Malaysian Atheist

An avowed atheist living in Malaysia.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Don't mess with the Sea Dragon King

Let me first say that I'm not trying to ridicule this guy. After all, he didn't hurt anyone with his superstition. He is entitled to his beliefs, but I'd like to just talk about the grip superstitious beliefs still have on people today.

About a week ago, a fisherman near Ipoh caught a weird-looking fish that resembled a dragon. It had a long silvery body with red-tipped dorsal fins. It was of course, an oarfish, a frequent subject of cryptozoology, but to this fisherman and the rest of the village, it was a dragon - a family member of the Chinese Sea Dragon King. Some local rich man also believed it to be a dragon and offered the fisherman RM50,000 (about USD 14,000) for the carcass of the oarfish. The fisherman though, threw the body back into the sea believing that “If you kidnap the (Sea Dragon King’s) son, you are looking for trouble”.
To me, this just doesn't make sense. It is a fish, not a dragon. How can it be dragon? Where are its feet? I thought Chinese dragons have clawed feet? Where's the crocodile-like jaws? Where's the fiery breath? If it were a dragon, wouldn't the fisherman have figured that he'd be world famous, for being the first guy to capture a mythical creature? He would have proven the unprovable - that dragons exist. The world media would've descended upon him. He'd make a fortune for his story, pictures, tv appearances. He wouldn't need to fish anymore. But here he was fearing for his life and foregoing a handsome reward for a rare catch.

I think, traditionally, fishermen are the most superstitious lot, because of the risks they face each time they go out to sea. The weather may be unpredicatable, their haul from the sea may not be abundant, pirates may attack them, their boats may sink and etc. So, traditionally, the fishermen would worship a deity for blessings and protection. But blind faith can often stop people from thinking rationally, such as the case here.

For most of us, brought up in the age of computers, television, Internet and the Discovery Channel, we are more open to the idea that the ocean is so vast and organisms are so diverse that there are possibly many creatures out there yet to be discovered. Charles Darwin himself collected many of the weirdest specimen ever encountered, some of which can be seen at the Darwin Center in London's Natural History Museum. And so, if we were ever fortunate enough to catch a weird-looking thing like an oarfish, the last thing to cross our minds would be that this is the son of the mythical Sea Dragon King. This is simply because we are atheists to dragons, pheonixes, unicorns, krakens, mermaids and griffins. Yet I cannot understand why people cannot see the similarities of believing in dragons and believing in an old man up in the sky. Sounds like pots and kettles to me.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

When I first picked up "The Undercover Economist" from the shelves of MPH, I was instantly reminded of another book which I had thoroughly enjoyed some time ago - "Freakonomics". It even says right there on the cover, Steven Levitt (the author of Freakonomics) saying that this book is "required reading".

Ok, so this book has got nothing to do with religion or atheism, but life isn't just about religion or atheism (at least, not mine anyway). What this book is about, though, is THINKING. Thinking like an economist, looking at problems, examining evidence and coming up with solutions to improve the quality of our lives. This is the opposite of faith, which we agree, is the process of non-thinking.

Without going into too much details, this book isn't all that similar to Freakonomics, in the sense that it covers broader topics such as globalization, trade barriers, auctions, market economy and environmental issues. Freakonomics, on the other hand zeroes in on a specific question.

After reading this book, I think the next time I visit my local supermarket, I'll try to be more observant and try to uncover all the little things the supermarket doesn't want me to know. I found this an enjoyable read and recommend it to everyone who's ever be curious about how the world works.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Methinks It Is Like A Weasel

In his book The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins gave a simple computer simulation to demonstrate evolution by natural selection. The book was written in 1986 (when computers arent' all that common) so I suppose the computer simulation was a big deal then. Richard chose the phrase 'Methinks it is like a weasel' from Shakespeare and showed that the cumulative power of mutation and natural selection could reproduce the phrase without an intelligent designer. I found a few articles attempting to refute this simulation here and here.

It didn't take me long to produce my own simulation (just for fun). I did mine on Matlab. I did it entirely on my own and so, some of the methods I used and the assumptions I made may differ from other similar simulations. I got the following results after almost 2000 iterations:
Gen. Output
Here's how I did mine. I started with a pair of randomly generated phrases. Each phrase is 28 characters long, each character representing a gene. I bred the pair and produced 10 offspring. The offsprings had an 85% chance of inheriting the gene from the fitter parent, 10% chance of inheriting from the less fit parent and 5% chance of the gene mutating. Then I sorted the offspring according to their fitness. Fitness here is defined as how closely they matched the target phrase. For each gene that matched, the offspring received 1 point and for those that did not match, a penalty of the percentage difference was incurred. I bred the two fittest offspring to produce another 10 offspring. This was repeated until the target was reached.

One of the articles said that the random generation 'is repeated for only the positions where a match did not occur', but the author is mistaken. I never specified in my code for the random generation to stop once the match occured for any one gene. I computed the overall fitness score and allowed each gene to change even if it has already matched the target gene.

I think the articles in 'Answers in Genesis' are both wrong to think that this simulation is meant to prove evolution. No, it doesn't prove evolution. Richard Dawkins never claimed to prove evolution using this simulation. All this exercise does is to show that using SIMPLE rules - using reproduction and random mutation, we are able to produce meaningful objects which at first seemed highly improbable. If I were the designer, I could, in this case, type in the meaningful phrase, but as this simulation demonstarted, even without a designer, the meaningful phrase could be produced. In nature though, there is no target phrase. Evolution is blind. Nature is much more complex in that the measure of fitness has to take into account many more factors which are ever-changing. Nonetheless, the principles are the same and that results in all the wonderful creatures and plants we see in nature.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Blasphemy Challenge

You can now get a free copy of "The God Who Wasn't There" by taking the Blasphemy Challenge.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Monster of the Milky Way

Our planet and solar system reside in a galaxy called the Milky Way. The Milky Way is 100,000 light years in diameter, and Earth is just a tiny dot in this astronomical maelstrom. Our galaxy, is just one of a billion galaxies in this universe and the galaxies are moving apart from one another because the universe is expanding.

In the documentary Monster of the Milky Way by PBS NOVA, scientists are postulating a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way. According to Albert Einstein, space-time is warped by massive objects and it was the curvature of space-time that led to the appearance of gravity. An object that is massive enough, could warp space-time so much that not even light could escape it's gravitational pull. That is what we call a black hole.

Black holes are of course invisible but scientists can see its effect on surrounding stars. That is exactly what they found when observing the orbit of stars circling a single, supermassive object (3 million times more massive than our sun) at the center of the Milky Way. A truly fascinating endeavour indeed!

Against such a backdrop, it is truly irrational to be postulating a God, especially a personal God like the one in the Bible. All the major religions of the world seem too provincial when we look at it from the galactic scale. A God whom we are created in the image of? In a universe that is impossibly massive, why should we be the only intelligent beings out there? Why should our Earth be the only planet that is capable of supporting life? Why would God bother to create so many billion galaxies and so many billion stars in each galaxy, just to place us humans (his ultimate creation) in one small, insignificant corner in the universe?

A God that wants us to believe in Him and abstain from sin? So much matter, so many particles, so many interactions, so many years to create this universe and for it to ultimately come down to a moral issue of sin? We humans really flatter ourselves to think that everything in the universe revolves around us. Indeed hundreds of years ago, we humans thought that Earth was the center of the universe. We thought the sun and all the stars orbitted our planet. With improved technology, scientists noticed that many massive planets have moons orbiting around them, meaning not every object in the cosmos necessarily revolve around our planet. Slowly we discover that it is our planet that is actually orbiting the sun, and our sun is just a star among billions of stars in a galaxy among billions of galaxies. So, the stories of all the world religions do not seem to be proportional to what's really out there.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Intelligent Design

In 2005, in the case Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, eleven parents in Pennsylvania challenged the school board over the teaching of intelligent design in the classroom. The Dover school board had previously voted to teach intelligent design as an alternative scientific theory to Darwin's theory of evolution.

Intelligent design (ID) is really just a repackaged form of creationism, except, they don't tell you who the creator is. ID purports to use the scientific method to arrive at an alternate explanation for the origins of life on Earth. But ID is NOT science. ID is pseudoscience because its proponents start off with the assumption that there is a divine creator. Real scientists start out assuming nothing is true and then build scientific knowledge as they go along.

One of the supporting arguments for ID is in biology. Biochemist Michael Behe coined the term irreducible complexity to describe the idea that parts observed in natural 'machines' are so inter-dependent that they could not have evolved. That meant that they had to be designed. Behe thought he found the perfect example to describe irreducible complexity in the bacteria flagellum. It seems more likely that Behe stopped digging deeper once he found what he thought supported his idea of a designer. In the trial, biology professor Kenneth Miller presented scientific evidence that challenged Behe's claim that the bacteria flagellum is irreducibly complex.

Another argument for ID comes from mathematics. William Dembski set out to calculate the probability of life on Earth evolving by chance. Dembski concluded that the order and complexity found in nature is beyond the limits of chance. Again, Kenneth Miller argued in the trial that the mathematics is flawed because the calculation is done backwards. Done that way, Dembski's calculations will show that any sequence of events occurring by chance is impossible.

The judge subsequently ruled that teaching intelligent design in public schools is unconstitutional. One thing that impressed me about this case is that parents are so involved in their children's education. It's different in this part of the world. In Malaysia when I was in highschool, the science curriculum avoided the topic of the origin of species altogether. I believe it is still the same today. The disadvantage of this is that children get their information from a plethora of sources such as Sunday school, comic books, cartoons and the Discovery Channel. There is no way for the children to differentiate which view is science and which is pseudoscience. This will just confuse the poor children. I still remember a classmate of mine said, back in highschool, that half of us humans had descended from Adam and Eve, while the other half had evolved from monkeys. I wondered, which half did he imagine he came from?

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Angels in the Alley

This story was told in the documentary The God Who Wasn't There:
Late one night, a young woman was walking home on her own. In order to get home, she had to walk past a dark alley. As she was entering the alley, she saw a suspicious-looking man lurking about. Fearing for her safety, she prayed to Jesus for protection and she walked through the alley unharmed. The next day, she found out that a woman had been raped in the same alley the night before, probably just after she had walked through it. She went with the police and helped identify the man lurking in the alley in the line-up. The man confessed and was arrested for raping another woman. Stricken with guilt, the woman asked the man why he did not harm her as she was walking past him last night? The man replied, "How could I, with those two big men walking beside you?" God had heard her prayer and sent angels to protect her!
This is one of those inspirational stories shared by Christians with the message that God hears our prayers. In times of danger, God sends His angels to help us. A truly heart-warming message indeed... at first glance. That's because there is a darker message to this story. After all, a different woman got raped. Was is because she did not pray to God? Did she pray but God chose not to hear her prayers? Did God "allow" her to be raped because it's for her good? Was she not good enough for God's protection? Are all rape victims undeserving of God's love and protection?

I was immediately reminded of something a Christian friend said to me about two years ago. The tsunami had just struck, and the city of Aceh in Indonesia was badly hit. Over a hundred thousand people were killed in Indonesia alone. My friend said that Aceh is a predominantly Muslim province and last time, they used to persecute Christian missionaires there. God is now punishing them for persecuting His children. Naturally, I was quite upset to hear that. Schadenfreude is not an admirable quality. Surely you'll agree with me that, that isn't a very helpful way of seeing things. Do bad things only happen to bad people? Are believers always spared from misfortune? It is most naive to think that way, for, if you are willing to believe in a personal and caring God, then you must also believe in a God that is vengeful, unjust and cruel.

"Is God willing to prevent evil, but is not able?
Then He is not omnipotent.
Is He able, but not willing?
Then He is malevolent.
Is He both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
If He is neither able nor willing?
Then why call Him God?"
- Epicurus

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

The God Who Wasn't There

The God Who Wasn't There is an interesting and entertaining documentary by filmmaker and former fundamentalist Christian, Brian Flemming. The film attempts to trace the origins of Jesus Christ and Christianity, and also examines the beliefs of modern-day fundamental Christians.

I found the first part on the historical Jesus more interesting, and that is what I'm going to write about here. What most Christians today know about the life of Jesus comes exclusively from the Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Most historians agree that these Gospels where written 50 years or more after Jesus reportedly died and rose to heaven. That's like writing about a person or event that took place in the 1950s. I can't imagine it because I wasn't even around in the 50s. How is it possible that the Gospels contain so much details from the words spoken by Jesus, to the number of disciples who followed him around, to the number of silver pieces paid to Judas to betray Jesus?

It is more likely that these stories were inspired by word-of-mouth tales, greatly distorted and exaggerated. Brian Flemming likens it to urban legends or glurge stories, stories that have started out as fiction but over time, with the addition of details, became told as true stories. Historians also suspect that the Gospels were allegorical in nature since it was consistent with the form of literature at the time. There are also apocryphal texts which were excluded from the Bible (depending on which denomination of Christianity) for various reasons. With all these problems, it seems most unlikely that the Bible is the Word of God that Christians today believe it to be.

There is also the fact that the story of Jesus as a Saviour has many parallels with other heroic characters that were worshipped long before Jesus lived. We have Dionysus, Osiris, Zoroaster, Krishna and many more. Elements such as the virgin birth, miracles, healing of sicknesses, violent death and resurrection have been used before to tell the stories of these now-mythical characters. Oddly, the Christian response to this is that Satan had created these 'imitations', thousands of years before Jesus appeared (Satan had great foresight), in order to confuse everyone. How convenient.

As a whole, I think this documentary is rather informative and creative in its attempt to mythify the story of Jesus as told by the Gospels. I think Brian Flemming has done a great job of dealing with a serious topic in a non-serious way.

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Friday, December 01, 2006

Backman bites back (education in Malaysia)

Michael Backman is back, with a follow-up to his first article on government wastage in Malaysia. This second article though, in my opinion isn't as good as the first one. In it, he touched briefly on Rafidah Aziz' (the Minister of International Trade and Industry) callous reply, which myself and many other Malaysians have ridiculed. Michael Backman also wrote in this article that the money would be better spent improving the standard of education in Malaysia.

I fully agree with him, that education in Malaysia is in an awful state, and needs to be addressed seriously. But I doubt throwing money at the problem will make any difference at all. Sure, you could always spend money to improve school buildings and learning facilities especially in rural areas, but the main problem I think is the system itself. To get a better picture of this, do read Richard Feynman's experience with education in Brazil, in the book "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" Education in Malaysia is not very different from how Richard Feynman described Brazilian education: Rote learning, spoon-feeding, memorizing, exams and regurgitation. That is already bad enough, but over here, there's more. Cheating, plagiarism, copying, leaked exams, it's a wonder anyone can learn anything here at all!

As a result of this, for the past few decades, we have seen the gradual decline in the quality of Malaysian universities in global university rankings. Every year, Malaysian universities are churning out tens of thousands of academic zombies, many of whom are totally unhirable. Many of them can't speak proper English, can't write a grammatically correct English sentence and worst of all, do not know how to think critically and independently.

I worry about the future of this country. How will Malaysia compete globally if its workforce is of such poor quality? For me, this must surely be the most important problem to tackle, instead of squabbling over racial and religious rights.

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