Real Estate

Master satirist DarkMatter2525 has created a wonderful short film contrasting buying a house and choosing a religion: 

The technique is similar to a common strategy used in math and physics. When a problem is too difficult to tackle directly (like this example of trying to evaluate claims about gods and the afterlife) it's useful to begin with a much simpler problem; epistemologically get your feet wet. Most will remember studying motion in high school physics. First you study examples of motion with no acceleration, then motion with acceleration. Or without friction then with friction.

When it comes to questions about god and the afterlife, these are extremely difficult questions which cut across nearly every human discipline including physics, biology, logic, ethics, even history; which makes most of us pathetically under qualified to even approach them, yet we're forced to try anyway. So whatever methodology you choose to adopt, you should give it a test drive in a much simpler environment to make sure it produces acceptable results.

DarkMatter2525 chose to transpose the methodology to real estate (and at this point you need to watch the video if you have not already). My preferred example is rainbow unicorns. When you're presented with an argument dealing with an extraordinary claim (it could be having to do with religious miracles, aliens, bigfoot, crystal healing, alternative medicine) try to imagine how that would play out if the topic were rainbow unicorns.

I'm not claiming that if God exists, rainbow unicorns must exist or that god must be a rainbow unicorn. But it's a productive intellectual exercise to run through the thought experiment and contemplate what forms of evidence, if they did appear on your doorstep tomorrow, you would find convincing or laughable.

Sample unicorn.
Sample unicorn.

So many of the arguments for God, when framed in unicorn terms, instantly lose their power. The popular "but you can't prove that there is no god, so how can you be so sure?" intuitively carries some weight. You'd be tempted to hem and haw and concede that maybe you're not as certain as you were a moment ago. But if you move it over, "but you can't prove that there are no rainbow unicorns, so how can you be so sure?" is equally true, but makes it obvious that the argument is fallacious and was really just a piece of rhetoric used for emotional appeal rather than any kind of rational value.

Another favourite example is Darth Vader. Since even if he existed, he existed in a galaxy far far away, so the evidence of his existence would be unavailable to us here for empirical analysis. So investigating the existence of Sith lords is a bit of a stepping stone towards being comfortable tackling the big theological questions.

Jerry Coyne on Free Will

The Imagine No Religion conference recently posted the video of Jerry Coyne's presentation at their fifth annual conference in Vancouver earlier this year. This talk was actually given before his talk about Faith Vs. Fact in Toronto, but the video has just appeared. It's a great talk. 

When it comes to free will, for me the writing has been on the wall since I was a teenager. From what I was reading at the time, it was clear that the concept was indefensible. It came up in the writings of Richard Feynman and Scott Adams' God's Debris offered up a concise reductio ad absurdum.

But even then, it wasn't a very straightforward argument. In order to make sense of the claim that our sense of free will is an illusion, it would have been necessary to go into a lengthy digression about physics and just what exactly we know about the universe (or at that age what I had read that other people knew, since I didn't know calculus yet.) Through the study of magic and illusion I found a much more straightforward illustration of why free will is an illusion (I'm not sure if that's irony or poetic justice.)

A member of a magic audience may be called upon to make choices. Do I choose the red scarf or the blue one? Do I take the $5 or the $20 out of my wallet? Do I touch this playing card or the one three quarters of an inch to the left? Now the choice may not matter. The trick can proceed exactly the same way regardless of which card you select. Or it's possible that the magician influences your choice in a way you are unaware of so that the choice you feel you are making is actually a choice being made by the magician.

David Ben, in his book Advantage Play, Coyned the term "virtual participation" to refer to this situation where the spectator feels like an active participant but in reality their actions are not influencing the outcome. This opens the door to a possibility which is (to some) frightening. There can be influences affecting the outcomes of your decisions of which you are completely unaware. 

If those influences can come from outside your body (a magician priming you to make a certain choice such that the cues go unnoticed), then they can come from inside your body. Your brain already does quite a bit of "thinking" that you are completely unaware of. You're not making any conscious effort to keep your heart beating. You breathe without thinking about it most of the time you're awake (and all of the time when you're asleep.) Once you acknowledge the possibility that your brain is doing thinking you're not aware of (and really at this point, it's a certainty, not a possibility) then the question becomes how much of this thinking is taking place? Free will isn't all or nothing; it's a sliding scale.

Even before you have to concede the kind of strict materialism Jerry suggests, you already have to admit that free will is at least severely limited.

Most people who attempt to rescue free will do so by redefining it back into existence. Daniel Dennett makes a convincing case for embracing a definition of free will which is compatible with physical determinism. Since the chemical mechanisms which underly our decision making are so intractably complex they are unpredictable to the point where, for all practical purposes, we can label them as free without any measurable loss in accuracy.

At first glance, this seems like a slightly sneaky thing to do. It's not without precedent though. Frequently in science as our understanding changes, we give updated definitions to old terms. So the definition of what constitutes an electron has changed since it was discovered, the thing we called the electron is still the same thing, but our understanding of it has changed such that the previous definition was problematic and incoherent.

So the idea of free will has been replaced by the feeling we experience of having free will. Nothing in the world practically changes. We don't all of a sudden become lifeless automatons. The question still remains for beings with finite access to information and finite computational power: What is the most responsible way to behave given the information we have available to us. So if our actions are so unpredictable that they might as well be free, then we are, for all intents and purposes free.

So just get on with the card trick.

The Badass Stephen Fry

I realize that's redundant, but this man continues to exude awesomeness out of every pore. For me, the most disappointing thing so far in 2015 is that the latest instalment of his memoir is not available as an eBook in this country. Here he is on Irish television, in no less of a place that Oscar Wilde's former home, giving an answer that shocks his interviewer out of his complacency. It's fabulous. And the interviewer's face is priceless.

Part of this is privilege. Few are in the position to be able to speak their minds in public so honestly without putting their career in jeopardy. So to see this is truly wonderful.

In fact, all he's doing is pointing out facts that a five year old child could point out, except that we've grown accustomed to not pointing them out. The notion of a god (at least the one featured in the world's major monotheisms) only makes any kind of sense if large parts of her creation are swept under the rug and ignored.

Occasionally the responsibility gets deflected by positing either an antagonist devil character, or some magical force (sin) to account for the problems. The hope is that we will forget that it is the got that necessarily must have created those characters and forces. It's a piece of sleight of hand we play on ourselves. And like any well constructed magic trick, once you realize what's happened, you smack your forehead wondering how it could be possible to be led astray by something so simple.

I also can't help but notice the shiny new wedding ring!

Heathen's Greetings

Michael Close
Michael Close

In just over two weeks, on Magic Tonight, we'll be hosting a special fundraisers for the Centre for Inquiry ( All proceeds from the show will go to support CFI Canada. I'll be performing on the show along with special guest, Michael Close. After the show we'll be doing a live taping of David Peck'sFace2Face Podcast where we'll be discussing the role of magic on a modern secular society.

David Peck
David Peck

Where: Izakaya Showroom - 292 College Street @ Spadina When: Sunday, December 21, 2014 - 5:00 PM - 10:00 PM Tickets:

Discounted tickets are available for Members of CFI Canada.

Join us for an evening of fun, friends and food. The only spirits present will be alcoholic. We'll celebrate reason (by throwing it out the window for the night and do some amazing magic and other strange things.)

Tickets include the show, dinner and the podcast taping. They can be purchased at

James Alan
James Alan

Michael Close ( originally from Indiana, is one of the most respected creators and publishers of magic in the world. He is currently the Editor in Chief of MUM, the journal of the Society of American Magicians. He is also the author of That Reminds Me, with a foreword by Penn Jillette.

David Peck ( is the Executive Director of SoChange, a non profit organization that helps build capacity for organizations in the developing world. Among its programs is the Mosquitoes Suck Tour, a comedy and magic show that promotes social justice and education for high school students about malaria and mosquitoes in Africa.

Magic Tonight Square
Magic Tonight Square

Ask a stupid question countdown... One posted a list of Ten Questions for Every Atheist. Since I count myself as one of the "every" and I'm far too snarky to leave rhetorical questions alone, I thought they would be interested in my responses. I'll tackle one a day, counting down from ten to one. I'll also be unpacking the questions so not only do I address them directly but also some of the hidden assumptions and fallacies behind them.

Before reading the answer, keep in mind that they have the rather absurd lead-in:

Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…

Someone out there imagines that no one ever thought to answer these, and I'm guessing from the general tone, they think they are unanswerable. So with my apologies for busting your bubble, here are honest answers:

1. How did you become an atheist?

This is a slightly misleading question since it has the faulty assumption built into it that all people must start as theists - that is, they believe in a personal god who created the universe, has a "plan" for them and might even be talked into granting the odd prayer here and there.

I cannot honestly say I was ever a theist. Although I may have done so when I was younger and didn't know what I was talking about, I can't say I've ever tried to pray to a deity. I've certainly never had any kind of magic water sprinkled on me (so many jokes... so little time) and never feasted on the blood and body of a first century zombie for Sunday brunch.

So why was I so lucky as to not be sucked into any of these odd beliefs? I suppose paramount thanks go to my parents for ensuring that religion was never part of my early life. Although many of the official holidays in Canada are Christian holidays, we weren't Christian children, we were just children. And of course there were Jewish children, who were exactly the same as regular children except they had the advantage of having a few extra days off from school.

I'm sure I must have found my way into a church for a wedding or a funeral, but there was no indoctrination. All religions realize, and most will admit openly, that indoctrination at an early age is a central part in any religious recruitment plan. There are a lot of important ideas that would just not take root if you tried to push them on an adult whose brain had finished developing and picked up a little science and logic.

So in the absence of indoctrination, atheistic children tend to remain atheists. I was also helped along from some outside sources in the entertainment I sought. First, the way god was portrayed in the media. My favourite shows were distinctly secular.

The Simpsons, while stopping short of mocking god outright, clearly didn't take him all that seriously. God and the devil are always comedic characters. No kids walk away fearing god.

Star Trek was the late Gene Roddenberry's vision for a utopian future. Although I wasn't aware of it at the time, I found out much later, god was intentionally absent from the Star Trek universe. No one solved problems by praying. It was human ingenuity and human compassion that solved problems. The other message that was abundantly clear is that we are one human species. It was a world where national and cultural divides had evaporated and we were all in it together.

Douglas Adams, was my favourite author as a child. He wrote many of the few books which made me stop my reading so I could laugh out loud for several minutes. He was also an outspoken atheist and that bled into his books (it was much easier to be an atheist in the UK, no one cares quite as much.) In fact, it was probably with the release of the Salmon of Doubt (I was seventeen) which contained an interview which is probably the point at which I learned that atheist was the right label for what I was.

Richard Feynman - the Nobel prize winning physicist gave many talks later in his life that were more philosophical in tone. That was how I came to understand what the scientific method really was (I was reading this stuff in high school, I was pretty odd) and how to think critically about things. I learned how to deal with claims of UFOs and claims of miracles. I learned what constituted good evidence. He was a little too polite to tackle the god question explicitly but if you just switched out "aliens" for "god" the arguments still made exactly the same amount of sense. That was where I learned the cardinal rule of science:

If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it.

Scott Adams is widely known for creating Dilbert. Dilbert was a great source of comfort for me as I found myself working for a woman who was the personification of the "Pointy Haired Boss". But he also wrote a book that no one seemed to take notice of (in fact I found the first one at the top of a remainder bin by sheer luck) God's Debris (the sequel was interesting but nowhere near as profound). It was a Socratic discourse between and old man and a UPS delivery boy and they were talking about religion. That was where I learned that people could say they believed something and maybe even believe that they believed it but by looking at their actions you could tell they didn't actually believe it. And equally important, that most people believe things without actually checking to make sure what they believe makes sense. We just sort of assume we understand what words mean and proceed on a kind of autopilot. Page for page, it probably has the greatest density of "holy shit" eye opening moments.

By seventeen, the floodgates were wide open. After that, everything was just more and more evidence that we lived in a godless universe. But more impotently, we lived in an understandable universe. If we want to convince someone of something, saying "God said so" just won't do. If we want to solve a problem, we have to solve it ourselves because there's no one "upstairs" to refer it up to.

But how did... ?

Most objections to atheism come in the form of arguments from ignorance, or arguments from limited imagination.

"How can you possibly explain X without a god?"

Now the majority of us are extremely quick to admit that there are things we don't know. We're usually quite explicit about our own areas of ignorance. But a brief look through history is enough to show that this argument can in no way be seen as compelling.

Rewind to some point in the past, perhaps a hundred or a thousand years, and think of the things that were not understood at that point but are understood now. It may be a long list or a short list. But one thing which should be obvious is that the number of times god shows up in the explanations is zero. Whenever we do find explanations for things, we invariably find them to be not god.

But what if you're wrong?

I recently completed an entire full evening show called The Uncertainty Project. One of the things I wanted to sneak in, without being to philosophically dull, was the notion that we do not have access to certainty in any area of our lives. There is always the chance that at some future date, some new piece of evidence will materialize that will force us to reevaluate our beliefs. This is a fact of life and admitting it is just ordinary honesty.

The late Christopher Hitchens once mocked the term faith:

"I am a person of faith... I am a person who will believe practically anything on no evidence at all."

I think a good description of a rational person is:

"I am a person who will believe absolutely anything... provided you bring me good evidence."

But there's a dishonest twist. Because many faithful mistakenly think that their beliefs are correct with absolute certainty. They may in fact honestly believe this, but this is just bad philosophy and (a recurring theme in these answers) we know it's not that difficult for people to believe things and be wrong about it. Then they take this mistake a step further

  1. [Atheist] is willing to admit we might be wrong and new evidence could change our minds.
  2. [Theist] is not willing to admit they could be wrong, that they must be right.
  3. Therefore [Theist] must be right and [Atheist] must be wrong.

Some will take a softer conclusion than (3) and say something like

"They can't be certain we're wrong, so they have no basis for saying we're wrong."

This form of argument appears so often, I'm curious if the logical fallacy has a name. If anyone knows, please let me know.

Thanks for your patience

Well that was about thirteen thousand words to answer ten questions that they didn't even want an answer to. If you were able to slog through it, thank you. Hopefully you learned something new or interesting. I actually had a great deal of fun getting these answers typed out. It was an enlightening chance to reflect on all the mental flotsam that's been jostling about in my head in recent years.

Ask a stupid question countdown... ten posted a list of Ten Questions for Every Atheist. Since I count myself as one of the "every" and I'm far too snarky to leave rhetorical questions alone, I thought they would be interested in my responses. I'll tackle one a day, counting down from ten to one. I'll also be unpacking the questions so not only do I address them directly but also some of the hidden assumptions and fallacies behind them.

Before reading the answer, keep in mind that they have the rather absurd lead-in:

Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…

Someone out there imagines that no one ever thought to answer these, and I'm guessing from the general tone, they think they are unanswerable. So with my apologies for busting your bubble, here are honest answers:

10. If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

The implication is that the more people believe something, the more likely it is to be true. While this may occasionally be right, you've already thought of about half a dozen examples from human history of things that everybody knew to be true that turned out to be wrong. So I'll take it as self-evident for the moment that it's not that difficult for tremendous numbers of people to be wrong about something.

If I had to guess, and I am by no means a properly trained anthropologist or evolutionary psychologist, I would say that organized religion emerged, not because it offers any kind of survival advantage in and of itself, but rather because of the accidental overlap of other things which evolved for very understandable reasons. Those three things are:

a. respect for authority

A child that listens to its parents when they say "don't go playing near that high cliff or near that group of tigers" is more likely to survive than a child that says "screw you dad, I'm going to play where I want." So we can imagine a built in tendency to respect authority. This means that if someone in a position of authority adopted an idea which was incorrect (think of any of the eight zillion silly commandments in the Old Testament) then it will have a tendency to survive despite the fact that it's either a harmful or useless idea.

b. an inability to distinguish correlation from causation

Everyone who walks into a statistics class needs to have it drilled in their head that correlation is not causation. Just because two things happen together, doesn't mean that one causes the other. You notice it hasn't rained in a while. You pray, and then the next day it rains. You assume that one caused the other even though we know that the weather just runs on its own sometimes raining, sometimes not and the thoughts that run through your head don't affect it at all. Being confused about correlation/causation is the natural state for the human mind.

c. the importance of not thinking too much

That may seems strange today, where quality of life is so high and we value thinking so much. There are many people who, when you think about it, are literally paid to sit around and thinking about things (and occasionally writing those thoughts down). Back when food and resources were scarce there wasn't a lot of time for simple thinking. The desire to sit down for long periods of time and figure out why the sun always seemed to rise and set at regular intervals or why it rained or why water never flowed uphill could very well be a threat to your survival. After all, it's rather easy to eat something that's just sitting there gazing at its own navel. So the ability to stop thinking, to take an answer and say "I suppose that's good enough for now" would have been beneficial. You can observe it today when you see the pressure people feel to jump to conclusions - to get an answer quickly - regardless of whether or not it's correct.

I believe that explains why a religion would originate, although there are probably several more forces at work than what I have outlined here. Now of course why do they survive when they're (at least in hindsight) no good for us?

Religion may be useless, but laws are certainly not. A society that gets together and figures out that it should discourage people from lying, stealing, killing, raping and listening to Justin Bieber is better off than one that doesn't. And it's probably also beneficial to centralize decision making, to chose some people to make certain decisions on behalf of the group because trying to reach universal consensus would just take too long. And so it's useful to codify those laws; write them down and make them official. Unfortunately, if you have some important people of the kind described above, they along with the useful laws, they might accidentally codify some of the nonsense along with it. This is why you see books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy which are a mix of useful rules, complete nonsense and pure evil*. The stupid stuff got recorded alongside the useful stuff and we're stuck with it.

Religion probably took what was a perfectly sensible attempt at early human government and co-opted it with a bunch of superstition.

Stay tuned for question nine tomorrow.


*I'll deal with morality in some more detail when I get to those questions.