Category: World

Dismal Global Equilibria

By Sean Carroll | June 14, 2012 12:00 pm

The Civilization series of games takes players through the course of history, allowing them to guide a society/nation from way back in prehistory up through the near future (say, 2100). You develop technologies, choose political systems, and raise armies. There are various ways to “win” the game: military conquest, achieving a just and happy society, or building a spaceship that will travel to Alpha Centauri. It’s a great pastime for any of us who harbor the suspicion that the world would be a better place if we were installed as a benevolent dictator.

Although the game is supposed to take you to the near future, apparently (I’ve never played) you can keep going if you choose to. Which is exactly what one commenter at Reddit did: he has been nursing a single game of Civilization II for ten years now, bringing his virtual global society up to the year 3991 AD. (Via It’s Okay to Be Smart, a wonderful blog.) At which point we may ask: what have we learned?

The news is not good. If you’ve ever read 1984, the outcome will be eerily familiar. I can do no better than quote:

  • The world is a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation.
  • There are 3 remaining super nations in the year 3991 A.D, each competing for the scant resources left on the planet after dozens of nuclear wars have rendered vast swaths of the world uninhabitable wastelands.
  • The ice caps have melted over 20 times (somehow) due primarily to the many nuclear wars. As a result, every inch of land in the world that isn’t a mountain is inundated swamp land, useless to farming. Most of which is irradiated anyway.

It gets better from there.

What we actually learn about is the structure of the game. We have one player against the computer (who manages multiple civilizations), each with certain goals — a paradigmatic game theory problem. Such games can have “equilibrium strategies,” where no player can make a unilateral change that would improve their situation. Assuming that this player isn’t simply missing something, it’s likely that the game has reached one such equilibrium. That could be the only equilibrium, or there could be a happier one that might have been reached by making different decisions along the way.

What we would like to learn, but can’t, is whether this has any relevance to the real globe. It might! But maybe not. The Earth isn’t a closed system, so the “escape to another planet” option is on the table. But the Solar System is quite finite, and largely forbidding, and other stars are really far away. So limiting our attention to the Earth alone isn’t necessarily a bad approximation.

Right now the human population of the Earth is very far from equilibrium, either politically, or technologically, or socially, or simply in terms of sheer numbers. A real equilibrium wouldn’t be burning through finite resources like fossil fuels at such a prodigious rate, continually inventing new technologies, and constantly re-arranging its political map. But it’s possible (probably unlikely) that we could reach a quasi-equilibrium state in another couple of centuries. With a system as complicated as human civilization on Earth, naive extrapolation of past trends toward the future isn’t likely to tell us much. But “sustainable” isn’t a synonym for “desirable.” If there could be such a near-term equilibrium, would it be a happy one, or the game-prognosticated future of endless war and suffering?

Not clear. I have some measure of optimism, based on the idea that real people wouldn’t simply persist in the same cycles of conflict and misery for indefinite periods of time. It only seems that way sometimes.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Technology, World

The World Changes, We Stay Largely the Same

By Sean Carroll | May 2, 2011 12:07 pm

One thing is pretty much guaranteed, in the wake of a big-time news event: people are going to make it about themselves.

When Osama bin Laden is killed in a raid in Pakistan, politically-inclined folks in the U.S. are immediately going to wonder how this impacts the 2012 elections. Obama supporters are going to celebrate a bit more readily than they would have if the same thing had happened when George W. Bush was in office. Obama’s opponents are going to be a bit more skeptical, likewise. (From Free Republic: “We got him in spite of Obama, he’s more interested in getting our military Homosexualized than he is about any war on terror.”) Or they will use the opportunity to make some sort of political statement amidst the crowd outside the White House.

People from NYC and DC and elsewhere who lost friends and family on 9/11 might attain a bit of closure. Pakistanis will both worry about and celebrate how the operation went down. In China, some will mourn the loss of a strong anti-American presence, while others will lump bin Laden in with their own Politburo as forces of evil in the world. People who think about social media will focus on the way the news bypassed traditional channels. Wolf Blitzer will make sure a national TV audience understands that this was big enough news to drag him from home into the studio.

All that is okay. When news hits, we don’t immediately leap from receiving new information to having a fully developed and highly nuanced set of reactions. If people naturally interact with the news in terms of their pre-existing feelings and interests, let them. Some people are going to celebrate the death of a terrorist, while others will recoil at celebrating the death of anybody. It should be fine either way; let people have their moments.

I have no idea what the ramifications of the raid on bin Laden’s compound are going to be for international relations. Generally I lean toward the side that we focused on one guy because it’s useful to personalize the enemy in wartime, not because bin Laden himself was the real problem. But what do I know? It could be that he served a crucial symbolic or even operational role, and that this will really diminish the scope of al-Qaeda terrorism. Or maybe it will serve as a rallying cry, and things will get worse. I suspect that going through security at airports is going to be even more intrusive than usual for the next few months.

The social-media cognoscenti certainly do have something to talk about. In the soon-to-be-immortal words of Bill the Lizard, “I heard about 9/11 on the radio, bin Laden’s death on Twitter.” Me too. We did actually turn on the TV when it became clear that big news was coming. What a contrast; the internet was interesting and lively, while the TV pundits swerved between ponderous and clueless.

And, naturally, the attack itself was live-tweeted. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Top Posts, World

Life Under Dictatorship

By Sean Carroll | March 26, 2011 2:13 pm

As the fighting continues in Libya, the Gaddafi government has invited foreign reporters to Tripoli, as long as they stay in the Rixos hotel. They are barred from leaving to report on actual events, but occasionally get to hear government statements or get taken on organized tours for propaganda purposes.

That tightly-controlled system was violated this morning when Eman al-Obeidy, a Libyan woman from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, escaped from two days of imprisonment at the hands of Gaddafi’s militia. She managed to flee to the Rixos, where she told reporters about her ordeal. According to Obeidy, she was tied up, beaten, and raped by 15 men, who also defecated and urinated on her. She pleaded for her friends who are still in custody, and showed a number of bruises and injuries on her body.

Being surrounded by international media did not keep her safe, as she was soon confronted by security forces as she told her story. Despite resisting frantically and some attempts at intervention by journalists, she was taken away in a car. Hotel employees sided with the security forces, threatening Obeidy and using knives to hold off journalists who were trying to help her. Soon thereafter, government spokespeople accused her of being drunk and mentally ill, claiming that her story of rape and abuse was a fantasy.

Here’s a video of Obeidy being taken away. Warning: intense and very real.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, World

Here comes Katla?

By John Conway | July 20, 2010 4:43 pm

Being kind of a volcano/earthquake geek, I regularly check in on the recent California earthquake records, the Kilauea activity, and, in the past couple months since the Eyjafjallajokull, the earthquake activity near it that might presage an eruption of Eyja’s big sister, Katla. Historically, eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull are followed by eruptions of Katla, which are an order of magnitude larger. The eruption of Eyjafjallajokull disrupted air travel in Europe for weeks. It’s interesting to consider what a big volcano Katla might do. There is also the fact that Katla erupts every 40-80 years and hasn’t erupted since 1918, making this a potentially bigger buildup to an eruption. Some of the Katla eruptions in the past have gone on for months.

Since I have been watching, the number of earthquakes near Katla has been small, with a few periods of a dozen or so within a 24 hour period. Almost every time I have looked it’s been very quiet, perhaps one or two a day. I was away the previous two weeks, and apparently missed a day with 11 earthquakes on July 10. I checked again today, and I got the map below, with over a dozen earthquakes! Now, clearly, these are all small earthquakes, with magnitude near 1, and there are no reports of steam or ash as yet.

I bet it’s coming, though, fairly soon. The president of Iceland does, too.



Guest Post: Eugene Lim on Calculus in Haiti

By Sean Carroll | July 13, 2010 2:31 pm

A little while back we advertised that Eugene Lim had volunteered to visit Haiti to teach in a university there over the summer, and would be reporting back about the experience. Here’s Eugene’s write-up — a powerful and affecting look into conditions there, and the spirit of the students.


I noticed a puzzled look on Vicky’s face — she was squinting at the blackboard filled with equations describing how the subtitution rule in integral calculus works. She is one of my better students whom I know to be following my lectures well. I took it as a cue that I have not made a point clear, and I knew I must fallen back into speaking as though as my students are native English speakers. They are not — they speak Haitian Creole, and I was trying to teach them basic intro to mathematics in English and and a smattering of Creole.

Hello from Fondwa, Haiti, elevation 850m, Population 8000. For the past twenty days, I have been teaching a group of enthusiastic Haitian university students at the University of Fondwa. As I mentioned in my previous post, the university lost all its buildings during the Jan 12 quake. At the moment, we are using an abandoned warehouse as a temporary campus. It has no roof, so we put a tin roof over to keep the rain out. We use tarps (thank you USAID) for our windows to keep the rain out. There are 3 classrooms and an office. Some of the students have lost their homes in the Jan 12 earthquake, so the university allowed them to stay inside the warehouse.


We have no running water and a few solar panels for power. Water is obtained from wells, from a spring (about 15 minutes walk up hill), and from the regular rain showers we have been getting — hurricane season is upon us after all. This often led to me wondering whether I should be wishing for rain so we can fill up our water tank, or for the sun so we can charge up our batteries.

Many of the students are extremely enthusiastic. In my first full day, when I was just waiting for a teaching assignment, Deb, Vicky and Everest approached me and asked me in halting English what I would be teaching. I told them I would probably be teaching them math, and they said they have not had a math professor for the entire semester, and oh would you help us with some of these problems. So I ended up working with them right there and then. Turns out that these vanguard of students have been trying to teach themselves math from some books. They have had some confusion with concepts that one would expect from being self-taught, but they were sharp and intelligent. I found it a joy to work with them. Deb in particular, is especially strong and spoke some English, so I hired him as my Teaching Assistant who can also translate for me. Given his mathematical acumen, I started teaching him more advanced topics in a special class.


I was assigned to teach two classes in four weeks — an Intro to mathematics (for first years) and the vaguely titled “Business Mathematics” class to the 4th years. After a quick evaluation of the students’ ability, I ended up deciding that I am going to teach the first years differential and integral calculus — useful things to know whether you are going to be an agronomist or a manager. For the “business math” class, I chose to teach them some basic statistics — with the goal that they should be able to deal with frequency and probability distribution functions when completed.

English is not a widely spoken language in Haiti, so it was a challenge to teach the classes. However, I find that we can make a lot of headway with a mixture of my rudimentary Creole and the combined English knowledge of my students, assisted by a dictionary. The classes understandably proceed slower than usual, but that is not always a bad thing in pedagogy. After a hesitant start, we settled on a good system where some of the more capable English speakers would translate for the other students in real time. Sometimes, some of the more advanced students would volunteer to teach a difficult concept which they have grasped to the class in Creole. The students are generally attentive, and eager — I am often asked to teach extra classes.


When classes are not in session, I am kept busy with students who wanted to learn more, or have questions about math or English. I find these impromptu discussion sessions the most rewarding — I can teach the students at the pace at which they are learning. As a personal bonus, I have the luxury of having the students teach *me* Creole. Although I am assigned a very good Creole teacher, I learned most of my Creole from such constant interaction with the students.


Living conditions in Fondwa are rough. I am staying in a semi-collapsed building with a couple of volunteers from the US (Rohan Mahy and Reuben Grandon), and a rotating roster of Haitian teachers, most who live outside Fondwa : unfortunately qualified teachers and lecturers are extremely scarce in Haiti. Our quake damaged building has no running water, no power, and red “X” marks on parts of the buildings that are unstable — a non-trivial indicator since we are still experiencing aftershocks (I personally felt three so far). On the other hand, we have a great view — on a clear day, we can see distant Leogane northward and the Gulf of Mexico, 80 km away.

Nevertheless, our humble abode is a palace compared to the conditions that most Haitians live in. Many of them have lost homes in the quake; some of hem are still living in tents. Ironically, many of the stone buildings collapsed, while the wooden ones survived. I visited one of the tent cities of Port-au-Prince — they are hot, dusty, crowded and so incredibly unsanitary that they seems like epidemic timebombs waiting to go off. Every single building left standing suffered some form of damage from the quake — sometimes looking past the intact facade will reveal a completely collapsed back portion of the house. This does not stop Haitians from living in them. There is a strong sense of communal spirit among rural Haitians, more than once, I was told by the tenants that their house was “kraze” (destroyed) in the gudu-gudu (quake) and they are living in that “kind madame’s” house. Our neighbouring house, a wooden structure no bigger than the size of a school bus, is home to thirty men, women and children.

The Haitians are very friendly. After getting past the initial bemusement (and amusement) of being called “blan” (white man) in the first few days, I find the Haitians incredibly hospitable, and resilient in the face of such hardship. Wherever I go, it is easy to smile and call out a “bonjou” or “bonswa”, or “komen ou ye” (how are you?) to people passing me or just doing chores in front of their houses. I have a special love for the Haitian children — they are the most energetic and playful bunch of kids I have ever met. A group of them would show up at our house from time to time, screaming the names of us *blan* volunteers, and we would end up playing with them until we are exhausted. It is poignant for me to know that some of them have lost siblings and parents in the quake.

I will be leaving Haiti in a few days. Personally, I found the teaching experience and my interactions with the Haitians incredibly fulfilling and rewarding. But it was also very sobering to see the damage, destruction and human misery caused by the quake. There is a lingering sense of not having done enough, and that there is so much more left to be done. I do plan to come back again, and perhaps learn enough Creole to teach in it next time.


Guest Post: Eugene Lim on Education in Haiti

By Sean Carroll | June 9, 2010 8:45 am

Eugene Lim Eugene Lim was one of my first graduate students at the University of Chicago. We violated Lorentz invariance together (it’s not as dirty as it sounds), and he’s since gone on to think about bubble collisions and eternal inflation at prestigious places like Yale, Columbia, and Cambridge.

But Eugene always cared about other things in addition to physics, and today he’s bringing us a guest post about a heart-wrenching topic: education in Haiti in the aftermath of their devastating earthquake. Not content to agitate for support from the comfort of his computer, Eugene is actually hopping on a plane this weekend to spend a month teaching math at a poor rural university. Here’s his introduction, and we hope to have a follow-up post after he returns from his travels.


On Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 4:53pm, a massive quake hit Haiti, killing an approximate quarter of a million people, injuring another quarter of a million, and causing massive infrastructure damage. Today, more than five months later, as the news cycle has moved on, Haitians are still pulling themselves out of the disaster, with 1.5 million people still homeless.

Fondwa is the 10th Communal Section of Leogane situated about 60 km south of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, near the epicenter of the quake. It is a rural community with big dreams, the peasants banded together in 1988 to form the APF (Association of Peasants of Fondwa) to create a model community, not just with the aim of providing basic services but to empower the people of Haiti by providing them with the education and knowledge to improve their own lives.

One of their amazing achievement is the founding of a university, the University of Fondwa (UNIF) in 2004 in the mountains of Haiti, offering majors in Management, Agricultural Engineering and Veterinary Science — skills necessary for a rural community to survive and thrive — with about 40 students from all over Haiti. They graduated their first class last year.

University of Fondwa

The quake destroyed all the buildings of UNIF : the main building, the dorms and the lecture halls. Remarkably, classes continued after the quake, first in tents, and hopefully soon in temporary shelters. Final exams were given and graded, and the new semester began on schedule, May 5.

Fondwa destroyed

I met the founder of the University, Fr. Joseph Phillipe in New York a few weeks ago (he also founded Haiti’s biggest microfinance bank, FONKOZE, but that’s another story) — a series of hopeful email inquiries inspired by the watching a documentary about Fondwa led to having coffee with him in uptown New York City. Despite the challenges that his community is facing, he was full of energy, focusing on what to do for the future. I was impressed. I told him I want to help out.

I told him I wanted to volunteer to teach in UNIF, but I was not sure what I need to do. He said “We are waiting for you in Fondwa.”

This week, I am headed down to Fondwa to teach math for a month. I was told to be prepared to be caught unprepared. Internet permitting, I hope to post a follow-up to this when I get to Fondwa with more pictures from the ground.

A month is not exactly a long time. But I hope that any help is better than no help at all — they are short on teaching staff after the quake. Personally, I have been inspired by humanitarian groups like Doctors without Borders and Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health. I can’t save lives as a doctor, but I can teach! A long term hope is to be able to build ties in Fondwa, and perhaps do this on a yearly basis. I believe that academics have a lot to contribute in making this world a better place beyond hanging out in our ivory towers.

I asked Fr. Joseph what else I can do to help, he said “Tell your friends about us, and ask your friends to come too”.

Sean has kindly allowed me to use this blog to publicize the plight of the community at Fondwa. They are still trying to get basic services in. Their main needs are monetary donations, temporary housing, clean water and volunteers! They are especially looking for long term volunteers for six months of longer. They are also looking for a President for UNIF — I am serious — if you are interested or know anybody who might be interested, email APF below.

If you like want to volunteer, the best way is to contact APF directly at or go to the APF homepage. If you like to donate directly to APF click on the link to my blog for the bank information. If you want help out Haitians to help themselves : support Fonkoze’s microfinancing efforts by helping out here.


Buses are bosons, and they condensate

By Daniel Holz | March 4, 2010 11:04 pm

I did my graduate work at the University of Chicago, and lived in Hyde Park. On occasion I would take the bus (the #6 Jeffery Express) to downtown. Although the buses were scheduled to run every 15 minutes, I would invariably end up waiting a half hour. Sometimes more. Often in the freezing cold, or the sweltering heat. Most infuriatingly, when the bus finally arrived, there was always another one immediately behind it! The buses inevitably came in pairs. Sometimes even in triples or quads.

Chicago busLet’s assume that the buses are supposed to arrive every 15 minutes. If the buses adhered to their schedule, and I showed up at a random time, I should generally have to wait roughly half the mean bus arrival time: 7.5 minutes. If the buses were totally random, then I would have to wait the average time between bus arrivals: 15 minutes (if you haven’t thought about this before, this statement should sound crazy; perhaps I’ll do a future post on it). So the question is: why did I always end up waiting roughly 30 minutes or more?

I always assumed that the Universe was conspiring against me. This is a common feeling in graduate school. However….

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mathematics, Miscellany, Technology, World

What I Did on My Summer Vacation – Part 2

By John Conway | September 18, 2009 11:47 am

Travel is broadening, and in particle physics we get to do a lot of it. In July, having temporarily settled my father into a nursing home after being hospitalized (the subject of my last post, Part 1), I was able to meet my commitment to travel to Krakow, Poland, to give a plenary talk on the search for the Higgs boson at the annual Europhysics conferenceheld at the Jagiellonian University there (where Copernicus studied for four years, 1491-1495).

Central Krakow emerged from World War II, which began nearly exactly 70 years ago, nearly unscathed. The central square is one of the more beautiful in Europe, similar in a way to that of Prague. But it was hard to avoid waling there without imagining what it must have looked like during the war, occupied by German soldiers who had made Krakow the center of their regional government during the war.

From the square one can take tours in little golf-cart-like jitneys, and see some of the interesting historical sites, including the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz) and Schindler’s famous enamelware factory. Some of the apartment buildings in Kazimierz are still in the state they were at the end of the war, a rather grim reminder of the central role Krakow played in the Holocaust.


From Krakow one can take day trips to a number of interesting places, and we visited the spectacular salt mines of Wielicka, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which have amazing, huge rooms carved out of the rock.

But there was another interesting place to tour that we were hesitant about – Auschwitz. Others who took the tour came back saying that it was well worth the journey, over an hour by bus each way, but tended not to say much more about it…hmmm.

So on our last free day we took the plunge, signed up for the tour, and went. The bus traveled through quite rural countryside on two-lane roads, past farms and villages, roughly following the Vistula river, until reaching the town of Oswiecim, which the Germans called Auschwitz.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics, Travel, World

Scientific Conferences: Tool of the Jewish/Mavericky/Nonviolent/CIA Conspiracy

By Sean Carroll | June 21, 2009 5:25 pm

Another contender for Best Video of All Time. Via hilzoy, an Iranian-government propaganda video from a while back. It reveals the secret (naturally) collaboration between John McCain, George Soros (“he uses his wealth and slogans like liberty, democracy, and human rights to bring supporters of America to power”), Gene Sharp, and Bill Smith, aimed at undermining the true will of the Iranian people. (Transcript.) I especially like the part where Smith says “we have achieved a lot through international scientific conferences.”

It’s pretty clear that Iranian security is using 1984 as a how-to guide. Spying on your family as a social good.

The situation in Iran is no laughing matter; it remains to be seen whether Ayatollah Khamenei has painted himself into a corner where further large-scale violence is inevitable. Our thoughts are with the Iranian people demanding their rights of self-government.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, World

Moral Authority

By Sean Carroll | November 13, 2008 9:29 am

The first things we noticed, as we climbed into the back seat of the taxi, were the books. A tiny six-volume library, tucked between the driver’s and passenger’s front seats — just a bit of reading material offered to customers who would rather read through a silent journey than chit-chat with the driver. Interesting books, too: I noticed Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography, as well as Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. None of the American taxis I had ever been in had sported anything more literary than glossy magazines packed with ads.

We had just landed in Ireland, and despite the literary offerings, the taxi driver had no intention of letting the ride pass in silence. He inquired what had brought us on the long trip from Los Angeles, and I explained that I was participating in a debate at the Literary and Historical Society of University College, Dublin. That was a mistake, as I should have seen the next question coming: What was the debate about? Well, it was going to be about the existence of God; the L&HS revisits the topic every year, and I was one of a handful of visitors they were bringing in this time to defend either side of the question. And which side was I on? Trapped, I confessed that I was on the “does not exist” side. It’s not a discussion I like to force on people, but he did ask.

Our taxi driver took a moment to reflect on this information. Then he came back with: Well, you know Ireland has traditionally been one of the most religious countries in Europe, with an extremely strong Catholic tradition — but in the last couple of decades it had become increasingly secular. I hadn’t actually been familiar with the situation; despite my name (which I was politely informed should really be spelled “Seán”), I don’t have much connection with Ireland.

But I did have a remarkable cab driver, who was willing to fill us in. His theory of Irish religious consciousness began with the very early Church, which had co-opted many of the existing pagan traditions. Druidical rites, women priests, celebrants running around naked, that kind of thing. The turning point, he explained, was the Synod of Whitby in 664. (Whitby Abbey is actually in Northumbria, northern England, but apparently the repercussions of this event spread through Celtic society.) The ostensible focus of the synod was fairly narrow: how do we calculate the date of Easter? The choices were between the algorithm favored by the indigenous church, and that advocated by the catholic hierarchy in Rome. So it wasn’t really a controversy over the Easter Bunny’s work schedule; it was a power struggle between the locals and the establishment. Needless to say, the establishment won; the synod agreed to calculate the date of Easter using Roman methods.

0777092.jpg Thus began (our loquacious driver continued) centuries of Catholic dominance over Irish religious life. And he pinpointed the peak of that dominance quite precisely: the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland. The Pope was treated like a rock star, speaking to audiences of hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters. But it was the beginning of the decline. The years to come would witness a dramatic collapse of religious devotion in Ireland generally, and in the influence of the Catholic church in particular.

What happened? Our cabbie had a theory, and it had nothing to do with the implications of natural selection or the logical status of the ontological proof for the existence of God. It was simple: Loss of moral authority of the Church. (Back home and consulting the Google, I find that Kieran Healy agrees.) And the loss of moral authority could be traced to a constellation of issues centering on … sex. On the one hand, the Church in Ireland took its usual predilection for sexual repression to extremes — while Americans debated over the right to have an abortion, in Ireland it was illegal to use any form of contraception as late as 1978. On the other hand, it was increasingly clear that clergymen weren’t always the best examples of sexual morality. Cases of priests fathering babies with their housekeepers or abusing young children (and then being protected by the Church hierarchy) were rampant. And so, while most Irish continued to symbolically profess the Roman Catholic faith, the populace converted gradually from fervent believers to modern secularists.

It’s very chagrining for we believers in logic and rationality to be confronted with the real reasons why people often change their minds about things. Belief in God isn’t something about which most people start with a completely open mind, sit down and carefully weigh the options, and reach a conclusion based on reasoning and evidence. More often, they believe in God because it serves a purpose in their lives, offering purpose and meaning and structure and guidance that is otherwise hard to come by.

When Shadi Bartsch and I taught a course on the history of atheism at the University of Chicago, we certainly had no plans to proselytize, but we had some concerns that a vigorous to-and-fro concerning the existence of God might strike an emotional chord for some of the students. That was a naive worry; students could be intellectually engaged and rigorous when talking about philosophical arguments for or against atheism, no matter what their personal beliefs happened to be. But we covered one topic that some people weren’t comfortable hearing about: how the Bible was written. Sure, they may be willing to accept that the Pentateuch wasn’t really penned by Moses himself. But when you start digging into the details of the documentary hypothesis, demonstrating that the Bible is just like any other collection of essays, culled from disparate sources with incompatible agendas and stitched together by more or less conscientious editors — human, all too human, in other words — it really hits home. For most believers, their belief is not a logical conclusion, it’s a mode of living. And the erosion of that belief will typically not, for better or for worse, be accomplished by the presentation and examination of evidence; it will be through telling a better story than the one told by religion. One that helps make sense of the world, provides a template for a fulfilling life, explains the difference between right and wrong, and brings meaning to people’s experiences.

That was the most erudite and educational cab ride I’ve ever had. The next evening we had the actual debate, which was more amusing than enlightening; the visitors such as myself trotted out various shopworn arguments, while the student speakers showed flashes of genius, skewering our stolid positions with wit and verve and only marginal attention to which side they were supposed to be upholding. A vote was taken, and reliable eyewitnesses will uniformly testify that the “God does not exist” side came out handily ahead, although the result was recorded in the record of the Society as the other way. Divine intervention, I suppose.

And then we repaired to a pub across the street, to drink Guinness (a miracle forged of human hands) and tell jokes and swap stories and share small slices our varied experiences. Living life.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Travel, World

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