Should We Trust Our Gut? : The Idealization of Intuition and Instinct

IT is common to hear advice that amounts to “going with your gut”, “trusting your instincts” or “following your intuition.” But these suggestions seem to indicate that the answers we arrive at through careful thought are sometimes (or perhaps usually) inferior to our immediate reactions. Consider the following representative quotes:

Keep the faith, don’t lose your perseverance and always trust your gut extinct.

Paula Abdul, Performer

I always trust my gut reaction; it’s always right.

Kiana Tom, Television Host

Intuition comes very close to clairvoyance; it appears to be the extrasensory perception of reality.

Alexis Carrel, Nobel Prize Winner (Medicine)

Before making a decision about whether to trust our gut, it seems like a worthwhile endeavor to first try to understand what exactly our “gut” is. There are a number of possibilities:

1. Sometimes gut feelings can be explained by our evolved instincts that are encoded in our DNA, which exist because they helped our ancestors survive in the world as it was hundreds of thousands of years ago. For example, we are likely to feel anxious when confronted with something unfamiliar (a large unknown animal, for example), or feel fear when we hear a loud noise. These sort of reactions are very useful at times, but typically only work well in scenarios involving danger or conditions that are similar to those that our prehistoric ancestors encountered. At a birthday party where balloons are being popped, a fear of loud noises is not useful. On the other hand, when walking in a canyon, a loud noise might indicate a cascade of rocks and a fear response might save your life.

2. In many cases our intuition is associated with our immediate emotional responses to stimuli. For example, we might get a positive feeling towards someone who has a warm smile, or feel negatively towards a person who is raggedly dressed. While our emotional responses clearly are important (e.g. it’s important to feel sympathy towards a friend when they look sad, and to feel fear when encountering someone who has hurt you in the past) they can also be distorted and counter productive. For example, many people feel slighted if a friend fails to return their phone call. However, one is likely to feel better about the situation (despite his initial emotional response) if he reminds himself that there are all sorts of reasons that a friend doesn’t return calls, including being temporarily busy or absent minded. On the other hand, those who trust in their initial response of hurt and anger (which might stem, for example, from a lack of confidence or insecurity) are more likely to blow up at the friend or act coldly during the next encounter, which could damage a generally fulfilling relationship. Unfortunately, it can be tricky to differentiate between emotional responses that are useful and improve our lives, and those that are based on misperceptions and are unhelpful. Both of these types of emotional responses feel equally real when you are experiencing them, and it is often only when we carefully scrutinize them from a neutral point of view that we can tell the difference.

3. Sometimes our “intuition” is based on repeated experience that we access automatically. For example, a surgeon might get an uneasy feeling during an operation, which could be triggered automatically when she notices similarities between the current patient and difficult surgical cases she has had in the past. Another example would be a painter who suddenly has an impulse to add more thinner to the paint he is using, which could be a subconscious reaction based on years of art making experience. Generally when we repeat similar tasks enough times, their execution becomes automatic and begins to feel like an instinct. We might then say that we have developed an intuition for effectively completing the tasks. These kinds of responses can occur much faster than those controlled by conscious thought, and thus can be very efficient and useful. Of course, if the initial learning phase that leads to one’s intuitions is not of good quality (e.g. we complete the task poorly while learning), the intuition will be of poor quality as well. Sometimes intuitions of this form are experienced in emotional form as an uneasy feeling, in particular when our (possibly subconscious) expectations (based on experience, training or practice) do not match what we see. A day trader, for example, might decide to sell a stock due to an uncomfortable feeling about it. In reality, what may have happened is that the stock chart had a pattern that did not conform to his expectations. This intuition can be quite useful since those cases that don’t match our predictions can be especially difficult, require special attention, and present unknown hazards.

4. Societal conditioning can create a kind of gut reaction that operates without conscious awareness. If we are told enough times when we are young not to trust strangers, then we may feel immediately distrustful when a stranger strikes up a conversation. The trouble with responses of this kind is that they are often formed without thought or careful reflection. For example, if we grow up in an area where a lot of racism is present, we might be told that certain races are inherently dishonest, and so could have strong intuitive reactions to people of those races based on this idea. Similarly, if we are taught to believe that black cats bring bad luck, we might start feeling uneasy in a house with a black cat. Since the ideas that society conditions us with may not be true, it can be very valuable to be aware of these automatic reactions and to carefully evaluate their logical and empirical validity.

5. Our brains are capable of forming very strong associations (between perfumes and people, for instance) and this can lead to what might be interpreted as “gut feelings”. For example, if we were attacked by dogs when we were young, we may feel anxious around dogs later in life, even when we know on an intellectual level that we are safe around them. Such associations clearly have a valuable survival purpose, but on the other hand, can push us into self defeating behavior (like refusing to visit the house of a friend because she has a dog). Our brain’s natural tendency is to be “better safe than sorry”, as your ancestors were very unlikely to die from forming spurious associations (such as that dogs are generally dangerous), but were at real risk of dying if they failed to form certain real associations (such as that wolves are dangerous).

As we can see, what people call their “gut” is most likely a hodgepodge of various brain activities, which include survival instincts, emotional responses, automatic recall of learned information, societal conditioning, and associations. It is not at all obvious that these systems will lead to good decision making in general. Each has its very important uses, as well as significant domains where it will fail. A business man cannot rely on fight or flight instincts when giving an important presentation, a person with an anxiety disorder cannot expect his emotional responses to be accurate representations of reality, a doctor cannot rely on his old impulses when learning a totally new surgical technique, and no one can expect that their society will condition them only with true information. Hence, to make truly good decisions, it is essential to evaluate your intuition to make sure that it is likely to be accurate in the situation at hand. Each time our gut tells us something, we cannot know whether to trust it until we understand where that feeling originates from.

Posted in Evolution, Philosophy, Skepticism, Truth | 1 Comment

Will Terrorists Attack Manhattan with a Nuclear Bomb?

Recently, a friend of mine who lives in Manhattan posed to me the question of whether she should be afraid of living there due to the threat of terrorists setting off a nuclear bomb. As I feel this is a question that has plagued many people, I decided to do a little bit of research and compose a brief analysis of the situation. Please keep in mind that I am not an expert in terrorism, and my calculations should be taken with a grain of salt. The situation is very complex, there are many unknowns and potential sources for error, and I ended up having to rely on some guesswork. Nonetheless, I hope that my analysis is helpful to others who are interested in this question, or who find themselves living in constant fear of a nuclear weapon being detonated in their city.

1. Do terrorist groups want to nuke the United States?

It seems that yes, there are groups that would be willing to do this. According to the Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, “At the moment, al Qaeda is judged to be the sole terrorist group actively intent on conducting a nuclear attack against the United States.” Of course, it is impossible to rule out the possibility that other groups are also seeking to do this. I’m going to work under the assumption that Al Qaeda and those groups tightly connected to it are the only ones that would have the interest and/or capabilities of actually plotting such an attack at this time.

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2. Where would terrorists get nuclear weapons?

Genuine nukes of great destructive power are quite difficult to build, and cost estimates for building full scale weapons (of the 25-35 kiloton variety) seem to be > $5 Billion. Furthermore, such weapons would likely take longer than a decade to build from scratch (though these numbers are a bit old, so the process may have become cheaper as technology has progressed). Hence, it seems highly likely that if terrorists intended to use such a weapon they would steal them, buy them, or get them through strategic arrangements with governments that already have them. Of course, different types of weapons with different yields would have different costs associated with them, and the amount of time that it would take for construction depends on the scale of the project (with more resources and more scientists it would likely go faster). Some people fear that there may be poorly controlled nuclear weapon materials in Russia (such as bomb-grade uranium). Others fear that nukes could be stolen from Pakistan, in part because of the country’s potential instability, and also because it is possible that Al Qaeda is conducting operations there. Iran also could be a potential source of danger, in part because it is run by a religious zealot and it is unclear how far he would be willing to take his anti-American sentiments.

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3. What sort of weapons would terrorists be likely to use?

It would be far, far easier to attack the U.S. with a dirty bomb (a conventional bomb laced with radioactive material in a manner such that the material is spread by the blast) than with a full scale nuclear weapon since dirty bombs are so much easier and cheaper to construct or acquire. Such an operation would also seem to have a much greater chance of succeeding than use of a true nuclear bomb since it does not require recruiting high level nuclear scientists, massive deal making with large nations for supplies, or a laboratory which must be kept secret for a decade or more. The supplies for the construction of dirty bombs are relatively easy to obtain, though these weapons have far less destructive capability than true nukes. There has been at least one known plot (in actuality, probably more like two or three) to detonate a dirty bomb in the United States.

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4. If terrorists did choose to attack the United States with nuclear weapons, how likely would they be to choose Manhattan as their target?

It seems quite likely that if terrorists attempted a nuclear attack on the United States, it would be carried out in either Manhattan or Washington DC. Manhattan is an obvious choice because the County of New York is the most densely populated county in the country, so damage and chaos could be maximized , and because Manhattan has enormous importance to the U.S. economy. DC is also a natural choice because of the opportunity it might provide terrorists to disrupt government operations. That being said, the United States is a huge place, and it is possible that for logistical reasons terrorists might find New York difficult. If I had to put a probability on it, I would guess that there might be a 3 in 10 chance that Manhattan would be chosen as a target.

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5. If terrorists attacked Manhattan with nukes, how bad would it be?

The worst case scenario pretty much would be the detonation of a nuclear bomb (hidden in a truck or in an ocean shipping container). One source (a report by Ira Helfland, head of emergency medicine at Cooley Dickinson Hospital) estimates that a 12.5 kiloton bomb of this nature “smuggled into the port of New York aboard a shipping container and detonated at ground level” would end up killing approximately 260,000 people (about 52,000 of them would die immediately as a consequence of the blast, 10,000 would die soon after from direct radiation exposure, and the remainder would die from nuclear fallout). The study says that that several hundred thousand more would become sick from radiation sickness. There are about 1.6 million residents in Manhattan, which balloons to about 3 million during the day from people traveling into Manhattan. If we assume that the attack occurred during the day (when population densities are highest), and that in total 600,000 either die or get very sick, and that about 2.5 million people are in Manhattan at that moment (since some commuters will have left before the moment the attack occurred, or not arrived yet), then you would have about a 25% chance of dying or becoming seriously ill.

What about the case of a dirty bomb attack? In this case, it’s most likely that fewer than 10,000 people would die or become seriously ill, leaving a probability of less than 0.5% of sickness or death.

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6. What have known terrorists plots on the united states been like?

Since 9/11 muslim extremists have concocted at least fifteen thwarted plots to carry out terrorist attack in U.S. In fact, the true number is probably quite a bit higher than this. The plots that I was able to find by conducting a few quick searches were:

-Shoe bomb in plane.

-Attempted construction of a dirty bomb.

-Blowtorches to collapse brooklyn bridge.

-Attack New York Stock Exchange and construct a dirty bomb.

-Bomb subway station Near Madison Square Garden.

-Assassinate diplomat with grenade launcher.

-Attack national guard facilities, synagogues and other places in Orange County, CA.

-Plot to blow up wyoming natural gas refinery, the transcontinental pipeline, and the NJ Standard Oil Refinery.

-Potential planned attack on the U.S. Capitol and World Bank headquarters.

-Blow up Sears Tower and FBI offices.

-Attack underground transit links connecting to New Jersey.

-Blow up ten commercial airliners.

-Attack U.S. Army base Fort Dix in New Jersey with assault rifles and grenades.

-Blow up jet fuel artery that runs through residential neighborhoods at JFK international airport.

-Attack the Empire State Building and U.S. nuclear power stations.

Note that all of these attacks have been thwarted, either by the incompetence of the perpetrators, or by effective government work. The only “successful” attacks since September 11, 2001 (that might potentially be considered terrorist attacks) that I managed to find in my quick searches were:

-An Egyptian gunman opens fire at an El Al ticket counter in Los Angeles International Airport, killing two Israelis before being killed himself.

-Joel Henry Hinrichs III detonated a bomb near the packed football stadium at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma killing himself in the process.

-Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, an Iranian-born graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, drives an SUV onto a crowded part of campus, injuring nine.

-An Afghani Muslim hit 19 pedestrians, killing one, with his SUV in the San Francisco Bay area.

-A man attacks Fort Hood with guns, shooting 44 people.

Something to notice here is that most of these attacks on the U.S. since 9/11 have failed or were foiled, and most of the ones that haven’t failed were relatively small scale. What’s more, all of the attacks listed are much, much less complex and difficult and expensive to pull off than building/acquiring, transporting and detonating a full scale nuclear bomb.

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7. What is the (very roughly) estimated probability that a person living in Manhattan will die or become seriously injured/sick by a nuclear weapon attack within the next ten years?

This estimate will of course be very crude and inaccurate, but here goes. First lets consider the case of a full nuclear bomb attack. If such an attack occurred in the U.S. and went according to plan, there might be something like a 3 in 10 chance that it would target Manhattan. The chance of death or serious injury depends a lot on the strength of the bomb, but if we assume a large bomb of about 12.5 kilotons this might give a person in Manhattan a 1 in 4 chance of avoiding serious physical harm. What would the probability be that such a plan would be foiled by the government or botched by the perpetrators? The odds seem very good of this happening, as a great number of much simpler attacks that would involve many fewer people have failed. In fact, only about 1 in 5 of the attacks I managed to find information about succeeded, and the ones that DID succeed were some of the very simplest to organize. I would guess that the odds of the success of a full scale nuclear bomb attack are something like 1 in 100. If this seems low, keep in mind that this figure has to take into account the odds that the terrorists fail to acquire or build the bomb despite their attempts, that they run out of funding, that their facilities are discovered and raided, that their bomb is discovered during transportation, that their bomb fails to detonate, that members of their team lose their nerve, that they can’t get the bomb into the U.S., etc.

The next thing to estimate are the odds that SOME terrorist group is actually attempting to plan an attack like this. The plot would be very difficult and expensive to pull off, but on the flip side, would be massively effective at injuring the U.S. (through death, illness, property damage, and widespread panic), so the difficulty might be balanced to some degree in the terrorists minds by the potential damage caused. The enormous potential cost of this project and the expertise required may well be prohibitive though, so I’ll place the odds that Al Qaeda or a closely linked group would pursue completing this project within the next ten years rather arbitrarily at 1 in 10. Here I am assuming that only Al Qaeda terrorist group would even be willing to attempt such a project. All in all, this very crude estimate indicates that the likelihood that terrorists attempt to attack the U.S. with a full scale nuclear bomb, actually succeed in this plan, carry out this attack in Manhattan, and kill any one particular Manhattan resident (chosen at random) is about 1 in 13,300 (over a ten year estimated period). To put this in perspective, the chance that you eventually die of a car accident (rather than other potential causes of death) is about 1 in 6,800.

On the other hand, dirty bomb scenarios are far more likely to be carried out successfully, and far more likely to be attempted (in fact, they already have been) but are unlikely to actually kill or seriously harm a randomly selected person in Manhattan. We can estimate that, once again, there might be a 3 in 10 chance that such an attack (if it occurred) would occur in Manhattan, that if it did happen in Manhattan each individual would have less than a 1 in 200 chance of incurring serious harm (let’s say for the sake of argument that the most likely number is something like 1 in 400), that such an attack might be planned twice in the next 10 years, and that the chance of success for such an attack might be 1 in 10. These give us odds that a single, predetermined person in Manhattan would suffer serious physical harm from a dirty bomb at about 1 in 6,600. This number is also on the order of the chance of eventually dying from a car accident.

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8. How much should we fear nuclear terrorist attacks if we live in Manhattan?

From the simplistic analysis carried out above, the answer seems to be that Manhattan residents (who plan on staying in Manhattan for just ten more years) shouldn’t fear nuclear terrorism all that much more than a randomly selected American should fear the possibility of dying of a car accident at some point in their life. One thing that may be worth pointing out is that even if a nuclear weapon did kill us, there is some chance (dependent on the characteristics of that weapon) that it would do so fairly instantaneously, meaning that we would be dead before having much opportunity to suffer or even notice, which seems a lot less horrible than a slow death by radiation poisoning. On the flip side though, if a nuclear weapon was detonated and did not kill or injure us, the psychological effects of such a disaster could still be great, potentially causing the death and injury of those people we know, and likely inducing panic.

While nothing is known for certain and this analysis is certainly flawed in a handful of ways, the chance of a nuclear terrorist threat does not seem high enough to warrant moving out of Manhattan if you derive significant value from living there. Moreover, if you have already decided that you are going to live in Manhattan, what is the use of worrying about death from nuclear weapons at all? It isn’t as though worrying is likely to make you safer in a significant way. There are many things that have the potential to kill us each day, and we tend to simply not think about them, so why should this be different? Sure, it seems scarier in some ways than car accidents, which feel more familiar, but car accidents (and tumors and strokes) can be just as horrible as death by nuclear bombs or dirty bombs. Living in fear will almost certainly reduce your quality of life without making you substantially safer, so the best thing is probably to learn to be okay with the fact that we will never be totally safe (from nukes or cars or the huge number of other things that might hurt us), and this is just a part of life.

If thoughts about nuclear weapons are something that you find you are upsetting yourself with frequently, you might try writing down answers to the following questions:

a) If I don’t worry about hundreds of other potential sources of death, then why should I worry about this one source, especially since it is quite unlikely to occur?

b) What advantages and disadvantages are there to my worrying about nuclear bombs (especially taking into account the fact that there is nothing I can do to prevent such an attack)?

c) Since death is inevitable, and often painful and unpleasant, is dying from nukes really such an especially horrible way to go?

d) What is a more productive use of our time, worrying about nuclear bombs or researching and implementing ways to mitigate preventable sources of death? (keeping in mind that most of us could eat healthier, exercise more, wear our seat belts more scrupulously, get more regular checkups, and do many other things that would likely extend our lives).

Posted in Math, Philosophy, Science | 6 Comments

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About: Religion, God, and Spirituality

1. Since God’s existence cannot be disproved, how can atheists say that God doesn’t exist?

Almost nothing can be known for certain. For example, we cannot prove with absolute, one hundred percent certainty that what we take to be “real life” is not just some computer simulation being applied to our brains (like in the movie the Matrix). But, just because we cannot have 100% confidence in much of anything does not mean that we can’t make claims about the world. For example, I can state with a great deal of confidence that there is not an invisible, inaudible, intangible pink elephant in my room. I certainly can’t prove right now that this elephant doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t say it doesn’t exist. When we have no compelling evidence for a claim, even in the case when we can’t actively disprove that claim, it is generally reasonable to say that we don’t believe in it. Many atheists have similar feelings about the existence of gods. While they cannot prove absolutely that there are no gods, they find the evidence for the existence of gods lacking. Therefore, they say they do not believe that gods exist, just as you would say that the invisible pink elephant in my room doesn’t exist, despite the fact that you can’t actually prove it. As has been pointed out many times before, religious people generally deny the existence of the gods of other religions that contradict their own. Atheists take this one step further, and deny that there is sufficient evidence to believe in any god.

2. Since we are made of energy and the laws of physics say that energy cannot be destroyed does that imply that a part of us must survive death?

While it is true that our energy will never be destroyed, this says nothing about our chances of surviving death or experiencing an afterlife. Think about it this way: If you were to lose a hand, while the energy in the hand would not be destroyed, you would no longer control that hand and the energy in it would then be useless to you. Likewise, when we die the energy in our bodies remains (for a little while, anyway) but this energy is useless to us because our brain, now also dead, can no longer use it to do anything. It is also worth keeping in mind that throughout your life you constantly gain and lose energy from different sources (you lose heat energy through the air, you gain molecular energy from food, you lose molecular energy through waste products, and you convert potential energy into kinetic energy when you move). We are not the same as our energy, energy is just something that we use, and it keeps entering and leaving our bodies throughout our lives.

3. The stuff we see on our planet, like eyeballs and walruses, seem like they were designed to serve a purpose. Does that imply that they must have been created by an intelligent, conscious designer? If we found a watch on the beach we would assume it was designed, so should we assume the same thing about other apparently designed objects?

While eyeballs and walruses certainly appear to be designed, that does not imply that they actually were designed. Until the 1800’s human beings were simply unaware that any naturally occurring process could create something of such enormous complexity and apparent design. However what Charles Darwin discovered is that through a process of “evolution”, it is possible for incredibly complicated creatures to arise from less complicated ones via a combination of random mutation and natural selection. Today, scientists have an enormous body of evidence demonstrating that evolution is true, and hence that creatures that appear to be designed need not ever have had a designer. While evolution doesn’t create things like watches, over incredibly long stretches of time it does create complex creatures which themselves can create watches. The theory is not by any means obvious (which helps explain why it took humans so long to think of it), and if you are incredulous that evolution could possibly work or that enough time could have elapsed to produce all of the complexity we see, I urge you to take the time to educate yourself about the evidence for evolution, and the mechanisms by which it works. Unfortunately, popular attempts to “refute” evolution often are carried out by people who don’t really understand the theory themselves, and therefore these attempts help perpetuate common misperceptions, such as that evolution claims that single celled organisms appeared “by chance” or that evolution makes claims about the way things “should” be (rather than just the way things are and were). Even the evolution taught to children in school is often a highly incomplete explanation of the theory. The best sources for information are books by well respected evolutionary biologists. Without reading any of these it is unlikely that you will truly understand the details of the theory. At this point evolution has as much supportive evidence behind it as nearly any scientific theory.

4. If we don’t believe in certain religions and they turn out to be true, then we will go to hell. On the other hand, if we do believe in a religion, and it turns out that there is no God, nothing bad will happen to us. Therefore, isn’t it the safer bet to take “Pascal’s Wager” and follow a religion just in case it turns out to be the real thing?

To begin with, this question assumes that we can choose what we believe. As far as many religions (such as Christianity) are concerned, just pretending to believe in order to save yourself from damnation probably isn’t going to lead to salvation. On the other hand though, perhaps if you did try practicing a religion intently enough and spending time only with people of that religion you could eventually get yourself to believe if you already were inclined toward spirituality. In that case, which religion should you choose? Should you be a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Confucianist, Buddhist, Sikh, Spiritist, Jew, Baha’i, Jain, Shintoist, Caodaiist, Zoroastrian, Pagan or Rasta? Or should you perhaps choose one of the hundreds of other religions that currently exist or have existed in the past? It may seem obvious to some people that the bigger religions are far more likely to be the one true religion, but no religion represents more than 50% of the population today, so clearly whatever God or Gods are out there aren’t too concerned about making their message easy to discover. Furthermore, the popularity of religions has risen and fallen over the centuries and will surely continue to do so in the future, so why should we think that what is most popular today is somehow superior to what was popular in the past or what will be most popular in the future? At best, we can say that (on account of their size) larger religions might be slightly more likely to be true, but a strong correlation between truth and size does not seem likely, given the factors mentioned.

Most people accept the religion that they were taught as a child, but of course there is no reason to assume that the religion that you happen to be born into is more likely to be correct than any other. Rather than trying to guess which religion is true, we might try the approach of attempting to minimize the suffering we would incur by selecting the wrong religion. This would be done by trying to convince ourselves to believe in the religion that claims the worst punishment for non-believers. But given the very large number of fundamentally conflicting religions out there, whatever this most punishing religion happens to be it has a high probability of being a false one, and hence even if there does exist a true religion at all, you are probably not protecting yourself. After all, someone could start a new religion right now which has a punishment far worse than any other religion that has ever existed. Intuitively, we would imagine that this religion is very unlikely to be true, and yet by this selection method we would choose to believe in it to avoid that worst of all punishments.

Another thing to consider about pascal’s wager is that forcing yourself to believe in a religion simply to avoid hell or some other sort of punishment (or gain a promised reward) may well have negative consequences in your life today. If the religion turns out to be false then you will have a false understanding of reality, which may lead to bad decision making. You could spend a large amount of your time doing rituals to please a non-existent being, and might expend a lot of energy trying to convert others to this false religion. In the case of some religions, you may actually be required to give up part of your salary or time in service to it.

It seems that taking Pascal’s Wager has a low probability of protecting you unless the following conditions are met:

a) You somehow can be sure that only a small number of religions have a significant chance of being true, and can therefore eliminate the hundreds of other religions from consideration.

b) You are able to convince yourself to truly believe (and not just pretend to believe) in the religion of your choosing.

c) You manage to follow the rules of the chosen religion carefully enough to avoid the punishment for non-believers.

d) The particular sect of that religion that you choose has not distorted the true teachings too much.

e) You can be reasonably confident that the chance of SOME religion being true is quite high.

f) You don’t reduce your happiness so much while practicing the religion or miss out on so many earthly pleasures that all is wasted if it turns out there is no God, or the religion you chose was false, or the sect of the religion you chose had distorted teachings or you misinterpreted your religion’s teachings or you failed to obey the teachings closely enough to avoid punishment.

5. Since almost every human society in the past 4000 years has believed in and worshipped God (or Gods), isn’t that compelling evidence that God really exists, and that each of these groups has discovered some of this truth?

Unfortunately, the fact that most societies have worshipped a god of some kind does not provide compelling evidence for the existence of gods. To the contrary, it provides strong evidence that humans are very prone to making gods up and very adept at believing in these made up creations. The reason, simply put, is that the huge number of religions that humans have created contradict each other on such fundamental questions that there is no possible way that all of them or even the majority of them could be true at the same time. These religions disagree with each other about how many gods there are, what a person needs to do to please the gods, whether there is a soul, what happens to humans after they die, the codes of laws we all should follow, how the earth and the universe originated, and many other important question. Hence, the most reasonable interpretation of the the fact that religions are so ubiquitous is not that all of the religions are somehow tapping into some basic truth, but rather that they include a great deal of falsehood that was made up by (and fervently believed by) human beings. If even one major world religion is false, that would be enough to demonstrate our potential for deeply and unquestioningly believing falsehood en masse. Even under the assumption that at least one religion is true, there have likely been dozens (or more likely, hundreds) which contained little truth, and which effectively were all worshipping different gods.

6. Even if some spiritual and religious beliefs are not true, why does it make a difference, so long as these ideas bring joy and meaning into people’s lives?

While in general it is great when an idea improves someone’s life without negative consequences, false beliefs can have a variety of costs associated with them, and sometimes falsehoods lead to other falsehoods, entrenching a person deeper into delusion. Religion and spirituality (even when not founded in the truth) can definitely have some advantages for certain people. For example, false religion can at times:

a) Provide a sense of community.

…but there are many ways a person can find community.

b) Reduce one’s fear of death.

…but it is possible to reduce one’s fear of death without religious belief (such as by employing modern psychological methods like CBT, learning to view death as a release from the suffering of disease and old age, or considering whether immortality would really be better than death).

c) Give a person comfort when reflecting on loved ones they have lost.

…but comfort can also be found by reflecting on the good and the joy in the deceased persons life, and on the fine moments spent together.

d) Cause people to behave more altruistically out of fear of punishment or promise of reward.

…but many atheists behave altruistically without the threat of punishment or temptation of reward, and it seems that a certain degree of altruism is built into our genetic code.

e) Encourage a loving and sympathetic nature (“love thy neighbor as thyself”).

…but many people cultivate a loving attitude towards others without religion, and recognize that cultivating a love for others nature is very fulfilling in it’s own right.

f) Provide purpose in one’s life (e.g. following gods will, or getting into heaven).

…but many atheists feel like they have a genuine purpose in life, whether it is to help others, find happiness for themselves, or promote an idea that they think is of great importance.

g) Give a person the feeling that they are not alone and that they are being looked after.

…but many people feel that they are looked after by friends and loved ones or by the government, and so don’t need to imagine that their are spiritual beings doing this job.

h) Give a person the good feeling that their is justice in the universe (good behavior is rewarded, bad behavior punished).

…but a lack of supernatural justice can motivate us to try to create justice on this earth.

i) Give a person the comforting feeling that bad things happen for a reason.

…but bad things usually have a silver lining which can be seen if we look hard enough, even if that lining is only a lesson to be learned

j) Make a person feel like they understand why things are the way they are.

…but we can learn a lot about the way things truly are without needing to delude ourselves with false wisdom.

In other words, while false religion can provide benefits for some people, it is not essential for attaining these benefits. What’s more, false spiritual beliefs can unfortunately lead to many negative consequences as well. They can at times:

a) Create conflict between or prejudice among groups with different beliefs (e.g. hatred of jews, distrust of muslims, etc).

b) Create intense and terrible fear of supernatural punishment (e.g. of being burned alive for eternity in hell).

c) Fill a person with fear that loved ones will be punished after death.

d) Cause people to behave in destructive ways out of fear of punishment or promise of reward (e.g. suicide bombers, abortion center bombers, etc.)

e) Encourage a distrustful attitude towards non-believers and atheists and those who violate religious laws (e.g. homosexuals, according to some religions).

f) Provide a self destructive purpose in one’s life full of great but futile sacrifice, like devoting much of one’s time and money to reaching a non-existent heaven or converting others to one’s own false beliefs.

g) Give a person the disturbing feeling that the devil is out to get them or corrupt them (e.g. in 2007, 70% of Americans said that they believe in the devil).

h) Give a person the false expectation that whenever they good things, they will be rewarded for them, which could lead to disappointment or disillusionment if the reward does not come.

i) Make a person think that when tragedy befalls someone else, the person necessarily must have caused it in somehow by their thoughts or actions (an idea espoused in the popular book “The Secret”, among others).

j) Give a person the false impression that they understand why things are the way they are, which could lead to them making bad decisions based on their bad information.

What’s more, religion can lead to terrible feelings of guilt, especially over sexual matters (e.g. masturbation, sex, homosexual impulses, lust, etc.). It can also lead to unwanted pregnancy (through rules prohibiting contraception), religiously justified wars (e.g. the Crusades), cruelty towards outsiders (such as occurred during the witch hunts and the Inquisition), the use of ineffective quack medicine (e.g. prayer healing and faith healing which are promoted by many spiritual systems), and it can lead to false predictions about what will occur (e.g. If I pray that I find a better job it will increase my chances, if I act on my sexual urges God will punish me, and if I check my astrological chart it will tell me what decisions are good for me).

In conclusion, false religious belief has it’s advantages and disadvantages. It is often underestimated just how serious these disadvantages can be (to get an idea of the potential impact consider what some cults do to their members and keep in mind that false spiritual beliefs are what allows this to happen). Many or most of the advantages of spiritual belief can be achieved via other means which do not carry with them the dangers of false religion.

7. Since science tells us that ever effect has a cause, there must have been a first cause. Wouldn’t it be fair to call this first cause “God”?

The idea that “every effect has a cause” is an idea that we develop from our experience in the everyday world. It is certainly not a scientific theory (you won’t find it in any science textbooks, though you will find it in some theological ones), and sometimes our intuition about the way things work (such as the idea that time always runs at the same pace, or that particles have well defined positions) end up being painfully inaccurate when we start exploring regimes outside of our usual experience (such as huge scales, tiny scales, enormous velocities and huge energies).

As a matter of fact, it is difficult to even define rigorously what is meant by a “cause”. If a politician is assassinated by three snipers shooting him at the same time, assuming that he would have died had any of those snipers not been involved, which sniper was the cause of his death? All of them? None of them? The answer isn’t clear. Furthermore, suppose that there is an apple on an apple tree. Who caused the apple to be there? Was it the tree that caused it? Or was it the gardener who took care of the tree? Or was it the woman who decided to plant the tree? Or was it the botanist who developed that particular type of apple?

Even if we do manage to come up with a sensible and consistent definition for causation, it is still not clear that there must have been a first cause. For example, if the universe always existed then there could be an infinite chain of causes and effects with no beginning stretching back for eternity. What’s more, evidence now points to the idea that not only did the universe start at the moment of the big bang, but time may have started at that point as well. Without time, it is not clear what it would mean for something to exist “before the big bang”, and therefore it may not even make sense to say that something caused the big bang.

Another problem with this “first cause is God idea”, is that even if there was a first cause, it is unclear why we should call this God. Sure, we can use whatever word we like for it, but that doesn’t mean that it has any of the properties that are often ascribed to God (such as intelligence, omnipotence, love, etc.)

A final point to consider is that if God was the first cause, then we are implicitly assuming that nothing caused God. But why are we willing to accept the idea that a being like God could always exist without cause, yet at the same time assume that everything else needs a cause to exist? This seems like an assumption for which we have no evidence, and it seems to undermine the original proposal that every effect has a cause.

8. Without religion, what reason does anyone have to be ethical? Won’t everyone just behave in a selfish, hedonistic fashion?

Fortunately there are strong genetic and social component to ethics that exist independently of religion. The vast majority of non-religious people enjoy loving and mutually beneficial relationships, get pleasure from doing good things for those that they care about, and feel guilt when they hurt others without some kind of justification. Even religious people usually have some ethical principles that exist independently from their religions. For example, many Protestants feel that divorce is morally acceptable despite the fact that divorce is specifically condemned by Jesus. Furthermore, many Christians feel that masturbation is an immoral practice (even when fantasizing about one’s own spouse), even though it is not actually mentioned or condemned in the Bible. What’s more, many Americans (both christian and non-christian) are disgusted by the idea of marrying a 1st cousin, even in the case where the woman is infertile and hence their is no chance of genetic abnormalities arising, and even though the practice is common in the old testament and in other cultures today. The empirical evidence tells us that without religion, most people still have moral principles that they will choose to adhere to.

What reasons do religious people have to follow the rules of their religion? Either, they want to attain the reward their religion offers (e.g. heaven), they want to avoid their religion’s punishments (e.g. hell), they want to avoid social ostracization, they want to be thought of as a pious and good person, they want to feel like a good person, they enjoy following the religious rules, or they feel like they owe something to their God or gods and follow religious laws out of a sense of obligation. Likewise, what reasons do non-religious people have to follow societal (or their own personal) principles of ethics? Either they want to avoid punishment from the law, they want to avoid social ostracization, they want to be thought of as a good person, they want to feel like a good person, they enjoy following their ethical principles, or they feel a sense of duty to be ethical. Essentially, the motivations that the religious and non-religious have to be good are very similar.

9. Even a single celled organism is far too complex to have come into existence through chance alone. So if evolution is true, how could life possibly have started?

First of all, given enough time, enough space, the right kinds of atoms and appropriate levels of energy, any conglomeration of particles that is capable of occurring will occur. Hence, if the universe existed for long enough and is large enough, we SHOULD expect a single celled organism to pop into existence just by chance once in a very long while, since this event is not impossible, only very, very, very rare. That being said, evolutionary biologists do not claim that single celled organisms came into existence on earth by chance alone. Rather, evolution predicts that before life existed on earth, it is a simple, self replicating molecule that came into existence through chance collisions. This molecule replicated and spread through the waters that at that time covered our planet. Since the copying mechanism of this molecule was imperfect, every so often a copying error occurred. While most of these errors lead to molecules that copied less effectively than their parent, every so often they copied even faster or more efficiently. This scenario is believed to have been sufficient for the process of natural selection to get going, leading to ever more efficient molecules, and eventually conglomerations of molecules, all competing for copying resources. The first single celled organism would then be an ancestor of these very simple replicators. Evolution’s method for developing single celled organisms is vastly more efficient than waiting around for a single celled organism to pop into existence by chance!

10. If evolution is true, then why haven’t scientists been able to discover any “transitional forms” or “transitional fossils” that represent intermediates between species?

As a matter of fact, scientists have discovered many transitional fossils that bridge the gap between major categories of species. To give just a few of many known examples, Archaeopteryx is an animal that has many features of both dinosaurs and birds, Kutchicetus is thought to be a transitional form lying between land mammals and whales, and Tiktaalik is believed to link fish and tetrapods. More importantly though, the theory of evolution tells us that all creatures are “transitional forms” because species are constantly in flux, with each subsequent generation differing slightly from the last due to genes being combined in new ways and new genes forming via mutation. The categories that we create like “fish”, “reptile”, “amphibian”, “mammal”, etc. are simply useful labels, but we could have chosen to divide animals in many other ways, and in fact there are a great many creatures that have lived that do not fit neatly into any of these groups (since evolution works through gradual change).

An important fact to keep in mind is that fossil formation is extraordinarily rare (depending both on the local environment and on the composition of the species), and those fossils that do exist can be buried deep underground. Since extinction is fairly common, It therefore should not be surprising if we have never found fossils for (and therefore, probably don’t even have names for) most of the species that have ever existed.

Some people expect that if evolution were true there would have been creatures like crocoducks (a creature half way between a crocodile and duck). Of course, no such species ever existed, because ducks do not have crocodiles as ancestors. Crocodiles and ducks do have a common ancestor however, but it probably did not look much like either a crocodile or a duck, and given how common extinction is and the rarity with which fossils are created and found, we likely do not have fossil similar to this common ancestor. What’s more, even if crocoducks did exist (i.e. ducks were the ancestors of crocodiles), if we ever found one of their fossils this would simply lead people to claim further gaps in the fossil record since we would still not have fossils lying between crocoducks and ducks or between crocodiles and crocoducks. Hence, gaps in the fossil record are not only expected but impossible to avoid, but that says nothing about either the truth or falsehood of evolution.

Sadly, most of the attacks on evolution are made by people who either don’t understand the theory, or who do understand it but choose to misrepresent it to further a religious agenda. Anyone who (like Kirk Cameron) who mentions the crocoduck as a “problem” for evolution is seriously confused.

11. If God does not exist, and evolution is true, doesn’t that make life meaningless? If life is without meaning, what is the point of doing anything at all or even going on living?

If God not not exist and it is also the case that evolution is true, that does not mean that we cannot experience a great deal of meaning in our lives. It may however mean that there is no overarching “purpose” for life, other than as a necessary consequence of the natural process we call evolution. Most of us wouldn’t ask what the “purpose” of rainbows is, as our ancestors might have, because we know that they come about as a consequence of the physics of light and the refraction caused by moisture droplets. Likewise, the existence of life on earth is a necessary consequence of the natural process we call evolution and the fact that earth’s early state was amenable to the formation of self replicating molecules. This being said, our lives are indeed very meaningful to us, and we can choose to fill them with actions and emotions that give us a strong sense of purpose. Very few people live their lives merely because they think life itself has an over arching purpose. Filling our lives with joy, love, and other positive emotions provides plenty of motivation to go on living, and we are free to choose what we want the “point” of our own lives to be by seeking that which leads to our personal fulfillment.

12. If there isn’t something “more” to life than what science tells us, how can we explain mysteries like memories of past lives, mystical experiences, psychic connections, the feeling people have that God is with them, etc?

There are many things about the universe that scientists have not yet been able to explain. To give just a few of many examples: the Big Bang, human consciousness, how memories are stored, and how (in detail) the brain generates emotions. However, science does provide explanations for many experiences that are generally thought of as being spiritual or of a paranormal nature. To give some examples of how one might respond to various spiritual or supernatural claims from a scientific perspective:

Hearing the voice of God speaking to you, or seeing an angel.

More than 10% of people will experience intense visual or auditory hallucinations at some point in their lives. These experiences can be brought about by many causes, including by schizophrenia, epilepsy, sleep deprivation, and sleep paralysis. We know for a fact that many experiences of a religious nature are hallucinations, so it is not such a great leap to assume that most or all of them are. Since we know that many people would say that they heard the voice of God and saw angels even if these beings don’t exist, the fact that people make such claims (which, of course, we have no way to independently validate) does not constitute scientific evidence for these beings.

Remembering past lives.

Human memory is highly fallible, and it has been demonstrated that false memories can be created (or even implanted) that seem totally convincing. Is it not possible that people’s “memories” of past lives are in fact false memories? Many past life stories come from children, who are highly suggestible and also prone to using their imagination. What’s more, many people makeup extravagant stories merely to get attention. Finally, with more than 6.7 billion people on this planet, extraordinary coincidences are bound to happen quite often, so we cannot simply assume that because an event was very unlikely it was not caused by chance (we tend to hear about the rare, extremely unlikely and remarkable events, not the billions of likely and ordinary ones).

Mystical experiences, such as ecstatic states, and feelings of nirvana or enlightenment.

The human brain is capable of generating all sorts of interesting and powerful emotional states, ranging from enormous anxiety to joyous ecstasy. While people’s descriptions of some mystical mental states may well be genuine attempts to describe the way in which they actually felt, there is no proof that these states represent anything other than specific chemical configurations of the brain. Feeling that we are “one with the universe” or “close to god” is not the same as actually being “one with the universe” or “close to god”. A number of “mystical” experiences have been induced by altering the operation of the brain, either through chemicals (like Psilocybin, the hallucinogen found in some mushrooms) or through magnetic stimulation of the brain (as is used in the God Helmet). Other bizarre internal experiences seem to be caused by epilepsy, migraines and even strokes. Hence we do not require the existence of Gods, spirits, or paranormal phenomena to explain these experiences that people have. Of course, even if these experiences can be explained simply by changes in the brain’s state, that does not imply that these are not deeply moving experiences that can sometimes have profound effects on people’s lives.

Psychic powers and connections

There is not credible scientific evidence that psychic phenomenon really exist. Professional psychics are known to employ a variety of tricks also used by magicians for simulating psychic ability, such as distraction, cold reading and hot reading. When people claim to have ESP related experiences in their own lives, they often are making the mistake of believing that a highly unlikely event has an explanation other than coincidence. For example, if you move your hand to pick up the phone to call your friend and your friend is calling you at that same moment, does that reflect a psychic connection or just a very improbable event? The answer is that while it is very unlikely that such a thing happens to any given person, it is very highly likely that it will happen to at least one person in the world each and every day. The only way to study psychic phenomenon is in a very carefully controlled laboratory setting, and even then, the research must be replicated by multiple, independent researchers in order for it to be considered reliable.

In conclusion, we see that science does provide explanations for these experiences that so many people assume are outside the realm of science. While these explanations do not satisfy many people who very much want to believe in supernatural phenomena, they are sufficient to explain the phenomena in question using ideas that (unlike the supernatural) have been validated by science.

13. The are only three possibilities about Jesus: he was a liar, a lunatic, or the son of God. Since he does not seem either to be a liar or a lunatic, does that really mean that he must be the God’s son?

This is actually a false trichotomy, as there are other possibilities besides the three mentioned. For example, it could be the case that the Bible does not represent the exact words that Jesus spoke, and therefore that we don’t really know what Jesus said for sure. There is general consensus that there was at least a 7 year gap (and possibly much longer) between when Jesus died and when the first of the New Testament books was written down, with the other books following somewhere within the next decades. It is unlikely that the precise words that Jesus used would be perfectly preserved without any modification over this period. What’s more, we do not have any copies of the original New Testament, with our earliest fragments being dated more than 70 years after Jesus’ death. Finally, there are a variety of early versions of the New Testament, reflecting changes that had been made to the original text, and it is unclear which of these is to be considered authoritative. All of this evidence points to the idea that we do not know for sure what Jesus said, and it would be a miracle indeed if their were not many misrepresentations of his words in the Bible as we know it today. Some Christians might argue that God would not have allowed the true words of Jesus to have been altered, but that argument amounts to assuming the existence of the Christian God in order to prove the legitimacy of Jesus, which is a circular argument in this context.

Another possibility is that Jesus may not have existed at all, in which case he would be neither a liar, lunatic, nor the son of God. However, if we are willing to assume for a moment that Jesus did exist, and that the Bible does reflect his message very accurately, then it probably safe to assume that he was either lying, delusional, or in touch with God. Of course, it is also very possible that he was a mix of these things (e.g. delusional about some things while lying about others, while still more details could have been invented by his followers or by scribes). Without assuming at the outset that Jesus was the son of God, it is very hard to prove that he was never lying and never delusional.

14. Is science just a form of religion? Don’t scientists take many things on faith?

To prove that science is not a religion, it is sufficient simply to check the definition of religion. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the primary definition of “religion” is “the service and worship of God or the supernatural”, or “commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance.” Since science is only concerned with natural things, it clearly does not fit the first definition. Furthermore, the scientific method is based on gathering evidence, and testing beliefs based on experiment, which is precisely the opposite of faith (which is belief held in spite of a lack of evidence). Of course, since scientists are only human beings, they believe many things in their lives that are not based on rationality and evidence, and sometimes hold beliefs that require faith. Furthermore, evidence is occasionally faulty and scientists sometimes arrive at the wrong conclusions based on legitimate evidence. However, the scientific establishment more than any other human establishment is designed to reject personal opinion and accept only that which is confirmed by independently verifiable experiments. While scientists cannot confirm every piece of evidence for themselves, and therefore must trust other experts for information, this is always the case in every endeavor (since no one has the time to check every single fact), and it is probably fair to say that believing in scientific results requires less faith than believing in the results of any other academic field.

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