30 May 2010

Fransisco Ayala: Templeton Prize winner, nonsense purveyor

There's a popular refrain among more liberal-minded Christians who are not stupid enough to reject the foundation of all modern biology, but are still confused enough to believe in all the convoluted bogosity of their religion: that science and religion answer different questions. This is embodied by the liberal theology of the Templeton Foundation, an organization dedicated to muddying the line between demonstrably valid claims of truth and ones that people just pull out of their ass. This is Fransisco Ayala, who recently won the Templeton Prize, answering the question of whether science and religion contradict one another:

The key bullshit phrase that Ayala uses is the term "properly understood". Last night I watched a BBC documentary about creationism in Tennessee, and the general difficulty teachers are having in teaching evolution if only because religious wingnuts have made it into a controversial issue. Ayala would like to live in this fantasy world where religion never makes claims about the natural world, but for tens of millions of Americans who believe in a literal Biblical creation, it does. Ayala would insist that this is not "properly understood religion". But who the hell decides what properly understood religion is? Upon what independent, objective basis is one interpretation of a holy book held as being more valid than any other interpretation?

While evolution has gained acceptance among more liberal Christians, there are other areas in which Christians remain incredulous to the advances of science. Francis Collins, in his book The Language of God, insists that there is some magical thing called the "Moral Law" which is evidence that God exists. A similar point has been touched on by Tim Keller in his book The Reason For God and by many other Christian theologians. The refrain is the same: that we cannot understand morality without God. And when books like Marc Hauser's Moral Minds: How Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained, or Frans De Waal's Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved use evolution, cognitive psychology and sociology to explain our morality, these liberal Christians don't want to bend.

Nor do they want to bend as cosmology shows that God may not be required for even the fundamental existence of the universe. They insist on the necessity of a creator, a designer; but as I've mentioned in many a past blog, physicists have good reason to believe that the universe itself may not require a creator at all – that the universe itself may simply BE. Clearly even liberal-minded believers would have difficulty accepting the notion that God is irrelevant to the very existence of the universe, but that's a very real possibility in science.

But the problem is bigger than biology, social psychology or biology. Do Christians believe in a deistic God that created the universe and then folded his arms and has done nothing but watch? Of course not. Christians believe in a God who answers prayers and intervenes in the natural world. Any claim that something has an effect or influence on reality is a claim that can be investigated with the tools of science, and this is how we can know with a great degree of certainty that prayer does not work

Ayala insists that religion is about things like "purpose, values" and  "the meaning of life". I would concede that science cannot give us purpose, value, or meaning to our lives. But just because science can't doesn't mean that religion automatically can. If religion is going to make truth claims – even fuzzy ones about the "meaning of life" – then we have to inquire what the methodology of religion is. By what independent, objective criteria do we discern true theological claims from false ones? Any idiot can say he knows what the meaning of life is. Why should we take someone making such claims seriously? The truth is that religion contributes nothing to our understanding about purpose, values, or the meaning of life. These are all concepts we must define for ourselves.

One of my great peeves about Christianity is that it is constantly being interpreted and re-interpreted as the tides of secular modernism drag it kicking and screaming into the future. Up until the last couple hundred years, it's a safe bet that most people did view the Genesis story as a treatise on actual events. It's not exactly been easy getting believers to accept evolution and astronomy, and even then one or both of those of those fields is still rejected by millions of incredulous believers.  What are even these liberal minded Christians to make of a scientific understanding of morality and cosmology that, like evolution, leaves no need for an intervening God? Francis Collins, for example, insists that God magically started life on Earth before stepping aside to let evolution run its course; but what will he make of the advances in abiogenesis that again make the concept of a supernatural wand-waver obsolete?

That's the nature of religion. When science and secular modernism move onward, religion is forced to modify itself. If religion were true, shouldn't it be the other way around? I'm fond of a query posed by Sam Harris: can we think of any phenomenon whose best explanation used to be scientific, but is now religious? I at least have to respect creationists for one thing: they interpret the scriptures plainly. They are demonstrably wrong of course, but at least they don't have to continually conjure up new rationalizations to conform their beliefs with reality; they're content to simply deny it. But the liberal Christians out there aren't as far removed from the creationists as they'd like to think; they've just shifted the goalposts to areas of more nascent scientific knowledge, then claimed that religion somehow provides objective answers to questions to which there are no objective answers.

29 May 2010

How being an atheist has deepened my sense of morality

If there's any one issue that believers like to hang their hat on, it's morality. The exact criticism of secular morality varies by theologian, but they all suggest that for us, something is missing. Some suggest that without belief in God, our moral values are whimsical and arbitrary – that we have no basis by which to affirm whether anything is "right" or "wrong", because to do so would affirm that there is actually such a thing as right and wrong in a manner that transcends the whims of humankind. I've often been asked by Christians if the reason I'm an atheist is because there was some "sin" I wanted to commit, or if I just wanted to live a life free of moral responsibility. Bring on the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll!

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. It's not to say I haven't done my share of reckless things, but I'm pretty much a straight shooter. I don't lie to people I love. I don't have unprotected sex with multiple anonymous partners in a consequence-free environment. I haven't battled drug addiction. I've battled other things, but who hasn't had their share of struggles? That's just how life is. Think for a moment of all the conservative Christian pastors and politicians who have confessed to having affairs, to having homosexual affairs after hypocritically condemning homosexuality, to battling drug addiction, who have gotten divorced, etc. etc. I know lots of people whose marriages have failed and who have battled addictions and metal disorders of all kinds; some of them are devout believers, and some of them aren't. What I can say with great certainty is that belief in God, or lack thereof, made no difference in whether these people struggled with such things or whether they were able to overcome them. Some people will tell you that until they were "saved", their lives were hopeless; but just as many, if not more, will tell you that they overcame their problems with therapy, friends, family, or just good old fashioned willpower. Some believers are convinced that they were only able to find peace through adversity because of their faith; but innumerable others find peace without faith.

So it's worth asking, then, how faith can really help us to have stronger moral values. There's an intrinsic problem with any claim that you are adhering to a higher, absolute moral law – namely that there is someone else out there (actually, lots of other people) who is just as passionate as you are, just as certain in their faith as you are... whose beliefs are opposite to yours. Even within Christianity alone (home to over 30,000 denominations), there is little agreement on exactly what God is, to what extent God intervenes in the world, and what exactly God wants from people. Absolute moral law doesn't do humanity much good if we can't all objectively discern, and hence agree, on exactly what that law is.

From where, then, do I as an atheist derive my moral values? I'll use my standard refrain, which borrows heavily from Frans De Waal's excellent book Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved:
We are, as a species – and like all primate species – inherently bonded and interdependent. We all depend on one another for every aspect of our physical and emotional well-being. Accordingly, none of us has the luxury of living a life of moral autonomy. Living cooperatively is not a choice – it is a necessary part of our survival. We intuitively recognize – from a very young age – that if we do not respect the needs and interests of others, others have no reason to respect our own needs and interests.
Since President Obama has just declared June to be LGBT Pride Month, let me use gay rights as an example of how this secular perspective deepens my sense of morality. I am a passionate supporter of gay rights. I believe that they should have fully equal rights under the law – to love, to marry, to visit each other in hospitals, to serve in the military, etc. etc. Now, when someone opposes gay rights, they do so more often than not with references to scriptures. Nevermind that even in the New Testament, we can find scriptures saying that women should not speak in church, that they must cover their heads, and that they may not hold positions of authority. No reasonable Christian would try to implement these scriptures in a day and age in which women have largely been liberated from civil oppression; these are, along with all the Old Testament misogyny and barbarism, dismissed as cultural quirks of a long bygone era. Yet homosexuality is hypocritically condemned, and the scriptures deemed contemporarily relevant. This is just another example of the fact that the Bible is merely interpreted arbitrarily to conform to changing social norms and biases. But I digress....

I support gay rights because I can empathize with them. Because in my life I have had many people close to me who are gay, lesbian or bisexual and I can see first hand that they are just like me. They are honest, loving people – I've trusted them, confided in them, and loved them. So I can imagine a world in which the tables were turned, and being straight was the minority. I would be outraged at being told whom I could or could not love, whom I could or could not have sex with, whom I could or could not marry, or that I could not serve my country or visit the person I love in the hospital.

I also support gay rights because I have looked at the research. If there was strong evidence that homosexuality led to all kinds of undesirable social outcomes, I might be more reluctant to support it. However, decades of research has shown those in the LGBT community to be just as emotionally well-adjusted, productive members of society as anyone else. If anything, their greatest struggle comes in the form of the ostracization they face from friends, family and society because of deeply embedded bigotry and prejudice.

In other words, I support gay rights because I am in touch with my human empathy, and because I follow scientific evidence. Those who oppose gay rights do so on the basis of unsubstantiated claims to be in congruence with an infallible, transcendent source of absolute authority – a claim that crumbles under even the most superficial scrutiny.

And while I'm using gay rights as just one example, it extends across all manner of issues. I oppose the oppression of women in fundamentalist Islamic countries not because I think their religion is wrong and mine is right, but because I can imagine that if I were a woman, I would be outraged at the notion that merely because of my gender I am not entitled to education, freedom, independence or equality. In fact, I think any Christian would have an awfully difficult time supporting women's rights with scripture, since the god of the Bible commands some of the most atrocious misogyny imaginable.

When we shed the shackles of faith, we're required to acknowledge the complex nature of many moral dilemmas. But we can talk about them, empathize with one another and find common ground instead of hopelessly butting heads with claims of divine knowledge that are not amenable to criticism or argument. Being an atheist does not free us from our responsibilities toward one another or act as a free pass to live a destructive, hedonistic lifestyle; but freeing ourselves from dogmatic beliefs allows us to base our morality on our shared solidarity, our shared humanity. It deepens our sense of responsibility toward one another, and by doing so we free ourselves from oppression, prejudice, bigotry and selfishness. Isn't that the way we would all like to live?

28 May 2010

The Problem of Suffering

It felt both a little cliche and a little inaccurate to give this post the more predictable name: "The Problem of Evil". That's how it's generally written in Christian apologetic literature, but I think that, strictly speaking, "good" and "evil" are fairly abstract and often arbitrarily defined religious terms. "Evil" seems to work fine for things like murderers, rapists, child molesters, fascist dictators, and other behavior of generally unsavory characters in human history, but I think the acts of humans against each other could be (and generally is) theologically dismissed as a mere consequence of free will. "Evil" seems much less appropriate a descriptor when the subjects are things like natural disasters, cancer, disease, famine, and other natural occurrences that inflict great suffering on people indiscriminately – that is, cancer does not seem to care if you are a good person or whether you go to church. Bad things do happen to good people, and in their grief the faithful can only naturally wonder why a loving, all-powerful God would allow such things to happen. For these things, I think a better question than "Why is there evil in the world" is "Why do people suffer?" I don't think "evil" is what concerns most people; rather, it is suffering that makes believers question the view that somehow, God is a god of love and justice. How could a loving God allow children to suffer and die of starvation, cancer, or disease? How could God allow thousands of people to die in an earthquake or tsunami? I don't claim these questions as my own (obviously of course, since I am an atheist!), but these are precisely the kinds of questions that people of faith struggle with often, and questions I too struggled with in my days as a Christian.

I am going to examine some prominent theologians' explanations for these issues, and explain why I find them unpersuasive. Then I will describe a secular, naturalistic explanation for suffering – a scientific view of why bad things happen to good people. But first, I think it's important to describe the issue in detail, and really drive home just how deep and powerful a problem for believers this really is.

Part I: Defining the problem

Religion's belated entrance in the history of suffering

Ponder, for a moment, humankind's emergence in the great time span of evolution. Homo Sapiens first appeared on this planet some 250,000 years ago in Africa. Consider conversely that few if any modern religions can be dated back to more than 8,000 years ago. During those first 242,000 years or so, people lived in mostly indigenous tribes. Some were nomadic, others not, but few had contact with each other – it was not until the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago that people began living in larger communities, trading, and so forth. During those first hundred millenia of humanity's existence, lifespans were short – maybe 30 years, give or take. People died from exposure to the elements, from viral disease and bacteria-borne illness, from cancer, from famine, from predators. They had no understanding of germ theory, no knowledge of cell differentiation, no knowledge of meteorology, and little knowledge of proper nutrition beyond what was poisonous and what wasn't. Miscarriages and infant mortality were high, because people did not know how to properly care for unborn and newborn children.

I don't feel it is a point to gloss over that religion – at least in the well-ordered, organized institutional and doctrinal structure (in which the development of writing no doubt played a pivotal role) which we still see today – emerged so incredibly late in humanity's existence, and that it emerged with such disparity. While one might expect certain broad traits of supernatural belief to be common to all humans, there is an utter absence of theological or doctrinal homogeneity across indigenous cultures. Judaism, the root of Christianity, can be traced back to a mere five or six thousand years from the present day. It's worth asking proponents of modern-day religions unwavering in the truth claims of their faith what their God was doing for the first couple hundred thousand years before he decided it was an appropriate time to intervene. Suffering has been intertwined with humanity's history in a way that no religion can claim to be.

The suffering of animals

I have a pet python, named (creatively) Monty. There is a certain caveat with owning a predator that eats its prey whole – it's impossible to go to the store and buy a can of conveniently ground-up rodents for snake food the way people buy meat for cats and dogs. Recently I fed Monty a live rat after he had been off his feed for some time (a common occurrence in some snakes). I've always fed him live rats, because snakes are not scavengers (they recognize patterns of goal-oriented movement far more readily than patterns of inanimate objects) and so he's had trouble with pre-killed rats. He usually strikes at me and bonks his head on the glass, because he smells the prey but sees me moving. Normally, he patiently waits for a good strike, and grasps the prey's head in his jaws. He then quickly wraps a couple of coils around the rodent and asphyxiates it. This particular time though, Monty was unusually hungry and wasted no time waiting for the perfect strike. He grabbed the rat's hindquarter's in his jaws and coiled around him backwards. The rat squeaked and struggled. I could literally hear and see his heart pounding in his chest. As an animal lover, it was heartbreaking to see the poor thing suffer so greatly; yet I knew that this was a part of nature's design – a design indifferent to suffering. The snake was not trying to make the rat suffer; it was trying to survive, and it just so happens to survive by efficiently killing and eating rodents.

Surely this is but one small example – many animals suffer much more grisly fates in nature. Like primitive humans, they may die of disease, famine, predators, natural disasters, and many other unsympathetic forces of nature. We've all seen nature television shows in which we watch wild predators stalk and kill their prey. Predators predate human beings by hundreds of millions of years, as do natural disasters, disease, famine, cancer, and disability; nature's indifference to suffering did not emerge with human beings.

It may be tempting to suggest that animal suffering is a non-issue. But considering that animals predate humans by hundreds of millions of years, God clearly had a place for them as well. Why would God create predatory animals? In evolution, predators are necessary to prevent overpopulation of certain species. But couldn't God just make all the species reproduce just the right amount? Of course he could. To say otherwise would be to deny the concept of an omnipotent creator. Consider also that animals, like people, experience a range of emotions that are intimately associated with our concept of "suffering". Rats make a fine example. I've actually had pet rats – a pair of girls we (my family and I) named Itchy and Scratchy. Rats are very social, gentle animals. They love people (provided they are not mistreated), are very cooperative with each other, and are surprisingly intelligent. Rats have been shown in controlled experiments to show empathy for each other, refusing to eat when a food-dispensing mechanism delivered a shock to a visible companion [1]. Such experiments have been duplicated in primates as well [2]. It may be tempting to assume that while animals feel pain, they do not have an emotional cognition of suffering; clearly, this is not the case – humans are far from being alone in this phenomenon.

We have to recognize then, that the burden of explaining suffering is not limited to explaining why humans die in a tsunami or why children die of cancer. We must ask why suffering is an intimate, and indeed integral, part of the world in which we inhabit. And we must ask why a loving, just God would create such a world. Let us turn now to theological explanations of suffering.

Part II: Theological explanations of suffering

Diverse theological explanations

In the DVD compilation Root of all Evil: The Uncut Interviews, Richard Dawkins interviews Alister McGrath, a fellow Oxford professor who is a popular Christian apologist and one of Dawkins' most outspoken critics. Dawkins asks McGrath why God would create a world in which people suffered, and McGrath responds thus:

"I think Christian theologians, in looking at natural disasters, suffering and so forth, have tended to take two approaches – one is to say, 'Let's try and explain this', and that I think doesn't really get us very far, because we can't really make sense of these things; maybe that is just the way things are. But the other approach they have used, which I think is much more important, is to say that we need to cope with suffering. In fact the real issue is not so much how I make sense of this, but given that people are suffering, what may be said, what may be done, to actually make that more bearable?"[3]

I cannot help but feel that McGrath's answer is a bit of a dodge, because "making sense of it" is precisely what people try so desperately to do. McGrath goes on to describe Christianity as a call to relieve the suffering of others, but doesn't answer the question. This is disappointing given McGrath's prominence as a theologian, but it illustrates the fact that people of faith aren't necessarily quick to try to explain such things. Other theologians, however, are a bit more bold.

R.C. Sproul, a popular Christian author and theologian, offers the following explanation for suffering in his book Now, That's a Good Question!:

"We find our first answer, of course, in the book of Genesis, in which we're told of the fall of humanity. God's immediate response to the transgression of the human race against his rule was to curse the earth and human life. Suffering entered the world as a direct result of sin."[p.30]

Lee Strobel, another popular apologist and author of such books as The Case for Faith and the The Case for Christ (not to be confused with C.S. Lewis' The Case For Christianity), seems to agree:

"When we human beings told God to shove off, he partially honored our request. The result? Creation was marred. We no longer live in the world as it was originally designed."[4]

The above answers detail what seems to me to be the most common Christian response to this question, and indeed in my youth as a devout Christian that is precisely how I understood the question to be best answered. However, today I find these responses every bit as unsatisfactory as McGrath's non-explanation because they ignore the fact that suffering was present in the world prior to humanity's emergence in Africa 250,000 years ago, as well as the extraordinarily belated emergence of religion in human history. These answers also beg the question of why a loving God would "curse the earth and humanity". They also raises a more pressing question: why would God, who is supposedly omnipotent and outside of spacetime (and thus knows our future), create creatures that he knew would rebel against him? And why curse all of the earth, animals included, for humanity's sin? It's not merely nonsensical (since animals predate humans by hundreds of millions of years), but it portrays God as petulant, petty and spiteful rather than loving and just. And perhaps God, if he exists, is all those things, but that isn't a god most people seem willing to believe in.

Tim Keller, in The Reason For God, spends a fair amount of time on the subject. He doesn't try to answer the question, but rather asserts that God's reasons are beyond our capability to understand (perhaps a position more congruent with McGrath). He then references C.S. Lewis, and argues that our outrage at the injustice of nature is actually evidence for God's existence, because without God, we wouldn't have concepts like "just" and "unjust".

"People, we believe, ought not to suffer, be excluded, die of hunger or oppression. But the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection depends on death, destruction, and violence of the strong against the weak—these things are all perfectly natural. On what basis, then, does the atheist judge the natural world to be horribly wrong, unfair, and unjust? The nonbeliever in God doesn't have a good reason to be outraged at injustice, which, as Lewis points out, was the reason for objecting to God in the first place. If you are sure that this natural world is unjust and filled with evil, you are assuming the reality of some extra-natural (or supernatural) standard by which to make your judgement." [p. 26]

Keller's argument makes a litany of assumptions and logical errors that I don't have the space to debunk in full here. He assumes, without evidence, that "justice" – a socioculturally developed concept – has a divine origin, when indeed our senses of empathy and sympathy (the building blocks of our social concepts of justice) have their roots in our biological evolution, to which the emotional experiments with animals I mentioned earlier bear testimony. He also mistakenly assumes that the atheist views the natural world with outrage and cries of injustice, when as I will soon explain the atheist view is absolutely nothing of the sort. This is a classic straw man. It is only the believer – who must reconcile nature's blindness to suffering with their belief in an all-powerful, all-loving, "perfect" creator – who struggles with the apparent injustices of nature.

It's part of God's plan

I've tried to include some more unusual theological responses, but I've heard many more. We've all heard the statements that "It's God's will" or "It's part of God's plan." Indeed Sproul reiterates such a position in the book referenced above, just one page later:

"The Bible makes it clear that God lets these things happen and in a certain sense ordains that they come to pass as part of the present situation that is under judgment... The only promise is that there will come a day when suffering will cease altogether."[p. 31]

I've often heard the analogy that understanding God's plan is like looking at a giant tapestry, so giant we can see only a small part of it. We are unable to see the completed whole. We have to have faith that God does have a plan, that our suffering does mean something, and there will come a time when God rewards our faith by allowing us to experience a world without suffering. In Strobel's book The Case For Faith, Dr. Norman Geisler comments on our eventual return to paradise:

"God did not appoint animals to be eaten in paradise, and animals weren't eating each other. The prophet Isaiah said someday God will 'create new heavens and a new earth' where 'the wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox'"
[p. 126]

I object to Geilser's comment for the same reasons as above (age of humanity and suffering's presence throughout evolution), as well as the peculiar scripture suggesting a "straw-eating lion". Lions are evolutionarily adapted in every respect to be efficient predators, from their claws and teeth to their speed and digestive systems. A vegetarian lion would, frankly, look nothing like a lion at all.

But these musings reflect an odder assumption: that it will all work out in the end. This view essentially argues that we are correct in feeling a sense of injustice over the child who dies of famine or cancer, over the thousands killed in an earthquake or tsunami, and that we have only ourselves and our species' rebellion from God to blame. But none of us could have chosen to be "born into sin". It would be thrust upon us, indeed a "curse" as Sproul describes. The very idea of being born into sin should provoke believers to equal cries of injustice – for why should all of humanity be cursed to suffer because of the "original sin" of two people who most likely didn't even exist? Why should any child be cursed with the sin of their parents? These problems are impossible to avoid if one wants to believe in an omnipotent, loving creator.

Theological Incongruity

Part of the difficulty I have with the theological responses to suffering is that they are so disparate, even by people of the same religion. One would think that, given this pivotal issue has caused many to turn away from their faith, God might have made himself more clear about it. But as it happens, asking ten different theologians about this issue will likely yield ten different answers. The answers above are all certainly unique, if nothing else. Fairly, the same might be held true of scientific explanations for suffering to some extent, but science at least is founded on the ability to empirically examine ideas rather than cast them under dubious the light of mere assertion.

It is to the secular explanation of suffering to which I will now turn.

Part III: Secular explanations for suffering

Nature is blind to suffering

One of my favorite quotes by Richard Dawkins concerns the apparent cruelty of evolution. In his book The Devil's Chaplain, Dawkins describes nature thus:

"Blindness to suffering is an inherent consequence of natural selection. Nature is neither kind nor cruel but indifferent."

In other words, the secular explanation for suffering is that there's nothing special about it. When a child dies of cancer, it is not anybody's fault. It is not because humans rebelled against a petulant and spiteful God who decided to curse all humanity, children included (and don't forget the animals). Rather, the evolution of genetic information has been a flawed process, because natural selection confers advantages to survival relative to other species, not perfection within the gene pool. Some people have genetic defects that cause them to need eyeglasses. Others are partially or fully blind. Others still have severe mental retardation, and some truly unfortunate souls have a greater likelihood than most of developing terminal cancer in childhood.

These are not the qualities of a world one would expect if the world were indeed designed by an all-loving, all-powerful creator. Indeed, theologians seem to be inexorably dragged into the future by the revelations of science, struggling in the midst of our enlightened scientific modern view to reconcile the true nature of reality with a God whose qualities were initially described by primitive people who had no knowledge of these modern things.

At the end of Leviticus, God warns the Israelites what terrible vengeance he will bring upon them if they do not obey him:

"But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you"

The threats don't stop there; they continue all the way through verse 39 [5]. Clearly these primitive people had some notion that God was going to reward them for their faith and obedience, and punish them for their indiscretions. This view hasn't dissipated from modern culture either; notable demagogues like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell blamed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on what they perceived as the immorality of our culture [7, 8]. But the secular view of the world does not blame anyone – suffering is a simple consequence of our world, nothing more. Living things have always suffered, and always will. Ironically, on this matter I find myself in agreement with Alister McGrath; I do not feel the need to mull over the reasons why people suffer – instead, I can focus on what I can do to relieve the suffering of others. I profess that personally, I believe strongly that when we are confronted with suffering and death, a secular view aids the grieving process. Instead of wondering who to blame, instead of feeling mad at God or outraged at the injustice of the world and trying to justify our irrational faith with convoluted, unanswerable theological conundrums, we can nobly spend our emotional energy mourning the tragic loss of those we love and comforting those who grieve with us.

The Blind Watchmaker

Our world looks just as one would expect it to if it were not designed by some morally perfect being who loves everyone and doesn't really want anyone to suffer but lets it happen anyway; rather, our world looks just as it would if, as Dawkins suggests, it is designed only by the "blind watchmaker" of natural selection. Suffering occurs capriciously and indiscriminately. Famine, disease, natural disaster, crippling genetic defects, and all other manner of nature's wrath strikes the young and old, the faithful and unfaithful, the callous and the caring. Ponder, for a moment, the fact that when natural disasters strike, it is not the strong and wealthy who are most likely killed, but the poor and meek. Tsunamis wipe out entire populations of people living in straw houses, but those living in more sophisticated modern buildings weather out hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and all other manner of disasters. Nature simply does not care whether one is rich, poor, good, evil, young, old, or anything else; nor do our flawed genes possess any notions of faith and justice. We are the evolutionary products of an indifferent natural process – nothing more, nothing less.

Dawkins, in an article for Scientific American, expounds further:

"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference." [8]

Theists always work backwards – they first assume that God exists, then try their hardest to explain evidence in a way that supports their belief. In science, belief follows evidence, not vice-versa, and scientists are always required to possess a measure of indifferent skepticism, for our knowledge of the world is fluid rather than fixed and absolute. A natural explanation for suffering does not, of course, disprove the existence of God; nor does it disprove the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. What is does, however, is render theological explanations for suffering both superfluous and irrelevant. There is simply no need to invoke God to explain why we suffer or to aid us in our grief. And if we don't need to believe in God, then what good is God, even if he does exist?

1. Emotional reaction of rats to the pain of others

2. See Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved by Frans de Waal.

3. Root of All Evil: The Uncut Interviews, DVD. Clip viewable here.

4. "Why God Allows Pain and Suffering" Lee Strobel. Online: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVD5-fF_VmA. See also leestrobel.com.

5. Leviticus 26:14-39

6. Pat Robertson: "Terrorist Attack on America"

7. "God Gave U.S. 'What We Deserve,' Falwell Says". Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2001.

8. Scientific American, November 1995. p. 85

24 May 2010

The Slaughter of the Canaanites: Why It's a Big Deal

I was doing some research for a forthcoming post when I came across an article by my favorite apologist punching bag, William Lane Craig, about the slaughter of the Canaanites as described in the book of Deuteronomy. This story, in which an army of Israel completely slaughters an entire culture — men, women, and children — at the behest of God is often held up by skeptics as a example of the perverse barbarism of the Old Testament god and a perfect illustration of the inconsistency of God's moral character in the bible. In this article over at reasonablefaith.org, Dr. Craig attempts to rationalize this act of genocide and, in doing so, displays such disregard for logical fallacies and such wanton hypocrisy that I felt compelled to write a response. Just like all the Bible verses where God condones and commands slavery, the selling of girls into sexual slavery, the subjugation of women, and atrocious acts of cruel and unusual punishment for the most bizarre of offenses, the idea that a perfect loving god would command an army of his "chosen" people to slaughter women and children rightly does not sit well with inquisitive Christians, and it's important to illustrate why Craig's rationale is so wrought with fallacies.

Relative morality 101

You may have heard some people... well, mostly Christians, actually... say that there is a difference between "murder" and "killing". Certainly we think that taking the life of another human being against their will is acceptable in some circumstances. We don't expect our soldiers to defend our country with water guns and wiffle bats. There are probably many circumstances any of us can imagine in which taking the lives of not just one, but many people is justified for the "greater good".

The irony of this, though, is that this distinction between "killing" and "murder" is precisely what moral relativism is — it's the belief that the act of taking the life of another person against their will is justified in some circumstances but not in others. To put it in more elementary terms, whether it's wrong to take the life of another person against their will is relative to the circumstances. But if we take something like murdering a child, it gets more difficult to justify. Most of us would have a hard time imagining a circumstance in which killing a child could be considered to be for the "greater good"; perhaps the best we could do is to imagine something like a bombing, in which children may be killed or mutilated, but we view their circumstance as a tragic version of "collateral damage". It's not quite the same as saying that we set out to kill and mutilate children.

The Slaughter of the Canaanites

In this story, which like most things in the Bible probably didn't even happen (as Craig concedes in his article), God commands his army of chosen people to slaughter a lot of innocent people. This isn't "collateral damage" here; God specifically decrees that everyone must die — including women and children. They didn't have bombs back then either, so this righteous army would have been going from house to house taking the sword to these innocent people in a macabre and bloody slaughter. So, let's examine how ol' Dr. Craig thinks such atrocities are justified:

I’ve often heard popularizers raise this issue as a refutation of the moral argument for God’s existence.  But that’s plainly incorrect.  The claim that God could not have issued such a command doesn’t falsify or undercut either of the two premises in the moral argument as I have defended it:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.

2. Objective moral values do exist.

          3. Therefore, God exists.
In fact, insofar as the atheist thinks that God did something morally wrong in commanding the extermination of the Canaanites, he affirms premise (2).  So what is the problem supposed to be?

I've spent a fair bit of time addressing the fallacy of "objective morality" in other posts, so I don't need to get into detail here, but it is sufficient to point out that merely holding some kind of moral judgment is not an affirmation that such judgments are "objective". Let's continue...

According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God.  Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself,  He has no moral duties to fulfill.  He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are.  For example, I have no right to take an innocent life.  For me to do so would be murder.  But God has no such prohibition.  He can give and take life as He chooses.

Dr. Craig puts himself in a bit of a bind here. His whole argument for "objective morality" rests upon the notion that certain things are just wrong, and that we know this at some intuitive level. We know that it is just wrong to take a sword to an innocent child. But Dr. Craig is saying here that morality is whatever God chooses it to be, and because God is perfect and good — indeed, that God is goodness itself — if God commands people to do something that offends our supposedly objective moral intuitions, it must not only be the right thing to do, but one could deduce that it is the best thing to do. So, if God were to appear before Dr. Craig and command him to sodomize, murder, then cannibalize a six-year-old, Dr. Craig would be obligated to not only to do it, but to do it believing that it was absolutely the most moral thing to do. Of course no one expects that to happen, and it's an over-the-top scenario, but it's logically sound for the sake of example. You can pick any act, any atrocity no matter how unthinkable, and say that if God commands it, it is wholly justified and good. This same logic could be used to defend all of the other atrocities in the Bible — the slavery, the barbarism, the misogyny, and all the rest.

The Meat of Issue

What Craig's argument does here is undermine his stalwart "objective morality" argument. Of course, we really only need a bit of evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology to do that, but Dr. Craig makes it easy even from a philosophical standpoint. If certain acts can be justified in certain circumstances, then the morality of performing such an act is relative to the circumstance. And although Dr. Craig likely doesn't believe that God is about to tell any modern person to commit genocide and slaughter children, he still believes that, no matter how counter-intuitive it seems, Christians should accept that in this relative circumstance, it was the most righteous thing to do. If our moral intuitions cannot be trusted — that is, if God can step in and command his followers to do something that is clearly counter to such moral intuitions, and his followers must accept this counter-intuitive command as being not merely permissible but righteous — then our moral intuitions are not objective or reliable. Craig's arguments create an equally salient problem, though, in addition to further undermining what was already a fallacious argument. If our moral intuitions cannot be trusted, if what is right is based entirely on what God says it is at any given moment rather than the needs of human solidarity, then morality is arbitrary. More specifically, God's morality is arbitrary. It's like putting an asterisk on the ninth commandment, and tacking a footnote onto the scriptures:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.*

*This commandment is subject to suspension by the Lord Your God if He deems it to be necessary given extenuating circumstances that may arise.

Dr. Craig keeps going though, saying that the Canaanites were chosen for genocide because they were really bad and they totally had it coming:

By the time of their destruction, Canaanite culture was, in fact, debauched and cruel, embracing such practices as ritual prostitution and even child sacrifice.  The Canaanites are to be destroyed “that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God” (Deut. 20.18).  God had morally sufficient reasons for His judgement upon Canaan, and Israel was merely the instrument of His justice.

Of course, one might reasonably ask by what measure the tribe of Israel was so righteous. They subjugated women, sold girls into sexual slavery, kept slaves and were allowed to beat them mercilessly, performed ritual animal sacrifices, waged holy wars on tribes that worshiped rival gods and subjected the offenders of bizarre "crimes" to brutally cruel executions — all the while claiming that God told them to do those things. Who, for example, can forget this old pearl of ancient wisdom:

A priest's daughter who loses her honor by  committing fornication and thereby dishonors her father also, shall be burned to  death.  (Leviticus 21:9)

A young girl is handed the "punishment" of not just death, but being burned to death, for pre-marital sex? And notice, too, the misogyny in the scripture: the offense was not that the girl defiled herself, but that she "dishonored" her father. The people of Israel weren't exactly standing on pedestals of righteousness. The Canaanites were off worshiping different gods and committing their own share of atrocities, so old Yahweh decided that, unlike the Israelites, the Canaanites were not worth a vigorous, miracle-laden intervention and should just all be killed. Even those little kids were too corrupt for righteous Israel, as Dr. Craig feebly attempts to rationalize:

But why take the lives of innocent children?  The terrible totality of the destruction was undoubtedly  related to the prohibition of assimilation to pagan nations on Israel’s part.  In commanding complete destruction of the Canaanites, the Lord says, “You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons, or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods” (Deut 7.3-4).  This command is part and parcel of the whole fabric of complex Jewish ritual law distinguishing clean and unclean practices.

At this point, not much more needs to be said. The fallacies and hypocrisy in Dr. Craig's reasoning are appalling. The scriptures themselves, are appalling. But perhaps one thing that needs to be pointed out is that, as Richard Dawkins queried rhetorically in The God Delusion when he asked what the criteria is for interpreting the Bible, Dr. Craig's detailed defense of genocide is still, at best, an arbitrary interpretation. No objective criteria or methodology exists for interpreting the Bible correctly, which is precisely why, even after 2,000 years, nobody can agree on which version of Christianity is the correct one.

23 May 2010

The Trolley Problem and Objective Morality

I've spent some time in this blog talking about two fairly well-known Christian apologists — Francis Collins, who is famous for being the head of the human genome project and, more recently, being appointed as director of the National Institute of Health; and William Lane Craig, a theologian mostly famous for debating secular-minded scholars and scientists.

In Francis Collins' book The Language of God, he discussed what he called the "Moral Law". He argues in the book that our ability to discern right from wrong is a sign of God's existence, something that cannot be explained by evolution. I spent some time arguing against his position in my critique of his book here. William Lane Craig has posited a similar argument with his argument about "Objective Morality". Craig argues that if there is no God acting as an absolute authority, morality cannot be "objective"; thus what is considered right or wrong would be subjective and arbitrary, equating godless morality to some sort of moral nihilism. Of course, as a non-believer, I don't think morality has anything to do with some mystical deity. It's not taught to us, nor is it divinely imbued; morality is a sociocultural outgrowth of behaviors deeply embedded in us by evolution, and there is a great thought experiment called the "Trolley Problem" that has been the subject of much scientific research which can not only shed some light on the biological mechanisms at play, but also demonstrate the short-sightedness of Craig and Collins' arguments.

The Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem gives us two scenarios. In the first, a trolley is out of control, charging down the track. There are five workers on the track who will be killed by the trolley. However, you, the unlucky observer, are standing near a lever that will divert the trolley to another track, where there is only one worker who will surely be killed be the trolley. The question is: is it acceptable to push the lever to kill one person instead of five?


In the second scenario, there is again an out of control trolley. This time, however, there is only one track. You are standing on a bridge, overlooking the track where the trolley is barreling toward five workers. There is a large man standing on the bridge. If you push him off the bridge to his death, his body will stop the trolley. Is it morally acceptable to push the bystander off the bridge?

The trolley problem, though silly (I'm sure a slightly more believable versions of similar scenarios could be told) has been used extensively in cognitive research. If you are like most respondents, in the first scenario you would have chosen, without much if any hesitation, to throw the lever. And, if you were like most respondents, your reaction to the second problem would be somewhat more reluctant; you may or may not have chosen to push the man off the ledge, but it is likely that, after making your decision, you figured out a way to rationalize it.

If you do a Google search for "trolley problem", you will find many philosophy aficionados offering a "solution". However, that is missing the real point of the scenario in the first place. What makes the trolley problem interesting is that functionally, the observer is faced with the identical scenario — kill one person to save five. Why, then, do most people hesitate on the second scenario but not the first, and why do people have difficulty agreeing on right course of action in the second scenario?

The answer has to do with two conflicting parts of our brain. One part of our brain is dealing with the rational, utilitarian decision; another, more primitive part of our brain is dealing with the emotional response. In the first scenario, all that's required is to throw a lever. The workers seem like equal players in the game, so losing one is clearly better than losing five, and there is little or no emotional engagement in the observer. But the second scenario requires that the observer take a physical action against the bystander, to push him off the bridge to his death. This triggers a basic, emotional reaction in our brains, a reaction that says you should not harm another person. So the hesitation that people experience is the attempt to resolve the conflict between the rational and emotional parts of the brain.

It's quite interesting to note that, when sociopaths have been studied with this experiment, the part of the brain responsible for moral feelings is not active; the sociopath is making a purely utilitarian decision. And a study published in the journal Nature in 2007 found that people who had suffered damage to that emotional center of the brain make radically different moral judgments than people with healthy brains. From the New York Times:

Previous studies showed that this region was active during moral decision-making, and that damage to it and neighboring areas from severe dementia affected moral judgments. The new study seals the case by demonstrating that a very specific kind of emotion-based judgment is altered when the region is offline. In extreme circumstances, people with the injury will even endorse suffocating an infant if that would save more lives.

“I think it’s very convincing now that there are at least two systems working when we make moral judgments,” said Joshua Greene, a psychologist at Harvard who was not involved in the study. “There’s an emotional system that depends on this specific part of the brain, and another system that performs more utilitarian cost-benefit analyses which in these people is clearly intact.”

Why the Trolley Problem creates problems for Collins and Craig

William Lane Craig argues that without God, morality is arbitrary and relative rather than objective. But can we really demonstrate that moral intuitions are objective when we have strong empirical evidence that moral decisions are governed by subjective emotional responses? While it's true that many thinkers have claimed to find a solution for the Trolley Problem, any rationalization thereof is strictly post hoc. The decision is made in the moment, well before any detached and unbiased thought process can occur. This is not a problem that can be easily resolved with a religious code of behavior, because the problem inherently creates conflict within us at a biological level.

Lest you think that scenarios such as the Trolley Problem are not representative of real-life dilemmas, consider for a moment the situation faced in a hospital following a natural disaster. With thousands of injured and dying people pouring into the hospital, who is treated as a priority? Who receives the limited resources available? If you were a doctor in that hospital, how would you decide the degree of measures you should take to save a patient's life? These are not "objective" moral decisions that lend themselves to simple solutions that could be parroted from one-liners in religious texts; they are complex decisions whose outcomes will be decided in a battle between the empathetic and rational regions of our brain, and there are no unambiguous answers.

The dilemmas faced in such scenarios also illuminate the biological and evolutionary nature of morality. Empathetic responses to others served to foster group cohesion and improve the likelihood of survival for all members; rational decision-making allows us to make the most prudent use of our resources, again improving the likelihood of survival for all group members. However, it's unsurprising that there would occasionally be serious conflicts between these two domains. It's also worth noting that the capacity for empathy is not unique to the human species; indeed, primates and many other animals share with us the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for empathy, or the "moral feeling" portion of the brain in the Trolley Problem. Frans de Waal, author of Our Inner Ape and Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved has extensively documented altruistic behavior in primates. The rational portion of the human brain is of course more sophisticated and evolved than that of a primate, making our moral decisions into complicated dilemmas between our thoughts and our feelings.

Morality is more flexible than we would like to believe

The takeaway here is that morality is not something that can be understood or practiced dispassionately and objectively. Our moral judgments are primarily subjective, emotionally-driven decisions; logical rationalizations of these decisions invariable follow rather than proceed them. The theist will often attempt to create a false dilemma by suggesting that without an absolute divine authority, we have only our whims to discern between right and wrong; or, as it's been phrased by many a theologian, "Without God, anything is permissible". However, such a near-sighted view overlooks the profound importance of "moral" judgments in our evolutionary history. We are part of a species that is innately interdependent; non of us have the luxury of moral autonomy, because we are all inexorably dependent on one another for all aspects of our mental and physical well-being. Moreover, our tendency to feel empathy toward one another is not borne from complex logical thought processes, but is deeply embedded in our biology — something that can be observed even in the behavior of toddlers, or in our simpler evolutionary cousins. Were our tendencies for empathy not so deeply embedded in us, we wouldn't have survived long enough to evolve rational thought processes. Or, as Christopher Hitchens is so fond of pointing out, if the Israelites really thought murder and perjury were permissible, they wouldn't have survived long enough to make it to Mount Sinai.

22 May 2010

Ravi Zacharias on morality

I'm interested mainly in what Zacharias says from about 1:00 to 1:50 regarding the existence of moral law. See if you can spot the fallacy...

Ravi's argument for God's existence from morality can be summed up thus:
  • To express moral judgments about good and evil, you must posit that good and evil exist
  • If good and evil exist, you must posit a moral law by which we can distinguish between good and evil
  • If a moral law exists, a moral law giver must exist

Did you spot the fallacy? The fallacy is a use-mention error, which is confusing the mention of a word with the use of the word. In this case, Ravi is conflating the existence of the concepts of good and evil with the existence of good and evil. Surely we all agree, for example, that the concept of God exists. But that isn't the same thing as saying that God actually exists. Similarly, we all agree that the concepts of good and evil exist, but that isn't the same thing as saying that good and evil actually exist in any capacity (metaphysical or otherwise) beyond their human constructs.

So where, then, do we derive the concept of good and evil – or, more pragmatically, right and wrong? We derive them not from imponderable metaphysical absolutes, but from human solidarity – the fact that we have shared needs, interests, and responsibilities; that we are wholly dependent on our ability to cooperative with others in other to survive and thrive. We recognize that if we do not respect the needs and interests of others, we have no reason to expect others to respect our own needs and interests.

"Moral law" is cited by many apologists and theologians as evidence of God's existence, but it's a view rooted in fallacy. Don't fall for it!

19 May 2010

William Lane Craig and the appearance of design

First, watch this quick video of Dr. William Lane Craig, a Christian apologist whose arguments I've discussed a few times in this blog, talking about what he calls "specified complexity", an argument for the existence of an "intelligent designer":

You may have heard this kind of argument before. When ID "theorists" talk about the improbability of complex life arising from random mutation and natural selection, a common response is the "deck of cards" analogy — that if you shuffle a deck of cards, the probability of any one arrangement of the cards is one in 10^68, or 1 with 68 zeros after it. To give you an idea of how improbable that is, if you shuffled the deck every second, you could expect to repeat the same order once every 10^60 years. The current age of the universe, incidentally, is a little over 10^10 years. Yet you don't consider it miraculous or divinely designed every time you shuffle the cards, because you knew that some order had to arise. Dr. Craig is taking the argument a few steps further away from mere biology by suggesting that the universe itself is designed to support life, and that in itself must be extraordinarily improbable. It's not just the improbability of the universe's design, but that the design itself has a "specificity" to it in that it seems specifically designed to support life, that makes a designer seem a logical necessity. To use the deck of cards analogy, it would be like saying that if you threw the cards on to the floor, any given arrangement would be exceedingly improbable. But if it landed in a neatly ordered "house of cards", it would not be merely improbable, but have a specificity to it that makes it seem purposeful as well.

The argument certainly seems plausible, but Dr. Craig is making a number of critical errors in his reasoning.

The first problem is one that is the same error found in the Cosmological Argument — or, as Dr. Craig likes to use, the Kalaam Cosmological Argument, which goes like this:

1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause
2) The universe began to exist
3) Therefor, the universe has a cause

The problem is that causality is not something that exists independently of the universe, but rather a phenomenon that arises as a consequence of the properties of the universe. You need linear time, for example, to have causality — one event must follow another; cause, then effect. But if there is no universe, there is no linear time, thus no causality. Thus it's absurd to suggest that the universe required causality to come into existence. Assuming, of course, that it "came into" existence at all, a claim not supported by science. (The notion that the Big Bang theory marks the "beginning" of the universe is a misunderstanding of the theory.)

With his argument about probability, Dr. Craig makes the same error. We only know probability to exist as an outcome of the properties of the universe; if there is no universe, there is no probability. Thus it's absurd to suggest that probability has anything to do with the universe existing.

But Dr. Craig makes another error, which is his argument on the apparent "design" of the universe. Was the universe really designed to support life? There are essentially two possibilities — that the universe was designed for the purpose of supporting life, or that the existence of life is an improbable but possible outcome of the innate properties of the universe.

When considering these two possibilities, one thing is important to understand: that the appearance of design is not, in itself, evidence of design. As an example, consider the appearance of ordered patterns in clouds. If you look up at the clouds on a sunny day, you may see all kinds of complex patterns — faces, animals, objects, even scenery. But just because your brain is perceiving an ordered pattern in the clouds does not mean that the the pattern in the cloud is actually ordered. Intuitively, we know that the appearance of complex things in clouds is a random occurrence, not a design. Accordingly, the mere fact that the apparent order of the universe's laws allowed life to arise in what amounts to a tiny speck in the corner of one out of billions and billions of vast and hostile galaxies is not, in itself, evidence that the universe itself was deliberately ordered for that purpose.

Consider further the absolute rarity, as we know it, of complex and intelligent life. The universe is infinitely vast; most of it is too hot, too cold, or too riddled with noxious gases to support any kind of life at all, much less highly complex intelligent life such as ours. To our current knowledge, Earth is the only place where life exists. Scientists have speculated that some moons in our solar system may be able to support life, but they are not talking about little green men; they are talking about microscopic bacteria, perhaps like the extremophile bacteria that exists at the bottom of our oceans, in complete darkness, intense pressure and boiling heat. Moreover, even here, where life does exist, the universe is indifferent to it. A tsunami washes an entire culture from the face of the earth in an instant. Millions of people die of famine, exposure, or disease. Millions of children never survive into adulthood; untold numbers more never make it out of the womb. We are not unique in this regard; nature is indifferent to all life, not merely ours.  

Is this really what we would expect to see if the universe had been designed for the purpose of supporting life? It seems, rather, precisely what we would expect if life arose merely as a consequence of the innate properties of the universe; if the universe is not designed for us, but indifferent to us. As Carl Sagan queried, rhetorically: "If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?"

16 May 2010

Near-death experiences as evidence for the afterlife

I stumbled onto a website yesterday called Skeptiko, which, despite the skeptical-sounding name, seemed more like a platform for people trumpeting the validity of near-death experiences (NDEs) as compelling evidence for the afterlife than a forum for the skeptical dissemination of scientific ideas. When I found the site, I stumbled on to the most recent post, in which Steve Novella, neurologist and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, is criticized for apparently missing the boat on the research on near-death experiences. The article is a long-winded and detailed critique of Novella's criticisms, and frankly I had no interest in reading it. I hadn't listened to podcast to which they were referring anyway.

But it got me thinking about how, as a skeptic, I ought to approach something like this. I'm a big believer in following the evidence. NDEs, to me, seem founded on specious premises – the very idea of mind/body dualism is something that has never been substantiated in any other field of research. Nonetheless, if the evidence indicates that there may be good reason to view NDEs as compelling evidence of the afterlife, shouldn't I care? I thought about it, and the following is the conclusion at which I arrived:

I'm not a neurologist. I'm not familiar with the research on NDEs, nor am I qualified to debate the science of such things. That's for people like Dr. Novella. NDEs as evidence of an afterlife is, at best, on the fringes of science, and it seems dubious to me for a number of reasons.

As I see it, the main problem is that all the "evidence" for NDEs seems to come mainly from the analysis of anecdotal claims about these experiences. Which is what we'd expect, I suppose – unless you're trying to recreate the 80's horror flick Flatliners, I'm not sure how you'd study NDEs in a truly scientific way. But the problem with anecdotal experiences – even those supported by eyewitness testimony – is that crucial information is often distorted or omitted. This leaves us with a precarious case of garbage in, garbage out. Further, upon perusing the Skeptiko website and reading some of their rebuttals to criticisms of NDEs, all of the rebuttals simply focus on dismissing scientific explanations for the phenomenon. Nowhere in the materials I read was any kind of working, testable alternative hypothesis proposed. The entire campaign is centered on an argument from ignorance fallacy – there's no immediately apparent rational explanation, therefor these must be actual experiences of disembodied souls in transition to an afterlife. This is also a fallacy of the false dilemma.

I'm not convinced there aren't perfectly rational explanations for NDEs, though I'll leave it to the scientific community to hold the debate over the evidence. These are people who are in an extreme state of stress – they are literally dying, saved from the brink by the power of modern medicine. I don't think that the anecdotal accounts of people in such traumatic circumstances, and those surrounding them in that dire moment, is a good foundation upon which to build a case for NDEs as scientific evidence for the afterlife. The mere proposition raises far more questions than it could possibly answer: What exactly is a disembodied soul? Where does it go? How much of our consciousness is retained in our disembodied souls? Can disembodied souls learn? Can they communicated with each other, or with us? What is this afterlife? What is it like? Is it eternal? Are we re-incarnated? And most importantly, how could any of these questions be studied scientifically?

Right now, I think there is only one reasonable conclusion: there is no evidence for mind/body dualism, nor is there any evidence for the existence of souls or an afterlife. I think that those espousing NDEs as compelling evidence have a long road ahead of them to build their case.

Do not teach the controversy

I do sometimes wonder, when people debate with me about evolution (it happens way more often than you might imagine, or that I would like), if they realize the implications of what they're saying. The debates get tiresome. I get weary from repeating the same points to different people (or, sometimes, the same people), and it's frustrating to know that the only reason they're questioning modern science is because it doesn't jive with their religion. The Bible says the earth is flat too, but nobody puts up much of a fight about that one. "Oh, that's just a metaphor" is the typical weasel refrain of theological accomodationalism. 

This is why talking about evolution with creationists is really, really important. Evolution is not just some "best guess" to explain human origins – it is the cornerstone of all modern biology. There is even a field of study called "evolutionary medicine" in which our knowledge of evolution is directly applied to the understanding and treatment of disease. If any of our children ever want to help the world by becoming, say, molecular biologists, they are going to have to accept the fact of evolution. Has anyone ever heard of "creationist medicine"? (And no, laying on of hands does not count.) What practical applications have ever been proposed of young-earth creationism or intelligent design? Neither has ever contributed one iota of scientific research.

That's the difference between scientific explanations and bullshit explanations. Scientific explanations add to our knowledge of the world in ways that are real and useful to us, like the way Einstein's theory of relativity allows us to use GPS systems. And that why, the more we allow creationists to erode our scientific education, the more we harm our own future. It's not merely a matter of addressing those who are able to finagle their way on to school boards, but addressing the kind of people who would vote for them, too. I don't think I should have to point out the recent gubernatorial campaign ads in Alabama to show that scientific ignorance in favor of religious crackpottery is still alive and well here in the United States.

We can teach the controversy when there is actually a controversy to teach. When creationists are able to develop research that shows real, practical applications of their theory that both explain everything that is already explained by evolution and add to our understanding of the world, we might have something to talk about. But I don't think that is going to happen any time soon, because creationism is founded on false premises. Evolution is the unifying theory of all modern biological sciences; it truly is the only game in town, and denying the fact of evolution is no different than denying the fact of our spherical Earth*.

I challenge any creationist to watch the following video, and then counter with similar practical applications of creationism:

* Oblate spheroid, to be exact.

15 May 2010

William Lane Craig slapped around

If you don't subscribe to AndromedasWake's channel on YouTube, you should. I first heard about him when he was making videos to debunk creationist cosmology. Well, in his most recent video he's laid the smackdown on my favorite charlatan, William Lane Craig. I've discussed Craig's many stupid arguments, which he spews with a remarkable amount of hubris, and it's always nice to see someone else take a stab at it and, as in this video, do a damn fine job of it.

By the by, I addressed the exact same video myself in my old blog, though I kept it pretty short.

You can have your opinion, but you don't get to be wrong

I recently caught a little flak from some conservative friends of mine after I posted a sarcastic status update on my Facebook regarding Sean Hannity's "Freedom Concert", which I loathe to say is festering its way to my hometown of Tulsa. Apparently you're not supposed to say insensitive things, like "Sean Hannity is a colossal douche". I was similarly taken to task about some comments I directed at a pastor who posted some inane drivel on one of my wall photos.

I suppose that I view myself as more of a PZ Meyers than a Michael Shermer (not that I don't love Michael Shermer, because I do). I don't pass up an opportunity to ridicule overt ignorance and stupidity. I don't have any respect for uncritical adherence to false and dogmatic ideologies, be they religious, political or otherwise.

My problem with Sean Hannity isn't that he's conservative; it's that he's a liar. He lies so much that it's probably pathological – unfortunately, I think he's a true believer, not just a clever showman taking his audience for a ride. He's a truly delusional crackpot. Now, I'm fine with the rare intelligent conservative I find. I have great respect for George Will and Christopher Hitchens, even if I don't agree with them on matters of politics. But I respect them because even though I disagree, they don't go around making shit up.

I'm equally hostile toward religion, for one simple reason – because it's not true. Sorry, but you don't get to dilute science education, oppress the rights of women and homosexuals, change the laws of the country to give you special privilege, or kill other people and justify it all with appeals to your holy book. You know why? Because your holy book is bullshit. It's riddled with historical and scientific inaccuracies, internal contradictions, divinely sanctioned barbarism and tortuous theology that defies all sensibility.

Sure, religion is generally benign, and occasionally great humanitarian things are done in the name of religion. But that doesn't address the fundamental question of whether it's actually true. And since when did it become okay to cling to some falsehood just because it's occasionally inspirational? Are there scientists out there clinging to geocentrism just because it inspires them to do great deeds to protect the Earth? When we find false information, we weed it out and deal with reality. Isn't that the way it should be? What value is an opinion without getting the facts straight first?

Theories, facts and laws

I'm a big fan of neurologist and renowned skeptic Steve Novella's blog Neurologicablog, and his latest post brought to light an issue that continues to be a big source of misunderstanding among the public. Novella details an email exchange he had with a creationist (identified only as "Duane") debating the facts of evolution. He has a saintly amount of patience with someone who is clearly in serious denial, and who repeats – in his own words – the old "evolution is just a theory" canard:
"...if it is a slam dunk then why is macro-evolution still a theory and not a scientific law?"
I'll resist the temptation to get into a big post about "macro-evolution" (I already did, a good while back) and instead address that common misconception: that "theory" and "law" is some sort of scientific hierarchy. People like Duane here apparently think that a scientific theory is just sort of a "best guess" or hypothesis, and once it's validated by thorough research it gets promoted to a "law". This isn't an isolated case of ignorance, of course, as those infamous little "disclaimers" about evolution's supposedly tenuous status as a mere theory being popped into public school science textbooks can attest.

The difference between a theory and a law is that a theory posits an explanation for observed phenomena that can be experimentally verified (or falsified), while a law is simply a repeatedly observed process that can be expressed in concise mathematical terms. From Wikipedia:
A law differs from a scientific theory in that it does not posit a mechanism or explanation of phenomena: it is merely a distillation of the results of repeated observation. As such, a law is limited in applicability to circumstances resembling those already observed, and is often found to be false when extrapolated. Ohm's law only applies to constant currents, Newton's law of universal gravitation only applies in weak gravitational fields, the early laws of aerodynamics such as Bernoulli's principle do not apply in case of compressible flow such as occurs in transonic and supersonic flight, Hooke's law only applies to strain below the elastic limit, etc.
A scientific theory, on the other hand, is a body of knowledge in which a testable mechanism is used to explain the relationship between observed facts. For example, it is a fact that chickens have inactive genes for producing teeth, and whales have inactive genes for producing legs. It's a fact that species throughout the world and throughout history share many physical traits, and do so in an apparently ordered fashion. Now, any hack can cook up some theory about why this is the case, but in real science it has to be empirically testable. In other words, it can't just purport to explain what we already know – it has to successfully predict what discoveries we will make.

A fine example of evolutionary science in action is the discovery of a fused chromosome pair in humans. Evolutionary theory says that humans and other modern primates, like chimpanzees, have a common ancestor. If that is true, we should have all the same chromosomes. But at a glance, that appears not to be the case – chimps have 24 chromosome pairs, and humans have only 23. So either that chromosome pair is there and has fused with other chromosomes, or the theory of common ancestry would be in trouble. Well, as the video below explains, we do indeed have that extra chromosome, and indeed it is fused.

That humans evolved by natural selection is a fact firmly established by 150 years of scientific progress in multiple independent scientific disciplines. It's also a theory – one of the most robustly validated scientific theories there has ever been.

10 May 2010

Closet Doubters in the Church — on Both Sides of the Pew

At AAI9 2009, Daniel Dennet — cognitive neurologist and author of Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon — discussed some research he and some colleagues are conducting into the phenomenon of "closet atheists" in the clergy. That is, pastors, priests and ministers who have reached not just a point of serious doubt, but have gone beyond the fold and truly have lost the faith — yet stay their positions in the church, for a variety of reasons.

For some, their only education is in theology. They have families to support, houses and cars to pay for, college funds to maintain, etc.; what else would they do for a living? Still others understand that their friends and loved ones are deeply rooted in the church. A pastor who comes to reject his faith risks losing not only job security, but the trust and companionship of family and friends as well. Remembering my own time in the church, it was hard enough for me to walk away — and I was only in my late teens when I rejected my faith. At that age, going to college means a whole new set of friends, and an opportunity to grow a whole new identity. But for someone not merely rooted in the church, but in a position of leadership for many years, walking away from the church is no small task.

Dennett went on to discuss how these doubting clergy go on to preach and counsel their parishioners, but for me, there was another question of great interest — namely, the phenomenon of doubting parishioners. Deciding whether or not to attend church seems to be a pretty straightforward decision — if you don't believe, you don't go. Right?

Unfortunately for many believers who wrestle with serious doubts or an altogether rejection of their beliefs, it's not that simple. While their financial livelihood many not depend on their church attendance, their social barriers are no different than the doubting clergy. I've always maintained that religion is perpetuated in significant part by the phenomenon of "groupthink"; that is, doubts, debate, and the free exchange of ideas are suppressed for the sake of unity within the community. I originally derived that conclusion from my own experience in the church; I wrestled with a great deal of doubt during my time as a Christian, but found it difficult to openly discuss these doubts with my fellow parishioners and church leaders, who usually offered sincere but vacuous answers — often what Dennett humorously calls "deepities", which are grand-sounding but logically vacuous answers.

But I now know for certain I was not alone in this regard. On my Facebook page, I've added a number of friends from my old church-going days, and a number of others who are believers. I've received quite a few inquiries about my views on faith and religion, and a surprising number of them have come from my Christian friends who are struggling with doubts. Just like me, they are finding it difficult to discuss what are often serious doubts with those closest to them. Church communities thrive on cohesion, not on the free and skeptical exchange of ideas. It's no small coincidence that the only time people can even appear to agree on what God is or wants is when they cluster together in such communities. But the reality is, of course, that much of this apparent agreement may be built on sand.

This isn't to say that there aren't plenty of true believers. And I can't imagine the hurdles in trying to quantify just how many believers wrestle with very serious doubts, or even reject their faith altogether yet still attend church, keeping silent their frustration out of deference to their family and friends. What an unfortunate way to live one's life. For an atheist, an idea is just an idea. We don't "believe" in anything — we accept that which is demonstrably true, and skeptically inquire into that which is not. But for a believer, an idea is much more than that. An idea is a sense of personal identity — one that permeates every corner of their lives. For doubting parishioners, to openly question their faith means to risk losing the support and understanding of those closest to them.

This suppression of free inquiry is not a mere consequence of religious communities, but a pillar of them. Consider what the doctrine of Christianity really is: the belief that a god-man who was his own father offered his life in a ritual blood sacrifice to himself before rising from the dead and ascending bodily into the sky, so that if we confess our wrongdoings and ritualistically drink his blood he will let us live forever in an eternal paradise. That's literally what Christianity requires its followers to believe, and I say that not out of mockery (well... maybe partly out of mockery) but to show that no such ridiculous belief can withstand rigorous skeptical scrutiny. Far too many leaps of logic must be made to justify the belief in such nonsense, and that is precisely why religious communities thrive on groupthink rather than free skeptical inquiry. And I can only wonder how many closet doubters are really out there — some who have completely rejected their faith, and others who are on the brink, ritualistically eating crackers and singing hymns while in their minds wondering just what the point of it all really is.

Here is Dennett's lecture. I highly recommend it, for doubters on both sides of the pew. You're not alone!