23 October 2016

Revisiting my apostasy

My life is very full these days. My wife and I don't have kids yet (until we do, we call our dogs our 'kids'), but she's working more-than-full-time, and I'm essentially working two jobs — one as a personal trainer, and the day-to-day responsibilities of operating our gym as well as managing marketing, media, and social networking. Which means that I don't have much time to blog these days, and sometimes when I do have the time I find myself with a brainstorming overload. I've never had as many unfinished drafts as I do now!

This week my wife's been out of town, and I decided a couple of weeks ago to 'retire' from personal training on weekends. So this weekend has been a much-need indulgence in pure, unadulterated laziness. I've been playing the new Deus Ex and Civilization games, and stretching my legs with a little house cleaning so my wife doesn't return home to a full-on bachelor pad.

This morning I was thinking about the types of discussions I've had over the years; lots of them are esoteric trudges through the mires of obscure philosophy that inevitably end in impasse, but it wasn't always that way. Originally, my blog was a way for me to reflect on my own personal journey away from religious faith.

Recently, my wife and I were talking about having kids. The cost and time demanded by a small business has a way of putting a damper on such things, but we took a moment to reflect on how, even though our lives aren't perfect, they're pretty damn awesome. These are the halcyon days. I'm a big believer that it's a mistake to live one's life chasing happiness; happiness is something you have to create in the present. I bring this up because my wife and I are both non-believers, and as a young Christian I'd have found it simply inconceivable that I could live a happy, fulfilling life without my faith. But, like so many other apostates, my loss of faith was liberating. So today, I'd like to revisit that journey.

The early days

I was raised Christian, but in my youngest days my parents weren't particularly observant. I'm originally from Milwaukee, and my parents dutifully took me to church every Sunday. But in 1985, when we moved to Tulsa, they never found a church they wanted to call home. Life and careers got in the way, and after bouncing between a few churches they just kind of gave up. We still went to church on Christmas and Easter, but that's about it. Aside from a trite prayer at dinner that went, "Come, Lord Jesus / Be our guest / Let this food to us be blessed", religion wasn't a significant part of my life.

That changed in the early 90s when we moved to another part of town, just up the street from a large Presbyterian church. My parents started attending regularly, and toted my brother and I along as well. But even here, religion was pretty abstract to me — sort of a nod to our shared desire to be good people and see each other in the afterlife. When my parents insisted I attend confirmation class, I rebelled in appropriate defiant-teenager fashion. I attended once, and hated it. I didn't like anyone there, and it just seemed completely pointless. My parents' insistence that it was a cherished tradition didn't stand a chance against my general social awkwardness, and this led to a huge fight with my father that left me grounded for two weeks.

During this time, my brother had befriended a guy who worked at a local music store, who happened to be music director for the youth outreach at a local evangelical church (in case you're wondering, the parent church was Higher Dimensions, which dissolved after Carlton Pearson, its head pastor, embraced Universalism). Sunday nights hosted an event called the "Power House" at a small building around the corner where Christian rock bands played and young people could play pool, arcade games, and eat burgers. I had attended plenty of times, but only as a positive social outlet — not because I was particularly devout.

When I was grounded, my brother asked me if I wanted to attend "Hellfighters" with him on a Saturday night, at the same building as the Power House. This was a group that had started as a small Bible study before growing into a fairly large sized evangelical youth service. Because it was a church function, my parents approved. And because I wanted to get the hell out of the house, I enthusiastically agreed.

The evening started with a small-group Bible study. Afterwards, everyone congregated in the main event room for "worship", and this was my introduction to evangelicism. After a fiery sermon from a guy wearing jeans and a t-shirt, music started and shit got real. People 'speaking in tongues', waving their hands in the air, falling on their faces (which my brother explained as being 'slain in the Spirit'), etc. And that's where I ended up — on the floor, in this bizarre state of prayer-worship. I loved it.

The soldier for Christ

That was in February of 1994. In the months that followed, I became an enthusiastic and devout Christian. I carried two Bibles with me to school, and started a lunch time Bible study with friends. I wore Christian t-shirts. I (regrettably) trashed some of my 'secular' CDs. At one point, I was attending church functions five nights a week. My schedule looked something like this:

Monday: Small-group discipleship
Wednesday: Higher Dimensions youth service
Thursday: Large-group discipleship
Saturday: Hellfighters
Sunday: Church with family in the morning, and/or Guts service in the evening. 

It consumed me. I frequently spent my evenings in those prayer-worship sessions, sometimes lasting an hour or more. One of our music directors made a cassette (they still had those) called, not ironically, In the Closet, which was soothing new-agey music meant for (obviously, guys) your prayer closet. 

But despite being deeply absorbed in the community, my Christianity had a shallowness to it that, over time, began to tug at me more and more. This hit me hardest the most one night when we were out 'witnessing' at a local mall. A child fell. My friends tried to intervene, saying they could could pray and and God would 'heal' her. The woman was justifiably not amused. A security guard walked us out and insisted that while he was himself a devout Christian, there's a time and place for that and we'd crossed a line. My friends were indignant, but I sympathized with the woman. I like sharing my faith, but I didn't want to shove it down people's throats. I thought about the leaders in the church I most admired, and they were the ones who had gone to seminary and spent their time educating others. Hey, I thought, Maybe I could be a youth pastor someday!

This spurred a more serious inquiry into my faith. If I was going to be a leader in the church, I needed a deeper understanding. It wasn't enough for me to just regurgitate the platitudes of others; I wanted to have a clear understanding of the theology of my religion — to know precisely why we practiced Christianity the way we did, why we were convinced that we had the most honest and real understanding of the Bible — something those people going through the motions in stuffy pews would never understand.

In my late teens I went through a prolonged bout with depression and anxiety. I withdrew from social events, including the church. During this time I turned to self-study, reading books by C.S. Lewis, R.C. Sproul, and several others in addition to my usual devotionals and study guides. I read the Bible intently. But, in a digression from the evangelical ethos which insisted that I restrict my reading to Christian sources (since the Devil was always trying to undermine my relationship with God), I also read up on comparative religion, Eastern and Greek philosophy, and read several books by famed rabbi Harold Kushner. 

I remember being a bit surprised by how many parallels there were between other faiths and my own. It was hard to me to fathom how, if these people were really so separated from God, they could by living by principles that aligned so closely with those I aspired to. Weren't these heathens? Heretics? Lost souls? 

Why are there so many religions?

During this time, one question pulled at me more than any other: Why are there so many religions? At first blush, this may seem like an innocuous question. Certainly I was very familiar with apologetic arguments for the exclusivity of Christianity and various justifications for the manner in which God had apparently chosen to reveal himself. But those arguments didn't do much to explain why there were so many religions in the first place.

I knew that humanity had been around for a very long time — many many thousands of years before civilization (it's actually at least 100,000 years). I knew we'd started in Africa and spread slowly across the globe. So why didn't God reveal himself when everyone was still in Africa? Or why didn't God appear in more than one place? What was so special about the people of Israel? 

I noticed the peculiarly obvious fact that it was never other cultures that proclaimed the people of Israel as "God's chosen". It was, not surprisingly, the people of Israel themselves. Other cultures begged to differ. And indeed, in studying comparative religion, I found that it wasn't all that uncommon for cultures to think that they were uniquely on the right side of the divine in a lost world. 

But perhaps most damning was that even if God didn't reveal himself to everyone, nobody else seemed to agree with the Jewish people about what humanity's problem was in the first place. The very concepts of sin and atonement, while they certainly have parallels in many religions, were certainly not ubiquitous. Scientists on opposite sides of the planet can, without any contact with one another, make the identical discovery about the world. The objectivity of scientific truth means that it is, at least in principle, available to all. Religious truth, however, seemed to be more a matter of cultural circumstance. 

Of course, as I mentioned, I was familiar with justifications for this inconvenient truth. God had his reasons, so we're told, and apologists are keen to speculate upon them — even if they frequently attached qualifiers about divine hiddenness (no one, after all, really knows the mind of God). The problem is that these justifications only work if you already assent to the claims of Christianity. I imagined myself as an outsider, as someone from one of those other cultures completely isolated from Christianity, asking those same questions. Answers were not forthcoming then, and nearly twenty years later they are still absent. Divine hiddenness, indeed. I simply could not reconcile the idea that a God who is maximally loving, who desired all of humanity to come to him and be saved, would choose to reveal the One True Faith to a single tribal culture in the Bronze Age. 

This led me to consider another possibility, one that was rather discomforting: that there wasn't anything special about Judeo-Christian faith. The reason it looked like a product of cultural circumstance, just like every other religion on Earth, is because it is. Certainly that's not the answer I wanted to believe, but even my cursory understanding of Occam's Razor made it clear that this was the answer that made the fewest assumptions. Theologians and apologists had not been able to provide the answer I was looking for, and despite my best efforts I couldn't make sense of it myself. I turned to the last place I thought answers might lie: the Bible.

Want to rattle your faith? Read the Bible.

Perhaps I should have been prepared for the fact that answers to my many-religions questions were not forthcoming in the Bible. It was, to say the least, disheartening. Instead, I turned to the theology of the faith itself, particularly the book of Hebrews. Hebrews explains how the death of Christ is wed to the Old Testament covenants that involved ritual animal sacrifice. The Jewish people sacrificed animals to appease the wrath of God brought upon them by their sins; Christ was a perfect sacrifice that allowed the old covenant to be discarded and a new one, based on faith, was forged. 

Except, none of this made any sense to me at all. Why did God want ritual animal sacrifice in the first place? What does that have to do with forgiveness? Perhaps, I thought, God wanted people to make a sacrifice — farm animals, in those days, were precious resources. But that explanation evaporates with Christ, since he took the sacrifice upon himself. What was so special about the "blood of Christ"? What did that have to do with God's willingness to forgive people? And why did God spend centuries on ineffectual covenants in the first place? How does an omnipotent deity "sacrifice" anything at all — Jesus could have, conceivably, poofed himself right back into existence or simply refused to die in the first place. Generally when we mortals talk about "sacrifice", it means something quite different. We don't get to come back a few days later and float into the clouds.

My brother and I being mature people in our "Hellfighter" days

Worse, Christianity holds that Christ is God. How can God sacrifice himself to himself to fulfill his own covenant? A covenant whose terms were, as far as I could tell, completely arbitrary! Adding insult to injury is the fact that modern Christianity (generally) holds that humans are "fallen", and born into sin. Even those few who reject Original Sin still accept the Biblical decree that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God". In other words, the system is rigged. You're a sinner, and there's nothing you can do to change that. But God can save you, as long as you assent to the belief that he created a convoluted system of arbitrary covenants and "sacrificed" himself to himself to appease himself of the terms he created so he could forgive you for being what you had no choice to be — a flawed human being. I should point out that it's utterly irrelevant whether someone believes it's all literal, as in the "penal substitution theory of atonement", or they believe it's either all or in part metaphorical. Either way, it doesn't make an iota of sense. 

Confused and frustrated, I sought out some church leaders to discuss these matters. One chaplain, in particular, was particularly patient with me as I probed for answers about the blood of Christ, ritual sacrifice, and atonement. But he couldn't offer anything more than trite platitudes about having faith, that there are some thing we just don't understand. Maybe that was good enough for him, but I couldn't assent to beliefs that were, on their face, ridiculous. Frankly, I didn't think it was too much to ask that a logically coherent explanation of basic Christian theology was forthcoming. These aren't tertiary issues of theology, after all — they're the fundamentals of what Christianity is in the first place. 

My apostasy

I never chose to abandon my Christian faith. It just sort of left me. I remember one day I was reading the Bible, searching for answers and only feeling like each passage added to the mire. My apostasy was an epiphany: I don't believe this anymore. I had tried my best to make sense of it. I had read books by theologians, consulted with church leaders, and scoured the comparatively sparse 90s internet for answers. Above all, I had spent countless hours reading the Bible itself. But despite the pastoral calls that we follow the book of Proverbs and lean not on our own understanding, it felt dishonest of me to try and pretend like this stuff didn't matter, to just try to forget about it and believe anyway. 

It was then that I fell upon an empowering revelation: I didn't owe Christianity anything. It was not my duty to writhe and squirm under the weight of unanswerable questions. If it didn't make sense to me, I was under no obligation to believe it. I didn't need to earn my way to Christian understanding; Christian claims had to earn my assent. After all, it's not like I was being unreasonable; I wasn't asking God to appear before me and give me a divine Bible study. I just wanted coherent, sensible answers to some of the most simple, obvious questions any Christian can ask. I could not will myself to "just believe". 

At this point, my earlier studies on comparative religion cemented themselves more deeply. It was clear now that the reason Christianity appears not to make any sense is because it doesn't. The reason Christianity (and Judaism, by extension) appears to be the product of and a reflection of the time and culture in which it emerged is because it is

I left Christianity behind. As I was heading off to college, I felt like I could start anew. I was going to make new friends and didn't have to surround myself with Christians or attend church services. And sure enough, I found it remarkable how many new friends I made who shared my skepticism of religion. While I had been worried that I was going to have a hard time finding my place without religion, nothing could have been further from the truth. 

I remained an agnostic theist for almost ten years after my initial deconversion, mainly because I believed that some kind of god — even if only a deistic one — was necessary to explain the existence of the universe, morality, and the complexity of life. It wasn't until I started studying science more deeply that I realized that the answers provided by a "god" were no answers at all, only raising more problems than they resolved. Around 2008, I began to feel comfortable calling myself an atheist. 

Life without religion

As a believer, I couldn't conceive of life without faith. God got me through my toughest times. But in the aftermath of my apostasy, I realized that it wasn't a deity — it was my own strength of will, along with my friends and family. Today I live a wonderful, fulfilling, happy life completely free of religion. Far from being depressing, I've found that I'm much happier not having to perform the constant mental gymnastics required to ease the cognitive dissonance I felt as a believer. I have a deeper appreciation of my life, knowing that it's the only one I have — not some preparation for an eternity I probably wouldn't want anyway

The funny thing is, life without religion is otherwise the same as life without it. I still love music, but I don't go into guilt trips if I want to listen to blasphemous metal. I go to operas and symphonies, watch movies and TV, play guitar, spend time with my wife, go to the park with our dogs, play video games, cook, read fiction, work out (a lot), tend to our gym and its members, and hang out with friends. Many believers love to caricature non-believers as miserable nihilists, but the truth is that I, and all the other non-believers I know, are just as happy and fulfilled as anyone else. About the only time when religion even comes up is when some self-righteous politician says or does something atrocious and tries to justify it with appeals to their religion. My personal interest in religion and philosophy is pretty well confined to the internet and rarely bleeds into my day to day life. 

There's a reasonable caveat in all this, in the spirit of intellectual honesty: maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I just didn't talk to the right theologian or read the right books. Maybe I didn't think about my questions the right way. Maybe there is some evidence or argument that I've yet to familiarize myself with. But the reality is that there are only so many hours in the day. I'm not going to re-convert, ever, because at this point I really just don't care. I gave it a sincere try. I did everything I could to hang on to my faith in the face of crippling doubt, and I don't regret trusting my own capacity to think for myself. In the years since, I've found subsequent engagements with believers to be similarly frustrating — the shifting goalposts, the evasions, the equivocations. If there's anything that has a snowball's chance in hell of happening, it's getting a theologian to provide a straight answer to a simple, direct question. But if upon my demise I'm whisked to judgment and find out I was wrong, then I hope God would see my sincerity and empathize with my frustration. If not, then I would happily cannonball into the lake of fire and roast with all the other heathens, because I surely wouldn't kneel before a petty tyrant anyway. 

18 October 2016

The Counter-Apologist on William Lane Craig's moral argument... again

This is long and wordy, but I think it's fantastic. I especially love the observation that "you can't say that god's nature includes love — because it is better than hate — without already having a concept of moral value that is external to god's nature", as well as, "there is no logically necessary reason for god to have one set of properties over another in all possible worlds".

12 October 2016

It's not a caricature of Christianity if it's true

I've often found myself perplexed at how, in my nearly ten years of blogging (starting with The Apostasy, which became this blog in '09), Christians are chomping at the bit to engage in esoteric semantic dissections of philosophical arguments, and yet when I challenge the basic logical coherency of fundamental Christian doctrines... crickets. I can write a post about the Kalam Cosmological Argument and wrack up nearly 100 comments. I write a post saying that Christian doctrine is absurd, and I get nine comments — all from people who agree with me. A similar but less polemical post garnered nothing but an echo chamber.

I could spend the afternoon digging through Disqus and my blog archive to find more examples, but this is a regular pattern. Christian keyboard warriors have (apparently) spent a lot of time reading the esoteric apologetic philosophies of William Lane Craig or Ed Feser, but they seem either unprepared or unwilling to offer a similarly rigorous defense of the tenets of their own faith.

Now, in fairness, comments on my blog hardly represent a scientific sample. Maybe my experience is in part due to the microcosm of the internet in which I've placed myself through my writings. However, this avoidance is not a new experience for me — it was actually instrumental in my deconversion. Following my reading of Hebrews (which I discuss in both linked posts), my faith was deeply shaken. I simply could not make sense of what I'd read. I sought books, had several conversations with a couple of pastors, and scoured the internet (this was in the 90s, so web resources were a bit more limited). For the life of me, I could not find direct, concise answers to my questions. So, I did what I think anyone in my shoes would have done: I trusted my own judgment. I had read as broadly and as critically as I knew how, and the most uncomfortable answer was also the most prescient: if Christian theology looks nonsensical and incoherent, it's because it is nonsensical and incoherent.

The result of all this is that I have developed a fairly cynical view of Christian theology. So I see quotes like this famous one from Richard Carrier, and I'm sympathetic:

Christians might object that this is a "caricature" that overlooks some illuminating theological nuances. But in all my years of engaging with Christians — from laypersons to pastors to academics — I've yet to hear anything remotely approaching a rebuke. I hear a lot of bluster about a lack of charity and whatnot, but it seems to me that Carrier's quote is a perfectly accurate summary of what Christians actually believe. Sure, Christians don't like to phrase it that way, because it sounds ridiculous. They prefer the romance of "Christ died for our sins". But what does that even mean? How does an omnipotent being die? How does Christ's "blood" being shed on a Roman torture device "atone" for "sin"? If Jesus and God are the same being, isn't he literally sacrificing himself to himself to fulfill the terms of his own covenant? And why does God care whether people assent to the historicity of the Bible for his "sacrifice" to work?

If this is a caricature, I'm dying to know why. Really. Please. Enlighten me. Because as far as I can tell, this is literally what Christian theology entails, and in nearly 20 years of searching and dialogue I have never been offered a concise, straightforward answer to what to me seems like pretty fundamental questions about Christianity. 

Instead, I get dodges like these:
  • "You don't have to understand it to believe in it". Actually, I do. Sorry. I can't assent to beliefs that seem to me prima facie incoherent and ridiculous.
  • "You clearly aren't versed in the relevant theology." Clearly! But throw me a bone, will you? After nearly two decades of this stuff I'm not going to keep chasing rabbit trails if those versed in 'sophisticated theology' can't at least offer a coherent overview of the position they're advocating before telling me to spend my hard-earned money on yet another book.  
I'm more than willing to hear someone attempt to explain Christian doctrine to me, to illuminate how I lost my way, to offer some guidance in properly understanding Hebrews. I doubt anything like that is going to happen, because I don't think Christians understand their own doctrine. The "divine mystery" is, indeed, part of the faith. That's just not good enough for me. I think the basic tenets of Christian doctrine — sin, atonement, covenantal salvation, the Trinity, etc. — are completely ridiculous. And at this stage of the game I'm willing to believe that if it sounds ridiculous and it's like pulling teeth to get a straightforward, coherent explanation of it, it's because it is ridiculous

30 September 2016

Christian nutbaggery threatens civil rights in Poland

Here's something with eerie parallels to the election here in the U.S., from The Guardian:
[Conservative party] Law & Justice triumphed in the elections on a mix of social and nationalistic promises: hostility to migrants, pledging to stand up to exploitative foreign investors and banks, reducing the retirement age and introducing a 500 złoty (£86) a month child grant. Crucially, the campaign had the blessing of conservative bishops.
The L & J party, which now holds an absolute majority, is threatening major incursions on the civil rights of women and LGBTQ individuals. The provisions include a total ban on abortions, regardless of the threat to a woman's health, the health of the unborn child, or in cases of rape. Amnesty International is not happy:
This is not scaremongering. One only has to look at other countries where similarly draconian laws exist to see their negative impact. Amnesty International’s research in IrelandEl SalvadorNicaragua, and Paraguay has shown that in all these countries women and girls pay a high price for restrictions on safe and legal abortion. They pay with their health, their well-being and even with their lives. 
Unsurprisingly, this is motivated by religion:
“It’s payback time for the church,” said Jacek Kucharczyk of the Institute of Public Affairs. “Law & Justice swept up the armies of people who had stood on church steps for eight years, bearing petitions against abortion and IVF. They were part of the church’s campaign against what it sees as morally regressive so-called gender ideology, perceived as being imposed by western Europe.”

Yet again, conservative religion is the primary motivator in resistance against the progression of secular modernity. Whether it's women's rights in the oppressive theocracies of Afghanistan and Iran, campaigns against the rights of LGBTQ people here in the United States, and impeding women's access to safe and affordable family planning both here and abroad, religious lunatics consistently manage to be the primary obstacle to a better world.

27 August 2016

How to understand theology

I know I'm not alone among atheists in that over the course of many conversations with our theist friends, I frequently find myself asking, "What does that even mean?" Discussions about theology are frequently steeped in concepts whose meanings are not always perfectly clear, and the conflicting assumptions underpinning the meaning of crucial concepts leads to debates between atheists and theists amounting to, as Tim Minchin described it, trying to win a tennis match by scoring perfectly executed shots from opposite ends of separate courts.

I've been thinking a fair bit about why this is, and revisiting a book that is an old favorite has helped me shed some new light on this issue. The book in question is one that any long-time readers of this blog (both of you!) ought to be familiar with: Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer. Far from a new-atheist polemic, Religion Explained is an academic study of religion through the lenses of anthropology, cognitive psychology, and evolution.

One of the chapters deals with the characteristics of gods and spirits. Why are they generally anthropomorphized? Why do people worship gods whose actions and thoughts are at least somewhat like that of humans? Why do they generally take on human (or sometimes animal) form, instead of being, say, misshapen tentacled beasts?

I can't possibly do justice to Boyer's thesis in a brief blog post like this, but his answer is that gods and spirits are concepts that come from our intuitive conceptual systems. The most intuitive aspect, and the one present in all gods and spirits, is agency. Boyer says [p. 145] that for those detecting the activity or influence of spiritual agents it is not so much like seeing "faces in the clouds", but rather "traces in the grass". This is part of our evolutionary tendency to be hyper-active agency detectors. Boyer explains,
[Our] agency-detection system tends to "jump to conclusions"—that is, to give us the intuition that an agent is around—in many contexts where other interpretations (the wind pushed the foliage, a branch just fell off a tree) are equally plausible. It is part of our constant, everyday humdrum cognitive functioning that we interpret all sorts of cues in our environment, not just events but also the way things are, as the result of some agent's actions.
Most interestingly, Boyer says that gods and spirits are much like humans and animals, but stripped of certain properties and saddled with others:
In myth and folktales, we find supernatural concepts describing all sorts of objects and beings with all sorts of violations: stories about houses that remember their owners, islands that float adrift on the ocean or mountains that breathe. But the serious stuff, what becomes of great social importance, is generally about person-like beings. These invariably have some counterintuitive properties—for example, a nonstandard biology (they do not eat, grow, die, etc.) and often nonstandard physical properties (they fly through solid obstacles, become invisible, change shape, etc.)—but people's inferences about them require that they behave very much like persons. [p.142]

How concepts work in theology

It's here where I realized that concepts in religious philosophy work in much the same way. [Note that I'm going to use the term theology going forward instead of "religious philosophy", but I'm speaking not about doctrines and dogmas but rather the broader aspects of metaphysics that are central to discourse in religious philosophy.] Theological concepts are everyday concepts stripped down to their purely intuitive aspects; and once it is assumed that only those intuitive aspects of the concepts are important for the concept to be meaningful, all kinds of conclusions can be reached when these assumptions are put to work through some system of formal logic.

Let's take a few examples: mind, existence, and causation.

Example 1: Mind

Theologians often conceive of God as being an unembodied mind, having no physical body or brain. The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity states that God is not composed of parts, and is therefore "metaphysically simple". God is conceived not just as an agent, but as a mind that is itself pure agency. But in our everyday understanding of a mind, there are several crucial properties of the mind incompatible with such a view. 

Firstly, minds and brains are intimately connected. I'm going to carefully sidestep the debate on substance dualism here, as I think that most rational people will readily agree that brains and minds are crucially and causally connected. After all, brain damage can cause radical and often counter-intuitive changes in cognition: we can lose the ability to feel empathy; we can retain the ability to feel empathy, but lose the ability to respond to or act upon those feelings; we can lose our ability to recognize faces; we can lose our ability to remember the names of people or animals, but still remember the names of objects or tools. Moreover, our understanding of abstract concepts are crucially dependent on our physical bodies. We use what in cognitive linguistics are called primary metaphors like "that went right over my head", or "tomorrow is the big day". There is an exhaustive (and fascinating) list of these embodied metaphors here

Secondly, our minds are governed by a vastly complex subconscious. George Lakoff hints at just how deep this goes in Philosophy in the Flesh [Kindle location 152-3] :
Consider, for example, all that is going on below the level of conscious awareness when you are in a conversation. Here is only a small part of what you are doing, second by second: 
Accessing memories relevant to what is being said 
Comprehending a stream of sound as being language, dividing it into distinctive tinctive phonetic features and segments, identifying phonemes, and grouping them into morphemes 
Assigning a structure to the sentence in accord with the vast number of grammatical constructions in your native language 
Picking out words and giving them meanings appropriate to context 
Making semantic and pragmatic sense of the sentences as a whole 
Framing what is said in terms relevant to the discussion 
Performing inferences relevant to what is being discussed 
Constructing mental images where relevant and inspecting them 
Filling in gaps in the discourse 
Noticing and interpreting your interlocutor's body language 
Anticipating where the conversation is going 
Planning what to say in response 
All of these processes are completely and totally inaccessible to our conscious process of reasoning, yet they are crucial in governing it. Our understanding of the mind is dependent on the existence of a subconscious.

But neurological correlates, embodied primary metaphors, and subconscious reasoning are all very counter-intuitive things. What's not counter-intuitive is conceiving of a mind as an agent — possessing some form of conscious reasoning. This leads to some questions that theologians seem reticent to grapple with: How does an unembodied mind understand embodied concepts? Does God have a subconscious? If God is omnipotent, does he know his own processes of reasoning — entailing that he does not have a subconscious at all?  To even consider that an unembodied mind could understand embodied concepts and/or have a process of reasoning radically different from our own necessitates the uncomfortable conclusion that whatever God's mind might be, it's radically different than minds as we observe and understand them. 

Example 2: Existence

What if I told you I had a close friend and, when you asked to meet him, I replied, "Well, he's not really anywhere. In a sense he's here with us right now, even though you can't see, hear, or touch him. But he's never at any particular place at any particular time." You'd probably think I was nuts, but a being who exists outside of space and time is precisely how God is very often conceived. Generally, we conceive of existence as a spatial and temporal phenomenon. Even if we're generous enough to say that abstract thoughts "exist", we conceive of our minds as containers and say things like, "it's a thought inside my head". We don't conceive of our thoughts existing nowhere at no time, nor do we consider them omnipresent in the universe. 

The theological concept of existence is stripped of spatio-temporality, down to its most intuitive skeleton: something that is real. It is real in that it has agency and/or causal influence in the universe. When we say "unicorns don't exist", we mean that there are no agents or objects that can either act or be acted upon which fit the description of a unicorn. But God is conceived of being able to act upon things despite lacking any kind of spatial or temporal properties.

Example 3: Causation

When we think about causes, we're generally thinking about what philosophers might call "event causation". That is, causes describe a relationship between events — events that take place in space and time. Effects always follow their causes, and causes always precede their effects. In classical physics, the concept of causation is essential to connecting physical processes — if we know the initial state of a system, then the laws of physics can tell us precisely what the outcome will be. We can even work backwards, connecting effects to their causes. 

Lakoff describes the literal skeleton of the concept of causation as "a determining factor for a situation"[Kindle location 1277]. Theologians strip causation down to this most basic intuitive level. To the theologian, time and space are not necessary for causation to occur. Nor are any particular physical components or even physical laws. God, the unembodied agent who exists nowhere at no time, can nonetheless causally influence events in the universe and (of course) create or destroy the universe purely through his will. 

How theology works

These are just three examples, and there are of course plenty more. But what can be seen from these examples is that in every case, an everyday concept is stripped of any counter-intuitive aspects it might have. Once it is assumed that those counter-intuitive aspects are unessential to the meaning of a concept, a vast array of possibilities unfold. Things don't have to exist in particular places at particular times and they don't have to have any particular set of clearly-defined properties, but they can nonetheless causally interact with things that do exist in particular places and particular times. We can plug these stripped-down concepts into various systems of formal logic and work out their entailments. The irony, of course, is that the entailments can themselves be highly counter-intuitive precisely because those stripped-down concepts are crucially distinct from our common understanding of them. 

The divide between the theist and the atheist is that the atheist sees no reason to entertain these deconstructed concepts as anything but idle speculation — wherein their true meaning has been hopelessly mired in ambiguity —  while the theist views them as integral to metaphysical knowledge. And with no readily apparent way to bridge that divide, the impasse seems destined to continue.

28 July 2016

Brute facts and classical theism

The modal cosmological argument, or MCA, deals with the concepts of necessity and contingency. I'll leave more formalized versions for your reference here and here. For this post, it'll be sufficient to summarize it as follows:

  • Something that could exist in a different state or fail to exist at all is contingent, in that its state of existence must be explained by something else, such as another contingent thing. For example, a chair is a contingent object. It could have different properties (i.e., be a different type of chair) or not exist at all. It was brought into existence by something else, such as a carpenter. 
  • There can't be an infinite regress of contingent things, otherwise the existence of the contingent set is not explained.
  • Therefore, the existence of the contingent set must be explained an entity whose existence is explained by its own necessity. 
There's a lot of nuance in these arguments that is beyond the depth of this post — the semantics of 'necessary existence' requires one to assume Essentialism, and the argument from contingency requires one to assume some version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. If you don't assent to either of those views, you won't find the modal argument persuasive. 

But today, I'm going to ignore all that and grant the underlying assumptions of the MCA. I'm going to grant that "necessary existence" is a real thing, and that the criteria for "contingency" is not only accurate, but applies to the Universe itself. What happens when we follow the MCA to its logical conclusions?

Importantly, the MCA rejects the existence of 'brute facts'. Brute facts just are. There is no "explanation" for them. In my experience, most secular philosophers agree that brute facts exist. They view "explanations" as a human cognitive construction that has limited coherent application; they believe it's nonsensical to demand an explanation for the existence of the universe itself — perhaps it simply is. A proponent of the MCA would tell you that brute facts are incoherent for two reasons: first, they admit of no explanation; and second, if one accepts the proposition that explanations are hierarchical, then the brute fact can impart no explanation onto anything else. I would argue that such conceptualizations of "explanations" are entirely metaphorical, and that we can have perfectly coherent world views without them. But for now, as with the other underlying assumptions, concepts, and semantics embedded within the MCA, I'm going to grant them.

One final thing: while the temporal cosmological argument (popularly known as the Kalam) requires the universe to be past-finite, the MCA allows for either an infinite or past-finite universe. God may or may not 'create' the universe, but God definitely 'sustains' the universe as a logically prior first cause. And while I know my fellow atheists are chomping at the bit to tear apart the notion that the universe needs to be causally 'sustained' and the dubious semantics of 'logically prior' in such a context, for the purposes of this post I'm going to grant that rather massive assumption as well.
Got all that? Let's see where granting the assumptions of the MCA lands us.

Two bad options for the classical theist

There are two ways in which the MCA leads to unappealing options. Both are coherent, but undesirable for the theist for reasons that will be apparently pretty quickly.

Option 1: God is necessary and brute facts do not exist, but there are no contingent facts

If God is timeless and unchanging, God cannot 'decide' to create the universe. Nor was there an 'act' of creation. Decisions, acts, or even any process of thought whatsoever, would reflect a change of God's conscious state as well as indicate that God exists temporally. Time can be expressed as a relationship between events, or an expression of change. This means God cannot 'think' or 'do' anything at all, as we'd conceptualize those things. God just is. Thomists describe God as "pure act", relating to the concepts of "act" and "potency" in which all change is conceptualized as "act moving to potency" [note: Thomists take this description as literal, but it's dependent on an embodied primary metaphor: "change is movement"]. If God could think, act, or change in any way whatsoever, then he would be contingent and his existence would have to be explained by some other entity.

This means that God's desire and act of creating/sustaining the universe is literally part of his necessary being. From this we're forced to infer that God could not have created or sustained a different universe. Since the creation/sustenance of the universe is part of God's nature, and God exists necessarily, it follows that the universe and all within it is also necessary. Contingent facts cannot arise from a necessary cause, because the if the cause is necessary then it could be no other way. Everything had to happen exactly as it has happened, from the Big Bang all the way to your annoying neighbors who have a flood light in their back yard and a Trump sign in their front window (well... maybe that's just me).

This results in a universe in which God's necessity is preserved, but we live in a universe that is completely and totally deterministic.

Option 2: Contingent facts exist, but God is contingent and brute facts exist

The second option is that God could have decided to create a different universe, and He doesn't necessarily govern everything that happens within it. We've left the hard determinism of the first option behind. But if God could have different desires and take different actions, then by the definitions laid out in the MCA, God is contingent. The theist is then forced to accept that God's particular desires admit of no explanation — they are brute facts.

Both options are unappealing to the theist. The first preserves God's necessity, but entails a kind of hard determinism that renders all choice illusory. Calvinists might be fine with that, but most theists want to believe that God can actually think and act in some anthropomorphic way. Otherwise God is not really answering prayers, intervening in the world, or whatever. God is more like some ever-present unchanging force, and we're just puppets on a stage.

The second option gets rid of God as a necessary being, but entails that the basis for assenting to the underlying assumptions of MCA in the first place — that is, the rejection of brute facts — is an incoherent position. In that case, the theist might as well just toss out the MCA entirely and hope they have better luck with the Kalam (they won't).

Option 3: Ad Hoc the hell outta this one

But of course, when you've been debating theists as long as I have, you know what's really going to happen: ad hoc rationalizations to make the initial assumptions fit the desired conclusion. Something like this:
Well, you see, God actually can have thoughts and act, but not in the way we think of those things; only analogously. Because we don't know what a timeless unchanging existence is like, a clear conceptualization of God's mind and being is beyond our epistemic horizon. But we can at least know that the arguments lead us to deduce God's existence; his exact attributes, or our ability to conceptualize them, are of secondary importance. 
As long as you avoiding clearly defining your terms of engagement, you can make any argument fit your conclusions. You can imply that words like change, thoughts, and actions have one meaning in your premises, but then take on an analogous meaning in your conclusions. It's a fallacy of equivocation, but y'know, whatever. Checkmate, atheists!

13 July 2016

Something that really puzzles me about the Ark Encounter

Friendly Atheist has had some coverage of Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis and Creation Museum fame) and his organization's new Young-Earth Creationism monstrosity, the $100-million+ Ark Encounter. They took quite a few pics from inside the 'replica', but these in particular caught my attention:

Basically this is saying that prior to the Flood, God didn't 'permit' humans or animals to eat meat. Let's set aside for a moment the oddity of suggesting that animals had the ability to understand and violate divine moral commandments and think instead about their anatomy. Essentially this implies that God either a) changed animals' anatomy while they were on the Ark, or b) changed it after the Flood. Because as any trivially educated person knows, animals aren't carnivorous (or not) because they decide to be, but because their biology mandates it to be.

Here's what gets me: if you're just going to say that God magically changes animals' anatomy at the drop of a hat, then why concoct this elaborate explanation for how they ate and pooped? Why not just say that for 40 days and nights, God made it so none of the animals would have to eat or poop at all? Why not say that God made Noah and his family's bellies full for the entire duration of the Flood?

This kind of ad hoc explanation shows what kind of severe cognitive dissonance Young-Earth Creationists are dealing with. Over the years, they've encountered (no pun intended) plenty of challenges to the plausibility of both the Flood and the Ark itself, and it seems like they just decided to conjure up answers to whichever ones seemed most problematic. The best part is that their answers just boil down to magic anyway, so they really could have 'answered' any possible challenge to their narrative by suggesting that God just poofed this or that scenario into being. Concocting an elaborate explanation for something, like how the poop was removed, probably just makes them feel a bit more scientific even though there's no particular reason for them to argue that Noah even needed to deal with animal poop. After all, Noah didn't need to deal with obviously carnivorous dinosaurs, reptiles, and mammalian predators eating other animals because God poofed them into being vegetarians.

Here's some food for thought, though. Anyone not deeply steeped in the YEC Kool-Aid can see the myriad of problems with their ad hoc reasoning, but this is common among 'sophisticated' theologians as well. My favorite example is William Lane Craig arguing that the probability of Jesus' resurrection happening by natural means is very low, but his probability of being resurrected by supernatural means is very high. Well, of course it is. As soon as you invoke supernatural magic, from the creation of the universe to walking on water, you can "explain" anything you want. 

02 June 2016

Take off the kid gloves: dualism is a pseudoscience

We non-believers are pretty good about calling out religious people who subscribe to young-Earth creationism or 'intelligent design'. They're pseudosciences — bolstered with arguments often couched in scientific-sounding language, but ultimately not just unsupported by data but in stark, irreconcilable conflict with the data we do have.

For some reason, most of us are a lot easier on dualists — those who insist the mind is somehow independent of the brain. Granted, there's always neuroscientist and skeptic Steve Novella, who definitely doesn't pull any punches, but a firm condemnation of dualism just isn't quite as prevalent in the public community of skeptics and non-believers as arguments against evolution deniers.

Maybe it's because the mind sciences — neurobiology, neurocomputation, and cognitive science — are a bit more esoteric. They're characterized by a somewhat obscure lexicon that doesn't always lend itself to concisely packaged arguments. But that should not obscure the fact that from a scientific standpoint, there is no dispute that the mind is wholly caused by the brain. You are not going to comb through an issue of Scientific American Mind and find the latest research from dualists because, well, dualists aren't actually doing any research. That's because unlike a brain-emergent theory of mind, dualist theories of mind don't make predictions and accordingly are unfalsifiable. Instead, they live in the margins as post hoc rationalizations for data produced by the hard sciences of the mind.

Dualism is conceptually ambiguous

A common refrain from dualists is that since the mind is not material, it cannot be studied empirically. Science, they say, studies the 'natural world'. This allows dualists to have their cake and eat it, too: they can try to explain scientific data in the context of dualism without ever producing a working scientific theory that would actually generated testable hypotheses.

But this rationalization fails at a basic conceptual level.  Sean Carroll concisely summarizes the problem in an op-ed for Scientific American:
Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there's no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?
And Sam Harris, in a discussion with the late Christopher Hitchens, David Wolpe, and Bradley Artson Shavit, summarized the issue on similar terms:
Science is not in principle committed to the idea that there’s no afterlife or that the mind is identical to the brain.
If it’s true that consciousness is being run like software on the brain and can – by virtue of ectoplasm or something else we don’t understand – be dissociated from the brain at death, that would be part of our growing scientific understanding of the world if we discover it.
But there are very good reasons to think it’s not true. We know this from 150 years of neurology where you damage areas of the brain, and faculties are lost. You can cease to recognize faces, you can cease to know the names of animals but you still know the names of tools.
What we’re being asked to consider is that you damage one part of the brain, and something about the mind and subjectivity is lost, you damage another and yet more is lost, [but] you damage the whole thing at death, we can rise off the brain with all our faculties intact, recognizing grandma and speaking English!

All of these discussions point to two fundamental conceptual problems with mind-body dualism:

  • Dualists do not have a theory of what the mind is, or even an unambiguous description of a non-material substance
  • More importantly, dualists do not have a testable hypothesis that would explain how the immaterial mind causally interacts with the physical brain — or even why it should in the first place.  

The evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of a material account of the mind

Aside from the lack of empirical evidence or even a coherent theoretical structure from dualists, there are many reasons to be confident that the mind is caused by the brain. 

Embodied cognition

Evidence from cognitive linguistics shows that basic conceptual systems used for reasoning are defined not just by our brains, but by our motor systems. Gestalt perception and motor schemas share neural circuitry with higher-level abstraction. From Lakoff:
• Our brains are structured so as to project activation patterns from sensorimotor areas to higher cortical areas. These constitute what we have called primary metaphors. Projections of this kind allow us to conceptualize abstract concepts on the basis of inferential patterns used in sensorimotor processes that are directly tied to the body. [Philosophy in the Flesh, Kindle location 962]
Primary metaphors are such concepts as big is important (tomorrow is the big day!), love is closeness (the stress of their jobs drove the couple apart), more is up (stock prices skyrocketed!), bad is smelly (this movie stinks), etc. There are a great deal of these metaphors, and they are integral to our process of reasoning — we literally cannot reason without them.

Moreover, these metaphors have a neural grounding in what is called conflation. Lakoff, again:
In research on metaphor acquisition in children, Johnson (Al, 1997b, c) studied the Shem corpus in detail. This is a well-known collection of the utterances of a child named Shem, recorded over the course of his language development (D, MacWhinney 1995). In an attempt to discover the age at which Shem acquired a commonplace metaphor, Johnson looked at Shem's use of the verb see. His objective was to discover the mechanism involved in the acquisition of metaphor. He had hypothesized conflation as a possible mechanism, and he wanted to find out whether there is indeed a stage of conflation prior to the use of the metaphor. His test case was Knowing Is Seeing, as in sentences like "I see what you're saying." In such metaphorical examples, knowing is the subject matter. Seeing is the metaphorical source domain used to conceptualize knowledge, but it is not used literally.
Johnson discovered that, prior to using metaphor, Shem went through a stage in which the knowing and seeing domains were conflated. Since we normally get most of our knowledge from seeing, a conflation of these domains would have been expected. In such conflations, the domains of knowing and seeing are coactive and the grammar of know is used with the verb see in a context in which seeing and knowing occur together-for instance, "Let's see what's in the box." Here, seeing what's in the box correlates with knowing what's in the box. [Philosophy in the Flesh, Kindle location 633]
The case for embodied cognition is vastly more complex than these few snippets can illustrate, but what's important to take from this is that the embodied account only makes sense in the framework of a physical account of the mind, and it makes direct, falsifiable predictions about the structure of our conceptual systems from the neural circuitry of our brains.

Moreover, if dualism were true, there would simply be no need to describe conceptual systems in the terms of our embodiment and our neural circuitry. As always the dualist position can be shoehorned in as part of a weaselly post-hoc rationalization of data, but dualism does not produce a theory of mind that predicts or necessitates embodied cognition — cognitive linguistics, however, does precisely that.

Science predicts a relationship between cognitive states and brain states

Another famous argument of dualists is that the relationship between brain states and cognitive states is strictly correlative, not causal. But aside from suffering from the same deficiency of being only a post-hoc rationalization of data, a scientific account of the mind predicts states of cognition as outcomes of brain states. These predictions are falsifiable, reliable, and reproducible. Steve Novella elaborates:
As we have learned more and more about brain function, we have identified many modules and circuits in the brain that participate in specific functions. During the Afterlife debate I gave a few of my favorite examples.
Disruption of one circuit, for example, can make someone feel as if their loved-ones are imposters, because they do not evoke the usual emotions they should feel.
Disruption of another circuit can make a person feel as if they are not in control of a part of their body – so-called alien hand syndrome.
A stroke that leaves the ownership module intact but unconnected to the paralyzed limb can rarely result in a supernumerary phantom limb – the subjective experience of having an extra limb that you can feel and controlled (but that does not exist).
Seizures are also a profound area of evidence for the mind as brain theory. Synchronous electrical activity in particular parts of the brain can make people twitch and convulse, but also experience smells, sounds, images, feelings, a sense of unreality, a sense of being connected to the universe, an inability to speak, the experience of a particular piece of music, a sense of deja vu, or pretty much anything you can imagine. The subjective experience depends on the part of the brain where the seizure occurs.
There is also copious evidence from strokes and other forms of brain damage. As a practicing neurologist I can examine a patient with a stroke and with a high degree of accuracy predict exactly where the lesion will be in the brain on subsequent imaging. Everything you think, do, and feel has a neuroanatomical correlate in the brain, and if that function is altered or not working, that will predict where the lesion can be found.
Not only does dualism fail to account for such correlates with any sort of theoretical framework, but there's no reason to think these predictions should hold on a dualistic account. A material account of the mind requires such predictions to be reliable and valid, as they are. Dualism is ambiguously and equivocally defined, so it's not entirely clear what a dualistic theoretical framework would require. But since no dualistic 'theory' makes testable predictions, there's no reason to think dualism would require any particular neurocognitive predictions to hold.

Worst of all for dualism is perhaps the most obvious problem: cognitive states have never been observed to occur without brain states. We cannot communicate with dead people. When someone has suffered severe brain damage — via a stroke, accident, or some other misfortune — specific and often counter-intuitive changes to personality, memory, awareness, empathy, or communication may be adversely affected. Not only has a neurocognitive model of the mind been able to successfully predict these cognitive states, but they've been able to show with great detail the biological mechanisms at play.

The last bastion for dualism lies not in science, but in classical philosophy. As the theologian Edward Feser claims, "The mind knows itself directly, without the mediation of a mental image or any other representation." Cognitive science has shown this claim to be unequivocally false. You have absolutely no knowledge of or choice in the formation of the metaphors that form the structure of your reasoning — and the embodied, metaphorical structure of reasoning could not have been predicted by philosophers. Lakoff, again:
[There] is no Cartesian dualistic person, with a mind separate from and independent of the body, sharing exactly the same disembodied transcendent reason with everyone else, and capable of knowing everything about his or her mind simply by self-reflection. Rather, the mind is inherently embodied, reason is shaped by the body, and since most thought is unconscious, the mind cannot be known simply by self-reflection. Empirical study is necessary. [Philosophy in the Flesh, Kindle location 80]
A neurocognitive account of the mind is robustly supported by scientific data that spans multiple interrelated disciplines. It's comprised of sound theoretical models that have successfully and reliably made falsifiable predictions. Dualism trudges on, clinging desperately to the coattails of scientific progress with post hoc rationalizations of scientific data, most likely spurred by fear of facing the entailments of a successful scientific theory of mind: souls probably do not exist, and when you're dead you're gone forever. But as Carl Sagan famously said, "It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring". Let's stop treating dualism as anything other than the nonsense that it is — an antiquated folk theory of mind that belongs in the dustbin along with young-Earth creationism and intelligent design.

29 May 2016

Lakoff: Math is made up by your brain

Tonight I was on YouTube, and in my 'recommended videos' section there was a selection from the channel Closer to Truth asking physicist Max Tegmark the old granddaddy of questions, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Tegmark goes on to expound on his view that the universe is fundamentally mathematical and that mathematics are discovered, not invented.

Tegmark's view is an example of a view called mathematical Platonism, a form of mathematical realism which holds that:
  • There are mathematical objects
  • Mathematical objects are abstract
  • Mathematical objects are independent of intelligent agents and their language, thought, and practices.
There are several difficulties that this point of view faces, both conceptually (what, exactly, is an "abstract object" and how does it causally interact with the brain?) and given what we actually observe here in the physical universe. Alexander Vilenkin touched on Tegmark's ideas in his book Many Worlds In One:
The number of mathematical structures increases with increasing complexity, suggesting that “typical” structures should be horrendously large and cumbersome. This seems to be in conflict with the simplicity and beauty of the theories describing our world.
It just so happens that in the 'related videos' sidebar, YouTube recommended this vid from George Lakoff on embodied mathematical cognition — a condensed version of his book Where Mathematics Comes From. It's a scientific alternative to folk theories of mathematics like mathematical Platonism and though it's a relatively nascent field with plenty of challenges ahead, there's growing evidence that it's correct [1, 2, 3]. It's not without controversy, but challenging intelligent people to case aside philosophies entrenched in academia for centuries is inevitably going to meet resistance.

My take is that the conceptual ambiguities intrinsic to mathematical realism put it at a disadvantage to embodied mathematical cognition, which builds on research from the broader field of embodied cognition. Is it true? I don't know. And as a non-mathematician, some of this stuff is over my head. But I think it's fascinating as hell, and the fact that it grounds conceptual abstraction within the purview of scientific inquiry instead of mysterious 'metaphysical realms' is a big reason why I'm such a fan of Lakoff's work.

Anyway... here's the lecture.