event is a feast, though not for the sardines: they’re fed on by every predator in the vicinity. Many of which are in the vicinity at the time because they came from far and wide for the occasion.
The result – of which the word ‘epic’ is an inadequate description – is this:
Ant and termite colonies show many similarities. Termites build especially high-tech nests, as mister Brian Cox can explain to you:
Again, each termite just performs simple, local, even boring actions. The end product drives human architects to careers in music, or bicycle repairs.
In any case, no intelligent creatures had to evolve. That’s an important part of the puzzle. It’s easy to imagine small ‘mentality’ changes in the simple, local, behaviour of an ant. Such a small change might give rise to the emergence of complex swarm behaviour quite suddenly. One generation of ants roam on their own, the next is curious about pheromone trails. Small tweaks have the potential to generate a massive advantage.
Science doesn’t mind stealing ideas from nature. Evolution has had ample time to come up with brilliant solutions to all sorts of problems. We’d be silly not to take advantage of its work.
In line with this tradition, swarm intelligence found its way to technology and engineering.
The key attractive features of swarms in engineering are:
Fault-tolerance. Swatting away at a couple of bees will not stop the colony as a whole to chase you off into the bushes. If a few members of a swarm fail to perform their tasks, it won’t matter much. There are plenty of others to maintain the behaviour of the group as a whole. This robustness is a much sought-after quality in technological applications.
Emergence. Creating many simple units to solve a problem is much easier than creating a complex single unit to do the same. Hence, emergence is very attractive to engineers without having to put on make-up and bat its eyelashes.
Swarms have been a research topic in computer science for a good while.
Ant Colony Optimisation. The way ants find a near-optimal path to a food source has been simulated inside computers. The approach proved applicable to a wide range of problems, network routing problems for example.
Particle Swarm Optimisation. A method of solving problems by having a swarm of candidate solutions ‘travel’ through the space of possible solutions. This method leverages the schooling/flocking mechanics we see in fish and birds to solve difficult problems.
Self-healing and self-assembling architecture
Fire ants are capable of forming surprisingly resilient structures out of themselves – like the rafts and bridges mentioned earlier. This has inspired some scientists to look into self-healing structures, made up of simple parts. Think bridges that repair themselves when they develop cracks or other weaknesses. Or even structures that build themselves from scratch:
It’s doubtful Apple will announce iSwarm tomorrow. However, imagine a personal swarm of nano-bots keeping you healthy. A swarm that pervades your body, doing maintenance. Doing repairs before you even know anything needs repairing.
Scientists are working on exactly that: swarms that can deliver medicine inside the body, perform surgery, hunt tumours, …
This might sound like science fiction, but robot swarms are already becoming a reality:
Swarms in fiction
Some works of fiction have featured swarms in prominent roles.
(Should you have come across other examples, I’d be interested to learn about them!)
As these examples indicate, humanity is starting to pay attention to swarms and emergence. We’ve started taking some lessons from nature on the subject. Great, but we must not overlook what might be the most important lesson of all. To see what I’m getting at, let’s do a little introspection first.
Consciousness as an emergent property
One particularly fascinating domain in which emergence plays a key role is one extremely close to our hearts: the human body.
Our bodies consist of a humongous collection of cells. None of these cells know where they are – which role they need to play within the whole. Each cell follows its own local rules – and out come the livers, eyeballs and appendices. Like schools and flocks of cells.
There is one area of the human body which deserves some special attention. It’s probably not the one you have in mind.
It’s the mind.
The cells that make up the brain are called neurons. A single neuron is no smarter than any other cell in your body. You will have a hard time pointing out a neuron that has your personality. When they get together in large numbers, though, ant-colony magic takes over. Our brains acquire the most spectacular emergent property of all: consciousness.
In other words, our intelligence is nothing more than the swarm intelligence generated by a colony of neurons.
This begs a multitude of questions. Are all swarms conscious at some level? Where is the threshold between appearing conscious and actually being conscious? Is there a difference?
These matters remain, as far as my swarm can tell, unresolved.
Mill of humanity
Zooming out, human beings are only slightly overcomplicated ants, named ‘Gary’ or ‘Cindy’. Human society is yet another swarm. Unfortunately though, it does not seem to be a very intelligent one.
We seem to be collectively determined to destroy our home planet. We like to think of ourselves as free, sophisticated and ‘more evolved’ than the rest of the animal kingdom. In truth, we all follow a limited and primitive set of rules, with little regard for indirect consequences. There’s every sign we’re all stuck in the human equivalent of an ant mill.
Complex systems are often very sensitive to small tweaks. This is the domain of chaos theory. Since our complex collective behaviour emerges from the relatively simple rules we follow as individuals, small changes in our mentalities can have dramatic high-level effects on our species.
This is good news: if enough of us follow the right set of principles, humanity can steer away from collapse. In contrast, if we keep following our neighbours without thinking, the collective outcome emerging from our individual behaviour might as well be the end of our species.
Are we any wiser than army ants? Time will tell.
Feel free to leave your comments, suggestions or (preferably constructive) criticism below!
The Scientific Method is such a fundamental and at the same time misunderstood principle that I’d like to attempt to make the crux of the matter crystal clear in an intuitive way to anyone who cares to read this. No prerequisite knowledge required whatsoever (*), except knowing what ‘prerequisite’ means.
The Scientific Method is a method for finding out how the world works. I assume some more detail is needed before this statement is eligible for categorisation in your ‘crystal clear’ box.
I’ll start with an example:
The reason of reason: crossing a street
Pretty much any individual outside of the mental asylum and North Korea uses reason and logic to go about the practicalities of daily life.
You will almost certainly use your sensory and mental faculties to ascertain there are zero or less cars headed your way before you cross a street:
You have some idea – a mental picture, a model – of how traffic works, in your head.
You use your senses – eyes, ears, nose, … – to gather data about your surroundings.
You check all gathered data against your mental picture and find nothing that indicates the presence of a car headed in your general direction:
no direct flags: headlights, engine sound, gasoline smell, …
no indirect patterns: birds fleeing from a car coming around the bend, red traffic light that increases the probability of a car passing, …
You conclude, from a lack of evidence indicating otherwise, that it’s safe to assume no car will appear in your path within the small time frame it will take you to get to the other side of the road.
You go with your conclusion that you will not die from walking across because you’ve done the math and the odds are massively in your favour.
You start walking, but allow for the possibility that you might have made a mistake: you’re careful and keep your eyes and ears open to make sure you didn’t make any wrong assumptions and stay alert to mitigate problems in case you did.
This small scenario alone shows that most human beings – at some core level – acknowledge the value of reason.
Following logic and reason when navigating the world you inhabit has been selected for over the course of evolution. It keeps one alive, and so evolution has ingrained some of the more useful examples – like ‘if you see a huge furry animal with large teeth, run until you don’t see it any more’ – into our psyche: common sense.
Apparently, pigeons don’t subscribe to an empirical world view and have missed out on the common sense memo. Possibly the email went into their junk folder and was eaten instantly.
Improving your knowledge of traffic
Now, the Scientific Method amounts to not much more than an extension of the little scenario above to iteratively build and improve the mental picture you employ when you cross a road. How did the mental picture you use for crossing streets first get into your head?
You started with some guidelines your parents taught you a long time ago, and those you’ve been testing in practice since then, improving upon them using what amounts to the Scientific Method.
Well done, you’re a subconscious scientist. How did you manage that?
If you make a mistake in your street-crossing procedure, you make a good chance to get hit by a car, or possibly a small van. The scientific method entails nothing more than experiencing failure of a stressless crossing and saying to yourself:
“There must be a mistake in my mental picture of how traffic works because I almost died just now. It has worked on other occasions but this time it didn’t so there must be something wrong with it” – You’re acknowledging something’s amiss with your ideas since what you expected to happen does not match what actually happened. You might, for example, be used to people driving on the right of the road and have just taken your first few steps London.
“Let’s modify the rules I followed since it was made evident that they are not always adequate.” – You think things through and formulate new rules that prevent the circumstances that allowed things to go south.
“From now on, I’m using the modified ruleset for crossing the street until – in the process of applying it – it turns out it’s still flawed.” – You go with your best effort and work with it, but always keep in mind your ideas are imperfect and will likely have to be refined, or replaced altogether, in the future.
From neanderthal to city-slicker
You’d never get across any street at all in a busy city if your model said no more than ‘cross when you can no longer see, hear or smell any car whatsoever’.
The steps outlined above have been repeated and turned your model from a rudimentary set of warnings from your parents into a refined and subtle set of rules that allow you to start crossing an intersection crawling with tons of cars, moving all around you, anticipating their movements and reactions to both your presence and the presence of other cars and obstacles (if any).
So… That is all.
At least, that is the gist of it.
How scientists do it
In academic settings, where most of the actual scientists roam, some more rigour and formality is required in order to make the whole enterprise of finding things out (and building good models) more efficient.
Nobel Prize for Null and Void
Precaution is taken to try and keep the number of mistakes made as low as possible, and to prevent people from erring or cheating and getting the Nobel Prize for Null and Void.
In the academic world, when you claim you’ve tested your idea so and so, and this and that was what you saw, other people need to be able to do the exact same steps and see the exact same results as you, to make sure you didn’t err or cheat (reproducibility). When your claims pass the scrutiny of others, you’ve earned the ‘peer-reviewed science‘ badge and, possibly, a more substantial Nobel Prize.
Hypotheses, theories and facts
Academics call their guesses hypotheses until they find enough evidence to start calling it by other names, like ‘theory’ and ‘scientific fact’. They try very hard (if science is done right) to invalidate their hypotheses by designing experiments to break them in order to know what they’re worth as soon as possible, which works quite a bit better than waiting until something informative happens by accident.
A lot is said about how accurately the observations under consideration were measured. This is important in the road-crossing example as well: you don’t want to modify your mental picture of the workings of a traffic light if your faulty conclusion was caused by an observational mistake (not seeing a red traffic light because the sun was too bright for you to see it).
These – and a host of others – are all important topics, but at its core the scientific method is just about testing your ideas and changing them if they don’t match reality. It’s this principle of being able to test and verify ideas that marks the border between science and fantasy.
Generalising from our example
Of course, at CERN, research involved in crossing roads safely has declined to a minimum since they have a massive particle smasher to play with instead. Any problem or phenomenon can be tackled using the scientific method, it’s the basic mechanics of how you learn new stuff that’s important.
The Scientific Method is:
Formulate a candidate explanation for whatever it is you’re trying to learn or understand.
Test that explanation in practice, try to come up with experiments that break your explanation.
Whenever a test/experiment shows results that do not fit into your explanation, conclude your idea is wrong and needs fixing.
Modify or replace your explanation so the results of ALL relevant experiments you know about fit into it.
Repeat at infinitum.
This is nothing less than the mechanism of evolution at work, selecting the fittest ideas and modifying them to fit reality better. Science started with medieval nonsense and, through the scientific method, evolved it into astronomy, quantum mechanics, genetics and glow-in-the-dark ice cream.
The Scientific Method is not:
Making up an explanation and never test its correctness.
Ignoring test results that don’t fit into your otherwise beautiful theory.
Ignoring the existence of specific test results because you can’t think of an explanation that includes them.
Can I just make something up?
Yes, but you have to test what you came up with before accepting it. Science is often quite messy in its attempts to come up with new ideas, but they are validated so only good stuff gets generally accepted and built upon by others. That means, your claims need to agree with experiment and your experiments need to be reproducible by others.
No news is not good news
It might turn out you don’t have to modify your explanation for a phenomenon for a long time, because nobody happens to come across new evidence that sweeps your theory off the table, but this is no guarantee at all that your explanation is correct.
It happened to the best of us:
Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravity was assumed to be correct for hundreds of years, until it turned out that it didn’t agree with what was observed on very large scales (we found planets didn’t move exactly as Newton’s explanation of gravity predicted). Einstein fixed that for him.
Einstein’s theory – which predicts very well with what we can see happening at large scales – does not agree at all with what seems to be happening on very small scales (we’re talking the tiny size of elementary particles here:electrons, quarks, …). On this scale Einstein’s models break down and another set of ideas called quantum mechanics was developed to explain the (reallyreallystrange!) things that were observed in that realm.
So physicists are now in a race to find a new theory that is correct at all scales, marrying Einstein’s take on things with quantum mechanics.
Not even true geniuses like Newton or Einstein should be considered infallible since they were not. They made their best guesses in their time, explaining the evidence then available to them, and once we saw stuff happening that did not follow the rules they came up with, we knew for sure those rules were not the whole story.
I’m not too eager to go there and possibly put people off, but no treatment of the Scientific Method seems to be complete without relating it to religion, since the two are so utterly at odds with each other.
The strained relationship between science and religion
The relationship between science and religion is not a happy marriage:
Rather, we’re looking at a dysfunctional family where daddy filed for divorce, mommy moved on but turned to the bottle for good measure – intoxicated permanently, she feels nice and cozy, though rarely knows what’s going on. Their poor little boy Albert is paralysed from the waist down but somehow still will has been turned out to be his own grandfather. Daughter Erwina’s probably both alive and dead. Great Christmas parties.
Kidding (am I?) aside:
The scientific method might well result one day in the conclusion that there must be a supreme being guiding us across the streets of life, leading us to the next question to try and answer: where did that being come from? But as of yet this notion remains firmly outside the meadow of peer-reviewed scientific results.
In fact, it isn’t even allowed to peek over the fence and there’s every sign that steps will have to be taken towards a restraining order in the near future (for gross conduct and harassment, mainly).
The Grand Canyon of Faith
There are those who don’t see conflicting world views in science and religion.
However, the Scientific Method of searching for answers based on evidence and the Religious Method of making up answers which ignore contradicting evidence are fundamentally incompatible. Minds that made an attempt at accommodating both of these ways of looking at the world exhibit spectacular discontinuity where the twain meet.
Religious people can be just as logical and intelligent as any atheist in general, and in fact most of them will go with the scientific method of crossing a street. (I’ve seen a few deviants and can assure you: you won’t run into those same people any time soon unless you’re visiting the intensive care unit or morgue at my home town’s local hospital.)
However, in navigating the world of their psyche, as soon as religious individuals reach the borders of the land of Faith, they throw all their mental prowess out the window and start following Escherian paths through their own brains. Paths utterly absurd, but apparently inescapable. Faith exhibits quite a few similarities to North Korea in that respect.
These pathways were formed during childhood, when brains are little sponges and have to learn the basic principles of life from their surroundings as quickly as possible. Pious people’s views on religion were imparted onto them by their parents and community by making them walk the same absurd route time and again. And now, after years of hiking, that route has been worn into a permanent canyon. There is no way out anymore except for climbing some very steep cliffs, back out onto the plains of reason and common sense.
It’s a bit like riding a bike and getting your wheels jerked into a ditch because you got too close to the edge. You might fall over completely, continue following the ditch the best you can, or make an effort to lift your bike out of the ditch and go wherever you damn well please.
Appropriately, the ever eloquent and brilliant physicist Richard Feynman has the last word, summarising the crux of the Scientific Method in one brief sentence worthy of highlighting in a fat red font:
“If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s WRONG.”
(*) I don’t like the expression ‘for dummies’. Not understanding what somebody’s talking about because they’re using words they’ve agreed upon with other people does not indicate you’re not smart enough to understand their subject, only that you haven’t been briefed about what those words mean.
Which is not to say specialised terminology isn’t very useful if you talk about a certain subject all the time, as a shortcut, but for somebody who’s new to the ideas they’re just annoying hurdles on the path between ignorance and understanding.
So this is not for dummies, just for the uninitiated.
I’m a heathen. An Infidel. A heretic, a non-, dis– and unbeliever, a skeptic, an apostate, a nullifidian and to make matters completely and utterly worse: an atheist.
Why I don’t believe in God
My transition from a little boy that didn’t think about these matters into a slightly larger boy that couldn’t stop marvelling at the beauty of holidays science as well as the oddity (best case), absurdity (average case) and atrocities (worst case) of religion has been a defining event in my life.
For me, it started with an acute what-the-fuck-am-I-doing-here moment in a local church twenty-odd years ago, followed by an equally sudden what-the-fuck-is-that-guy-talking-about moment in the same church five seconds later and culminates today in my sudden urge to start writing on the subject.
My goal here is not to burn any particular religion to the ground (though no expense has been spared by some religions to burn atheists to the ground). Rather, I would like to go over the generic reasons why – even though I’m told the majority of them is furious at me because of this – I don’t believe in any God whatsoever. (Other than Sir Isaac Newton.)
These ideas are not new, they’re just the ones I have come across over the years that contributed most to my personal conversion and conviction. The following is an attempt to state them as simply and clearly as I can.
Reason #1: I’ve never seen him, nor any indication of his existence.
Arguably the most obvious reason and possibly the most important one as well: if God exists, where is he? The only faculties a human being has at his disposal to assert the existence of something are:
The senses – direct observation
Things you see or feel, including stuff other people tell you. These days, we can see pretty far into the cosmos, across the entire electromagnetic range, using all sorts of telescopes. So far, to my knowledge, nobody has made a single credible observation that requires the presence of a supernatural intelligence (not even a stupid one).
Logical argument – indirect observation
Combining known facts and drawing conclusions from those. I do recognise the fact that not everything can be directly observed by our limited faculties. However, if I can’t observe something directly, as a non-lunatic I require either some sort of observable effect or a sound chain of reasoning that leads to the conclusion that the subject under investigation must exist.
Both approaches have come up empty so far.
Even if we assume God can’t be observed directly for whatever reason: there is not a single convincing bit of indirect evidence or remotely conclusive argument around, especially if we discount reports of people discerning a divine presence in their food.
If there was any evidence or proof out there, it would be world news instantly, especially in these times. Twitter would detonate. It would take over the planet and shut everybody up (except for the Dutch, who always seem to have something worth yapping about). It would have been rubbed in my embarrassed face ten times over during the past five seconds, and rightly so. This hasn’t happened yet, so I can safely continue to assume nobody has a strong case to convince an atheist.
Reason #2: followers of one religion are atheists of the others.
This is a slightly more subtle point: even the most devout Christian on the planet is an atheist regarding all the other religions that don’t agree with the particular flavour of faith he subscribes to. This is true of the followers of any religion. Even the most isolated tribes in the amazon have their own version of religion, and are equally confident they’ve got it all figured out.
Who is right?
Cause all the others are mistaken! No one religion has a better claim to the truth than any other, no religion has features that elevate it to a more likely Candidate for Truth. Cause, again, the world would know about it. So why assume any of the religions on offer is The One, and worth joining?
It’s just as reasonable to assume they’re all equally mistaken.
Whichever way you turn things, the vast majority of the world’s population is wasting their time worshipping a figment of their imagination.
Were you born correctly?
Even if there is one religion out there that happens to be the correct one, the chance you happened to have been born into that particular one are very slim indeed. The vast majority of believers have the same faith as their parents, and unless you’re a kid of God himself, it makes even less sense to assume they have chosen correctly in your stead.
Your parents were in the same situation as you with their parents, back in the day. They might have switched allegiance or they might have chosen to trust their parents‘ decision. Both options are error-prone, their grandparents were in the very same predicament way back when, and it’s turtles all the way down.
So it doesn’t make much sense to choose at all. Even if there is a God: your best chances for a nice afterlife sprout from not sticking to a particular religion since you’ve almost certainly been born into the wrong one.
If the God you should have believed in is vengeful and you pick wrong, you’re in trouble.
If he is vengeful and you don’t worship another you have a better case.
If he is not vengeful he will either forgive you no matter what you do, or just plain don’t care.
So logically, being a devout [insert religious affiliation here] makes no sense at all.
Reason #3: complexity of God vs the universe.
Many people with some sort of affinity for religion and spirituality will object to being chucked into the same bucket as ‘man-in-the-sky’ theists. They are equally unconvinced of these extreme versions of belief, but still feel there must be ‘something there‘ to ‘explain all this‘.
To those people I would say: “Evolution.” And then they would ask: “Explain what you mean or go away.” And then I would start explaining, and they would wish they’d have limited their response to “Go away.” And I would go on, regardless:
” The urge to postulate the presence of some supernatural entity usually seems to follow from being flabbergasted by the complexity of the universe. People tend to feel better if they know who made something, so they can understand where it came from. For an infinitely complex and confusing cosmos this urge becomes strong enough that a majority of people feel A Cause must be identified at all costs.
Nobody would postulate a divine entity if the cosmos would have been created by Apple. They would have been able to see Steve Jobs, standing right there. No doubt about it. As it happens, Apple only made a dent in the universe.
I consider evolution to be the most powerful idea science has investigated so far, it gives us the mechanism by which the complexity of life has arisen from extremely simple beginnings. (Evolution applies much more generally, I will definitely talk about this in future writings.) Since we now know how the complexity of life came to be, the need for a creator vanishes in a puff of logic.
A God that designed and created the entire universe must be more complex than that universe, and thus offers no explanation as to where the necessary complexity came from in the first place. Add this to reason #1 (nobody’s ever seen God) above, and the idea of God The Creator loses all substance. Occam’s razor is quite sharp enough to cut it away. “
For those who doubt
For those who have a lack of faith in evolution and would like to use that to undermine the argument above: evolution is absolutely real, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence available. Shouting at the top of your lungs it’s all nonsense is a bit like denying – over breakfast – that chickens lay eggs whilst enjoying an omelette. The evidence that proves your mistake is not hard to find, see or understand. You just need to go have a look in your back yard.
The inevitability of evolution deserves a separate treatment which I hope to get to some time in the near future.
Even though people try to pin everything that happens on God by way of explanation, we still don’t know anything since God himself is not explained. In other words, we’re saying (well I’m not saying that at all!) God explains everything, but we can’t explain God. We still have to cover for him by stressing the mysterious ways he likes to move in. It is a lazy, inadequate and feeble attempt to avoid doing the work and actually learn something about the world.
God of the Gaps
This idea is called ‘God of the Gaps’. It comes down to the observation that God appears wherever there are gaps in our understanding of the world. These gaps have been consistently shrinking for the past centuries, at an ever faster rate, as scientists have diligently been going about the process of filling them with papers.
It seems entirely reasonable to assume that these gaps will continue disappearing in the future, rendering the domain to which God is confined ever smaller, quite possibly ending in oblivion.
In contrast, so far we haven’t encountered a situation where scientific knowledge disappeared and had to be replaced by God.
While I understand the appeal of being able to point at The Cause, the gap between wanting to know something and actually knowing something can only be bridged using the scientific method. Not by stuffing the gap with fluff and sleeping on it. It might be comfortable and cozy but you will not get to the other side, you will only sink deeper into ignorance.
Reason #5: I’m not a Voldemort agnostic.
You might argue that if I don’t believe in God I should call myself an agnostic cause I can never disprove him and know one hundred percent for sure.
Given that I admit there being a tiny chance there is some sort of god, why not believe in him just in case? If god is fooled by my pretended piety he is not all that great, is he? At least now I have integrity, for which he might summon some respect. And if he isn’t vengeful my anti-religious conduct doesn’t matter either.
To put it another way, there is a tiny chance Voldemort is real as well but I am pretty sure he has been made up. It seems a safe bet to me to live my life ignoring the possibility rather than becoming a death eater just in case. This opens up a lot of free time in which I can do stuff I like better than worshipping.
Which does not mean I wouldn’t convert – with Malfoy-ian conviction – in a heartbeat, as soon as he’d show up on my doorstep. That’s science for you.
Reason #6: It’s free.
Nobody is asking me money for being atheist. It’s the cheapest set of principles around, the alternatives require a lot of time and money to be spent. Really exceptional value for money. Recommended.
Reason #7: I’m free.
Nobody is making me do stuff. Nobody is telling me what I should think or believe.
Trust in me
By definition, if you can’t know what you’re supposed to do to follow a particular religion by thinking for yourself – that would constitute some form of evidence – you are running with ‘facts’ (are they?) that are offered to you by other people, be it through ancient books or through direct interaction with representatives and followers of the faith in question. You are accepting arbitrary claims devoid of any justification whatsoever. This is obviously a very dangerous thing to do.
The great manipulator
It gives other people the power to have you do all sorts of things without having to explain themselves. Which, as far as I can tell, seems to be the main reason religion still exists today: people who realise they can manipulate people into practically anything and don’t have a conscience to stop them keep religion alive to have other people do stuff they would like to happen but aren’t keen on doing themselves.
The extreme case of this has been the main source of terror and bad politics for ages, with a distinct bump around the 9/11 mark in humanity’s timeline.
Nobody would dream of handing his or her wallet to some guy on the street because he claims he can talk to an almighty spirit that requires you to part with your cash, and you’re just gonna have to believe that spirit is there cause you will go to a rather unpleasant party when you die if you don’t. Nonetheless, this principle is widespread.
You believe in science. So science is your religion.
No it’s not.
Please do not touch
Religion forces an untouchable set of ideas on you. These rules supposedly never change, they’re ancient and even though the world is changing at dazzling speed, they still apply. Unadapted.
You’re not allowed to question any of these ideas, and if you do, you’re accused of misunderstanding them or you’re told they can’t be analysed in a rational fashion and to take them at face value. You can’t think about them, you just have to accept them. “Don’t you just believe in anything? That’s so sad!” I’ll be alright.
The scientific method
Science poses a fundamentally different way of looking at the world, called the Scientific Method (if God deserves a capital G…). I intend to write a separate post soon to explain the idea in more detail (that post is now available here), but the crux of the matter is to be ready to drop any idea at all, immediately, whenever you meet some beautiful new evidence that tells you that idea is wrong.
The marvels of science put it in stark contrast with religion. “Scientific thought produces technology. Religious thought produces art.” I want to poke giant holes all over that but I don’t know where to start. Technology is starting to produce art these days, so there’s that.
Science does not deny God outright. Rather, if he exists, science would be the way to find out. As it happens, science didn’t stumble upon any indication of his existence so far. It did stumble though, and fell face first into a mountain of facts that unanimously point to the opposite conclusion.
It just works
In any case, you can see for yourself – everywhere around you – that science works. If it didn’t you would be reading this carved into a rock on the town square. Even the most fundamentalist jihadist acknowledges this by happily using the product of the very ideas he loathes so deeply to orchestrate and execute the most vicious acts of destruction he can think of, in order to eradicate the very notions that led to the development of the technology he, too, uses every day.
Who’s gonna make their cell phones when they’ve reached their goal I wonder.
Free thy children!
This limited listing alone – there are many more forms of justification scattered all over reality, waiting for people to ignore them – leaves me no other option than to be a radical atheist.
To close, a point Richard Dawkins never fails to highlight, and I think this might perhaps be the most important message for humanity to take to heart if it cares to survive for a good while longer: teach your children to think for themselves.
Don’t raise them to be manipulable and naive, but have them question the reasons for what other people request of them (not for what you request though, they’re gonna eat those carrots!) This would undoubtedly eliminate a tremendous portion of misery from the world and skew the scales towards a world population that has enough common sense to save itself as well as its pale blue home.
Help your children to be free instead of chaining them to the wall of the same prison cell you might happen to reside in. You live in there only because your parents did, for no good reason. Instead, open the door. Leave them free to wander around, to see what the other cells look like and who’s in there, if they want.
And then let them leave the prison building altogether, to roam the earth and experience the cosmos like nobody intended it to be.
There’s a plethora of excellent reading options available, these are some famous personal favourites of mine.
As some readers will no doubt have noticed, a huge portion of the ideas described here have been treated in much more detail by Richard Dawkins, and many of them in this book. It turned me from a curious agnostic into a full-blown heretic. The lucid reasoning throughout is inescapable and by the end of the book you either didn’t understand it or you’re an atheist.
I can’t not recommend most of Dawkins’ bibliography, but this work in particular made the concept of evolution really click for me and had an immense impact on my world view. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone.
This famous book makes a great case against religion as well. Hitchens’ style is quite direct and unapologetic, though, which usually puts off the people he would have liked to convince most. This trait is shared, to a slightly lesser extent, by Richard Dawkins.
A beautiful bird’s eye overview of the sciences. Perfect for people who are not very familiar with any of them but would like to get some idea of what has been found out so far, through some light reading.
If you’re brave enough to jump in at the deep end, try Charles Darwin’s very own masterpiece. It’s quite readable but obviously misses more than a 150 years of progress in the field. The core idea is there though, in all it’s glory. To get a more modern treatment, read The Blind Watchmaker (mentioned above).
This is an upcoming book by Lawrence Krauss, one of the most prominent physicists of our time. Krauss has a great track record in popular science writing, so I’m very much looking forward to his new book which promises to be a true celebration of the scientific method and how it is used to learn more about how the universe works. Already recommended.
Feel free to leave a comment in case you have anything to add to (or subtract from) this post, I’m all ears (a horrible condition science hasn’t been able to find a cure for that doesn’t kill the patient).
This is a brand new blog. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Do you need another blog? Probably not, but it’s still here. I’m gonna do my best to produce content that increases the average quality of the internet until such time as the world ends (should be any day now).
I intend to write about science, religion/atheism and (sometimes loosely) related topics whenever I feel like it. My personal interests are broad and I suspect this will be reflected in the aggregated subject matter of the blog in the future.