Monday, April 5, 2010

I’ve Moved My Blog

Here’s my new blog address:

I gave Wordpress a try, and found out that it was much suitable for my needs than Blogger. Here’s why: better SEO (search engine optimization), easier for me to migrate to a self-hosted domain (if you use Blogger, Google’s in control of the domain), better web standards (5 errors/warnings for Wordpress, over 250 for Blogger), and I’m more at ease while using Wordpress’s dashboard. Apart from the fact that scripts aren’t allowed on Wordpress, it’s much better than Blogger. Sorry.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Join the ‘A’ Week on Facebook!

If you want to help raise awareness that world is full of people that are “good without God”, then take part in the ‘A’ week on Facebook from 29th March to 6th April! Just change your Facebook profile picture to the scarlet ‘A’!

Through the ‘A’ week, it is hoped that peoples of different faiths will understand that there are much more atheists than they think, and that we can live ethical, moral, and good lives without adhering to religious dogma – don’t you just get sick of the blatant claims that fundamentalists say about atheism? So let’s take part in the ‘A’ week!

Facebook Profile on Atheist Week

That's my Facebook profile on 'A' week!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mail from A Creationist (2nd Update)

Finally! After writing my blog for over 3 months, I’ve received my 1st email challenge – from a creationist, named Chris Sanford. Let’s see what he has to say:

1a. Chris Sanford (Copied Directly)

Hey there,
    I stumbled across your blog and found it interesting to say the least. My name is Chris and I am from a different perspective than your own. So I was just wondering many evolutionist claim that evolution is a done deal, a settled fact. Yet Look at DNA for example, 1 strand of DNA contains the same amount of information that would fill 500 volumes of books, 1000 pages each. Where did this information come from? Look at the almost unspeakable intricate organelles that are contained within a single cell. This all came about by chance and luck, and blind guidance via natural selection? Evolution simply cannot answer these arguments. As I said to another contact of mine, evolution is big on philosophy but short on evidence. You see most evolutionist will say this had to happen first, and then this had to happen, yet when it comes to evidence which science is really all about, they are lacking to say the least. I would love to hear you on these issues, also I have a blogspot check it out and let me know what you think...

until we go to the ends of the earth...

Acts 1:8


Chris Sanford

1b. My 1st Reply

Hi, Chris,

First of all, thanks for emailing me, and I appreciate it. So let’s start talking.

Scientific Theories are Always Updating – So is Evolution

Firstly, you said that

…evolutionists claim that evolution is a done deal, a settled fact.

That's not an accurate claim. Nothing in science is ever a “settled fact”, since science is just a method of acquiring knowledge about the universe through the scientific method (see my post on), and thus scientific theories, and even laws are updated to become even more reliable and accurate. Thus, any evolutionist that understands science correctly will never say that evolution is absolute truth.

What we mean instead is that the process of evolution is a model that fits the current evidence, be it fossils, genes, or morphology. Until a better model is found, we’ll have to stick with evolution.

Stop Arguing from Irreducible Complexity, Really

You claimed that

1 strand of DNA contains the same amount of information that would fill 500 volumes of books, 1000 pages each. Where did this information come from?

and asked me to

Look at the almost unspeakable intricate organelles that are contained within a single cell.

This is known as the irreducible complexity argument – one stating that something in an organism is too complex to have evolved naturally. That' has been refuted for so much times that’s it’s old. But I’ll explain it again here.

Let’s start with DNA. According to the Oxford Compact Dictionary, information means

1 facts or knowledge provided or learned.
2 what is conveyed or represented by a particular sequence of symbols, impulses, etc.

Now, the information in dictionaries fit both the definition of 1 and 2, while the genetic code only fits definition 2. Plus, DNA isn’t something that is read and interpreted by a mind, it’s just a chemical that’s a major player in the synthesis of amino acids, so I don’t think you can compare it directly to the information in books.

Anyway, it does seem taunting. How is it possible that these 3 billion genes can create a such a complex organism, if it wasn’t designed intelligently? But do note that we didn’t start off as complex organisms – the Theory of Evolution predicts that we evolved first from extremely simple, self-replicating chemical structures. These organisms had a poorly functioning and extremely simple genetic code compared to what we have now, and thus they would be extremely simple in their structure as well.

But natural selection is the one that makes the difference. When the organisms replicate, there will be genetic mutations inevitably, and thus there will be variation between the organisms. Some organisms will thus be better suited to the environment, and survive long enough to replicate, while those with inferior functioning genetic code will get eliminated from the gene pool quickly. Repeat this process of weeding out “bad” genes and retaining the “good” ones for 4 billion years, and it isn’t hard to see why we have such a nicely functioning body, with such complex cells.

Look at My Answering Creationist Claims Series

Lastly, you said that evolution is

…big on philosophy but short on evidence.

So do me a favour and look at my Answering Creationist Claims series – you can find them through the blog archive. And while you’re at it, why not present some evidence for creationism/intelligent design? ;-)

I hope this has been sufficient to answer your questions, and I’ll wait for your reply.

Darren Wong

2a. Chris Sanford

Hey there, first of all thank you for responding to my email. I love an intelligent conversation. So let's address your comments one by one. You say that no scientist would say that evolution is would never say that evolution is a fact?

"Evolution is a fact: as much a fact as plate tectonics or the heliocentric solar system."  Barbara C Forrest and Paul R Gross, Oxford University Press, 2003

"Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution is at least as strong as the evidence for the holocaust. Richard Dawkins "the Greatest show on earth.

So are you saying that Richard Dawkins who is the top evoutionist in the world, who also claims that evolution is a fact does not understand science correctly. Let me rephrase that, that is exactly what you are saying with your own words. So there seems to be some disagreement with you in your own scientific community.

Secondly you say that we started off as simple celled organisms, that were in your own words "extremely simple". While this is a good idea, where is the evidence to prove this? When have we ever in life, ever seen a single cell that is simple? Also you mention mutations must have occurred. Do you have evidence to prove that they occurred, or again is this where evolution is big on philosophy and short on the evidence. Can you name one, not 10, or even 100, simply one mutation that has added information to the genome. You see here is the thing, mutations are harmful to the organism and never helpful. I know of not one mutation that has added information to the genome. Yet I am not the only one who cannot come up with one instance of a mutation adding information to the genome. Here is another man whom you surely know who cannot come up with one instance of a mutation adding information to the genome.

I would love to present you with some evidence for Creation.

The 2nd law of thermodynamics or entropy is definitely not an evolutionists’ best friend. Entropy affects everything in our universe, from you car to your body (as the Bible says our body is wearing out) to the planet and the sun and every aspect of our universe. Entropy is simply the law that everything is moving from a state of order to a state of chaos. In other words everything is breaking down on a cosmic scale. We are running out of gas, we are running out of energy. If you break a branch off a tree and throw it on the ground, entropy is going to take place, the stick is not going to become a tree, but it is going to break down and rot. It is going to move from a state of order ( a stick) to a state of disorder (mulch). And here you thought this was going to be difficult to understand. Now I think the point definitely needs to be emphasized that this is a law of science! The 2nd law of thermodynamics. For anything to become a law of science it must be proven without any contradictory evidence. There are only about 6 laws of science that exist. I have a list of them and most of them I cannot understand. This one I can. The Bible again and again says that the world is growing old like a garment, and wearing out. Guess what God is telling us about the 2nd law of thermodynamics long before it ever discovered by man. Oh the wisdom and intelligence of God. Who can measure the depths of His understanding??!! Now this is a law of science. Everything is getting worse. Do you see where the contradiction lies now? Evolution teaches that everything is getting better, that our world started out a barren wasteland with poisonous gases and all these things and it is getting better. Yet a law of science proves the very opposite is true. The Bible says the very same thing, so the only place that contradiction lies, is the theory of evolution and a law of science. So this law of science says that in the beginning everything was as good as it was ever going to be. Guess what?? God’s Word compliments this law of science and does not contradict it. Genesis 1:31 “and God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good”. So at the very beginning the Word of God says that it was very good. This agrees with the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Then everything began to move to a state of chaos. When did this happen? I believe when man sinned and God cursed the earth. Theologians call this the cosmic curse, that God not only cursed the earth but the whole universe itself is under the curse. At this point entropy began to take place and continues to this day. I have created a chart that will help you better realize this concept, it is an extremely vital concept for us to understand. It is not a hard one to grasp at all. Everything in our universe is breaking down. I went and played basketball on Saturday, now this year I am going to be 30 years old. Now this is Saturday I went and played basketball, and today is Monday and I am still feeling the pain. My body is wearing down, because I live in the universe, I am subject to entropy. My car is in this universe, my family, friends, computer, television, everything that exists in our universe is subject to the law of science called entropy. Keep in mind this is a law of science.

Also you said that Irreducible complexity has been refuted so many times, but all you did was offer the definition of information. You failed to offer any proof to refute this. If you mean by refuting this that organisms started out as simple, where is the evidence for this? Hope to hear from you soon...

until we go to the ends of the earth...

Acts 1:8 
Chris Sanford

2b. My Reply

Dear Chris,

Here are my answers:

Fact – But Only Because It’s The Best Model Currently

When I said that “any evolutionist that understands science correctly will never say that evolution is absolute truth”, I actually meant that he/she wouldn’t say that the Theory of Evolution is completely accurate, and doesn’t need to be updated anymore. That’s why I used the words “absolute truth” and “settled fact”, not simply “fact”.

As for the scientists who say that evolution is a fact, they only mean that evolution is a fact as far as the evidence goes. Look at what Barbara C. Forrest and Paul R. Gross said:

Evolution is a fact: as much a fact as plate tectonics or the heliocentric solar system.

What they were saying is that evolution is just as factual as plate tectonics and the heliocentric solar system. Why are these theories considered as a fact? Because the current empirical evidence supports them strongly.

And look at what Richard Dawkins said in The Greatest Show on Earth:

Even the undisputed theory that the moon is smaller than the sun cannot, to the satisfaction of a certain kind of philosopher, be proved in the way that, for example, the Pythagorean Theorem can be proved. But massive accretions of evidence support it so strongly that to deny it the status of ‘'fact’ seems ridiculous to all but pedants. The same is true of evolution. Evolution is a fact in the same sense as it is a fact that Paris is in the Northern Hemisphere. Though logic-choppers rule the town, some theories are beyond sensible doubt, and we call them facts. The more energetically and thoroughly you try to disprove a theory, if it survives the assault, the closer it approaches what common sense happily calls a fact.

Source: The Greatest Show on Earth, page 10

By saying that “evolution is a fact”, he didn’t mean that evolution was 100% accurate and undisputed, but that the evidence supports it strongly enough that it’s currently the closest model to the “fact”. Of course, if we really want to take semantics and logic so seriously, only mathematics can prove something to be a fact.

Of course, once a fossil rabbit shows up in the Precambrian Period, then the Theory of Evolution is rendered false right away. And I do admit that Dawkins can get overzealous at times.

Beneficial Mutations – Here They Are

Richard Lenski’s Long Term E.coli experiment

One of the 12 flasks containing suddenly housed E.coli that were able to utilize citrate as a source of energy at generation 31,127, when a defining feature of Escheria coli is that it can’t use citrate.

Nylon-eating Bacteria

Nylon-eating bacteria are a strain of Flavobacterium that is capable of digesting certain by-products of nylon 6 manufacture, found in 1975 by Japanese scientists in ponds containing waste water from a nylon-producing factory. The bacteria were able to digest certain by-products of nylon 6 manufacture, such as the linear dimer of 6-aminohexanoate. Since nylon never existed before February 28, 1935, this is certainly a case a mutation adding beneficial “information”, and the 3 enzymes used in the digestion of nylon by-products were not found in other strains of Flavobacterium.

The 2nd Law: Compatible with Evolution

The Law of Entropy is frequently raised by creationists in an attempt to discredit evolution, but it doesn’t work. I’ve already written about the topic here: Answering Creationist Claims (Part 7 – The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics Truthfully Explained), so I won’t be repeating them.

On a side note, if the Law of Entropy shows that evolution is false, then the same holds for “microevolution”, a term creationists love to use. Microevolution is still guided by exactly the same processes as “macroevolution” aka genetic mutations and natural selection. Thus, if you’re to insist that the 2nd Law renders evolution false, you’re also saying that organisms are unable to adapt at all, which is certainly contradictory to what’s observed.

In Science, We Can Make Reasonable Predictions

Sometimes, you’ve just can’t prove something. However, we can make rational predictions based on what’s most probable.

Let’s say that my blog’s hits is at 3000. Now, I can’t prove that I really had that much visits, since I can’t trace every single hit to the respective readers. Plus, it could be that Sitemeter is buggy and thus gave me a wrong count. But what's the most probable cause of my hit counter reaching 3000? Yes, that would be 3000 unique visits, because that’s how it works normally.

So I’m going to admit this: no, biologists don’t have concrete fossil evidence for the existence of the earliest self-replicating chemicals. However, the earliest possible fossils were found in the form of stromatolites, which date back to to the Lower Archaean eon. Within the stromatolites are possibly fossilized cyanobacteria, which are extremely simple in structure and look like small rods. From that point on, fossils keep on increasing in complexity, and the first multicellular fossil was found to be dated at around 600 million years ago. The trend has kept on ever since (of course, unicellular organisms still exist alongside).

Based on common sense, it would be most probable that the increase in complexity of organisms has always been the trend since evolution begun. So if we reverse the process, what do we get? Yes, organisms get even more simple as we go back in time. But even I’m wrong about the simplicity of the earliest self-replicating molecules, at least the 3.5 byr old cyanobacteria would count?

What About Other Religions?

I would also like to note that even that even if evolution is deemed false, that doesn’t mean that Biblical creation is true. We still have other religions, remember? According to Hinduism, Brahma is responsible for creation, Buddhism states that thoughts and desire are the reason we’re in this universe, the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians all have their own hypotheses for explaining the presence of life. To determine which hypothesis is true, and which isn’t, we need to provide scientific evidence.

So you say that God created entropy after men sinned? Well, show evidence that the Garden of Eden is true. Plus, evidence that God created birds before mammals and reptiles.

Darren Wong

PS: Would you separate your passages into smaller chunks? Thanks. :-)

3a. Chris Sanford

Hey thank you again for another very interesting email. When you are talking about theory, you wrote "Why are these theories considered as a fact?" A Theory is not a fact, that is why it is called a theory. The only "facts" in science are the scientific laws which about only 7 exist in the scientific world. I really think that we need to get our ducks in a row when it comes to this issue. Also as far as the best theory that is possible, that is a pretty sad testimony for the theory of evolution. When it comes to the evidence concerning Intelligent Design, the evidence for a Creator is overwhelming. Have you ever looked at the evidence for a Creator Darren?

As far as the 2nd Law of thermodynamics is concerned. Basically this law states that everything is moving from a state of order to a state of chaos. Basically we are running out of usable energy. The problem is simply this, it cannot be compatible with evolution because if our solar system were billions of years old, entropy would be at such a degree that there would not be life sustainable. As far as micro-evolution is concerned. It also affected by entropy. Yet these organisms did not start out simple as the evolutionist claim, but were complex at the very beginning. The fossil record shows this. Can you name one "simple organism" that has ever been found within the fossil record. What about the oldest fossils of fish we have? They are almost a picture perfect image of fish today, and the same is true with birds, etc.

As far as other religions are concerned Darren thank you for bringing this up. If there is a God, who did create the world. That would render Him pretty powerful, being powerful He would also be Intelligent. Intelligent on a scale that no one has ever seen. His intelligence would even go as far as knowing the future. So if you can find one religious book that accurately predicts the future then that would be safe to say, this is the Word of God. There is one book Darren that accurately predicts events hundreds even thousands of years in advance, and there is only 1. The Bible. The Bible is the only religious book with prophetic writing, The Biblical prophecies have come about 100% of the time. Not one Darren, not one single prophecy in the Bible has ever failed.

Let me give you some examples. Isaiah 45:1 says Thus says the Lord to King Cyrus His anointed. Here the prophet Isaiah names a king 200 years before the king was ever born. How do we know that Isaiah did not write this down after Cyrus came to power and claim to have written it down before?? The Dead Sea Scrolls that were found in 1947 prove that this Scripture was written down before Cyrus came to power! Jeremiah accurately predicted that Israel would be in captivity 70 years. Jeremiah 25:11 'This whole land will be a desolation and a horror, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Daniel accurately predicted Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, The Greek Empire, and many other things. Daniel 2:31-43 Out of all the religious books in the world, there is one and only one that has prophetic writing. The Bible is that book. In fact 1/4 of the Bible is prophetic writing. Many of these prophecies have been fulfilled, some are yet to be fulfilled, but not one has failed, God’s Word has a 100% track record, so it is safe to say we can put our trust in the Word of God. Many of the prophecies of God’s Word have to do with the 1st coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is prophesied something like 200 times that Jesus was to come the 1st time. We know from history that this indeed did happen.  Micah 5:2 which was written about 750 years before Christ came predicted that He would be born in Bethlehem.  Zechariah 11:12 predicted that He would be sold for 30 pieces of silver.

Now earlier you mentioned mathematics can prove something to be a fact. Lee Strobel in his book “the Case for Christ” tells the mathematical odds for Christ to have fulfilled 7 prophecies. Now keep in mind when you read this that Jesus fulfilled hundreds of prophecies. The Mathematical odds for Jesus to fulfil 7 prophecies would be the same odds as someone covering the entire earth in 4 inch by 4 inch white tiles. Hiding a gold star under only one of those tiles. And you walking up on the very 1st try and finding this gold star!! By the way you are blindfolded. That one of many tiles may be hidden in the Sahara desert, it might be hidden in Italy, it might be hidden in the country of China, or even Russia. Remember you only get one shot to try and find this star and you are blindfolded...Now you may say impossible!! Yet this mathematically is the same odds for Jesus to fulfill 7 prophecies, can you imagine what the mathematical odds are of Him fulfilling all the prophecies that He did!! Impossible right? Yet with God Darren nothing is impossible. Looking forward to hearing from you...

until we go to the ends of the earth...

Acts 1:8


Chris Sanford

3b. My Reply

Dear Chris,

Pardon me for my late reply, as I’ve been quite busy lately. Anyway, here’s my answer to your arguments:

Hypotheses, Theories, Laws, and Facts

First of all, I would to address how the 4 terms above are used in more detail.

Let’s start with facts. In science, facts are described as verifiable and objective observations, which means that its existence can be verified using the scientific method. For example, it is a fact that the Sun rises everyday, since it can verified using the scientific method and has overwhelming evidence for it.

A hypothesis is a rational and educated guess about the explanation for an observed phenomenon, but lacks evidence to support it.

A scientific theory, on the other hand, is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of hypotheses and laws that have been repeatedly confirmed through the scientific method. A theory explains a large set of related phenomena, and its details are subject to constant tweaking, but its core principle still remains. For example, the Theory of Evolution is described briefly as “descent with modification”, and while much of its details has been modified over time, its predictions still hold. Only when the core tenets of the theory is found out to be wrong is the theory considered as being false.

A scientific law is a descriptive principle of nature that manages to holds in all circumstances covered by the wording of the law. Plus, it implies a casual relationship between elements involved, is only able to describe an extremely finite set of observations, and doesn’t provide an explanation of how a phenomenon occurred; it only describes how it should work.

A common mistake to to assume that a scientific theory can become a scientific law, as there are several fundamental differences between the two. Firstly, as stated above, a scientific law only describes a phenomenon, while a theory explains one.

Plus, once it is found out that a law fails to describe even a single phenomenon that it covers, then it has to be overhauled or simply thrown out of the window; but if theory is found out to inaccurate, it’s simply modified, but rarely gets replaced entirely. A good analogy I found on is this:

An analogy can be made using a slingshot and an automobile.

A scientific law is like a slingshot. A slingshot has but one moving part--the rubber band. If you put a rock in it and draw it back, the rock will fly out at a predictable speed, depending upon the distance the band is drawn back.

An automobile has many moving parts, all working in unison to perform the chore of transporting someone from one point to another point. An automobile is a complex piece of machinery. Sometimes, improvements are made to one or more component parts. A new set of spark plugs that are composed of a better alloy that can withstand heat better, for example, might replace the existing set. But the function of the automobile as a whole remains unchanged.

A theory is like the automobile. Components of it can be changed or improved upon, without changing the overall truth of the theory as a whole.

Thus, just because something is a theory instead of a law doesn't mean it lacks evidence; in fact, it's quite the contrary. However, both scientific theories and laws have one thing in common: they're just attempts to describe/explain scientific facts, through the most reliable method possible. Thus, it’s wrong to say that scientific laws are scientific facts.

Creationism Has No Backing Evidence

You said:

Also as far as the best theory that is possible, that is a pretty sad testimony for the theory of evolution. When it comes to the evidence concerning Intelligent Design, the evidence for a Creator is overwhelming. Have you ever looked at the evidence for a Creator Darren?

Let me make it clear: evolution is a theory well-supported by the evidence. Evidence for it from includes genetics, fossils, which are laid out exactly as evolution predicts, comparative anatomy, embryology and has been observed in real life. While I did not elaborate much on the evidence for evolution in my blog, I’ve already answered quite some attempts to “disprove” evolution in my Answering Creationist Claims series, and in my previous email to you on beneficial mutations. These include the no-transitional fossils argument, the irreducible complexity argument, the bird argument, the fixity of species argument, the entropy argument (read this again), the young-earth argument etc. So take a look at them, and have those replies considered deeply.

Now let’s consider creationism. For Biblical creation to be true, there needs to be a large amount of empirical evidence available for the Garden of Eden, creation of the universe within 6 days (or periods), birds coming before insects, and most importantly, that the Judeo-Christian God did it. Yet so far, there’s not even one peer-reviewed literature that presents any form of empirical evidence for creation.

The High Failure Rate of Biblical Prophecies

Before you say that the Bible has fulfilled every prophecies, here’s a list of those that it didn’t (there are also rebuttals on the prophecies you told me about) – Skeptic’s Annotated Bible: Prophecies in the Bible . Look at all these prophecies and refute everyone of them, or your statement that the Bible’s prophecies are 100% accurate is simply wrong.

Plus, some of the prophecies you stated were made true in the Bible (and the Dead Sea Scrolls), and since they aren’t independent sources, they’re unreliable – who knows, perhaps someone was modified the Bible for political reasons?

But let me tell you directly about one notable prophecy that failed. It is stated in the Bible (KJV) on the end of the world:

Matthew 24:34 - Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.

Mark 13:30 - Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done.

Luke 21:32 - Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled.

All these 3 passages have one thing in common – they state that Jesus predicted that the end would come within the lifespan of the listeners. The same statement is also reconfirmed in these passages:

Matthew 16:28 – Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

Mark 9:1 – And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.

Luke 9:27 – But I tell you of a truth, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God.

So tell me, has the end of the world come yet? Has the kingdom of the Judeo-Christian God come to power? If not, then the Bible’s inerrancy is seriously doubted.

Yours sincerely,
Darren Wong

On a Side Note…

Chris is so much better than this fundamentalist from Bible Life Ministries.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Explaining Ghost Sightings (Part 2 – Temporal Lobe Epilepsy)

When I said that pareidolia can explain a lot of ghost sightings, I didn’t mean all of them. Sometimes the environment is bright and clear, you’re fully awake, and yet you still get that “ghostly” feeling. Scary, eh? Well, that may just be a hallucination, and here I shall tackle a common cause for hallucinations – temporal lobe epilepsy.

Defining Temporal Lobe Epilepsy

Temporal Lobe Animation

The temporal lobe would be the part in red. Only the left temporal lobe is shown.

The temporal lobe is separated into 2 parts: right and left. It’s responsible for auditory processing, processing of semantic & lexical information in speech, and long-term memory. On the other hand, epilepsy aka seizure disorder is a common neurological disorder that causes recurrent & unprovoked seizures in patients. These seizures happen when clusters of neurons fire excessively/abnormally/synchronously. Combine these two, and you’ve got temporal lobe epilepsy.

Temporal lobe epilepsy causes simple and complex partial seizures. Simple partial seizures simply cause unusual behaviours and patterns of cognition, including hallucinations and paranormal experiences; complex partial seizures can render the patient disabled and lose awareness temporarily. If one is unlucky though, it may spread and become a tonic–clonic seizure, a type of seizure that affects the entire brain, and is much more lethal.


Temporal lobe epilepsy may be caused by a variety of factors, including:

1. Hippocampal sclerosis, which is present in 2/3 of patients, and causes mesial temporal lobe epilepsy (MTLE).
2. Infections
3. Febrile seizures
4. Malignancies
5. Vascular malformations
6. Idiopathic (genetic), but it’s rare.
7. Trauma producing contusion/haemorrhage that results in encephalomalacia or cortical scarring
8. Difficult traumatic delivery such as forceps deliveries
9. Hamartomas

Symptoms Related to Ghost Sightings/Paranormal Experiences

Since the temporal lobe is responsible for hearing, information processing, and long-term memory, abnormal functioning in the temporal lobes will also cause these brain processes to function wrongly. Complex partial seizures are unrelated to ghost sightings, so I’ve decided not to write about them.

Simple Partial Seizures/Auras

Just to make it clear, the word “aura” in this context is defined as a “warning” before “a complex partial seizure occurs, not the pseudoscientific human/soul aura or whatever it’s called. For patients with temporal lobe epilepsy, they may have a simple partial seizure, which creates an aura, and usually leads to a complex partial seizure.

Somatosensory and Special sensory phenomena

Auras may come in the form of olfactory, gustatory, auditory, and visual hallucinations and illusions. Auditory hallucinations consist of a buzzing sound, a voice/voices, or muffling of ambient sounds. On the other hand, visual hallucinations may take the form of distortions of shape, size, and distance of objects, shrinking (micropsia) or enlarging of things (macropsia), and also tilting of structures.

Psychic Phenomena

Patients may also feel déjà vu, the feeling that’s you’ve seen something before, although you’ve not, and jamais vu, in which one suddenly feels eerie and unfamiliar to the environment, although he/she has been in the same situation before, and he/she knows it.

Patients may also experience depersonalization (feeling of detachment from oneself) or derealisation (surroundings appear unreal). “Out of body” experiences can also happen to the patient, a phenomenon known as dissociation/autoscopy. Plus, if the seizure arises from the amygdala, the patient will become fearful and anxious, sometimes to the point of having “an impending sense of doom”.

Deja vu


Here, I’ve shown that so-called ghost sightings may be caused by temporal lobe epilepsy instead of a real ghost appearing, which goes against Occam’s razor and science too much (violation of the laws of physics, anyone?)

However, I am aware that not everyone has temporal lobe epilepsy, yet many still experience its symptoms. There’s another similar cause for such experiences – electromagnetic disruption of the temporal lobe, and it’s one that I shall address next.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Explaining Ghost Sightings (Part 1 – Pareidolia)

During a debate with my friend on the existence of the soul, he raised ghost sightings as an argument for the soul’s existence. While I quickly refuted his argument, it led me to consider writing a naturalistic explanation for ghost sightings, since they’re frequently used when spiritualists argue against naturalists. I’ll start with pareidolia, a common psychological/neurological phenomenon.

What's Pareidolia?

Did your friends ever said to you: “I saw a ghost when I was walking to the toilet with my own eyes”? Or have you ever heard someone calling your name, but there’s no one around? Meet pareidolia, the tendency to interpret a vague stimulus as something known to the viewer; such as interpreting marks on Mars as canals or seeing shapes in clouds.This phenomenon is extremely common, and can be created easily. Lets see….

Alien on Mars

That's an alien on Mars...... or is it?

Alien or Tree?

That may be an alien disguising as a tree sticking its tongue towards us... Yeah that's obvious.

Evil Spirit in Womb

In addition to the ghostly female face, I also see the head of an avian-like monster beside the face, and a ghost with eyes, hands and a mouth at the centre-right of the 1st image. Something’s definitely wrong, or I simply have a great imagination.

I bet you saw the faces. And if you did, congratulations, for you're a normal human, and like all of us, susceptible to illusions and pareidolia. So if you see a ghostly apparition, don't worry - it's your mind seeing an image that vaguely resembles something you’re familiar with, in which your brain then exaggerates and modifies to be clearer.

Conditions that Cause Pareidolia

Vague Stimuli (Blurry Images/Sounds)

The brain is a gifted interpreter – it’s capable of responding to blurry face-like images and interpreting them rapidly – in fact this study suggests that it takes only 165ms for our ventral fusiform cortex to be activated, compared to 130ms for a true face. This study shows that pareidolia is an instinctive response, and not a late cognitive reinterpretation phenomenon.

Despite that, our first instincts are often wrong, and when the same object is looked more carefully and with more detail, it’s often revealed that the so-called “ghost” is an illusion after all. The best example for this would be the “Face of Mars” in the Cydonia region.

Face on Mars by Viking

Here's part of the Cydonia region, taken by the Viking 1 orbiter and released by NASA/JPL on July 25, 1976. And yes, that's the so-called face of Mars near the top.

Upon seeing the “face”, conspiracy theorists claimed that it was “intelligently designed” by Martians, and that it was located next to a city whose temples and fortifications could be seen. On the other hand, NASA and the skeptics explained that it was simply the effects of light, but the conspiracy theorists took that as a sure sign of a cover up. Until the high-res images appeared.

Face on Mars by MRO

High resolution Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (2006-present) image of the "Face on Mars". Taken using the onboard HiRISE camera.

Similar high-res images were took by the NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (1997-2006) and the European Space Agency's Mars Express probe (2003-present). All wild speculations about the “face of Mars” were put to rest, and the conspiracy theorists went silent (if not embarrassed). However, this is not the first case of pareidolia caused by vague stimuli, and will certainly not be the last.

Examples of pareidolia inducing environments (happens especially, if not only at night):

1. Half-lit hallways.
2. Toilets.
3. Dorms.
4. Camping sites.
5. Highways.
6. Quiet parks.

When You're Half-conscious

Sometimes, the stimuli doesn’t have to vague/blurry -  pareidolia can also happen when you’re aren’t fully self-aware (half awake, fatigued, sleepy etc). When we’re not fully conscious, our brains tend to misinterpret things, and pareidolia can occur easily. That’s why ghosts love to come out at night, or when you’re working overtime, or when you wake up at night. Yeah, makes perfect sense.

Evolutionary Origins of Pareidolia

Since pareidolia is literally hardwired into our brains, there must be a evolutionary advantage for our brains to see "faces" or hear "voices" when there are none. A plausible explanation is the false-alarm hypothesis (or whatever it’s called).

The False Alarm Hypothesis

Let's assume that there're 2 individuals, A & B living in the wilds of yesteryear. A is able to respond to familiar stimuli (faces, animal voices) quickly, but is susceptible to pareidolia; B doesn't respond as well, and thus never have any false alarms. In the prehistoric world (perhaps even in the modern world), A would be much more likely to survive by recognizing familiar patterns quickly, and escape on the first sign of a threat. Even it was a false alarm, it wouldn't affect  A negatively. B, on the other hand, failing to recognize patterns quickly, would be less self-aware, and fall prey to sabre-tooth tigers easily.

On a not-so related side note, I propose that we fear ghosts because they look so damn similar to the predators our ancestors had to escape from at night – blurry, vaguely resembling things we’re familiar with, making all sorts of noises, and yes, their ghastly eyes. Those who were afraid of the predators survived, while the others left offspring. Thus, when we see similar images in our lives, we still invoke a “fight or flight” response and get freaked out.


Here, I’ve put forward pareidolia as the first of my explanations for ghostly encounters, and there’s going to more. I just hope that my friends would try and take a look at my explanations, instead of simply repeating the same-ol’ argument every time. I bet they won’t though.

How about you, my fellow readers? Do you think that pareidolia manages to explain some, if not most ghost sightings? If it can’t, then why is it so?

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Problems of the Soul (Arguments from Physics)

The soul theory’s contradiction with neuroscience isn’t the end to its implausibility; it’s strongly at odds with modern physics as well. While neuroscience may be a more subjective field, physics is certainly not, and here I shall present problems that the soul theory faces according to physics (some of my arguments are directed specifically at ghosts aka wandering souls).

The 1st Law of Thermodynamics

The 1st Law of Thermodynamics, which is the principle of conservation of energy states that the overall energy within a closed system will remain constant, although it may be converted into other forms. For its energy level to change, it must come into contact with another system. In such a case, the energy level of the system will increase if work is done onto the system, and vice versa. As far as evidence goes, the Universe is a closed system.

Here comes the problem. For the soul to be able to do work in the material world, some of the soul’s energy must be converted into physical energy. Since the soul exists independently of the physical universe, the total energy in the universe will increase when the soul does work, and this must mean that the universe is an open system, which is contradictory to modern science.

Another saying that I’ve heard from my friends is that instead of existing in a separate realm, the soul enters the physical world when one is born (or during fertilization, gastrulation etc.). Somehow, the soul can affect physical entities, but not the other way around. This hypothesis doesn’t make sense, as they’re implying that the energy that makes up the soul is limited, and being unable to receive energy from the physical universe, it will use up its energy quickly and cease to exist.


For us to see something, then that thing must either reflect or emit visible light. Ghosts are supposedly visible in quite some anecdotes, but that’s not possible if we’re to follow the usual definition for ghosts. Let me explain.

First of all, a ghost shouldn’t be able to reflect light. For light to be reflected, it must hit a surface. Since the soul is defined as being made up of only energy, there’s no way it can reflect light, and if I’m not wrong, all forms of light emission require matter as a source of fuel. Thus, for us to see ghosts, they must be made up of matter (at least partially). However, as the soul is supposed to survive physical and material death, such a definition is self-contradicting.


In every single anecdote that my friends gave me, ghosts have the ability to float. This, however, simply contradictory to most widely established model for gravity – general relativity. Unlike previous models, general relativity describes gravity not as a force, but as a curvature of space-time, and everything in this universe is subject to the effects of gravity – matter, light, electromagnetic waves, energies etc.

If the souls exist within the material plane, then it must be subject to the gravity as well, no matter what it’s made of. No matter what universe you’re in, you’re going to subject to it’s time-space constraints. It’s logically contradictory for a ghost to float and not be affected by gravity. If a ghost is to float, then it must exert force against the centre of gravity. Such an act would require massive amounts of energy, and the soul would quickly cease to exist. Unless the 1st law of thermodynamics is violated, of course.

And by the way, if ghosts are free from gravity, they should be hurtling into space.


Here I have put forward a few points showing that the concept of the soul is quite problematic from the viewpoint of modern physics. It’s a wonder that mind-body dualists can still insist that the soul theory is true even when it contradicts one of the most objective fields of science.

Of course, the list is far from complete, and I would be thankful if anyone can come up with even more ideas showing how the soul contradicts physics.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Problems of the Soul (Arguments from Neuroscience)

Drawing from René Descartes' explaining the function of the pineal gland.

The concept of the human soul and life after death is almost universally accepted among the people. One may not accept the existence of gods, deities, or ghosts, but if asked on the validity of souls and spirits, he/she is most likely to answer yes. Yet, to the naturalist, such a concept is very problematic, and being a naturalist myself, I’ll give a few thoughts on why the concept of the soul contradicts neuroscience, and is thus highly implausible.

René Descartes's illustration of dualism. Inputs are passed on by the sensory organs to the epiphysis in the brain and from there to the immaterial spirit.

Neural Development

The soul is eternal, and it controls our body, as mind-body dualists love to claim. Consciousness is retained even after we die, and is passed on to our next body (whether it’s a human, animal, fairy, ghost, demon). But neural development challenges this belief strongly.

Maturing of the Mind

Maturing of the Brain

The mind matures as the brain grows, as shown in this picture where our brain achieves full grey matter volume during our 20s.

As we all know, when humans grow up, our thoughts start to mature, and begins to decline once we reach an old age. To the biologist/naturalist, the explanation for such a phenomena couldn’t be simpler: neural development. As we grow towards the adult stage, our brain starts to increase in complexity and amount of grey matter. Then, as we start ageing, our brain begins deteriorating, through a multitude of factors including DNA damage and free radicals damage.

A dualist, however, will find this problematic. If the soul retains our consciousness and thoughts after we die, then one should be reborn with similar thoughts from the previous life. But that’s certainly not the case, as we’re born with almost nothing in our memory, and we don’t act maturely at all until we’re older.

The Beginning of Consciousness

Comparative Embryology

I put forward a simple question to all mind-body dualists: In which stage does the soul enter the body?

Theistic evolutionists face a very problematic question: When did God decide to insert the soul into the human body in the passage of evolution? During the point where Australopithecus lived? Homo hablis? Homo erectus? Homo sapiens? Theistic evolutionists have a hard time agreeing on the exact point. The same problem is there for mind-body dualists. When does the soul enter the body? During the moment of conception? Gastrulation? When we become an embryo? Perhaps the moment of birth? Dualists will have a hard time agreeing on this. While this isn’t a rebuttal to the soul theory, it does present a problem in the soul theory.

The Nervous System

It’s widely accepted to any student of science that our senses are controlled by our nervous system, which sends information to our brain through electrical charges, and our brain will respond accordingly. Such a model doesn’t fit well with the soul theory.

Our Senses

The 5 Traditional Senses

Here’s the 5 traditional senses. Obviously, all of them stop working once the specific nerves get damaged.

If the soul is to retain full consciousness in the material world after death, then it must be independent of our nervous system. The soul must be able to receive information from the material world through another method, if it’s to work as dualists claim. Such is not the case. When a person’s optical nerves get damaged, he/she loses his sight; when his/her auditory nerves stop functioning, he/she becomes deaf etc. It’s very clear that our interaction with the environment is reliant on the nervous system. So either the soul loses all connection with material world once we die, or the soul somehow regains full consciousness the moment we pass away. The first hypothesis requires a radical change in the soul theory; the second hypothesis is simply laughable.

Brain Damage

Brain Damage Demotivational

If the soul is responsible for our consciousness, then why does patients with brain damage suffer from reduced mental abilities?  In fact, neuroscientists are capable of predicting damage in which part of the brain will cause what kind of mental deterioration. The fact that mental abilities are subject to the state of the brain is at odds with common dualist anecdotes which claim that the soul can leave the body, or that the soul can keep on having thoughts in the material world after death.


In this post, I have raised a number of problems that challenge the soul theory greatly. The phenomena above points strongly to the view that the mind and consciousness is the product of the brain, not the soul. Before any dualist manages to explain away those problems, I’m a naturalist. But I’ve only pointed the problems from the neuroscientist’s view. In my next post, I’ll point out why the soul is completely implausible from a physics point of view.

PS: If my anyone finds any logical or philosophical errors in my opinions, please tell me. :-)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Happy Chinese New Year and Darwin’s Day!!

Happy Darwin Day! (February 12)

Charles Darwin's Anniversary

Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin! Your work on the origin of species was, and always will be crucial to the understanding and the appreciation of biology!

And let this day serve as a reminder that the creationist/ID movement to undermine science education is far from over, and we must keep on promoting the Theory of Evolution, and debunk those silly creationist/ID explanations!

Happy Chinese New Year! (February 14-29)

Happy Chinese New Year 2010!

What a coincidence! The Year of the Tiger will officially start on February 14, which is Valentine’s Day! How would Chinese couples deal with this? After all, they should be with their family on the first day of the Lunar Year, but then, it’s Valentine! Just a small rant.

But anyway, I wish all of you a Happy Tiger Year! And if you would, wear red tomorrow for a prosperous year!*

*This is just Chinese culture/superstition. Don’t take it seriously.

PS: Going to a Trip for a While

I’ll be on a trip to China for a couple of days so I won’t be updating my blog for a while. (China blocks Blogger, and don’t have the time to write posts anyway). I’ll get my blog updated once I come home, and perhaps I’ll write about Chinese folk religion. :-)

Sceptical Towards Pseudoscience – Diamond Water Quackery

Diamond Company Logo

It's about time to debunk this company's unfounded and misleading claims.

Don’t you just hate it when some guy comes to you and say: “Hey, we’ve got this new product that can enhance your bio-field and energy vibrations! It has been proven by Japanese/US scientists and passes the Federal standards!” Don’t you? Yet, while sceptics will simply laugh off these pseudoscientific products, many people are unfortunately scammed. This time, I will deal with the great energised water scams so prevalent across the globe, and here’s the leader in Malaysia/Hong Kong – Diamond Energy Water. Let’s look at Diamond's claims.

Smaller Water Clusters for Better Absorption by Cells?!

So after 30 years of research from Japanese scientists (one must wonder where did the funding come from, and how no one knew of it beforehand), they developed the Energy Conversion technology that breaks water clusters into smaller clusters for easier absorption by body cells, which in turn improves our body’s metabolism and absorption of nutrients and allows for more dissolved oxygen. Sounds quite familiar, eh? Time to debunk the pseudoscience.

What Water Clusters Really Mean

In true chemistry, water clusters are defined as a hydrogen-bonded cluster of molecules of water. Let me explain what’s a hydrogen bond.

Hydrogen Bonds

A hydrogen bond is a type of electrostatic interaction between electronegative atoms (fluorine, nitrogen, or oxygen) within a molecule and hydrogen atoms bound to another electronegative molecule. The bond can occur between molecules (intermolecular), or they can occur within the same molecule (intramolecular). Hydrogen bonds are only about 1/10 as strong as normal covalent bonds.

A water molecule can be bonded to 4 other molecules at one time. This is because its 2 hydrogen atoms can be bonded to 2 other oxygen atoms, while its oxygen atom can accept up to 2 hydrogen bonds. As a water molecule can bond with the most number of other water molecules at the same time when compared to similar chemicals, it has a relatively high boiling point, melting point and viscosity.

Water Cluster

Here's what I mean: A water molecule with its hydrogen atoms bonded to 2 other oxygen molecules and its oxygen molecule being bonded by 2 other hydrogen molecules.

Waters Clusters Don't Work the Way Diamond Water Implies

Let’s assume that the Energy Conversion technology actually works, and it’s perfectly capable of breaking waters clusters down to the smallest possible cluster (that’s a water dimer, which consists of 2 hydrogen-bonded water molecules). But for the technology to really work, the water cluster’s structure must remain unchanged from the moment it passes through the filter to the time it’s absorbed by our cells. That’ll take minutes, at the very least.

So here’s the fact: that isn’t possible. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Science (that should be a reliable source), water

“… imposes a high degree of structure and current models supported by X-ray scattering studies have short-range ordered regions, which are constantly disintegrating and reforming.”

And, according to these peer-reviewed scientific reports in the “Read More” section below, the lifespan of hydrogen bonds are counted on the scale of picoseconds, or 10-9 seconds. You read that correctly, those who are interested in buying energised water of any sort. The structure of the water clusters would’ve changed innumerable times before you can even flinch.

But that’s not the end to Diamond’s claims. They say that they have a far-infrared technology that stabilizes energy within the water to allow the structure to be maintained for a longer period. This claim is without scientific evidence, and it’s not sure what they actually mean by “stabilizing energy”. But even assuming that water clusters can actually be stabilized, can it still maintain its structure during the move from the 4th filter to the 5th filter? Since we’re talking about change within picoseconds here, it’s a no.


I’ve made it pretty clear that Diamond’s so-called energy water are full of pseudoscientific bunk. Moreover, Diamond’s act of making false claims about their products is simply unethical, and isn’t justified by the law. Yet, the public is still misinformed on their claims, and it’s still the most famous water filtering company in Malaysia (and perhaps Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan). So if you have any Malaysian friends, inform them of this!

PS: Because of time constraints, I decided not to write on cell hydration in this post, but I’ll address it later. :-)

Read More

Unified description of temperature-dependent hydrogen-bond rearrangements in liquid water

PMR study of the lifetime of complexes with a strong hydrogen bond at low temperatures.

Hydrogen-bond lifetime measured by time-resolved 2D-IR spectroscopy: N-methylacetamide in methanol

Ultrafast Dynamics in Na-doped water Clusters

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My Atheistic Stand (by Warren)

Following the previous “Declare Thyself” post on Sabio’s blog, Triangulations, Sabio has put up another self-review table: Atheist: declare thyself! So once again, let me define my stand in detail, this time on my atheistic views.

Level of Certainty Moderate & Agnostic (maintains that all god(s) are too statistically and scientifically improbable to exist, but doesn’t claim to know)
Level of Affirmation Strong
Stance toward Religion Categorically Against Dogmatic Religions, Sympathetic towards Progressive Religions
Openness Open, but cautious
Degree of Action Affirm only (Public), Debater (Friends), Activist (Blogosphere)
Religious Participation Occasional
Degree of Enchantment Neutral
Mystical Inclination Non-Mystical (such things just never happens to me!)
Belief History Former Believer (only on paper, actually)
Sect History Buddhism (the corrupted, superstitious version)
Theory of Religion Religion was created through stories of ancient guys, which were then passed on as memes, warped, then turned into organized religion like a successful meme, or may have been used for political reasons.
Non-theistic Leanings I am supportive of Buddhism teachings, and I do think I should try upholding more (I don’t accept Buddhism as a religion, though - Why I am Not a Buddhist).

Degree of  Secular
Superstitious Thinking

I do have some superstitions – I’m scared of ghosts (which reason tells me can’t exist); and I frequently think of reincarnation as fact before slamming myself back to reality etc.
View of Reason Emotive-Rationalist, as man is still bound to emotion, and complete rationalism is impossible.
Faith Items I believe that claims without evidence are false by default, but I don’t have empirical evidence to support my view.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Answering Creationist Claims – Morality in Evolution

A common claim of creationists would be that evolution promotes immorality. Such claims can arise from nothing less than ignorance, and here I shall explain why evolution does promote morality and altruism, instead of challenging it.

Scientific Theories are Descriptive

Science is a method to understand the world around us, and it does so through the scientific method, which is tried-and-true. Now, as science observes and make conclusions, that means it is descriptive – it simply tries to give us a better understanding of the world. To blame immorality on scientific theories is simply absurd, as science is not an instruction manual - it is up to us to determine what actions should we take.

This is very unlike religion, which explicitly and repeatedly requests that we follow its teachings, making it instructive. Moreover, it does so through blind faith, not through reason and evidence.

Social Darwinism – Natural Selection Misunderstood

Creationists also frequently claim that the teachings of natural selection leads to Social Darwinism, which is political ideology in which only the “fittest” survive, and the weak are left to die, and Adolf Hitler implemented this system. His rationale was that based on the misunderstanding that natural selection meant “survival of the fittest”, and the Catholics are superior to Jews, thus Jews must be exterminated. Creationists frequently refer to his actions as evidence that evolution leads to immorality.

Yet, this is not the case. Natural selection doesn’t necessarily means that a particular individual must kill as many other organisms as possible; nor does it mean that an individual must be vastly superior to other individuals to survive. It simply means that the phenotypes that are better adapted to the habitat would have a greater chance of reproducing and passing on their genes (or more specifically, alleles). The phenotypes do not need to be competing with each other to survive – they can be helping each other directly or indirectly, increasing both individual’s fitness. Such interaction between 2 different species is known as mutualism (between sea anemone and hermit crabs, bees and flowers, ungulates and digestive bacteria etc); within the same species, it is known as co-operation (ants, bees, and of course, Homo sapiens).

Altruism – An Evolutionary Explanation

We have already mentioned that natural selection doesn’t need to be competitive, but also collaborative. However, how does evolution explain the appearance of morality and altruism? There’re many possible mechanisms suggested, some of them may be right, some of them may be wrong – it is even possible that all are true. Let’s take a look at the proposed mechanisms. But before that, let me note that the problem of morality is much greater for creationism than evolution. After all, as stated in Plato’s Euthyphro:

Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? – the Euthyphro dilemma

or in modern-day words:

Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?

Answer that, theists.

Kin Selection

Kin selection refers to the theory that organisms may display caring towards their relatives, thus increasing their relatives reproductive fitness but at a cost of their own fitness. If viewed from a purely competitive and individualistic perspective, natural selection would’ve got rid of individuals that exhibit such behaviour, and thus genes that promote such behaviour would rarely (if ever) reach fixation. However, such behaviour is found in many organisms, the most famous example be the infertile worker ants and bees, who are unable to reproduce and yet decide the fate of the entire hive.

Hamilton's Rule

Altruism with have superior to a particular genes survival when Hamilton’s rule as put forward by W.D. Hamilton is met:

rB > C

where r = coefficient of relatedness between the individuals, B = the benefits in fitness received by the recipient, and C = the cost in fitness imposed on the actor.

The value of r can be calculated pretty easily. In a diploid organism, an offspring gets exactly half of its genes from one its parents. Thus their relatedness is 0.5. For the cousin and grand offspring, they get 1/4 of their genes from one their last common parent, and thus their relatedness with that parent is 0.25. Based on this equation, we know that r=n5.

Hamilton proposed 2 ways in which altruism would be favoured. The first is when kin recognition is high enough, which means that an organism favours those that are more genetically similar to it. However, as organisms are most certainly unable to measure the genetic relatedness of a relative, kin recognition only occurs if the particular genes can have externally visible phenotypical effects. This is known as the “Green-beard effect”, and it serves as a valid explanation for the evolution of morality.

Kin selection can also happen even if kin recognition is not present in viscous populations – a population in which the movement of organisms from their birthplace is relatively slow. In viscous populations, individuals will frequently breed with close genealogical relatives, and thus Hamilton’s rule can be met. This doesn’t explain altruism, though.


Reciprocal altruism refers to the behaviour that an individual would help another individual in the hope of mutual interaction with the recipient in the future. In social terms, it’s: “I helped you, and thus I expect you to help me back.”. This is a very possible explanation for the evolution of morality (and revenge), as this behaviour is see in cleaner fish, vampire bats (possibly), chimps, orang-utans, and of course, human society. It’s also used to explain why humans help strangers, which are hard to explain using kin selection.

Direct Reciprocity

Robert Trivers presented direct reciprocity as a model for the evolution of cooperation. This form of reciprocity requires that the 2 individuals meet again, recognize each other, and remember their last encounter to predict what would happen in the future. Direct reciprocity is highly similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD). In this dilemma, there are 2 individuals. If both cooperate (C), both will gain rewards (R); while if both defect (D), both will get penalties (P). However, if one individual cooperates while the other defects, the co-operator will be penalized, while the defector will be rewarded handsomely.

Direct reciprocity can only promote altruism if:

w > c / b

where w = the probability of another encounter between the same two individuals, c = cost, b  = benefit. Thus, it is required that the probability of another encounter between the same two individuals exceeds the cost-to-benefit ratio of the act.

Indirect Reciprocity

Indirect reciprocity doesn’t require repeated encounter between the same individuals. In indirect reciprocity, one individual is the donor while the other is the recipient. The donor can decide whether to cooperate and help the recipient.

Indirect reciprocity has 2 models:

The "Upstream" Model

The “upstream” model states that when the donor helps the recipient, the recipient will be motivated to help another individual, perhaps because he/she got a positive feeling about it. This may create a domino effect which spreads through the community. While this model is harder to understand in detail, it has been observed in economic experiments.

The "Downstream" Model

This model is based on reputation. If an the donor helps the recipient (and someone knows of it), his/her reputation will be enhanced. Such a system is all too common within human society, and studies have shown that an individual of good reputation is more likely to be helped by others in the animal kingdom as well.

Indirect reciprocity can only promote altruism if:

q > c / b

where q = probability of knowing someone’s reputation, c = cost, b = benefit. In other words, it only works when the probability of knowing someone’s reputation exceeds the cost-to-benefit ration exceeds those of the altruistic act.


Diagram (a) shows direct reciprocity, in which A helps B, and B helps A, or they may defect. Diagram (b) shows the “upstream” model, which is based on motivation; and the "downstream" model, which focuses on reputation.

Sexual Selection

In many animal societies, the female are responsible for taking care of their children. This is very detrimental to the survival of the mother – it requires time, energy, and resources. Now, if both parents are responsible for caring the children, the load would be ultimately be decreased for the mother. However, that doesn’t work if the father (biological or not) doesn’t even think of the children, much less care for them. Thus, it is proposed that females may have preferred loyal, caring partners over individualistic partners, and thus the “moral” gene is the one had a great probability of being inherited.


In this post, I not only debunked the creationist’s claim that evolution leads to immorality, but also gave an explanation on how evolution is perfectly able to explain altruism as well. I’ll wait for creationists to refute what I just said.

As a side note, though, all the explanations above have one thing in common: they all imply that altruism succeeds because of selfishness. Kin selection is not “true” morality, one only helps those that are closely related genetically, and that doesn’t fit with how our society thinks morality should be.

As for reciprocity, it happens because the individual expects something in return. In direct reciprocity and perhaps the “upstream” model of indirect reciprocity, you help someone because you want to get help from them in the future. Hell, they’ve got this Chinese saying that “Good deeds shall be rewarded in return”, and I simply hate it when charities used this saying to urge us to donate – that’s actually an act of selfishness.

In the “downstream” model of direct reciprocity, you help someone, and you get reputation for it. Who doesn’t want it? Some may protest that this is caused by the willingness of the spectator – the donor didn’t explicitly want better reputation. I doubt that. I’ve seen a lot of cases (including mine) when an individual helps someone because he thinks that’s politically correct, because people may look down upon him if he/she doesn’t lend a helping hand, because by doing he feels “good” etc. Self-centeredness under the guise of helpful acts, that’s what we all (or at least me) see in most cases.

However, despite my cynical view of morality, I don’t think that it should be removed from society or ignored altogether. At least, it still maintains harmony and peace much better than a purely competitive mindset.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Dogma Exposed – Christians Attempt to Smuggle 33 Haitian Children Across Border

First of all, let me apologize for the lack of updates for almost a week. I’ve been hit by a massive surge in schoolwork, and I simply couldn’t find the time to care about my blog. I shall try my best to keep War for Science updated, however.

So what’s the “great” news for this week? See below.

Ten members of a US Christian group may face charges of kidnapping minors and child-trafficking after trying to smuggle a group of children out of quake-hit Haiti, officials said Monday.

Amid growing concern over the safety of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable women and children left destitute after the January 12 quake, the case could also go to trial in the US courts.

Mazar Fortil, interim prosecutor for the main Port-au-Prince court, told AFP the group may also face a lesser charge of criminal conspiracy.

But asked about earlier comments whether the group will be transferred to face charges in the United States, Fortil said it was "too early to tell."

The five men and five women with US passports, as well as two Haitians, were seized late Friday as they tried to cross into the neighbouring Dominican Republic in a bus with 33 children aged between two months and 14 years.

They have defended their actions saying they were only trying to do what was right in the aftermath of the 7.0-magnitude quake, but the arrests have again thrown the spotlight on the Caribbean nation's impoverished people.

“For us it is important to clarify how those kids have been given to those people,” Georg Willeit, a spokesman for SOS Children Village where the youngsters are being cared for, told AFP Monday.

“One of the girl, 10 years old, said that her mother went to the bus to say good bye, so we have to clarify the whole situation.”......


These guys were from Idaho, and guess what, they allegedly tried to send these children to an hotel waiting to be converted in an orphanage without the required paperwork. One must wonder, did they really go to Haiti to help those earthquake victims? Or did they go to spread the word of the Bible and brainwash the victims into accepting Christianity?

The group’s spokesperson claimed that what they were doing were entirely right, but where are the legal papers? Why, according to a Malaysian newspaper, were the parents oblivious to what they were actually doing? And why, if that action was legal, were they arrested? Either they were simply too careless, or they may had other plans for the children. I won’t jump to conclusions here, but it is certainly possible that this is another example of the Christian Taliban in action. And they say that atheists eat babies.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sceptical Towards Pseudoscience – The Pseudoscientific Method

What differs science from pseudoscience? Why do we call astrology, numerology, and feng shui pseudoscience? New Age followers frequently claim that science-fans are simply too arrogant and ignorant to look at the evidence, but how true is that? Here, I contrast the scientific method and the pseudoscientific method, and show why we sceptics are justified in labelling them as simply superstition.

Science is Self-correcting; Pseudoscience is Static

Scientific theories are self-correcting, that is, they change in the light of new, contradicting evidence. As a perfect scientific theory should have zero flaws, it is not surprising that what you’ve learned today may be completely wrong tomorrow.

Take the Theory of Evolution as an example. Initially, there was Lamarckism, a theory stating that changes in an individual’s genotype will be inherited by its offspring. Yet, the arrival of genetics on the scene completely rendered the theory wrong, and gave overwhelming evidence for Mendelian-inheritance.

Yet, by the early 21st century, it was found out that organisms don’t follow strict Mendelian inheritance patterns. This can be caused by epigenetics, environmental factors etc. In fact, in 2006, Minoo Rassoulzadegan from the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis, France, and her colleagues reported the first instance of non-Mendelian inheritance in mammals. They interbred wild-type mice with heterozygous with engineered Kit DNA. The wild-type mice had tails uniform in colour; the heterozygous mice had spotted tails. When they interbreed the mice, they got a litter full of spotted tail mice when Mendelian inheritance expected about half of each mice. They found out that the Kit mRNA in the heterozygous mice and the pups was lower in level and degraded, and the degradation was caused by Kit microRNA. This shows that DNA (RNA in some viruses) is actually not the only biochemical that affects inheritance, and once again, the Theory of Evolution needs to be updated.

Non-Mendelian Inheritance in Mice

It was found out that the damaged mRNA in the heterozygous mice was inherited by the para-mutated pups, giving them spotted tails.(Soloway/Nature, 2006)

But what about pseudoscience? Do they revise their theories in response to contradictory evidence? No, they don’t. Astrology, feng shui, numerology rarely update to reflect new findings, and is virtually the same as what they were thousands of years ago. The failure of Western astrology to address the precession of the equinoxes is a classical example and typical of pseudoscience. See my post - Debunking Astrology (Part 2 – Problems that Astrology Must Answer) for further info.

Science is Critically Peer-reviewed; Pseudoscience Spouts Claims Without Evidence

I don’t dare to say science is without fraud. Piltdown Man, Nebraska Man, Archaeoraptor etc. are examples we can all remember as embarrassments to the scientific community, a sore reminder that science must be honest to itself, and to be critically peer-reviewed.

A defining feature of science is that any single hypothesis must go through extensive scrutiny from the respective scientific communities before it even has the hope to be published in a scientific magazine, like Nature. With all those different hypotheses coming from everywhere, one has to ensure that they are truly of high quality, and it is the peer review system that allows us to judge whether a hypotheses is honest and truthful.

But, does pseudoscience have similar systems? Definitely no. Pseudoscience goes directly to the relatively uncensored mass media, telling the world of their “great” discoveries and predictions, in which they cannot give any evidence for. But what’s more disappointing is that quite some newspapers will praise their claims without second thought? Perhaps because of psychological and marketing factors? Whatever it is, the conclusion would be: pseudoscience never examines its claims critically, but it speaks louder than true science. Like a duck compared to an eagle.

Science is Objective; Pseudoscience is Subjective/Vague

A theory that explains everything explains nothing.

Science hypotheses, theories and laws must be falsifiable. What do we mean by falsifiability? It means that a theory/hypothesis/law must be specific and objective in its predictions so that they can be test and verified by other scientists. Here’s an example: Mendel’s Law of Segregation predicts that there are dominant and recessive alleles, and when both are present, the dominant allele will be expressed, masking the recessive allele. This was strongly supported when Mendel’s pea experiments showed a 3:1 ratio of 2 different traits, 1 being dominant and the other being recessive. Except in cases where non-Mendelian inheritance is involved, this law has always stood up to the test, and can thus be rightfully called a scientific law.

But pseudoscience never does this. Their claims are usually vague enough to be untestable using the scientific method and generic enough so that the predictions apply to everyone. Take astrology’s sun sign predictions as an example:

Capricorn, the tenth sign of the zodiac, is all about hard work. Those born under this sign are more than happy to put in a full day at the office, realizing that it will likely take a lot of those days to get to the top. That's no problem, since Capricorns are both ambitious and determined: they will get there. Life is one big project for these folks, and they adapt to this by adopting a businesslike approach to most everything they do. Capricorns are practical as well, taking things one step at a time and being as realistic and pragmatic as possible. The Capricorn-born are extremely dedicated to their goals, almost to the point of stubbornness. Those victories sure smell sweet, though, and that thought alone will keep Capricorns going.

That’s for Capricorn. Wow, doesn’t this sound like the perfect employee/employer? Note how does astrology (and also other pseudoscience) prey upon our dreams and visions so that we happily agree with it.  Moreover, the prediction above only explains a part of our life. One can look at a Capricorn sign and say that it fits his/her work-life, and look at an Libra sign and say: “That’s me! Charming, attractive, graceful! After all, that’s what I am in my personal life!” By making predictions which could apply perfectly depending on the situation, pseudoscience manages to be “accurate” in its predictions, when it is simply using the same-old tactic.

Science Uses Clear and Precise Words; Pseudoscience Uses Scientific-sounding Mumbo Jumbo

To allow your theory/hypothesis to be verified accurately by other scientists, what you need to do is to use the most precise, and the clearest words possible. They can then be verified using scienitific experiments, which will determine its validity. That’s needed so that science remains objective and falsifiable.

However, it seems that a lot of people frequently criticise science for using hard-to-understand jargon in place of general, understandable words. But be aware that when I say clear, I don’t mean easily understandable by the general public, but precise enough so other scientists can know exactly what are you referring too. This is how it is in the scientific community; on the other hand, more simple and generic words are used when informing the public.

But pseudoscience also uses the same words, so does that give it the same qualities? That’s a no. Take a look at the some “scientific” mumbo-jumbo used by pseudoscience: “energy vibrations”, “enhanced bio-field”, “non-Hertzian scalar energy”. Despite using scientific sounding terms, such terms don’t exist within the scientific community, as their existence have never been proved. Thus these terms are meaningless, nothing more than a trick to sound genuine to the public.

In other cases, pseudoscience will quote mine true and valid scientific theories to further their case. Take the notorious FusionExcel company as an example. The say that their “quantum pendant” are capable of generating “scalar energy”, which are supposed to improve our wellbeing. But wait! In physics, the word quantum is used to describe quantum mechanics, which is currently the best system for explaining interactions on the atomic/subatomic scale. Are they implying the pendants are created through manipulating molecules on the subatomic scale? And what is scalar energy? They try to use the Maxwell Equations to validate its existence, but I cannot find any link. That’s typical of pseudoscience.

Science Keeps Trying to Verify Its Predictions; Pseudoscience Rely on Confirmation Bias

A scientific theory must stand up to the evidence consistently. It must always match real-world observations, and the whole theory could be dismantled with one contradicting evidence. That’s why scientists constantly test scienitific theories against new observations to ensure its validity. If it doesn’t hold, then try to create a better one.

But pseudoscience never does this! They keep on giving vague, generic predictions, and in the case that even those predictions fails, they usually give some kind of rationalization, such as “The theory is just a guideline”, “Well you shouldn’t rely only on stars signs, there’s more to astrology”, “Maybe you missed something”, “You can’t judge someone from his/her looks” etc. Never do they admit to be wrong.

On the other hand, pseudoscience gets ecstatic when their claims are found to be true. They will declare it as empirical evidence, while ignoring the times when the predictions have failed to hold. It is of course frequently shown that these “evidence” can also be explained through pure chance, which may be why believers don’t look at contradicting observations. In psychology, this is known as confirmation bias, in which people deliberately ignore contradicting evidence, in favour of supporting observations. While commonplace in pseudoscience, confirmation bias in the scientific community is quickly exposed thanks to the peer review process.

Science Relies on Empirical Evidence; Pseudoscience Relies on Anecdotes

The last, and most annoying feature of pseudoscience is its overuse of anecdotal evidence. Science is empirical, requiring strong evidence and repeatable, testable predictions. Just because a well respected scientist or the majority of scientists claim something to be true doesn’t verify a theory/hypothesis. It must go through the peer review system as stated above, and be tested repeatedly to be valid.

But obviously, pseudoscience doesn’t do this. As evidence can’t be found for their claims, they instead rely on anecdotes from customers or supporters. When I asked my friends for evidence of ghosts, they say: “I saw it! It was late night in my camping tree, and I saw a spectre in the trees”, “I hear weird sounds sometimes!” or “My friend them, I saw them, doesn’t that make ghosts true already?”. Classic example of pseudoscience/superstition.

But why not anecdotal evidence, you ask? The problem with anecdotes is that human errors are simply too frequent, we have great imagination, we all have slight confirmation bias, and yes, the placebo effect is quite a powerful force. This problem exists even in mass hallucinations, where the power of suggestion can cause a group of people to have “God” show up in front of them, when spectators see nothing except for a bunch of lunatics. Anecdotal evidence cannot be used as scientific evidence for this reason.

Blurry Fog

I saw a vaguely-humanoid shaped fog: Evidence for ghosts!


I think I’ve given enough reasons on why pseudoscience is pseudoscience. To sum it up, it’s dogmatic, unverified, untestable, and relies and anecdotes and confirmation bias. So stop claiming that we sceptics are close minded. How about this, believers – review your claims. Perhaps you’ll find out that those superstitions aren’t that factual after all.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dogma Exposed - Rape victim receives 101 lashes for becoming pregnant

A 16-year-old girl who was raped in Bangladesh has been given 101 lashes for conceiving during the assault.

The girl's father was also fined and warned the family would be branded outcasts from their village if he did not pay.

According to human rights activists, the girl, who was quickly married after the attack, was divorced weeks later after medical tests revealed she was pregnant.

The girl was raped by a 20-year-old villager in Brahmanbaria district in April last year.

Bangladesh's Daily Star newspaper reported that she was so ashamed following the attack that she did not lodge a complaint.

Her rape emerged after her pregnancy test and Muslim elders in the village issued a fatwa insisting that the girl be kept in isolation until her family agreed to corporal punishment.

Her rapist was pardoned by the elders. She told the newspaper the rapist had "spoiled" her life.

"I want justice," she said.

This was from I hoped I was surprised when I heard about this, but no, I am not, unfortunately. The sharia law is so infamous for its sexism and its maltreatment of women, and this is just one in many cases. There is certainly many more cases not reported in the media. Yet, from this we can see how irrational, tyrannical, and sexist extremist Islam is, and anyone who says that sharia law is fair and play should rethink their words. Seriously.

Well, at least it such a law isn’t in the Holy Quran, and we can all agree that this is a case of the extremists misusing the sharia law. But sexists views are still present here and there in the Quran (and the Bible, for that matter).

Women who are divorced shall wait, keeping themselves apart, three (monthly) courses. And it is not lawful for them that they should conceal that which Allah hath created in their wombs if they are believers in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands would do better to take them back in that case if they desire a reconciliation. And they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them in kindness, and men are a degree above them. Allah is Mighty, Wise. - 2:228, Holy Quran

If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour's wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you. – Deuteronomy 22:23-24, the Holy Bible (KJV)

PS: Moderate Muslims around the world, there is no better way to prove that Islam is a religion of peace than now! You say that Islamic-phobia is widespread, eh? Then how about this: condemn the extremist and sexist acts. You’ve got nothing to lose.