28 February 2013

Here's a great example of why I deconverted from Christianity

Recently, I penned a quick post about the logical absurdity of Jesus being God. For one, it violates the law of non-contradiction. It also leads to a number of absurdities, like God praying to himself and granting (or not) his own request, or God sacrificing himself to himself as sacrifice to save us from what he'll do to us if we don't believe in him.

So, what does a Sophisticated Theologian™ have to say about it? Well, I found this video featuring John Lennox, an Oxford mathematician and philosopher who has debated several of the gnu atheists, including Richard Dawkins. What he says in this video exemplifies the kind of evasive, profound-sounding but ultimately trite garbage that I was often fed as I asked tough questions about my faith:




Notice that he quite conspicuously doesn't answer the question. He doesn't even try. Instead, he says that there are certain things you can't explain about the world, like what exactly consciousness is, or what exactly energy is. But clearly, consciousness and energy have lots of explanatory value, so Jesus being God is like that: maybe we can't explain it, but for Christians at least, it explains stuff about the world.

Where to begin with such nonsense? Unlike Jesus and God, we have direct evidence that consciousness and energy actually exist. We can manipulate them and use them in scientific experiments to make falsifiable predictions about reality. And I think that while it might be difficult to conceptualize exactly what they are in an intuitive way, I think the overwhelming majority of neuroscientists and physicists would object to the notion that consciousness and energy defy explanation altogether.


The other elephant in the room is that consciousness and energy, unlike Jesus being God, do not embody a litany of logical contradictions. When people ask How can Jesus be fully God and fully human, they're asking How the fuck is that logical at all?! If Jesus and God are one person, why does he pray to himself? Conceive himself? Sacrifice himself to himself? Sit at his own side? Talk about himself in third person?

There's a fine line between accepting that certain things may defy intuitive explanations and accepting something that is, on its face, complete and utter bullshit.

27 February 2013

26 February 2013

What I remember about being in a Youth Group

The Youth Group subculture really took off in the 90s, and I was smack in the middle of it. I was 14 when I became a "born-again" Christian back in February of 1994. Whether it was music from Jars of Clay and DC Talk, colloquialisms like "backsliding" and "on fire for Jesus", or the infamous "Teen Study Bible", I was neck-deep in the evangelical Kool-Aid. All of my social activities were church-related; I spent much of my spare time doing devotionals, Bible study work books, and popping in my cassette (yup) of keyboardy "worship music" and praying for hours. 

Maybe the most surprising thing, in retrospect, is just how easy it was to get sucked in. Although I had a few good friends in my early teens, I wasn't what you'd call the coolest kid in school. I was scrawny and pale, with a questionable sense of fashion (I'm still pale, but I've worked on the other stuff). I was shy, introverted, and practically mortified by the opposite sex. Throughout middle school and into my freshman year of high school, I was bullied pretty regularly. There was the time when a group of kids held me down and stole my clothes, or the time when the same group of punks smashed my head into a locker, or the time I got sucker punched in the nose and bled profusely on the gym floor, or the times jocks put me down in front of popular (i.e., pretty) girls, or the innumerable times when bigger kids talked trash and threatened to beat me up if I talked back.

I always felt like I had something to prove. I was never cool enough, good looking enough, athletic enough, whatever. When I found the weekend youth event at a local church called the "Powerhouse" via my older brother, I discovered an inviting atmosphere I'd never found in school. It was just meant to be a safe place for young people to hang out on the weekends, but everyone – kids and adults alike – was friendly. And when my brother invited me to join him for a Saturday night "Hellfighters" service at the same church, I didn't hesitate. The culture was one of seemingly unconditional acceptance – it doesn't matter what you've done, or what you've been through: Jesus loves you just the way you are. To an insecure teen, that's a pretty powerful message.

It was so powerful, in fact, that I never really thought twice when I saw people waving their hands during worship services, speaking in tongues, falling down on the floor, or – in the case of one guy – running around the room aimlessly. Faith healings, casting out demons... none of it gave me even the slightest pause. In retrospect, that seems unbelievable – that kind of behavior is so fucking ridiculous. But at the time, it seemed like these people had it all figured out. Among them, I was accepted and valued simply for being me; out "there", in "the world", I was an outcast.

My church leaders exemplified the kind of person I wanted to be – strong in faith, close to their families, trying to make a difference in the world. I think that for many believers, the church is associated with doing good in the world and being connected with a community – so much so that a lot of believers have a difficult time understanding how people can be nonreligious and still be good, charitable, happy, and fulfilled. It's a deficiency in logic, sure, but it's more a deficiency in perspective.

I worked hard to be a good Christian. I tossed out many of my secular CDs and tapes. I carried two Bibles with me to school, and held Bible studies with friends during lunch. I wore Christian t-shirts and jewelry. I went to popular youth hangouts to hand out tracts and witness to the "unsaved". I studied the Bible intently and attended, at the peak of my involvement, five church events every week. I attended big Christian events like Teen Mania's "Acquire the Fire". I was on fire for God and I wanted to save souls. It seemed like everything had fallen into place and, for the first time in my life, I was truly happy. Slowly though, the veneer started to unravel.



The end of (my) faith

For as much as my peers and I seemed to relish in talking about how "lost" the "world" was, we weren't exactly saints ourselves. There was no shortage of gossip, cliques and feuds; there were cool kids, troubled kids, loners, and of course the Indian guy who barely spoke English but totally rocked the tambourine. We all engaged in sort of a piety pissing match, where we bemoaned "lukewarm" believers who weren't as feverishly pious – including those within our own church.

My brother (right) and me, circa 1994
On a more personal note, I wavered between being "on fire for Christ" and being overwhelmed with fear and guilt. I was constantly afraid of "backsliding", of giving into temptation or just not being quite pious enough. I often prayed for forgiveness even when I couldn't think of anything I had done wrong, just because I "knew", being human, that I had probably failed to live up to God's standard in some way. I felt guilt every time I stared at an attractive woman ("whoever looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart") – really tough to avoid for a straight teenage male – or found myself enjoying secular music. Plenty of doubt had crept in to my head over the years, and I viewed it as an enemy to be squelched. Like many in the church though – as I only learned years later through letters from struggling believers and fellow apostates – I generally found it difficult to voice my doubts because we valued unwavering piety and devotion over skeptical inquiry.

On the occasions when I was able to voice my doubts, my experience with the "learned" leaders in my church was much like what Daniel Dennett described in his lecture "The Evolution of Confusion" at AAI 2009, in which he discussed what he called the "canons of good spin": it should seem profound, and it should relieve skepticism without arousing further curiosity.  I found it difficult for my curiosity to be satiated by the platitudes and maxims bandied about: "We just have to accept it as God's will", or "God is just putting you through a test", or "We can't possibly understand the intricacies of God's plan".

I slowly began to withdraw from the church as I became disillusioned by the social experience. I was still determined to be the best Christian I could be though, so in the years following I devoted myself to an intensive study of the Bible and Christian theology. By age 19, I had grown disillusioned of the tenets of Christian faith, and I could no longer call myself a believer.


Aftermath

Looking back on that time in my life, there were plenty of good times. I still keep in touch with some of the people from my youth group, including one of my former pastors. I've learned that I'm not the only apostate, which I don't find surprising. I think that the remaining believers are for the most part good people who earnestly want to live a good life and be a positive force in the world. I think they're going about it the wrong way, but they're certainly not bad people. They are, however, fraught with the same problems and challenges as any non-believer I've ever met.

I feel like I ought to clarify that my deconversion had nothing to do with my social experience, nor did it have anything to do with the heavily evangelical and generally conservative doctrines of my particular church. Before I deconverted, I was exposed to much more liberal theological perspectives; unfortunately (for my faith, at least), I found them to be riddled with insurmountable problems of their own. My deconversion was purely a product of my studies of Christian theology – the more questions I asked, the less sense it made. I wasn't content to hear something that sounded profound without arousing further curiosity; I kept pressing on and asking difficult questions. I did so believing that my faith would win in the end. After all, I believed this was the one true faith. God was real! Eventually, it would make sense; the evidence would become clear and the ambiguities resolved. But that didn't happen. After my deconversion, I spent the next nine years or so as an "agnostic theist", and became a full-blown atheist around 2008 – around the time when I read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

While I'm certainly not bitter about my time in the evangelical church, I don't just remember the good times and nice people. I remember the hypocrisy, the pride, the gossip, the perceived threat of the unsaved, and the condescending attitude toward more culturally mainstream believers. I remember admonitions to avoid "worldly" temptations like secular music, masturbation, close contact with the opposite sex, unsaved friends, R-rated movies, and non-Christian literature. As much as possible, we were to shield ourselves from contrarian ideologies.


While my particular church may have been on the more extreme side of the evangelical spectrum, I don't think my experience was unique. I think it exemplifies some of the practical problems that emerge when we live by dogma rather than by skepticism and reason. The fear of outsiders and contrarian influences, the need to suppress and defeat doubt, the constant fear of failing to live up to an impossible standard – these are all experiences that many other deconverts have told me they dealt with as believers. In the church, the preservation of belief is to valued above all else (it's strange, when you think about it, why God would care so much about mere belief). Like many of my fellow apostates, I've found a rejection of such dogmatic thinking to be liberating. I'm not threatened by my humanity or by people with different views. I view doubt as a healthy part of skeptical inquiry rather than an obstacle to be overcome. I don't have to spend energy conjuring up rationalizations to plug the holes in my beliefs, and I don't have to make excuses for God when bad things happen to good people. While it wasn't without its fond memories – and hey, I still kinda like those old Jars of Clay albums – I'm glad I got out of the church when I did, and have not regretted it for a moment.



25 February 2013

A great response to the Kalam from Peter Millican

John over at Debunking Christianity tracked down an excerpt from one of William Lane Craig's recent debates that I think is well worth watching. Generally I don't watch Craig's debates anymore, because he just repeats the same bad arguments over and over (or goes for the volume approach). In this excerpt, however, Oxford Philosophy professor Peter Millican responds to the Kalam cosmological argument almost exactly as I would. I particularly like that he was keen enough to point out the fallacy of composition, which is often overlooked in criticisms of the Kalam, and that he quotes Alexander Vilenkin directly contradicting Craig's (ab)use of the BGV Theorem.




In my view, undermining the Kalam pretty much destroys Western monotheism. You can't subscribe to any of those religions without believing in a Creator, and when the evidence for such a being is revealed as bankrupt, it's pointless to have further discussions about, say, the reliability of the Bible. Some sort of god might still exist, like a pantheistic god, but that's a concept fraught with its own problems.

Here are a few of my own responses to the Kalam:

http://www.theaunicornist.com/2011/10/kalam-cosmological-argument-complete.html

http://www.theaunicornist.com/2010/12/kalam-cosmological-argument-commits.html

http://www.theaunicornist.com/2010/11/kalam-cosmological-argument.html

http://www.theaunicornist.com/2012/08/the-kalam-gravitational-argument.html

20 February 2013

Much ado about "nothing"

Last night I watched Lawrence Krauss, who's gaining quite a bit of notoriety as an outspoken atheist and science popularizer, on a panel with several other thinkers to discuss – among other things – the idea of a "universe from nothing". I haven't read Krauss' book of the same name, but having recently finished Alexander Vilenkin's Many Worlds in One, I'm guessing that Krauss' idea likely bears some similarity to Vilenkin's "quantum tunneling" concept in which the observable universe is birthed from some sort of quantum void.

On the program I watched, the theistic response was similar to the objection William Lane Craig made in his review of Vilenkin's book: that's not really "nothing". In Vilenkin's model, for example, there is no space, time, matter or energy – but the laws of physics would still exist in some way. Aside from the obvious philosophical conundrums the idea inevitably raises, one could argue that even the mere existence of the laws of physics clearly constitutes something. Theologian John Dickson, on the panel with Krauss, made this objection:
Here is a physicist telling us about something that all of us think sounds something and saying by some magical change of the English language, no, it’s nothing and if you disagree with me then you don’t understand science. But there are scientists, leading scientists, who agree this ain't nothing. It’s a very complex and beautiful something. And I think Tim's point earlier is the key point. We live in a universe that operates according to these elegant, beautiful laws and when I read your book this week I was more convinced that that's the case. And this universe, operating according to these elegant laws, has produced minds that now understand the laws, especially this mind next to us. And so this, to me, all looks and this is not a proof for God but I’m just saying why a lot of people think the God thing has a lot going for it, the whole thing looks rational. The whole thing looks set up to be known.

I think the fuss over what is meant by "nothing" is missing the forest for the trees.

The philosophical idea of nothing – namely, absolute non-existence, which I'll refer to as "Nothing" with a capital "N" – is only relevant when you're asking questions like, "Why is there something rather than nothing?", or "Where did the universe come from?" But asking where the universe came from is to make the baseless assumption that the universe, indeed, came from something else. Says who? There's nothing in the laws of physics which suggests that the universe came from anything else – including Nothing. Physicists have never claimed that the universe came from "absolute non-existence".

The confusion was echoed another question directed at Krauss:
But Harold actually asked the question I think you were saying did the laws of physics equally spring from nothing? Fully formed into existence from nothing? 
This kind of fussing over "nothing" completely misses the point. In these quantum models, the universe does not come from anything  – it simply is. In Vilenkin's model, for example, it is nonsensical to talk about the quantum void coming from something else – for there was no time for it to do so! Even if only the laws of physics existed, they would not have come from anything else, but would simply be. That is why these ideas in physics – and there are many such possibilities – are so compelling. The question vexing physicists is whether the universe had to have come from something else, or if it could be enclosed, described entirely with the laws of mathematics. And while we are not ready to declare that we know this to be the case, it is at least plausible that one or more such models could indeed described a self-contained universe. They make any role of a Creator utterly superfluous. Just as evolution showed that humans did not have to be designed with great care, so too do modern physics suggest that the universe may not have needed to be designed with great care.



I imagine, too, that part of the confusion stems from the word "universe". As Brian Greene discusses in his latest book Hidden Reality, "universe" doesn't just mean one thing anymore. We could be talking about the observable universe, a parallel universe, a multiverse, some sort of proto-universe (that quantum void mentioned earlier), or all of it together. I think that generally, physicists use "the universe" to refer to the observable universe. A "universe from nothing", the way Krauss or Vilenkin talk about it, means that the observable universe came from some kind of quantum process, which embodies the closest to Nothing that we can get in science.

Maybe the language is too confusing. Maybe armchair philosopher types are simply unwilling to consider that the concept of nothingness can be defined mathematically. Maybe physicists should start saying "an uncaused universe" or "a self-contained universe" instead of "a universe from nothing". But personally, I think the term "universe from nothing" is really just a rhetorical device used to explain complex, esoteric physics to laypersons like myself. As long as I can grasp the concept, the precise language used isn't something I deem worth fussing over. And that's just the problem with these theologians – they're so busy fussing over the semantics that they've lost sight of the broader concepts.

17 February 2013

A universe from nothing? (Or, Craig/Vilenkin part 5)

I deconverted from Christianity mainly because of its theological absurdity (see the previous post for an example), but it took another nine years or so before I considered myself an atheist. I held on to a sort of agnostic theism simply because "God" seemed like an intellectually satisfying answer to some of the most vexing questions we can think of – questions like Why is there something rather than nothing?, Where did the universe come from?, How did life get so complex?, or Why does altruism exist? Certainly those are vexing questions for scientists and laypersons alike, and just saying "because God made it that way" certainly takes most... well, actually all of the thought out of it.

But as time went on, I began to realize the vacuity of that "explanation". If God wants to create life, why create a universe so hostile to it? Why take nearly 14 billion years to do it? Why an expanding universe rocketing toward a slow, empty death? Why use the process of evolution at all, or wipe out over 99% of all species that ever lived on Earth (to say nothing of the fate of life elsewhere in the universe)?

As I mulled over these difficult questions of faith, I spent a lot of time reading Wikipedia articles about cosmology. Much of it stemmed from a comment that was unsettling to me during an internet debate between me and an atheist back in 2007. Here's the exchange, with the quoted part being mine. (Btw, if you ever want to see me defend theism and lose badly, the full exchange is here.)



Nevermind my misspelling of the word "tenet"... Much of my perspective changed when I read Stephen Hawking's bestseller A Brief History of Time. The question of the origin of the universe vexed him also, but being a physicist he pondered an interesting idea: what if the universe was enclosed and could be described with the laws of mathematics, instead of needing some sort of external cause? From there he discussed the Hawking-Hartle No Boundary Proposal, in which he describes a universe that, like the surface of the Earth, is finite but has no boundary or edge. With no boundary, there is no moment of creation – the universe would simply be.

Of course, Hawking's idea was (and is) just a proposal. We don't know if it's true. But as you can easily tell from some of my comments in the above debate (should you read it), I had stubbornly assumed that the universe logically had to have some sort of external cause to bring it into existence. The simple idea that an enclosed universe fits within the known laws of physics humbled my position into one with many uncertainties – uncertainties exacerbated by the logical conundrums of causality somehow applying "to" the universe (for without a universe, what is causality at all?).



I'm telling you all this because Alexander Vilenkin, in Many Worlds in One, details an idea similar to Hawking's. Similar in some ways, but different in the sense that Vilenkin seems to take it a step further. I'll spare you the details (read the book!), but his model is a quantum-tunneling process. The universe is essentially "nothing" – there is no space, no time, no matter or energy. And yet, in Vilenkin's model, the laws of physics would still somehow exist. He explains:
The picture of quantum tunneling from nothing raises another intriguing question. The tunneling process is governed by the same fundamental laws that describe the subsequent evolution of the universe. It follows that the laws should be “there” even prior to the universe itself. Does this mean that the laws are not mere descriptions of reality and can have an independent existence of their own? In the absence of space, time, and matter, what tablets could they be written upon? The laws are expressed in the form of mathematical equations. If the medium of mathematics is the mind, does this mean that mind should predate the universe? This takes us far into the unknown, all the way to the abyss of great mystery. It is hard to imagine how we can ever get past this point. But as before, that may just reflect the limits of our imagination.
William Lane Craig, in his review of the book, predictably doesn't take too kindly to speculative physics that have the potential to remove the usefulness of God:
Vilenkin himself seems to realize that he has not really described the tunneling of the universe from literally nothing, for he allows, "And yet, the state of 'nothing' cannot be identified with absolute nothingness. The tunneling is described by the laws of quantum mechanics, and thus 'nothing' should be subjected to these laws" (p. 181). It follows that the universe described by those laws is not nothing. Unfortunately, Vilenkin draws the mistaken inference that "The laws of physics must have existed, even though there was no universe" (p. 181). Even if one takes a Platonistic view of the laws of nature, they are at most either mathematical objects or propositions, abstract entities that have no effect on anything. (Intriguingly, Vilenkin entertains a conceptualist view according to which the laws exist in a mind which predates the universe [p. 205], the closest Vilenkin comes to theism). If these laws are truly descriptive, then obviously it cannot be true that "there was no universe."
Some of this is just theological sophistry. It's irrelevant whether Vilenkin's use of the term "nothing" is identical to Craig's (which it's obviously not). "Absolute nothingness" is an absolutely useless construct, since such a thing cannot even be conceived in any logical way, much less described mathematically. Vilenkin's model is the closest we get to "nothing". 

For my part, there's a simplicity to Hawking's model that I find a bit more appealing. (It should again come as no surprise that Craig doesn't like Hawking's model either.) It's difficult to imagine how the laws of physics might "exist" – they would have to be proscriptive, not merely descriptive. But on the other hand, it's foolhardy to dismiss a mathematical model simply because it's counter-intuitive or because it challenges us with concepts that are difficult to imagine. I haven't the slightest clue whether Vilenkin's model is correct, and he cautions that this sort of cosmology may be in principle untestable. I'm reminded of Stephen Hawking's concept of model-dependent realism: it's meaningless to ask what is real – only what is the more useful description of reality. In what sense are the laws of physics "real"? Who knows. I also cannot help but give the Hawking-Hartle proposal a slight edge, simply because it made a confirmed prediction about the observable universe:
Eventually, the period of inflation would have ended, and the universe would have settled down to a stage of more moderate growth or expansion. However, inflation would have left its mark on the universe. The universe would have been almost completely smooth, but with very slight irregularities. These irregularities are so little, only one part in a hundred thousand, that for years people looked for them in vain. But in 1992, the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite, COBE, found these irregularities in the microwave background radiation. It was an historic moment. We saw back to the origin of the universe. The form of the fluctuations in the microwave background agree closely with the predictions of the no boundary proposal.
That's one more confirmed prediction than any Goddidit hypothesis. Sure, we can never disprove the existence of some sort of God. We may never be able to conclusively establish a No Boundary universe or a "universe from nothing". But the available evidence simply does not compel us to believe in any sort of Creator, and as a theist I found that very disconcerting.

This is actually reflected in Craig's language in his review of Vilenkin's book – he moves away from the cocksure language of his debates and into more conciliatory tone. Take this quote, which I mentioned in the previous part:
[If] Vilenkin's theory of quantum tunneling provides an account of how the universe can arise without a material cause, then the theist may freely avail himself of it also. The advantage of theism over naturalistic accounts is that theism provides an efficient cause of the universe, whereas naturalism cannot.
That's like saying, "the advantage of believing in God is that you can accept the idea of a scientific explanation for the origin of the universe, but still believe God had some sort of inexplicable role in its creation". The ideas presented here don't render God non-existent; they render God irrelevant. As I often say: the only thing worse than a God who doesn't exist is one who might as well not exist.

Jesus is his own dad

One of the more peculiar and absurd theological quirks of Christianity is that Jesus is "fully God and fully man", as is often said. He's not a distinct person from God – he is God. That's all well and good until you apply a modicum of logic to it for two seconds.

God supernaturally impregnates Mary, so Jesus is his own father.

Jesus prays to God. That means he prays to himself. He knew what he wanted to ask himself before he prayed, then granted (or not) his own request.

Jesus offers himself to God on our behalf as a sacrifice of atonement – so God is sacrificing himself to himself.

He ascends to Heaven and sits at the right hand of God, meaning that he is literally beside himself.


I could go on, but you get the gist. What's funny is that there's really no way at all for Christians to make any logical sense of this. It's a clear violation of the law of non-contradiction, and it's nonsensical – if Jesus is an autonomous person with unique desires, thoughts and experiences that God does not also have, then he logically is not God. 1 + 1 + 1 (can't forget the Holy Spirit) will always equal 3, not 1.

I've posed this question to Christians on countless occasions, and I've never received anything remotely resembling a straight answer. I suppose the best a Christian might manage would be to argue that the rules of logic don't apply to God – he can bend or break them as he wills. Except if that's true, then you can throw all Christian apologetics out the window simply on the basis that if God can arbitrarily defy the rules of logic, then there's no sense in using the rules of logic to infer anything about him at all – including his mere existence.

But that's religion for you, and it's something I realized long ago that fueled my deconversion: believers will take logic as far as they can, but when they hit the inevitable impasse they simply declare, "But God can do anything!" It's exactly like doing this:


Which by the way, in case you've seen that cartoon before and wondered who the artist is, it's Sidney Harris.


This whole post was inspired by this entertaining meme that popped up in my Facebook feed:


11 February 2013

Perhaps the most thorough thrashing of William Lane Craig I've ever seen

By way of Jerry Coyne's blog I came across this video that is a response to William Lane Craig's arguments about the suffering of animals – namely, that the apparent cruelty in nature is theologically compatible with a loving Creator, because animals don't really suffer like we do.

Well, it's actually a response to a response. See, Craig brought up the argument in his debate with Stephen Law. Following that, some intrepid skeptics interviewed a bunch of leading neuroscientists on the matter, and came to the conclusion that Craig's arguments were unsubstantiated crap. Recently, Craig responded to that video in one of his podcasts. Now, we have this response to his podcast.

I think this is a great beatdown for several reasons. Firstly, it shows Craig, in his own words, backtracking on his own positions. It unambiguously shows him misquoting and misrepresenting the views of his opponents. And most importantly, it utterly destroys his arguments with an onslaught of thoroughly-researched science so merciless that Craig ought to be positively humiliated.

I think a big part of the reason Craig thrives in the debate format (with 20-minute monologues) is because he can often get away with backtracking, equivocating, misrepresenting his opponents, and misrepresenting science simply because it's easily taken for granted that one ought to be presenting arguments honestly in such a forum, and it'd be virtually impossible to correct him on every error, omission or outright lie. There's even a series of videos on Youtube called "William Lane Craig Misrepresents...." that thoroughly documents his repeated, often flagrant misrepresentation of his opponents.

That's why this video, which takes the time to thoroughly document and debunk his odious bullshit, is a breath of fresh air. 



Life as an atheist

I want to take a break today from the heavier topics of cosmic origins and theoretical physics to talk about something a bit more personal.

I received a message the other day from a friend of mine who roughly a year ago deconverted from Christian and is now a happy, well-adjusted atheist. Some elders from her old church decided to drop in on her at her home and tell her that she needs to turn back to God to save herself from her empty, depressing life. A brief quote from her letter:
These two morons didn't want to listen to what I have to say, but wanted to lecture me on what will happen to me if I "don't change my ways". And all they ever say about missing me is they miss me playing my violin, piano, and my singing (I'm pretty sure they miss my money too, but they won't say that). No matter how much I explained I was content and happy with my life, they still kept making it seem there is something not right with my life and that's why I'm so unhappy. Kept telling me if I would leave everything up to god it would get better. Nothing's wrong!!!!! Only thing wrong is they invaded my personal space by coming to my home!
This reminded me of a blog post I did a few years ago, called Happy atheists: a thorn for believers. Believers have such a myopic view of the world that they truly cannot imagine someone being happy and well-adjusted without faith. So they concoct rationalizations:
  • You're not really happy, only pretending to be
  • Deep down, you still believe in God
  • You just want to avoid responsibility for 'sinful' behavior
Being a happy, well-adjusted non-believer causes some cognitive dissonance for the insular minds of the devout. After all, if we don't need religion to live happy, moral, and fulfilling lives, what else do they have? Threats of eternal damnation? Pathetic.

My friend's letter came at a time of personal reflection as I spent the weekend with my girlfriend. I've felt happy for a long time, but these days I'm often in disbelief at how lucky I am to have such an incredibly good life. I have wonderful friends, a loving family, and I am in the most fulfilling partnership I could ever imagine with a beautiful, intelligent and loving woman. I have an occasionally annoying but adorable and sweet cat whom I cherish dearly, a fun and rewarding career, free time to pursue my passion for guitar, a small but loyal readership for this blog, and I've learned a great deal of fascinating things about the world through my love of popular science books.

Not that my life is perfect, of course. There are frustrations and challenges no matter what path you take. But never do I feel like I'm missing anything, like there is some God-shaped hole in my heart. On the contrary, I'm positively overjoyed to be liberated from the inane dogma and sophistry of religion.

And yet, many pious people will simply be unable to accept that. They'll insist that I'm hiding some deep emptiness, that I must either secretly believe and/or long to share in their spiritual experience. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps they're in denial. Perhaps they're projecting because they've realized that religion can't save their friendships, their finances, their health, or their marriage. I don't know. There will be no convincing them, so it's simply not worth the bother. In the meantime, I'll be busy being happy.

09 February 2013

Causality and fine-tuning the universe (Or, Craig/Vilenkin part 4)

Broadly speaking, Many Worlds in One can be divided into four conceptual sub-sections:
  • The development, successes and difficulties of inflationary cosmology
  • The speculative implications of the mathematics used to develop inflationary theory, including the existence of a multiverse
  • The beginning and end of the universe
  • Quantum models that show a "universe from nothing"
Unsurprisingly, William Lane Craig (in his review of the book here) is eager to jump on board with Vilenkin regarding the beginning of the universe. However, as has been discussed in the first part of this series, Craig is equivocating. While Craig's Kalam Cosmological Argument argues that the universe was instantaneously materialized out of complete and absolute nothingness, Vilenkin only says that cosmic inflation cannot be past-eternal, and we must use other physics (i.e., quantum models instead of classical models) to describe the boundary condition. To paraphrase Stephen Hawking, classical Big Bang models (including inflationary cosmology) cannot be used to predict how the universe began – only how it evolved afterward.

This is not a point to be overlooked when addressing the Kalam. In order for a deductive argument to be sound, its premises must be unequivocally true. Quantum cosmology models such as Vilenkin's postulate a universe that can come into being without an external cause. While they are indeed speculative, they are also based on well-established mathematical models. Craig essentially has two options. The first is that he can reject the very notion, prima facie, that quantum models in principle can be valid descriptions of the universe. That would a precarious position given the astounding progress physicists have made in just the last century alone. His other option, and the position he takes in his review, is to equivocate:

[If] Vilenkin's theory of quantum tunneling provides an account of how the universe can arise without a material cause, then the theist may freely avail himself of it also. The advantage of theism over naturalistic accounts is that theism provides an efficient cause of the universe, whereas naturalism cannot.
Notice that in the Kalam itself, Craig doesn't specify what he means by "cause". He never mentions "efficient" or "material" causation. What he does make clear, though, is that the universe needs some type of cause to bring it into existence. This is directly in conflict with Vilenkin's quantum tunneling model, which unambiguously states that it allows the universe to begin to exist without a cause. Here, Craig is saying that the theist can still insert an "efficient" cause without rejecting Vilenkin's ideas prima facie, but he carelessly neglects the fact that doing so is utterly superfluous, meaningless, and scientifically useless.


Fine-tuning the universe

Also unsurprisingly, Craig is considerably less receptive to Vilenkin's ideas about the multiverse and quantum tunneling – which Craig argues are attempts to "explain away" God's hand in creating the universe. Note the language Craig uses in describing Vilenkin's concepts (emphasis mine):
Postulating many worlds enables one to avoid the inference to design, which might be taken to place homo sapiens (the most complex structure in the world) at the center of the universe. The delight in duplicate worlds springs from the consequent dethronement of mankind as the crown of creation.
But if an infinite ensemble of simultaneous island universes does not actually exist, Vilenkin's attempt to explain away the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life collapses.
Craig is clearly trying to paint Vilenkin as someone who doesn't like the idea of God creating the universe, and the supposed "fine-tuning" of the universe is something that he has to "explain away". But this is extraordinarily disingenuous. Vilkenkin is actually talking about one of the biggest problems in physics: the cosmological constant. Namely, why do we observe the precise value we do? Why is it so different than the predicted value (see the cosmological constant problem)?

It's important to understand what, exactly, Many Worlds in One really is. Vilenkin first describes the development of inflationary cosmology, and how it has made many astounding and successful predictions. However, the mathematics underlying the structure of inflationary theory are not well-understood (i.e., the initial conditions that lead to inflation). Vilenkin discusses various mathematical models that attempt to describe those initial conditions, and then fully explores the implications of these mathematics -- which leads into multiverse verse theory, among other bizarre possibilities.

There are three things to be said about Craig's position. The first is that expressing incredulity at speculative physics because they seem counter-intuitive or violate one's favored philosophical positions is a vacuous and naive reaction. Many discoveries in physics have proved to be remarkably counter-intuitive and may have unsettling implications, but they are true nonetheless.

The second is that if Vilenkin were to reject all these mathematics and simply accept Craig's version -- that the universe is the way we observe it because God made it that way -- nothing will actually have been explained. Since life-supporting universes could arise with different cosmological constants, why is the cosmological constant just as we observe it and not a different value? Multiverses arise from inflationary mathematics, and these other universes -- if they exist -- may indeed have different cosmological constants. Why is that the case? Why should we find ourselves in this universe, and not a similar one? Why is the universe expanding at all? Why is this expansion accelerating? These are all questions Vilenkin tackles. Craig's answer? Because God, that's why. It's truly no answer at all.

The third is that Craig's language above betrays an uncritical bias: "the fine-tuning of the universe for life". Given the extraordinary rarity of life even in the most generous of speculative circumstances, we might as well say the universe was fine-tuned for vast empty voids, black holes or inhospitable gas giants. It's far more parsimonious to state that life is fine-tuned -- i.e.,  adapted -- to a rare but possible set of circumstances in the universe, not vice versa.


In the last entry, I'll talk about the beginning of the universe according to Vilenkin -- the "universe from nothing".


Previous entries:
Part 1 
Part 2
Part 3


07 February 2013

Paradoxes of creation – or, How William Lane Craig misrepresents Alexander Vilenkin: part 3

Part 1 
Part 2

I confess that it's taken me much longer than I anticipated (a new relationship has a tendency to rearrange my priorities!), but I'm nearly done with Alexander Vilenkin's book "Many Worlds in One". He has a lot to say about whether the universe had a beginning, whether you need God to bring it into existence (his answer is that you do not), and the idea you may have heard from Lawrence Krauss and/or Stephen Hawking about a "universe from nothing", and what it all means.
I was introduced to Vilenkin, ironically, by the Christian apologist William Lane Craig, who frequently cites a paper Vilenkin did with fellow physicists Alan Guth and Arvind Borde as evidence that the universe had a beginning -- thus (according to Craig) it needed some external cause. (See the Kalam Cosmological Argument).

It would be the understatement of the century to say that Craig is liberally cherry-picking Vilenkin's work to favor his theistic presuppositions, and one ought to take his references to Vilenkin's work with a massive grain of salt. Frankly, upon reading Vilenkin's book for myself, I'm quite surprised that Craig references it all. Not only does it utterly fail to support his theology, but much of what Vilenkin discusses works utterly against it.



Paradoxes of Creation


Vilenkin begins his discussion of cosmic beginnings with the paradoxical nature of the "cosmic egg", as illustrated by a Jain poem:
The doctrine that the world was created is ill-advised, and should be rejected. If God created the world, where was he before creation? … How could God have made the world without any raw material? If you say he made this first, and then the world, you are faced with an endless regression … Thus the doctrine that the world was created by God makes no sense at all.
This echoes comments made by Stephen Hawking in a Discovery Channel special (I can't find the original quote, so I'll have to paraphrase): that it's nonsensical to talk about God creating the universe, because if the universe didn't exist, there was no time in which God could have created the universe.

Craig attempted a response to this in an old Q&A on his website (emphasis mine):
The claim seems to be that since the initial cosmological singularity is a boundary point to spacetime rather than a point of spacetime, therefore there was no time at which God could have created the singularity.
But this conclusion follows only if we equate time with physical measures of time.

In other words, Craig is suggesting that we can avoid this pesky paradox as long as we assume the existence of some sort of supernatural time. He continues,
A sequence of mental events alone is sufficient to generate relations of earlier and later, wholly in the absence of any physical events. So if God were counting down to creation, “. . . , 3, 2, 1, Let there be light!” God would exist in time even if He were not in physical time (that is, the physical measure that stands for time in the General Theory of Relativity).
Craig's fatuous analogy with cognitive abstractions – which require the physical brain and therefor must occur in time – is bad enough. But in case the problem here isn't obvious, allow me to spell it out: the only reason we have to speculate about the existence of "non-physical time" (whatever the hell that's supposed to be) is to support the argument that God created the universe. It's the fine theological tradition of making shit up. If the circularity in Craig's reasoning isn't embarrassingly obvious at this point, dear reader, it may be time for you to do something else.

Craig, in his review of Many Worlds in One, portrays Vilenkin as someone who is trying to "explain away" the fine-tuning of the universe and avoid the theistic implications of a "beginning" by resorting to mathematical trickery.  Clearly, he thinks theists have the upper hand:
Vilenkin seems to assume that the theist is stupefied in the face of such questions. But that is hardly the case. Jinasena's first question concerns the efficient cause of the universe and his second the material cause. The first question is not difficult to answer: "Nowhere," since space and time come into being at creation, so that there is no "before" and "where" prior to the beginning. The second question is more baffling; but if Vilenkin's theory of quantum tunneling provides an account of how the universe can arise without a material cause, then the theist may freely avail himself of it also. The advantage of theism over naturalistic accounts is that theism provides an efficient cause of the universe, whereas naturalism cannot.
Craig's speculations don't actually resolve any of the paradoxes; he just conjures up speculative phenomena, like non-physical time, to avoid them. One might be tempted to argue that physicists are also prone to speculation, but there is a key difference. When Vilenkin speculates about the multiverse, inflationary theory, or quantum tunneling (the "universe from nothing" idea"), the purpose is to account for specific features of our universe – to explain, mathematically, why our universe is the way it is. Craig, on the other hand, is simply looking for any opportunity to insert a God-of-the-Gaps.

The last statement above is particularly face-palm worthy. The reference to "efficient" and "material" causes is a reference to the philosopher Aristotle and his Four Causes, none of which are particularly relevant to modern science. A "material cause" is simply the material out of which something is composed – Aristotle believed that physical objects possessed some sort of potentiality; an "efficient cause" is an actor or object which affects the material cause. I'm not sure, then, why Craig thinks it's advantageous to for a theist to retain an efficient cause; not only is the concept entirely antiquated and unscientific, but it's like saying, "People who believe in God have an advantage, because they can say that God had some role in quantum tunneling". I have no idea if Vilenkin's theory of quantum tunneling is correct, but if it is then any role of God is utterly superfluous.

Is Vilenkin using mathematical trickery to avoid invoking God? I'll have more to say on that in the next post.

04 February 2013

The Christian concept of sin and salvation: no matter how you slice it, it's ridiculous

Over at the ironically named website Reasonablefaith.org, this week's Question & Answer column deals with a tragedy in a Brazilian nightclub and the ramifications of all those people facing eternal judgment. The reader writes,

According to my evangelical christian faith, most of these people are now in hell. It seems to me extremely cruel. They were good people, young, with dreams and hearts full of love for their friends and life. Now let me set some things straight: I read the last chapter of your book "On Guard" and I've been following some of your work and I think I know what you will say. I know according to classical christian beliefs none is good enough to God, and those who live without Christ, without Christ will perish. But again, it seems extremely painful. I just can't look to the parents of the victims and think of that. So this context makes me really wonder about salvation in christianity. In theory is not that hard to accept it, but in reality is seems cruel and meaningless.

It seems cruel and meaningless because it is. There is absolutely no justification for torturing people for all eternity. Even if you're the more liberal type of Christian who pleads the case for a kinder, gentler Hell (e.g., "Well, maybe it's just separation from God and not a literal lake of fire"), no good comes from people suffering for all eternity. If God couldn't accept certain people into Heaven, the merciful thing would be to simply snuff them out of existence. It also raises the question of God's omniscience – if God is all-knowing, then he knew that certain people would reject him and end up in Hell. Again, the merciful thing would have been to simply avoid creating them in the first place. Christian apologists try to get around this uncomfortable truth by playing semantic games about the meaning of omniscience, but they just dig their hole deeper.

Craig's response runs head-first into those very issues:

I am inclined to think that God would not let any of these people perish in the nightclub fire and go into eternity separated from Him if He knew that by allowing them to live longer they would have come to a saving knowledge of Christ. If God has middle knowledge, as I think that He does, then He can providentially order the world so that people will not die if His allowing them to live longer would have resulted in their salvation.
"Middle knowledge", according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is "God’s prevolitional knowledge of all true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom." In other words: God knows what choices you will make before you make them.

If God could know that allowing someone to live longer would result in their salvation, then logic dictates that he would also know whether creating them in the first place would not lead to salvation. To argue otherwise seems to be a rather obvious type of special pleading which attempts to exclude God's omniscience from one scenario or another – mainly the theologically inconvenient ones. (I highly recommend reading the article linked in the previous paragraph, which has an in-depth discussion of the issues.)

Craig weighs in further on the salvation of the deceased:
I don’t think you realize what a terrible curse salvation by works is. Wholly apart from the fact that none of us could manage to be good enough in order to earn our way to heaven, salvation by works puts us on the treadmill of trying to earn favor with God rather than gratefully receive His unmerited love and grace. In fact, ironically, salvation by works would probably lead to the condemnation of many of those who perished in this nightclub fire. For many of them might not have led particularly good lives up until the point of their deaths. Their only hope was salvation by grace alone. In the last minutes they could have turned to God in genuine repentance and faith and received His saving grace. Apart from God’s grace they would have no hope of escape, for there is no longer time to lead a life of good works sufficient to outweigh what has been done up to that point.

All of Craig's blathering is predicated on the assumption that humans are, by merely being what we are, deserving of eternal torment in Hell. God was just so compassionate to allow us to live, if we only accept a bunch of supernatural tales from desert-dwelling tribes. This raises a number of severe logical conundrums.

First, it requires one to accept the concept of Original Sin. The sin of our ancestors provoked God into casting humanity out of Paradise. But in no way can this be construed as loving or just – no finite crime, particularly one of our ancestors, makes us deserving of infinite punishment. It's especially perverse to punish anyone for the crimes of others, and yet accepting such a perversity as the action of a maximally-loving deity is essential to Christian theology.

Secondly, there is the rather large conundrum of Adam and Eve not actually being real people. Paul, in the Epistles, unambiguously teaches that we are saved "covenantally" in the book of Romans:
12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—
13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.
15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. [Romans 5]
Paul's writing here is redundant, but he makes himself clear: sin and death entered the world through one man. Except that one man never existed. Adam and Eve are mythical people. BioLogos, the accommodationist organization, has tried very hard to conjure up rational explanations for this glaring discrepancy,

So, to accept Craig's Christianity, you have to believe that an omniscient God allowed one man to curse all of humanity (or, depending on your reading of Genesis, God himself cursed humanity as punishment) so that everyone who ever lives will face infinite punishment for the finite crime of another person. But God was so merciful that he created a body for himself and killed it in a ritual sacrifice of himself to himself, because only his own blood had the power to free humanity from the curse he put on it – on the condition, of course, that we believe these ancient stories to be factually accurate.

Where is the justice in any of this absurdity? The love and mercy of an all-knowing, all-powerful being? It's mind-boggling that Christians spend so much time and effort attempting to rationalize such flagrant affronts to reason. Fortunately, we don't have to buy it – we can reject it for the nonsense that it is.   

03 February 2013

Laurence Krauss on science and religion

A great excerpt from a recent debate between Lawrence Krauss and Uthman Badar. I've often inquired of theists: what is the methodology for discerning true religious claims from false ones? And I've never gotten anything but the run-around. Religion begins with the conclusion and tries to make the evidence fit; science examines the evidence and forms a picture that is subject to evolve as new evidence is discovered.