Monday, February 13, 2012

Dualism, Deity, and Faith

Part of my Approaching Atheism series.

After having addressed some tangential theist positions as well as both theist and atheist claims of proof, I'm now going to give my responses to the heart of the more basic theist positions; that there are immutable spiritual phenomena, that there can be a believable defition of God, and whether it is good at all to believe beyond what you can know.


Dualism is the position that there are (at minimum) two kinds of phenomena, neither of which derive their causal basis from the other. There's the physical world of matter and energy in space and time, within which all phenomena can be traced chronologically to previous events, and then there's the spiritual world of souls, perhaps conceptual essences, perhaps intermediate spiritual entities of various kinds, typically with God acting as the constant first cause of all of it.

The Dualist position is in contrast with either the Materialist view, in which subjectively demonstrable abstract concepts such as the self and the objects of our minds are treated as emergent properties of matter, most specifically that of the neurological function of our brains; or the Spiritualist view, in which non-material or spiritual phenomena are what actually interact with one another to produce events, and what we can observe in the material world is only a projection or illusion caused by those essential underlying events. The simplest response to the Spiritualist position is that we can and have created predictive theories for the behavior of matter all by itself, without regard to any spiritual events, whereas there are no known testable predictive theories for the behavior of spiritual phenomena, much less why they should translate to a material appearance that itself was predictable.

The trouble with Dualism is that it tries to have it both ways. It admits that spiritual phenomena can interact with material phenomena such as through our senses and will, through miracles, when we are born and when we die, but then it shies away from allowing anything else to cross the border that it maintains between the two kinds of phenomena. But if you've got separate categories of phenomena and admit that there are at least some ways in which each category can interact with the other, then how is such a barrier to be maintained? If there are spiritual phenomena and they do have causal impact on the material world, then we should be able to devise some means of detecting it; if material phenomena can causally impact the spiritual world, then we should be able to devise some means of manipulating it.

Any critical examination of what it would take to maintain such a deliniation must ultimately admit to so many potential violations of it that "Ghostbusters" style technology becomes theoretically inevitable. Spiritually causal phenomena capable of interacting with the material world could be measured and manipulated by materially based technology, once the formal rules governing spiritual phenomena were known. And there's no consistent way (that I can think of, or that I've ever heard of from a Dualist) to devise a law or theory that would prevent the claim of such a barrier from eroding entirely.

But once one admits that the two "kinds" of phenomena are theoretically capable of interacting to a potentially unlimited degree, what's the use of calling them two kinds of phenomena at all? Under such a "Ghostbusters" paradigm, spiritual phenomena would be merely another state of events, little different between the gaseous, liquid and solid states of matter; or between the basic forces of the universe (strong force, weak force, electromagnetism and gravity). Even if presently unsolved, coming up with a theory that unifies these different phenomena is nothing more than a potentially soluble problem. So ultimately, we're left back with only one "kind of stuff." If a phenomenon is real (that is to say if any claim of causal relationship with observable phenomena can be devised and hold up to testing), then both categories of phenomena are all part of only one same universe, and are all ultimately part of one category.

If you create yet another category in which to place the things you'd like to believe in, then the moment that you assert that those things can be causal factors in the real world, or vice versa, then the claim of separation inevitably breaks down, and these become nothing more or less than mere unproven propositions. But if you don't cross the line of separation, then the entire invented category remains completely useless and/or meaningless.

In passing, I'd also like to mention that I prefer the term Monism to Materialism. To call the sole phenomenal category "material" is to suggest that it's something other than "spiritual," which in turn is to suggest that there could be such a thing as spiritual; one might as well state that the universe is right-handed. To characterize the "one kind of stuff" position as merely Monist is simply to suggest that in the end, there are only phenomena, however one chooses to categorize or characterize them.


"God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance."

- Dr. Neils deGrasse-Tyson

Anything that could be demonstrated could not be God. There's no possible display of power short of destroying the entire universe that could demonstrate that the entity who caused it was the same entity who created and now sustains the universe. If a candidate for deity were any actor within the universe (even the most powerful one), then he could not be not that entity. For any vastly-but-finitely powerful entity, a greater being could yet be imagined; one could still ask of him, "who is your God?" Thus in order to fit the criteria by which God must be defined, He must transcend the universe, rather than be contained by it.

As for miracles, each would represent a mistake that God made in the universe, which He then had to correct. From an omniscient perspective, the universe must be (relatively speaking) deterministic, and therefore all later events could be controlled solely by the virtue of correctly setting the initial conditions. A God who needs to meddle in His universe in order to correct it admits to being something less than perfect.

What we're left with at this point is a God who cannot be demonstrated in the universe, and who takes no action in it. This is the position of more "vague" theist positions, such as deism or pantheism, and is also the concept of God posited by agnosticism.

One of the problems with such a conception of God, it that it's hard to assert that your conception has any contents, makes any positive assertions, or has any properties or characteristics at all. Examining what such a God would mean too easily boils away into either merely "God is everything" or "God is nothing," which is to assert nothing at all (much less anything in which one could claim to believe).

But at the very least, such a God must remain confined to the unknown, to that of which we currently remain ignorant; our ignorance is precisely the space that He can fill, and go no further. This is commonly referred to as the "God of the gaps." But if God precisely fills the space of ignorance, then it is also the case that ignorance is the only thing that gives shape to God; He essentially is defined solely by that which we happen to be ignorant of.

This is the case whether you claim that God can only be asserted with respect to phenomena that do not currently know about but might potentially discover, as well as the claim that God can only be asserted with respect to phenomena that under current scientific paradigms are even theoretically unknowable (such as those below Heisenbergian uncertainty, within singularities or beyond the light-cone of astronomically observable phenomena). Even a God so limited might be threatened by a significant shift in one or more scientific paradigms.

Therefore, to define and place belief in God as such, is to essentially worship ignorance itself (or at least grant great respect to it) because that's all there is that remains in this conception of God. One who has such an attitude towards their own ignorance is much less likely to try to discover more about the world, lest they diminish Him even further. In any case, worship of igorance is hardly something that one could or should call virtuous at all.


Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

- Jean-Paul Sartre

Faith is belief beyond knowledge. To have faith in something is to believe in it not because one has justified knowledge of it, but for some other reason - or preferably, no reason at all. In fact, if one believes something for good logical and evidentiary reasons, then they cannot have faith in it. That's the entire point of faith. That's why it's treated as either a sacred virtue or a miraculous gift.

The above point should seem so obvious to the religious and nonreligious alike that it would seem that it should not even be worth mentioning. And yet still theists seek to argue with reasons, to give evidence, and otherwise provide justified knowledge for their religious positions. But if their positions are so reasonable, then doesn't that mean that they themselves are faithless?

A critical examination of faith as a concept must address why people would adopt it. It certainly can't be for rational reasons, or else it wouldn't be faith. The only reason that could remain (unless I'm going to start throwing around accusations of mental illness) must be through having some strong emotional attachment to an idea, and/or the fear of its contrary.

People adhere to their positions of faith because of many reasons. They fear death, and want its finality refuted, both for themselves and those they've lost. They want to believe that good people (they and others like them) will be rewarded, and that evil people (those they don't like) will be punished. They've had some numinous experiences (moments of intense joy and awe) and want them validated as something more significant than a mere localized neurological effect. They want to live in a universe that comes pre-packaged with purpose and meaning. They want to live in a universe in which justice actually prevails, despite all evidence to the contrary. And they want to believe that somewhere, somehow, all that is unknown is known by somebody, even if it isn't us.

But hope is not knowledge, and it shouldn't be belief. I may hope that I will win the next lottery drawing. But I would be deluded (and might make poor short-term financial decisions) if I chose to believe I that will, based on that hope.

What I think many people of both the atheist and theist persuasion may fail to consider is that one need not "abandon all hope" as a result of withdrawing belief from a proposition based solely on faith. You can still hope that your consciousness will somehow survive your death, without investing emotionally-attached belief in the proposition that it will. You can hope that we're wrong about lots of things. But there's a world of difference between hoping for something, and refusing to admit the situation that is.

As for how atheists deal with these same kinds of hopes and fears, there are a variety of methods.

Many atheists I know have no fear of death, based on the simple observation that there will be no "them" at the time to fear it. This is often expressed as "my situation after I die will be exactly the same as it was before I was born." For others, that isn't enough - the ego balks at conceiving of its own utter dissolution. Another method is to consider things from a greater perspective. Some take comfort in the return of their physical energy to the Earth, to be re-used as future phenomena. Others find comfort in pondering the notion that we are all made from stardust, that the higher elements which comprise our beings came from the nuclear fusion furnaces of distant stars, and on a long enough time frame will ultimately return to them. As for me, I personally enjoy the notion that I will have been a piece of the universe that briefly knew itself. And I hope that this process (of which I am a part) that led to the development of my own complexity will continue, and ever after lead to more and more entities of even greater complexity, self-awareness and more. You might come up with your own ideas.

But the point is that whether or not atheists fear death, we at least confront it head-on. We don't turn away and instead wish for a powerful Father who will make not be real, in order to banish our fear of it. There are very few religious people who don't have moments of even slight doubt - who are completely immune to such fears. In fact, I'd posit that they live in greater fear of death and the unknown than atheists do in the long term, if only because they never actually confront it. Their faith won't allow them to do so.

As for meaning, purpose and justice in the universe, existentialism comes to the clear position that it is our job to create it, both for ourselves and one another. If there is no God to uphold these things by virtue of His very existence, then it falls to us to bring them into existence. This seems to me to be a much better reason to seek a life of purpose, much less to a good person than merely "God commands." Victor Frankl's approach of logotherapy is also based around the notion that participating in the creation of meaning and purpose in our lives is an innate psychological need in humans. We are in a sense, purpose creating engines.

A separate claim regarding faith that must be addressed is the assertion that having it causes one to live a better life than not having it. That whether articles of faith are right or wrong, placing belief in them anyways will have positive benefits in your life. Typically the people making such claims point to former addicts or others who were once engaged in self-destructive behavior, who are no longer and credit their religious conversion with the improvement.

First of all, as an atheist who's doing just fine, I find such a claim to be flatly insulting, if applied across the board. Fuck you very much, as well. But even if we only admit that some people in certain situations can truly be helped by faith at least in the short term (which from a mere observation of statistical possibility I can't deny) then we must also admit that there soem people in certain situations can truly be helped by losing faith, at least in the short term. Which leaves us nowhere regarding a such a claim.

In any case, the claim that believing in something one doesn't know to be true leads to a better life (even to a stastically significant margin between overlapping bell curves) would require some form of (non-anecdotal) evidence in order to be demonstrated. Such has never been presented.

Credulity is no virtue.

Next up: I'll try to construct my own epistemic worldview, from first principles. Without a net.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Disproofs of God

Part of my Approaching Atheism series.

Previously I approached three proofs of God. Next, I'm going to criticize three lines of reasoning attempting to disprove the existence of God. Why would I want to oppose lines of argument that agree with my overall position? Well, for one thing I enjoy these sorts of theological conjectures, and these are the conclusions I've come to.

But more importantly, many people come to a claimed atheist position due to finding one or more of these areas of argumentation to be compelling. It would be better to know why they are not beforehand, and base one's worldview (either way) on stronger ground. In particular, I suspect (and many theists charge) that at least some claimed atheists are actually misotheists - people who are disgusted with or angry at God due to the problem of evil While some may find it unproblematic to lightly dismiss the concept of God, others may need better reasons than these in order to move past their upbringing and the culture around them. I hope to provide such in future posts.

The Omnipotence Paradox

"Can God create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it?"

This commonly cited question is a simple formulation of the paradoxical nature inherent in positing infinite power. Answer yes, and there is something God cannot do (lift the stone). Answer no, and there is something God cannot do (create a stone He cannot lift). In either case, the notion of an omnipotent God fails.

Thus, God must either not exist, or not be limitless. And a limited entity has no claim to true deity. An entity of finite powers (however great they might be) could only be another participant within the universe, rather than its creator and sustainer. One could still posit a hypothetical being of greater power.

However, the same question could be rephrased to contain the same meaning, while removing God from the paradoxical portion, and placing it all on the other item: "can God create an unliftable stone?" This is more akin to asking, "can God create a squared circle," or any other self-contradictory item you care to name. The question regarding God then becomes, is He unrestricted by logic, or must He conform to it?

One response to this (from George Mavrodes) is that a God who is restricted only to the bounds of what makes is logical doesn't count as "restricted" at all; that this still fulfills a fair working definition of omnipotence. A second response (following C.S. Lewis) is that to discuss self-contradictory items is mere nonsense, and including them in a question renders it meaningless. This is completely coherent with Mavrodes' response, since to assert that that which lies beyond the bounds of logic is meaningless, is also to assert that a logically bounded universe effectively remains unbounded. Everything beyond the boundaries of reason is merely nonsense, and thus they don't count as boundaries at all.

But we still can explore Lewis' response in a little more detail, and perhaps expand upon it. If we posit an omnipotent God, then any questions that contain the auxiliary verb forms "can" or "could" are meaningless. This is because they speak to the possibility of some event; in doing so, they refer to the gap between what one wills to happen and what actually happens. But in reference to an omnipotent God, there can be no such gap. There are only two possible outcomes of the thought-experiment: 1) God lifts the stone, or 2) God does not lift the stone. In either case, the outcome conforms exactly to God's will; there are no other possibilities. That's what omnipotence means: whatever happens, is exactly what God wills to happen. The will of God is identical to the actual outcome of reality, as well as all possible outcomes.

To ask whether God can create a stone He cannot lift is to demand that God both intend and not intend that the stone be lifted. Thus, the only limitation one might claim to the powers of God that He could not do something that He did not will to take place. But this is no limitation; it is in fact a reassertion of the meaning of choice itself. There is only what God does, and what God declines to do. There is no difference between what God "cannot" do and what God chooses not to do; the sets thereof are equivalent. Therefore, for any question worded "can God do X?" It can be re-worded to "does God do X?"

Omniscience vs. Free Will

With or without positing the existence of God, free will is at least somewhat problematic. Regardless of one's a/theist position, everyone has some attachment to the notion of free will. It's required for us to feel that we can take responsibility for our actions (whether praiseworthy or blameworthy), as well as for us to hold one another fully accountable for theirs.

It's generally considered to be the case that if it were even theoretically possible to measure and predict in detail the internal and external causal factors that lead to the choices we make, then we cannot be said to have free will. That is to say, the working definition for most of free will is that it refers to some property of our minds which disallows the possibility of a perspective from which our choices can be accurately determined or predicted. If it were the case that our choices could be precisely predicted, then it would also be the case that our choices were already being precisely controlled by our environment.

From the atheist perspective, free will is only somewhat difficult to maintain. One may propose that some unknowable factor goes into our decision making processes, whether that be some form of dualism, or claim the involvement (to any degree) of quantum indeterminacy in neurological function. Alternately (and the approach that I take) one can rephrase the question from "does free will exist?" to "how free is will?" That is to say, will need not be infinitely free to be characterized as free; so long as one's complexity of mind is sufficient that no perspective that exists can precisely determine its behavior, that's good enough for all relevant purposes. From an epistemic skeptic position, to claim that we don't have free will would require actually determining at least one mind, which no one has been able to do, and which hasn't even been proven to be possible. I maintain that my will can be said to be "free" (i.e. is not determined by some other perspective) until you can provide real evidence to the contrary.

On the other hand, once one posits the existence of an omniscient entity such as God, then such a perspective, one which can determine and predict our every choice down to the slightest detail, now exists. Even more troubling, most of those who posit the existence of God also maintain that human free will is necessary to their concept of morality; the theist position places the assertion of free will among the most critically important concepts imaginable, even as it makes it more difficult to defend.

To answer, we can word this question as a special case of the omnipotence paradox: "can God create an entity so complex He cannot determine its choices?" Fortunately, much of the heavy lifting on this type of question has already been done above: we can then reword it to simply, "does God determine our choices?" So long as God refrains from "peeking" within the causal machinery of our minds and predicting our choices and their outcomes, then we can be said to have free will - but only at His constant allowance.

The Problem of Evil

Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world? – Epicurus

This earliest known formulation of the problem of evil remains one of its most concise wordings - although I'm going to refer to "suffering" hereafter, since "evil" in common usage has specific connotations regarding choice and intent.

If we define God as omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, then we are asserting an entity who is capable of eliminating the suffering that happens to us, and who purportedly loves us. A cursory examination of events occurring in the world easily demonstrates that plenty of suffering is presently occurring, such that anyone who purported to love us could not possibly tolerate it. Therefore, at least one of the above properties ascribed to God must fail.

We've already discussed how any entity who is anything less than omnipotent would simply fail to meet the criteria necessary to fit the definition of God. But omnibenevolence, while easier to dismiss on logical grounds (the creator of the universe need not necessarily have any special regard for us), is vastly more problematic on moral and ethical grounds. Being omnipotent, God not only allows, but must the cause of all suffering that exists. Per my response to the ontological argument above, all suffering occurs not despite, but as an expression of, the will of God.

Aside: One of the reasons I wanted to address arguments against God is that I feel that many people who claim atheism in response to the problem of evil actually take the position of misotheism - they may not fully disbelieve in the concept of God, but rather they are merely disgusted with it on moral grounds. This criticism has in fact been levied towards the overall position of atheism (at least in passing) by many theists. Of course, a proper atheist isn't angry at God in the slightest, as that would involve investing emotional energy on a nonexistent being; one might as well be angry with the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny. The moral disdain shown by many prominent atheists such as Sam Harris or (more vitriolically) Christopher Hitchens is properly aimed at the concept of God, as well as its adherents. But certainly not at God Himself.

One response to the problem of evil is what's known as the "best of all possible worlds" response, originally formulated by Gottfried Leibniz. In this defense of God, out of the entire set of possible worlds that are logically consistent (and therefore meaningful), this is the one that results in the least amount of suffering. Since Voltaire so thoroughly mocked it in Candide, this argument isn't often elucidated in apologetics, although it is sometimes implied in contemporary pop-Christian parables, such as the footprints in the sand, or did I miss one? In both cases, moral blame of God for evil is responded with by considering how much worse things could have been, i.e. taking into consideration the many worse possible worlds. However, it is so easy as to be entirely trivial to imagine a world that is better than this one, especially given the tools available to an omnipotent entity.

Another (more common) response to the problem of evil (at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition) is that since God grants us free will, any suffering that occurs is a product of our own decisions, either to harm ourselves or one another. Any simple body count of the latest earthquake, tsunami, flood, hurricane or tornado is sufficient to disabuse one of the notion that suffering is a product of human decisions. Certainly much is, and we could (and should) make better decisions, as well as do more to come to the aid of those who suffer, but that's not the same thing as asserting that the universe is constructed in such a way that God can be entirely absolved of responsibility for the suffering that its inhabitants experience, much less that it's constructed. Clearly, it is not.

Thee only possible key to the problem of evil thus lies in a less naive and more thorough examination of what we mean by "omnibenevolence." God cannot be said to love us in either the way we are expected to love Him or the ways in which we love one another. Here, "omni" does not merely mean infinitely more, but must refer to a benevolence of an entirely different nature than what we can mean by any term that relates to our attitude towards one another on Earth.

By this, don't actually mean that they way in which God can claim to be beyond reproach is beyond our possible understanding. God Himself presents this sort of response in Job 38-41, and frankly He just comes off as kind of a dick there:
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
All this to a good and pious man who had just had his entire life demolished and ground in the dirt just so that God could prove a point. Job hadn't even cursed him, just questioned the reasoning for his suffering. "I'm the boss, you don't know, so shut up" is no proper response to a moral indictment from or by anyone.

Following the Book of Job, let's ourselves do a dialogue...

One day the angels[a] came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them.

God (to Satan): Where have you come from?

Satan: From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.

God: Have you considered how wonderful it all is? How my subjects enjoy the benefits of my infinite power, in accordance with my great love for them?

Satan: Actually, that's kind of what I wanted to talk to you about. It appears that a great many of them are suffering horribly on a pretty consistent basis.

The LORD then looked down upon that which He had made. He saw the suffering of humankind, saw the many humans praying to Him for mercy, saw their starvation, torture and misery.

God: Yep, that's pretty messed up.

Satan: Well, you're the omnipotent guy here. Just fix it.

God: What do you mean just fix it?

Satan: Just fix it. Eliminate all suffering. You can do that. You're omnipotent.

God: Sure, I'll give it a shot...

The LORD then snapped His mighty fingers, and from that snap a great change went out through the world. Suddenly, every human heart was filled with infinite joy. From that moment, no person on the Earth knew even the faintest bit of suffering, only utter and abject pleasure.

Satan looked down, watching all of the humans on Earth lying on the ground, doing nothing more than twitching and moaning in joy.

Satan: So that's what getting rid of suffering looks like? They're kind of boring now.

God: That's what you get. In order to "elimate all suffering," as you put it, I had to put them all in a state of pure bliss. Now they've got no reason to do anything at all.

Satan: Well, that's no good. None of them are even moving a muscle! They're just laying there soiling themselves and enjoying every moment of it. Frankly, it's pathetic.

God: Yep. Looks like they're all going to die of dehydration within a matter of a few days.

Satan: Ha! I bet none of their doomsayers saw "apocalypse by orgasmic joy" coming.

God: And people tell me I don't have a sense of humor.

Satan: Platypus!

And lo, the LORD and Satan did thereupon share a high five and hearty chuckle, as the final generation of humanity enjoyed its last few hours on Earth.

Beyond simple reflex response, all human action is the product of what the mind deems to improve its state on a scale ranging between transcendent happiness to abject misery. Everything that we do, we do in the hopes that it will either lead to a greater measure of happiness, or at least lead to a state via which we can achieve happiness on a more consistent basis than we do now. Thus, absent some range of subjective desireability between states of existence, human motivation becomes impossible.

It might be the case that we could be programmed via instinct to follow exactly the routines that we do in the world, fulfilling our entire range of behaviors in direct response to instinctually programmed behaviors. But then we could hardly claim to have free will. For any free will system to work (much less for it to be possible for us to be dynamic participants in the universe) instinct can tell us no more than what conditions we dislike, and which we prefer, and then allow us to reason for ourselves how to avoid the former and/or achieve the latter. From this, the entire range of complex human behavior follows.

But this itself suggests a possible solution. If all that's necessary is some range...

Satan: What if you only made them somewhere between very-happy and blissful?

God: How so?

Satan: Well, if all they need is some range of differentiation between their worst possible state and their best possible state in order to get up and do interesting things, why not just make their worst possible state still pretty good? Like, the difference between a great day and an orgasm?

God: Sounds tricky but -

Both: omnipotence!

The LORD then snapped His mighty fingers, and made it so that humanity could only experience a range of situations between very pleasant and perfectly blissful. The people got up and began to go about their business, with great smiles upon their faces.

Satan: Now that's what I'm talking about!

God: We'll see...

A brief time passed. Later on, the LORD and Satan reconvened at lunch in order to review the results of the recent changes.

Satan: Well, it seems that folks are doing alright. Starvation, war and torture are nonexistent. People are managing to get what they need, and help each other get more.

God: That's actually not what my inbox says. Prayers of complaint about the world are pretty much back to the same level they've always been.

Satan: What? How is that possible?

God: Take a look for yourself.

And Lo, the LORD God did reveal to Satan the myriad prayers coming up from the Earth. And therein Satan wept at the stories of lattes served too cold, wifi that wouldn't connect quickly enough, traffic jams, poor service at restaurants, having to stand in line, and a host of mild inconveniences. And yet the abject misery expressed by these supplicants was as heartfelt as it ever had been before.

Satan: What the fuck is wrong with these people?

God: You're not looking at things from their point of view.

Satan: What possible point of view could that be?

God: As bad as it can get is still as bad as it can get. You think this is the first time I've tried this?

The thing about humans is, we amazingly adaptable. Of all the ways in which we are adaptable, our ability to judge situations as good or bad is by far the most retrainable.

Let's say that we set a quantitative scale of misery to joy, with 0 being the most suffering that a human being could experience on Earth, and 100 being the most joy that a human could experience. If we talk to someone at the low range (say a starving African child), who only ever has had experiences between 2 and 8 on this scale, and ask her how she's doing today, she might likely say "pretty good." If we ask of an extremely wealthy male from the United States, born of inherited privilege, who only has ever had experiences that rank between 93 and 99 on our scale, and ask him how he's doing today, he might also say "pretty good."

In no way in this comparison am I attempting to equate the horrors of abject deprivation to the minor troubles of the comfortable. But the nature of human judgement is that it is subjective, judged from within. And from a subjective view, one can only judge their current circumstances on a scale of the lowest that they've personally experienced to the highest. For the impoverished African child, that scale of 2 to 8 becomes their personal 0 to 100. Similarly, for the wealthy U.S. male, their experience of 93 to 99 becomes their personal 0 to 100. This judgement from the lower end has been better explained than here by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The upper end of the scale has more recently been lampooned in the blog White People Problems.

From an imagined objective perspective, we can proclaim the invalidity of these internal judgements all we like. But the fact remains that everybody judges their situation internally, redefining the lowest of their experiences as miserable and the highest of their experiences as joyful. Thus, even if God set the range to between 99 to 100 as the outer limits of our possible conditions, we would still renumber within that range as 0 to 100 (adding decimals as necessary), and in time go right back to shaking our fists at the sky and complaining that it's all His fault.

It is only we, who must suffer or enjoy the conditions of the world, who judge them as good or evil - not God. From an "omnibenevolent" position outside of experiencing the conditions, but which encompasses them all, He cannot make the same kinds of judgements that we can. Inevitably, no matter how He made the world (provided that it allowed for the conditions required for free will), we would still judge the lowest limit of our experience as absulutely miserable, and the highest limit as absolute bliss. And there is nothing that God could do to change that; for Him to attempt otherwise would be self-contradictory, and therefore meaningless (see my previous ontological argument discussion).

So what could the "benevolent" in "omnibenevolent" mean? Only that God is fond of humanity as a whole. Perhaps He's even rooting for us. In any case, the fact is that we are the leading edge of complexity in the portion of the universe that we know of. And it's hardly an indictment of God to claim that he's a fan. And given our varied and adaptable ability to enjoy and suffer, that's the best that He can be expected to do.

Next up: I argue against dualism, deity and faith themselves.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Proofs of God

Part of my Approaching Atheism series.

Here, I address some of the historical claims to having proven the existence of God. Although philosophers generally consider these arguments to have been sufficiently answered, many Christian apologists today do no more than to repeat variants of these approaches. In fact, if a Christian apologist is giving a logical-sounding argument, it's likely to be a variation of one of the below approaches.

The Ontological Argument

Claimed proofs of the existence of God that adhere to the ontological argument have been put forward by St. Anselm, Immanual Kant, René Descartes, Mulla Sadra, and even Kurt Gödel.

Per Anselm's original formulation:

  1. Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  2. The idea of God exists in the mind.
  3. A being which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
  4. If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
  5. We cannot be imagining something that is greater than God.
  6. Therefore, God exists.

In short, any ontological argument purports to prove the existence of God solely from the definition of God, plus some valid deductive argumentation.

Two points:

Primo: Who are we to say that existence is better than nonexistence? Certainly, as existing beings, our opinion on the matter might be biased in this regard. And it's not like there are any nonexistent beings who can be brought forward to argue the other case. This question might seem silly or dismissive, but the ontological argument purports to be a formal argument; as such, any premise which it puts forth should be subject to challenge and consideration.

The most obvious rationlist response would be to point out that it is simply unimaginable that nonexistence could be equal to (much less better than) nonexistence. The fact is, we cannot possibly imagine what it would be like to not exist. Therefore, we can entirely discount nonexistence, and thus firmly claim that existence is better.

But demand of any Zen Buddhist that the Yang is greater or better than the Yin (much less vice-versa), and you will have at most earned yourself a condescending smile. Zen Buddhism, much less a great deal of Eastern culture, is somewhat more democratic regarding the relative merits of existence and nonexistence than the tradition of Western philsophy can admit. In Buddhist dialectic, being and nonbeing are to be considered as complementary; in much of Eastern music, sound and silence play a relatively equal role; in much of Eastern visual art, figure and space do the same. I do not bring this up in order to claim that the belief system of Buddhism is correct (it is not) but rather as data in response to the claim that one could not possibly imagine that nonbeing is equal to being. At present, there are billions of people who could imagine it quite easily. This view challenges point (3) of Anselm's formulation, as described above.


A more significant problem with the ontological argument is that it purports to make real claims about the universe from a set of premises which solely consist of definitions. Ultimately if the argument is valid, (and it is), then the conclusion must consist of no more truth than that which was contained in the premises. However, if the premises were all definitions, then they are all free creations of the mind. And yet from such, they claim to reveal or create a real state of affairs.

As an example, consider the following. I hereby define new word (we can do this whenever we like; terms and their definitions are after all free creations of the mind):

ex·ist·i·corn [ig-zist-i-kawrn]
1. A unicorn that actually, physically exists

Now that I've defined this new term, I can present the following sound and valid argument:

  1. All existicorns are unicorns [definition]
  2. All existicorns actually, physically exist [definition]
  3. Some unicorns actually, physically exist [1, 2; Darapti (AAI-3) syllogism]

From the above, it can be logically concluded that solely by the virtue of having defined existicorns and used them in a formal argument, I have thereby brought one or more unicorns into actual existence! Using similar approaches, I could define anything into or out of existence, or change any state of affairs. I could define myself to be fabulously wealthy and powerful, and if anyone disagreed with these arguments I could redefine my detractors such that they ceased to exist. Clearly, this approach neither creates nor reveals any real state of affairs in any way.

So what went wrong here? We are allowed to define new terms. We are allowed to present definitions as premises in formal argumentation. Provided that the argument is valid per the rules of formal logic, we are required to admit it as sound, and therefore admit its conclusion as true. Aren't we?

The difference is that if all of the premises of an argument consist merely of definitions, then the argument can say nothing about reality; only its own definitions. No matter how the definitions or their properties are rearranged through the deductive argument, the conclusion can do no more than reassert some claim that was embedded in one or more of the premises. And reasserting a claim is not properly argumentation.

Which brings us back to the ontological argument. The assertion of God's existence is presented as being embedded in some property such as "perfection" or "greatness" and then only teased out later. But nevertheless, the argument amounts to nothing more than a reassertion of its premises. And merely asserting what you've alread asserted hardly constitutes deductive proof of anything.

We can generalize this observation into a rule that can be applied to any deductive argument: no proof can result in an intentional conclusion (aka. semantic meaning or reference to any real state of affairs) if none of its premises have intentionality.

This may be considered a special case of the observation made by John Searle, that no quantity or combination of propositions which have only syntactic (contextual) meaning can result in any proposition which has semantic (referential/intentional) content. Deductive operations do nothing more than to syntactically rearrange the elements and properties contained within their premises. If all of the premises only have definitive content, then any assertion which follows from them can at most amount to a somewhat complicated tautology related to the set of premises as a whole. Such a rule somewhat parallels the problem of ethics: that deductive arguments cannot produce any ethical or moral assertion if none of its premises include an ethical assertion. More broadly, if nothing intentional goes into a deductive argument as one or more of its premises, then nothing intentional can come out as its conclusion.

The Teleological Argument

The teleological argument is at the heart of the current "intelligent design" movement. However, it is not new idea at all. Although I confronted ID in passing previously, that argument had more to do with its applications. Here I address the heart of the argument.

One of the best (and most referenced in contemporary apologetics) descriptions of the teleological argument was given by William Paley in 1802:

[S]uppose I found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think … that, for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for [a] stone [that happened to be lying on the ground]?… For this reason, and for no other; namely, that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, if a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any 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 Paley's analogy, allow me to add a few stipulations:
  • The ground is made entirely of watch parts, as far as the eye can see.
  • Some of the watch parts are magnetic, attracting fitting parts to them.
  • The area constantly suffers a low-level earthquakes, shaking the parts about. This situation has been going on for some billions of years.
  • Before finding the watch, he finds many almost-watches, some consisting of only a few gears fitted together, others consisting of almost completed watches.
  • Although it does keep and tell time quite well, the watch that Paley does find can only be described as "messy." It has some parts that are completely redundant, while many of its most critical functions are not. It has many additional parts that do nothing, as well as mechanical functions that serve no useful purpose.
  • Provided that one working watch existed anywhere on the plain, the odds that he would find it are near-certain (this to model the fact that life once instantiated becomes nigh-ubiquitous via replication).

To pick just one example of organisms. Humans have appendixes and tonsils. We have wisdom teeth, mental insanity, and any number of genetic disorders and predispositions to disease. We urinate from our generative organs, and defecate very closely thereto. Whales have femurs. This suggests design?!? For any simple organism, you could provide a list of its necessary functions to any competent human engineer armed with a CAD program, and they could design a version that improves on nature.

The fact is, life is a sloppy, messy business. For every useful function of any organism, there are any number of completely arbitrary properties that it also has, some of which are wasteful or even detrimental. Design fails to explain any of the properties of life other those that can be deemed positive. Only through an extensive application of confirmation bias can the teleological design approach ignore the rest; but ignoring it is all that it can do. Only the evolutionary approach can explain both the wondrous capabilities of life, and at the same time the sloppy mess that makes it up, at the same time.

In short: the teleological design argument can only explain positive characteristics of life. It cannot explain the many arbitrary or negative characteristics that also exist, all of which are observable. Evolution explains them all, and is therefore the superior theory.

The Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument for the existence of God is as often known as the "first cause" or "prime mover" argument. Aristotle is most credited with elucidating this argument, although he originally did so in order to argue against the notion of a universe bounded in time, with a definite beginning and end. From his perspective, the "first cause" was a form of reductio ad absurdum. Later on, once Christianity had presumed exactly such cosmological bounds, Aristotle's formulation was repurposed in order to support the concept of God Himself.

More recently, this argument has been best formulated by William Lane Craig, following the Kalām cosmological argument:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The Universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the Universe had a cause.

Getting to point (1) above involves a very general observation of the second law of thermodynamics. It's easy to imagine striking a single cue ball and sending it into a grouping of ten billiard balls, causing all of them to move about; it's much more difficult to imagine reversing this process, having ten pool players each striking a billiard ball in such a way as to cause them all to move into a triangular grouping and pass all of their energy back into one single cue ball. More commonly referenced is the analogy of dropping an egg into any number of shell pieces, as well as globs and splatters of its contents; one can scoop up the mess and drop it for nigh-infinity, and never achieve an unbroken egg thereby. As a very generalized statement of the second law, one could simply say that causes < effects.

The idea between either the theist first cause position or the big bang is that if ones run time back far enough, eventually one must come to a point where there was only one thing to act as a cause, and there one must stop. Where that one thing came from I refer to as the ex nihilo problem. The notion that fewer causes lead to a greater number of effects, being a simplistic formulation of thermodynamics' second law, could only be applicable within the bounds of the universe; it need not apply to the universe as a whole, only to some bounded portion of its contents. But applying "causes < effects" to the universe in its entirety is exactly what one claims to do when they claim (or more often accuse the other view of claiming) that "something came from nothing."

But in any case, the scientific view is not that the universe came from nothing per point (2) above, nor that it was always there. We simply don't know. We can only speak based on evidence as far back as a few moments following the big bang. Before that, science makes no assertion regarding whether something came from nothing. In fact, to do so would itself violate the law regarding conservation of energy.

Questions regarding how or whether the origin of the universe involves "something from nothing" I refer in to as the ex nihilo problem. What is important to know, is that neither the scientific view nor any variation of the theist or creationist view, has an answer to it. For every "how" that the scientific view has no answer to, the creationist shunts into a "why:"
Scientist: I don't know how X happened.

Creationist: That means God did it.

Scientist: Why did God do it?

Creationist: I don't know.
Shunting the causal question into the memory-hole of "God's mysterious ways" does nothing to answer any of them. At most, it makes the faithful hesitant to attempt an answer, and perhaps more comfortable in ignoring them. But there still remains a 1:1 correspondence between the questions that science can't answer and those that religion can't answer.

Whether God or a singularity, either paradigm does seem to suggest some sort of "first cause" -like entity. In light of this, some (of the more generalized types of) theists suggest that we take the entity pointed at by astrophysics and merely rename it as "God." No harm done in merely changing a name, right? Well, that would be the case except that calling it "God" tends to suggest a number of additional claims: that the first cause has a purpose in expanding, possesses something like intelligence, and something like intent. For none of these claims is any evidence provided. And if one retorts that they never intended to make such claims, then why relabel it "God" at all? To do so is a slight to both reason and faith.

Next up:

I defend the Lord God Almighty against varied attempts to disprove His existence.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Ethics vs. God

Part of my Approaching Atheism series.

In my previous post I discussed the issues that some specific types of theists have with the findings of science. I this post, I intend to approach the conflict that many more theists have with atheists regarding matters of ethics or morality.

Similarly to the previous discussion, this is at least as more important. Today, gay marriage, womens' rights to their own reproductive decisions, the basis of our system of justice, and whether and whom we should go to war with, are all currently being challenged from the position of religious faith.

More generally, people of faith repeatedly claim that only through God can anyone know what is right or wrong, with the implication that all atheists must run wild in the streets raping and murdering anyone they come across. I intend to address and explain the simple observation that this is not presently occurring.

In the politics of the United States, it has become popular for Christians to claim that the U.S. was intentionally founded to be a "Christian nation." This is so frightening and absurd to deserve some mention here. The founding documents of the United States are practically a crib sheet of concepts, terms, and even whole phrases lifted from enlightenment philosophy. It is unimaginable that they could be more clear in their assertion of a secular state. Yet no matter how clear they are on this point, theists still choose to insist the opposite; that the founders secretly intendend to establish a theocracy while claiming the opposite (as a side note, Turkey also confronts similar issues regarding theist misinterpretation of its otherwise clear founding documents).

The Body Count Game

First of all, in common arguments between atheists and theists, it often comes up that one belief system or another has been used as an excuse to slaugher and subjugate millions of people throughout history. Typically, an atheist will bring up the Crusades, the Inquisition, and later witch trials, and the theist will angrily counter with Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Hitler will be batted back and forth, claimed by neither side.

When one actually sits down to tally who has been killed in the name of what belief system, it doesn't take much to realize that the number of belief systems in contention for the greatest slaughters of humanity might be considerably more broad than a cursory inspection might admit. More significantly, it isn't just religions, but rather any social belief system, which gets to play: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Imperialism, Nationalism, Manifest Destiny, Mercantilism, Capitilism, Communism, and (more recently) Corporatism are all belief systems responsible for the subjugation, torture, and slaughter of six-to-seven figures of innocent people, or perhaps even more.

However, it should be mentioned regarding Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. that even though they may be considered "athiest" in terms of officially having no belief in historical religions, they A) created a kind of religion of their own dogma, which shows no similarity whatsoever to the position of rational skepticism, and B) could no more be associated with rational skeptics any more than one religion could be associated with another. It would hardly be fair of me to add up the total body-count of all religions and assign that to any one of their totals. Similarly, it would hardly be fair to add up the totaly body-count of all regimes which claimed to be "atheist" and assign that to the position or rational skepticism. If I must bear the slaughter of everyone who claimed atheism, then you (whatever your religious position might be) must also bear the slaughter of everyone who has ever claimed theism, of any form, throughout all of history. Back to and including the purported Noahide flood (whether you're a member of one of the religions that reveres Genesis or not).

In any case, what one is left with is the mere impression that dogmatic belief structures of any kind regarding social organization, have led to the wholesale slaughter of all potential dissidents as well as the merely inconvenient. Any attempt to count up a grand total and thus anoint a winner or loser based on the results leaves one feeling like merely another participant in the massive slaughter and oppression of millions throughout history, rather than a judge of it, from any perspective that could claim to be moral.

In the end, this sort of argument is what I call "the body count game." It ultimately proves nothing (except perhaps that all human beings are capable of immense horror), and even merely trying to play it should leave all decent persons (whatever their position) feeling tainted by the association of even trying to tally an account in order to prove a point.

Can we really measure truth by stacking up mountains of corpses and comparing their heights? If we could, should we? According to the rules of this game, the person with the smallest mountains of corpses wins. But at the end of the day, there's still a mountain of corpses created in the name of what you believe, no matter how small it might seem compared to others. Any truly ethical person should want no part of it, and should claim no corpse-mountain merely in order to prove a point.

I say this not because I fear that atheism would lose the contest (I'm confident we'd do fine, given all of history) but rather because it's a disgusting basis for argumentation regarding the comparative merits of belief systems. I have no scripture that tells me so, only my own sense of human decency.

Genesis 3

Approaching the larger question of how ethics could arise in the natural world independently of a God who exists as the constant arbiter of defining good and evil at every moment, it's worth mentioning that even a scriptural account from the Bible itself contains the answer for how it could be that people could have their own independent, inherent moral compass.

Genesis 3:22
And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

"Like one of us." Per scripture, our knowledge of good and evil is independent of God; we need not check back with Him to find out what's right or wrong at any given moment, or for any given situation. Even if we take Genesis 3 to be metaphorical or allegorical to some degree, this point is quite clear: at some point, humanity has obtained completely independent and innate knowledge of morality. We need no longer refer to God to know the difference between right and wrong.

Of course, I have not at this point fully given an account for morality beyond scripture, having merely raised a scriptural objection. However, what this point manages to accomplish is to shift the scriptural position from God as a constant arbiter of good and evil, as the eternal source of morality, to magic fruit. And magic fruit is a somewhat easier rhetorical position to argue against. I'd certainly like to hear a theist defend morality from that position alone within the context of a serious theological/philosophical debate.

But in light of Genesis 3, they certainly can't claim from a scriptural basis that God needs to give us laws for us to have morality, that we don't have the innate ability to distinguish good from evil. From either a scriptural or a philosophical basis, we do.

Atheist Ethics

So, let's confront the challenge in a positive way. If not instructed by an almighty being, how can concepts of morality arise in the world?

Well first, there's selfish gene theory. Well before we even consider intelligent life forms, altruism (the basic concept of all ethics) comes into play. One might suffer risk of harm at the organism level in order to promote the survival of relatives, and thus the survival of some of one's genes. So long as the genes themselves perpetuate, evolution is satisfied. Rather than go into detail, I'll merely point (waves finger vaguely) at the massive wealth of research regarding altruism among various animal species.

Next, there's game theory. A statistical analysis of the positive or negative outcome of many interchanges between participants may be set up to model and produce the moral outcome for any number of precepts. Again I'll just point (vaguely waving) to a massive wealth of research showing that statistically speaking, the sorts of behaviors that we view as criminal are detrimental in the long run, and the sorts of behaviors that we view as morally laudable are beneficial in the long run.

"The age of enlightenment was a cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th-centery Erope, that sought to mobilise the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge" - so says Wikipedia. John Locke, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Thomas Paine, and many others wrote extensively regarding how to derive moral and social remedies from first principles. They developed and applied concepts such as natural rights and social contract, by which human interaction could be judged, with no reference to scripture or to religious precepts at all. In seeking to derive morality from basic philosophical principles, they also set the conceptual stage (and much of the language) for the founding documents of the United States of America, as well as many other nations to follow.

To anyone who doubts the massive wealths of research that I have vaguely waved my finger at in the last three paragraphs, please review my previous post regarding why it is not my job to provide you with a comprehensive education in any major field of study merely to convince you of some specific point. If you are ignorant of it, that doesn't mean I lose; that merely means that you already have.

Fixed vs. Changing Ethics

One of the theist's favorite claims to make regarding a god-centric vs. secular philosophical ethical system is that God's rules regarding morality never change, whereas the secular philosophers' do over time.

If that were presumed, then the theist must come out in favor of the divine right of kingship over democracy. The theist must advocate the social construct of slavery. The theist must come out against the suffrage and equal rights of women. All of these three principles are supported by (or are at the very least considered morally neutral by) scripture.

Also: civilian control of the military, right against self-incrimination, an independent judiciary, checks and balances between independent branches of government, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of belief and/or conscience, freedom of expression of religion, human rights, civil rights, and (last but not least) due process in search and seizure. The Bible has absolutely nothing to say about any of these principles. Secular enlightenment philosophy has a great deal to say about them. If you believe they are good, then you believe so not because of the Bible, but because of secular ethical arguments to be made regarding them. If you believe that the Bible is the only source of moral truth, then you must deny all of the pillars upon which stable free societies rest in the modern age.

For each of the above points, our morals have changed. We have determined that democracy is good, that slavery is evil, and that women are persons, having intrinsic value as human beings rather than as mere bearers for some sort of ancient hymen-based currency system. If one agrees with any of these precepts, then one cannot have gotten those notions from scripture. To the degree that our concept of morality has changed, in every critical respect, it has changed for the better. And what it changed from is the unalterable law of God.

We discovered these new moral truths over time, starting many centuries after the last word had been penned in the Bible. It is precisely secular thought that has led us to realize these moral truths. Therefore, yes, our morality does change. But by and large, it changes for the better over time, and it certainly has changed to become a vast improvement on what was originally set down in scripture.

If you disagree, then the next time your kid goes out to a kegger, kill him. If your daughter gets raped, sell her to the rapist. Then come back and dare to tell me how moral you are. Or else admit that your personal sense of morality comes not from the Bible, but from your own ability to distinguish good from evil - because the Bible mandates exactly the opposite. Everything that we now know as good or evil in society, was either already obvious (murder, theft, adultery) or has been determined as good or evil well after scripture was last set down (literally everything else).

There are only two possibilities for this state of affairs: 1) ethics is well-grounded in reason, or 2) magic fruit. It just so happens that ethics is indeed well-grounded in reason.

Next Up:

I address the primary historical attempts to prove the existence of God, many variations of which still flourish to this day.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Science vs. God

Part of my Approaching Atheism series.

For the first in my series of dealing with God-related issues, I'd like to address the apparent conflict (in the minds of some) between scripture and the discoveries of science.

If you're one of the many (in fact, majority) of people who both believe in God and yet do not deny the findings of science, then this discussion is not addressed at you. It's aimed to "clear the field" of anti-science claims so that I can move on to more substantive discussions regarding faith and God. However, you should probably read through it anyways; it's important to know what kinds of claims are being made on the behalf of Christianity, if only so that you can distance yourself from them, and to understand why you do.

This is hardly a minor or unimportant discussion. When all of the current (and most former) contenders for the Republican nomination for the Presidency of the United States of America state that they disbelieve in evolution, Christian antipathy of science must be treated as an important issue.

The Sunset and the Tide Pool

Let's start with a dialogue.

Christian, a religious person is standing looking to the West at sunset. He sees a glorious spectacle of color in the sky

Christian: Behold such glory, this beauty can only confirm the existence of God!

An atheist of his acquaintance, fond of removing the magic from all things, sidles up to him...

Atheist: You know, what you're seeing is caused by the refraction of light through the lower atmosphere. See, the diffusion of light splits white sunlight through various spectra; and these cloud formations reflect that light back as silver and gold linings. Now the cloud formations themselves are caused by...

Christian: So what? Telling me how the effect was produced in no way inhibits its beauty, nor does it in any way diminsh that the glory of the God who could produce such a thing, by whatever means He chooses to do so. In fact, it only shows how much greater such a God must be, who could create such beauty from the product of His laws of science!

Atheist. Just sayin'... (slinks away)

At another time Christian is beholding the complex interplay of life in its natural state within a rich oceanic tide pool.

Christian: Behold such glory, this beauty can only confirm the existence of God!

The atheist again sidles up...

Atheist: You know, each of these creatures are the product of millions of years of evolution and natural selection. Those that didn't fit here died out, while those that managed to profit from this environment thrived. Including one another, which is why we see symbiosis and food cycles. Over enough generations, that's why we now have the combination of creatures that we see here.

Christian: You are wrong. None of that happened. God made all of these things exactly as you see them now!

Why the discrepancy here? Both the life in the tide pool and the sunset were equally beautiful numinous experiences. If God made everything in the tide pool from scratch, then why not also claim that God plans and creates every evening's sunset from scratch as well? That every evening he gets up and paints a new beautiful sky for us? I know of no creationists who are willing to claim that God paints every evening's sunsets to order. And yet, all of them will maintain that sunsets are beautiful, and furthermore that all beauty comes from God. On the one hand, they are willing to allow intermediate "how" explanations, and on the other they are not.

The only difference there could possibly be is that the Bible happens to contain no chapter or verse claiming that God paints every evening's sunset. If there was such a verse, creationists would be forced to disbelieve any scientific theories regarding optics and atmospheric phenomena as well.

More Than One Theory

"Creation science" as commonly presented, tends to avoid any emphasis on how it believes things came to be, and to a much greater respect focuses on levying cricicisms towards any other explanation of how things came to be. That is, it's less of a positive claim explaining any phenomena, and consists mostly of criticism of scientific claims. This in and of itself should be enough to discount it as a theory. It could be seen as at most an anti-theory, or an extreme and highly selective form of skepticism.

When dealing with the criticisms of creation science, it's important to remember that they aren't only criticizing one theory. They are criticizing (at minimum) four of them:

1. Astrophysics
2. Geologic time
3. Abiogenesis
4. Natural Selection

This distinction is worth mentioning, since any of these four completely distinct areas of inquiry might often refer to some phenomena predating the creationist's claimed age of the universe. For example, the motion of plate tectonics might very well violate Young Earth Creationism (heretofore YEC), even without saying anything about biological speciation. Thus, the kinds of data being gathered that might violate the creationist claim, come from multiple disciplines which have no bearing on or relation to one another.

This is rather a different characterization than the "creation vs. evolution" claim that creationism prefers. Darwin had absolutely nothing to say about the behavior of distant stars, the formation of the continents, or indeed the origin of the first life forms from complex chemical components. He only addressed how species might originate from other species, from within a paradigm that assumed that some species of some form already existed.

The creationists are thust not only fighting Darwin, they're also fighting all of geology, and astrophysics. And their thrust that science cannot (yet) provide evidence for the origin of life in general, still does not discredit Darwin or any of these other fields of endeavor in any way. That is only a statement that abiogenesis currently remains in a nascent form. But it remains a completely different theory than all of the others; its current deficits say nothing about them. And such deficits remain only in the here and now.

Debate is not Education

Whether these sorts of discussions occur in passing, in formal verbal debates, on social networking sites, or elsewhere, a common challenge made by creationists often amounts to something along the lines of "prove the entire fossil record to me. GO!"

Admittedly, this is a monumental task.

It's not monumental because it's a difficult positon to demonstrate. Quite the opposite. It's monumental in that there are vast amounts of evidence; to go over it all (to full skeptical evidentiary satisfaction of the individual being convinced) would be the equivalent of giving the creationist such a thorough education in the field of endeavor being challenged, that he or she should emerge from the debate having earned the equivalent of a college degree in the relevant field of study.

Of course, they know this, and they know that the person defending science does not have enough time or inclination to provide them with a comprehensive education in the field being challenged. So the tactic often takes the form of taking some extremely arcane bit of biological research which has very little data, and saying "if evolution is true, then why is..." and repeating the open question that science is trying to answer, with the implication that if the science-defender can't answer it they must be wrong, because debates (in the creationist's mind) are solely judged on which side is capable of giving a greater number of confident answers to any questions whatsoever.

As a rhetorical debate tactic, this may seem useful, in that the person defending science cannot possibly have enough time within what's alloted, or enough interest within the parameters of the discussion. If the science-defender must provide a full education in order to defend their point, and if they are not inclined to go to that much trouble, then you win the argument... science is wrong! At the very least, taking a position of mere ignorance and demanding a full education in response has the effect of rocking the champion of science back on their heels.

At some point, we must put our foot down and say: we are not responsible for educating you. We can merely point at the mountain of evidence and say, if you do not even understand that it exists, then we cannot take responsibility for your ignorance of it. The internet now exists; go and study the evidence regarding your questions before you ask me for them. Only if you find the answers that have been given insufficient can you claim the right to challenge them. But even a real gap in knowledge does not prove all other knowledge false. Just because you are ignorant, does not mean that I am wrong. You do not get to "win" any debate topic by the sole virtue of not knowing things.

This is very specifically known as the argument from ignorance fallacy . Hint: it's a fallacy.

Irreducible Complexity

The only way to claim that complexity is irreducible amounts to an appeal to imagination. One can say that "I can't imagine how an eyeball could develop." However, for any statement that involves "I can't imagine X," one must consider the possibility that they aren't actually delivering any information about X so much as they are delivering information about the limits of their own imagination.

All claims of irreducability merely amount to assertions of ignorance. They say nothing about the world, and everything about the limitations of their own knowledge regarding it. Even if no one on the planet had the capability of imagining something, that wouldn't disprove its truth or applicability; sub-atomic paricle physics and quantum mechanics have both demonstrated this case rather thoroughly. Again, this is another form of the "argument from ignorance" fallacy.

By the way, in certain underground and underwater areas there are fish who have no more than spots on their heads where the nerves can detect only a quantifiable measure of the presence of light. Just simple nerve clusters near the surface of some translucent skin patches that tell them only whether it's bright or dark. This lets them know that they should steer away from toxic volcanic fissures, the only possible sources of light in their environments. There's your reducible/reduced eyeball.

Intelligent Design

At some point in recent history, it was decided by creationists that they should not assert creation, and instead assert a more general claim, rebranded as "Intelligent Design." The point of this was twofold

1) to separate themselves from the ridiculousness and easily-countered claims that had been levied under the former brand "creationist," and

2) to insinuate themselves into educational curricula under a more vague term, one which offered even less information, but which retained all of the criticisms of science.

For those who think that Intelligent Design should be taught in our public schools, there are two things they should know;

Primo: "Teach the controversy!" There are more than two possible positions in this controversy. If a science class were forced to teach alternatives to scientific positions, then they would be free to (and I think should) teach not only the Darwinian and Judeo-Christian accounts, but also those given by Sumerian, Cherokee, Norse, Aborigine, Shinto, and Hindu accounts, as well as any others that could be invented at will, such as the Pink Invisible Unicorn and the Flying Spaghetti Monster (blessed be His noodly appendage). When Christian fundamentalist parents have their children come home from school to speak of how they learned in class today that Indra cut the horizon, separating the Earth from the sky with his flaming sword, they might think twice about allowing religious creation myths into classroom discussions.

Mind you, the school could not specify which form of possible ID variants the teacher should teach, as that would be a direct violation of "respecting an establishment of religion."

Segundo: Of all of the possible creators that might be posited under the general umbrella "theory" of Intelligent Design, the one that most conforms to Occam's Razor would be Raëlism. This is a UFO cult that believes that extraterrestrials were involved in seeding the Earth with life and guiding its development. As crazy as that might sound, it's considerably more reasonable than positing a supernatural deity to have done so. Therefore, if ID should be taught at all, it should be taught as Raëlism. Again, I put it to Christian parents - is this what you wanted when you voted your support for ID to be taught in your schools?

If any truly objective criteria were imposed on teachers regarding which ID variant (of the many touched on above) were applied, then Raëlism would win, being the form of ID that most conforms to Occam's Razor.

Scientific Conspiracies

Specific complaints about scientists from Young Earth Creationists also leads into a more general distrust of scientists from Christan Conservatives. A Christian might not buy into YEC specifically, but might share with them a vague distrust in lab-coated, probably-goateed, possibly-European scientists, and would be wary of any claim they made that didn't result only and directly in cheaper goods and services.

The most obvious current example of this involves the claim that global warming is happening, that it will lead to catastrophe, and that it is at least in part a product of human activity on planet Earth. Naturally, the religious right (in lockstep with the oil companies as always) has come out as quite certain that not only are the vast majority of scientists wrong about this, but that they are actually being paid to lie about it; that the structure of scientific grants is such that those who support the majority of scientific thought on this matter stand to benefit by supporting it yet further through their findings.

Even the vast majority of atheists and other believers in science are willing to grant the claims of professional scientists without checking their work personally. I certainly have never gone through the entire series of experiments required to support even a single one of the cutting-edge theories of science. And pointing to the fact that I could do so hardly absolves me of my ignorance in not having done so. I admittedly rely on the lab-coated to do those sorts of things for me. So the question of why I should trust them is a fair one.

The thing about the "scientific community" is that it's less of a community than a gladitorial arena. Scientists who merely confirm the discoveries of other scientists receive a relatively neutral reception. On the other hand, scientists who manage to disprove other scientists receive acclaim, awards, and greater career opportunities. They are very much pitted against one another, and thus the notion that they profit by merely confirming one anothers' findings is the exact opposite of the case.

As one example, Albert Einstein achieved fame and glory not only within the scientific world but also within society in general (such that the name "Einstein" has become a synonym for "genius") not because he confirmed the findings of his forebears, but exactly because he overturned them. Einstein presented a comprehensive system of physics that predicted the movement of bodies in space which both explained the constancy of the speed of light, but also at the same time disproved Isaac Newton's Laws of Motion in certain situations.

As another example, Steven Hawking is known to us not because of his compelling personal history of overcoming adversity, but primarily because he overturned an extremely common scientific assumption: that black holes cannot emit anything, that they can only take and not give. He calculated a way by which black holes might emit energy, and that is why even the common layman now knows his name.

At every level of scientific endeavor, scientists have a strong incentive to prove one another wrong, and hope mostly to prove the prevailing scientific belief wrong. To do so is a ticket to fame, glory and immense success. It would be easy to devise a system whereby "great thinkers" gained credit and success for supporting the common belief. But the current scientific community is set up nearly the opposite of that as it is possible to be. To merely conduct an experiment that reiterates the prevailing theory true gains one little - although not nothing. However, to conduct an experiment that overthrows the main thrust of current thinking gains one a great deal.

Given this set-up, it's merely absurd to claim that scientists have anything to gain by supporting, rather than overturning, any prevailing scientific wisdom. In regards to global warming, every scientist who has confirmed it was likely disappointed, before publishing their findings. Thus, we can know that the overwhelming consensus regarding global warming is a product of fact, and not of any incentives by the scientists involved.

Gaps and Knowledge

The tactic of creationists (or ID theorists, or whatever they claim to call themselves) still ultimatily runs up against the problem that it is merely a form of criticism rather than a positive theory in its own right. And mere criticism is not theory.

They point to various current gaps in scientific knowledge, and say "HA! You don't know about X!" And that's true. There are many X's that we don't know about (yet), but our research efforts are directed primarily towards those gaps, as we seek to learn more. But the underlying assumption that they make is that they in fact do know about everything, whereas the patchwork of knowledge developed by science is thus inferior.

But do they? Do creationists (or ID theorists, whatever they choose to call themselves) actually have real knowledge regarding areas where there are gaps in the theories of science?

There is nothing that science does not yet know about that the theist perspective knows. For all of these gaps, their answer is always the same: "God did it." But what does this mean? What information does such a claim provide about the phenomena in question? They certainly can't answer "how." How miracles occur is considered beyond the bounds of consideration. And yet, if God doing things were a real phenomenon, then a science of determining precisely how something went from the Lord's will to real phenomena would be a viable and interesting field of study. So where is it? Between God's decision and reality, what is the exact theo-science of miraculous intervention? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

More significantly, in saying that "God did it," the theist can do no more than turn every "how" that they criticize into a "why." This leads to exactly as many unanswered questions. Why did God do it? To this, the theist answers "mysterious ways" and considers the question sufficiently answered. But it's not. Converting causal questions from "how's" into "why's" and then declaring those "why's" off-limits answers nothing. It does not reduce the number of unanswered questions.

In fact, in the long run it makes us much less likely to be able to answer any of those questions at all. We are much more discinclined to challenge a question of "why" than were are a "how." By shunting all unknowns down the hole of "God's will," theists very much do seek to bring a halt to the advancement of knowledge.

By and large, atheists are comfortable admitting to gaps in current knowledge. When challenged about things they don't know, they reply "I don't know." This is not a concession of any sort regarding which method of gaining knowledge is better. It's better to know nothing than it is to know the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.

Galileo Wants Another Round

At some point in the last few centuries, the position of religious people addressing science from a scriptural point of view withdrew on one key point: that the Earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice-versa.

However from a purely scriptural perspective, there is far more disagreement with Galileo's theory than there is with Darwin. Under Heliocentric theory, neither the sun nor the stars can be said to move (at least not significantly relative to the motion of the Earth). And yet, Genesis is clear that God did make them, and them alone, move. Not us, them. Furthermore, God later stopped the sun in the sky (Josuha 10-12). He clearly did not stop the Earth from turning. Scripture states quite clearly that he stopped the movement of the sun, and that therefore it was the sun that had been moving.

And yet, not even Young Earth Creationists today still seek to discredit the heliocentric model of the solar system. Why not?

In any fair debate, if you concede a point, you must also concede at least some of the argument leading up that that point. If your conclusion is false, and your argument valid, then at least one of your premises must be false. That is, it is not enough to concede your conclusion; you must also concede at least some of the premises to your argument that led to your conclusion, in such a way that explains where you went wrong. To do otherwise would be to deny logic itself. Thus, to use the same premises of argumentation to approach the next point, after having conceded the former, would admit to a either a false concession, or a complete disregard for logical argumentation itself.

But this is exactly what we see when creationists, having let Galileo go by the wayside, renew their attack on Darwin on exactly the same grounds. I say, if they want to be Biblical creationists, let's go back to square one, and cut them no slack. Finish the Galileo discussion. Hammer it out. They must either completely concede heliocentric motion (and in doing so concede all claims derived solely from scriptural authority) or they must once and for all actually win the case for the notion that the Sun does indeed revolve around the Earth. Only then, once this former battle has been thoroughly settled either way, can we begin to pick up the case regarding Darwin, much less geologic time, abiogenesis, the findings of astronomy, and/or the many related theories and findings of science that fall within or without those more general theories.

Next up:

I explain why atheists aren't all murderous, raping monsters.


Approaching Atheism - An Overview

Recently, I have become somewhat obsessed with studying what is euphemistically referred to as the "New Atheism." This is a movement in the last few years among (mostly academic) thinkers and writers to stand up for their disbelief in God in an uncompromising fashion. In order to get my ideas out of my head so that I can hopefully get back to playing video games in my free time, it has occurred to me that I should perhaps lay out the entirety of my opinions in a public venue. Blogger is a convenient mechanism to do that.

Unfortunately, in outlining what I believe and don't believe, much less why I do or don't believe things, I've discovered that it's not something I could possibly toss off in one post. Therefore, I seem to have committed myself to an entire series of essays. In the future, if challenged I can merely link back to one or more of these rather than repeat myself ad infinitum.

As a personal observation, it seems to me that many atheists today (at least those of the Internet variety) find ourselves in a similar position to Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages, in that we seem to be frequently challenged and demanded to provide the reasons for our worldview in a variety of ad-hoc situations, or according to the arbitrary limitations set by our questioner of the moment. When a theist at a website demands immediate answers to a long list of questions (some of which have simple Googleable answers, whereas some others are not currently well known to science) I'm reminded of the Gentile who demanded of Hillel that the Torah be explained to him while he stood on one foot. It can be no accident that Hillel appended his response with the further admonition "go and learn."

By and large, I'll be addressing Christianity here, at least early on. This is because I live in the U.S.A. where Christians are the main aggressors in public life. However, I'm aware that similar arguments are made by other religions. In skepticism, I therefore move from the more specific to the more general. If explicitly Christian arguments don't apply to you, feel free to skip ahead until you find something that does.

I'll edit this post as needed to include links to each essay once they're posted.

Science vs. God

Although many Christians might claim that they have no conflict with the current findings of science, the sad fact of the matter is that an alarming number of others do. This includes many of our political representatives today. I'll first address the ant-science positions of many Christians, from Young Earth Creationists through those who are generally suspicious of the scientific community. Once they've been cleared from the field, we can discuss deeper matters.

Ethics vs. God

One oft-mentioned claim by the religious is that since God is the only possible arbiter of morality, nobody without a (direct or indirect) belief in God's edicts can possibly be moral in their lives. I'll discuss here the implications of that claim, as well as an interesting scriptural counter-claim, and then address how moral considerations arise as an emergent property of nature.

Proofs of God

I happen to personally enjoy theological conjectures. Here, I'll address the main claimed proofs of God's existence. Although these are presented in their more historical/formal forms, you may recognize more casual restatements of these given in arguments by theists even today.

Disproofs of God

Here I take the position of coming to the Lord Almighty's defense against a great many historical claims of His of disproof.

It is merely insufficient to disbelieve in God either because one is angry at Him, or because one thinks that His existence has been categorically disproven. The result of this chapter up to this point should be at the most, a position of agnosticism.

Dualism, Deity, and Faith

I get more to the heart of the issue, giving my reasons for opposing the general dualist perspective, more robust definitions of God, and the value of having any sort of faith at all.

Subjective Epistemicism - Constructing a Sound Worldview

In the next series, I'll go positive in order to discuss how to know what can be believed, to understand what it means to know something at all, and to what degree we can claim knowledge or belief in any given proposition. Rather than merely a "why I think you're wrong," I'll go out on a limb and present "what I believe and why."

This is less a part of the same series rather than a separate thesis in its own right. I append a mention of it here in the spirit of fairness; it's one thing to saw off the limb upon which another is sitting, it's quite another to go out on a limb yourself. So, this is my limb. I consider it reasonably saw-proof.