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How a BBC journalist lost it over Scientology

I do not have any time for Scientology (bunch of total loons, judging from their stated beliefs). I am not a fan of religion, full stop. Believing that one’s sins get removed on account of a guy who was tortured and killed by Romans, or believing that we come back on this Earth as animals, or get something called Karma, or Original Sin, are just so much rubbish to me. I do not think life lacks meaning without some Supreme Being. But then plenty of highly intelligent folk believe in these things, and pose no threat to me, nor do their adherents expect me to support their views. For me, tolerance is what counts.

Even so, religions, certainly those which make enormous claims about the world and arguably, mess up the lives of the people they influence, deserve to be scrutinised hard. For that reason, I watched the BBC ‘Panorama’ show on Monday and I must admit that it was a pretty compelling bit of television. The journalist who completely lost his temper with some very dubious characters from the Scientology outfit has my sympathy (yes, I am sympathising with a BBC journalist). These folk are jerks, and employ tactics that, as the journalist said, would not be the usual operating procedure of your average Anglican vicar.

On a lighter note, here is a reference to the classic South Park episode on Scientology.

94 comments to How a BBC journalist lost it over Scientology

  • It seemed to me that on one side you had representatives of a fanatical cult trying to foist its views on the rest of the world and on the other… the Church of Scientology.

    Truly, they deserve one another.

  • I too watched the program and was appalled by the behaviour of the ‘Church’ of Scientology. It was blatantly obvious that their policy of ‘Fair Game’ attacks on critics and lapsed members was still being used. Their arguments against one particular interviewee were completely ad hominem and bore no relation to the allegations being made by that person. and that wasn’t the worst of it.
    I can understand why the BBC man snapped, I’m not sure I would have been able to keep my composure under such sustained attack.

  • Jordan

    It seemed to me that on one side you had representatives of a fanatical cult trying to foist its views on the rest of the world and on the other… the Church of Scientology.

    Truly, they deserve one another.

    Comment of the week.

  • After watching the videos there can be little doubt that Scientology is a cult.
    The Washington Post has an funny take on that question in their offbeat blog(Link). I love how their minions rush to defense on the comments… too obvious for doubt! The greatest trick propaganda has ever pulled, is getting the world to call it public relations.

  • Scientology VS the BBC…. hummm. As some much more clever person than I once remarked about an equally dispiriting contest between two unsavory parties:

    “It’s a pity they both can’t lose!”

  • Its like the Iran Iraq war. Will someone please sell WMD to both sides.

  • Yes,a Scientologist

    I am quite used to people feeling this negatively about Scientology. After all, that is what the anti-propaganda is designed to achieve.

    But I have to ask you, are you “down” on Scientology, or merely on what you have HEARD ABOUT Scientology ?

    There might be a difference…

    I added you to my daily blogs to read because I feel that you make much sense. So I’m guessing that you are a fair person.

    If you gave 30 mins to John Sweeney, could I please ask you to give a similar time to 3 short videos which show how REAL investigative journalism should be done, and presented ? Sort of right-to-reply. By, of course, the CoS, subject – : How Panorama puts its investigative programmes together.

    Here :


    You might have to copy/paste.

    Enjoy !

  • RAB

    The sad thing about being a Scientologist
    Is that you expect the rest of us to take you seriously, just because you say so!
    Your lot lent me a couple of Private Detectives back in the 80’s, to cover a meeting of the “Opposition” as it were.
    You have been at the “In your face” tracking of your “enemies ” end of the market, for 20 years or more now. We both know the quiet outrage technique that got the Beeb man to pop now dont we!!??
    Is there a court in the land you haven’t sued some haplass gimp in, who managed to piss you off in some slight way?
    Please! Just like ET. Put in that call!!!
    We want you off this planet as soon as possible!!

  • guy herbert

    A bit surprised this is an opportunity for some to attack the BBC with such venom. Scientology’s claims make those of Young Earth Creationists look quite plausible, and it takes every opportunity to silence its critics; the BBC is a functional news and entertainment organisation that, tho’ steeped in the collectivist attitudes of the European technocratic class and frequently unaware of its biases, makes a genuine effort most of the time to be fair, open and factual. It’s like comparing someone who makes occasional dishonest expenses claims with a career gangster.

  • Nick M

    Scientology is utter wank. I have heard some complete rot from young earth creationists and I’ve heard the ranting of the Nation of Islam but neither group had the brass face to suggest that my soul was dragged here trans-galactically in spaceships which looked exactly like a Douglas DC-8 because some warlord whose name suitably science-fictionally started with an “x” or “z” had an over-crowding problem on one of his planets. It is total shite. But, in a way, quite interesting.

    Why do people believe/go along with it? Well… I think I know why the celebs buy into it. In order to become an “Operating Thetan” like Tom Cruise you have to do little more than spend several hundred thousand dollars on courses. This is loose change to the likes of Cruise and Travolta but it gives them status. And let’s face facts, neither of them are Laurence Olivier are they? I always rather liked Quenton Tarantino’s summary of “Top Gun” – “One man’s struggle against his own homosexuality”. That was a bloody awful film. I also saw “Days of Thunder” and that’s a couple of hours I’m not getting back. Tom Cruise, the only actor in film history to have done two scenes in two different movies featuring a wheelchair race. The other is of course in the utterly crapulent “Born on the 4th of July” – a movie that makes Forest Gump look like a masterpiece on the horrors of war. Anyway, enough “Cruising” – he’s a soft target. And for the record I’m not homophobic… some of my best friends and all that… In fact it’s because I’m not homophobic at all that I find Tom Cruise’s complete inability to just come out of the closet (brilliant Southpark BTW) so utterly amusing. Oh, that and the fact he’s a shortarse and intensely bothered by it. And another thing. Tom Cruise is considered “good looking”. But by who? I have never met a woman (or a gay man) who thought him attractive at all. My mother goes for the Eastwoods and Pacinos and I can see that. My wife is more into the Pitts and Clooneys (though she will never forgive me for dragging her along to see “Troy” – a memory so painful that I almost had to see “300” on my tod). I have never heard anyone say, ” I fancy Tom Cruise”. Any real person, anyway.

    OK, this is the real beef on how scientology got going. The late 40s/early 50s was the point at which science fiction really got going. At the time there wasn’t much of a market for novels so most writers produced hack-work for magazines. It was a tough ride because you’d get 50 bucks for a short story. That’s how Phil Dick ended up on whiz (which really fucked him up – any of you lot read “Valis”?) because he had a wife and a kid and he had to write like a fury to keep the wolf from the door. Now, L Ron Hubbard wasn’t as good as Dick or Heinlein or Clarke or even Asimov (personally, I can’t stick Asimov) so… it was 1948 (I think) and Hubbard was at a Sci-Fi convention. His career was going nowhere and he was getting pissed in the bar. Well, he stated to a fellow attendee (and I forget the bloke’s name but he was someone you’ve probably heard of) that there was no future in Sci-Fi and that the fastest way to make a million dollars was to start a religion.

    The rest is history.

    I saw the BBC thing. I actually thought the BBC guy was rather restrained. The scientology wonk was very provoactive. His repeated intrusions into the BBC reporter’s space – into that sacred last metre where only lovers are allowed was excrable. I think the BBC bloke behaved rather well becuase I would’ve lamped the fucker, repeatedly, not just shouted at him. That may be a flagrant violation of the libertarian non-aggression principle but I don’t apply that in the case of utter berks (meant in the original, rhyming slang sense).

    Just a couple more points. “Narcanon” was a fraud. It was discovered to be less effective at getting people to give up addictive drugs than them just thinking “I don’t fancy doing this anymore” and going cold-turkey without any other support. It was quite simply less than zero.

    Scientology is utter pony but is it the most insane cult out there? Nah, this is. Please read the whole thing. It gets better. Last I heard the founder was doing 25 years in a Georgia pen for kiddy fiddling.

  • We have a real good opportunity with this story to actually see both sides of the story – have a look at this. http://www.bbcpanorama-exposed.org/

    Yes, its been created by the Church of Scientology, but that is irrelevant.

    A good argument, one way or another, is all about the debate. Although I have no time for any religion, I am very much for the freedom to express your truth without the message being manipulated by the messenger.

    If people want to join a cult, let them join one. That is their choice. If people want to give their money to a religious organisation, let them do so, not my decision as it isn’t my money – and neither do I have the right to define what is a ‘good’ religion or a bad one.
    I think buyer beware is just as apt with the matter of faith as it is with any other mass consumerism service!

  • guy herbert

    My theory about the popularity of Scientology among celebs is a simple one. It appeals naturally to people who are used to buying privilege and whose main guide to quality is price.

    You haven’t time or patience to learn about things, or practice. You can’t entertain the experimentation and conflict involved in forming a considered opinion that might involve being wrong at some point.

    Which champagne is the best? Cristal or Krug, because the most expensive – only a civilian is interested in what it tastes like. Which religion is the best? The most expensive one.

  • Chris Harper (Counting Cats)

    I am very much for the freedom to express your truth



    Sounds very tolerant.

    I prefer “Believe whatever tripe you wish, just don’t force it down my throat”

    Come on chum, if you are a scientologist and think it a viewpoint worth holding, be forthright. Don’t hide behind weasel words.

    Sorry, but people don’t have individual truths. Truth is universal or it isn’t truth.

  • JRFord

    $cientologists believe that “what is true for you is true.”

    They also believe that you only exist because they are “mocking you up” in their mind. The same is true of the walls around them.

    http://www.xenu.net will get you more facts about them than they want you to know.

  • Mike G

    “But I have to ask you, are you “down” on Scientology, or merely on what you have HEARD ABOUT Scientology ?”

    I’m down on Scientology because it drove my onetime coworker Greg Bashaw to suicide. He spent thousands on Scientology, he probably broke federal law for Scientology (he almost certainly stole mail for them), he was used as a stooge in a lawsuit against Cult Awareness Network, then when the money ran out, Scientology dropped him like a hot potato. A Christian colleague of ours tried to help him and took him in, but it was too late; in June 2001, a broken man, he killed himself.

    Google his name, you’ll get the whole story. Scientology is an evil cult and sitting there holding cans wishing imaginary thetans away will drive you insane. It’s that simple.

  • REN

    “These folk are jerks, and employ tactics that, as the journalist said, would not be the usual operating procedure of your average Anglican vicar.”

    And what about the behavior of Sweeney and the Panorama team throughout their entire “investigation” of Scientology? If you really look into the story, taking all sides into account, almost the entire work was a hit job, whether they [Panorama and Sweeney] are right or wrong about it. This is why cops can’t just shoot criminals they’re “sure” are guilty without immediate probable cause, they aren’t allowed to be judge, jury and executioner; just as Sweeney is not allowed to pass judgement before he’s even told the story to the jury (the BBC audience). In fact, Sweeney, as a journalist, is expected to be objective act as both the *defender*, as well as the prosecution. Sweeney was only interested in one thing, the bashing of a “brainwashing cult,” as his follow-up interviews and articles have clearly suggested.

  • John K

    I enjoyed the programme, and can now see why John Sweeney is always described as “the foghorn voiced hack” in Private Eye.

    I found it highly amusing that Scientology actually has a celebrity centre in Hollywood, and rolled out a bunch of actresses to defend it, as if I should listen seriously to a word Juliette Lewis says. As it happens, the Scientology lawyers then nixed the interviews, so I suppose I shall never know exactly what she said, but I cannot believe I missed much.

    As for dear little Tom Cruise, I enjoyed the first part of Born on the 4th of July, which had some excellent M14 work in it, but the second half was a real downer and needed a rewrite, I mean Ironside never made a song and dance about being in a wheelchair did he?

  • pete

    I don’t have to give the scientologists any money before I am allowed to practice any other faith. I watch Sky sports and have to pay the BBC. Why?

  • The Monster

    Nick M, I believe Hubbard was conversing with Heinlein, around the time Stranger in a Strange Land came out. Heinlein made some remark about how easy it would be to found a new religion, and Hubbard took it as a challenge to do so.

    I’ve said for a while that the folks who make pilgrimages to Graceland are an embryonic religion, and I shouldn’t be surprised to live to see Elvist churches springing up. I shudder to think about what the Eucharist might comprise.

  • spyglass

    Let me get this straight. If I put down someone’s religion by calling it a cult, that’s ok. But if I call someone a nappy headed hoe, that’s wrong, right?

  • spyglass… some of us think all religions are cults.

  • RAB

    If you really look into the story, taking all sides into account, almost the entire work was a hit job,

    Yeah ! And???
    I shall try to break this gently to you REN.
    That’s the way the media does business.
    Holy Hubbard man!!!
    You are expecting balance?? What from the BBC???
    There is an old saying in journalism that goes roughly-
    Always come back with the story you went looking to find. Whatever the facts.
    Sweeney had to pitch this documentary to an editor/money man. He couldn’t say-
    Want a large amount of money for undercover cameras to see if the $cientologists are nice or not. He had to have an angle to sell the story. That’s Journalism.
    Besides, he had THE RIGHT angle.
    I have seen these folk up as close as Sweeney.
    Definately not NICE.

  • JRFord

    Also, something of interest to note about a coincidence. Around 1995 a poster using the name scamizdat posted the cult’s super secret sriptures on usenet in alt.religion.scientology. The cult went totally whacko. They still do their best to ruin the newsgroup. When I used to post there it was pretty creepy. The cult shills obviously kept files on every poster.

    One thing for sure, they are the only group claiming to be a religion that has had upper management found guilty of infiltrating and spying on the federal government.


    For a load of laughs at the expense of these morons search for “operation footbullet”

  • Deoxy

    “are you “down” on Scientology, or merely on what you have HEARD ABOUT Scientology ”

    I am “DOWN” on Scientology. I know more about it than I do about football, basketball, and baseball combined.

    And calling it $cientology is only inaccurate in that it is insufficiently offensive. It was created as a source of money, power, and sex for Hubbard, and it is used for such today by the current leaders. Nothing more.

  • The second link to the documentary made by CoS from the scientologist, above, is:

    About 6 minutes 50 in, the narrator says, “And when asked why in that case he kept making the accusation [that Scientology uses “brainwashing”], Sweeney’s reaction was unexpected, to say the least.”

    We are then shown the clip of Sweeney getting angry.

    But that’s not what he was angry about. If you watch the whole scene from the Panorama documentary, you can see that he’s not being asked anything. Tommy is telling him that he didn’t ask the right questions in a previous interview, and Sweeney is angry because Tommy wasn’t there to hear all the questions.

    Looks like at least one mis-representation in the CoS documentary that everyone can see for themselves.

  • REN


    “If I put down someone’s religion by calling it a cult, that’s ok. But if I call someone a nappy headed hoe, that’s wrong, right?”

    That’s why Sharpton got a pass saying “As for the one Mormon running for office, those who really believe in God will defeat him anyways, so don’t worry about that; that’s a temporary situation.”

    And before any of you defend that quote, I watched the debate with Hitchens, as I tend to really like Hitchens’ work, and KNEW the moment Sharpton said the above quote that he meant it exactly as it sounds ~ he was NOT responding to anything Hitchens was saying about Mormons or religion (that’s a bunch of garbage), it was a cheap political stab at Romney and his religion.

    Sharpton said something stupid and bigoted and, unlike Imus did by telling the truth and apologising, dodged and weaved to avoid having to admit his words were a big mistake. THAT is the big difference between Imus and Sharpton.

    The unfortunate lesson here, ramble on and lie like Sharpton, make excuses and point the finger the other way, and you’ll get away with anything. Hell, Yassar Arafat did it for years, it’s genius!

    Which brings up an interesting point, if only taqiyya (justly lying to infidels, or more precisely “dissimulation” to protect one’s self) weren ‘t such a popularly misunderstood, and an unusually common, concept among so many radical Muslims, we’d be making progress.

    Did you see my “bigoted” comment right there? Only, it wasn’t, as I actually know the definition of the word “bigot” and “taqiyya” and am not making an intolerant statement about anyone’s creed or opinion. It’s simply a fact about Islam, which really only Muslims can follow as being a very Islamic idea; even if being an almost completely misused idea (Qur’an verses 3:28 and 16:106).


    I completely agree with you and wouldn’t want ANY of my loved ones to get involved with Scientology. But ethical journalistic standards don’t have to go down the drain do they?

    We live in a world of political correctness with ultra-liberalized democracies, tearing themselves apart from the inside out, it’s sad to see. I know though, that wanting a better world begins right here, right now, with each of us choosing to simply be completely honest, always, no matter what the consequences; the real lesson to be learned, by Sweeney, Scientology, radical Muslims and all.

  • The beef about the nappy headed hos comment by Don Imus isn’t the same as comments about Scientology. For one thing, Imus’ comment was not true. For another, it was a somewhat famous person with some real world power speaking abusively about a group of young women who had just become briefly famous.

    Yes, I am a graduate of Rutgers.

  • REN


    You must be replying to spyglass, as I compared Imus to Sharpton, but the matter at hand is being honest. Which none of these people, in any of these examples, seem to have been. Sweeney wasn’t objective or fair, Scientology is still trying to hide the truth about itself, Imus wasn’t completely sincere (but at least he went through the motions) and Sharpton is a hypocrite. Not exactly a sequitur line of thinking among these posts, but I’m sure you get the point. There’s a lot of lying and deception going on, all the way around.

  • spyglass

    I am still trying to understand. If I make a joke about nappy-headed hoes, the women are rightfully hurt and offended. But if I call someone’s religion an evil, brainwashing cult they are not to be offended, right? They are not to defend themselves, or try to set the record straight, right?

  • Perhaps I wasn’t being entirely clear. Religion is a quite controversial area. There’s much heat and some light shed in debates about it. Sometimes it can get pretty nasty. I’m not surprised Scientologists get upset by the things many of us say about Scientology.

    What was going on with regard to Imus is something entirely different. I am not a lawyer, but Imus’ comments come entirely too close to legally actionable speech — i.e., slander of identifiable individuals. Imus didn’t say critical things about sports or higher education or politics or religion. He slandered some fine young women. What he said was a damned lie. He got called on it.

    I hope I’m making the distinction clear this time.

  • spyglass

    That’s correct. Religion is a quite controversial area. I am not a Christian, Jew or member of any church or religion. And yet I have no trouble getting along with any of them, simply because I respect their religion, just as I respect anyone who believes a Big Bang created the world. If Sweeney had done the same there would not have been this controversy and perhaps a calm rational discourse could have taken place.

  • I personally think Davis acted with a fairly heroic amount of restraint. There’s Sweeney who has been dissing his beliefs for weeks, just finished trashing his mother, has his pre-determined agenda all laid out and gets “harassed” because some Scientologists insist on balanced news coverage from a show that’s supposed to be investigative (but is built on a script that only goes into other people’s allegations). Great. Let’s set some of you up under the same circumstances. I’ll bet most of you are actually decent people who have things and people you care about. How can you just apply these standards to people whose views you agree with, and simply marginalize Scientologists? And yes, I’m a Scientologist.

  • RAB

    Thank you for being told to contribute to this thread Jeanne- We appreciate your input.
    I am waiting for a few more calm plausibles (who Us? bad guys ???) to turn up.
    I know your methods backwards (you know, the way they are taught to you!).
    Investigative journalism is to “Balance”
    As Scientology is to religion.

  • spyglass

    Thanks, Jeanne, for your comments. It seems to me it takes more courage for a Scientologist to post on here than somebody putting down someone else’s religion.

    For the record, I am not a member of the Church of Scientology or any other Church.

  • RAB

    All it takes is to slap the keys!!!
    For the record, you telling us that you are not this or that or the other,
    Makes me intensely suspicious for some reason.
    Cant think why. Maybe it’s the Thetan in me?

  • spyglass

    Well, your response is kinda paranoid. Actually, kinda cultish.

  • RAB

    Shit I must have wandered from the point!
    And the point was-
    $cientology? Religion or horseshit?
    Dont think I have.
    I think both religion and $cientology are horseshit!

  • Nick M

    Look, religion is controversial hence crusades, jihads and all the rest of it. But… There is a very real sense in which a religion like mainstream Christianity is a genuine religion. I suspect most (recent) Popes and Primates really believed. I suspect the Church father’s really believed. Whether they are right or wrong is irrelevant, in a way.

    But Scientology is not a religion. It’s a balls-out scam. Did Christ die on the cross and come back to life three days later… Well, I don’t know. I suspect not but ultimately I don’t know. What I do know is that an “e-meter” doesn’t show that a tomato can feel pain and that Hubbard switched his marketing campaign from “Dianetics” to the Church of Scientology for tax reasons. I also know that if you confess to a Catholic priest it’s kept private (mostly) but that the CoS has no such qualms about using something you tell them while being “audited” against you.

    People die for genuine religions. People wind-up dead because of cults. There is a difference. There is nonsense and there is also nonsense on stilts. Scientology is nonsense wearing a jetpack.

    There are only two “religions” that I absolutely know to be complete crocks (Islam comes close to making that three). One is Mormonism and the other is Scientology. I personally don’t have any issue with Mormons but Scientology is clearly, obviously, deranged, demented and dangerous.

    Jeanne, there’s nothing wrong with trashing people’s beliefs. Nobody dies. And you know what, some beliefs are so demonstrably false that they deserve to be trashed. Just give me three brief reasons why CoS isn’t a total crock.

    The Monster, the Church of Elvis thing has occurred to me as well. D’ya think the Hound Dogs will wear small toilets round their necks?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Nick M’s remark about jetpacks is sheer genius.

  • That’s correct. Religion is a quite controversial area. I am not a Christian, Jew or member of any church or religion. And yet I have no trouble getting along with any of them, simply because I respect their religion, just as I respect anyone who believes a Big Bang created the world.

    Really? Why? I do not respect any religion. Or quite a lot of views I do not agree with. I am entirely willing to TOLERATE them however, provided their views allow them to tolerate me, but respect? Hell no, I think their views are loopy, but then I think the same about all other religions too.

    I do not respect Scientology and I am only willing to tolerate it if Scientology does not require its followers to use force to prevent non-Scientologists from expressing hostile views… and the jury is out on that given their record of using the law to harass people they do not like (I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt but it is a big doubt). It makes no sense to tolerate people who will not reciprocate with tolerance.

  • I am a great believer in people’s right to believe moonbat crazy things, just so long as they tolerate me and what they may feel are my moonbat crazy ideas (which is why I have a real problem with Islam).

  • REN

    Wow Nick, you *know* that Mormonism is a “crock.” And the other religions just get a pass because you haven’t yet found their achilles’ heels? So you know, my family is Mormon, even though I am not, and your singling them out is very interesting to me. Please, do explain how Mormonism deserves your special attention.

  • Snide

    People arguing over why this religion is better than that religion is like arguing over who has the best invisible imaginary friend.

    And the answer is “I do” and his name is Harvey.

  • RAB

    So that’s where he went!
    You can hang on to Harvey for a while Snide.
    He was costing me a fortune in drinks.

  • Nick M

    Because the original gold book of Mormon as dug up by Joe Smith was in an unidentifiable language and unique script which oddly enough he was the only person able to translate into English. Funny that.

    The resultant “translation” oddly enough contains exact word-for-word transcriptions from a contemporary King James Bible that Joe Smith would have had easy access to. Funny that. It also includes typographical errors from that edition. Funny that. So where are the original golden plates from which Joe Smith produced the “translation”? I mean possible techniques from cryptanalyis could decipher them in a similar to the way that Linear B was cracked. Well, Joe Smith gave them back to an angel. Convenient that.

    All the Mormons I’ve ever met have been nice folks. I don’t think the Mormon way of life is nasty either for me or it’s practionners but to claim divine inspiration for it is stretching plausibility well beyond breaking point.

  • REN


    While I am inclined to agree with you that it’s all highly improbable (which is WHY I do not call myself a “Mormon” even though being raised Mormon), I want to ask you a few questions:

    Again, why is Mormonism one of your two? Why have you singled this one out is what I want to know. And *why* would arguments that *should* apply to any and every religion and religious text be used to argue against the Book of Mormon (BoM) here and now?

    The reason why I am asking is because I am seeing an interesting amount of anti-mormon material pop up in the media these days. The biggest one, which caught me quite off guard, came from Hitchens himself (I mentioned him in an earlier comment). I like the way Hitchens thinks, even though I am NOT nearly the socialist thinker that he tends to be, but he REALLY does not like religion and happened to single mormons out with a work he wrote for Slate a week or two ago.

    Well, okay… I should have seen it coming, as I know what Hitchens thinks about organized religion and the belief in “god,” but didn’t for some reason. The focus on Mormonism has been quite amusing though.

    So in response to what you did write, I had to ask a friend, as I do not spend time researching *how* Joseph Smith *may* have plagiarized the Book of Mormon, or parts of it, and my friend’s replies were very interesting.

    Here’s what he said to me ~> One, did you you know that parts of, and language of, the New Testament are DIRECTLY from the Old Testament? “Funny that.” (to borrow your words) My friend wasn’t surprised at all by your comments, as I was, because he’s very familiar with the Book of Mormon (BoM) and the Bible, which I am not.

    He asked me to have you quote the passages in question, as the passages in question were probably *INTENTIONALLY* quoted from the Bible because they ORIGINALLY were supposed to be quotes FROM the Bible, which Joseph Smith brought up when the BoM was written (*translated,* *plagiarized,* whatever).

    This was done in the New Testament WITHOUT being mentioned or cited as Joseph Smith DID. FUNNY THAT!

    NOTE: (as a single, simple example of the New Testament comment made above) “The Interpreter’s Bible (12:358) states that ‘John [from John’s Book of Revelation] was thoroughly acquainted with the Old Testament, and quoted or alludes to it throughout his book. It has been estimated that 278 verses out of a total of 404 contain references of one kind or another to the Old Testament…. yet in no case does he specifically mention a book of the Jewish scripture, and seldom does he quote verbatim.'”


    And, if you read the link I posted, you’ll see a LOT MORE where that came from and I have to ask you Nick “where are the angry yells that the New Testament is ‘plagiarized!?'” ~ especially considering that the authors of the New Testament, who’s original material is largely inaccessible now, wasn’t even kind enough to publicly state, as Joseph Smith did with his quotes from the Bible, that their work *did* indeed use, reference and quote certain passages of the Old Testament.


    So, again, my question is to you, slightly revised ~ why be hypocritical on this point, with this religion? And why do it with information that I am pretty sure is NOT your own original thought and definitely NOT your original research? Before you answer, let me repeat that even I don’t really care to spend time researching *how* Joseph Smith *may* have plagiarized the BoM ~> I was raised Mormon but am now not even interested in practicing the religion. If you’re going to pick on Mormons, I highly recommend you do your research and then *SPREAD THE LOVE* my friend, and see how the “real believers in god” (like Sharpton) treat YOU in the meantime!

    I am not offended, just curious and probably agree with you more than you know. Now, have fun deconstructing it all ~ but don’t forget that you just *may* be leaving a very dangerous moral vacuum in the place that was once held by the very religions and religious values you are vanquishing. As for me, I’m going to spend my time reading, writing and researching something *better* than all of that, and just *hope* the deconstructionists don’t outrun the rest of us who are trying to rebuild something worth while to replace “religion” and “conventional religious thought.”

    Otherwise, they, and US, will probably end up with MORE Scientology and people like Scientologists than before. Whoops. *NOT Funny THAT!*

  • Nick M

    I was not picking on Mormonism. It’s just that, pretty much by chance, I knew a bit about the genesis of the Book of Mormon. Why? Because someone posed the question to me – “Are Mormons Christians?” I was interested enough to look into the question. I was interested because the whole concept of syncretic and spin-off religions is something I find curious.

    OK, I’ll take a detour here. I recently read Dawkin’s “The God Delusion”. And something struck me as a weakness. Dawkins sets out to prove God almost certainly doesn’t exist but he does it by essentially trying to fisk the monotheistic trinity of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I suspect a convinced Hindu or Buddhist could read the book and think “Yay! Those infidels have been proven wrong by the good Dr Dawkins but he never said anything about my faith”. Religions are not all the same. Allah=God=Yahweh is bunk. They differ in fundamental concepts. They are incomensurable (or to use SD jargon – they have fundamentally different meta-contexts). If they weren’t d’ya not think interfaith dialogue would have actually got somewhere over the last umpteen centuries.

    The fundamental reason I’m an agnostic and not an atheist is that I think that the only way to rationally argue that God doesn’t exist in any sense is to take down every religion point by point. It’s possible I could show that Judaism is total nonsense and a Shinto priest could then merely say, “Well, yes… that’s what I always thought too”. Well, touche! It would be an epic endeavour to smack-down the beliefs of every religion from Shaminism to Gaia worship. It would be impossible to discredit every conceivable religion that someone might invent.

    Religion means such different things to believers of different faiths. Christianity tends to focus much more on individual morality than Islam does. Islam holds that everything happens due to the direct will of Allah and Buddhists don’t even have a God at all! Then you’ve got the Einsteinian belief in the impersonal laws of physics as God and Spinoza’s pantheism. Are they just atheisism in it’s Sunday best?

    So, there’s only a couple of religions that I believe are discredited beyond belief to my certain knowledge (I also have a life, you know?) One of them is Mormonism for the reasons I gave above. The other is Scientology. Note that both have something in common. They are both recent so their birth is better documented than the genesis of say Hinduism or Judaism. The fact that Joe Smith produced a book which he claimed to show that the USA had Christians before Columbus by translating his gold plates into verbatim reproductions of parts of the King James Bible is clearly a crock.

    As I stated in an earlier post, I have nothing against Mormons. I just happened to know enough facts about the religion to know it was not divinely revealed to Joe Smith. There are many religions that I don’t know enough about to muster an argument against. I suspect very strongly that some of such antiquity that I doubt anybody could even attempt to fisk them.

    I don’t believe, as a Hindu might, that cows are sacred but I just have no idea how I’d go about arguing that they’re just another farm animal to a believer.

    So, I challenge you. Prove to me that Odin doesn’t exist!

  • REN


    I’m actually really enjoying your sense of humor and creative insight and will continue to do so but that won’t stop me from asking you to please be more equitable in your criticism of religion, especially the Mormon religion.

    I too am agnostic, but not because I can’t “take down every religion point by point,” but because I know I can’t be an atheist either; I can not disprove god any more than I can prove god. What are the methods and means? How do we go about reasonably doing this? It’s the playground of philosophers who know that they can’t really *absolutely* say much of anything along those lines.

    You may have been saying, or meant to say, much the same but the distinction is pretty clear for me. I am not religious but will not waste my time disproving god. As for particular religions though? Nope, won’t do that either, except to say that I won’t let religions intrude upon MY life, or the lives of my close family and friends, with any pathetic value sets based upon “divinely derived moralities.”

    So, what’s really bugging me, in particular, is that to state your solid reasoning for knowing that Mormonism is a “crock” because it’s modern, with oddles and reams of modern evidence stacked against it, which you just happened to already thoroughly debunk when trying to decide if it was a “christian” church or not is a little odd, at best. How did deciding if it was christian somehow lead to it absolutely not being true? Don’t answer this question if don’t feel really compelled to ~ I don’t think it will help the conversation.

    I checked your comments with a Mormon theology teacher, who happens to be quite open minded, and he brilliantly pointed out what I relayed to you. That the errors and inconsistencies you noted were hardly straight forward or even modern facts, and when treated as such tend to suggest a discrediting of much more than just Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon.

    So, if you’re not willing to take on the New and Old Testament and their inconsistencies, then the way I see it you are almost automatically refusing to honestly take on the Book of Mormon. Think about it, you used biblical plagiarism as your main crux but ignored the overt explanations of the biblical passage use and won’t handle the inherent issues of the “plagiarism” contained within the Bible itself, and the obvious parallels to that practice. Strange. (aka “Funny that”)

    This is not unlike non-mormon “christians” saying that Joseph Smith talking to an angel is somehow *proof* mormonism was wrong already. How could he “talk” with an Angel? But, as my older brother, who served a Mormon Mission, but now is absolutely NOT a Mormon (interestingly enough) said to me:

    “It’s nice to know that this principle can be equally applied to other religions this particular christian didn’t believe in. :o) I always found it interesting that Paul, the same Paul who wrote the letter to the galatians where the ‘angel statement’ is found, had a conversion on the road to damascus at the hands of an angel. In consideration of that event, I am sure that he didn’t feel all conversations with angels were bad. Unless, something happened on that road to damascus with the angel that he didn’t tell us about. . .hhhmmm? :o)”

    Again, I am not Mormon and do not practice ANY formal religion, not even a personalized hybrid variant of one; so I am not saying this just to *defend* Mormons or even religion…

    But if you can’t prove, or disprove, Joseph Smith’s conversation with Angels or his possession of gold plates, which he said he translated into the Book of Mormon; and if you can’t give good reasoning why Joseph Smith shouldn’t have used direct quotations from the Bible; or finally, if you can’t prove (or, disprove once again) that the Bible itself wasn’t plagiarized AS you are using its’ quotations and use in the Book of Mormon as an argument against its validity, then you are fighting windmills, ghosts and strawmen.

    And as for your comment about Buddhism not having a “god,” this will be an interesting talking point for the next time I chat with a really good friend of mine who happens to be Buddhist. As I said, and am saying, you make some rather ODD assumptions, again and again. I guess if you define “god” as a higher power, then god becomes something quite sweeping and difficult to reduce to the singular entity some call “god.” Perhaps that is where we, you me and the Buddhists *I know,* are differing on that point.

    As for the rest, I just say “let bygones be bygones… and be gone with it all.”


  • REN


    BTW, I remembered that I noticed a banner for Dawkin’s “The God Delusion” on the same page as Hitchens’ anti-mormon article ~ I’ll be sure to read it now. Thanks!

  • Pa Annoyed


    I don’t think anyone here would want to pick on Mormonism, it’s just Nick recounting his own personal history. There have been thousands of religions throughout human history, and even many of the religious would admit that all but one of them at least have to have been wrong. Odds are they all are. But unless you’ve actually checked and seen the holes in every one for oneself, a cautious debater would be wary of making bold assertions. There are plenty here who will cheerfully rip the Bible and Koran apart, too, but pointing out the flaws in the myths of Ashur, Enki, Marduk, Ninurta, and so on would take a bit more erudition than most can muster.

    Christians and Muslims sometimes complain that we spend a lot more time debunking them than we do, say, Hinduism, but in a way that’s more to do with exposure to them.

    Dawkin’s book The God Delusion does give more general arguments than a simple fisking of the Judao-Christian trinity, although those tend to be the ones most inclined towards attempts to prove God’s existence and so provide the most ammunition for a fisking. However, you should note that he does limit the concept he is debunking to the personal Gods: supernatural beings, intelligent creators, throwers of lightning bolts and other evidence of personally directed wrath, overseers of heavens and hells, interferers in the affairs of man. The sort of religion that consists of little more than a general fuzzy feeling of spirituality and awe associated with the world is explicitly left out.

    While there are no arguments to prove a sufficiently invisible God’s non-existence, there are nevertheless good reasons to believe that none exist. And when it comes to Gods for which we have definite histories, properties, and claims, there often is proof. Mormonism is by no means alone in that regard.

    The only divinity for who I’ve seen any evidence worth the name is Namagiri, from her prophet Srinivasa Ramanujan. But somehow I think that few of the theists who debate the atheists would appreciate their claims and arguments being used to support devotion preferentially to her rather than their own favourites. Monotheists are merely atheists who stopped one short. 🙂

  • REN

    Pa Annoyed,

    As a big fan of “free thinkers” and an appreciator of many great thoughts and philosophies shared by known athiests, I understand what you are saying. But back to the WHY MORMONS line of thinking, I just don’t understand why Mormonism deserves the amount of unfair anti-religion, or what I often see as being simply anti-mormon, pressure. Scratch that, reverse it, it’s more anti-religion than anti-mormon. I think Romney’s bid for presidency has just brought the issue to the front burner.

    As a sideline thought, if Islam wasn’t tied to middle-eastern oil and the Israeli nation conflict, and Christianity to capitalism and also, ironically, to Israel, they’d be as lost to modern media thought as Hinduism. Then again, maybe not, as I believe that the modern man’s general lack of moral fiber and deeper meaning has opened him up wide to being vulnerable to cheap religious ideologies. In that, I think we’d probably all agree… or at least I hope we would.

    All of this could, if we wanted it to, bring us right back to the original topic of Sweeney and Scientology. I believe that Hitchens was right all along, if we knew who we were and educated ourselves, seriously digging into our identities and value, we probably (hopefully) wouldn’t even be having this problem with religion.

  • Pa Annoyed

    I would agree that any recent upsurge is most likely due to Romney – it’s not personal, it’s politics. I suspect that for the rest it is probably because you notice it more. Mormonism is attacked like any other religious belief, including atheism (and you should just see the Pastafarians’ hate-mail page – hilarious), but I can’t say I’ve noticed it being attacked disproportionately more. As a minority view in a fairly homogeneously Christian country I dare say there are many more who would want to offer criticism than support, but then so far as I can see Christianity is a far bigger target and attracts the bulk of the polemical anti-religious attacks on itself. The only one for which the hatred seems disproportionate is Judaism, but that’s more to do with the size of their enemies than the size of the religion itself.

    I’d have to disagree that Islam is brought to prominence by its connection to either oil or Israel, or Christianity either. It it simply that they are the biggest, the most aggressive, and the ones most familiar to the Western audience that is most inclined to criticise religion generally. The Israeli national conflict is a consequence and byproduct of the nature of Islam, and has far less to do with causing the problems we have with Islamists than is claimed. I have to admit, I know very little about Mormonism, but I do know more than a little Islamic history.

    I honestly don’t think we have any more trouble with religion today than we ever did. It has always been problematic, and people have always been people.

  • Midwesterner

    REN, welcome to the site. I think the highlighting Mormonism is getting is identical to the highlighting that Roman Catholicism got when JFK was running for president.

    Any ‘new’ religion in the White House raises many valid concerns about the person’s ethics and the value of their word. This causes a period of great rigor in scrutiny of their religion.

    Presumably like most people here, my primary concern with any religion is how it’s adherents conduct themselves and how they treat others. I think Mormans do rather well in this respect and I imagine this period will blow over until another unfamiliar religion presents a candidate for the presidency.

  • REN

    Hey guys,

    Let me just say, you guys have been great ~ here I’ve complained and ranted about a pretty minor comment by Nick and you have responded calmly and coolly. One of my brothers noted that I can be a “dulldog” when posting, and he’s right, when something bothers me I get aggressive, bite and sometimes won’t let go. Rereading this thread, I’ve been lucky you were all so open minded and fair on these points.

    Something I read this morning: “Last week, evangelist minister Bill Keller declared that ‘a vote for Mitt Romney is a vote for Satan.'” I’m sure you are right Pa Annoyed and Midwesterner, it’s probably just politics bringing something, which would otherwise be minor, to a head; not that unlike what happened to JFK.

  • Nick M


    It really was just a coincidence that I happened to read up on Mormonism around the time that Mitt Romney was running for President. As a Brit my knowledge of Romney is sketchy and to be honest who the citizenry of the USA vote for is none of my business.

    I wasn’t aware that Romney’s faith was such a question of scrutiny in the US.

    I would like to reiterate though that I have no beef against Mormonism as a way of life. And I certainly wouldn’t be reaching for my tin hat and digging a bomb-shelter in the backyard if there was a Mormon in the White House, or indeed in Downing Street.

    I actually almost told you the story of my most formative experience with Mormons. I was a student and for reasons too tedious to mention occupied a shared house a week before the other inhabitants. I was lonely. I’d also just been dumped by a girlfriend and the house was a shambles. I threw myself into cleaning. One day there was a knock at the door. It was two Mormon girls from Idaho missionarising. We had a nice chat. I was just bloody glad to talk to someone. They’d just arrived in the UK so I told ’em some stuff about the city – like where not to go – and in that town that was useful info and they asked me what I knew about Idaho. All I could say was “potatos” and they seemed genuinely thrilled that I seemed to know anything about their home state. Well, I could’ve said “Ruby Ridge” but I thought that would spoil the generally convivial tone. It was a pleasant distraction.

    In fact the only Western leader for whom I have qualms about their religious faith is Tony Blair. He is nominally Anglican but has flirted with Catholicism in a way which is typical of the man. He seems to profess firm religious belief yet somehow I think it’s hollow, like so much else about him. I do have a problem with that. I think there are opnly two acceptable positions that public figures can take wrt their religious faith. They can truthfully say what they believe or they can say that it’s their private business. His Grand Tonyness has typically taken a third way.

    So back to the point. I don’t go out of my way to “take down” religions. It’s just that I felt the divinely inspired nature of Mormonism is something that I feel is absolutely proven beyond reasonable doubt not to be true. It’s pure chance that I read up on the religion in general because I was intrigued by a friend’s chance remark as to whether or not it is actually Christian. Well, this got me thinking. So I found out about the religion and discovered along the way that it was untenable as a divine, god-given religion because the translation of the BoM into English contained verbatim passages from the KJV even though the original was claimed to pre-date the KJV and was not written in English. So I ran this one past my wife who is a professional translator. Do you know what the odds are on two translators working in seperation translating on the one hand Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew and on the other translating whatever those gold plates were in and arriving at whole passages that are identical are? Think Monkeys and Typewriters.

    It is not an issue of whether Mormonism is a form of Christianity (though that was the question that set me on my investigation) it is an issue of translation and plagiarism. That’s why I read stuff for fun. Sometimes I discover something new which was not what I sought to find. For the record my wife has postgraduate qualifications in translation and linguistics and knows a lot about Bible translation because that is simply the prototype case-study for translation theory in the same way that Drosophila melanogaster is the exemplar for genetics.

    I wasn’t so taken with Dawkin’s book. I enjoyed it most for his little asides on biology.

    Well, REN, as Mid said, welcome aboard. If you hang around here you will hear much more vociferous criticisms (actually dismissals) of religion than what I tend to say. Though I guess I have said some pretty intemperate things about Islam in my time… Usually involving fission. But, heck, I’m just letting off steam one megaton at a time.


    In general, I find the theist/deist thing fascinating and dizzying. My personal suspicion is that deism=atheism=pantheism. I remember a Prof in my alma mater hawking T-shirts bearing the slogan, “And God said…. [insert Maxwell’s equations in spherical co-ordinates] … and there was light”. Well, to be honest, does it matter who said it then? Or even if anyone said it. I remeber the caldera at Santorini at dawn and seeing the Tennessee river for the first time and I was awestruck by the majesty. I suspect my actual feelings were not too disimilar to someone who believed that these were testimony to a God’s grandeur. I think the ancienct greeks who venerated the beauty of Aphrodite would recognise much in my feelings when I saw Uma Thurman in the (otherwise shite) adventures of Baron Munchausen. Religion just doesn’t add anything without God being personal. If it’s over rationalized into a belief in the immutable and beautiful laws of physics and maths (whether that be Maxwell’s equations or whatever closed form function most closely approximates the curves of Ms Thurman’s ass) then it just ceases to be religion. Pascal understood this. Supreme rationalist that he was he still had this sewn into his coat:

    FIRE – God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars. Certitude, certitude. Heartfelt joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ. My God and thy God. Thy God shall be my God

    Well, I guess he was a Catholic and the only way to become a saint is to (apparently) violate the laws of physics by interceding with a miracle.

    Well, PA, you old mystic you! I’ve got one last thing to say: 1729.

  • Nick M

    A vote for Mitt Romney is a vote for Satan.


    That’s almost Phelpsian.

  • spyglass

    So there was this big explosion at the beginning, then everything sorta of came together and formed planets and this one had a lot of big seas and the chemistry was just right so life just spontaneously erupted then started evolving and by mostly by chance here we are, sorta of organic robots. And if something goes wrong with the organic robot’s thinking, it’s because the chemicals in his brain are out of wack so he just gets those adjusted, because some of the organic robots have better chemicals in their brains than others and have figured out how to adjust the chemicals in other robot’s brains.

    How do you know that’s not just another religious belief? Doesn’t sound any more plausible than the other theories out there. In fact, it sounds like it could easily be used to control people, just as the other theories could be.

  • REN


    Again, you’ve been great about all of this and the end state is the same, I am not an active, practicing Mormon and tend to see all religions and religious concepts in the same light. Despite that, I do become defensive of Mormonism because of my mormon family, upbringing and my knowledge of how good most Mormons are. We don’t have to keep talking about Mormonism and I really only have one more thing to say at this point. In response to your comment:

    “…the translation of the BoM into English contained verbatim passages from the KJV even though the original was claimed to pre-date the KJV and was not written in English. So I ran this one past my wife who is a professional translator.”

    I too am trained as a linguist and have done a fair amount of translation myself but it has nothing to do with the point I made or the links I posted *IF* Joseph Smith was intentionally quoting the bible or using existing, familiar and common KJV language to describe known concepts, which he clearly stated he *did* do.

    The site I listed above has several sections on this that say exactly what my theology friend said, also reiterating that Joseph Smith intentionally quoted the bible. Another site adds “Joseph once commented that the book was ‘translated into our own language’ (TPJS, p. 17; cf. D&C 1:24). In several chapters, for good and useful reasons, this meant that the language would follow the King James idiom of the day (see CWHN 8:212–16; Welch, 1990, pp. 134–63).”


    I’m not talking about, or concerned with, the language *style* he used, but the specific quotes from the KJV Bible. That appears to be more specifically what you were talking about anyway. The first site I listed actually digs into the word by word comparisons noting even incidents where Joseph Smith translated the same text of the KJV of the Bible *differently,* on purpose, for doctrinal reasons. He didn’t *directly* translate everything that was written in the Book of Mormon from the infamous gold plates, and even said so. Just as the New Testament used and quoted the Old, the Book of Mormon used the New.

    So why are the critiques you’re referencing dwelling upon the KJV Bible point? Because it sounds so revealing and damming (without the entire context), that’s why.

    Do I believe that the Book of Mormon was originally written in a foreign language, unknown to Joseph Smith, and translated by aid of “the spirit?” I don’t know and right now I don’t really even care, except when people want to single the Mormon church out, for whatever reason. What bugs me most is that when they do, they usually repeat very poorly researched material, which is what Hitchens did and the authors of the sources you read seem to have done.

    Hitchens would have been much better off stating that he didn’t believe god existed, end of story! And going on with a “can we talk about how religion is being misused and current events now?” Especially where these “god believers” and “doctrinal warriors” are saying and doing some pretty stupid, hateful prejudiced and damaging stuff? He could spend his time trying to debunk Islam and Christianity, to perhaps try and help his cause, but realistically the secular, separation of church and state, support is common enough in the West that he doesn’t even need to go there.

    By intentionally head-butting specific religions, Hitchens possibly even loses support, which he may not even care about, but things like that are what cause knee-jerk reactions like mine. And I am a guy who doesn’t even go to church or pray at night as I was taught to as a child.

    Perhaps Hitchens would want a person like me to be an athiest as well, to take a stand against religion, but I won’t for reasons I stated before and because I know religion is actually necessary for a lot of people; I won’t take religious beliefs and comforts away from them. But I also won’t let them tell me what to do because of their religious doctrines. I would be an Islamic state’s worst nightmare. As Hitchens said at the end of his Sharpton debate (paraphrased) “I just won’t play with their toys, or have them tell my children how to play with their toys!”

  • Nick M

    That’s actually a grand narrative not a religious system. There is a difference. You can tell that it’s grand because you put 15 billion years into a paragraph.

    Scientific theories should be testable (one way or another – I’m not going to go into the details of that again, so soon after the last great epistimology debate). That’s the difference.

    Of course the unscrupulous can mischeviously present anything they want as “scientifically proven” or “the final revelation of God” or that they’re channeling the spirit of Pocahontas or whatever.

    I don’t believe anything is scientifically “proven”. But I do think a lot of things are explained rather well by scientific theories. In fact some theories have a power of explanation so superb that it would take a real weirdo not to believe them. The atomic hypothesis wrt to chemistry is an example.

    Science explains! Good ole TH Huxley and his arrows of explanation and all that, religious texts just dictate. The order of creation in Genesis is not too far from what most scientists would say but in the Bible it’s just presented as fact. Science tackles the question “why?”.

    Let’s look at a rationalist vs religious approach to a question:

    Why don’t Jews or muslims eat pork?

    Rationalist: pork goes off quickly and can carry nasty diseases. This is particularly bad in a hot climate such as the Middle East. Also pigs consume large quantities of water. It is common sense, therefore, not to keep or eat pigs in a hot desert. This then became a folk belief that eventually, after generations, became so ingrained that the original reason might have been forgotten and when the religions of Judaism and Islam were invented this handy tip was incorporated as a divine law.

    Religious: Yahweh/Allah said not to.

    The first is a plausible explanation. The second is just a statement. How is the second anymore enlightening than “Because Samuel L Jackson said not to in the movie Pulp Fiction”?

    Science is powerful because it is limited in scope. Science can attack a whole range of questions in all sorts of interesting ways but on somethings it should and usually does remain silent.

    As Einstein put it, there is very little point in analyizing a Beethoven Quartet in terms of air-pressure waves. The fact that when I look at a pretty girl’s ass and get the raging horn I can explain it in terms of neuro-receptors and biochemical pathways, vaso-constriction and other such matters biological doesn’t mean that I’m not just essentially thinking “Phwoar!”

    I call that testosterone/phwoar duality.

    I hope that answers the later part of your post which sort of brought up that old trope about “What’s the point if we’re just a bunch of chemicals”.

    Ah… But what a bunch of chemicals. I’m sure you’ve heard those costings which value a human body at a few quid on the basis of this much charcoal, this much water, that much potash etc. If instead you base the value upon what it would cost to synthesize the specific fine chemicals which make up the body: the collagen, the heamoglobin, the acrytlcholine and all the rest of the weird stuff that lurks at the back of Lubert Stryer’s magesterial tome on Biochemistry then it’s into the millions.

    What is amazing is that all of that can be synthesized so much cheaper in one of two ways. One is enormously enjoyable and (usually) free and the other involves Lord Robert Winston.

    “Lubert” is such a wonderful name. I like it almost as much as “Ruprecht”. They are both a little baroque don’t you think?

  • REN

    “I call that testosterone/phwoar duality.”

    I think people have a hard time with the unknowns, as simple as that. You know, when women tell a poor sod that women only want what they can’t have, the sad fellow thinks he can’t measure up when the real lesson learned should be:

    “If a woman wants what she can’t have, then don’t let them have it… lol, keep those women in a constant state of mystery and suspense!”

    Duh! But men, being men, take them literally (like the purely scientific explanation of the universe and the meaning it does or doesn’t imply) and stupidly think that they need to be really good looking, rich, famous and “something most women can’t have”… when that’s not the case at all.

    Literal interpretation in that case, as with the “grand narrative” above, is simply missing the, um, *smaller picture* (to reverse an idiom).

  • Nick M

    Just seen your post come up but I’ve absolutely got to do stuff so this will be short.

    I don’t see all religions in the same light. I was recently involved in a big kerfuffle on this site over interpreting Quantum Mechanics. There are several different interpretations of what that incredibly fundamental theory means. I don’t regard them all in the same light. Neither did most of my interlocuters.

    Point is they are all interpretations of the same brute facts of reality but posit very different things about the actual nature of reality.

    They are different worldviews and so are religions.

    Second. I have no animus against or for Mormonism. If in my intellectual (yeah, right!) travels I just happen to come across something which I think discredits Sikhism or Baha’i or Druze, Unitarianism, Seventh Day Adventists, Catholics, Amish, Siberian Pagans, or whatever I’ll let you know.

    Just hang around Samizdata. I always get into debates on religion, science and epistimology. Why? I like hanging with these folks and I know bugger-all about politics or economics.

    Most of ’em would probably say I know bugger-all about religion, science or epsitimology either.

    I even have a suspicion I can’t spell the later.

  • spyglass


    What you are espousing is materialism. IMHO, a true scientist would observe that there is some life force, some elan, some mysterious quality that animates some of this material and ask what exactly it is and what are it’s capabilities and qualities. The materialist says it’s just chemicals. Someone else may say that is the soul or the spirit. Now you are in the field of religion. The part of religion that does not depend on doctrine. I do not think chemicals explain why Michelangelo created his art, for example. The idea that thinking is just chemicals interacting is laughable, I think.

  • Pa Annoyed


    “So there was this big explosion at the beginning, … How do you know that’s not just another religious belief? Doesn’t sound any more plausible than the other theories out there.”


    If that was the theory, I’d probably agree with you. It sounds exactly like a religious belief, because it gives no detail, speaks about particular human obsessions, explains nothing, misses out nearly everything, and is inelegant. (It’s also wrong.) It’s nothing at all like I’d expect a being capable of creating the universe to speak, but is precisely how I’d expect a human making it up as they went along to say it.

    Which is the point, really. There’s only one holy book that I could be convinced was written by some sort of creator, and that is the universe itself. And the universe is unquestionably written in the language of advanced mathematics, and so any ‘God’ or ‘Goddess’ who does not speak in the language of advanced mathematics or something very much like it is a cause for suspicion.

    We can try to read the universe and see what it says, and although we do not understand a lot of it, what little we have been able to read doesn’t bear any similarity to anything a human would make up. Most religious scriptures on the other hand do. It’s unfortunate that I can’t explain the real stuff so that you could see what I mean – it’s like trying to explain the beauty of a poem to someone who does not speak the language it is written in, only a lot worse.

    I don’t think there could be any such thing as a personal deity, because personality is too flawed, too complex, too constructed a thing to apply. We only think it because those same flaws prevent us seeing any clearer; prevent us from imagining how things could be any other way.

    I know very well that the above doesn’t answer. It’s just another “Trust me”, like many others, and I’d most certainly advise you not to. I’m only telling you about my experience, with no expectation that you’ll believe me. I agree absolutely with your sentiment. Don’t trust scientists – become one. Everyone has to become one. It’s the only way.

    Nick, I have only one thing to say back: 163. 🙂

  • Pa Annoyed

    Spyglass, sorry, I missed your other comment…

    “The materialist says it’s just chemicals.”

    The materialist says that chemicals are not “just” chemicals. Chemicals are a sufficiently complex system to allow recursive information structures, which by the Church-Turing thesis means they can implement any computational process whatsoever, which means that they can represent within themselves and their configurations a model of the entire universe, or a multiplicity of possible universes for that matter. It’s such a big idea that I can’t even begin to explain it. And chemicals are fundamentally quantum mechanical information processing systems, and we have absolutely no idea yet where that might ultimately lead. That’s not “just” chemicals.

    The problem here is not that materialists are missing something, but that the everyday understanding even of something as common as “chemicals” is so stilted and incomplete that one can miss their vast significance and capability; the intuitive idea of “stuff” is so crass a simplification, missing so much of beauty and complexity, it surely takes the breath away that any species could be so fundamentally dumb as to think it. I’m not saying that as an insult; I’m struggling to explain just how limited the human view of the universe is.
    (Without going off into an extended lecture on Turing completeness, the peculiar statements of Kurt Godel, and completely boring the pants off you, that is.)

    “Chemicals” are capable of marvellous things; certainly capable of things far more marvellous than mere human intelligence. And I hold it as the strongest of evidence of the horribly, horrifically limited nature of our normal everyday worldview that it is possible for us to not realise it.

  • spyglass

    Chemicals can produce Free Will? Produce Art? Doesn’t seem to add up. No matter how you look at it, chemicals are reacting to something, at least initially. There is Cause and there is Effect. Chemicals are at Effect. There may be a cascade of chemical effects, but something exterior to the chemicals got the chain going.

    I’ll remind you that all great truths are simple. The more complicated a truth is, the less likely it is a great truth. I appreciate the beauty and complexity of the material universe, but that’s the way I look at it.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Produce art, certainly. Any natural landscape, nebulae out among the stars, or even a single snowflake will demonstrate that. And the laws of physics are a work of art in themselves.

    Free will depends on what you mean by the term. I assume what you’re objecting to is determinism (since chemicals very obviously will do things on their own), and the idea that the free will is an uncaused cause. Materialism says that the thing we look at and call free will is not like that, true, but then when you analyse the arguments for thinking that it should be, it seems it isn’t such a hard and fast requirement after all. You can get something that fits observation pretty easily, and the most common emotional reasons for wanting it that way can also be satisfied, to an extent. Although if that’s the way reality actually is, simply not liking it is not sufficient reason to reject the idea. If reality is deterministic and free will does not exist and it only seems otherwise, well tough. Reality is not required to conform to your way of thinking. You only need a little experience with something like quantum mechanics to realise that it usually doesn’t.

    But in the case of free will, you can rescue the concept by realising that it still applies from the limited perspective of an individual. The universe is deterministic, but little bits of the universe taken in isolation are not. Consider the individual in his or her environment, and then turn the idea inside out. The rest of the universe is not complete without you, events in it are not determined in isolation from you, and therefore there is an essential causal influence from you upon the rest of the universe that cannot be deduced or derived from looking at the rest of the universe without you.

    I probably didn’t explain that very well, but essentially free will is a feature of a mindset that splits the universe up into bits in order to treat them separately, and is a property of the relationships between those bits. Such a mindset cannot consider the components to be deterministic; only considered as a whole, where individuals and agents merge, does that property apply.

    There are other ways of looking at it, but I’m getting a bit off topic now. It’s fun, though.

    If you want to play some more (and none of the grown-ups who really own this blog come in to tell us to knock it off wasting their bandwidth), you could start by explaining what causality is – strict definition please – before we go on to decide whether something can cause without being either caused or random. How do you define/decide when one thing causes another?

  • Nick M


    Chemicals produce art?

    Nah, never. I used to paint. You know titanium oxides are used to produce white. I am a materialist. I am made of chemicals but I am also me. It’s a matter of view really. It is a matter of interpretation. I feel and think but that’s my viewpoint. Then there’s the viewpoint of what chemical and physical processes are going on in my body. My feeling is real but it is produced by this astonishingly complicated interaction by gigantic numbers of atoms. Mind blowing numbers. I can believe that these are responsible for my consciousness and for my preference for Bach over Mahler. You and me really are very complicated. You might think the Windows registry is complicated but that’s peanuts to yourself.


  • Midwesterner

    There’s only one holy book that I could be convinced was written by some sort of creator, and that is the universe itself.


    And the universe is unquestionably written in the language of advanced mathematics,


    Mathematics is to the universe as the alphabet and punctuation are to language. It is easy to confuse the two, but mathematic and linguistic symbols are just ways of describing something greater.

    It is more accurate to say that advanced mathematics is an effort to transcribe the universe.

  • spyglass

    So I take it you think that eventually science will be able to reproduce the chemicals that caused Michelangelo to create his art. And then I guess it could be put in pill form, and a another Michelangelo produced at will.

  • Pa Annoyed


    I don’t understand what point you’re trying to make with your analogy.


    It’s not necessarily the identity of the chemicals but their arrangement. The chemicals in Michaelangelo’s brain are probably the same as those in anyone else’s, but arranged differently.

    It’s not impossible that the difference between an artistic brain and a non-artistic one is some small number of embryonic growth factors that cause the brain to wire up in a different way, in which case it might one day be possible to put it in a pill. That’s just speculation.

    But even if that isn’t the case, it can still be done by a combination of billions of trillions of chemicals arranged in a particular form so they interact in a particular way. No, you can’t just construct another one, arranging a billion trillion microscopic entities precisely is far beyond our technology, but it’s a practical limitation, not a theoretical one.

    Like I said before, I don’t ask or expect you to believe that. But I can tell you that we are quite serious about our materialist beliefs. 🙂

    Nick, -1/12.

  • Midwesterner

    Then you need to expand your meta-context beyond symbolic representationalism.

    Your statement “the universe is unquestionably written in the language of advanced mathematics” confines the universe to mathematics much as writing in Cobol confines the program process to Cobol’s parameters.

    In truth, the Universe is what it is. Mathematics came second. It is an effort to describe, not define universal truths. It is symbolic.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Ah, I think I see what you mean now.

    Except that Cobol programs can do exactly the same range of things as Ada programs, Perl programs, Java programs, Pascal programs, Fortran programs, C++ programs, and so on. (And chemical robots, too.) The concept of “programming language” encompasses, unifies, and identifies the correspondences between the plethora of aparently disparate views, and the infinity of potential views too. Your Cobol example is like talking about Euclidean geometry, but Euclidean geometry can be translated into algebraic geometry, which is a special case in topology, which is the same as analysis and set theory, which are equivalent to logic, which is a special case of combinatorics, which can be expressed as an application of group theory, which is founded in symmetry, which while going infinitely far beyond its origins comes originally, full circle, from the study of geometry.

    Mathematics is not simply notation, or a group of notations, but a set of underlying structures and correspondences which can be looked at in a million different ways. One of the bits that mathematicians love the most is when you find two different apparently totally unrelated bits of mathematics, and by looking at it in a special way realise that they are really the same thing. Mathematics is all the connections too; the underlying entities behind the symbols. Symbols are just tools – to say mathematics is just the symbols is to describe ‘art’ as blobs of paint on canvas.

    Let me give you a very quick example. One of the early attempts to model the spread of disease said that if the proportion of possible victims with the disease in a particular season was x, then the proportion next season depended on the number spreading it x, the number it could be spread to (1-x), and some sort of constant efficiency factor measuring how contagious the disease was. So x(t+1) = C times x(t) times (1-x(t)). C can be a number up to 4. If you pick C small enough, the disease quickly dies out. If you pick C a little larger, the proportion homes in on a stable value, no matter where you start. Larger still, and it hops between two different values, then four values, then cycles round 8 values, 16, 32, and so on. Keep going, and it suddenly breaks out into an irregular, patternless jumble, hopping here and there apparently at random.

    Real diseases have been observed to do the same things, so this is a real feature of the universe we live in – a feature of life built in to the very foundations of the way it works.

    And it is the Mandelbrot set.

    Yes, the weird snowman shaped thing that makes all those beautiful pictures – it is encoded in the structure of the way diseases like smallpox and the black death spread. If you look at the set the way it is usually depicted, you see a series of black circles running along the axis of symmetry, each smaller than the last. Each circle corresponds precisely to one of the ranges of contagiousness factors giving each of the periods – 1, 2, 4, 8, etc. – that the disease population cycles round. C is just the distance along the axis from the central point. The twisted, shattered rainbow you see around the set corresponds in a precise way to the irregular fluctuations.

    So next time you catch a cold, you can reflect that you and your suffering are part of a glorious fractal Mandelbrot pattern hanging somewhere off to the side of reality. Mathematics is not just the disease model, or the world of square roots of negative numbers that is where the Mandelbrot set lives, or the fluid dynamics of rising smoke, or stock market fluctuations; but is the unification and relationship of all these windows into the same underlying reality. Mathematics, the subject of our study, is that which is behind them all.

  • Midwesterner

    But you are missing my point. Yes. I could (at one time, at least) chose several different languages to model the 23 and 1/3 cases of pharmaceuticals in bay 27, level C. And I could use any of those languages to predict outcomes of various actions taking with the inventory.

    But the bottom line was and is, what was in the warehouse is what mattered. If the warehouse staff were doing there jobs correctly and my data did not predict accurately what and where they would find items, the problem was in the program. Not in reality.

    I could give you thousands of examples of how various programs in various languages successfully predicted the same outcome. But that would in no way change the derivative nature of their existence.

    Reality exists. Mathematics discovers and describes reality. But it is not reality in it self. Mathematics must be bound by reality to be meaningful and reality cannot be bound by mathematics.

    One last thing. Art IS just blobs of paint on canvas. A painting of a cow is not a cow. It is representational symbolism. And that’s all mathematics is. It is not reality, but it may be religion.

  • Pa Annoyed

    And to follow on from your last point, mathematical symbols are also real and physical. Symbols are physical entities, their manipulation is a physical process, and the very fact that reality can be represented is one of the most interesting and significant properties of reality.

    It is easy to imagine that representations are a sort of independent shadow that has no bearing on reality, that observe it without taking part in it. Mathematicians used to think so too. It was only when David Deutch started developing quantum information theory that we realised this was wrong. Computation (including the process of mathematical proof) is a physical process – what you can prove depends on the laws of physics, and physics in turn is always an implementation of mathematical calculations. The two, again, are merely different reflections of the same underlying entity.

    Some of the most profound results in mathematical logic are related to this idea of recursive representation. You can prove various theorems in number theory, and then you can precisely translate those proofs into numbers, so that numbers with a particular property correspond exactly to valid proofs. (Look up Godel numbers, if curious.) The study of arithmetic becomes its own subject, and the observer and observed are one.

    Because you see mathematicians are physical objects too, and so anything mathematicians do is a part of physics. By this level-transcending relation between the subject and its study, the study is inevitably real and physical too. Not as a physical object; but as a consequence of physical law.

    As above, so below.

    Nice try, Mid! Keep going… 🙂

  • REN


    I understand what you are saying, what is, IS, and the rest is an attempt to categorize, a human construction to try to understand it. It reminds me of the discussion I have with people when they say “truth is relative.” My usual response is “um no, truth is truth, but human understanding of truth, or ‘human truth,’ is somewhat a matter of perspective and is usually, if not always, an incomplete understanding of actual truth; therefor, ‘human truth’ is relative, while actual ‘truth’ is not.”

    People usually don’t like that answer and don’t like dealing with the thought of “absolutes,” even when I admit that these actual truths aren’t “black and white” to us, as they aren’t really fully knowable or “absolute.” I know that we may actually be talking about the same thing, but after listening to most counter-arguments, I doubt it. To me, this makes perfect sense, but to them it often seems like an unnecessary puzzle and perhaps an intentional distraction, which it is not.

  • Pa Annoyed


    You will make many friends here with that attitude!

    This is mildly amusing.

  • Midwesterner

    REN, if I understand you (and I think I do) we are in exact agreement. I’ve even used very similar language to yours. One question, how does your meaning of ‘human truth’ compare to ‘human perception’?

    Regarding Protagoras and Socrates, the greatest humor is often found in the unexpected results of truth. The humor comes from it demonstrating the fundamental flaw of relativism. When I was young, I had a friend who’s father was a Christian Scientist so I looked up and became aquainted with an extreme form of personal relativism. My thought, even back then, was that quite along the lines of the argument attributed to Socrates.

  • Midwesterner

    are merely different reflections of the same underlying entity.

    Emmm… As long as mathematics is a reflector and not a projector you’re okay. But your general case does not seem internally consistent.

    Like many people who have faith (as opposed to mere confidence) in a system of beliefs, you seem to have a very tenuous or non-existent awareness of the difference between the symbol and what is symbolized. I think you were not joking when you implyed mathematics was your religion. Were you serious?

  • REN


    That was a fun and interesting read, perhaps I should have used “subjective” over “relative” truth, as there really should be a difference. Protagoras says both “Truth is relative” and “Truth is subjective.” Is it the same? I need to start looking further into this site; if there are more conversations going on like this, with this kind of reasoning back and forth, I will definitely like it. Thanks for the link.


    I haven’t taken the time to define the difference between human perception and human truth. In what I wrote earlier, I pretty much used human ‘perspective’ and human truth interchangeably (like the “subjective” and “relative” word use).

    Thinking about it now, perception and perspective as words have roots in what one can see, perhaps implying what one can understand, or choose to see and understand. Then, “human truth” has an element of vulnerability to it (it’s not perfect, it’s human), perhaps meaning less-than actual truth, for whatever reason (I’ll have to think about this more).

    Here’s another thought, hopefully this makes more sense ~> “human truth” is different than “human perception” in that it the former is either descriptive, of what humans actually know, or prescriptive, of what their capabilities are; and “human perception” comes first, as the filter of the knowledge that has the potential of becoming human truth.

    LOL, is that convoluted enough? Reading and writing this stuff leaves me feeling like I should go back to school and take more philosophy and reason/logic classes. It took me three tries to write this response.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Mid, this is a very difficult idea. I don’t normally pull this level of thinking out and wave it around in public, so my apologies if I’m going to be unclear.

    Symbols and what is symbolised are different entities. But representation relies on the fact that symbols manipulated by a computing machine behave in the same way as bits of the universe following physical law. The apple falls and Newton calculates, and the answers come out the same. There isn’t really a distinction between the computing machine and the thing being represented – they are both physical systems following physical laws. The representation works because physical law has a lot of self-similarity in its structure, and the rules governing mathematicians applying Newton’s inverse square law are computationally equivalent to apples falling. Newton is a computer running a Cobol program while the falling apple is a computer running a Fortran program, but the programs do the same thing.

    A computer (let’s take an electronic one now) is a physical thing. You can represent it on two different levels: You can calculate the flow of currents, the motions of electrons through semiconductors, the lighting of LEDs. Or you can calculate how binary numbers are being added, comparisons made, strings of characters manipulated, variables assigned, arrays filled, subroutines called, programs run. The reality of electrical currents in a sense symbolises the abstract mathematics, rather than the other way round. A current here means a 1. At the risk of confusing, imagine the computer is running a circuit simulation program (so a 1 here means a current is flowing), so physical circuits are representing other physical circuits (or even the same physical circuits!) via the intermediary of mathematical representation.

    And the laws of the universe are such that when you set up bits of wire and doped semiconductor in this way, and compare it to what you get when you set them up the other way, the answers correspond. That isn’t accidental or trivial, it’s a particular very special property of the laws of our universe, that you can do this. This relationship between physical and abstract and back to physical again, and all the things tied together so, is mathematics.

    As I said above, mathematics considers one set of symbols or one way of looking at things as a mere tool for looking at the common underlying structure. Mathematics is the study of whatever it is that connects a circuit and an electronic computer simulating a circuit and makes them give the same answer.

    The computer churning out Mandelbrot’s swirling images and the bubonic plague bug hopping from one person to another are different entities, but each symbolises the other. Each can be seen as part of a computation of the same structure. They are the same program written in different computer languages.

    “Mathematics” is the name we give to the consequences of a particular feature of the laws of physics, and we can be in no doubt that they really do have this property, from the very fact that we are able to think it. That mathematics is real and written in the structure of the universe is certain.
    To paraphrase another famous mathematician: “Cogito, ergo Sums.”

  • REN


    BTW, I meant Samizdata, not the other site you linked. As a side note, I’m happy to learn the origin of “samizdat'” as well, very interesting.

    I did a search to find the roots, as I speak a little Russian, but not being a native speaker with a deeper cultural knowledge, I couldn’t translate or break down the term even after reading this site’s description. It was the play on another popular Soviet word/name that was lost on me:

    “The term Samizdat translated from the Russian sam or ‘self’ and izadatelstvo or ‘publishing,’ is a play on the official soviet Gosizdat, or ‘State Publishing House.'”


  • REN


    “‘Mathematics’ is the name we give to the consequences of a particular feature of the laws of physics, and we can be in no doubt that they really do have this property, from the very fact that we are able to think it. That mathematics is real and written in the structure of the universe is certain.”

    It’s been hard for me to agree with you because I think more like Mid does on this topic. Let’s see if he disagrees, so here’s my two cents ~>

    Wouldn’t mathematics be the “words” put to the “ideas” of the physical reality of physics? Let me explain here, I think that words are to thoughts, as your “mathematics” are to the structure of the universe. I could describe thoughts as words, as we think in “words” but aren’t the ideas, and reality, really beyond words?

    Now, noting that I do indeed think in “words,” are my thoughts bound and defined by words? Or, is there something else much more complex going on and the words are just representations of those thoughts? We can learn new languages and think in them, to express old and new ideas… it’s not the words specifically, it’s the ideas behind them, even though I am quite literally thinking in words.

    I am finding that the more I read your ideas Pa, the more I have to question this ability to separate these seemingly unified concepts you’re trying to express. I’m trying to understand you, really I am, but so far it’s still quite separate in my thinking. Am I missing something more subtle?

  • Pa Annoyed


    Yes, something like that, except that mathematics contains not only the words, but the ideas, and the connection between the two, and the same ideas expressed in all the other languages, all at once. We may be arguing semantics here – what you understand by the word “mathematics” versus what mathematicians understand by it.

    The list of words “Two plus two equals five” are just as valid a sentence as the list “Two plus two equals four.” Without the ideas – the meanings associated with the words – there would be no obvious way to distinguish one as being better than the other. Mathematics has to contain the ideas as well. And the string of words “Two and two are four” is apparently an entirely different sentence, and yet is mathematically the same, so in a sense the ideas are more important than the words.

    It’s not just the connection between words and their meanings, but the connection between words and the things they describe. You have the word “brick”, the idea of a brick, and an actual physical brick. What I think you are trying to say is that having the idea of a brick in mind doesn’t make an actual brick exist. Perfectly true, of course.

    But what I am saying is that mental bricks in the mind of a computer act essentially in the same way as physical bricks would out in the real world: that the two are computationally equivalent. That’s why we have mental bricks, so that we can predict the behaviour of the real ones.

    Mathematics is all about this equivalence: the way different systems when interpreted in certain ways can be seen as doing the same thing. The physical instantiations are clearly different objects, symbol and symbolised, but there is something subtle that is the same about them both. Mathematicians think of it as a single algorithm – one calculational method/process – but implemented on different hardware in different languages, with different symbols. Actual bricks symbolise and simulate a person thinking about bricks as much as vice versa, in the sense that you can figure out what the person will say when asked a question about stacked bricks by stacking up the bricks to see what happens. The bricks are a computer for studying people: we use an actual brick to symbolise a complex property of the sounds they make.

    I’ll try another tack, and ask the question “what is the number 2?” Two sheep I know, that’s something physical. Two cows, two paperweights, two words, two books, two bricks; all OK. But what is 2, all on its own?

    “2” is what all the above sets have in common. It is the abstraction of ‘two-ness’. If we take two bricks and add another, we find we get three bricks, but that doesn’t tell us anything about what would happen if we took two sheep and added another. Maybe you get three sheep, or maybe it’s different for sheep. However, if we can prove something about “2”, the number, then we know that it will apply to two sheep, two stars, two unicorns, twos of things we haven’t even thought of yet.

    But you’ll note that this thing we’re talking about isn’t the symbol “2”, or the word “two” for that matter, neither of which directly have the property of two-ness. But because the symbol “2” follows the same rules as 2 when run through a computer, it does have a sort of two-ness in this context, and can be thought of as part of the same thing.

    Yes, these are difficult and subtle ideas. But the universe wouldn’t be half so interesting without them.

  • REN


    That makes sense, as the words used in your thinking in a way *are* those things in your thoughts. When I think “cow,” it’s not the word cow that matters, it’s the idea of the cow itself. I think this has indeed become a semantics conversation, somewhat, but I am still inclined to think of “mathematics” as more of a language, than the is that *is.* What makes me think that the most is how mathematicians, like any scientist, are describing what they think they understand, and *hope* is absolute truth; truth has sometimes yet to be truly understood. Is math both a language and reality, with the former hoping to be the latter?

  • Midwesterner

    REN, I have found in past discussions with him that while we agree on most superficial matters, when we delve down to the roots, P-A lives in a fundamentally different reality than I do. I think you will find that, like Mormons are with geneology, he is a very useful source of information and learning regarding mathematics, but that he places an entirely different and morally based value on that knowledge. The difference you and I have with him is not semantics, it is real.

    There isn’t really a distinction between the computing machine and the thing being represented – they are both physical systems following physical laws.

    I see a fundamental flaw here. Certainly both are following physical laws. But they are different entities. Their only equivelence is through the human perception process, and that is vulnerable. I do not argue that the laws of physics for the computer (or human) are not the same as the laws for whatever part of reality is being studied. Rather, I point out that they are separate activities within reality, linked only by the human mind and its belief process. The human mind is vulnerable to error. Therefore, that link is vulnerable. It is subjective.

    The belief that mathematics equates with the laws of reality is a mistake. Mathematics is not the creator of those laws, or even co-equal. It is subject to them. The laws of reality are what they are. Mathematics is another (admittedly high resolution) means of perceiving them. That is all it is.

    This whole debate reminds me of a short story by C S Lewis in which a blind person has their vision restored and tries to see light. He doesn’t understand that light is the means of perception, not the thing perceived.

    Oh, one more thing, REN. I’m not sure how long you’ve lurked here, but occasionally when a thread rolls off of the front page of Samizdata it may remain active for a few more posts from a very few people, but mostly, once it’s off of the front page, it’s finished. I probably won’t comment further on this thread but I look forward to reading your comments on other threads.

  • Pa Annoyed

    REN, Mid,

    Yes, maths is a language used to describe “the is that is”, and in that context, it is not “the is that is”. And in the mind of a fallible mathematician the correspondence may be false or approximate. But language is a real thing itself. The human mind is a real thing, and what is does is real. Humans are a part of the universe, their minds a part of reality and they work according to the laws of physics, however much we might like to kid ourselves that they’re not.

    When the first cavemen were sharing out the hunt and instead of laboriously piling up two antelope and then another one to get three, they took two pebbles and then another one to get three, the connection between pebbles and antelope was not merely a matter of belief linked by the human mind. Two plus one is three is a real feature of the real world (to a very high degree of approximation), and adding up the pebbles gives an answer that does apply to the antelope.

    The pebbles are not the antelope; the pebbles are just the words of the language our cavemen use to describe the antelope. But would you really contend that the fact that adding pebbles works is a feature only of the language, and not of the way the universe is?

    There is one semantic difference I’ve noted, whether mathematics is what mathematicians do or what they study. Geographers thing that geography is about the real world, and they draw maps of it as a tool. Outsiders thing geography is about drawing maps, and note that the maps may be wrong. The geographers reply that they know that, and indeed have a far more detailed understanding of all the flaws and errors that can occur, but that nevertheless maps work, and they wouldn’t do if it was all in their heads. Maps work at least partly because the piece of paper that is the map exists in the same sort of space, and has the same geometry as the ground it describes. So you can match up pictures on the map and features on the ground, and expect all their respective relationships to work out.
    (It works because the sort of space we live in has a particular scaling symmetry; it is a fundamental property of the laws of physics. Maps are not some sort of unreal etherial vaguery, like people think of thoughts as being, but as physical as the landscape they represent.)

    What does the word “geography” mean to you? What do you think geographers study? Drawing maps, or the landscape “out there”?

    I’ve done my best to explain what I mean, and if I haven’t convinced everyone yet, I don’t think I will by carrying on. Diversity of worldviews is valuable, too.

    I’ll see you in the other threads.

  • Damn, this seems to be over, and I am late:-( What the hell, I just have to add my 2 – 3 cents…

    I think understand perfectly what Pa says, and I tend to agree, with a couple of clarifications attached:

    1. Both “pebbles” (=computers=human mind=etc), and antelopes are physical phenomena. Still, one is used to represent the other (antelopes being too heavy to pile up).

    2. Math is not merely the language (=set of symbols) used to describe/represent physical phenomena, indeed physical reality. Rather, “laws of physics” = “mathematical laws”, no doubt about it, and the universe really is running according to these laws, whatever their name. One can get specific, according to one’s specific area of study, and talk about laws of chemistry, laws of biology, even laws of psychology (OK, not so sure about that last one, but you see the point:-)). “Laws of physics” is a generalization of all of the above, and laws of mathematics is a still further generalization.

    When my son was in 3rd grade, his math teacher told them that math is a science. I was very upset, and explained to him that math is not a science, but a (scientific) discipline, i.e. a set of tools used to describe, organize, and, ultimately, understand and explain natural (as if there is any other!) science, namely physics, as well as a set of tools being used by engineers to create physical objects (yes, that includes software as well as hardware), that were not created by nature. The reason I see it this way is because I tend to look at this from a scientist’s/engineer’s perspective. Pa is a mathematician, so he would most likely disagree. (Still, when discussing 3rd grade math, my definition seems to be much better suited). I don’t disagree with Pa, though. I am just saying that math has these 2 different aspects to it: one is looking at pebbles as physical objects, just like the antelopes, the other is seeing the pebbles as a representation/abstraction of the antelopes.

    I feel better now. I’ll feel even better if one of you gets to read this:-)

  • Pa Annoyed

    Welcome to the debate, Alisa!

    Thanks for the support, it is appreciated. I won’t argue with your definition, although I note some people have called it a “formal science”, to distinguish it from natural sciences.

    I’m afraid I have a mathematician’s fondness for strangeness and different ways of looking at the world, and know that I tend to go on and on about it if given the chance. I worry that I bore people who aren’t so interested in this way of looking at the world, or annoy people who like the standard way of looking at things thank you very much, and would I please stop poking holes in their reality? I’m well aware that my view of the world isn’t widely shared, but I don’t have a problem with people disagreeing if they understand what I’m trying to say.

    However, it probably isn’t polite to drop huge maths essays on somebody else’s political blog all the time. I’d start my own if my job allowed it. But in the meantime I’ll only do it so long as I feel it is welcome, and Midwesterner called time on this one. I’m not going to push it.

    I’m sure there will be further opportunities for mathematical diversions in future.

  • Midwesterner

    Oh wait. Not my thread! Yikes. I only wanted to not have to follow it for an unknown period of time or else be thought to be agreeing. Which I am not. But it seems I am following it anyway. D’oh! It’s somebody else’s thread but at this point, I can’t remember who.

    Okay, I checked. It’s one of Johnathan’s. I doubt he would mind how long you guy’s want to go on with it but I didn’t want REN to think that I was ignoring him/her/it/them(?).

    I think about posting a thread just for debates of epistemology, which is what this has evolved into, but I’m afraid that with that subject matter, I would ‘throw a party’ to which nobody came.

    If a few people promise to find something to argue about, I’ll post one. Any takers? Should I name a specific topics or just let it be whatever specific topic in epistemology the commenter(s) want(s)?

  • Should I name a specific topics or just let it be whatever specific topic in epistemology the commenter(s) want(s)?

    You can certainly feel free to do the former, as it will eventually evolve into the latter anyway:-P

  • Pa Annoyed

    I would never assume someone was agreeing because they stopped arguing. I’d assume it meant they didn’t want to argue any more. Or because they had something else more important to do – I myself often find real life intruding into my arguing time. 🙂

    I prefer it if it evolves natually, and as I said above, I would consider it a little rude of me to do it too often. This site is supposed to be about Libertarianism, and to a large extent about bashing the government and the political classes generally. I’d prefer to take part and contribute with my own interests as naturally-arising opportunity allows.

    But if you’re going to post one, no doubt I’ll be unable to resist the temptation to contribute. 🙂

  • REN

    I love this stuff and would get a big kick out of a thread being devoted to it… I suspect it might get way too deep and thick, way too fast, but that’s half the fun, no? Glad you didn’t miss the fun Alisa, and hello!

  • nice story ,I like tish kinds feedom …..


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