Eager to please!

The other day, whilst in a philosophical mood, I got to musing on whether there would be any way for humans to tell if we were being kept as pets by some alien intelligence.

Consider the goldfish that we keep in our kitchen.

Goldfish contemplating sunken treasure chest.

I doubt that they have even the foggiest idea that the glass-walled vessel in which they find themselves is in any way strange. Or even that they have any idea of what ‘glass’ is, or what ‘strange’ is. They are quite obviously accustomed to the large shadowy figures that loom over them from time to time, and have come to associate these figures with food, which makes for obvious excitement for them. Their goldfishy brains probably can’t even encompass the idea of humans, or a kitchen bench, or meatballs and tomato sauce (which is what I happen to be cooking for dinner as I write this).

But what if we are like that? If we were the pets of aliens, how would we even know? Our puny human brains might be to them as goldfish brains are to us. If we are being kept in the alien equivalent of a glass tank on an alien kitchen bench, how could we even know, if we are unable to contain the concept of alien glass, or alien kitchen benches or alien meatballs? If we know nothing other than the circumstances in which we find ourselves – like the goldfish, raised in tanks in an aquarium and transported in plastic bags to a new home – what possible reference point could we have?

As silly as this sounds, I don’t mean it to be a flippant question. It is at least as plausible as any other hypothesis for why we are here, and it is just as unfalsifiable as postulating the existence of God, or alternative universes, or that we are a computer simulation.

If you accept that there are grades of intelligent awareness possible in the universe (and our own experience tells us that goldfish seem to be less aware of the universe than we are, and at the same time more aware of the nature of things than bacterium, say, so that appears to be a fairly reasonable assumption) then putting ourselves at the top of the intelligent awareness ladder seems a tad presumptuous. Is there any way, therefore, to know whether our reality is a ‘natural’ one or whether we are in an alien goldfish bowl?

I suspect not. But the places to start looking would be things in our universe that seem to be a little too ‘convenient’ for us to be here. And there are, indeed, some of those.

CERN, in Geneva, has been holding over the last few days a conference called ‘The Big Bang and the interfaces of knowledge: towards a common language?’

Decoding this for you: it’s a convening of scientists and various religious commentators to attempt to find a way to square religion with the uncomfortable facts that science throws up to challenge it.

After pausing for just a moment to reflect on whether Betteridge’s Law should be applied to the conference title, let’s hear what the first speaker at the conference, Andrew Pinsent had on his mind according to BBC News Europe. Science, he said, risked:

“…trying to turn society into a machine” if it did not engage with religion and philosophy.

Of course, he does not really mean ‘philosophy’ here, because science has always engaged with philosophy, from the very earliest of Greek knowledge at least, and probably before that. No, he has lumped philosophy in there in order to stack it squarely on the side of religion and divorce it from science because he needs to do that to set up his argument. As is almost de rigeur for religious thinkers(i) these days, he starts by depicting science as a mechanical process devoid of any wonder or beauty, so that he can make those things the sole domain of religion; science will make us into machines, religion is the only chance we have to stay human.(ii)

Why do religious people think like this? It’s profoundly offensive for a person such as myself who has no religious belief to hear that I can’t, apparently, experience the world as anything other than cold mechanical processes. Does Mr Pinsent have no clue at all that by voicing this opinion he is saying ‘Those of us who hold religious beliefs are better than the rest of you’?

You can see that I am predisposed already to think that this CERN conference is likely to be a pile of horseshit. Mr Pinsent goes on:

‘Science in isolation is great for producing stuff, but not so good for producing ideas’

What a brainless pronouncement. This man is confusing science with industrial manufacture. Why is he speaking at a conference at CERN? What does he even mean by ‘science in isolation… [is] not so good for producing ideas’? Isolation from what? Its ideas maybe??? WTF?(iii)

Further down in the BBC article we hear from co-organiser of the conference Canon Dr Gary Wilton, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative in Brussels, who said that the discovery of the Higgs particle:

… raised lots of questions [about the origins of the Universe] that scientists alone can’t answer.

Yeah, and you know what Canon Dr Wilton? The Anglican Church can’t answer them either. Nor can any other religion on the planet. Making up a story does not count as an answer.

Another of the speakers at the conference, Professor John Lennox from Oxford University, is on record as having taken Stephen Hawking to task for asserting that we do not need to entertain the idea of a ‘God’ setting the Universe in motion:

When Hawking argues, in support of his theory of spontaneous creation, that it was only necessary for ‘the blue touch paper’ to be lit to ‘set the universe going’, the question must be: where did this blue touch paper come from? And who lit it, if not God?

Who lit the blue touch paper if not God? Oh, how about a rainbow-coloured unicorn, or a jolly green elf? They’re at least as plausible as candidates for holding the matches as the Christian God. The fact is, the beginnings of the Universe are shrouded in mystery. Mystery, as in ‘We don’t know – it’s a mystery’ not ‘It’s a mystery and therefore it’s the God (that I personally believe in) that was written about in an ancient book full of irrational beliefs!’ We’ve had other things that were shrouded in mystery in the past and they’re not now. Many of those things (the Earth-centered Universe; the order of life on Earth; lightning; the processes of human birth, of the cardiovascular system, of the brain; the giant fossil bones in river beds) were once mysteries, in just the same way as religion sees the beginning of the Universe now. It is a constrained mind that can’t make the equation here.(iv)

This kind of nutty religious noodling simply makes me furious. These people don’t want a serious philosophical debate, no matter how they may be couching it. Having a genuine philosophical discussion about these kinds of big questions might be of some value. Having a religious discussion is entirely worthless because they’ve already made up their mind that they know the answer.

Canon Dr Wilton sums up his hopes for the CERN conference by saying:

By the end… we might find new ways of understanding our own positions.

By which he means ‘I’m never going to change my mind, because I hold an irrational belief that can’t be swayed no matter what. But maybe I can get scientists to cut me some slack and stop being such a nuisance with their infernal ‘facts’.’

Canon Dr Wilton has no intention whatsoever of ‘finding a new way to understand his position’ – not in any meaningful way, in any case. Faced with a mystery, he just calls ‘God’ and that’s the end of it. That’s not how science works. Science is able to entertain the idea of a mystery without making a pronouncement. Or, science can contemplate the proposition that an old bloke with a white beard set things in motion. Or that it’s turtles all the way down. Or that we’re in someone else’s computer simulation.

The difference is that scientists just don’t merely presuppose one of those things and set about trying to convince everyone by talking it up. Science needs evidence, something religion is remarkably short on.


Addendum: As I was writing this over the weekend, the BBC site published an update to the conference. It was refreshing to see, at last, some thoughts from an actual scientist – physicist and all-round sensible person Lawrence Krauss:

One gets the impression from a meeting like this that scientists care about God; they don’t. You can’t disprove the theory of God. The power of science is uncertainty. Everything is uncertain, but science can define that uncertainty. That’s why science makes progress and religion doesn’t.

Contrast that to this further waffle from the Professor John Lennox, who we heard from above:

If the atheists are right, the mind that does science… is the end product of a mindless unguided process.Now, if you knew your computer was the product of a mindless unguided process, you wouldn’t trust it.

I doubt Professor Lennox has even the faintest clue how utterly stupid a declaration like that sounds. It’s just another way of saying ‘But look at how amazing humans are! That can’t just be a product of evolution!’ Well, Professor Lennox, it can be and it is. Your lack of understanding of how things work does not, as I’ve said, imply the existence of a God, no matter how much mystery there is in the process.

Andrew Pinsent also features in the update, once again attempting to create a division between science and philosophy, as if scientists can’t be philosophers. Just look at his language – it is careful and insidious. Lawrence Krauss, by contrast, makes it clear that the issue here is science and religion, not philosophy. If you’ve read any of Krauss’s books, you will know that, like all good scientists, he’s no stranger to philosophy.


Thanks to acce245 for throwing this one my way.


  1. I use the word advisedly, because I actually don’t believe many of these people really think. []
  2. Whatever ‘human’ actually means. We are now completely augmented by the science we have created. We are already ‘machines’. Maybe Mr Pinsent thinks we should go back to the pre-fire veldt. Oh wait, we were using tools even then. []
  3. I’ll allow that Mr Pinsent might have been quoted out of context here – it’s hard to tell in the BBC article. It goes on to tell us that Mr Pinsent says we ‘need to get back to the ideas of Einstein’ – as if somehow there are no great thinkers in science anymore. This is the comment of a person with a profound lack of knowledge of science and scientists. It’s a mark of people who want to seem like they’re talking knowledgably about science to refer to Albert Einstein – the only great scientist they know. Mr Pinsent, you might like to read up on some of the great modern ideas people of science: Richard Feynman; Roger Penrose; Geoffrey West; Stephen Hawking; Garret Lisi – oh, and I could go on for pages… But when you’ve finished, then tell me with any earnestness that science is no good for producing ideas. []
  4. And, aside from that – as I’ve written on these pages before – it is entirely possible that at some stage or another we might run up against the limits of human comprehension. There is nothing that says that we will necessarily be able to understand the Universe. This is no license to presuppose God, however. []


While we’re on the subject of people misunderstanding science, the Guardian reports that American illusionist and ‘endurance artist’ David Blaine is in the middle of a stunt that has him standing for 3 days and 3 nights on a platform inside a 1 million volt electrical field generated by a Tesla coil.

‘I have a chance of surviving,’ said Blaine in a previous Guardian interview, an observation which, if you know anything about the science involved, is something of an understatement. Yes, he does have a ‘chance of surviving’ – pretty close to 100% chance, in fact, as long as he remains inside the metal suit he’s wearing, which creates for him a perfect Faraday Cage.

The vox pops from the Guardian video once again demonstrate the utter lack of science education in the general public. Says one overly impressed bystander:

They say it’s a million volts? Nobody could take that. Nobody could take more than 300 volts! People gonna die right away. Seriously.

No, seriously Mr Punter, you should brush up on your basic physics. You’re at greater risk of being mugged in the audience than David Blaine is from being electrocuted.

Really, the most impressive stunt being performed here is Blaine attempting to stay awake for 72 hours. That’s not easy. But even if he does fall asleep, he is protected from physical falling by a safety harness, so the biggest damage he’s ever likely to experience is to his reputation.

Tetherd Cow Risk Assessment: you could let your granny do it. It’s at least as safe as letting her pour whisky over her chest.

UPDATE: Here’s a REAL daredevil, doing something actually impressive with high voltage (as part of his job, no less).

Suck on that David Blaine.

I’m seeing a lot of floppy uses of the word ultimate lately, and the above promise from the makers of a massage chair in my local shopping mall is no exception. The Oxford dictionary tells me that, as an adjective, ultimate can either mean:

1. being or happening at the end of a process; final:

2. being the best or most extreme example of its kind:

Now, I don’t really think that the makers of FeelGood Massage Chairs(i) mean to suggest that sitting in this chair might be the last thing you ever do, so we must infer that they are promising to give the sitter the best Shiatsu massage that money can buy.(ii)

Somehow, this does not fit with my mental vision of the ultimate Japanese Shiatsu massage, which goes more like this:

Any other contentious uses of the word ultimate out there, Faithful Cowpokes?

  1. I’d just like to point out that this name is strikingly close to the Tetherd Cow Ahead trademarked proprietary process of FeelyGood™. I’d better get Cow Legal onto this. []
  2. Strictly speaking, I guess they are offering the best Shiatsu massage that $2 can buy, which I am pretty sure is never going to get into the ultimate range. []


Atlas brings to my attention this news over on Den of Geek, in which Lucasfilm producer Rick McCallum is interviewed about numerous matters, including a forthcoming live-action Star Wars TV series.

Yes, that’s right. It’s MORE Star Wars, Jim, but apparently this time it’s not as we know it.

Mr McCallum, speaking about the challenges in getting the show into a new era of television, dropped this little bombshell:

It so unlike anything you’ve ever associated with George before in relation to Star Wars. Our biggest problem is that these stories are adult. I mean… these are like ‘Deadwood’ in space.(i) These aren’t for kids.

Star Wars as Deadwood in space? O..k..a..y.. I think I can picture that…


  1. I’m not at all sure that Mr McCallum has seen Deadwood []


I thought it might be time to look once again at the kinds of searches that bring people to The Cow. I am relieved to see that there is something of a de-emphasis of the ‘gay penis’ searches, and interested to observe that ‘famous mirrors’ is still in the top ten, along with ‘shoo tag scam’. We’re also seeing some visits by people skeptical of the ridiculous ‘Trinfinity 8′ (hi there!), which is encouraging, and quite a few who have not bookmarked The Cow and need to keep looking it up on Google. Silly people. You should not only have it bookmarked, it should be on a key macro.

I hope you’re all having a nice day.

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