Just a friendly reminder from your pals at SEB…

Evolution simplified for tiny brains.

 

As found over at Atheism and Me.

Why would God bother at all?

It’s a very simple question and one I’ve asked a number of believers over the years, but have yet to get any kind of a reasonable answer. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of it’s been kicking around in my brain the past couple of days so I thought I’d take the time to write it down.

For the sake of the argument we’ll have to assume that God does exist and he has a reason for doing the things that he does. We should also try to define his basic properties; what we mean when we use the word “God.” To keep it simple let’s go with the basic assumptions present in most of the big religions:

  1. God is perfect.
  2. God is all-powerful.
  3. God is all-knowing.
  4. God is eternal.

Right off the bat with the first aspect of God we have a problem of motivation that I’ve never been able to get past. A common interpretation of the word “perfect” is: entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings, thorough; complete. A truly perfect being would need nothing and thus want for nothing and, logically, have no reason to do anything. All the usual motivations us mere humans have for doing things would be of no concern to a God. Our motivations are driven by needs, both real and perceived, and even when we claim we’re doing something for no reason that’s often not the reality of the situation. God wouldn’t need anything. Not food, companionship, entertainment, sleep, sex, or anything else.

So why would he create anything? He has no need for Heaven, angels, universes, planets, people, critters, and so on and he couldn’t possibly gain anything from the creation process he doesn’t already have because he’s perfect. If he needed any of those things or even if he just had a need to create he wouldn’t be perfect. If God has no good reason to create anything then why are we here? I recognize that this implies that God could exist and not be perfect, but most religions reject that possibility.

The second attribute of God invites all manner of logical paradoxes. Most folks interpret all-powerful to mean that God can do anything which invites classic questions like, “Can God make a stone so heavy he can’t lift it?” The obvious answer being no which means that there’s a limit to God’s power (it’s a limit on what he can do and thus not all-powerful) and at the same time if he could do it then there would still be a limit to God’s power (a limit to how heavy an object he can lift, but not how heavy he can create). Of course that assumes that God has a physical form to lift things with, unless you assume he does his lifting by some other means (telekinesis perhaps?), and the further your pursue that rabbit the deeper you’ll find the rabbit hole goes. Of course it’s a moot point in the face of attribute one which removes any need to create a heavy stone and then try to lift it. Still you can have a lot of fun thinking up various paradoxes like “can God get lost” which ties into aspect number three as well as two.

Speaking of the third attribute, this introduces yet more motivation and paradox problems. Most of the big religions consider all-knowing to mean that he knows everything there is to know from the past, now, and the future. Ask how this is possible and the most common explanation you’ll get is that God exists outside of the universe and thus can see the whole thing from beginning to end. The obvious logical contradiction this causes is in regards to free will. Most of the big religions believe that you have free will, but they also believe that God knows everything you will do before you’re born. God, being all-knowing and perfect, can’t be wrong so logically you have to live out the life that God knows you will live which means that you don’t really have a choice and thusly don’t really have free will, but the believers will insist that you do because otherwise you can’t be held accountable for your actions by God. It’s a paradox and one that people will happily argue with you about until you’re blue in the face without ever grasping that it’s a paradox.

But assuming for the moment that God went ahead and created everything for no reason and assuming that it’s possible to have free will in spite of God knowing ahead of time what you’re going to do, the fact that he’s all-knowing still makes the exercise pointless. Before God created even the first elementary particles for the first atoms at the very start of creation he already knew how it would all play out in the end. Again this begs the question of why even bother if it’s all just going through the motions? What does God gain from this that he wouldn’t have already had if he’d not done anything at all? Again, by definition, God doesn’t need anything and is complete unto himself. What value could an exercise like reality hold that would motivate a being who doesn’t need any of it to be complete?

The fourth attribute is an interesting one because it’s hard to really wrap your head around the concept of forever. We are finite beings and everything we see around us is also finite. Though bits of reality have mind bogglingly long existences that they may as well be infinite as far as the length of our puny lives are concerned, the point remains that everything appears to have a beginning and, at some point, an end.  The universe itself is finite as far as most of the big religions are concerned. It has a beginning and will have an end and while the length of its existence is beyond human comprehension it’s also ridiculously short in comparison to “forever.” Which brings us once again to asking why God would bother? Consider that God may have existed for countless eons compared to the universe (though most would argue that time is meaningless where God resides) and will continue to exist for countless eons after the universe is gone. What does he gain with the relatively short experiment with reality that he wouldn’t have had prior to it? Being perfect he doesn’t need anything and he was perfectly comfortable with existing on his own for, if you’ll pardon the pun, God knows how long prior to bothering with creation and he’ll continue to exist – unchanging by most religion’s definition – long after the universe has gone the way of the dodo. Reality is a pointless exercise on that time scale.

All of these problems are before we even start in on what reasons a particular religion’s take on God might have for the various rules and regulations he’s laid down, which, when you consider the source, are almost entirely arbitrary. These questions imply a single God, but most of them apply to religions with many Gods as well. Perfect beings, as a whole, would have no motivation to do anything. That’s the sort of thinking I do when my brain gets going.

Bush goes all delusional again at Republican Governors Association Gala.

President Bush is once again demonstrating how he lives in his own little world that isn’t impacted by things such as facts and reality in general. During a speech at the 2008 Republican Governors Association Gala he made the following pronouncements:

I don’t know about you, but I’m confident we’ll hold the White House in 2008. (Applause.) And I don’t want the next Republican President to be lonely, and that is why we got to take the House, retake the Senate, and make sure our states are governed by Republican governors. (Applause.)

Our ideas are those embraced by the American people. American people want strong national defense and they want the government to protect the people from further attack, and that’s precisely what Republicans will give them. Americans want lower taxes and less government, and it’s precisely what Republicans will give them. Americans want strong, principled leadership, and that is precisely what Republicans will give them.

And so when I say I’m confident, I am so because I understand the mentality of the American people and I understand the mentality of our candidates. And there’s no question in my mind, with your help, 2008 is going to be a great year. (Applause.)

I suppose the above could be written off as standard “rah-rah” team spirit nonsense, but considering how poorly the Republican party is held by much of the public these days it seems a bit… optimistic to state with any certainty that the White House will see a Republican residing in it come 2009. Sure, it’s a possibility as is the possibility that both houses of Congress will revert to Republican control and all the states will elect Republicans, but it doesn’t seem anything close to something one should be confident about. One things for damn sure and that’s that Bush doesn’t understand the mentality of the American people all that well. If he did then I doubt his approval rating would be in the toilet.

Next he talks about Iraq and Afghanistan:

There are two major fronts in this war: one is in Afghanistan and one is in Iraq; and I want to spend a little time on Iraq. First of all, the decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision for world peace and for the security of the American people. (Applause.)

This is utter nonsense. Saddam posed no threat to the United States or, for that matter, to world peace. His army never really recovered from the pounding it took in the first war and his supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction programs were wild fantasies at best. His supposed ties to al Qaeda were fictions and he was barely a threat to his neighboring countries. At worst he was a threat to his own people and as much as they suffered under Saddam’s rule it’s hard to see how they’re faring any better under their current circumstances. We didn’t make things better in Iraq, we made them much worse.

Next Bush ramps up the crazy:

One of the principles by which I have been operating is this: I believe in an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to every man, woman and child is freedom. And I believe it is in the interests of the United States of America to free people from disease and hunger and want and tyranny. It is in our interests to make sure that we defeat the ideologues of hate with an ideology that has worked throughout the centuries. I believe 50 years from now, people will look back at this period of time, and say, thank God the United States of America did not lose its faith in the transformative power of liberty to bring the peace we want for our children and our grandchildren. (Applause.)

It’s hard to believe anyone could still hold such a rosy assessment of the Iraq war and Bush really shows just how batshit crazy he is with the above statement. It doesn’t help that his actions don’t match up to his rhetoric. For all his talk of freedom from disease and hunger the handful of aid programs he’s put forth are rife with restrictions on how that money can be used.

For example: A bill to provide help to Africa in combating AIDS that’s making its way through Congress would require a third of the $30 billion over five years to be devoted to abstinence-only education and Republicans are upset over a provision added by Democrats that would include Family Planning services because it might mean some money being used to provide abortions or hand out condoms. Sure, they’re willing to help so long as you don’t do anything they don’t approve of regardless of how stupid our reasoning is.

Moving on to the Protect America act which recently expired Bush has this to say:

And that is why we worked with the United States Congress last summer to pass the Protect America Act. And the Congress passed the act, giving our professionals the tools they need. The problem is, the act expired recently, and yet to—the threat to America has not expired. And so now we’re in a debate about whether or not we ought to pass a good piece of legislation necessary to protect the American people.

More nonsense. Yes, the act expired and good riddance to it as well. The argument that it leaves us vulnerable is bullshit. First off the law won’t actually cease to apply until sometime in August, but even if it had suddenly gone away there’s still plenty of authority for wiretaps using the previous FISA rules. It just means the government would have to get a legal warrant to wiretap. It doesn’t even have to do it ahead of time as the old FISA law allowed for applying for a warrant after you had already established a wiretap. The problem for Bush and his cronies is that requiring a wiretap means there will be scrutiny of what they’re up to and even though FISA almost never turns down a wiretap request the fact that someone has oversight just drives Bush right up the wall.

Then there’s the telephone companies that broke the law in participating with the Bush Administration:

And here’s the crux of the problem: Companies that were believed to have helped us protect America from attack are now being sued for billions of dollars. That’s wrong, it’s a mistake, and the United States Congress needs to give those companies liability protection. And let me tell you why.

First, it is not fair to treat these companies this way. Our government told them that their participation was necessary in order to protect us from further attack. And we asked them—and when we asked them to make those protections, we told them it was legal to do so. And I firmly believe it is legal for them to help us protect the American people. And now they’re getting sued. What’s more important, lawyers or protecting the United States of America from further attack? (Applause.)

Let’s rephrase that last question to what Bush really means: “What’s more important, the rule of law or me being able to do whatever the fuck I want without anyone else knowing about it?” Bush may have thought his request to the telecos was legal, but he was wrong. The only company to recognize that fact was Qwest. Everyone else who broke the law deserves whatever the fuck they’ve got coming to them and, for that matter, whoever the fuck told the companies that it was legal needs to be brought up on charges as well.

Secondly, these lawsuits would require disclosure of information which would make it harder to protect the country. These trial—if these cases go to trial, these companies will have to defend themselves. And they’ll be asked all kinds of questions about the tactics they have used to help protect our country. It makes no sense to reveal our secrets to the enemy.

Again, an SEB Translation: “If these cases go to trail then you’ll all be able to see how I was shredding your civil rights and the Constitution. I can’t control the message if you guys know the truth.”

Thirdly, and finally, these—without law, without liability protection for a job that we asked them to do in service to the United States of America, it will make it harder to convince companies to participate in the future. If you’ve done something that you think is perfectly legal, and all of a sudden you’re facing billions of dollars of lawsuits, it is going to be hard to provide with credibility assurances that you can go forward.

Gee, here’s an idea: DON’T FUCKING ASK COMPANIES TO BREAK THE LAW.

Need more proof he’s fucking nuts? How’s this:

Our domestic agenda is based upon this simple principle: We trust the American people, and we will empower them to make the right decisions for their families. We trust in the collective wisdom of the American citizenry. On health, we trust patients to make their own decisions, and we empower them with HSAs and AHPs, all aimed at making sure health care decisions are made between patients and doctors, not by bureaucrats here in Washington, D.C.

If he trusted the American people so much then he wouldn’t need to be so fucking secretive about everything his Administration does, but he’s lying. He doesn’t trust in the collective wisdom of the American citizenry at all. He wants to spy on you without oversight not just to keep you safe, which I’m sure is one of the things he believes he’d accomplish, but also for political expediency. If you think this man isn’t abusing the domestic spying programs he’s put into place then I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

That’s about all I can stand to read through at this point, but I think it’s more than enough to show the man isn’t living in the same reality as the rest of us. It’s just a shame we have to sit and wait out the rest of his term in office before we can put this period behind us and hopefully get the country back on the right track.

God vs. Science.

Someone sent me a link to this blog entry at some random weblog that appears to be a new variation on the popular Evil Atheist Professor versus the True Believer student chain letter that’s been making the rounds for years. Previous versions were much shorter and attributed the student as being Albert Einstein, but this version has replaced making the student someone famous with making the fiction considerably longer. This isn’t the only blog with this email up as of late and just about every site that has it marvels over what a great bit of logic it is.

Well I’m hear to say it’s a load of crap, but first I should start by relating the sad story in question:

A science professor begins his school year with a lecture to the students, “Let me explain the problem science has with religion.” The atheist professor of philosophy pauses before his class and then asks one of his new students to stand.

“You’re a Christian, aren’t you, son?”

“Yes sir,” the student says.

“So you believe in God?”

“Absolutely.”

“Is God good?”

“Sure! God’s good.”

“Is God all-powerful? Can God do anything?”

“Yes.”

“Are you good or evil?”

“The Bible says I’m evil.”

The professor grins knowingly. “Aha! The Bible!” He considers for a moment. “Here’s one for you. Let’s say there’s a sick person over here and you can cure him. You can do it. Would you help him? Would you try?”

“Yes sir, I would.”

“So you’re good…!”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“But why not say that? You’d help a sick and maimed person if you could. Most of us would if we could. But God doesn’t.”

The student does not answer, so the professor continues. “He doesn’t, does he? My brother was a Christian who died of cancer, even though he prayed to Jesus to heal him. How is this Jesus good? Hmmm? Can you answer that one?”

The student remains silent.

“No, you can’t, can you?” the professor says. He takes a sip of water from a glass on his desk to give the student time to relax.

“Let’s start again, young fella. Is God good?”

“Er…yes,” the student says.

“Is Satan good?”

The student doesn’t hesitate on this one. “No.”

“Then where does Satan come from?”

The student falters. “From God”

“That’s right. God made Satan, didn’t he? Tell me, son. Is there evil in this world?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Evil’s everywhere, isn’t it? And God did make everything, correct?”

“Yes.”

“So who created evil?” The professor continued, “If God created everything, then God created evil, since evil exists, and according to the principle that our works define who we are, then God is evil.”

Again, the student has no answer. “Is there sickness? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All these terrible things, do they exist in this world?”

The student squirms on his feet. “Yes.”

“So who created them?”

The student does not answer again, so the professor repeats his question. “Who created them?” There is still no answer. Suddenly the lecturer breaks away to pace in front of the classroom. The class is mesmerized. “Tell me,” he continues onto another student. “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, son?”

The student’s voice betrays him and cracks. “Yes, professor, I do.”

The old man stops pacing. “Science says you have five senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Have you ever seen Jesus?”

“No sir. I’ve never seen Him.”

“Then tell us if you’ve ever heard your Jesus?”

“No, sir, I have not.”

“Have you ever felt your Jesus, tasted your Jesus or smelt your Jesus? Have you ever had any sensory perception of Jesus Christ, or God for that matter?”

“No, sir, I’m afraid I haven’t.”

“Yet you still believe in him?”

“Yes.”

“According to the rules of empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol, science says your God doesn’t exist. What do you say to that, son?”

“Nothing,” the student replies. “I only have my faith.”

“Yes, faith,” the professor repeats. “And that is the problem science has with God. There is no evidence, only faith.”

The student stands quietly for a moment, before asking a question of His own. “Professor, is there such thing as heat?”

“Yes,” the professor replies. “There’s heat.”

“And is there such a thing as cold?”

“Yes, son, there’s cold too.”

“No sir, there isn’t.”

The professor turns to face the student, obviously interested. The room suddenly becomes very quiet. The student begins to explain. “You can have lots of heat, even more heat, super-heat, mega-heat, unlimited heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat, but we don’t have anything called ‘cold’. We can hit up to 458 degrees below zero, which is no heat, but we can’t go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold; otherwise we would be able to go colder than the lowest -458 degrees.”

“Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-458 F) is the total absence of heat. You see, sir, cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat we can measure in thermal units because heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it.”

Silence across the room. A pen drops somewhere in the classroom, sounding like a hammer.

“What about darkness, professor. Is there such a thing as darkness?”

“Yes,” the professor replies without hesitation. “What is night if it isn’t darkness?”

“You’re wrong again, sir. Darkness is not something; it is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light, but if you have no light constantly you have nothing and it’s called darkness, isn’t it? That’s the meaning we use to define the word.”

“In reality, darkness isn’t. If it were, you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn’t you?”

The professor begins to smile at the student in front of him. This will be a good semester. “So what point are you making, young man?”

“Yes, professor. My point is, your philosophical premise is flawed to start with, and so your conclusion must also be flawed.”

The professor’s face cannot hide his surprise this time. “Flawed? Can you explain how?”

“You are working on the premise of duality,” the student explains. “You argue that there is life and then there’s death; a good God and a bad God. You are viewing the concept of God as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, science can’t even explain a thought.”

“It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing. Death is not the opposite of life, just the absence of it.”

“Now tell me, professor. Do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?”

“If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, young man, yes, of course I do.”

“Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir?”

The professor begins to shake his head, still smiling, as he realizes where the argument is going. A very good semester, indeed.

“Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor, are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you now not a scientist, but a preacher?”

The class is in uproar. The student remains silent until the commotion has subsided.

“To continue the point you were making earlier to the other student, let me give you an example of what I mean.”

The student looks around the room. “Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the professor’s brain?” The class breaks out into laughter.

“Is there anyone here who has ever heard the professor’s brain, felt the professor’s brain, touched or smelt the professor’s brain? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol, science says that you have no brain, with all due respect, sir.”

“So if science says you have no brain, how can we trust your lectures, sir?”

Now the room is silent. The professor just stares at the student, his face unreadable.

Finally, after what seems an eternity, the old man answers. “I guess you’ll have to take them on faith.”

“Now, you accept that there is faith, and, in fact, faith exists with life,” the student continues. “Now, sir, is there such a thing as evil?”

Now uncertain, the professor responds, “Of course, there is. We see it everyday. It is in the daily example of man’s inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil.”

To this the student replied, “Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.”

The professor sat down.

This students statements are true, can you or can you not make night darker?

Is it possible for it to get colder after absolute zero -458 degree’s F.

Can you feel,taste,see,hear,or smell your brain,

If anyone can contest this please do.

So I did. I left the following comment at the blog I pulled this from and, as it’s rather lengthy and there’s a good chance the site owner will just delete it outright, I thought I should post it here as well.

Here’s my reply:

It’s a fictional story that’s been attributed to any number of people including Albert Einstein, but has no basis in reality. It’s also a very flawed argument that’s only really impressive to the scientifically illiterate. It’s kind of sad to see it making the rounds once again, but at least the latest incarnation isn’t attributing it to Einstein.

Let’s start with the most obvious problem with this entire argument: The Christian God is supposedly omnipresent therefor if God is literally everywhere how can there be the absence of God anywhere? This is a fatal flaw to the Absence of God = Evil argument. Additionally there’s the problem with the simple fact that many believers commit acts of evil in spite of their belief in God and often because of their belief in God. This would also be an obstacle for the evil = absence of God argument.

Secondly it relies on conflating two different meanings of the word faith. Namely the faith required for something that’s pretty well established—the fact that the professor does have a brain—versus the faith required for something with absolutely no evidence—the existence of God. In the former there are any number of ways to prove the existence of the professor’s brain, some of which would be extreme but definitive (open his skull and look), but a simple cat scan should suffice for most people. The existence of brains is so well established, in fact, that most Christians wouldn’t be stupid enough to question that reality in the first place.

In comparison you’d first have to nail down exactly what you mean by the word “God”, because even among believers of the same religion there’s often a difference on opinion about the nature of God, before you could even begin to try and establish whether or not it would be possible to determine if he exists. Clearly the type of faith it would take to believe in such a being is miles beyond the faith it takes to accept our lowly professor as having a brain without resorting to cracking his head open to check, though that would at least be possible if it had to come to it.

This particular version managed to work in the anti-evolution angle as well though that too is a flawed and incorrect argument. Evolution has been observed in both simple lab experiments and by studying fossils from antiquity. That is an entire argument unto itself, however, and more time than I wish to expend at the moment.

Furthermore the definitions for heat/cold and light/dark demonstrate that the author of this fiction has only a limited understanding of the concepts he’s writing about. The whole paragraph where the student explains the concept of heat is wrong, but most people aren’t scientifically literate enough to grasp that fact. They just see a lot of scientific words and their eyes glaze over and they think something really intelligent was said.

The author contends that “heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy” and that is flat out wrong as heat is actually the transfer of energy caused by a temperature difference. If two systems are not in thermal equilibrium with each other then heat transfer will occur with the flow going from the higher temperature system to the lower temperature system until thermal equilibrium is obtained. Or, in other words, if one system is hot and the other one is cold then heat will transfer from one to the other until they are the same temperature. The statement that we can have “super-heat, mega-heat, unlimited heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat” is just nonsense. The author is conflating the word “heat” with the word “hot” the latter of which is, like “cold”, a relative term describing the temperature of an object in relation to something else.

So too the author goes on to demonstrate only a partial understanding of light and dark. He starts by conflating the scientific definition of light, which includes the entire electromagnetic spectrum, with what is known as “visible light.” What we refer to as dark is actually just a low level of visible light, but not the absence of light as is claimed in the text. Even in the total absence of visible light all objects will continue to give off infrared and gamma radiation due to heat transfer and as such there is no absence of light at all even though you can’t see. A simple pair of infrared goggles is all it takes to see in the darkest of environments. In order to remove all light you’d have to remove all energy (absolute zero) which isn’t possible to do outside of the realm of theoretical mathematics.

So the answers to the questions at the end of this missive end up as follows: Yes, you could make night “darker” by blocking out more and more of the electromagnetic spectrum. No, you can’t make something colder than absolute zero because that’s the point when a system has no energy. For that matter it’s not possible to reach absolute zero either, though you can get close and matter starts to do some funky stuff at those temperatures. Yes, you can feel, taste, see, hear, and smell your brain if you really wanted to, but some of those would be messy and probably leave you damaged in the process. For some folks, though, it might be an experiment worth undertaking.

Please feel free to chime in with any other flaws you find in either the original story or my rebuttal.

The real problem with the brain is that it’s so easily fooled.

When people find out I’m an atheist it often results in a lively discussion on God, reality, and the nature of belief. One of the questions that invariably comes up is how I can discount the claims of miracles witnessed by so many people. It’s easy, I usually say, because the human mind is pretty bad about interpreting reality accurately. All it takes is a visit to a good magic show to see how true that is. I’ve seen various magicians cut assistants and themselves in half, walk on water, fly, walk through walls, make whole mountains disappear and more, but I know they didn’t really do those things.

Which is why it’s entirely appropriate that a number of magicians would be making presentations at the annual Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness in Las Vegas that recently took place:

It was Sunday night on the Las Vegas Strip, where earlier this summer the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness was holding its annual meeting at the Imperial Palace Hotel. The organization’s last gathering had been in the staid environs of Oxford, but Las Vegas — the city of illusions, where the Statue of Liberty stares past Camelot at the Sphinx — turned out to be the perfect locale. After two days of presentations by scientists and philosophers speculating on how the mind construes, and misconstrues, reality, we were hearing from the pros: James (The Amazing) Randi, Johnny Thompson (The Great Tomsoni), Mac King and Teller — magicians who had intuitively mastered some of the lessons being learned in the laboratory about the limits of cognition and attention.

“This wasn’t just a group of world-class performers,” said Susana Martinez-Conde, a scientist at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix who studies optical illusions and what they say about the brain. “They were hand-picked because of their specific interest in the cognitive principles underlying the magic.”

“In real life if you see something done again and again, you study it and you gradually pick up a pattern,” he said as he walked onstage holding a brass bucket in his left hand. “If you do that with a magician, it’s sometimes a big mistake.”

Pulling one coin after another from the air, he dropped them, thunk, thunk, thunk, into the bucket. Just as the audience was beginning to catch on — somehow he was concealing the coins between his fingers — he flashed his empty palm and, thunk, dropped another coin, and then grabbed another from a gentlemen’s white hair. For the climax of the act, Teller deftly removed a spectator’s glasses, tipped them over the bucket and, thunk, thunk, two more coins fell.

As he ran through the trick a second time, annotating each step, we saw how we had been led to mismatch cause and effect, to form one false hypothesis after another. Sometimes the coins were coming from his right hand, and sometimes from his left, hidden beneath the fingers holding the bucket.

He left us with his definition of magic: “The theatrical linking of a cause with an effect that has no basis in physical reality, but that — in our hearts — ought to.”

The article is three pages long and touches on some of the various experiments that have been done on human perception and the limits of consciousness. One of the best quotes comes at the end from James Randi himself:

“Allow people to make assumptions and they will come away absolutely convinced that assumption was correct and that it represents fact,” Mr. Randi said. “It’s not necessarily so.”

So getting back to those inevitable discussions, I usually point out that the reason I don’t put a lot of stock into eyewitness accounts of anything without something else to back them up is because all too often what we think we see and what we do see are two different things.

Predictions about the year 2000 from the year 1900.

Gotta love the futurists of the past and what they predicted life would be like come the year 2000:

Prediction #17: How Children will be Taught. A university education will be free to every man and woman. Several great national universities will have been established. Children will study a simple English grammar adapted to simplified English, and not copied after the Latin. Time will be saved by grouping like studies. Poor students will be given free board, free clothing and free books if ambitious and actually unable to meet their school and college expenses. Medical inspectors regularly visiting the public schools will furnish poor children free eyeglasses, free dentistry and free medical attention of every kind. The very poor will, when necessary, get free rides to and from school and free lunches between sessions. In vacation time poor children will be taken on trips to various parts of the world. Etiquette and housekeeping will be important studies in the public schools.

Prediction #18: Telephones Around the World. Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn. By an automatic signal they will connect with any circuit in their locality without the intervention of a “hello girl”.

Prediction #19:  Grand Opera will be telephoned to private homes, and will sound as harmonious as though enjoyed from a theatre box. Automatic instruments reproducing original airs exactly will bring the best music to the families of the untalented. Great musicians gathered in one enclosure in New York will, by manipulating electric keys, produce at the same time music from instruments arranged in theatres or halls in San Francisco or New Orleans, for instance. Thus will great bands and orchestras give long-distance concerts. In great cities there will be public opera-houses whose singers and musicians are paid from funds endowed by philanthropists and by the government. The piano will be capable of changing its tone from cheerful to sad. Many devises will add to the emotional effect of music.

Prediction #20: Coal will not be used for heating or cooking. It will be scarce, but not entirely exhausted. The earth’s hard coal will last until the year 2050 or 2100; its soft-coal mines until 2200 or 2300. Meanwhile both kinds of coal will have become more and more expensive. Man will have found electricity manufactured by waterpower to be much cheaper. Every river or creek with any suitable fall will be equipped with water-motors, turning dynamos, making electricity. Along the seacoast will be numerous reservoirs continually filled by waves and tides washing in. Out of these the water will be constantly falling over revolving wheels. All of our restless waters, fresh and salt, will thus be harnessed to do the work which Niagara is doing today: making electricity for heat, light and fuel.

Prediction #21: Hot and Cold Air from Spigots. Hot or cold air will be turned on from spigots to regulate the temperature of a house as we now turn on hot or cold water from spigots to regulate the temperature of the bath. Central plants will supply this cool air and heat to city houses in the same way as now our gas or electricity is furnished. Rising early to build the furnace fire will be a task of the olden times. Homes will have no chimneys, because no smoke will be created within their walls.

Prediction #22: Store Purchases by Tube. Pneumatic tubes, instead of store wagons, will deliver packages and bundles. These tubes will collect, deliver and transport mail over certain distances, perhaps for hundreds of miles. They will at first connect with the private houses of the wealthy; then with all homes. Great business establishments will extend them to stations, similar to our branch post-offices of today, whence fast automobile vehicles will distribute purchases from house to house.

Prediction #23: Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishments similar to our bakeries of today. They will purchase materials in tremendous wholesale quantities and sell the cooked foods at a price much lower than the cost of individual cooking. Food will be served hot or cold to private houses in pneumatic tubes or automobile wagons. The meal being over, the dishes used will be packed and returned to the cooking establishments where they will be washed. Such wholesale cookery will be done in electric laboratories rather than in kitchens. These laboratories will be equipped with electric stoves, and all sorts of electric devices, such as coffee-grinders, egg-beaters, stirrers, shakers, parers, meat-choppers, meat-saws, potato-mashers, lemon-squeezers, dish-washers, dish-dryers and the like. All such utensils will be washed in chemicals fatal to disease microbes. Having one’s own cook and purchasing one’s own food will be an extravagance.

Reading through the full list of 29 predictions you’ll find some of them are spot on (such as #18 above) and others are pure fantasy. Then there’s the few (such as #17) which kind of came to pass in some form that you wish could have been more fully realized.

Found via Boing Boing.