Archive for the ‘Life Quotes’ Category

Questionable church signs #2

May 11, 2017

Another church sign, same non-fundamentalist denomination, one month later:

So, there exists at least one Christian not opposed to marriage equality.


Fairly uncontroversial given the likely diversity of theological views in such a congregation.

I appreciate that this is an attempt to counter the opinions of those of a more conservative persuasion, but it’s not a terribly strong message.

The essential problem is that it suggests a house divided and says little about what Christianity has to offer to the problem.

How can inter-faith dialogue even at the highest level recognise world views that are fundamentally incompatible and in principle, immune to revision? The truth is it really matters what billions of human beings believe and why they believe it.
(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)


Questionable church signs #1

May 9, 2017

An Adelaide church sign recently caught my attention:

I’ve omitted the border because I’m not interested in pointing to a particular congregation.

While cute, what struck me about the words is that it illustrates how we are able to create gods in our own image.

Is it really such a leap to go from this to considering the Ten Commandments or the golden rule as the possible product of a human community rather than divine inspiration?

Wouldn’t it be more effective just to point people to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot on YouTube?

It’s Darwin Day (actually)

February 11, 2016

Happy Darwin Day 2016!


Freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follows from the advance of science. (Charles Darwin)

The website has lots of resources about the life and work of Charles Darwin (1809 to 1882) and the Richard Dawkins Foundation has recently added teacher materials.

From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (Charles Darwin, Origin of Species)

Meanwhile, let creationism talk itself into oblivion.

It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known; but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge; it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science. (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)


Critique of a Christian pamphlet

December 14, 2015

Most Friday nights, Christian street preachers and pamphleteers inhabit Adelaide’s Rundle Mall. One pamphlet offered to me recently had the title The Final Flicker.


In summary, the pamphlet makes the following assertions:

  1. Everyone will die.
  2. The time of our death is unknown.
  3. The sudden death of a loved one shocks and distresses.
  4. The Bible can provide answers to the questions about life, but Science cannot. Neither can friends or doctors.
  5. Our time here and now is only a space in which to prepare for after death, according to the Bible.
  6. The Bible is clear that after death we go to one of two places, Heaven or Hell, and it’s your choice.
  7. God never created man for Hell, but…
  8. God is holy and just and cannot live in the presence of sin, so…
  9. Heaven is only for those who have had their sins forgiven, those who have been made righteous.
  10. Hell is the sad and necessary place of those who refuse God’s mercy.
  11. The Bible says that whoever believes in God’s son will not perish but have everlasting life.
  12. God is just, so must punish sins.
  13. God loves each of us, despite of our sin.
  14. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.
  15. Jesus was the son of God, holy, pure, and sinless.
  16. The sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross took away our sins.
  17. He was the only one who was able to do this.
  18. Death could not hold him. On the third day he rose.
  19. He now sits at the right hand of God.
  20. All you have to do is repent, turn from your sin, trust Him as your Saviour and you will be saved.

The first two are self-evident: we’re going to die but we don’t know when. For anyone who has lost someone close, the third is not hard to fathom either. Actually, it’s patronising and pedantic. Everyone dies. Welcome to Life.

Point 4 says that the Bible has all the answers about life and that friends and scientists don’t. This is a bold claim indeed and needs to be justified.

That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. (Christopher Hitchens)

The fifth point declares that the purpose of life is only to prepare for death. Really? How depressing. Another unjustified claim unworthy of further attention. Nothing to see here. Move along…

Hmm. Wait. If these people really believed what they said, namely that the purpose of life is only to prepare for death, then why wait? Why not just end their lives now? I suppose the counter claim will be that suicide is a sin. Phew!

EDIT: After reading this post, a friend pointed out that since all sins should be forgiven, even this is not really an objection.

Another objection a Christian apologist may raise is: time is needed for such preparation. But how much preparation and of what kind? If it’s just a matter of believing something, well, anyone can do that, at anytime. If life is a moral training ground, and salvation comes from good works, then sure, that would take time. But, skipping to the end, point 20 says:

All you have to do is repent, turn from your sin, trust Him as your Saviour and you will be saved.

So no good works are required, just turning away from sin and having faith.

Higher up the list again: point 6 says that the Bible is clear that after death we go to Heaven or Hell.

Crystal clear?

What biblical verse declares this so unambiguously? The pamphlet is keen to point to specific verses to “back up” other points. Why not this one, given its obvious importance?

Perhaps it should quote Matthew 25:41. Want to see what that would mean in practice? Read points 7 to 10 again, view as much of  the The Thinking Atheist’s video Burn Victims as you can and then ask yourself whether any aspect of a god who would send one of its own creatures to such an unimaginably hideous place could ever be considered good, just or righteous in any meaningful sense.

Point 11 brings us to John 3:16, the idea that if we just believe in God, we won’t be punished for our sins eternally but will have, a better, eternal life. That brings us back to the question I raised above: how much preparation is necessary and of what kind? Well, if we just have to believe, then we can end it all at any time! Right?

Surely this is all just too much like a game…

God could simply declare that everyone can come to the eternal party. Apparently this god requires the attention and adoration of its creatures. But an all powerful god should want for nothing. Right?

Point 12 declares that “God is just, so must punish sins”. That’s like me saying that I have a strong sense of morality, so I should punish those who don’t, or at least those who do “wrong”. Oh, I forgot. I’m not a god… Apparently, you need to have created a universe to be able to call yourself “just”.

All other points (12 to 17) are in need of evidence, not the least of which:

  • that Jesus was the only one who could atone for our sins;
    • including weak “supporting” Old Testament prophecy fulfilment claims such as referred to in the pamphlet: Isaiah 53:5;
    • that there were any sins in need of atonement in the first place;
  • that Jesus rose from the dead and…
  • now lives with God;
  • that salvation (if necessary at all), is attained by faith alone and not by works;
    • i.e. that in order to be saved, you don’t have to be good, just gullible.
The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.
(Christopher Hitchens)

In the end, the essence of the pamphlet is this:

  • We will all die.
  • All of us have sinned and fallen short of God (Romans 3:23).
  • Jesus sacrificed himself for our sins.
  • Belief in Jesus leads to eternal life rather than eternal punishment.

The only positive thing I can say about any of this is that at least the pamphleteers are being consistent regarding core Christian claims, rather than adhering to some watered down theology consisting of only a vague notion of god, like many liberal denominations. That’s not to say anything about the veracity of the fundamentalist’s claims of course.

One particularly obnoxious idea that emerged in antiquity is Pascal’s wager, the “argument” that it is in our best interest to assume that God (but which?; there are so many to choose from) exists, to avoid the possibility of eternal punishment.

If God does not exist, the thinking goes, nothing has been lost, right?

Wrong! A life of pointless servitude can been avoided if a person recognises the distinct possibility that monotheism is an off-by-one error, i.e. that there is no evidence that any god exists, some version of the Judaeo-Christian god or any other, so that the correct number of gods is not one but zero.

Based upon the available evidence, this is all an atheist claims. My son noted this short animation recently, which makes a pretty compelling case for the off-by-one error.

In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.”… Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.
(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

The Universe revealed by Science is rich enough. We don’t need to add our own unfounded complexity. Science and engineering have created the modern world that so many of us are fortunate to live in and is, along with critical thinking more generally, the only hope for solving our biggest problems.

If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.
(Christopher Hitchens)

I get that people are afraid to die and find the idea of losing those they care about difficult to bear. The deep-felt desire for an afterlife is, I think, at the heart of most religions, whether openly acknowledged or not.

However, given the challenges to our way of life from climate change and dogmatic thinking, it’s not okay to retreat into The Dark like frightened children.

Come on people, grow up! We are not at the centre of things.

I’ll end with another quote from Hitchens, who has said it all better than I ever could:

The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.



Lisp’s 50th birthday

October 29, 2008

John McCarthy‘s Lisp programming language —is 50 years old (October 2008). Lisp is the second oldest programming language still in use today, next to Fortran.

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

Lisp50 at OOPSLA 2008 celebrated Lisp’s contributions.

I celebrated by giving a talk to the Australian Java User Group in Adelaide about Clojure, a new dialect of Lisp for the JVM.

There’s a lot of interesting material to be found by Googling, but here are a few relevant links:

A decade ago I developed LittleLisp for the ill-fated Newton PDA.

There’s a nice parody song called The Eternal Flame which is all about Lisp, and here’s some amusing xkcd Lisp cartoons:
Lisp still looms large:
  • in Emacs as e-lisp;
  • it has mature free implementations (e.g. take a look at PLT Scheme);
  • and active commercial implementations (e.g. the LispWorks mailing list is very active).
Lisp refuses to lay down and die. In his 1979 History of Lisp paper John McCarthy said:

One can even conjecture that LISP owes its survival specifically to the fact that its programs are lists, which everyone, including me, has regarded as a disadvantage. 

In ANSI Common Lisp, Paul Graham points out that Lisp has always put its evolution into the hands of its programmers, and that this is why it survives, especially via the macro systems as found in some dialects (e.g. Common Lisp, Clojure), which make the full power of the language available to generate Lisp code at compile time.

Irrespective of how widely used Lisp dialects are today, we should continue to remember its contributions to programming: code as data, higher order functions, application of functions to the elements of a list, an emphasis upon recursive solutions to problems, erasure of abandoned data (garbage collection), the Read-Eval-Print Loop (REPL), to name a few.

As for the future, it’s always uncertain. Here are some notes about the future of Lisp from the OOPSLA Lisp50 session, which suggests that Clojure may be a big part of that. Next year’s International Lisp Conference has the working title “Lisp: The Next 50 Years”. 
I’ll end with a quote from Edsger Dijkstra:

—Lisp has jokingly been called “the most intelligent way to misuse a computer”. I think that description is a great compliment because it transmits the full flavor of liberation: it has assisted a number of our most gifted fellow humans in thinking previously impossible thoughts.

Abandoning Infantile Beliefs

September 18, 2008

Paul Davies made this comment during a radio interview, with which I wholeheartedly agree:

…one should abandon infantile beliefs based on Sunday school stories and embrace the scientific path which reveals a universe which is even more wonderful than you can imagine and a source of inspiration.

If the bible is literally true then π is 3 and my odometer is wrong

March 29, 2008

“What is not possible is not to choose.” (Jean-Paul Sartre)

Consider the following:

  • “He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it.” (1 Kings 7:23). See also 2 Chronicles 4:2.
  • π is the ratio of the circumference (30 cubits) of a circle and its diameter (10 cubits).
  • ∴ π is 3.

Either the bible is literally true, and π is represented as the ratio of the two integers 30 and 10, or π is irrational with a value of around 3.1415926. We recently set up new odometers on our bikes. The manual for the device instructs the user to multiply the diameter of the bike’s wheel by 3.14, yielding the wheel’s circumference. So, for a 700 mm wheel, that’s about 2198 mm for a π of 3.14 and 2199 mm for a π of 3.1415926. But what if π is 3? That circumference becomes 2100 mm.

Now, for say 50 revolutions of the wheel:

  • for a circumference of 2.199 meters we have 109.95 meters (if π is 3.1415926);
  • for a circumference of 2.198 we have a 109.9 meters (if π is 3.14);
  • for a circumference of 2.1, we have 105 meters (if π is 3).

If π is 3, the wheel traverses almost 5 meters less. So is π 3?


Read more about the π saga than you probably want to in this Gospel of Reason blog entry and follow-up comments.

“It makes sense to revere the sun and stars, for we are their children.” (Carl Sagan)

Consider the following:

  • The world was made by God in 6 days (see Genesis), including all living things.
  • Massive stars exist for millions of years before exploding as supernovae, the only known means by which elements heavier than iron are created.
  • Our bodies contain elements heavier than iron, e.g. iodine.

Either the bible is literally true and the world and us (including heavier-than-iron elements) were really created in 6 days, or the universe really is old.


“What is not possible is not to choose.” (Jean-Paul Sartre)

The simple joy of a healthy child

August 6, 2007

Last week my little girl (Heather, who is 3 years old) was in hospital for 3 days on intravenous antibiotics and oxygen. My wife (Karen) is a nurse, as I used to be before a career change to software development, and I can tell you that we were both very worried about her. It was Influenza A and a secondary bacterial infection. We have it in our heads in this age of vaccination and antibiotics that people don’t easily die of simple illness. But the young and the old, far too often, still do.

Karen stayed with her throughout the ordeal, while I spent most of that time looking after our son (Nicholas) who had a milder dose of the flu, as did we all. I found leaving them at the hospital to be almost unbearable, perhaps because another goodbye in a hospital, almost 5 years ago, was final: my Mother, who died after failed heart surgery. Two completely different circumstances, but no-one ever said people were logical, not even most of the time, or as Oliver Goldsmith so nicely put it:

Logicians have but ill-defined
As rational the human kind.
Logic they say, belongs to Man,
But let them prove it if they can.

Heather is home with us again, still recovering, but pretty much back to her old self. To have Heather with us again, albeit a little cranky to start with, was a joy that I just cannot describe to you. It was almost as good as having her home for the first time from hospital after her birth, but this time tinged with the sadness and fear of what could-so-easily-have-been.

As if Heather’s ordeal was not enough, she had a visit to the dentist today after Karen noticed some tooth decay; a good thing she noticed this early too! Apparently Heather displayed stoicism beyond her years throughout two fillings, the poor little thing. This despite our (Karen’s mostly) best efforts to give our kids the best chance at dental health.

On the importance of pure research

January 14, 2007

I recently finished reading the book Engines of Logic (2000) by Martin Davis (apparently published as The Universal Computer in some countries) of Davis-Putnam SAT-solver algorithm fame, a book about the origins of computer science from the viewpoint of the mathematicians who founded it, in particular: Leibniz, Boole, Frege, Cantor, Hilbert, Godel and Turing.

Leibniz had the notion that it ought to be possible to be able to write down ideas in a language (he called this a universal characteristic) such that “serious men of good will” could sit together to solve some problem by calculation using an algebra of logic he referred to as the calculus ratiocinator.

Despite attempts at such a language and algebra of logic by Leibniz, it was ultimately the work of his successors that gave rise to the logic that made automated computation possible.

Of Leibniz’s work Davis said that “What Leibniz has left us is his dream, but even this dream can fill us with admiration for the power of human speculative thought and serve as a yardstick for judging later developments.” 

In the epilogue, Davis had this to say:

The Dukes of Hanover thought they knew what Leibniz should be doing with his time: working on their family history. Too often today, those who provide scientists with the resources necessary for their lives and work try to steer them in directions deemed most likely to provide quick results. This is not only likely to be futile in the short run, but more importantly, by discouraging investigations with no obvious immediate payoff, it shortchanges the future. 

These days, universities and it seems, too many aspects of society are becoming shackled to the oft-times short sighted and petty expectations of business, as if it mattered as an end in itself. We would do well to pay attention to history.

On the subject of history, it occurs to me increasingly that most of what we study is in fact historical in nature. Incremental advances in computer science, software engineering,  astronomy, and Science in general are mere blips on the vast landscape of accumulated knowledge. When I read books such as Engines of Logic and The Art of Electronics, I am overwhelmed by the contributions of countless scientists and engineers over decades, to say nothing of the work of the founders of Science such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Einstein.

Kierkegaard and Stroustrup

December 15, 2006

This Lambda the Ultimate post pointed to an interview with the creator of the C++ programming language Bjarne Stroustrup in which he says he was influenced by the 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. It immediately reminded me of a Kierkegaard quote to which I find myself drawn over and over:

What I need to make up my mind about is what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every action…The vital thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. Of what use would it be for me to discover a so-called objective truth…if it had no deeper significance for me and my life? (Soren Kierekgaard)

I am still very much in search of this “idea”. I first saw this quote on Julia Watkin’s University of Tasmania website. During the brief time that I knew her, I enjoyed talking with Julia about philosophy and other subjects. Sadly, Julia is no longer with us. I wonder what she would have had to say about Stroustrup’s interview comments re: Kierkegaard?

I went back to Stroustrup’s book, The Design and Evolution of C++ (Addison-Wesley, 1994) to see what he had originally said about Kierkegaard. Here are the relevant excerpts (page 23):

I have a lot of sympathy for the student Euclid reputedly had evicted for asking, “But what is mathematics for?” Similarly, my interest in computers and programming languages is fundamentally pragmatic.

I feel most at home with the empiricists rather than with the idealists…That is, I tend to prefer Aristotle to Plato, Hume to Descartes, and shake my head sadly over Pascal. I find comprehensive “systems” like those of Plato and Kant fascinating, yet fundamentally unsatisfying in that they appear to me dangerously remote from everyday experiences and the essential peculiarities of individuals.

I find Kierkegaard’s almost fanatical concern for the individual and keen psychological insights much more appealing than the grandiose schemes and concern for humanity in the abstract of Hegel or Marx. Respect for groups that doesn’t include respect for individuals of those groups isn’t respect at all. Many C++ design decisions have their roots in my dislike for forcing people to do things in some particular way. In history, some of the worst disasters have been caused by idealists trying to force people into “doing what is good for them.” Such idealism not only leads to suffering among its innocent victims, but also to delusion and corruption of the idealists applying the force. I also find idealists prone to ignore experience and experiment that inconveniently clashes with dogma or theory. Where ideals clash and sometimes even when pundits seem to agree, I prefer to provide support that gives the programmer a choice.

In Julia Watkin’s book Kierkegaard (Geoffrey Chapman, 1997, pages 107-108), she had this to say:

In his use of the Socratic method, Kierkegaard strove to keep his own view to himself through the use of pseudonyms, acting as an “occasion” for people’s discovery and self-discovery instead of setting himself up as a teaching authority or arguing the rightness of his own ideas. I would urge that it is this feature of Kierkegaard’s writing that makes him especially effective in a time when two main tendencies seem to be especially dominant – a pluralism that accepts the validity of all views but stands by the correctness of no particular view of the universe, and a scientific or religious fundamentalism that is rigidly exclusive of views other than its own. Kierkegaard avoids the pitfalls of both trends, and he also does something else; he makes room for truth, both intellectual and existential, through encouraging people to be open-minded, to be aware of the spiritual dimension of existence, and to venture in life as well as in thought.

Although Stroustrup remarked in the interview referred to above that he is “…not particularly fond of Kierkegaard’s religious philosophy”, there is some resonance between his comments and Julia’s analysis.