31 January 2011

Nergal 1, leukemia 0

I posted a few months back that Adam "Nergal" Darski, frontman for the Polish blackened-death-metal band Behemoth, was admitted to a hospital with leukemia. He was told that chemotherapy wouldn't be enough, and that without a bone marrow transplant he did not have long to live.

What's that have to do with this blog, I hear you asking. Well, you know how many a Christian pounced on Christopher Hitchens' cancer as an opportunity for him to convert? Nergal is a pantheistic pagan who is vociferously anti-Christian. Behemoth has heartwarming song titles that include "Christians to the Lions", "Satanica", and my personal favorite, "Christgrinding Avenue". As part of the show for introducing the latter song, he's been known to tear up a Bible on stage, calling it a "pile of shit" and encouraging the audience to "burn it" and "piss on it". (If you're unfamiliar with the reasons why black metal bands loathe Christianity so much, I recommend the documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey.) He was famously threatened with prison time under some obscure Polish blasphemy law, a threat which was extended to his mega-hot pop-singer girlfriend Doda after she made similarly derisive comments about Christianity.

A few months back, Nergal commented on remarks that he might renounce his ideologies in the face of death, saying, "the idea that I will change my opinions, priorities, and values as a consequence of my illness sounds as if someone regards my head, and not my body, ill." Nergal was recently discharged from the hospital after six months of treatment, which included a bone marrow transplant. He faces a lengthy recovery in relative isolation as he cannot risk viral infections, but he had this to say about his trials:
After almost half of year of treatment in various hospitals, several cycles of chemotherapy, irradiation and bone marrow transplant I have been finally released home in a pretty fuckin’ good condition. I’m feeling ok, taking the intensity of treatment under consideration. That was not an easy period of my life, but, as I envisaged, I left the hospital victorious.
There are a few things that are relevant here. Nergal got through it without God, without prayer, without religious dogma. Like all of us, he relied on his family, his friends, his girlfriend, and his iron-clad will. He didn't cower in the face of death and let fear shape his beliefs.

But that's not the really cool part. Behemoth fans across the globe rallied for him, organizing bone marrow drives. The drives had virtually no odds of directly helping Nergal, and the fans knew it; they rallied to promote awareness of leukemia and encourage people to donate bone marrow for others in need of transplants. It's a beautiful example of the fact that the things that bind us have nothing to do with religion or faith. They have to do with our shared humanity, our shared needs and responsibilities. We don't need faith in mystical beings and religious dogmas to overcome great trials – we need strength of will and, above all, we need each other.

The Bible is a worthless historical document

The story of the Jewish exodus out of Egypt is of pretty pivotal importance in the Bible. It's what established Moses as God's chosen leader of his chosen people, and that leadership became integral to the establishment of Old Testament law. Indeed the covenant of the Jews before Christ came was called the Mosaic Covenant.

One problem though: there's not actually any evidence that it ever happened. There's zero evidence that the people of Israel were ever enslaved by the Egyptians at all, much less that they escaped in a brave insurrection. Some modern-day Christians are fond of incorporating a healthy dose of retroactive rationalization to explain the total lack of contemporaneous or extra-Biblical evidence. But it's a myth, a fable – and most historical scholars know this.

This raises some interesting questions. The creation story of Genesis, Adam and Eve, the Flood, Jonah and the Whale, the story of Job – all myths, proved completely implausible by modern science. Even the notorious slaughter of the Canaanites most likely never happened. Far more likely, stories such as Exodus and war stories littered throughout the Old Testament are hagiography. Luke over at Common Sense Atheism expounds:
Obviously these stories are hagiography – a tribe of people telling fictional and exagerated [sic] tales about its glorious history and importance. Every ancient culture that wrote their own history did this. It would be rather shocking if the Israelites were the only ancient people to record a literal, accurate history of their own tribe.
And, with the exception of fundamentalist/literalist loons who frankly are not even worth the trouble engaging in rational discourse, most modern believers know that these stories are fictional. So, if they're not actually true, what's the point? Well, (so we're told) they're apocryphal! It's all metaphor, to teach us something or other. What exactly these stories are supposed to teach us is anyone's guess. But they're not historical. There's no independent criteria to tell us how to properly interpret the Bible. We can try to gather some kind of lesson from them if we choose, though we're likely just imposing our own biases on the narratives.

30 January 2011

Sam Harris takes on his critics

Sam Harris has written a lengthy response at Huffpo to critics of his latest book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. It's a very thorough and strong rebuttal, and truthfully I've had a hard time reading all of it. But that's mainly because I already agreed with him, and when I read the early criticisms of his book (many of which, as Harris notes, were put forth by people who hadn't even read it), I found them to be sorely misguided.  

I think The Moral Landscape is an important book. Secular morality is far more nuanced and sophisticated than religious ideas of morality, which are asserted from vacuous claims of authority usually rooted in arbitrary interpretations of holy books or epistemically worthless philosophical musings on metaphysics. Harris is dead-on in suggesting that moral values must relate to objective facts about the human condition, and only by acknowledging this can we begin to evolve the moral dialogue toward an understanding that relates to our innate human solidarity.

Anyballs, here's the article:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/a-response-to-critics_b_815742.html

28 January 2011

Knowing What We Know, part 1: "Patterns"

The first book on physics I ever read was Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. It's actually the book that catapulted me from a sort of weak theistic agnosticism into full-on atheism. It wasn't that I thought Hawking had disproved the existence of God or anything like that, but it was the thought process that intrigued me – he bravely took certain "big questions" out of the realm of mysticism and into the quantifiable world of science. This was also the book that introduced me to the famous double-slit experiment in quantum mechanics. In the experiment, a particle does not take one path from A to B, but rather all possible paths simultaneously. That's a profoundly counter-intuitive idea, one that's even more counter-intuitive than the weirdness of things like gravitational time dilation from Einstein's General Relativity.


Our minds play tricks

We tend to view the world from a rather insular kind of bubble. We're bombarded with a massive amount of sensory data which our brain constructs into a reasonably reliable model that we call "reality". We develop an intuitive understanding of the world, where we assume that things are going to work a certain way. We don't test every inch of ground before we step on it to make sure we won't fall through. We know from experience that if we let go of something, it will fall to the ground – and we don't bother making sure that applies to every object we encounter. In case you were wondering, cognitive psychologists have a name for these assumptions – they're called "intuitive physics".

26 January 2011

Ted Haggard: bisexual

In a revealing interview (bad choice of words, I know) with GQ, disgraced evangelical pastor Ted Haggard (whom I remember mainly from his bizarre interview with Richard Dawkins) describes himself as bisexual, and makes some revealing comments reflecting a newfound cynicism about the church:
"I think that probably, if I were 21 in this society, I would identify myself as a bisexual."
When Ted resigned from New Life, a board of church-appointed overseers presented him with a separation agreement that required him to cut off all contact with members of the church, stay away from the media, perform no ministry-related work, and move his family out of Colorado. As severance, the church would provide fourteen months' salary for him and Gayle (about $200,000) and assorted other benefits. Ted obediently signed the agreement, but he now believes it was excessively harsh treatment for a family in the midst of a major crisis—especially since, well, isn't providing mercy for sinners sort of the entire point of Christianity?
"I used to think the church was the light of the world," Ted says. "But I've completely lost my faith in it."
"You've got to understand ... people are, at their cores, hateful. I don't want to believe that, but the facts have prevailed over my idealism."


 

Another apostate joins the fray (... of bloggers)

Being a de-converted Christian, I'm always interested in hearing the stories and perspectives of fellow apostates. Now Brian Wallace, formerly the anonymous writer of Going Apostate, has started a new blog called (appropriately) Gone Apostate.

Which reminds me: former pastor Bruce Gerencser, who penned the NW Ohio Skeptics, is back in action at Fallen From Grace.

And this is a fine time to remind my readers of a few of my other favorite apostate blogs:
Dead Logic
Advocatus Atheist 
Closet Atheist 

And I still occasionally peruse the superb blog of the late Ken Pulliam, PhD:
Why I De-Converted From Evangelical Christianity


And here is a German folk metal band.

23 January 2011

Some common logical fallacies

In my discussions with believers, I often hear believers both committing logical fallacies and accusing non-believers of committing them. So for this post, I just wanted to list some common fallacies and how they are used and misused, drawing from examples I've frequently encountered.

1. Ad hominem

Ad hominem is "attacking the man". But it's often confused with insults, like follows:
  • Person 1: "Blah blah blah"
  • Person 2: "You're an idiot"
  • Person 1: "Oh, there you go with making ad hominem attacks
An insult is not the same thing as an ad hominem attack. The proper fallacy occurs when you dismiss an argument because of your value judgment on the person. For example:
  • "You're wrong because you're an idiot"
  • "Horatio can't be trusted, so I wouldn't believe his argument"
It's not a fallacy to say that someone is untrustworthy, stupid, or whatever. It's only a fallacy when you conclude that their argument is invalid because they are untrustworthy, stupid, or whatever. It's a fallacy because just as smart and honest people can be wrong, stupid and dishonest people can be right.

21 January 2011

The Euthyphro dilemma

In Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue, Socrates queries, "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" Socrates’ query can be re-phrased in this more modern way: “Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?” This creates an inescapable conundrum for the believer: if something is good because God commands it, then no act is intrinsically immoral. If God commands something because it is good, then God is not the source of good, but rather subject to it.

The God of the Old Testament seems to adhere to quite a different standard of morality than we value today. He explicitly condones slavery (both slave labor and sexual servitude), fosters the subjugation of women, and commands his followers to commit genocide and human sacrifice. No doubt today we find these sorts of things to be morally repugnant. But if they are objectively immoral, then how could God, who is perfectly moral, command and condone them? William Lane Craig, a well-known Christian apologist with Biola Theological Seminary, defends the genocide of the Canaanites as follows:

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. [1]

Craig is arguing that God’s actions are circumstantially justifiable. But this does not avert the Euthyphro dilemma: if genocide is intrinsically wrong, then God cannot be good in commanding it. But if genocide can be circumstantially justified, then it is not an objectively immoral act.

18 January 2011

Educational inflation

From Dr. Michio Kaku's Facebook page today: "The space program, particle physics, stem cell research- the US is gradually losing its edge."

He's right of course. We can't coast forever given how abysmal our education system is in comparison to the rest of the industrialized world. Our system is fundamentally broken, and while I think throwing money at the problem might help in certain specific instances (such as underprivileged schools needing up-to-date materials), I think the whole paradigm of education in the U.S. is problematic. 

I can only relate my own experience, and what I think is wrong. I hated my entire educational experience. I've always been more of an autodidact, but there is no question that I learned little in all my years in school compared to what I learned on my own outside of school. Math and science were always taught horribly – as abstract concepts requiring lots of rote memorization rather than real-world application. Reading comprehension, writing and critical thinking had to come on my own. I know many people with college degrees who can barely write a paragraph of proper English and lack even a basic understanding of logical principles.

17 January 2011

A history of God

h/t Bud:



A few thoughts:

I can't help but think of Dan Dennett's excellent lecture from AAI 2009 and the "use-mention error" he talks about. This is really a history of the concept of God. I suppose that title's a bit less interesting.

I haven't delved much into Old Testament scholarship, which I suppose is mostly because most of the people I end up debating are Christians. Jews are a little harder to come by, particularly Jews who obsess over things like inerrancy. Aside from the fact that there's no historical evidence that the Jews were ever actually in Egypt (a pretty good example of when absence of evidence does in fact constitute evidence of absence),  I don't know much about the historical background of the Old Testament. So it's nice to see someone tackling the Old Testament more thoroughly.

I've followed Evid3nc3's videos on Youtube for a while, and there's a sentiment that he touches upon often (and again in this video) that definitely strikes a familiar chord with me: when you stop pretending God exists, everything makes far more sense. It makes perfect sense why Yahweh wasn't mentioned until a few thousand years ago while humanity has been around for 200,000 years. It makes sense why there's polytheism throughout the Old Testament, why the Old Testament God is a capricious bloodthirsty tyrant, and why no one else on the planet had heard of this One True God. It's because just like Thor and Ra and Baldr, people made Yahweh up.

15 January 2011

Was the universe designed for life?

One of the themes I've been hammering recently is the idea of evidence of absence. It's the idea that if God exists, there ought to be some kind of evidence that he does, and if there isn't evidence consistent with how God is conceptualized then the lack of evidence is evidence that God does not exist. This is an important concept to understand to see why atheists are agnostic about the existence of God, but that this agnosticism should not be misconstrued as a middling view that the odds for and against God's existence are equiprobable. We define ourselves as atheists not just because we don't think there's evidence for God's existence, but because the absence of evidence where there should be evidence suggests that God's existence is either highly unlikely or unknowable to the point of irrelevance.

The apparent life-supporting design of the universe is all too often touted as tautological proof that God exists. I discussed the fallacy of our apparent "privilege" in a post called Earth: the privileged planet, and the lottery fallacy, so I'm not going to rehash that here. Instead I want to expand on that post: if the universe was designed for life by an all-powerful, perfect being, there ought to be observable evidence consistent with a being possessing such qualities.

Unfortunately, the universe is rife with inefficiencies and dangers that run starkly counter to divine design. The overwhelming majority of the known universe is extraordinarily hostile to life – it's mostly a freezing, lifeless vacuum dotted by the occasional star which may or may not be surrounded by hospitable planets. Most planets we've observed are far from hospital themselves – hot pressure cookers like Venus, the freezing surface and carbon-dioxide rich atmosphere of Mars, and lifeless gas giants like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and the vast majority of extra-solar planets we have discovered. I'm reminded of the line from the movie Contact: "Seems like an awful waste of space!"

11 January 2011

You can't make up this kind of stupidity

I mentioned in my previous post that if God exists, there ought to be some specific evidence of that depending on how God is being conceptualized. This is a fine example of how some believers conceptualize a theistic God – when people do bad things, bad things happen! It's like when Jerry Falwell claimed that 9/11 happened because we tolerate homosexuality, or when Pat Robertson suggested that Katrina was evidence that God was angry over abortions. So recently there have been some seemingly odd mass deaths of birds and fish. Why is this happening? Cindy Jacobs says it's because we repealed DADT:



Now that you've become dumber and wasted a few minutes of your life, let's fix that with actual science courtesy of physicist extraordinaire Dr. Michio Kaku:
So these events really do happen all the time, except we are unaware of them, until something pushes these events into the national media, such as simultaneous die-offs. In fact; In the past eight months, the United States Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin reports that it "has logged 95 mass wildlife die-offs in North America and that’s probably a dramatic undercount... The list includes some 900 turkey vultures that seemed to drown and starve in the Florida Keys, 4,300 ducks killed by parasites in Minnesota, 1,500 salamanders done in by a virus in Idaho, 2,000 bats that died of rabies in Texas, and the still mysterious death of 2,750 sea birds in California. On average, 163 such events are reported to the federal government each year, according to USGS records. And there have been much larger die-offs than the 3,000 blackbirds in Arkansas. Twice in the summer of 1996, more than 100,000 ducks died of botulism in Canada.
I told those ducks not to eat home-canned foods.

10 January 2011

The burden of proof

Here's an issue that keeps cropping up in the debate about God's existence: where does the burden of proof lie? Do theists have to prove their claim that God exists, or do atheists have to prove their claim that God doesn't exist? Predictably, there's frustration on both sides of the isle – atheists argue that believers are the ones making the claim, therefor the burden of proof lies with them. But theists assert that atheists are making a claim of their own that also must be proved.

Let's start with some basic philosophy: the burden of proof always falls on the person making the affirmative claim. This is logic 101. If your friend Cletus tells you that aliens are visiting Earth, the burden is not on you to disprove his claim – he is holding the affirmative position, and the burden of proof rests solely upon him. In this case, you hold what is called the null hypothesis:
The null hypothesis typically proposes a general or default position, such as that there is no relationship between two measured phenomena...  It is typically paired with a second hypothesis, the alternative hypothesis, which asserts a particular relationship between the phenomena.... The alternative need not be the logical negation of the null hypothesis and predicts the results from the experiment if the alternative hypothesis is true. [Wikipedia]
You are not asserting that aliens are not visiting Earth. If you did, you would be making an affirmative claim that demands evidence, and it's impossible to conclusively disprove the notion that aliens are visiting Earth. Instead, you are simply suggesting that your friend must demonstrate his claim to be true, and until that happens you refuse to join him in holding the affirmative position.
As I said, this is logic 101, and no one should be disagreeing at this point. The question is not whether the proof lies with the person in the affirmative – the question, in the debate about God's existence, is whether atheists are in fact making affirmative claims.

08 January 2011

CNN: Few swayed by fraud finding in autism study

http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/01/06/autism.reactions/index.html

Here's great news: you know how some idiot jerk named Andrew Wakefield published a fraud of a study that falsely linked important vaccines to autism? Remember how the public went into a fury, and Jenny McCarthy was on TV all the time talking about the evils of vaccination? Remember how Wakefield's study was subsequently discredited and retracted after it was proved he falsified the medical histories of everyone in his study, and he was stripped of his license?

Well, apparently despite that, people are still freaking out about vaccines and autism. Anti-vaccinism is the new religion, and like all religions it's rooted in fear and values passion over reason. Evidence? Pfft. Science? Fbblltt. Meanwhile, more kids are dying of treatable diseases like the measles and whooping cough.

This is often framed as a personal choice issue: "We shouldn't have to get our kids vaccinated if we don't want to!" But vaccines work through herd immunity – if the number of vaccinated persons drops below a certain percentage (like, say, 90%), everyone is at risk. So when parents decide not to immunize their children, they're not just putting their own kids at risk – they're putting other people's kids at risk too.

07 January 2011

Ted Williams and the power of prayer

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard about Ted Williams, the "Man with the Golden Voice." A week ago he was living on the streets, where he'd been after alcohol and drunks took him in a downward spiral for many years. His unique pipes were captured on a Youtube video, which became a viral sensation. Now there are job offers pouring in for all kinds of broadcast work. He finally has the chance to turn his life around – quite dramatically in fact, as some of the job offers stand to be very lucrative.

Williams has been adamant about his relationship with God and the power of prayer. In various interviews he's talked about how he "found God" this past year and has prayed daily for better fortunes. In the dramatic reunion with his mother, she says she always prayed for him.

I'm sure that more than a few believers have used this as an opportunity to extol the power of prayer. But it's actually a fantastic example of how belief in prayer functions as a consequence of confirmation bias. This simply means that when people are looking for evidence that prayer works, they selectively disregard information that is contradictory to their assumptions. This is  what people do when they are duped by fortune tellers and psychics – they remember the hits, but disregard the many misses.

So let's consider a few things. Firstly, it's probably highly unlikely that Ted Williams is the only homeless man who has ever prayed for a second chance. Los Angeles alone has over 70,000 homeless people – how many of them pray every day? And of all those who pray, it's likely that many will die alone on the streets, never given a second chance.

When prayers aren't answered, believers are quick to rationalize it in order to placate any cognitive dissonance that arises:
  • God did answer the prayer, but he said "no"
  • God is asking us to wait
  • What happened is God's will
The "no" or "wait" options can be demonstrated as a post-hoc rationalization simply by substituting anything else – preferably something silly to really drive the point home – for God. Let's say homeless people are praying to a piece of cake. Those who die cold and alone, well, the cake said "no". Those who see year after year pass by in fading hope, the cake is asking them to wait. And for the occasional Ted Williams, the cake said yes! But the cake is the boss, and whether you strike it rich, waste away year after year or die alone on the streets, "thy cake's will be done."

George Carlin famously mocked the folly of the "it's just God's will" excuse by rhetorically asking that if God's just going to do his will anyway, what's the point in praying at all? God has a divine plan, right? God is perfect, and so is his Big Plan! Then little old you comes along hoping for better fortune, and ask God to alter his perfect divine plan just a little bit for you.

Any time prayer has been studied using any kind of scientific parameters, it's failed to show any effect. And there isn't even any statistical evidence that people who pray are more likely to live longer, healthier or happier lives.

I wish Ted Williams the best. There are lots of people deserving of a second chance, and it's great that he got one. He's perfectly welcome to bask in the comforting delusion that God answered his prayers. But what really happened wasn't miraculous at all – just damned lucky. His story is really a celebration of humanity's goodwill, which is easy to lose site of sometimes.

06 January 2011

Dark matter? Maybe not...

There's a fascinating article in Scientific American about the ongoing search for dark matter; a small but vocal group has suggested that it's the theory of gravity itself that needs to be modified to account for the observed discrepancies:
"Once you convince yourself that the universe is full of an invisible substance that only interacts with ordinary matter through gravity, then it is virtually impossible to disabuse yourself of that notion. There is always a way to wiggle out of any observation."
The article talks about how researchers have continually altered their parameters as all attempts to detect dark matter have failed:
After each non-detection, McGaugh says, theorists continually redefine the interaction cross-section of WIMPs to safely undetectable levels. This kind of behavior, he adds, can spark a never-ending game of leapfrog between experimental physicists and theoreticians, allowing them to continue business as usual without ever revising their cosmology. 
I have to admit, the idea sounds compelling. Think about it: we've spent the last century attempting to reconcile classical theories of gravity with quantum mechanics and it just doesn't work. And there are some large-scale phenomenon in which classical equations are not producing accurate results:
Stars at the very edges of spiral galaxies, for instance, rotate much faster than can be explained by Newtonian gravity alone; the picture makes sense only if astrophysicists either modify gravity itself or invoke additional gravitational acceleration due to an unknown source of mass such as dark matter.

"The mass of visible matter falls very short of what is needed to account for the gravity shown by these systems," Milgrom says. "The mainstream assumes it is due to the presence of dark matter, while others, like me, think that the theory of gravity has to be modified."
This reminds me somewhat of the idea of the "aether" that was proposed during Newtonian-era physics. It proposed that space was filled with some sort of mysterious substance through which light traveled. As failures to detect it mounted, physicists constructed more elaborate models of it. Eventually Einstein came along with his radical idea of special relativity, and the aether was gone for good. Maybe dark matter is a modern version of the aether, and our classical theories of gravity are still incomplete.

I suspect that if dark matter continues to elude detection and physicists have to keep pushing back the parameters, we will indeed need a fundamental reworking of our understanding of gravity – a bold new evolution in physics.

05 January 2011

Philosopher of religion Keith Parsons calls it quits

From Religion Dispatches:

After a decade teaching philosophy of religion at the University of Houston, during which time he founded the philosophy of religion journal Philo and published over twenty books and articles in the field, Parsons hung up his hat on September 1st:
I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest... I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it.
Notable snippets from the article:
To philosophers who feel like the case against God was settled hundreds of years ago, philosophy of religion often seems like apologetics, an effort to rationalize preexisting beliefs. [emphasis mine]
Compared to more esoteric subfields like philosophy of language or metaphysics, philosophy of religion is much more likely to attract people with deep-seated, lifelong beliefs about the topic. Because viewpoints in philosophy of religion are so emotionally fraught and bound up with a person’s lifestyle, values, and relationships, changing one’s mind is a daunting prospect.
“Philosophy of religion,” says Parsons, “is inevitably speculative and inconclusive.” Although he has no doubt that the theistic arguments for God’s existence have been thoroughly rebutted, he allows that the atheistic arguments he finds persuasive might not be nearly as persuasive to another rational person who happens to have different intuitions.
“There are certain things William Lane Craig takes to be metaphysical intuitions, like that it’s undeniable that the universe must have had a cause—and for me it’s not. My intuitions are quite different,” Parsons says. And what then? He adds, “And then, once we’ve reached that point, there’s just no further to go.”
Of course, if the history of modern physics is any indication, our limited frame of reference reveals that what we often believe to be intuitively true isn't necessarily an accurate description of reality.

03 January 2011

A-theism

Bud over at Dead Logic has a fantastic post handing a smackdown to Christian apologist Tim Keller, whose book The Reason for God I wrote a partial critique of back in November. Bud takes Keller to task for his claim that rejecting Christianity requires one to have formulated an alternative hypothesis:
Keller claims that the "only way to doubt Christianity rightly and fairly is to discern the alternate belief under each of your doubts and then ask yourself what reasons you have for believing it." Keller seems to misunderstand what it means to doubt. He apparently thinks that to doubt Christianity means "to have an alternate belief" in lieu of Christianity. No, Tim. To doubt is to question, to be unsure of the claim(s) being made, to require evidence before accepting the claim(s) as truth. Doubt does not require an "alternate belief" as Keller suggests.
I think Bud nails it on the head. As many a debate in forums and here on this blog attest, some Christians seem to have a great deal of trouble accepting atheism as a lack of belief in gods. They insist that it must be a contrary claim – the positive assertion that gods do not exist. In other words, they insist that all atheists must be strong atheists, otherwise we're just agnostics. This dim view misrepresents the views of nearly all "new atheists" as well as distorting the definition of agnosticism – a term coined by Thomas Huxley to describe a specific epistemology:
Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle... Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.
Imagine we were living in medieval times (the times, not the restaurant). Back then, illness was thought to be caused by all manner of mysterious phenomena, most infamously tainted blood. Well, we now know, in our modern time, that demons and tainted blood aren't what make people sick – it's microorganisms (of course there are other kinds of illness, but this will do for the analogy). But in medieval times, people lacked the technology to confirm this reality, and simply conjured up whatever explanations they could.

02 January 2011

Giant levitating superturtles

I'm a big fan of Dr. Michio Kaku, the theoretical physicist who specializes in String Theory. Today on his blog he answered a question from a reader that echoes some common confusion about Stephen Hawking's latest book, The Grand Design: "Can a universe create itself out of nothing?"

Dr. Kaku essentially explains that because the total energy of the universe is zero, it does not require a net positive increase in energy to create a universe. This is similar to the explanations I've heard from Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking himself. But I feel like it's probably a bit of an unsatisfying answer for many, because when these physicists are using the word "nothing", they're not really using it the way most people use it colloquially. We generally think of "nothing" to mean absolutely nothing at all – no energy, no matter, no physical laws, no universe – you know, nothing. These physicists are using it in a sense of no matter, and suggesting that the forces of nature are already there. But then, aren't those forces what makes the universe? Where did those come from?

There's an old Hindu myth that says that the world rests on the back of a turtle. Bertrand Russell mentioned it in his lecture Why I Am Not A Christian:
If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject."
In other words, theists are supposing that God is the immovable, causeless turtle. But there's no particular reason to assume it ought to be God. It could be the thing that created God, or the thing that created the thing that created God (and on and on ad infinitum). Believers will of course avert the infinite regress by asserting that God, like the immovable turtle, simply is. Hawking (and Russell) is suggesting that the universe itself (or the multiverse, if you want to get complicated) is the immovable turtle – that thing that simply is

So there needs to be some distinction here. When Hawking is saying that the universe can create itself out of "nothing", he's really saying that the observable universe did not require a net positive energy to emerge, and that the fundamental constituents of the universe didn't have to come from anything. He ends chapter 8 of A Brief History of Time:
So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?

Why live?



When I was growing up, there was an elderly woman down the street from us who was an atheist. My mom used to remark that it seemed so depressing to think that after you die, that's just it. You're gone, and there's nothing else to look forward to. I agreed unquestioningly for many years, until my apostasy forced me to confront the finality of death.

Nowadays, I actually feel it's the other way around – to me, it's depressing to think that this world isn't enough. That we can't be satisfied with nature's strange beauty or the complex nature of our human experiences – happiness, suffering, pain, love. That we have to imagine that the uncomfortable parts of our humanity will be stripped away in a world to come, as though that would really be some sort of utopian existence – it sounds more like a lobotomy to me.

Eastern philosophy played a big role in my deconversion. While in the West we tend to treat suffering and unhappiness with great fear and loathing, in Eastern philosophies such experiences are viewed as an essential part of our humanity. Last year, I'd been in a relationship I thought could be the one, but it ended suddenly and impersonally. I was devastated. The first few weeks I was overwhelmed with a sadness like I'd never felt, and the pain seemed insurmountable. But in time, I got through it – I learned, grew, and became a better person for the experience. I only hurt so badly because I'd been so much in love, and I knew that I would do everything again, even if I knew how it all would end. Hell, it even inspired me to write poetry, which I hadn't done in a bajillion years. As Deepak Chopra said on the Colbert Report, there is no creative impulse in the absence of discontent.

When I was shedding my religious skin, I was for a time very fearful about how I would find a sense of meaning in my life or how I would face death. My whole life, those ideas had been spoon-fed to me. But I soon realized that little had changed; in fact, I had always found my own sense of meaning – I just didn't recognize it as my own. It's not as though there is objective data telling us precisely what the point of it all really is, and trying to escape the question by placing it on religion just creates an infinite regress.

Today I woke up, and my cat jumped on the bed and gave me lots of affection. I'm going to practice guitar, hit the gym, finish a foreword to a book, and write thank-you notes to clients who gave generously to me over the holidays. My parents are coming home from a vacation, so I've been taking care of the family rabbit (one of my favorite jobs) and I'll head back to their place tonight for dinner with them (it's nice when your family is close). There's even a new someone in my life, who texted me in the middle of the night just to let me know she was thinking about me. Without life's trials, I wouldn't appreciate all these things that make me feel so incredibly lucky. That's why I got out of bed today.