Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Scientific Verdict on God (Part 3): The End of Classical Theism

Deus does not exist
But if he does he'd want to get down from that cloud
First marzipan fingers then marble hands
More silent than silence and slower than slow.

~ The Sugarcubes, “Deus” (from the 1988 album Life’s Too Good)

In Part 2 of this series, I made the case that science is justified in weighing in upon claims of the supernatural, and that it violates no jurisdiction by doing so. Now that that argument has been made, we can now move on to put the various models of God to the test to see how well they stand up to scientific scrutiny. My thesis in this essay is that the existence of a personal God, the God of classical theism, is a scientific and philosophical impossibility.

Arguments for God's existence continue to be a topic of intense debate within discussions of the philosophy of religion. I want to make the case that it is high time philosophers of science entered into the question of God with equal intensity. Here I must draw a distinction between questions concerning the concept of God and questions concerning religious practice. All religions, regardless of their relative antiquity or modernity, can easily be demonstrated through critical scholarship to be fallible human inventions. However, the more important and interesting inquiry (at least for me)comes when we put aside theology, all the creeds and the bells-and-whistles with which people dress up their conception of a deity, and consider, if at all possible, only the God concept itself.

The proposition “God exists in reality” is a hypothesis, and as such it requires objective verification and evidential demonstration to be justified. The particular model of a god I am examining here is that of the personal “Tinkering God” introduced in Part 2 of this series – the one who is said to be intimately involved with and active in his creation. According to classical theists, not only does this God play a very important role in every single event in the universe, from atomic phase transitions in far-off galaxies to the falling of a leaf on the ground here on Earth, but he also actively listens to every human thought. As I noted in Part 2, this God should be eminently detectable by the tools of science, based on the predictions of the model itself, that is, the ways in which this god is said to make his presence known within the natural world.

Before examining the various classical scientific arguments for the existence of the Tinkering God, let’s review what the theistic worldview is up against.

I. ANTI-THEISM ON THE OFFENSIVE

The Problem of Evil

The most devastating argument that weighs against the hypothesis that the God most people believe in exists is the problem of evil. There is an irreconcilable conflict between the conception of an omnipotent, all-wise and all-loving God and the existence in our world of human cruelty and natural disasters. How can an omnipotent (that is, all-powerful) being who is also the epitome of goodness and love possibly allow such evils as war, wholesale genocide, private murder and economic depressions to run indiscriminately rampant and lay waste to his creation? If any higher creative being must be proposed, it would be eminently more reasonable and plausible to posit the existence of a demonic god than a good and wise one. The only other reasonable option open to the theist in the light of the problem of evil is to say that their god is not in fact all-powerful and is therefore powerless to restrain evil. This latter option reduces the theists’ god to utter uselessness; if such is the case, there is no sound basis in reality to all the fears with which religion threatens people and no need for any creed or worship of any kind. Chapman Cohen writes,

If there is a God, he is quite careless of human well-being or human suffering. The deaths of a hundred thousand men mean no more to him than the deaths of a hundred thousand ants. A couple of million men locked in a death struggle on the battlefield is only a replica of the struggle that has been going on in the animal world throughout time. If there be a God, he made, he designed all this. He fashioned the hooks for the slaughter, the teeth for the tearing, the talons for destruction, and man with his multiplied weapons of destruction has but imitated his example. A world without God, and in which humanity is gradually learning the way to better things, is an inspiration to renewed effort after the right. A world such as this, with God, is enough to drive insane all with intelligence enough to appreciate the situation [1].
Theists have yet to explain how a benevolent, loving, omnipotent father-being – who personally guides the destiny of each and every individual – can allow such monstrosities as war, the effects of racism, hatred and bigotry of all kinds stemming from jealousy and fear, the gross disparity between rich and poor worldwide, mass poverty and starvation, the extreme pain and suffering that can be witnessed by touring through any hospital, etc., etc. Consider: if any human father consciously and purposefully allowed his children to starve, he would be imprisoned and indicted. Yet we are told we have a “Heavenly Father,” one we are of course powerless to indict even as he neglects us for eons. If such a god does exist, he is the very antithesis of goodness and wisdom, and it is humanity’s duty to cease paying any tribute to him through worship. In Sunday schools all over the world, theists tell children the fantastic story of how the Son of God miraculous multiplied five loaves of bread and two fishes to feed a large multitude. Yet today millions upon millions of people starve and languish in poverty even as they piously utter “Our Father which art in Heaven, give us this day our daily bread” out of a sense of fear and duty to this deity who has apparently grown tired of performing miracles of any kind. In his book Mind and Matter, the late philosopher C.E.M. Joad summed up the problem of evil forcefully and eloquently:
If we suppose that the universe is the creation of an Omnipotent and Benevolent God, it becomes necessary to ask how pain and evil arise. Pain and evil are either real or unreal. If they are real then God, who, being omnipotent, was bound by no limitations and constrained by no necessities, willfully created them. But the being who wilfully creates pain and evil cannot be benevolent.

If they are unreal, then the error which we make when we think them real is a real error. There is no doubt that we believe we suffer. If the belief is erroneous, then it follows that God wilfully called falsehood into existence and deliberately involved us in unnecessary error. It follows once again that God cannot be benevolent.

If we regard pain and evil as due to the wickedness of man and not as the creation of God, we are constrained to remember that man himself is one of God's creations (God being conceived as all creative), and received his wickedness, or his capacity for it, from whom? If we say that man had no wickedness to begin with but willfully generated wickedness for himself, we have to face the double difficulty of accounting for: (a) How man, who is an emanation from God, can will with a will of his own which is not also a piece of God's will; and (b) how a benevolent God could, assuming pain and evil to be a purely human creation, deliberately allow them to be introduced into a world that knew them not, when it was open to Him to prevent such introductions [2].

The Hiddenness of God and the Problem on Nonbelief

The very presence of nonbelief poses a serious problem to the viability of a theistic worldview, a problem closely related to the problem of evil. Theists often argue that the reason we do not observe the effects that should obtain all around us if a personal and active God existed is because this God has purposefully gone to great lengths to hide himself from us in order to allow faith to fully play its part in building our character.

But if this is the case, God is not good. If the only nonbelievers in the world were “bad people” who stubbornly refused to believe in God’s existence simply because they did not want to believe, then that would one thing. However, the vast majority of nonbelievers (certainly all those I have known, met and read) are very open to any and all evidence that might be presented. “Show me the evidence, and I will believe” has been the continual refrain of most in the atheist community, including myself. The fact of the matter is that we still do not believe. Therefore, if the God of the theists really does exist, he must be intentionally hiding himself from people who are open to belief in God and thereby cutting himself off from us skeptics.

In fact, this distinctly Calvinist interpretation seems to be the view of most evangelical Christians, whether they consciously identify as Calvinists or not. Many believe that their God really has chosen only a select few to be the recipients of his revelation (all those who believe this, of course, are part of that select group). The chosen few are the people God wants to spend eternity with, for whatever reason, and everybody else is doomed to suffer eternally outside his presence. Now, while it is true that this Calvinist model of God goes a long way toward explaining the Problem of Evil, it is certainly not an explanation Christians want to accept. The explanation that presents itself is that God himself is evil. How do we reconcile the rampant, unrestrained evil in the world with the existence of God? Simple: the Calvinist God of the Christians is pure evil.

Needless to say, this is not the kind of God most people want to believe in. Most people want to believe in a good god, a god that has great love for humanity. But unfortunately, that is precisely the kind of god we can definitively rule out as impossible. Why? Because there should be abundant evidence for a good god, if in fact there existed a good god who did not intentionally and purposefully conceal himself from nonbelievers who are open toward and waiting for positive evidence of the god’s existence to come to light.

Thus, the very hiddenness of God – quite apart from any consideration of the phenomenon of nonbelief – is damning to the god hypothesis. If the kind of God that most people believe in actually existed, certainly we should expect such a being to have revealed himself to humankind in such a way that there can be no doubt as to his existence and presence in the universe. Furthermore, if any religion is true, this God (if he is not evil, psychotic or otherwise mentally-challenged) should have no qualms or hesitation whatsoever in revealing which is the true religion and why it is true – to all people at all times and in an unambiguous and unmistakable manner – instilling into the collective minds of all people everywhere the True Creed so that no doubt can possibly enter into any skeptic’s mind. Needless to say, this has not happened. “Why, we may ask,” writes philosopher John L. Schellenberg in his book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, “would God be hidden from us? Surely a morally perfect being – good, just, loving – would show himself more clearly. Hence the weakness of our evidence for God is not a sign that God is hidden; it is a revelation that God does not exist [3].” Presumably, God could easily, at any moment, exercise his claimed omnipotence to reveal his existence with force sufficient to overpower all traces of doubt and skepticism. Yet humanity has been futilely searching for millennia for even just the slightest evidence of his existence. In his little-known but important book The Churches and Modern Thought, Philip Vivian highlighted the problem succinctly: “How is it that God allowed earnest and learned divines to commit themselves to arguments in proof of His existence, the subsequent overthrow of which has been a potent cause for unbelief? [4]” As for the hundreds of millions who think they have already found a solid faith, William McCarthy asks,

If there are and have been gods, why hasn’t, at least, one showed up? Why do we have to pay their self-appointed, man-selected priests to tell us about them? If the gods wish to save our souls (?) why don’t they, in a few simple sentences, tell us what to do? Why do they permit their vicars to tell us so many conflicting stories about them? The agents of Jehovah alone have pointed out fifteen hundred different mythical roads to heaven, all leading in different directions . . . Why doesn’t god tell the faithful who is right? Is there a god? Would a god permit such confusion and damn foolishness? We wouldn’t [5].
For the sake of argument, let us accept for a moment the theist worldview as a hypothetical exercise, and assess the situation we find ourselves in given the truth of that worldview. The situation, which I have described in five parts, is as follows:

1. God created the universe but purposefully constructed it in such a way that it looks to all appearances and observation as if no god created it. In fact, God has gone out of his way to hide himself from all people in every conceivable aspect.

2. However, in a bizarre move on his part, God endowed his favorite creation, humankind, with brains that work with tools called “reason” and “logic,” tools which allow us to discover and learn about the physical world around us.

3. We develop science, and every discovery we make with the brains God gave us continues to demonstrate that either there is no God, or he is increasingly running out of places to hide.

4. On top of this all this madness, God divinely inspires a book which tells its readers that he will help anyone come to know him, as long as they are simply willing and open to understanding and receiving him.

5. And yet, there are millions of people like me – who are certainly open to any evidence that would support the claim that a Supreme Intelligent Creator and Ruler exists – who continue to find it impossible to simply decide to believe despite the utter absence of evidence. And the theists would have us believe that their God has intentionally hidden himself from honest doubters and skeptics.

II. THEISM ON THE DEFENSIVE

The Cosmological First Cause Argument

A whole raft of classical arguments favoring the existence of God have been advanced for centuries and continue to be invoked today, despite the fact that they have many times been refuted in short order (if the Bible is correct about anything, it is that “there is no new thing under the sun”). Among these antiquated and obsolete apologetic items is the “First Cause argument,” which assumes as its a priori starting point that every event must have a cause, and that therefore the universe must have had a cause, which theists call “God.” But by predicating a First Cause which they assert to be a “cause that was uncaused,” the theist simply pushes the conundrum it seeks to solve further back. They create a larger mystery to explain a comparatively lesser mystery, and thereby fall into logical absurdity. If everything must have a cause, then we are not justified in making an arbitrary exception for a postulated First Cause. Who, it needs to be asked, created God? And who or what created that creator? To say that this First Cause has always existed and was never created is to deny the foundational and basic assumption with which the argument was started in the first place!

Moreover, even if it is reasonable to assume that some First Cause always existed, why is it then unreasonable to assume that the universe itself is what always existed, rather than a deity? Postulating the necessity of a First Cause in order to affirm the existence of a god through reason is a complete rejection of all logical procedure, because the First Cause argument seeks to explain that which is provisionally known (the existence of the material universe) with an unknown (God).

Furthermore, while we can conceive of a cycle of virtually endless causes for any given physical phenomena, it is impossible to conceive of a single ultimate cause for any one obtained object or event. Science provides no justification for tracing causes and effects backward to one simple First Cause. In his excellent book Theism or Atheism: The Great Alternative, Chapman Cohen reminds us that “Cause and effect are not two separate things; they are the same thing viewed under two different aspects. . . . If cause and effect are the expressions of a relation, and if they are not two things, but only one, under two aspects, ‘cause’ being the name for the related powers of the factors, and ‘effect’ the name for their assemblage, to talk, as does the theist, of working back along the chain of causes until we reach God, is nonsense [6].”

Today physicists are confident that no laws of physics were violated or altered as a prerequisite for the universe to emerge into existence. But that was once one of the best arguments for the necessity of a First Cause, because as early as two hundred years ago it appeared that certain laws of physics, such as energy conservation, did indeed have to be violated in order for the universe to come into being. Physicists today know for a fact that energy conservation was not broken, because we know that the total energy content of the universe is exactly zero; this means no energy was ever required to produce our universe in the first place. We have no evidence that any other laws of physics were similarly violated, either.

But the First Cause argument contains within it the seeds of the next response resorted to by theologians even today: “Where did the laws of physics themselves come from?” Modern science, not theology, gives us the answers to this question and reveals the fundamental weakness in the First Cause argument. In his book The Comprehensible Cosmos, physicist Victor Stenger undertakes to show how physicists have come to derive the so-called “laws” of physics [7]. Stenger is interested in accomplishing this daunting task as convincingly as possible, and this obliges him to invoke heavy mathematics of the sort many people cannot read [8]. Stenger’s explanatory account of physical laws as restrictions imposed by observers on themselves is consistent with what would be expected if the universe was not designed by a lawgiver handing down laws from above.

There is a sound basis for making the case for an uncreated universe that actually does not require a great deal of technical language. Very simply, when a physicist writes a model, he or she is forced to write it in a certain way, namely in such a way that it is independent of the reference frame of the particular observer, what physicists call the “point-of-view.” This required perspective Stenger calls point-of-view invariance: “The models of physics cannot depend on any particular point of view [9].” When this invariance of perspective is achieved, it is nothing short of incredible how all the pieces of the cosmological puzzle fall consistently into place within a wholly naturalistic framework “Thus,” writes Stenger, “the conservation principles follow from point-of-view invariance. If you wish to build a model using space and time as a framework, and you formulate that model so as to be space-time symmetric, then that model will automatically contain what are usually regarded as the three most important ‘laws’ of physics, the three conservation principles. . . . further symmetries will require the introduction of other ‘laws,’ not to govern the behavior of matter, but to govern the behavior of physicists so that when they build their models, those models will be point-of-view invariant [10].”

Again, the provisionally-derived “laws” of physics, formulated based on human observation and experimentation, are exactly what they should be expected to be if our universe came into being from nothing. Stenger shows in his book that,

[T]he laws of physics do not follow from very unique or very surprising physical properties of the Universe. Rather, they arise from the very simple notion that whatever mathematics you write down to describe measurements, your equations cannot depend on the origin or direction of the coordinate systems you define in the space of those measurements or the space of the functions used to describe those laws. That is, they cannot reflect any privileged point of view. Except for the complexities that result from spontaneously broken symmetries, the laws of physics may be the way they are because they cannot be any other way. Or, at least they may have come about the simplest way possible [11].
The next question theologians ask is: why is there something rather than nothing in the first place? This question assumes that nothing should in fact be a more natural state than something. But why should nothing be the most natural state? As it turns out, we have an answer to the theologians that again comes from hard science. In physics, the most highly symmetric systems we encounter tend to be less stable. For example, a raindrop will freeze into an ice crystal, which does have structure but lacks the level of symmetry the raindrop possessed. Let us stress this: A spherical raindrop has symmetry, while an ice crystal has structure, which is caused by broken symmetry. Likewise, a pencil sitting on a table possesses rotational symmetry around its vertical axis. But that symmetry is highly unstable; if it falls over, that symmetry is broken. Many other examples abound, magnets being a particularly helpful one. Many examples from everyday physics demonstrate conclusively that the more symmetrical a system is, the less stable it will be. Physical systems therefore naturally tend to undergo phase transitions from more symmetric to less symmetric.

Consider: there is no thing in the universe more symmetric than nothing. Therefore, the state of nothingness is highly unstable. As Stenger explains in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis,

So where did the laws of physics come from? They came from nothing! Most are statements composed by humans that follow from the symmetries of the void out of which the universe spontaneously arose. Rather than being handed down from above, like the Ten Commandments, they look exactly as they should look if they were not handed down from anywhere. And this is why, for example, a violation of energy conservation at the beginning of the big bang would be evidence for some external creator. Even though they invented it, physicists could not simply change the “law.” It would imply a miracle or, more explicitly, some external agency that acted to break the time symmetry that leads to conservation of energy. But . . . no such miracle is required by the data. . . .

[T]he natural state of affairs is something rather than nothing. An empty universe requires supernatural intervention – not a full one. Only by the constant action of an agent outside the universe, such as God, could a state of nothingness be maintained. The fact that we have something is just what we would expect if there is no God [12].

In other words, the existence of our Universe is the natural consequence of the spontaneous collapse of the inherently unstable symmetries of the void. In a Scientific American article written in 1980, Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek provides a succinct mechanism for how this symmetry-breaking may have occurred in the early universe: “One can speculate that the universe began in the most symmetrical state possible and that in such a state no matter existed; the universe was a vacuum. . . . The second state had slightly less symmetry, but it was also lower in energy. Eventually a patch of the less symmetrical phase appeared and grew rapidly. The energy released by the transition found form in the creation of particles. This event might be identified with the big bang. . . . The answer to the ancient question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ would then be that ‘nothing’ is unstable [13].”

Thus, in responding to theists who invoke the First Cause line of argumentation, many atheists make the slightly mistaken claim that naturalists are not positing a “something-from-nothing” scenario. As we have seen, it is not necessary to distance one’s arguments from this scenario. Despite the difficult philosophical twists one gets into when attempting to describe nothingness, one can plausibly imagine a state of absolute absence of matter, energy and space curvature, and still be able to describe that empty state. To see why this is the case, consider the possible ways of measuring a photon radiation field. This field is described quantum mechanically with a harmonic oscillator, that is, in terms of a series of energy levels. As the physicist applies what is called a violation operator, a wave function for each energy level is specified by the oscillator. When the measurement is at its lowest level and all the photons have been removed, a wave function still remains. It is a wave function that is describing “nothing.” Thus, it is possible to mathematically describe the property of nothing without any problem, and one can derive a number of plausible scenarios and mechanisms by which something comes from nothing.

The world-renowned physicist and mathematician Stephen Hawking made the same case for a “something-from-nothing” scenario in his J. Robert Oppenheimer Lecture delivered in March 2007 at the University of California at Berkeley. Hawking likened the spontaneous quantum emergence of the universe to “the formation of bubbles of steam in boiling water [14].” The plausible naturalistic scenario proposed by Hawking became the subject of his 2010 book The Grand Design, co-written with Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow. They conclude, “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing . . . Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going [15].” The analogy to the expanding surface of a bubble is again invoked in Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s book to describe the universe coming into existence via random quantum fluctuations through which the current universe tunneled from a previous one:

Our picture of the spontaneous quantum creation of the universe is then a bit like the formation of bubbles of steam in boiling water. Many tiny bubbles appear, and then disappear again. These represent mini-universes that expand but collapse again while still of microscopic size. They represent possible alternative universes, but they are not of much interest since they do not last long enough to develop galaxies and stars, let alone intelligent life. A few of the little bubbles, however, will grow large enough so that they will be safe from recollapse. They will continue to expand at an ever-increasing rate and will form the bubbles of steam we are able to see. These correspond to universes that start off expanding at an ever-increasing rate – in other words, universes in a state of inflation [16].
The Argument from Design

The “Argument from Design” and the so-called “Anthropic (or fine-tuning) Argument” are two closely related classical defenses of a god’s existence that are ubiquitously used today and have been for centuries past. Many theists have attempted to deduce the existence of a supernatural creator and sustainer of the universe from the visible features of the natural world. They do this by selectively pointing to instances in nature of “design,” of carefully-balanced regularity and order, and in various examples of beauty to be found in the exploration and study of natural objects.

In the early 1800s, Anglican theologian and philosopher William Paley (1743-1805) famously presented this argument in his book Natural Theology, first published in 1802. A teleological defense of divine causation of nature that was applied on a terrestrial scale, Paley’s argument began with the premise that everything owed its existence to a first cause, which he proceeded to identify as God. The famous “Watchmaker Analogy” was introduced by Paley to illustrate this argument. The structure of the analogy, in Paley's own words, is as follows:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e. g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. To reckon up a few of the plainest of these parts, and of their offices, all tending to one result: -- We see a cylindrical box containing a coiled elastic spring, which, by its endeavour to relax itself, turns round the box. We next observe a flexible chain (artificially wrought for the sake of flexure), communicating the action of the spring from the box to the fusee. We then find a series of wheels, the teeth of which catch in, and apply to, each other, conducting the motion from the fusee to the balance, and from the balance to the pointer; and at the same time, by the size and shape of those wheels, so regulating that motion, as to terminate in causing an index, by an equable and measured progression, to pass over a given space in a given time. We take notice that the wheels are made of brass in order to keep them from rust; the springs of steel, no other metal being so elastic; that over the face of the watch there is placed a glass, a material employed in no other part of the work, but in the room of which, if there had been any other than a transparent substance, the hour could not be seen without opening the case. This mechanism being observed (it requires indeed an examination of the instrument, and perhaps some previous knowledge of the subject, to perceive and understand it; but being once, as we have said, observed and understood), the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use [17].
Paley's Watchmaker Analogy can be more succinctly represented by way of a simple syllogism:
1. The complex inner workings of a watch necessitate an intelligent designer for the watch.

2. As with a watch, the complexity of X (a particular organ or organism, the structure of the solar system, life, the entire universe, etc.) necessitates a designer.

Paley's reader is invited to imagine walking through a completely natural locale (forests, deserts, and remote beaches have been used in modern rehashings of this analogy), where a lone watch is found. The analogy suggests that this watch obviously cannot be an artifact of the surrounding nature, that it must have been designed by an intelligent agent.

Throughout the rest of his book, Paley extrapolates this analogy to everything encompassed by the natural world. This is an example of fundamentally flawed logic. In the context of the Watchmaker analogy, the only reason one is able to apprehend that the watch in the heath is not an artifact of nature in the first place is because nature and design can be distinguished from each other. We can recognize that which has been made by an intelligent agent for what it is. But how do we know when something has been designed and when it has not? The most important failure in Paley's argument is that it lacks a frame of reference from which to compare design to non-design. Paley, along with modern-day proponents of teleological design arguments for theism, failed to realize that the only reliable indicators of genuine design are those that derive from experience. This being the case, a means of identifying instances of design and non-design independently of the indicators in question is required.

Paley’s design argument also stands as an example of a grossly over-extended metaphor, to which the whole argument is ultimately reducible. While metaphors are often useful for communicating hard-to-grasp concepts to people, they are never the foundation of any strong logical argument. A runaway metaphor cannot be stopped; anything and everything can be applied to it, rendering the necessity of any semblance of logic obsolete. The teleological argument from design is therefore inherently incoherent.

One can then argue, as biochemist Michael J. Behe does in his 1996 book Darwin's Black Box (which, in my estimation, is essentially little more than a glorified and updated restatement of Paley's Natural Theology), that complexity is that elusive standard that determines the criterion for justifiably concluding intelligent design [18]. But in actuality, many things that are very simple look designed. For example, a rubber ball is vastly simpler than a rock, geometrically speaking. The reason such simple objects as a rubber ball are recognizable as a designed thing is because of its regularity, not because it is complicated. In fact, designed things tend to be far simpler than natural things. One of the crucial characteristics of agency that need to be taken into account is that needlessly complex things are never an acceptable standard for building things. We want to make them as simple and as efficient as we possibly can. Natural things are (1) generated by chance and necessity, (2) are functionally unspecified and diverse and (3) often very complex. Things that are designed by agents, on the other hand, are (1) built with intent, (2) are functionally specific and (3) always relatively simple compared to natural material.

It is therefore a basic category mistake to invoke complexity as a measure of design. Complexity more often arises as a result of a lack of planning, than as the result of intelligent deliberation. In addition to this problem, the design arguments characteristic of Paley and his successors also face the problem of lacking sufficient falsifiability: What would a thing not designed by God look like, and how would this non-designed thing operate? These are questions that Paley's argument cannot answer, simply because it was far too simplistic and was not well thought out.

Moreover, the Argument from Design in general has been conclusively overruled by the discovery and subsequent study of natural evolutionary processes [19]. The argument for god from design relies entirely on the assertion that a Mind exists behind, over and above physical phenomena. The motives of this posited Mind, Paley and others believed, could be apprehended by us mortals through studying the forms of animals. While theists today very rarely use Paley’s original formulation of the design argument, a surprising number of theistic arguments, particularly those of the “recent” Intelligent Design (ID) variety, are still based on Paley’s basic faulty assumptions.

An understanding of what biological evolution is and how it operates in the natural world is sufficient to soundly and definitively refute the modern ID position. The evolutionary forces that have been conclusively demonstrated to be at work in nature are not only merciless (recalling again the problem of evil discussed above) but also full of waste; innumerable physiological and biological plans have been deemed by natural selection to be futile, useless and worthless for survival. The ruthless preying of a great many forms of life upon many others was unrelenting throughout hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary history and continues to be unrelenting today. Untold myriads of living organisms have emerged onto the scene, only to suddenly perish before reproducing and contributing to their species’ perpetuation. All in all, the world we find ourselves in is a largely useless one, devoid of ultimate purpose and whose defining characteristic is pain and misery.

The Argument from Design suffers from an extreme case of confirmation bias and selective reasoning. The practice of science, if it is to be objective and impartial, will take note of ugliness and disorder in nature, not just supposed instances of beauty and order. And even if it was true that the earth and its inhabitants are “evolving toward something better” (which is itself a very fundamental misunderstanding of what evolution is and what it is not), this would not lessen or mitigate the impact of the extreme, unimaginable cruelty that predominated throughout all of the evolutionary past. In fact, the Argument from Design is inconsistent with every known fact of the natural world; the steady advance of scientific knowledge has rendered it an impossible position.

The Fine-Tuning Argument

A common theistic argument, closely related to the Design Argument, insists that it is impossible for the inherent properties of natural physical forces, acting on their own, to produce an orderly universe that sustains life. The universe, the theists say, requires constant “directivity” in order to remain on its present course.

It is indeed true that if any one of the physical constants were to be changed by even the slightest amount, life as we know it would be impossible. But it does not then follow that all plausible forms of life could not have existed under those hair-trigger circumstantial changes. This was demonstrated by particle physicist Victor Stenger, who wrote a computer program in the early 1990s called “MonkeyGod,” an interactive module that allows the user to design and run his or her own universe, simply by changing however many constants the user sees fit and then watching to see what kind of virtual universe emerges. Stenger writes, “While these are really only ‘toy’ universes, the exercise illustrates that many different universes are possible, even within the existing laws of physics [20].” Stenger reports on his own experiments with the program as follows:

In previous publications, I have applied MonkeyGod in a computer simulation in which I varied the four parameters randomly (on a logarithmic scale) over ten orders of magnitude. I was mainly interested in seeing how many universes would have stellar lifetimes long enough to allow for some form of life, not necessarily exactly like ours, to evolve.

. . . I used a formula obtained from one reference for the minimum lifetime of a main sequence star. I later adopted a different formula, from another reference, which I thought was more realistic since it gave the maximum lifetime of a star . . . The results are not in general disagreement with that previously published. In fact, as expected, I get results even more favorable to life. While a few stellar lifetimes are low, most are over ten billion years, which is probably enough time for stellar evolution and heavy element nucleosynthesis to occur. Long stellar life may not be the only requirement for biological life, but I have demonstrated that fine-tuning is not necessary to produce a range amenable for life [21].

Thus, the random, unplanned, chaotic emergence of a universe capable of sustaining life as we know it is not as unlikely as most people seem to think. A number of other studies have been published which report on even more sophisticated scientific programs than MonkeyGod, and which have backed up Stenger’s conclusions. The scientific evidence strongly suggests that some form of life may have been possible under a wide range of circumstances that might have obtained [22].

There is also a serious philosophical problem confronting the fine-tuning argument: If God was perfect and omnipotent, why would he need to “fine-tune” the universe for life? If the universe was the creation of an omnipotent and perfect God, it should be capable of producing life no matter what the conditions may be. If humanity was so special and elevated above all other species, being formed in the “image of God” as most theists believe, we should be able to live and thrive in literally any locale, under any condition. We should be able to live in the void of space without any need of a spacesuit or other life-preserving equipment.

However, philosophical and logical objections aside, the practical scientific fact remains that we do not know exactly what kind of universe might be possible under a different set of constants. We can make careful calculations, of course, but in the end we still do not know for certain. Science is an empirical discipline, and the totality of our collective experience is based on just this single universe we find ourselves inhabiting. Still, as we have seen, it is certainly possible to infer what kind of phenomena might manifest in an alternate universe, one with a different set of physical laws and constants. There are no grounds for concluding that this universe is special in any way.

The universe is not fine-tuned for humanity. Rather, humanity is fine-tuned to the universe. As a species, we humans just happened to evolve in the kind of universe that features the constants that make our existence possible. If we were not suited for the world in which we find ourselves, we would not be able to live in it. Obviously, then, the situation in which life evolved was one in which the earth had an atmosphere transparent to what scientists call “visible light” – that extremely narrow region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Our sun produces a large amount of light within that region, so it was only natural that the human eye developed. How absurd and nonsensical would it be to assert that the sun puts out light in that narrow spectrum, and that the earth’s atmosphere is transparent to that spectrum, because our human eyes are sensitive to that region? This is exactly the kind of silly reasoning underlying the fine-tuning argument.

The fact that the present order exists as it does is not enigmatic, mysterious or shocking in the least. What would really constitute an anomaly is if any radical and drastic alteration of the present order should occur before our eyes. The state of the universe at any given moment is the inevitable and unavoidable natural result of all the innumerable physical conditions prevail upon the universe in well-understood ways. These physical conditions demonstrate that purely natural forces are capable of producing the universe as we see and experience it. Regardless of what the ultimate nature of our admittedly provisional models of physical forces may be – whether we are considering electrons, protons, electricity or wave energy – these material forces are alone fully capable of producing a universe such as the one we happen to find ourselves inhabiting.

Moreover, even if these natural and physical forces were not alone capable of bringing a universe into existence, in what conceivable way could an “ultimate, directing and supreme supernatural mathematician” create and install this capacity in natural forces? Unless the capacity for producing the universe as we know it already existed in natural elements themselves, no amount of outside “direction” could have endowed them with that capacity, because this would violate the second law of thermodynamics. Besides, if such an external supernatural and directive agent did exist, why would he/she/it not simply create the universe ex nihilo, without creating natural elements which we observe to possess the inherent capacity for producing the universe on their own?

As we saw above in regard to the cosmological First Cause argument, inherent in the properties of the fundamental physical elements, and in consequence of their specific combinations, is the capability of “coughing up” the universe as we know it from nothing. The operations of a deity are not required for the universe to either come into being or to subsequently sustain life within it. The order that manifests itself in the universe is the necessary and inevitable consequence of the universal persistence of wholly natural physical forces. If an intelligent supernatural force or being does exist, the best possible evidence of its existence would surely come in the form of inhibitive influences that prevent certain events, predicted by established physics, from occurring or obtaining – events that established scientific observation and testing can confirm would have transpired if it was not for such unnatural interference constituting a clear-cut violation of natural law. But such violations have never been observed to occur. I challenge any theist to present any example of an aberration of the normal operation of known forces which cannot be explained by the effect of other known, natural forces.

Furthermore, recall also from the above discussion that a “law” of nature is not a fixed statute, as if set in stone by an external legislator. Rather, they represent pragmatically-functional human inventions, interpretations and summations expressed in falsifiable models that are based on established facts inferred from repeated and tested observation. The phenomena observed by scientists do not operate in a particular manner because they derive from a law. The “law” is declared to be so by human scientists because they operate in the manner they do. To assert that “the laws of nature are the result of a lawmaker” is unfounded and an example of faulty logic and poor critical thinking. We have no evidentiary basis to justify any claim that a supreme intelligence decreed natural things to act in certain ways from which they are not to deviate.

If the theist goes on to claim that a supreme intelligence issued the natural laws for his own pleasure and for no reason whatsoever, then the theist is suddenly forced to admit that something exists which is not subject to any natural law, and the great chain of natural law on which the theist first based the fine-tuning argument is arbitrarily severed in order to posit the nature-independent supreme intelligence! If, on the other hand, the theist claims that there is a divine reason underlying the natural laws instantiated by the supreme intelligence – say, for example, to create the best possible universe – then logic would dictate that the Supreme Being himself is subject to a law over and above himself. Introducing the “Supreme Being” (now not-so-supreme) as an intermediary in the first place is thus rendered superfluous and unnecessary. To say that “God had a reason and purpose” in creating the universe is to posit a law external and anterior to divine edicts and thus the notion of God as an “ultimate lawgiver” suddenly dies at the hands of the theist trying to save the notion.

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In order to determine whether or not the God Hypothesis is supported by evidence and able to withstand critical scrutiny, we must first construct a testable model of God. The model I have used in this essay is the God of the capital G, the personal God of classical theism that most people worship. As we have seen, the God described by classical theism can be conclusively determined not to exist. In addition the Problem of Evil and the problem of the hiddenness of God discussed above, we do not observe any of the effects that the Personal God model predicts we should see on a regular basis. In other words, the universe appears just as it should if there is no god.

But most modern-day theologians, particularly those who accept the findings of science related to the origins of the universe and of life on earth, take issue with the model of God constructed by classical theism. Many have insisted the God of classical theism is not the kind of god they believe in or write about in their sophisticated theological treatises. They embrace a different model of god, one that bears little or no resemblance to the God believed in by most non-theologians.

In Part 4 of this series, I will examine the model of god preferred and embraced by today’s scientist-theologians.

NOTES

1. Chapman Cohen, War, Civilization and the Churches (London: Pioneer Press, 1930), p. 122.

2. C.E.M. Joad, Mind and Matter: An Introduction to the Study of Metaphysics (London: Nisbet & Co., 1925), pp. 100-101.

3. John L. Schellenberg, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 1.

4. Philip Vivian, The Churches and Modern Thought (London: Watts & Co., 1906), p. 251.

5. William McCarthy, Bible, Church and God Second Edition (New York: Truth Seeker Co., Inc., 1946, 1972), p. 37).

6. Chapman Cohen, Theism or Atheism: The Great Alternative (London: Pioneer Press, 1921), pp. 62, 64.

7. Victor J. Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From? (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006).

8. The Mathematical Supplements in Stenger’s book (ibid., pp. 190-320) are accessible at the level of anyone who has undergraduate science or math training; i.e., those with a Bachelor’s degree in areas such as physics, chemistry, electrical engineering or mathematics will be able to follow Stenger’s mathematics.

9. Ibid., p. 57.

10. Ibid., p. 58, italics added.

11. Ibid., pp. 112-113, italics added.

12. Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), pp. 131, 133.

13. Frank Wilczek, “The Cosmic Asymmetry between Matter and Antimatter,” Scientific American 243, no. 6 (1980): 82-90.

14. Web Feature, “Origins of the Universe: Stephen Hawking's J. Robert Oppenheimer Lecture,” UC Berkeley News Center 16 March 2007, http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2007/03/16_hawking_text.shtml (accessed 12 November 2012).

15. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), p. 180.

16. Ibid., pp. 136-37.

17. William Paley, Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature, Stereotype Edition (Boston: Gould, Kendall and Lincoln, 1841), pp. 5-6.

18. Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: Free Press, 1996).

19. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (London, New York: Norton, 1987).

20. Victor J. Stenger, The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011), p. 236.

21. Ibid., pp. 240-1.

22. See, for instance, Fred C. Adams, “Stars in Other Universes: Stellar Structure with Different Fundamental Constants,” Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics 08 (August 2008); Roni Harnik et al., “A Universe without Weak Interactions,” Physical Review D74 (2006): 035006; Anthony Aguirre, “Cold Big-Bang Cosmology as a Counter Example to Several Anthropic Arguments,” Physical Review D64 (2001): 083508.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Devil Has the Best Tunes (Part 4): The Myth of Backward Masking

In the 1986 horror film Trick or Treat, directed by Michael Martin Smith and written/conceived by Rhet Topham (and featuring special appearances by rock gods Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne), a devil-worshipping rock star named Sammi Curr meets an untimely death in a mysterious hotel fire. His biggest fan, a high school student with no friends and an obsession with heavy metal music, finds consolation in being the sole recipient of the only copy of Curr’s final, hitherto unreleased album. He is shocked to discover that he can communicate directly with the deceased rock star when the acetate disc is rotated backward and played in reverse. He finds he can use this otherworldly communication to his advantage, calling on the diabolical power of Sammi Curr to torment and terrorize the bullies who victimize him on a daily basis.


For many fundamentalist Christians in the 1980s (and even to some today), the movie Trick or Treat may as well have been a documentary. To them, rock albums are not just harmful to young people when played normally on listening devices. According to the moral crusaders against popular culture, rock albums contain evil and dangerous messages when they are played in reverse. “Backward masking,” a perceived phenomenon which in the 1980s captured the imagination of credulous, rebellious youth and anti-rock evangelists alike, is the process of playing music albums backwards to find the hidden, subliminal messages hiding in the grooves. According to evangelist Jacob Aranza, backward masking is “a technique that rock groups are using to convey satanic and drug related messages to the subconscious [1].” The main thesis of his 1983 book Backward Masking Unmasked is that backward masking is the “missing link” as it were, the elusive factor that directly ties rock music to the occult. “This [backward masking] was to become a channel for satanically infiltrating the minds of unsuspecting people! [2]” Jack Chick, infamous for his fundamentalist comic books and religious tracts presented in comic-book style form, added backmasked rock music to his list of evils to be combated. His 1978 comic book entitled Spellbound? tells a lurid tale in which Satan recruits witches and Druids to implant actual demonic entities inside rock records, which then serve as a vehicle to consign the souls of those who listen to music into eternal damnation [3].

To Jack Chick, the premise and storyline of his Spellbound? graphic novel is not fantastic fiction à la Lovecraft or Topham. He believes it to have a basis in reality. His publishing company produced a book entitled The Devil’s Disciples: The Truth about Rock by author Jeff Godwin, a comprehensive condemnation of rock music which purports to expose it as part of Satan’s global master plan to enslave the minds of everyone on earth. In this book, Godwin declares that “the voices we hear on these songs in reverse are actually the sounds of the demons themselves!” As proof of this, Godwin offers the following anecdotal account from a woman identified only as Elaine, who claimed to be a former Satanist who was personally involved in implanting her dark lord’s destructive message on music records:

Satan is real! Demons are real! . . . Like so many other things, the whole movement of Rock music was carefully planned and carried out by Satan and his servants from its very beginning. Rock music didn’t “just happen,” it was a carefully masterminded plan by none other than Satan himself. . . .

I attended special ceremonies at various recording studios throughout the U.S. for the specific purpose of placing satanic blessings on the Rock music recorded. We did incantations which placed demons on every record and tape of rock music that was sold. At times we also called up special demons who spoke on the recordings – the various backmasked messages. Also, in many of the recordings, we were ourselves recorded in the background (masked by the overall noise of the music) doing chants and incantations to summon up more demons every time one of the records or tapes is played. As the music is played, these demons are summoned into the room to afflict the person playing the music and anyone else who is listening. The purpose of all of this? Mind control! [4]

Did the anti-rock crusaders who promoted the backward masking claims have more sober and credible sources than Chick and “Elaine” to turn for support? They thought they did . . .

The Wrong Key

“Backward masking or metacontrast,” suggested an academic named Wilson Bryan Key, “is another technique which, though not purely subliminal, does affect both conscious and unconscious perception [5].” Key, the late psychologist and communications theorist, was responsible for first popularizing the notion of subliminal messages in media content, especially in advertising [6]. Key believed the word sex, as well as various taboo four-letter words, was embedded in nearly all advertisement media and in many other places as well. The paperback cover of the 1981 Signet reprint of Key’s 1973 book Subliminal Seduction featured a photograph of an ice-filled cocktail with the caption “Are you being sexually aroused by this picture?” He claimed to have observed the image of a naked woman copulating with a dog embedded in an ice-cube emblazoned on a Sprite ad. He also thought he saw skulls, beasts, devils, and male and female genitalia hidden in Sears catalogues and boxes of Ritz crackers, on the NBC evening news and on the Sistine Chapel [7].

Many fundamentalist Christians looked to Key’s work in their search for what they thought was reputable scholarly confirmation of their irrational fears of rock music. Key asserted that the insertion of “subaudibles” into rock records influenced listeners to crank the volume up in order to hear them. He said that the Oscar-winning soundtrack to the movie The Exorcist incorporated subliminals, cleverly mixing in sounds of buzzing bees and of squealing pigs at various frequencies [8]. Of particular interest to many of these “culture warriors” was Key’s borderline dualistic account of brain function:

Experiments have demonstrated that humans can receive, process, and transmit information which makes no conscious appearance at any stage of its passage through their nervous system. Indeed, the unconscious can operate quite independently from the conscious mechanism in the brain. The two perceptual systems often appear to be operating in opposition to one another [9].
As with all arguments that lean toward a dualistic account of consciousness and its operation, Key’s account lacks both predictive and explanatory power. Key does not tell us what specific “experiments” he is referring to, and he does not explain how humans can “receive, process, and transit information” subliminally if the unconscious and conscious are indeed operating independently of each other. How is interaction between conscious and unconscious mechanisms possible in such an independence model? If Key’s followers want to say there is no interaction, they can have no basis for asserting that subliminal messages in rock music, for example, have any harmful effect on its listeners, for in order for such alleged effects to be observable and measurable, they must manifest on a conscious level.

The Lack of Evidence

Back in the early 1990s, Robert D. Hicks, a criminal justice analyst for the state of Virginia, commented on the tendency of promoters of the backward masking notion to avoid such explanations:

Cult cops cite backmasking claims as factual, and proven. Interestingly, they never address the crucial questions: How does your average consumer manage to play the messages backwards on a common record player or tape recorder? Assuming the messages are there, what mechanism allows a listener to perceive them, consciously or unconsciously, when the music is played forward at the correct speed? Even assuming that a listener somehow absorbs the messages subliminally, so what? What effects do such messages have? Cult cops never bother to raise such questions, and neither do those who claim to have studied the backmasked comments . . . neither the cult cops nor their fundamentalist Christian sources will ever cite definitive scientific studies that address the crucial questions and demonstrate that such messages, if they do exist, influence people’s behavior [10].
The question of whether backmasked and subliminal messages have the effect that the anti-rock crusaders ascribe to them is more important than the question of whether or not such backmasked messages actually exist. In a 1985 research report, cognitive psychologists John R. Vokey and J. Don Read, of the University of Lethbridge in Canada, show the fallacy inherent in the “presence implies effectiveness” notion. “Is there any evidence to warrant assertions that such messages affect our behavior? Across a wide variety of tasks, we were unable to find any evidence to support such a claim [11].” The specific role played by suggestion in the finding of hidden satanic lyrics was carefully examined by Stephen B. Thorne and Philip Himelstein of the University of Texas at El Paso. Their findings were summarized as follows:
When large numbers of listeners report that they can indeed hear the demonic hymns, a reasonable hypothesis is that suggestion is playing an important role. There is ample experimental evidence to suggest that, when vague and unfamiliar stimuli are presented, [test subjects] are highly likely to accept suggestions, particularly when the suggestions are presented by someone with prestige or authority [12].
The most notorious claimed instance of sinister backward masking is arguably the one allegedly contained on the Beatles’ 1968 record known as the White Album. When the song “Revolution 9” is played normally, we hear the words “Number nine, number nine, number nine” chanted over and over. But when the song is played in reverse, the promoters of the “hidden messages” notion tell us we hear chanted words that are entirely different from the song’s forward-moving lyrics: “Turn me on, dead man; turn me on, dead man . . . [13]” At the time the recording was released, Beatles fans were provoked by persistent rumors that Paul McCartney had died, and they began to search in earnest for any confirming clues they could find as to the details of Pauls’ alleged secret demise. Thus, the self-described “Experts” on the occult found in the fertile imagination of Beatles fans a great opportunity to come up with an utterance which, once suggested as being implanted backwards in the record, would catch on quickly and readily be believed by the “Paul is dead” clue-seekers. But of course, there is no evidence to suggest that the phrase “turn me on, dead man” is in fact what we are really hearing.

The cultural anxiety occasioned by the backward masking mythology was interpreted by some anti-rock Christians as a failure to properly prioritize concern, especially in light of the conspicuous lack of evidence for psychological effects of backmasking. Many albums by some of the biggest names in the industry contain lyrics that are much more offensive to Christian sensibilities when played in the normal forward direction. Many of the faithful found enough shock-and-awe to be concerned over in the actual recorded lyrics. As Paul Baker comments, “Other Christians countered that the concern about backward masking, though sincere and well-meaning, was a general waste of time . . . Why search for satanic messages in reverse, they maintained, when rock performers such as Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Van Halen did their antichristian damage blatantly frontwards?” [14]

Evangelist John Muncy, one of the most vocal promulgators of the “backward masking” mythology, had much to say about both the obvious and the subliminal in rock music. In 1984, Muncy appeared as a guest on Something Beautiful, a Christian television show broadcasting from KYFC-TV in Kansas City, to present his years of research on the evils of backward masking [15]. Armed with a tape player and his collection of backwards recordings, Muncy played several back-masked songs for the host, among them a song by Electric Light Orchestra called “Eldorado” (a great song familiar to anyone who follows Seventies rock music closely). This is what Muncy had to say about this song in his book The Role of Rock, published five years after his appearance on the show:

“Eldorado”
Electric Light Orchestra, Eldorado

Forward: “Here it comes/Another lonely day/Playing their game/I’ll sail away on a voyage of no return, to see, if eternal life is meant to be.”

Backward: “He is the nasty one, Christ, you’re *infernal/Though it is said/we’re dead men/Everyone that does have the mark will live.”

(*infernal means “damnable, hellish, diabolical, accursed, awful, horrendous, terrible, etc.) [16]

Muncy played his backward recording of this ELO song on Something Beautiful. The garbled rendering was still indistinct, so Muncy stopped the tape and said, “Tell you what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna play this again to slow it down just a little bit more. Watch how clear these phrases come out.” He proceeded to do so, this time repeating back to the viewing audience exactly what they were supposed to be hearing as the recording played. In contradiction to his need to engage in blatant suggestion with the recording proceeding at a slower pace, Muncy went on to state, “Now, you got to remember, that’s playing backwards. That is remarkably clear when you take in consideration that’s backwards!” He went on to proffer an explanation:
If you had set down on a piece of paper and write out those words and read it backwards, it wouldn’t say, it wouldn’t make any sense. But it’s the way phonetically it was being pronounced. These guys just went into a recording studio and just started singing a song that’s really kind of . . . doesn’t make much sense. But when that song [“Eldorado”] was played backwards, it comes out a whole different thing [17].
This is the only evidence Muncy offers to support his claim that the backward message on “Eldorado” was the result of supernatural, demonic manipulation of the recording of which the musicians and studio techs were ignorant.

Using his own studio, equipment and team of researchers, journalist and physicist William Poundstone investigated this claim, along with nineteen other alleged cases of backward messages on a total of sixteen record albums. Of the “Eldorado” song rumors he writes, “Reversed, this passage [‘on a voyage of no return to see’] becomes the expected syllable salad – no one hearing it cold would describe it as anything but reversed music. Only if you listen while reading along with what you’re supposed to hear will you get anything [18].” Personally, when I read and consider that alleged “backward” phrase – “He is the nasty one, Christ, you're infernal . . . Everyone that does have the mark will live” – I find it far more plausible and likely that this phrase originated in the fertile imagination of a religious moral crusader who harbors certain distinctive theological notions. As Poundstone goes on to note, “There is no ‘in’ in what is taken to be ‘infernal.’ The line that is supposed to be ‘Everyone who has the mark will live’ isn’t even close, though the syllable count is about right [19].”

Real Cases of Intentional Backmasking

In The Role of Rock, Muncy implicates a total of 26 songs in the act of backmasking sinister messages, 14 of which he claims are completely unintentional and therefore manipulated by supernatural demonic forces unbeknownst to the musicians and recorders. Muncy is far less interested in the 12 deliberate instances of backmasking, for obvious reasons, but to his credit he does acknowledge them.

There are in fact several instances of intentional and deliberate backmasking. Prior to the arrival of digital technology, backmasking was rarely used, due to the high engineering costs and painstaking work required to successfully pull off the effect. With the advent of digital technology, it became much easier to embed intentional messages. In fact, the high expense of analog effects likely constituted the main reason religious conservatives posited backward masking, as opposed to other methods of masking, as the means by which evil propaganda was spread through music. The online Rational Wiki entry on backward masking nicely touches on this point:

Out of hundreds of possible maskings for a song, why did the religions choose backwards masking? Why not a flanger, stutter or AM modulation on 666MHz? The answer is as simple as it is stupid (cheap). Back in the days, when music was on LP records, or worse, on tapes, digital and analog effects tended to be pretty expensive. A decent AM modulator could cost several hundreds of dollars, which is not productive when you try to alarm the sheeple. Reproduction of the evil sound must be easy and cheap so that everyone can become scared.

With a tape recorder, it is rather simple to backmask by simply spooling the tape in reverse on the disk. LP players, being mechanical devices, can be easily tricked to spin the other way around. With a band driven player one can loop the band in an 8 and voila, backmasking for dummies was born. Given the human mind's tendency to recognize patterns, and notoriously bad quality of hacked mechanical LP players, it's not difficult to force any song into producing satanic lyrics if you prep someone to hear satanic lyrics beforehand and tell them what to listen for [20].

Muncy and other prophets of backmasking probably are not too appreciative of the fact that most of these purposeful uses of encryption responded in a tongue-in-cheek manner to the fear-mongering directed toward imagined backmasking, and thus had a distinctly snarky edge to them.
When played in reverse, Pink Floyd’s song “Empty Spaces” reveals the deliberate message, “Congratulations. You have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the funny farm, Chaford [21].”

In response to allegations of satanic backmasking levied against their song “Eldorado,” Electric Light Orchestra band leader Jeff Lynne shot back a year later and took pains to show what intentional backmasking really sounds like. ELO’s song, “Fire on High” from the 1975 album Face the Music, contains the deliberate backmasked message, “The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back! Turn back! Turn back! [22]”

Satirist and parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic recognized the potential the perceived phenomenon of backmasking had for cultural commentary. His song “Nature Trail to Hell,” from the 1984 album In 3-D, contains the hidden message, “Satan eats Cheez Whiz [23].” On the 1996 Bad Hair Day album, Yankovic conceals a hidden message in a gibberish-filled bridge of the song “I Remember Larry.” Reversed, one hears, “Wow, you must have an awful lot of free time on your hands [24].”

At the end of his sexually-provocative song “Darling Nikki,” the rock star known as Prince placed a deliberate backwardly-hidden message that invoked Christian theology: “Hello. How are you? I'm fine. ‘Cause I know that the Lord is coming soon. Coming. Coming soon [25].”

Even the Christian rock group Petra made a tongue-in-cheek jab at the backmasking controversy. Between two songs on their 1983 album More Power to Ya, they inserted this phrase backward: “What are you lookin' for the devil for, when you oughta be lookin' for the Lord? [26]”

When the B-52s song “Detour Through Your Mind” is played in reverse, Fred Schneider’s voice can be heard scolding the Satan-seekers: “I buried my parakeet in the backyard. No, no, you’re playing the record backward. Watch out, you might ruin your needle [27].”

Claims of Supernatural and Unintended Backmasking

By far, the vast majority of claimed instances of satanic backward masking are those out of which believers strain to find evil messages. These are the ones believed by most of the prophets of backmasking to be unintentional and thus entirely demon-orchestrated. Tom McIver, in a 1988 Skeptical Inquirer article on the subject, surveys some of the more well-known cases:

Black Oak Arkansas has a song [“When Electricity Came to Arkansas”] with the backward message “Satan, Satan, He is God, He is God.”

“Another one bites the dust,” a song by Queen, sounds like “decide to smoke marijuana, marijuana” when played backward.

A song by Styx about cocaine [“Snowblind”] says “Satan, move in our voices” backward.

“A Child is Coming,” by Jefferson Starship, has the words “Son of Satan” backward.

“Here’s to my sweet Satan” is what the words “there’s still time” resemble backward in the Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven.” A song on their “Houses of the Holy” album [“Over the Hills and Far Away”] contains the words “Satan is really Lord” in reverse.

The lyrics “This could be heaven or hell” in an Eagles song [“Hotel California”] turn out to be: “Yes, Satan, he organized his own religion. . . . It was delicious. . . . He puts it in a vat and fixes it for his son and gives it away” backward.

Pat Benatar’s song “Evil Genius” says, in reverse, “Oh-h, Satan, that’s why I want you to hear my music. The voice that makes my money.”

“I love you, said the Devil” appears backward in a Rolling Stones song [“Tops”].

Motley Crue’s “Shout at the Devil” album supposedly contains [in the song "Helter Skelter"] the backward phrase “Backward mask where you are, oh, lost in error, Satan.”

Venom’s “Welcome to Hell” album has [in the song "In League with Satan"] “It’s better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven” backward [28].

Patternicity

The belief that songs contain sinister hidden messages that are revealed only when played in reverse is a great example of what Michael Shermer calls patternicity in action. In February 2010, Shermer presented a short lecture for the prestigious “Technology, Entertainment, Design” series (TED) on the subject of self-deception and the tendency of humans to seek out patterns, whether they exist or not. “Essentially,” said Shermer, “we are pattern-seeking primates. We connect the dots: A is connected to B; B is connected to C. And sometimes A really is connected to B, and that's called ‘association learning.’” Shermer elaborates:

I call this process “patternicity” – that is, the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. When we do this process, we make two types of errors. A Type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it's not. Our second type of error is a false negative. A Type II error is not believing a pattern is real when it is.

Now the problem here is that patternicities will occur whenever the cost of making a Type I error is less than the cost of making a Type II error . . . We have a pattern detection problem; that is, assessing the difference between a Type I and a Type II error is highly problematic, especially in split-second, life-and-death situations. So the default position is just: Believe all patterns are real – all rustles in the grass are dangerous predators and not just the wind . . . there was a natural selection for the propensity for our belief engines, our pattern-seeking brain processes, to always find meaningful patterns and infuse them with these sort of predatory or intentional agencies . . . [29]

During this talk, Shermer displayed a series of pictures on an overhead screen that are somewhat undefinable and difficult to make out at first glance. He then suggested what should be seen in the pictures, and those suggested visuals become immediately discernible to the viewer. This is in fact the technique to which fundamentalist promoters of the backmasking claims resort in their efforts to convince the public of the dangers of rock music. A very basic fact about pattern-seeking tendencies applies well to backward masking in music: when we are told what we are supposed to be listening for, we find it very easy to hear just that, whether the claimed effect is actually there or not. As Tom McIver notes, the anti-rock crusaders “urge us to listen intently as they tell us exactly what it is we are supposed to be hearing [30].”

When our minds are tricked in this way, we attribute what Shermer calls agenticity to the phenomenon, “the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention and agency, often invisible beings from the top down [31].” In the case of belief in backward masking, people erroneously and prematurely conclude that what they think we are hearing could not possibly be there by accident or coincidence. We all possess a tendency to erroneously attribute our collective pareidolias to what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the “intentional stance”:

Here is how [the intentional stance] works: first you decide to treat the objects whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its belief. A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in many – but not all – instances yield a decision about what the agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do [32].
Dennett goes on to qualify his description of the intentional strategy. “The next task,” he speculates, “would seem to be distinguishing those intentional systems that really have beliefs and desires from those we may find it handy to treat as if they had beliefs and desires [33].” The belief that secret messages with sinister meanings lurk in the grooves of rock albums, for the purpose of seducing youth to Satanism via subliminal indoctrination, is an extreme example of the failure to appreciate Dennett’s distinction. It is also a clear indicator of where a person’s or group’s concern really lies. In the research report by Vokey and Read cited above, the authors conclude that “the apparent presence of backward messages in popular music is a function more of active construction on the part of the perceiver than of the existence of the messages themselves [34].” McIver, writing for the Skeptical Inquirer, calls backmasking claims “the precise equivalent of Rorschach inkblot interpretations,” and concludes:
Thus in most cases the alleged subliminal messages indicate not the secret intent of a music or advertising conspiracy, but the concerns and obsessions of the interpreter: sex, death, media conspiracy, and corporate greed for Key; sex, drugs, immorality, rejection of Christ, and Satan worship for the prophets of backmasking [35].
Again, the list of rock songs cited as containing sinister or subversive backmasked messages is quite long. Among the groups and musicians routinely accused of embedding satanic messages backward into their music are the Bee Gees, Ozzy Osbourne, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Hall and Oates, and many others. In The Devil’s Disciples, Jeff Godwin declared, “More and more backmasked Rock abominations are being discovered every week by dedicated Christian groups and outreach ministries throughout the country. . . . What a backlog of Devil-Rock songs and albums there must be out there just waiting to be discovered! [36]” The lists produced by the Experts stirred a significant number of credulous parents, teachers and pastors to action; in fits of righteous indignation, several congregations brought hundreds of rock albums to church, threw them together in large piles, and literally burned them. In the absence of religiously-based dogma and paranoia, what otherwise rational person would engage in such wanton destruction of culture?

The actions that religion drives otherwise-reasonable people to take are nothing short of astounding.

NOTES

1. Jacob Aranza, Backward Masking Unmasked: Backward Satanic Messages of Rock and Roll Exposed (Lafayette, LA: Huntington House, 1983), p. 1.

2. Ibid., p. 12.

3. Jack Chick, Spellbound? (Chino, CA: Chick Publications, 1978).

4. Jeff Godwin, The Devil’s Disciples: The Truth about Rock (Chino, CA: Chick Publications, 1985), pp. 343-344.

5. Wilson Bryan Key, Subliminal Seduction: Ad Media’s Manipulation of a Not So Innocent America (New York: New American Library, 1973), p. 34.

6. For a critical assessment of Key’s work, see Thomas L. Creed, “Subliminal Deception: Pseudoscience on the College Lecture Circuit,” Skeptical Inquirer 11, no. 4 (Summer 1987): 358-366.

7. Timothy E. Moore, “Scientific Consensus and Expert Testimony: Lessons from the Judas Priest Trial,” Skeptical Inquirer 20, no. 6 (November/December 1996), 32-38.

8. Key, Subliminal Seduction (see note 5), pp. 31-32.

9. Ibid., p. 38.

10. Robert D. Hicks, In Pursuit of Satan: The Police and the Occult (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991), p. 305 (emphasis added).

11. John R. Vokey and J. Don Read, “Subliminal Messages: Between the Devil and the Media,” American Psychologist 40, no. 11 (November 1985): 1231.

12. Stephen B. Thorne and Philip Himelstein, “The Role of Suggestion in the Perception of Satanic Messages in Rock-and-Roll Recordings,” Journal of Psychology 116 (January 1984): 246. For a very humorous demonstration of the fact that suggestion is primarily responsible for hearing alleged words on reversed songs, see the online video “Rick Roll Reversed Interpreted,” uploaded by AverageGuy8 Productions on YouTube.com (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcuGXkd4afI, accessed 22 October 2012).

13. Aranza, Backward Masking Unmasked (see note 1), p. 6.

14. Paul Baker, Contemporary Christian Music: Where It Came from, What It Is, Where It’s Going (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985), p. 177.

15. This episode of Something Beautiful is available for viewing on YouTube.com in a series of 9 videos called “Backward Masking & Subliminal Messages in Rock Music” (http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL18EEB90E8F21391D, accessed 21 October 2012).

16. John Muncy, The Role of Rock: Harmless Entertainment or Destructive Influence? (Canton, OH: Daring Books, 1989), p. 272.

17. John Muncy, “Backward Masking and Subliminal Messages #6” (video, 9:55), YouTube 12 August 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAJ_xPJ2ncg&feature=relmfu (accessed 21 October 2012).

18. William Poundstone, Big Secrets: The Uncensored Truth About All Sorts of Stuff You Are Never Supposed to Know (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1983), pp. 203-204.

19. Ibid., p. 204.

20. “Backward Masking,” Rational Wiki, http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Backward_masking (accessed 22 October 2012).

21. R. Gary Patterson, Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Rock and Roll Myths, Legends, and Curses (New York: Fireside, 2004), p. 179.

22. Ibid., p. 173.

23. “Weird Al – Nature Trail to Hell” online at Jeff Milner’s Backmasking Collection, http://jeffmilner.com/backmasking/nature-trail-to-hell-backwards.html (accessed 20 October 2010).

24. Zachary Dresch, “Weird Al Yankovic’s ‘I Remember Larry’ in Reverse” (video, 0:53), YouTube 1 May 2007, http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=PNL1IYc3A7k (accessed 20 October 2012).

25. Patterson, Take a Walk on the Dark Side (see note 21), p. 178. “Darling Nikki” is the song responsible for inspiring Mary Elizabeth “Tipper” Gore, wife of then-Senator and later Vice President Albert Gore, to push for legislation requiring “Parental Advisory” labels to be placed on record albums containing lyrics deemed offensive by Tipper Gore’s organization Parents Music Resource Center. See Bathroom Reader Institute, “Tipper vs. Music,” in Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges into Music (Ashland, OR: Bathroom Readers’ Press, 2007), p. 242.

26. Baker, Contemporary Christian Music (see note 14), p. 177.

27. Patterson, Take a Walk on the Dark Side (see note 21), p. 174.

28. Tom McIver, “Backward Masking, and Other Backward Thoughts About Music,” Skeptical Inquirer 13, no. 1 (Fall 1988): 52-53.

29. Michael Shermer, “The Pattern Behind Self-Deception” (video, 19:01), TED Talks February 2010, http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_shermer_the_pattern_behind_self_deception.html (accessed 26 August 2012).

30. McIver, “Backward Masking, and Other Backward Thoughts About Music” (see note 28), p. 56.

31. Shermer, “The Pattern Behind Self-Deception” (see note 29).

32. Daniel C. Dennett, The Intentional Stance (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1987), p. 17.

33. Ibid., p. 22.

34. Vokey and Read, “Subliminal Messages” (see note 11), p. 1231.

35. McIver, “Backward Masking, and Other Backward Thoughts About Music” (see note 28), p. 56 (emphasis added).

36. Godwin, The Devil’s Disciples (see note 4), p. 152.