22 July 2014

The best thing ever happened

Just kidding. My hard drive died over the weekend. I've been building my own gaming PCs since 2006, and I've never had a hard drive fail. The one that died was a solid-state drive too, which are supposed to last much longer than mechanical drives. But by 'last longer' they apparently just mean the read/write cycles, because the memory controllers? Oh yeah, they're crap.

So, I've unexpectedly upgraded my PC. My nifty new drive (Samsung Evo 840) is twice the size of my old one, and it's pretty crazy how much faster and cheaper SSDs have gotten since I bought my first one some five years ago.

Long story short, that's why I haven't blogged lately, and I'm now in the exciting and fun process of reinstalling all my programs, games, and apps, and of course there's the breathtaking suspense of reconfiguring Windows to my preferred settings. I've been following the conversations in the comments of my recent posts though, and I have plenty to add. Stay tuned!

15 July 2014

Me and Steven Jake on metaphysics: bonus round

This is well-trodden territory, but I just spent some two hours typing up this massive reply to Steven's post Brute facts and naturalism, so I thought I'd repost the comment in full, and clean up the formatting a bit. It's long. Grab a sandwich.

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Steven, I'm going to attempt to tie everything back together. I agree that things have strayed a bit and I applaud your patience and the not-insignificant time you've devoted to combing through my arguments, so I want to attempt to redirect and summarize. I'll quote you when I feel it's relevant to my reply, but otherwise I'll try to address your arguments more broadly.

If I were to phrase your original argument into a syllogism, I think a fair summary would look something like this:
  • An explanation is the process by which something becomes intelligible (your words)
  • The universe is something
  • Ergo, the universe must have an explanation, or it is unintelligible
But I think your definition of 'explanation' is both nebulous and idiosyncratic. When we describe something as needing an explanation, we are always referring to some particular process which accounts for its current state — i.e., there is a specific context by which we abstract the concept of an explanation as being meaningful and applicable. If the question is "What is the explanation for the universe", then we have to ask what about the universe demands an explanation. Is it the mere existence of the universe? Is it why the universe has certain physical laws and not others? Or perhaps why certain constants are not different?

My argument has been and remains that it is not clear (though perhaps not 'disprovable') that "The Universe" can coherently be said to be in the same ontological category of objects which demand explanations, since the very idea of an explanation is an emergent concept whose existence utterly and completely depends on the universe itself. You cannot derive a concept from the universe, then predicate it of the universe — to do so is inherently question-begging. Whether the properties, constants, or laws of the universe could be different isn't germane to the conversation, because we have no way of knowing whether they could be different. In order to be different, the universe would have to be subject to external causal forces, and we have no way of knowing if such forces can or do exist. And the fundamental properties of the universe do not admit to belonging in the same empirically-derived ontological category as "things which need explanation" simply because you demand it to be so.

This is also why I bring up transcendent realities and forces — because your arguments require them to exist, and there is no evidence that they do. For your conceptualizations of essence, act, and potency to be valid descriptions of reality, you have to operate on the assumptions that:
  • Physical objects have the invisible, undetectable property of 'essence'
  • The force of 'act' invisibly and undetectably affects physical objects' invisible, undetectable property of 'potency' to instigate observable change in the universe
  • This undetectable chain of act and potency (the only way to alter something's essence) somehow — i.e., ineffably — transcends physical reality and all spatiotemporality, terminating in a being which, frankly, you've only been able to define as paradoxically impotent.
When I pressed you on how we could know these properties and forces are real, you replied, "they're metaphysical". That response just takes us right back to the same points I've argued in the past, such as:
  • There is no agreed upon definition of 'metaphysical'
  • There is no agreed upon set of metaphysical axioms
  • There is no agreed upon criteria which defines a metaphysical problem, nor any criteria by which metaphysical dilemmas can be solved
In other words, calling those phenomena 'metaphysical' is just a deflection, because the term is so nebulous and pliable as to be virtually meaningless. In calling these mysterious properties and forces 'metaphysical', you've tacitly conceded that their exact nature and the means by which they comprise and influence the universe are unintelligible. This is textbook magical thinking!

This is also why I cannot take claims like this one seriously:
There is nothing about essence or existence that logically restricts them to this universe. Anything that exists has properties, and if it has properties then it has an essence. Contrary to your claim, essence can and must apply to all existents, ontologically in or out of the universe.
You cannot make statements like this without the question-begging assumptions that:

  • The concept of existence is just as meaningful in describing non-physical, non-spatiotemporal, timeless and changeless things as it is in describing empirical phenomena
  • The concept of 'properties' is meaningful in describing timeless, non-spatiotemporal yet literally real things (i.e., they are not merely abstractions)
  • The concepts of 'outside' or 'beyond' the universe are meaningful and,
  • Given that they are, that things actually can or do exist outside/beyond the universe.
Steven, in every single case you have to adopt the semantics of emergent phenomena whose very existence and coherency are derived from the universe and conjecturally cantilever them into speculative realities in which they not only cannot be observed, but their very context that gives those concepts their meaning in the first place is stripped away, rendering the concepts nebulous at best and meaningless at worst. Notice that you use the phrase "in or out of the universe". What does that even mean? In and out are spatiotemporal concepts, and the universe is not some sort of container in which the concept of "outside" can coherently apply — saying something is "out of the universe" is like saying something is "South of the South Pole".

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And, this is already running long. Bathroom break.

Okay.

Onto necessity and being. You claim,
My criteria of necessity is that one’s essence is identical to its
existence. The universe’s essence is it being all matter, energy,
space-time and physical laws. Notice that this essence is not existence, and therefore the universe is contingent.
Two things here. One is that (and forgive the backtracking) you said earlier that you're not relying on the ontological argument. You'll have to explain it to me then, because I do not see a meaningful difference between "God's existence is identical to his essence" and "Existence is an essential property of God" — the very crux of the ontological argument. The latter seems perfectly consistent with not only your own semantics, but with the arguments of a great many theologians. And it's utterly incoherent to demand that existence be described as a property of something, since 1) things which do not exist cannot have properties, merely conceptual properties, and 2) it would paradoxically suggest that "properties" are more fundamental than "existence", in which case it begs the question of what it means for properties to exist.

The other issue is that I'm not seeing why, given your own semantics, God can be said to have this essential property of existence but the universe cannot. Earlier in your reply you state,
The problem with this, which is demonstrated by your examples, is that when imagining God to be different ways, one needs to realize that
imagining something does not make it metaphysically possible—oddly you
seem to recognize this for the universe, but ignore it when it comes to
God.
But Steven, you aren't providing any reason for me to think that what I'm proposing isn't metaphysically possible. You're just asserting that God is x, and could be no other way. God could be, using your semantics for example, both pure actuality and pure potency (which seems no more illogical to me than suggesting that Christ was both fully God and fully human), capable of infinite being and infinite change, thus possessing perfect free will and transcending limited human conceptualizations of good and evil. In fact something like this would have to be the case under Thomistic assumptions, since a being of "pure actuality" which possesses no potency is necessarily inert (absence of potency is, by definition, impotent!) and cannot instigate change in the universe or otherwise, rendering Aquinas' conclusions self-defeating. But even your argument regarding evil as a privation is question-begging, since good can just as coherently be argued as a privation of evil; only apathy and indifference are true privations of good or evil (a fine example of this is nature itself).

So.... if the question is simply whether it is metaphysically possible for either God or the universe to be different, adding God to the equation seems utterly superfluous. God, under your definition, clearly has essential properties besides "pure being" (goodness, omnipotence, omniscience, being a disembodied consciousness, being capable of transcending physical and supernatural realities, etc) that could logically be different, just like the universe would have other essential properties that could logically be different; you simply tack on "existence" to God's essential properties and ambiguously deny that the universe could have the same essential property. So not only have you inadvertently cornered yourself with the sheer absurdity of the ontological argument (despite your insistence that you're not employing it), but you've failed to provide any reason why, even given your own semantics, "existence" cannot be conceived as an essential property of the universe. Your continued assertion that the universe is 'contingent' is question-begging; you simply argue that it doesn't possess essential existence, but God does. That's not an argument! You have to demonstrate why it is logically (or... ugh... 'metaphysically') impossible for the universe to possess the same property that you ascribe to God, and you have thus far not even attempted to do so!

The best semblance of an attempt I can find from you is this:
So, you’re attempt to define energy and the universe into necessity does not work, especially since, contrary to your claim, they do not satisfy the criteria of necessity. The criteria of necessity, on Thomism, is for one’s essence to be identical to its existence, of which energy and the universe are not. That is, there is nothing inherently in the essence of energy that tells me it exists. I have to observe reality to know it exists.
You cannot directly observe the fundamental laws and properties of the universe; you can only reason their existence through deduction following the observation of empirical phenomena. How is this any different than Aristotle and Aquinas' reasoning about causes, essence, act, and potency to deductively infer God's existence following their observation of empirical phenomena?

In other words, the observation of empirical phenomena tells you that some underlying set of properties gives rise to them (i.e., they are emergent phenomena). If the properties of the universe could be different, our conceptualization of emergent phenomena would be different too (assuming they could emerge at all), making those fundamental properties necessary. If the universe as we know it did not exist, then the concepts of existence, causality, properties, etc., would also not exist as we know them. Bearing in mind that I think it's nonsensical to try to pigeonhole the universe into the framework of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, even adopting that outlook cannot lead to the conclusions you are asserting without an extra layer of unstated assumptions. There is simply no contradiction at all in saying that the universe itself has existence as an essential property, and thus no reason to add the extra layer of "God", along with the litany of unstated assumptions you must adopt in the process.

So, that's where we are. I see no reason at all to adopt your semantic framework or take your basic 'metaphysical' assertions seriously. But even if I adopt them, it becomes readily apparent that your conclusions don't follow from your assumptions — at least, not without a litany of unstated and unjustifiable assumptions you must pile on in order to make your metaphysics work. When you have to toss parsimony out the window to 'prove' God exists, and then your deductions lead you to infer a necessarily impotent being anyway, it's a good sign your core assumptions are fundamentally misguided.

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I'm exhausted, so I'll leave it there save for a couple of quick footnotes:


• I'm not asserting that abstractions are spatiotemporal, but that they are representative processes of the conscious mind and thus not analogous to timeless, spaceless, transcendent things

• I agree that 'something' is best described as a fundamental state of reality over 'nothing', but my point is that you cannot assume what you are trying to prove. Necessarily existent things only exist if existence itself is necessary and fundamental, and while I see no reason to give 'nothing' any special metaphysical privilege over 'something', I also don't see any reason to do the opposite. The contention that 'nothing' is a privation is itself question-begging, as (like most things) the concept of a privation is only sensible in a specific context of already-extant things.

13 July 2014

Quote of the day

A friend of mine on Facebook posted this to his page some time ago, and I totally love it. It definitely comes to mind whenever I see some pretentious blowhard accusing someone of speaking out of turn for not having read this or that obscure academic work in some esoteric sub-discipline of theology or philosophy.



My response to the church invitation

Earlier this week, I wrote out a hand-written response to the family friends who invited my fiance Vanessa and I to their church. Vanessa read it and suggested some changes (with a nod to alert reader 'Lunaticus'), so to save time I opted to reply to them via email. Here's my reply in full:
Vanessa and I both appreciate the invitation, and we both know that it comes from a place of sincerity for both of you. As non-believers, Vanessa and I often feel a bit marginalized given that we live in such a religiously-minded society. To that end, we tend to keep our religious views to ourselves. Our beliefs have, on occasion, caused some friction within our families so we generally feel it's a topic best left alone.

Over the years, she and I have both been invited to countless church services, implored to talk to church leaders (we have), given books on Christian theology and apologetics, and drawn into debates in which our beliefs are put on the defensive. Just this week, Vanessa was cornered by a priest at her aunt's funeral who questioned her decision to get married outside of the Catholic church. Imagine if a non-believer wrote to you and said, "I know you usually go to church on Sunday, but this Sunday why not stay in and I'll loan you my copy of Richard Dawkins' book 'The God Delusion' to read", or if a Muslim invited you to their mosque imploring you to open your heart to Allah and his prophet. Vanessa and I don't want to disabuse anyone of their religious beliefs, but we also don't want to be marginalized or treated as though there is something missing in our lives because our beliefs are different — we are living fully happy, purposeful, moral, and meaningful lives without religion.

I feel it's important to emphasize that Vanessa and I both left the church for deeply studied and well thought out reasons. Our shift in belief was gradual and reflective, not impulsive and reactive. The impasse we feel with the church runs to the core of historical and theological claims, and they are not the types of issues that could be resolved by attending a service and hearing an inspiring message. We both agree that if anyone is interested in what we believe and why, the best course of action is to approach us with a sincere sense of curiosity – in other words, to simply ask. So while we are grateful for your invitation, we must respectfully decline.

Are we on the verge of a new quantum revolution?

When faced with the bizarre nature of quantum indeterminism, Einstein was convinced that there was something wrong with the equations, quipping "God does not play dice". But the mathematics couldn't be denied, and the idea that nature is fundamentally probabilistic became ingrained in quantum mechanics. The bizarre, counter-intuitive implications of this have vexed physicists and philosophers for nearly a century.

If the hype is to be believed, the stage may be set for a paradigm shift. There's an article from Wired that's been making the rounds recently which describes researchers in fluid dynamics being able to create quantum-like effects in classical systems, such as the interference pattern in the famous double-slit experiment:
In a groundbreaking experiment, the Paris researchers used the droplet setup to demonstrate single- and double-slit interference. They discovered that when a droplet bounces toward a pair of openings in a damlike barrier, it passes through only one slit or the other, while the pilot wave passes through both. Repeated trials show that the overlapping wavefronts of the pilot wave steer the droplets to certain places and never to locations in between — an apparent replication of the interference pattern in the quantum double-slit experiment that Feynman described as “impossible … to explain in any classical way.” And just as measuring the trajectories of particles seems to “collapse” their simultaneous realities, disturbing the pilot wave in the bouncing-droplet experiment destroys the interference pattern.

Droplets can also seem to “tunnel” through barriers, orbit each other in stable “bound states,” and exhibit properties analogous to quantum spin and electromagnetic attraction. When confined to circular areas called corrals, they form concentric rings analogous to the standing waves generated by electrons in quantum corrals. They even annihilate with subsurface bubbles, an effect reminiscent of the mutual destruction of matter and antimatter particles.
In each test, the droplet wends a chaotic path that, over time, builds up the same statistical distribution in the fluid system as that expected of particles at the quantum scale. But rather than resulting from indefiniteness or a lack of reality, these quantum-like effects are driven, according to the researchers, by “path memory.” Every bounce of the droplet leaves a mark in the form of ripples, and these ripples chaotically but deterministically influence the droplet’s future bounces and lead to quantum-like statistical outcomes. The more path memory a given fluid exhibits — that is, the less its ripples dissipate — the crisper and more quantum-like the statistics become.

According to the article, pilot-wave theory is nothing new — but it's had a rough history. Nonetheless, some researchers think it could potentially revolutionize quantum mechanics. Quantum physicists, though, seem less enthusiastic. The biggest pitfall is that the pilot-wave theory adds assumptions without yielding new or more accurate calculations, and the potential of pilot-wave theory remains conjectural.

It's easy to overlook the fact that the standard model of quantum mechanics is the single most successful theory in the history of science. The degree of accuracy with which it can predict reality is unprecedented — Richard Feynman famously remarked that it's like predicting the width of the United States to the accuracy of the breadth of a human hair. The idea that there is a superfluid-like substrate underlying reality currently lies somewhere in the realm of conjecture analogous to string theory and its Planck-scale, 1-dimensional vibrating strings. It's a theory that could show its hand as physicists are able to probe deeper and deeper scales, but no one's about to rewrite the most successful scientific model in history anytime soon.

And really, that's the most intriguing possibility with pilot-wave theory. It doesn't stand a chance of rewriting quantum mechanics as we know it, but it could someday provide a means of understanding quantum gravity and advancing the long-coveted unification of quantum mechanics with general relativity.  For now, though, it's just hype, and the researchers have a long, long road ahead.

Read the full article on Wired here:
http://www.wired.com/2014/06/the-new-quantum-reality/

09 July 2014

I was invited to church, and I found it kind of offensive

Yesterday my fiance Vanessa and I received a letter from some friends of my family, saying that they had found a new church and wanted to invite us to come. To some, the letter might have seemed well-intentioned and innocuous, but I couldn't help feeling a bit offended by it.


The text is probably not very clear, but the gist of it is that they found a new church and wanted to invite us. Now, they know that Vanessa and I are non-religious. In this case, the wife asked my mother for my and Vanessa's address, and explained why. Knowing how touchy the subject can be, my mother was wary, which is why the women who wrote the letter emphasized that my mother didn't put her up to this. In her words, she was "moved" to write me.

Now, I'm sure in some people's universes this is a kind gesture. But here, I just felt it was somewhat rude by virtue of being insensitive to my and Vanessa's religious beliefs (or lack thereof). I'm sure they would feel the same if a Muslim friend invited them to come to their mosque with "an open heart". Vanessa and I are not lapsed Christians. We don't secretly believe in the Christian god deep down. We're non-believers, period. We think the claims of the Bible and Christian theology are false. That's not the kind of thing that you can waltz into a church service and change because you hear a message that "touches your heart".

Generally speaking, there are two reactions when people find out I'm an atheist. The most common is defensive: Why don't you believe in God? Where did the universe come from? How do you explain __________? So you think everything is here just by random chance? These types of questions are consistently parroted out as though it's the first time I've heard them, or I've never thought about them. The other reaction is like this letter, reflecting a somewhat detached sense of concern. I'll be praying for you. Will you consider coming to church with us?

The reason it's mildly offensive to me is that they didn't take the time to try to understand our religious beliefs. They know we're non-believers and we don't go to church, but they don't have any real understanding of why, or even what our non-belief really entails, simply because they haven't asked. Interestingly enough, when Vanessa and I went to pre-marital counseling, the pastor (my parents' pastor) asked us about our beliefs. But, surprisingly, it was genuine curiosity. He didn't try to debate us, and he didn't invite us to a church service. If even a pastor can approach the issue with grace, why is it so hard for so many others?

I don't wish to disabuse anyone of the comfort and meaning they may find in their religious beliefs. Sure, I like discussing my views on things — which is why this blog exists — but reading this blog is optional. I don't print out the posts and send copies to all my Christian friends. I don't broach the subject in my day to day interactions with others. I'm very much a live and let live kind of person. And having gone through the process of deconversion and knowing first-hand how difficult it is, it'd be nice if more people who were concerned about my religious beliefs would approach it with a sense of respectful curiosity and humility, rather than debating me or inviting me to church.

I wrote a letter back, in which I said that we "respectfully decline". My fiance and I are happy, fulfilled non-believers and we have neither the need nor the desire for religion in our lives — especially the religions of Western monotheism. I've thought for a long time that is something that doesn't sit well with people of faith. They think we have a God-shaped hole in our heart, or that we're not really atheists. Well, sorry to disappoint. Deconverting has deepened my sense of purpose and my sense of morality, made me appreciate my life much more deeply, and injected me with a renewed sense of awe and wonder at the universe. Even if I could go back, I wouldn't want to.

03 July 2014

Man heals people with amazing stare

Here's one to make you lose faith in humanity: a man who goes by "Braco" claims to be able to perform miracles of healing (among others) through his "silent gaze":


Gawker has the full story here. Let this be a reminder that people believe this stupid shit today, in our modern, scientific era. But if it happened 2,000 years ago in antiquity and the reports weren't documented for many decades afterwards, well gosh, it must be true!

29 June 2014

Hide your kids, hide your wife: crime and the availability heuristic

The availability heuristic is a cognitive bias in which we overestimate the probability of events we can readily recall examples of, and underestimate the probability of events that are harder to recall examples of.

Recently in Tulsa there's been a series of rapes purportedly committed by the same person. There are eight reported assaults so far, and police are on high alert and have released a sketch of the suspect:


Several of my friends have remarked that they're taking extra precautions, and my mother has express concern for my and my fiance's safety because we live in 'midtown', and most (but not all) of the assaults have been in midtown, and one was around two miles from my house.

There are several interesting things to think about.

Crime exists on a spectrum of probability. Even if you live in the safest neighborhood in your city, there's still some probability that you'll be the victim of a crime, be it a burglary, some kind of assault, or even murder. When crime is reported on the news, it becomes part of our availability heuristic and we overestimate the probability that we'll be the victim of an assault. In reality, the crime most likely fits the normal pattern of probability for crime in the city, and you are in no more danger today than you are any other day.

The appearance of the suspect is another problematic issue. I was talking the other day with one of my clients who is a defense attorney, and he was telling me about all the problems with eyewitness testimony — especially that from victims. People tend to recall details rather poorly, and this deficit is magnified by trauma. Victims exaggerate details of the subject's appearance (the size of the nose or jaw, height, skin color), thus making police sketches, in the sense of "Be on the lookout for this person!" to be next to useless. In the case of the alleged serial rapist (the idea that all eight assaults are connected is somewhat speculative), victims gave fairly diverse descriptions of supposedly the same person — he's black, he's white, he's light-skinned black, he's "thin" but also "muscular", etc.

I did a cursory check on the accuracy of police sketches, thinking that their reliability is likely quite low. And sure enough, the consensus seems to be that sketches like the one above are quite unreliable indeed [1] [2] [3].

Steven Pinker had to spend a good chunk of The Better Angels of Our Nature presenting both mountains of data and impressionistic arguments that we really are in the most peaceful era of human existence. It's counter-intuitive precisely because of the availability heuristic — we watch the news, and of course crime (especially violent crime) makes the top of the new because it is so out of the ordinary. But that gives us examples we can readily recall, and we go on to overestimate our danger of being victims. Next time you see something in the news about a crime spree, just relax. It's one thing to take sensible precautions to protect yourself (Sam Harris did a phenomenal job of explaining what those are), but life is simply too short to live in a constant state of paranoia.


UPDATE: Police now have a suspect in custody, whose DNA was found at some of the crime scenes.:

28 June 2014

Thomism and magical thinking

Occasional commenter 'Dante' linked to an article by Ed Feser (purveyor of all things Thomistic and Aristotlean) called Magic versus metaphysics, in which he purportedly counters the notion that theists believe in 'magic'. I replied to Dante with a massive quote from Harvard physicist Lisa Randall (from her book Knocking on Heaven's Door), which serves as a nice primer and/or companion to what I'm about to argue, but I thought that Feser's post was worthy of at least some level of analysis.

The first question is what exactly what we mean by 'magic', and I think Feser gives a fair summary:
“Magical” powers, as [Hilary] Putnam here describes them, are powers which are intrinsically unintelligible. It’s not just that we don’t know how magic operates; it’s that there is, objectively, no rhyme or reason whatsoever to how it operates.
Robert Todd Carroll, at his fantastic (but now retired) blog Unnatureal Acts That Can Improve Your Thinking, defines magical thinking as,
... a belief in the interconnectedness of all things through forces and powers that transcend physical connections.
After a bit of background into about the perspectives of various philosophers, Feser opines,
But a potential, precisely because it is merely potential and not actual, cannot actualize itself; only what is already actual can actualize it. And if that which actualizes a potential is itself being actualized as it does so, it must in turn be actualized by something else. Such a regress of causes would be of the essentially ordered or instrumental kind; and it can only terminate (so the A-T philosopher argues) in that which can actualize without itself having to be actualized -- something which just is “pure actuality.” And that is the metaphysical core of the A-T conception of God.
He then sets the trap, arguing that it's unreasonable to think that such a conceptualization has anything to do with 'magic' in the sense defined above:
You might disagree with the argument; you might think (quite wrongly, I would say, but let that pass) that it has somehow been superseded by modern science, or that in some other way it is fallacious or rests on mistaken premises. What you cannot reasonably do is deny that such an argument is a genuine attempt at explanation, rather than an appeal to something inherently unintelligible. The same can be said of the Thomistic argument from the distinction between a contingent thing’s essence and its existence to God as a cause whose essence just is existence; or the Neo-Platonic argument from the existence of multiplicity to a cause which is an absolute unity; or the Leibnizian argument from contingency to a necessary being; or indeed of any of the other major theistic arguments. It is one thing to reject these arguments after a serious analysis of them. But to dismiss them as appeals to “magic” is just silly.

———————————————————

Actually, it's not quite so silly. I'm really tempted to go off on a tangent about how  a god who is "pure actuality" is by definition a being that is utterly inert — because to be capable of any sort of change is to require, on the Thomistic definition, 'potentiality'. So God cannot think, act, interact with the world, or really do anything at all whatsoever, including 'moving potentiality to actuality', as a Thomist would say. Sounds a lot like the kind of god this atheist believes in.

That's a bit of a tangent, but it begins to highlight the problem. We have a thoroughly comprehensive scientific framework by which to account for natural, physical phenomena at a great range of scales, from infinitesimally small particles to galactic superclusters. This understanding of the mechanistic, materialistic framework of the universe is what has allowed us to unlock the secrets of subatomic particles, predict the existence of black holes, and create everything from vaccines to supercomputers.

Certainly, there are plenty of questions science has not yet been able to answer. But the problem with a theological explanation such as 'potentiality and actuality' is that it requires us to invoke a new level of description that defies empirical observation. According to the Thomist, God sustains the universe's existence by moving potentiality to actuality. But how does God do this? We know the physical forces at play in our universe. Even if God is merely said to be influencing our thoughts, our thoughts rely on electric and chemical processes in the brain. If God has no influence over physical forces, nothing moves.

So, the Thomist thinks that indeed God does have influence over physical forces. But how? How, exactly, is God exerting His will? What is the mechanism by which God transcends the supernatural domain to influence the natural? Positing an invisible, undetectable force that inexplicably influences forces or objects in the universe is, without a doubt, magical thinking in the most precise and commonly understood definition of the term. As Lisa Randall so incisively puts it, 
A religious or spiritual belief that involves an invisible undetectable force that nonetheless influences human actions and behavior or that of the world itself produces a situation in which a believer has no choice but to have faith and abandon logic—or simply not care.

For the Thomist, this is compounded by the ambiguity of 'potentiality' and 'actuality' themselves. Presumably, we are to believe that potentiality and actuality are not merely abstractions of the human mind imposed on the universe, but fundamental properties of extant things. But properties in what sense? When we discuss potential energy  — a well-defined and robustly verified scientific concept — we know precisely what is meant. The forces at work are purely physical, and their effects readily predictable and observable. But Feser wants us to entertain the notion that there is some extra level of description, one that defies material and scientific description but is nonetheless an integral description of the properties of material things. The conundrum he's put himself in should be obvious: these are purportedly properties of empirical things which underlie all the mechanistic processes of the universe, yet these properties cannot be accounted for empirically in any way whatsoever. In what sense, then, can such things even be meaningfully called 'properties' of empirical things at all?

———————————————————

Feser's arguments further highlight the dubious nature of 'metaphysics' to begin with. The notion that God inexplicably acts on the universe to sustain it by changing 'potentiality' to 'actuality' is problematic not only because potentiality and actuality can't actually be shown to be properties of physical things in any coherent or meaningful way, nor only because the idea of a being that is 'pure actuality' that can nonetheless change and influence the universe is itself paradoxical; the problem is that the idea of inexplicable forces exerting an undetectable influence over physical things is flatly in conflict with our material, scientific understanding of the universe, and masking such sophistry with a quasi-academic veil of 'metaphysics' doesn't make the underlying concept any less illogical, unscientific, and absurd.

27 June 2014

Randal Rauser on the 'three wheeled car'

I still read Randal Rauser's blog, despite the fact I've opted to avoid directly interacting with him in the comments sections. I feel that on virtually every occasion, our conversations — to use Randal's words — have "generated more heat than light". He still writes some content I think is worth engaging though, in this case his recent article Three wheel Christianity.

In the post, Randal imagines someone named Oliver who is fed up with three-wheeled cars because they keep tipping over, and goes on to swear off cars entirely.
So Oliver has rejected cars based on his experience with the Reliant Robin, a three-wheeled economy car that was popular in 1970s Britain and which was famous for its fuel economy … and its penchant for tipping over in moderate cornering.
Randal's analogy here is that people seem to reject Christianity because of fundamentalist or literalist positions in their church:
Some other common catalysts for rejecting Christianity include biblical inerrancy, Calvinism, hell as eternal conscious torment, anti-environmentalism, political conservatism, and so on.
In each case the rejection of Christianity based on the reason given is like rejecting cars based on the three-wheeled Reliant Robin.
His point is that just as cars are not defined by the Reliant Robin, Christianity is not defined by fundamentalism, political conservatism, anti-intellectualism, or any of the myriad other reasons that frequently trigger people's deconversions.

However, I think that while Randal is certainly correct, he's not fully understanding the process of deconversion. I should qualify that I'm speaking wholly anecdotally here — from the perspective of my own deconversion and from innumerable conversations with fellow apostates.

While it's true that some specific issue may trigger doubt or skepticism, it's unlikely that any one such issue will be enough to completely dismantle one's faith. At first this may seem counter-intuitive; I've remarked that my deconversion began with the innocuous question, "Why are there so many religions?" Another deconverted friend of mine was spurred into skepticism because she couldn't see what the point of prayer is, perhaps in a nod to George Carlin's excellent satire of the practice:
  
But, as the Youtuber 'Evid3nc3' observed in one of his videos, religious beliefs work something like a computer network, comprised of many different 'nodes'. Network security is designed so that one, or even several, of the nodes can fail and the network can still remain intact. For a Christian, the 'nodes' could include:
  • Community 
  • Theological academia (the presence of intelligent, educated believers)
  • Biblical history
  • Apologetic arguments
  • Witnessing purportedly supernatural experiences
  • Experiencing purportedly supernatural events first-hand
  • A strong conviction, feeling or intuition that their god exists (see Plantinga's 'sensus divinitus')
And many more. Now, a devout Christian may find themselves cornered in an apologetic argument with an atheist. But they can easily take comfort in the fact that there are very smart, educated people like Alister McGrath, Francis Collins and William Lane Craig who are devout believers and, they might reason, could probably answer the atheist's arguments.

A Christian could likewise spend years believing they were possessed by a demon, had a near-death experience, or witnessed a miraculous healing — only to come to believe later on that a more parsimonious natural explanation is more likely. However, their confidence in the truth of the Bible, the reinforcement of their beliefs provided by their community, and their knowledge of philosophical arguments for God's existence could easily preserve their faith even as those other 'nodes' break down.

Even Randal, in his book on Heaven, avoids directly answering the question of whether Christians could really be in 'Heaven' if they were mourning the loss of their loved ones to eternal damnation or separation from God. But while (at least in the book) he seems to be content to leave the question unanswered, that in no way has undermined the broader network of his beliefs. 

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In my experience, what generally happens in deconversion is that several of the nodes have already been weakened; I can't tell you how many times a recent deconvert has told me something like, "Oh yeah, I had doubts about all kinds of things for years!" The shattering of one node leads to a sort of domino effect, in which the other already-weakened nodes crumble and the network of belief is shattered.

This means that — and again, I must qualify that I can only speak anecdotally here — not only is the process of deconversion more complex that Randal is giving it credit for, but many deconverts dabbled in liberal theology before deconverting. Heck, given my own experience, I've often half-joked that liberal theology is a gateway drug for atheism. I was raised in moderate Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, went full-blown evangelical, and then spent a couple of years steeped in more liberal theology before it became clear that Christianity not only didn't make sense to me, but that I was investing an extraordinary amount of intellectual energy trying to rationalize it. The day I realized I didn't owe my beliefs anything was a liberating awakening indeed.

I should mention, too — and this is again an experience I've heard echoed from many other deconverts — that I spent a great deal of time studying other religions. Ed Brayton has quipped that studying other religions is one of the best ways to lose your faith in the religion you were raised with, and I think he's right. Comparative religion had powerful effect on me, allowing me to divorce myself from my ethnocentric viewpoint and treat my own beliefs as though they were no more special than any other. So it's not just that many apostates have considered more liberal Christian theologies — in many cases they've considered other religions entirely.

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A truism about Christianity is that, as a religion encompassing two billion living followers and spanning two millennia, it is an umbrella under which a staggering diversity of opinions can be found. One could spend their entire adult life reading all the popular and academic literature espousing multitudes of interpretations of Christianity and still only capture the tip of the iceberg. A frequent point of impasse between Randal and I was his contention that I am ignorant of sophisticated academic theology, which if I read would presumably answer my questions and criticisms before I even raised them. But my position is that it's simply unreasonable to expect anyone to read the multitude of differing viewpoints on the myriad subjects encompassed by one religion; one could easily devote a similar amount of time to studying the purportedly sophisticated academic theology of Islam or Hinduism as well. It's my belief that in any conversation, the interlocutors ought to be able to concisely articulate their own opinions, as no matter how well-read one pretentiously believes themselves to be it cannot be denied that the volume of unread material on all subjects will always be vastly greater than any of us can comprehend. At some point, you have to learn to think for yourself, lest you remain a perpetual agnostic in the most literal sense of the term.

This is why, I think, many deconverts refer to themselves as 'freethinkers'. It bears pointing out that only religion has coined a term for dissension from established doctrine: heresy. In my conversation with other deconverts, I've often found common ground in the fact that doubt was treated not as an integral component of rational inquiry and reasoned thought, but as an obstacle to be overcome because, in the end, the preservation of the faith — even if done with near-total credulity — is to be valued above all else. (I'm reminded of William Lane Craig's admonishment of a curious reader in which he laments that premature exposure to secular material is "potentially destructive".)

In my experience, most deconverts — even those from fundamentalist churches — are fully aware of more liberal schools of theological discourse. But when the core concepts underpinning one's faith have been fatally undermined, it doesn't matter; in fact, liberal theology just begins to appear like what it is: a convoluted exercise in post hoc rationalizations for untenable beliefs. The problem is not so much with the beliefs per se, but rather the method by which one arrives at them. Speaking personally, after spending some eight or nine years as a self-described 'theistic agnostic', it occurred to me that I could, with enough convoluted rationalization, make any belief I desired fit to the world. I could believe virtually whatever I wanted to about the nature of God, and nobody could demonstrate I was wrong. It's for precisely that reason that I frequently encourage Christians, usually with little or no success, to take the viewpoint of a Rational Agnostic — one with no prior commitment or assumptions about the truth or falsity of any religious claim. When one begins from the bottom up, following the evidence where it leads, it becomes much harder to arrive at theistic belief through reason alone. 

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The process of deconversion is usually long and complicated. It's not as simple as just picking a belief, like anti-evolutionism, and deciding that the entirety of religion fails because of the doctrine and dogma of a single church. Rather, singular issues like that create a cascade in which the nodes which combine to form the network of belief are dismantled, and a newer outlook is brought into play. One of the exercises I used to challenged myself in my religious days was to entertain the secular explanation, just to see where the assumption led me. In every case, I found that the universe looks precisely as we should expect it to if there is no God, no design, no transcendent purpose, no transcendent objective morality, no One True Faith. Once I had seen the elegant parsimony of such a view, no amount of liberal theology could bring me back. Moreover, and perhaps just as importantly, it was clear that I didn't need religion. A rich, purposeful, moral, and fulfilling life is mine to live, and not only did I come to believe that religion was unnecessary, but that it was ultimately antithetical to such a life. A life well-lived, I believe, is more easily attained when one is unshackled from the dogmas and doctrines of religious piety. As Carl Sagan said, it is better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, no matter how satisfying or reassuring.