Friday, December 16, 2011


Christoper Hitchens has passed away. I’ve never seen anyone who is so well read and can quote and reference what they read with the ease of reciting the alphabet.

He has died, but his free flowing words will continue to take up residence in the brains of millions, so will his stinging debates.

He will be remembered for a long, long time.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Giving Up Ridicule

One of the things I care about a lot is to see a naturalistic worldview gain more ground over religious worldviews. For a long time, I’ve been having doubts on whether ridicule is effective in that endeavor. The first time I had doubts was when I started reading the website. I quite easily accepted that we are fully caused beings and are a product of our genetic makeup and the environment we grew up in. But I found it hard to accept the conclusions that follow from the premises:

The New Atheism has been roundly criticized by some supernaturalists and naturalists for its contempt of faith-based religion, see here for a recent example. Whether or not these charges have merit, it’s worth mentioning that naturalism, at least as advanced by the Center for Naturalism, tends to militate against such attitudes. Although we make a strong, unapologetic and rational case for sticking with science as the basis for belief, by our lights contempt for those who don’t is fundamentally unwarranted. Anti-naturalists and naturalists, equally, end up with their worldviews as a function of the vagaries of genetics and life experience. Some individuals are more inclined than others to want certainty, others are more open to new experience, and we are all heavily influenced by the beliefs and mores of our culture and peers. Understanding the contingency of our worldview – that we could have grown up to be the theist, not the naturalist – makes it more difficult to feel contempt for our ideological adversaries.

So I pushed it to the back of my mind. Ridicule was way too much fun to give up.

The doubts came back with full force when I started reading up on the elevator-gate incident. I was surprised at the amount of nastiness it generated. How can people who live by science, reason, and logic fail so badly in understanding a contrary viewpoint and as a result talk past, and ridicule each other? In retrospect it shouldn’t have been that surprising.

Ridicule works very well within the in-group, with people who already share some of beliefs. But it doesn’t work so well when you want to get others to see your point of view. It puts them on the defensive, and may even drive them to hold onto to the contrary view even more strongly. The aggressive tone of some of the discussions in elevator-gate is no different than what I use on this blog and elsewhere.

I still tried to convince myself that ridicule does work, citing the influence of the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens. It is undeniable that their approach worked. Atheism has gained a lot of visibility because of that. But the question is does ridicule cause someone to abandon their beliefs? I feel the answer is no most of the time. People like Dawkins and Hitchens tapped into an audience who were already skeptical of religious worldviews. So their approach worked in that respect. But I don't think it will work when you want to make religious people understand why their beliefs are wrong.

Apart from tapping into the anger at religious worldviews, there is another way by which ridicule works. It can create an environment where people don't feel comfortable in professing to some beliefs. When applied to religion, that seems like a good goal to achieve. But changed beliefs are better than suppressed beliefs, which have a tendency to prop up when the conditions are more favorable to them. So using that as a reason to stick to ridicule is also ruled out.

In conclusion, I’ve decided to give up ridicule. This doesn’t mean I will give up on criticizing religion, superstition and pseudoscience because it will be offensive to someone. No matter how delicately I put something, there will always be people who will find it offensive and feel that I am ridiculing them. But what I am giving up is the criticism that has a deliberate intent to ridicule beliefs and the vindictive arguments that are meant to get even. I don’t know how successful I will be in giving up those things. I’m hoping that this post will serve as a shaming device when I do resort to ridicule, no matter how repulsive a belief I come across and have to criticize it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sanatana Dogma

A Sanatana Dogmatist is someone who holds any of the following beliefs:

1. Belief that their belief is not based on faith, but based on the Ultimate Truth.

Sanatana Dogmatists are quick to laugh at Christianity or Islam because those are faith based. But the dogmatists are oblivious to the irony of having a belief that the Vedas have been revealed to humans and hence are perfect and infallible. They just know that it is true. In short it is a faith based belief.

2. Belief that atheism too is accepted in their Sanatana Dogma.

The dogmatists are ignorant of naturalism (both methodological and metaphysical) which underlies today’s atheism. Naturalism doesn’t invoke the supernatural to explain things. Sanatana Dogma does. But the dogmatists in their fervor of supremacy have to make everything inclusive in their dogma. Even if it results in contradictions.

3. Belief that morality has an objective existence and that it is eternal.

Morality depends on the existence of human minds. The Universe by itself doesn’t care about morality. For example, you can’t impose any morality on the Sun. It just can’t give a damn.

But these dogmatists not only claim that morality exists independently of humans, but also that it has been existing eternally. They also perform the intellectually dishonest feat of conflating properties of the Universe like gravity and electromagnetism with their dogma. When you press them for details as to where in their dogmatic revelations will one find these properties of the Universe, they either peddle pseudoscience or weasel their way by saying only enlightened people can know it. And who is considered as enlightened? Somebody who gives up reason and give themselves into dogma. It’s a circle jerk of circular reasoning.

4. Belief that the Varna system is good.

This belief entails high grade weaseling. Apparently human capabilities and behavior can be neatly pigeon holed into four types. And even more apparently such pigeon holing isn’t determined by birth but by how one behaves. So what are the rules of behavior? That which are set in their dogmatic revelations. For example, a Brahmin plying a rickshaw is a bad thing, as the dogmatic revelations are ignorant of the concept of dignity of labor.

The dogma is also ignorant of technological revolution which makes many of the requisite behaviors irrelevant in today’s world. An example is the rote memorization of dogmatic revelations by the those of the purest varna. When the eternal dogma was “revealed”, the people of that time did not have a cheap and reliable means of storing and transmitting information. So they resorted to rote memorization aided by some neat techniques. But such memorization is not needed today. Hence we also do not need a varna to keep doing such pointless tasks. But dogma by definition involves beliefs that are unrealistic and unreasonable. So a Sanatana Dogmatist will insist that such a varna is needed.

But what about the dogmatist’s sacred chant “Oh, Varna is based on quality, not by birth”? What qualities a person has depends to a great extent on their surroundings. So someone born to parents of low varna, will likely remain there unless they are exposed to a different surrounding. The dogmatists bemoan that anyone can acquire qualities to acquire high varna status, but they provide no means for people to acquire those qualities. To use some present day societies as an example, all the children there get the same education regardless of their social standing. Did the dogmatists do something like that in the past? No. Technology too levels the playing field. One can acquire a good range of skills via the Internet without going through a formal education system.

5. Belief in Karma.

The dogmatists believe that what you are today is determined by your past deeds. So if you born into a lofty varna, pat yourself for the good deeds you did in your previous life. If you born into a lowly varna, it is because you did bad deeds in your previous life. Righteously suffer for it and your karma score will go up. Likewise natural disasters happen when there is too much bad karma around. These dogmatists are so arrogant and dripping in vanity that they think their actions have any effect on things like earthquakes. Also, karma is another faith based belief that dogmatists have despite the proclamations that their dogma is not based on cheap faith that Christianity and Islam rely on.

6. Belief in a decaying world.

Dogmatists think that we are living in the age of bad karma. The age where for the first time people dared to proclaim something like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, gender equality and respect for a person’s private life. They think that the world is being attacked by corrupting ideas.

So what is the nature of those corrupting ideas? As we saw in point 4, ideas like dignity of labor are corrupting. How dare someone suggest that performing lowly physical work has dignity? And how dare they suggest that one do their own work - clean their houses, toilets, surroundings by themselves. The eternal dogma dictates that people with neatly demarcated pigeon holed capacities exist. So it is the duty of the people belong to the lowest varna to do tasks like physical labor and cleaning dirt. The highest varna's duty is to not do such tasks.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Primitive Science Of The Vedas - Garbha Upanishad

The source that I use for this article is this translation by Subhash Kak. Kak is well respected in the Hindu apologist circles, so I think I’m using the “right interpretation” of the original text. The Garbha Upanishad has some valid observations about the human body. I’m not contesting that. What I’m interested in is the things it gets wrong. To see why, read the introduction for the primitive science series.

The source doesn’t have verse numbers for me to refer to, but the text is small in size and it is easy to see which part I’m referring to. I’ll put the what the text says in italics followed by my comments on it in normal typeface.

Matter is made up of five elements. I don’t think I need to explain how primitive this is. A glance at the periodic table should suffice.

Heart is the source of fire, which can be interpreted as to mean that the heart generates body heat. The people who wrote the text must have known that the heart pumps blood and hence may have concluded that heat is generated in the heart and carried to other parts of the body by blood. Today we know that heat is also generated in other organs of the body like in the brain, liver and in the muscles. Our skin also plays an important role in maintaining body heat. For example, when the outside temperature is hot, the skin sweats the evaporation of which cools the body. More on body heat here.

Males are born if father's seed is strong. Females are born if mother's seed is strong. If strengths are equal, intersexuals are born. Thanks to science, today we know the actual processes involved in sex determination. It is the male who primarily decides the sex of the offspring. Females have XX chromosome pair and males have XY chromosome pair. If the male contributes X chromosome to the embryo, the baby will be a female. And if the male contributes Y chromosome, the baby will be male.

If [at the time of impregnation] the parents are agitated, the child will be blind, crippled, hunch-backed or stunted. Such things are congenital disorders which occur due to a number of reasons. They have little to do with the how agitated the parents are at the time of sex.

If the vital air moves around, the seed enters in two parts, resulting in twins. Again through science we know that there are two cases for twins - fraternal twins are born when two eggs are fertilized by two different sperm cells and identical twins are born when a fertilized embryo splits into two. There is no “vital air” which splits the seed.

In the ninth month, the baby is reminded of previous birth. Also the baby is born into grief. It has to accept the path of Samkya Yoga to achieve liberation. This is mere speculation. There is zero evidence for past births.

Inside the womb, the baby knows about previous births. Once the baby comes out, maya engulfs the baby. The text views the baby coming out of the vagina as breaking of some sort of a barrier. From the time of fertilization, the baby is always tied to the natural world that Vedic followers love to deride as being merely material. The barrier of maya is imaginary. An interesting thing to note is the barrier exists in a different sense. It is where the baby acquires its bacterial microbiome which will play a vital role throughout the baby’s life.

If you read through the whole text, you will see that the Vedic seers haven't even expressed the possibility that what they say can be wrong. Since they are "enlightened souls", whatever they say has to be true. Such arrogance is truly the domain of religion. Contrast this with science, which doesn't make such absolutist statements. When something is true according to science, the implicit assumption is that it remains true only as long as evidence supports it. Should new evidence which contradicts it turn up, science humbly accepts that it was wrong and updates its knowledge. So much for the "scientific nature" of the Vedas.

The Primitive Science of The Vedas - Introduction

Ask the average Hindu about why they think the Vedic scriptures need to revered and they will tell you that the scriptures are scientific and have all the knowledge that there ever is. But ask them specific questions on science - like why is the human genome littered with viral DNA or even a simple question like why is the Sun hot and where in the Vedic scriptures does one find answers for these, they will tell you that the answers are there, but one just needs to be "enlightened" to know them.

But what these people don’t realize is that they are deeply immersed in the maya of slavish adherence to authority and hence can’t know the real truth - that the Vedic literature contains primitive science. Sure, they were scientific at the time of their writing. But unlike Sanatana Dharma, science makes no arrogant claims that it is eternal or infallible. It constantly updates itself in light of new evidence and leads us to a more accurate picture of the Universe. So Vedic knowledge, stuck in a black hole of reification and reverence, is horribly out dated.

And yet Vedic apologists perform such feats of intellectual masturbation to paint scientific legitimacy on Vedic scriptures, that it would be hard not to laugh at if it were not for the sad fact that many people actually believe such nonsense. The main reason for such gullibility is ignorance about science. These people have no qualms in beatifically pontificating about how the true goal in life is the attaining of knowledge while at the same time willfully choosing not to make any effort to learn about science which is the best tool we have to know about the Universe.

For example, they point to some verse which says that the Earth attracts bodies to itself and jump up in joy proclaiming that the Vedas knew about gravity. But the Vedas before which they prostate themselves cannot tell anything beyond the observation that something attracts bodies to Earth. They can’t tell how strength of the force varies based on mass of the bodies and distance between them, and how the force causes the planets to go around the Sun and how gravity is just a manifestation of the warping of space-time by mass. And yet such primitive sources of knowledge are deemed “eternal”.

The blame doesn’t entirely lie with the Vedic apologists. Science as it is taught today does very little to endear itself to its learners. And the science presented by mainstream media isn’t any better. For example, to the average person the word evolution conjures up the image of man coming from monkeys, but not the beautiful dance of nature that transformed a replicator molecule to the wide variety of life we see today.

And hence this series, where I will show how primitive the science of Vedas is while at the same time presenting the current state of the art in that field of science. I will also show that even the metaphysics of the Vedic scriptures is primitive as it is ignorant of the latest developments in science.

It is not my intention to belittle the achievements of ancient Indians. They did some really great stuff. But my intent is to show how stupid it is to show some outdated science in ancient texts and use it to make broad sweeping claims like Vedic scriptures knew everything about everything or about how scientific they are.

Debunking of this sort is important because over the past few decades, Hindu apologists have succeeded in their propaganda of Vedic authority by muddling modern day science with the Vedas. This has led to India remaining the land of superstitions, where in the year 2011, the Chief Minister of one state thinks black magic will kill him. Any criticism of Hinduism is countered with “our scriptures are scientific and hence are perfect. Which also means Hinduism is the perfect way of life”.

Finally, I have to thank the various Hindu apologists for translating ancient texts to English so that they are accessible to more people. Though their intention was to show the beauty of the scriptures, it also serves the opposite purpose - to show how primitive the knowledge in them is. Somebody once said of the Bible that a person who has read it completely cannot help but be repulsed by it. Religious texts when fully understood by a person who hasn’t been brainwashed into being servile to authority figures, makes it easy for them to see religions for what they really are - ignorance masquerading as knowledge.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Realize Bacteria, Not Brahman

Brahman is an abstract entity that is supposed to be the ultimate reality whereas the world that we see is just an illusion, maya. Of course today we know enough about the brain to explain the states of brain which result in dissolution of the self and those states were interpreted to mean Brahman. Just like a junkie would rave on about his high, the people who experience the oneness also rave on about it. But the sad difference is that whereas the junkie realizes that his high is brought on by consuming certain classes of chemical compounds, the Vedic person is ignorant of neuroscience and blindly insists that realizing Brahman should be the goal of life for everyone.

The human brain has a great capacity to feel awe and wonder. There are many ways to tap into that capacity. The Vedas are one crude way of doing it as they only go after a small subset of experiences based on the primitive understanding of nature of that time. Limiting oneself to the knowledge of the Vedas is being like the proverbial frog in the well. Science has taught us so much about nature that one can pick any branch of science and find immense beauty in it.

One such source of beauty are bacteria, the closest a living thing can get to being called as omnipresent. Instead of wasting time on trying to realize a fictional entity, it is far better to realize bacteria which profoundly impact human life in ways that the people who concocted Brahman could never even have imagined. I can’t do complete justice in showing how awe inducing bacteria are. So I’m going to link to a few articles which do just that: